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30 Mar. 2014 - John 9:1-41

What the Blind Man Saw

Lenten Season: Fourth Sunday in Lent, Sunday, 30 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado ☩

What the blind man sawBob Hope was once called upon to present a special award to a gentleman by the name of Charlie Boswell.  Charlie Boswell is a blind golfer, and he was receiving the award for his excellent playing ability.  He has an assistant who lines up the ball for him.  But he does all the shooting himself.  At any rate, when Bob Hope presented the award, he couldn’t resist kidding him a little bit.  “Outstanding blind golfer, huh?  I’d like to see you play sometime!”  Charlie Boswell quickly replied:  “I’d love to play a round of golf with you, Mr. Hope.”    “I don’t think you understand,” said Bob.  “I only play for money.”  “That’s no problem,” said Charlie.  “I like to play for money, too.  It makes the game more interesting.”  “Yeah, but what kind of handicap would I have to give you, Charlie?”  “I tell you what, Mr. Hope.  I’ll play you even up.”  “Well,” said Bob, “if you’re dumb enough to make that offer, I’m smart enough to take you up on it.  When do you want to play?”  To which Charlie Boswell replied:  “How about tonight at midnight.”

In way that story wonderfully illustrates the paradoxical statement Jesus makes in verse 39 of our text when he declares: For judgment I came into the world, so that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.

This morning I would like to examine the two sides of this paradox so let us take a look at the last one first:  “He came that those who see may become blind.”

It is clear from the final verse of our text that Jesus is speaking of the Pharisees, but if you were to go up to any Jew in Jesus time and ask them who were the most enlightened people around, or who had the best spiritual insight and the greatest knowledge and understanding of God, they would have pointed you to the Pharisees.  They were seen as the smartest teachers and best preachers and finest holy men of the Jewish religion.  It was thought that no one knew or could keep the law better than they.  In fact the laws handed down through Moses were not enough for them, they added to it to make it even more difficult.  In no area was this more evident that in the keeping of the Sabbath. 

They wrote literally hundreds of extra regulations for the Sabbath, the slightest deviation from which brought stiff penalties.  So rather than the Sabbath being a day of rest, and a time to reflect upon God's Word as it was originally intended, it became a time of great anxiety because people were worried about doing the least little thing wrong, thus bringing the wrath of the Pharisees down upon themselves. 

It would come as no surprise then, that the Pharisees' chief complaint against Jesus was that he was a Sabbath breaker.  In fact, it is kind of humorous to note that it wasn't the fact that Jesus had done a miracle on the Sabbath that got him into trouble, but that he actually picked up some dirt and spit into it and mixed it together to make mud.  That was work according to the Pharisees and that made Jesus a Sabbath breaker.  And since he had broken their regulations they were certain that there was no way that he could be the Messiah, because the Messiah, the true Christ would certainly agree with them in all matters and keep all the laws they made up.

But rather than put Jesus on trial, which they didn't have the courage to do because he had on previous occasions made them look foolish, they put the blind man on trial to force him or his parents to confess that he had never really been blind at all in order to show that Jesus was a fraud.

This account of the trial would be laughable if it were not so sad.  Here are these supposed brilliant and enlightened men, these Pharisees grilling this poor uneducated blind beggar, trying to make him deny that he had ever been blind and that Jesus had actually healed him.  What they were trying to do was to get him to deny what was clearly seen by everyone, which was that Jesus was at the very least a great prophet of God if not the Christ himself.

But the Pharisees just could not accept such a possibility, so they continue to hurl questions at the poor ex-blind guy until he becomes impatient and says to them: I have told you the truth already, but you would not listen.  Why do you want to hear it again?  Do you also want to become his disciples? When their foolishness was exposed publically then those great, enlightened men did the only thing they could.  They shouted insults at him and threw him out of the synagogue. 

They were blinded by their own spiritual pride.  They would not see what was obvious to anyone, that Jesus was the Christ, the Holy One of God, the Savior of the world.  And because they did not believe their guilt and their spiritual blindness remained and most of them are now as C.S. Lewis puts it in his book, The Screwtape Letters,   "Safely residing in their Father's house below." 

I am sad to report that although things have changed somewhat since Jesus day, they really haven't changed all that much.  The religious formulae of the Pharisees have been replaced with the atheistic skepticism and political correctness of our time.  Jesus Christ is still held in contempt by most of those who run the mass media, staff most of our universities today and run many of our governmental institutions.  All religious and political points of view are to be tolerated except one, Christianity.  Christians are routinely portrayed as narrow-minded bigots who seek to stifle the freedom of others, because we have the audacity to state publicly that there is in fact right and wrong, or moral and immoral behavior.  How dare we!  How dare we object to a woman’s right to kill her unborn child? How dare we object to the violence and pornography they pump out into our society?  How do we think we are anyway? 

