Ash Wed Sermon
March 1, 2017
“In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). This was God’s solemn warning to Adam and Eve. They could eat the fruit from any tree in the Garden of Eden. But not this one. Not the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. To do so would bring death.
But none of this mattered when it came down to it. The serpent had already begun to sink his hellish fangs into the heart of Eve. It didn’t take much. A simple question: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Genesis 3:1). And suddenly Eve is no longer seriously considering the consequences of her actions.
After all, the benefits seemed to outweigh the consequences, at least for the moment. Eve saw that the tree was good for food, it didn’t look dangerous or unpleasant, and it could make her wise. How could something that promised such wonderful things be so bad for you? How could something so inviting, so attractive to the eye be filled with such dreadful poison?
Adam and Eve would find out the hard way that God was serious when He said, “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” For “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), says the apostle. And death is what they got. For where there is sin, there is also death and damnation.
The age-old problem with mankind is that we have never stopped eating the fruit that leads to death. Every day the scene in the garden gets replayed. Man sees something that he desires. God says no. Satan taunts, “Did God actually say . . . ?” And man says, “Well, maybe just one little bite won’t hurt.”
You, too, know the commandments of God. You know that He requires you to be holy and to live a holy life perfect in thought, word, and deed. And yet, how quickly caution is thrown to the wind and the warnings of God’s Word ignored when you see something that you want. You try to pretend that God has not spoken, or that He was not really serious when He said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife” (Exodus 20:13–14, 17).
You test the limits of His patience. Like a child testing his parents, you see just how much you can get away with, just how far you can push the limits before God will inflict punishment upon you. Not content with what God has given, not content to stay within the bounds of the Law, you continually try to renegotiate with God. But this always ends badly. This was how Adam and Eve ended up banished from the tree of life and exiled from the garden. And this is why you must eventually return to dust.
Adam and Eve needed a Savior, and so do you. A Savior from sin and its consequences. One who would undo the spiritual train wreck left behind in the garden and save you and all people from sin, death, and the devil. One who would open up a way back into paradise and to the tree of life. It would take one from woman’s seed to do this. It would take the Son of God, assuming your flesh, taking your sin, your shame, and your death upon Himself. It would take Jesus, true God and true Man, drinking the “cup of scorn and dread to crush the ancient serpent’s head” (LSB 561:3).
For us, and for our salvation, this new and better Adam said “no” to the devil’s temptations. Rather than eat the forbidden fruit of earthly power and glory, Christ ate ashes like bread and mingled His drink with weeping (cf. Psalm 102:9). He refused to satisfy Himself, to indulge His appetite, and denied Himself food and drink for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness. He was content to live by the Word of His Father—for you.
That is what this Lenten season is all about. Beginning tonight, as ashes are smeared on the foreheads of the faithful, we return to the garden. We remember with shame the fall of our first parents and the mortal life that we now share with them on account of sin. We take our place next to Adam and Eve and hear the terrifying voice of the Lord: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But we also remember that “no creature could make satisfaction for our sins. Only Christ, true God and man, could do that” (Christian Questions and Answers, LSB pp. 329–30). Our only joy, our only comfort in the midst of sin and death is Christ, who bore our sins on the tree of the cross for us, and gave Himself over to His Father’s wrath in our stead.
All of this He did so that Adam and his children might live. So that having returned to dust, we might also rise again with Him. He drank the cup of suffering and tasted death for us all so that we, the fallen sons of Adam, might once again have full and free access to the tree of life. During this Lenten season, we rejoice that this access is given to us uniquely in the salutary gift of the Lord’s Supper.
Now, in sacramental bread and wine, Christians washed in the blood of the Lamb are given to eat another kind of fruit; a life-giving fruit given to us straight from the tree of the cross. This fruit is none other than the body and blood of our Lord, given and shed on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. And whereas the fruit from the tree of knowledge brought death to Adam, this is truly life-giving fruit. For Christ says, “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (John 6:58).
This holy gift, when received in repentance and faith, bestows the very life of Christ and seals to the one who eats of it the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. As the hymn confesses, “Now from that tree of Jesus’ shame Flows life eternal in His name; For all who trust and will believe, Salvation’s living fruit receive. And of this fruit so pure and sweet The Lord invites the world to eat, To find within this cross of wood The tree of life with ev’ry good” (LSB 561:4).
