Lent 3, 2023 (March 12)

Lent 3, 2023

Pharaoh was strong. Horses. Chariots. Magicians who could turn water to blood, staffs to serpents, and summon frogs. Taskmasters. Oppressors. Evil plans, like drowning the Israelite male babies in the Nile.

While it’s open to debate, Pharaoh’s greatest demonstration of strength might be his ability to harden his own heart. You’d think that after ten plagues, he’d repent.

In comparison to Pharaoh, the Israelites were weak. Might of arms to might of arms, Pharaoh was the stronger. But, the Lord fought for the Israelites. Their strength was in the Lord, the stronger one.

Jump ahead to the book of Judges. The nation of Midian harassed the Israelites to the point that Israel had no grain or oil. Among the Isarelites was a young man, Gideon, of a lowly tribe. The angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon and said, “The Lord is with you, O mighty man of valor.” Gideon answered, “Please, Lord, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are his wonderful deeds that our fathers recounted to us, saying, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?’ But now the Lord has forsaken us and given us into the hand of Midian.” Unanswered, but implied, is that the Lord forsook them because they deserved it. They turned from the Lord first.

And the Lord turned to Gideon and said, “Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian; do I not send you?”

The Lord told Gideon, “Go in this might of yours.” What might? Gideon asked why all these things happened to Israel. Gideon went so far as to say the Lord had forsaken them. What might? Gideon’s strength wasn’t in might of arms. We can even say, Gideon’s strength was nothing but weakness … and when we are weak, then the Lord is strong. Gideon’s strength was in the Lord.

Remember how the Lord reduced Gideon’s army to a mere 300 men. Remember how Gideon’s 300 had no sword, spear, or shield. They had lanterns and trumpets. They had light; the Light of the World. They had a mighty sound, the Sword of the Spirit which you confess with your mouth. Their strength was in the Lord, and in the Lord, they were the stronger.

Goliath was strong. No one in Saul’s army had armor, spear, javelin, or shield to compare. Might to might, none could stand before Goliath. All Israel knew it.

So did David. And, David knew the battle didn’t belong to him, or Saul, or Goliath. The battle belonged to the Lord. David didn’t need a sword in hand when he had the Sword of the Spirit. David was fully armed with the whole armor of God. Goliath was strong, and the Lord was the stronger.

The mute man had a strong demon. No one else had cast it out. To the shame of some, it seems some of the people were quite content with the mute man under the demon’s control. It’s only after Jesus cast it out that some spoke satanically, saying, “This man casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.” Thus, not only did the mute man have a demon, others were under the influence of demons. The demon was strong.

Jesus was stronger.

The short parable of the strong man is a parable of salvation.

The strong man is Satan. Scripture compares the devil to a prowling lion. A great dragon. Scripture never compares Satan to something weak like a kitten.

Satan is the strong man. The goods that Satan wants are you. He doesn’t want you because he cares about you. He loves nothing. In spite and rage, Satan doesn’t want God to have you.

The armor that Satan surrounds himself with is a combination of God’s Law and your sin. If Satan only had your sin and no Law, he couldn’t do anything with your sin. If Satan only had God’s Law but no dirt on you, he couldn’t accuse you.

With the combination of your sin and God’s Law, Satan has accusations. Even the name Satan means accuser. He surrounds himself with God’s Law and your sin as an armor, accusing you before God saying, “Look how they’ve violated your Law! Look how they claim to love you, yet see their thoughts, desires, and actions!”

Jesus, the stronger one, first stripped Satan of his armor, meaning Jesus took your sin away. He baptized Himself in your sin. He, the scapegoat, bore your sin into the wilderness outside Jerusalem. He, the stronger one, carried what you could never bear, and you don’t have to. He, strong in love, remained on the cross to save others and save you.

Having stripped Satan of his armor by dying for your sins, Jesus rose on the third day and plundered you out of the devil’s kingdom back where you belong, in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of grace. You were never meant to be separated from God, and by Christ’s mercy, you aren’t. You’re home. You live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

Jesus is the stronger one. He’s your pillar of fire and cloud, leading you out of Egypt. He’s your Gideon, overthrowing the forces of Midian. He’s your David, who slew the champion of the Philistines with the sword of the Spirit.

Jesus is the stronger one. With the confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” not even the gates of hell can prevail.

With that image, the church is not on the defense. You should never think the Lord’s church is on the defense. The church is on the offense. The gates of hell, the forces of Satan reel, at the confession, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus lives and the victory’s won.

You, then, are strong. You are strong in the Lord and the strength of His might. You have the full armor of God; the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the belt of truth, the shield of faith, and the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God.

Take heart and be confident. Jesus, the stronger one, fights for you. You join the fray, with victory guaranteed.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Lent 2, 2023 (March 5)

Lent 2, 2023

Lord, did you come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel? If so, what are you doing here, in Tyre and Sidon.

Lord, did you come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel? Your words speak so. Your actions speak other. The Magi weren’t from Israel, yet you received them, their worship, and their gifts. Egypt isn’t Israel, yet you spent time in Egypt to escape Herod’s cruel sword. The Centurion’s son wasn’t of Israel, and you healed him.

Lord, maybe you did come only for Israel. The lost, as you put it. Do those lost sheep want you? If they reject you, if they take offense at you, what then? To whom, then, will you go?

Lord, would you deny this one, a Canaanite woman whose daughter is oppressed by a demon? She seems to get it. “Lord, Son of David.” Not many have understood your name so well.

You hear her pitiful cries, same as we. Maybe her daughter isn’t innocent in the demonic possession. If you live among heathen, why wouldn’t you be oppressed by a demon. Her bitter distress may be a consequence of living among bad company. A shameful, dark past which she wishes to escape. That said, her past is just that; past. Now she cries to you. Her eyes are fixed on you. She’s come to the right person. She asks for a good thing. She knows you by name.

Do you know her by name, too?

Lord, we have seen with our eyes. We have heard with our ears what deeds you performed in our days.

You, with your own hand, reached out and touched the leper and cleansed him.

You, with your own voice, healed the official’s servant from afar.

You commanded the wind and the sea to be still.

You, with authority, drove out the legion of demons.

You cast out the demon from the mute man.

Lord, do not continue silent to her, lest she become like those who go down to the pit. Lord, hear her and answer her, according to your steadfast love. Lord’s she’s already been thrown down again and again. Do not take her up just to throw her down once more. If you must dismiss her, then at least give her what she wants. Do not let her go unless you bless her. Bless her, O Lord. Bless her and even her daughter.

Lord, for whom are you sent? For some brokenhearted or for all? For whom are you sent? For some in the shadow of death or for all? Are you sent to the lost sheep of Israel? Or now, as your words put it, are you sent for children sitting at the table? If we are to learn from the sparrows that you feed, if we are to learn from the lilies that you clothe, can we also learn from the dogs that you are merciful. Is she not of more value than many dogs?

Lord, how much can one woman take? You say that a bruised reed you will not break. You say that a faintly burning wick you will not snuff out. Look at her! Kneeling. Worshiping before you. Isn’t she bruised enough? Faintly burning enough?

You promise that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. Does that include her? You say the meek are blessed. She’s come with nothing but meekness and humility. You say the peacemakers will be called sons of God. If you are the Son of God, grant her and her daughter that peace which the world cannot give.

Lord, maybe it’s not for this mother’s sake that you push her. Perhaps it’s for our sake, that through her, we are pushed and we insist on your Word and promise all the more.

Did you come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel? You say that you did. Your actions say something more. You’re here. In Tyre. In Sidon. Because you’ve come for them, too.

Yes, we see the gleam in your eye, an eager expectation, that there’s more to your word than first appears. That we can indeed pray and never lose heart, for you satisfy the wants of all living things.

Yes, you’re for the lost sheep. Yes, you’re for the children at the table. And yes, you’re for the dogs. Even as you’re for the sparrows and the lilies. Even as you’re for this Canaanite woman. She, who turns from her past and has her repentant eyes fixed upon you.

Of course you came for more than the lost sheep of Israel. Why are you in Tyre and Sidon? Because, despising nothing you have made, you care for them. They’re wanted. This woman is wanted. Her daughter is wanted. You’ve prepared a place for them.

You’re the one who became like one of the sheep. Not a lost sheep. The slaughtered lamb. Severely oppressed by the power of darkness. Silent. Bleeding. Dead.