We eat of this fruit when we hear Christ’s death proclaimed in the holy Gospel. But we also eat of it in a sacramental way when we come to the Lord’s Table, open our mouths, and receive “salvation’s living fruit.”
The thing about the Sacrament is that it is not impressive to the eyes. Unlike the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which was pleasing to the eye, there is nothing extraordinary about the appearance of this fruit. To our eyes, it seems too ordinary to be worthy of reverence and adoration. But our eyes can deceive us. We can all make the mistake of Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5), wishing that God would work His healing in a more spectacular way.
The unbelieving world looks at this gift and asks, “How can something so ordinary, something so unattractive, so unimpressive bestow such gifts?” The unbelieving world mocks the Christian for trusting so mightily in something that appears so powerless, just as it mocks us for placing our trust in a crucified Savior. Yet the words of Christ do not lie: “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”
Tonight, it is fitting that you mourn over your sins, that the ashes of death adorn your foreheads. It is fitting that you “rend your hearts and not your garments” and “return to the Lord your God” (Joel 2:13). You are Adam’s sons and daughters, after all, and you lived as if God did not matter, and as if you mattered most of all.
But you do not mourn without hope. For God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and He relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13). The same God who excommunicated Adam and Eve from the tree of life now welcomes you to His holy Table. In His mercy, He has left “a blessing behind Him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God” (2:14).
Dear Christians, in the beginning, God warned Adam concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” But now, in the body and blood of Christ, God has made a solemn promise and pledge to you and to all the faithful: “In the day that you eat of it you shall surely live.” Amen.
Bread From Heaven
March 8, 2017
The Israelites were overcome with joy. The Lord had delivered them! He had snatched them out of the hand of Pharaoh just as He had promised Moses. He had led them through the Red Sea on dry ground as Pharaoh and all his host were buried in a watery grave.
Miriam sang over them: “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea” (Exodus 15:21). It was a day of victory; a day of release for the captives. God had shown strength with His arm and given the sons of Jacob a new beginning as His chosen people.
It would not take long, though, before that new beginning was spoiled, just as it didn’t take long for Noah and his family to spoil the new beginning after the flood. The people began to wonder how they would survive out in the wilderness. Like newborn babes, hungry for nourishment, the newly redeemed Israelites soon began to notice their hunger pangs.
But instead of inquiring of the Lord, instead of trusting in Him to provide for them, they began to grumble against Moses and Aaron. “Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Exodus 16:3).
Naturally, the people were hungry. They were in a wilderness, without food, without water. And for a while, they thought that they had it better back in Egypt as slaves. But the Lord was merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in love. He promised to rain down bread from heaven for them so that they could eat and be satisfied. The Lord heard their grumbling, and though they deserved to die, He responded with love: “At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread. Then you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (16:12).
And that is exactly what happened. Problem solved! God was faithful to His promise. In the evening, quail came up and covered the camp; in the morning, dew lay around the camp. And when the dew had gone up, there was a fine, “flake-like” thing, fine as frost on the ground. “What is it?” they asked. “And Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat’ ” (16:15).
Bread from heaven. God provided for their physical hunger. He fed His newborn children so that they would not go hungry in the wilderness and die. But it didn’t sustain them forever. They still died eventually. It offered no lasting benefits. And there was a reason for that. This miraculous feeding was meant to teach them something about what God would do in the future.
As the saying goes: “All that happened to the fathers was a sign for the sons.” This was a sign, the full significance of which would not be revealed until the coming of the Son, Jesus Christ. St. John records for us Jesus’ own interpretation of these events: “I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh” (John 6:48–51).
So this miraculous feeding of the Israelites pointed to the coming of the Christ and the gifts of salvation that He would bring. God would, in the fullness of time, rain down bread from heaven once again for His people. He would give them His Son, who is Himself the “bread of God . . . who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).
Christ is the new and greater manna, for He comes not merely to satisfy your physical hunger. He comes to satisfy those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matthew 5:6). For it is He alone that can satisfy the hunger of your souls. Whoever eats of this bread—Jesus Christ—will live forever. For His flesh and His blood nourish and strengthen the soul unto eternal life.
“Sir, give us this bread always,” begged the disciples (John 6:34). And so He does. Every time you are gathered around His gifts of Word and Supper, Christ feeds you with heavenly manna, just as He fed the Israelites in the wilderness. He feeds you with holy food, just as you sing in the Communion hymn: “Lord Jesus Christ, life-giving bread, May I in grace possess You. Let me with holy food be fed, In hunger I address You” (LSB 625:1).
As you feast on the salutary gift of Christ’s body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins, the Lord gives you the spiritual nourishment that your souls need for the journey. Jesus knows that you need such nourishment. He knows that the journey through the wilderness of this world is long and sometimes difficult. He sees your daily battle with your sinful flesh. He knows your physical ailments.
He knows your propensity to grumble at the gifts that God gives, just as the children of Israel did long ago. There is a part of you that thinks that what God has done for you is not good enough. There is a part of you—a sinful part—that longs to return to your spiritual Egypt, to the captivity of your sins. But He is merciful. He is slow to anger. He abounds in loving faithfulness.
He does not want you to faint and grow weary on the way to your heavenly home. And so He comes week after week, as host and meal, inviting all of you battle-weary sinners to commune at His Table, until that day when you finally reach the heavenly promised land. Now is not the time to grumble, to long for the days of your captivity as Israel once did. Now is not the time to complain that God is trying to do you harm. Now is not the time to worry that you might not appreciate this salutary gift if it is offered too frequently.
Now is the time to receive in faith the gifts that our Lord wants to give. Luther understood the benefits of the Lord’s Supper and said: “On this account it is indeed called a food of souls, which nourishes and strengthens the new man. For by Baptism we are first born anew [John 3:5]. But, as we said before, there still remains the old vicious nature of flesh and blood in mankind. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and of the world that we often become weary and faint, and sometimes we also stumble [Hebrews 12:3]. Therefore, the Sacrament is given as a daily pasture and sustenance, that faith may refresh and strengthen itself [Psalm 23:1–3] so that it will not fall back in such a battle, but become ever stronger and stronger” (Large Catechism V 23–24).
Manna from heaven; life-giving bread—given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. That is your spiritual sustenance as you wander through the wilderness of this world. That is the Lord’s salutary gift to you—a gift that is undeserved, to be sure, but one that comes from your loving and faithful Lord. Amen.
March 15, 2017
Bruised, beaten, and helpless, the man who had fallen among thieves lay on the roadside. He was half dead, needing rescue and healing. If help had not come soon, he would surely have perished. A priest and a Levite walk by on the other side of the road. They ignore the plight of the helpless, dying man.
But then comes this Samaritan—a foreigner of mixed race and religion, and therefore despised by the Jews. When he sees the poor, wounded man, Luke says that he had “compassion.” He was moved in the gut, the same way Jesus was moved at the sight of people who were suffering. The Samaritan wastes no time in helping the injured man, immediately binding up the man’s wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He places him on his own animal and takes him to an inn.
The Good Samaritan doesn’t stop there. He places the man into the care of the innkeeper, gives him some money for expenses, and promises to repay the innkeeper upon his return. This is what you call going “above and beyond the call of duty”! And if all of this was just a lesson in morality, to remind Christians what they should do for others, then that would not leave us much in the way of comfort, would it?
Dear Christians, with this parable Jesus paints a beautiful portrait of your salvation. He shows you just how desperate your condition was on account of sin, and He shows the gift of healing that He had come to bring. This man in the parable provides a picture of all the fallen sons of Adam. Wounded by sin, beaten by the devil’s attacks, robbed of our righteousness and our good standing with God, we, too, were “dead in the trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
Like this man, we were helpless and destitute. Left to ourselves, we would have most certainly perished eternally. Eternal death and damnation are a just reward for our sins. Who could help us? The Law? Could Moses raise us up from spiritual death to life? The parable would seem to suggest that this is not so. The priest and the Levite represent Moses and the Law of Sinai, which do not heal but only kill. The Law is good; its commandments are pure. But they cannot help or heal the wounded and beaten sinner.