You’re the one who became like a dog. Not an impressive hound. A dog to lick wounds. Dispensing bits of mercy. Warning of sin. Proclaiming your steadfast love and mercy.

What you did not become like is one of the children, sitting in a kings palace, dressed in soft clothing, eating the finest of the fruits of the earth. You became like no honored child. You became a servant. Servant of servants to wait upon the children at table. You give in fullest measure. Bread from heaven and satisfy our wants. Wine to gladden hearts. You number even the hairs of this Canaanite woman’s daughter. As you number and care for our own.

Are you for her? Yes. Are you for us? Yes.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Quinquagesima 2023 (February 19)

The blind man was near the road, but not on the road. On the road posed dangers for the blind. At best, he was inconvenient to those who could see. At worst, he was a danger to himself and others. He might run into someone and cause harm. He might fall into a pit and die. Hasty caravans might trample him underfoot. So, without journeying anywhere, he stayed near the road.

Near the road, but not on the road, was safer. He wasn’t part of any traveling group. For that matter, he wasn’t part of any group. He was blind. While he couldn’t use his eyes, he could use his voice. He begged for alms. He blessed those who gave. He neither joined those traveling the easy road to destruction, nor did he join those traveling the hard road to life.

The man couldn’t see, but he could hear, smell, and feel. He felt the energy as a large crowd drew near. That time of year, crowds were common. It was time for the feast of the Passover. Many journeyed through Jericho toward Jerusalem which meant it was his time to shine as a beggar. This particular crowd brought the clamor of voices speaking a common name, “Jesus of Nazareth.” He’d heard that name before. Reports spread far and wide of great signs. Paralytics healed. Lepers cleansed. Demons cast out. Dead raised.

But more than miracles, the blind man heard accounts Jesus’ sermons. Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the mourners. Blessed are the merciful. Do not be angry with your brother. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. The fruit of the sower’s sowings. The growth of the mustard seed. Joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Laborers paid undeserved wages.

While the blind man couldn’t see Jesus, he heard the Word of Jesus, and his faith came by hearing. By faith, he knew that Jesus would hear his prayer and give him what is good. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

Surprisingly, the crowd was against the blind man, telling him to be silent. It wasn’t enough that he was blind; now he must be mute. Maybe the crowd thought, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he’s blind?” Maybe the blind man’s dirty countenance embarrassed them. Maybe they thought they had a right to Jesus first. It seems the blind man didn’t belong with the crowd. Jesus wasn’t for him. What was the blind man’s cry compared to the Lord going to Jerusalem?

You may expect the blind man to say, “Well, if that’s how this crowd is going to be, I want nothing to do with them.” How many today think they don’t belong in the church, or that they don’t fit in with the church, or that they need some time away, when the fact is, you belong here. Here, you join the repentant. Here, you submit to the Law’s rebuke and the Gospel’s comfort. You belong here much more than you belong out in the world. In the world you are strangers and exiles, but not here. Here, you are citizens and heirs. You are baptized. You are God’s child. The Lord knows you by name. This is your home. You belong here, and more belong here too.

The blind man did not listen when the crowd told him to be silent. Delightfully, he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

At that, Jesus stopped. God stopped. Even though Jesus knows the hairs on every head, in that moment, the blind man was the center of our Lord’s world. The rest of the crowd, the approaching ride on the donkey’s colt, the impending parade of palms, His bloody sweat in the garden, His silence amid false accusations, all pushed back in our Lord’s mind as He fixed His attention on the blind man.

“What do you want me to do for you?” If you had one wish from God, what would it be? Shockingly, the blind man didn’t ask for world peace, or all the blind to receive sight, or for every parent who’s ever buried a child to have the child back. We might say the blind man asked for something completely selfish. “Lord, let me recover my sight.”

The blind man asked for sight because he knew Jesus was already granting the greater request of salvation. If the blind man has asked for forgiveness, Jesus would have said, “Done.” If the blind man had asked for Jesus to die for the sin of the world, Jesus would have said, “Take that as a given. I’ve got more to give. What else do you want?”

There was no shame in the blind man asking for sight. He asked for sight only because he believed that Jesus was going up to Jerusalem to be handed over to the Gentiles and mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon, and after being flogged, to die. And on the third day rise. That sacrifice, that atonement, gave the blind man confidence to ask for sight.

And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight. Your faith has saved you.” And the blind man saw. Seeing, he looked God in the eye.

And, even though the crowd had told the blind man to be silent, even though the crowd had caused him hurt and pain, the blind man joined them. He didn’t despise the crowd. He didn’t begrudge them or act as if he had no share in them. He forgave them and lived reconciled with them. He journeyed with them, following Jesus, toward Jerusalem, for the Passover feast that takes away the sin of the world.

Like the blind man, you believe that Jesus has already done the greater work of salvation. Your Lord paid for your sin. Your Lord is not about to overlook your smaller needs, wants, and desires. Like the blind man, you also have been hurt by the people you journey with, whether fellow parishioners or pastors. And, like the blind man, you mercifully overlook the weaknesses and sins of others, trusting that the love of Jesus covers a multitude of sins. Though the church is chock full of sinners, there’s always room for more. Though we hurt one another with words or deeds, we beg one another’s forgiveness and grace. And, like the blind man, you continue to pray, expecting that Jesus will give you what is good. Pray for whatever you want. Pray for sight, hearing, healing, miracles, resurrection of the dead. Jesus doesn’t blush. He’s never ashamed of the things you want. He loves you. He loves your prayers. He loves your voice. Pray with boldness.

And finally, like the blind man, you follow Jesus. You’re not alongside the road. Neither are you traveling the wide easy path to destruction. Nor do you leave if the crowd has hurt you. You’re on the road with Jesus, journeying toward the final destination of your heavenly Jerusalem. This week, you begin another Lent. You know where everything is headed. Maundy Thursday. Good Friday. Easter. Jesus lives. The road you’re on leads to your own resurrection.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sexagesima 2023 (February 12)

Sexagesima 2023

This past June you gave me a royal gift, an Edward Riojas painting called The Hymnwriter. The man in this painting is Martin Franzmann; longtime seminary professor and the author of our opening hymn, Preach You the Word, and our closing hymn, Thy Strong Word. As the painting depicts, Martin Franzmann’s hymns breath out the redemption that is yours in Christ Jesus, because Martin Franzmann himself breathed the redemption of Christ in.

The text of this hymn grew out of a man who loved theology and spent years with young men who prepared for the Office of the Holy Ministry. In that sense, you can tell the hymn is in part based on questions he received from pastors-to-be and men who were already seasoned in the pastoral office.

A young man writes to Martin Franzmann and asks, “Prof. Franzmann, what’s the most important task a pastor does? Is it visiting the people, because I’m kind of shy. Is it going to hospitals? I’m kind of squeamish. Is it contending for the faith, because I’m not a man of war.”

Franzmann writes back:

Preach you the Word and plant it home

to men who like or like it not,

The Word that shall endure and stand

When flow’rs and men shall be forgot.

Preach the Word. Never, never, never preach the vain opinions of men. Only and always preach the Word of the Lord. Preach it. In season. Out of season. At the hospital. At someone’s home. Reprove. Rebuke. Exhort. Do all of that with complete patience. And, when that doesn’t seem to work, preach the Word. And, even when it seems to work, preach the Word.

Scripture is very specific about the content of the pastor’s sermon. “We preach Christ crucified.” The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus entered the world to save sinners.” “Repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be preached in Jesus’ name.” “I did not shrink from declaring to you the full counsel of God.”

Another young man writes to Martin Franzmann, “Prof. Franzmann, the pastors in my circuit are having a disagreement about the success of a church. How would you determine a church’s success? Number of baptisms? Attendance? The content of Scripture that people know?”

Franzmann writes back:

We know how hard, O Lord, the task

Your servant bade us undertake:

To preach your Word and never ask

What prideful profit it may make.

The reason that your circuit pastors are wrong is that they ask a bad question.

Our Lord doesn’t speak of success. He speaks of faithfulness. If you do everything, still you are unworthy servants who, God be praised, did your duty.

You, O man, have the Word. Preach it. Some reject it. That’s not on you. Some chaff and kick against the goads. That’s not on you. You, be faithful.