So along comes this foreigner called Christ. He is not from these parts, you might say. He has come from heaven. And He is despised by the world. As the prophet Isaiah foretold: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). But this man comes anyway. The Son of God saw your wretched state and had compassion. He came and did what the Law and Moses could not do. He has bound up the wounds of sinners. He has carried your sins and griefs and sorrows to the cross. And by His stripes, by His wounds, by His death at the hands of men, you are healed (cf. Isaiah 53:5).
The healing medicine of Christ’s forgiveness was first applied to you in your Baptism. As you were buried and raised with Christ, your Savior began His good work of healing and restoration in you. For like the man fallen among thieves, “you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
But the cancer of your sin continues to rear its ugly head. You need ongoing treatments. And this is why your loving Savior has brought you into the inn of His Church and placed you into the care of His called shepherds. In this way, He continues to do for you what He began in your Baptism. He continues to apply the healing medicine of His forgiveness, life, and salvation to your souls. And he does this in a unique and special way in the Lord’s Supper.
In that salutary gift, the same Christ who healed every disease among men, the same Christ who bound up the brokenhearted, the same Christ by whose stripes we are healed, comes and does for us what He did for so many wounded souls in the Gospel. We come to the Lord’s Table wounded by our sins, helpless and in need of mercy and healing.
And Jesus sees our miserable condition and has compassion on us. He comes to us weak and weary sinners and gives to us the healing medicine of His crucified and risen body and blood. Like the Samaritan in the parable, Christ binds up our wounds and pours on us the oil and wine of His good Spirit, to comfort wounded consciences.
The hymn that we sang tonight makes this clear, connecting Jesus’ healing power to the gift of his body and blood: “Jesus comes today with healing, Knocking at my door, appealing, Off’ring pardon, grace, and peace” (LSB 620:1). For this reason, the hymn appropriately calls the Lord’s Supper a “balm to heal the troubled soul.”
What’s more is that this healing medicine of Christ’s body and blood is truly a medicine of immortality. Whoever receives this medicine, trusting in its power and benefits, truly has eternal life. Whatever sicknesses and ailments you now endure, know that these will no longer annoy in the life to come. For you know that the healing that Christ has begun here will be brought to completion at the day of the resurrection.
Our Lutheran forefathers understood well the healing power of the Sacrament as well as our lifelong need for this sacred gift. So did the Ancient Fathers of the Church, as we see in the words of St. Ambrose, who wrote: “Because I always sin, I always need to take the medicine” (Augsburg Confession, Article XXIV 33). These venerable Fathers in the faith understood that because the sinful flesh is with us from cradle to grave, there is never a time that we do not need this healing gift.
So what about you? Do you have need of consolation? Do you have a wounded conscience? Have you lived as if God did not matter and as if you mattered most of all? Are you plagued by sin and the temptations of the devil? Then this medicine of our Lord’s body and blood is for you. It is for your healing and sanctification.
We give thanks to God during this Lenten season that through this salutary gift, Christ’s healing hand reaches out to us and heals us. “Take and eat!” “Drink of it all of you!” These are the words of your Great Physician, your Good Samaritan, Jesus Christ. Amen.
March 22, 2017
During this Lenten season, we have focused our meditation upon the salutary gift of our Lord’s body and blood. The Lord’s Supper is a life-giving fruit, giving eternal life to the one who eats it in faith. It is “bread from heaven,” nourishing and strengthening the new man for his journey toward the heavenly promised land. It is a healing balm and medicine for the soul, an extension of Jesus’ ministry of healing into the here and now.
Tonight we continue our meditation upon the benefits of the Lord’s Supper, focusing our attention on the blest communion that we enjoy in this Holy Meal. Luther’s Communion hymn “O Lord, We Praise Thee” confesses this truth in the third stanza: “May God bestow on us His grace and favor That we follow Christ our Savior And live together here in love and union Nor despise this blest Communion! O Lord, have mercy!” (LSB 617:3).
Luther’s hymn, along with the Scripture readings tonight, remind us that the Lord’s Supper is a communion or participation with Christ and with one another. Hear once again those words of St. Paul: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
The word Paul uses here is koinonia. It is translated in different ways into English. Usually it is translated as “fellowship” or “participation” or even “communion.” St. Paul is teaching the Christians in Corinth that through the Lord’s Supper they have union and fellowship with the body and blood of Christ.