I know it’s hard. Do you remember the analogy Jesus used for the office of the holy ministry? Behold, I send you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Do you remember the analogies St. Paul used? Boxing. Running. A soldier.

You want to know if it’s going to work, or if it’s going to be worth it, probably because you want to base your success on how many show up. Remember that Noah had 120 years to preach and only his family believed. Remember that everyone over the age of twenty rejected Moses. And, of course, even the eleven left Jesus. Don’t ask about success. Ask about faithfulness.

The sower isn’t in it for any success. The sower is in it for the Word, and the Word alone, because the Word is good in and of itself and the sower loves it. As for you, preach the Word and never ask what prideful profit it may make.

Another young man writes to Franzmann, “Prof. Franzmann, what’s the driving force of the parable of the sower? Why did he do it in spite of thorns, rocks, and beaten path?”

Franzmann writes back:

The sower sows; his reckless love

Scatters abroad the goodly seed,

Intent alone that all may have

the wholesome loaves that all men need.

Love. Love drives the Sower, Jesus, to suffer the cost. The thorns tear at Him. The rocks mar His flesh. The birds of the air light upon Him as though eating bread. The payment is real. That’s why we love the atonement, because He, upon the tree, first loved us.

Knowing some will reject, Jesus still loved.

Faith comes by hearing. Losing faith comes by not hearing.

The sower, in reckless love, sows the good seed of His Word everywhere, knowing in advance that many will reject it. Still, Jesus, compelled by love, sows the preaching of Himself crucified for the salvation of the world. His Word is life. He intends all receive it. His Word is light for the world, and He’s intent that all live in the light of Christ.

Another young man writes, “Prof. Franzmann, what do you do when people leave? How do you bear the pain?”

Franzmann responds:

Though some be snatched and some be scorched

And some be choked and matted flat,

The sower sows; his heart cries out,

“Oh, what of that, and what of that?”

Much of the surprise is that the Sower, Jesus, doesn’t lose sleep when people reject Him and His Word. Jesus isn’t worried about the world. He’s not worried about the church in America. He’s not worried that many make shipwreck of their faith. There’s a reason Scripture tells us that many will fall away. As the parable tells, some don’t understand the Word, and they’re proud that they don’t understand. Some love the cares, riches, and pleasures of life. Some fall away in testing because they had no root.

If people don’t want to learn, to make effort, to love theology as they should, that’s not your fault.

What is bad is when pastors and parishioners worry. What are you worried about? Jesus lives. You are baptized, your sins are forgiven, the hairs of your head are numbered, you are of value to the Lord, He’s called you by name, you have His Word and can read it whenever you want, so what have you got to be worried about?

If people reject the Word of God through you, that’s not your fault. If it hurts your pride then just say “good.” You never should have been proud in the first place.

Your Lord, and the holy angels, are not worried about the church; certainly not about the giving or attendance. Neither should you be. You have the Word. Enjoy it. The church remains. Never let the rejection of others reduce your love of the Word.

Another young man writes, “Prof. Franzmann, when people receive the Word and attendance goes up, how do I keep from becoming vain?”

Franzmann responds:

Of all his scattered plenteousness

one-fourth waves ripe on hill and flat,

And bears a harvest hundredfold:

“Ah, what of that, Lord, what of that!”

To God be the glory. You, O man, are not the first pastor at that church, nor will you be the last. And of course, you are not the only parishioner. It’s never been up to you and you’ve never labored alone. Others planted. Others watered. Give thanks for the whole company of heaven and the cloud of faithful witnesses that did good work in preparation for you. Your work is good, too, and the Lord always gives the growth.

Maybe you shouldn’t be surprised when people reject it. If anything, the parable of the sower shows surprise when people receive it.

Another asks, “Prof. Franzmann, looking back, what was the hardest and most important thing for you to learn?”

Franzmann writes:

Preach you the Word and plant it home

And never faint; the Harvest Lord

Who gave the sower seed to sow

Will watch and tend His planted Word.

It’s not my church. It’s not your church either.

It’s not my Word. It’s not your Word either.

It’s the Lord’s church and the Lord’s Word and by grace He brings you in and gives you a share. He knows what He’s doing. Thanks be to God Jesus knows what He is doing. And He prospers it in exactly the way that you need.

In Jesus’ name. Amen.