The same word is used in the Book of Acts, where the first Christians are described as devoting themselves steadfastly to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, “to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). This tells us quite plainly what it was the early Christians were doing—they were celebrating Holy Communion! They were celebrating the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
What a blessed gift! Through the means of bread and wine, Christians come into contact with the very Son of God Himself. You have union with Christ in a way that we do not have anywhere else in this world. For the one who believes the words of Christ, this is a very good thing. Christ, the Holy One of God, shares His holiness with those who commune.
This is an especially good thing because, in and of ourselves, we are not holy. With repentant hearts, we confess that we are unholy and unclean sinners. By our koinonia, our fellowship with Adam and his unholy nature, we ourselves are made unholy. Our unclean thoughts, words, and actions make us unacceptable in God’s sight.
Jesus identifies the source of this unholiness when He says, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19). So it should cause us great joy to hear that we unholy people can share in Christ’s holiness through participation in His holy things—namely, His body and blood in the Sacrament. Here at the altar, He invites us to enjoy a blest Communion with Him.
The Greek κοινωνία is usually translated into English as “participation” or “fellowship.” In Latin, it is rendered both as communicatio and participatio. The term Communion is derived from the Latin and is a common way of referring to the Sacrament of the Altar in many churches. It is noteworthy that Paul does not merely call the bread and the cup a κοινωνία without adding an object—it is a κοινωνία in something, namely, the body and blood of Christ. The Lord’s Supper is first and foremost a participation in the Lord’s body and blood. It is at the same time a fellowship or communion of those who share in a common “thing.” Werner Elert, discussing Luther’s concern for a proper understanding of this term, writes:
What links those who partake of the Lord’s Supper is not that they have something to do with one another, their human relationship with each other, but that which they share together. This fellowship not only embraces still another ingredient besides the human participants but this other ingredient is not even produced by an act of man. It not only antedates the efforts of men, but fellowship (koinonia) means that this is the very element which unites the multitude.
But there is another dimension to this idea of “communion” or “fellowship.” There is another union that takes place in the Lord’s Supper. It is first and foremost a union of the believer with Christ. But this blest Communion results in another union—that of Christian to Christian. Our readings tonight also remind us that the Lord’s Supper is never merely a “me and Jesus” thing. Though we receive the benefits of the Lord’s Supper individually, it is never a private matter.
When you come to the altar and receive this salutary gift, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, you also are bound and united to those with whom you commune. St. Paul says as much in the next part of his letter to the Corinthians: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (10:17). We who are many, says Paul, become one body in the Lord’s Supper.
Since you are united with Christ, and through Him with another, it goes without saying that you should be united in your confession of faith and reconciled with one another. Division at the Lord’s Table is not pleasing to the Lord. And if you claim to be reconciled with Christ, yet continue to hold onto your grudges and anger toward your fellow Christian brothers and sisters, are you not lying to the Lord?
So it is necessary that those who commune together are also united in faith and doctrine, and that they have no enemies at the Lord’s Table. Christians should be willing to let go of their grievances with their brothers and sisters, or they run the risk of forfeiting their own forgiveness from Christ, as we learn in the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matthew 18:21–35).
But there is another aspect to the blest Communion with Christ and with one another that our Lord grants in the Lord’s Supper that we have yet to speak about. Have you ever paid close attention to the words of the Communion liturgy? “Therefore with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven we laud and magnify Your glorious name, ever more praising You and saying . . . ” (LSB Proper Preface).
These words remind us that we are “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) when we are gathered at the Lord’s altar. Your departed loved ones who have fallen asleep in Jesus are part of that “whole company of heaven.” They are among those who have joined the Church Triumphant and are with Christ.
In the Lord’s Supper, you have fellowship not only with Christ and with one another but also with these unseen saints, as the hymn confesses: “Oh, blest Communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine” (LSB 677:4). What comfort there is in knowing that we have union with our Lord Jesus Christ and with the whole company of heaven!
In this “blest Communion” of Christ’s body and blood, our Lord answers a need that all Christians share: the need to have fellowship with God and with one another. Nowhere does this happen in such a way as it does at the Lord’s altar, where Christians are joined to Christ through His body and blood, and where “we who are many” are made “one body” with Christ. May we never despise this blest Communion, but rejoice in it! Amen.