Now one might expect this type of thinking on the outside of the church, but on the inside things aren't much better.  Many Biblical scholars in most of our nation’s leading seminaries simply don't regard the Holy Scriptures as being true anymore. They operate by the simple axiom that the supernatural does not exist and that miracles cannot occur. So, of course the blind man was never healed, of course the virgin birth of our Lord never happened, of course Christ was not physically raised from the dead. Those were all mythical events invented by the early church to validate their religion. Bible-believing Christians like us are dupes or at best as just a bunch of well-meaning idiots.

Still worse, Jesus is seen by them as just another great man or wise sage like Confucious or Mohammed, instead of who the Bible says he is, the Lord of heaven and earth. That is the world view held by many of those considered to be our best and most enlightened Biblical scholars in our nation’s fine institutions of higher learning. The blinding truth, however, is that they have not spiritual sight at all St. Paul says in the first chapter of Romans, “ Thinking themselves wise they became fools, their foolish hearts became darkened and they exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the creator.”

But, thanks be to God that Jesus came not only to blind those who think they can see, but also “to give sight to those who where blind, which is the more joyous half of our paradox.  For we know from the Word of God that all people are born spiritually blind and dead in their trespasses and sin.  And so we would all be doomed to forever dwell in darkness unless a miracle occurred or an act of God took place so that we could see. So now let me ask a question.  When did the blind man see the light?  Was it when he first received his physical sight?

No, because if we look back to the beginning of the chapter after Jesus placed the mud on His eyes to heal him, he told the man to go wash it off in the pool of Siloam and when the man did what he was told we are told in verse 6 of this chapter that he went home seeing.  He never saw Jesus, the one who healed him until after he had been cast out and then, reading from vs. 35-38:

Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”  Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.

It was then that the man saw the light and it was the same way with us.  We were in sin and darkness, until by the miraculous grace of God, exercised through Word and Sacrament, we saw the light of the world, Jesus Christ.  And we have been taught all that he has done for us. Primarily that he died on the cross to take all our sins away and to open the way to heaven for us and all who would believe. And that he rose again to show us that one day we too will rise. Death is not the end but merely a sleep, until we awake on resurrection morning to our loving Savior.

And so our response is the same as the ex-blind man's.  Seeing our Lord we too worship him.  We too give thanks and praise and glory and honor to our Lord and God, who gave and who still gives us sight so that we will no longer stumble and fall and grope around in the darkness of sin, but bask in the light of his grace and love. And also do what he asks us to do, which is to share this miraculous good news of Jesus Christ with everyone we meet so that they too can sing with us: I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

Yes, beloved it is true the blind are still gaining their sight, and one day they and we will see our Lord face to face, as the blind man did in our text, only it will be in His glorious kingdom of light. May God grant it in Jesus name. Amen. 


26 Mar. 2014 - Matthew 27: 11-26

The King Condemned

Lenten Season: Third Wednesday in Lent, Wednesday, 26 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

The King CondemnedThe lion is often pictured as the king of the jungle. The rooster is often pictured as the king of the barnyard and the dolphin might be seen as the king of the sea. Perhaps the last animal we would think of as kingly would be the lowly goat, in fact, a goat would be seen by many people as the exact opposite of a king. Yet, ironically, on one day in the Jewish calendar, the lowly goat was king.

That day was a special day, an extraordinary day, the holiest of days, the day of days, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  It was on that special day of the year that the high priest would go through the curtain in the temple into the Most Holy Place or the Holy of Holies, to make a sacrifice for the nation of Israel, the people God. That sacrifice was to take away or to atone for all their sins from the previous year, thus putting them right with God

But before that happened, two male goats, the same age, would take center stage. Two goats stood before the high priest and the guilty sons of Israel. Lots would be drawn, and one would be the Lord’s goat. And it was to be slaughtered as a sin offering for the people. It’s blood would be taken into the Holy of Holies and sprinkled on the mercy seat or the atonement cover on the top of the ark of the covenant.  The other goat would be the scapegoat, he would escape death at least for a time, but not before the high priest pressed his bloody hands down on his head, confessed all the sins of the Israelites. And then had him led away to the wilderness, to a desolate place where he would be abandoned.  As I mentioned in last Sunday’s sermon, it later became the practice of the Israelites to make sure that the scapegoat didn’t return by tying a scarlet cord around its neck and tying the other to a rock which was then thrown over a cliff. I guess one time the scapegoat returned to Jerusalem the horror of the people, so after that they made sure that that wouldn’t happen again.  

At any rate, what the goats did was provide a picture of how God would deal with or make atonement for our sin. Through the scapegoat, He would remove His peoples’ sins from them never to be seen or remembered, like a goat trotting out into the desert never to return like it says in Psalm 103:  “As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our transgressions from us.”

But it’s one thing to see a picture or symbol of something and it’s quite another to see the reality of it. And the reality is told to us in Hebrews 10:4: “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” What this tells us is that in spite of all the spilt blood of the goats on Yom Kippur, no sin was taken away.  In fact you could slaughter every goat in the world, every day of the year and it wouldn’t remove one sin from anybody. All our goat-like sins would still remain on us and cry out for punishment and separation from God forever.  No, all those goats did was point to a greater reality yet to come.  The reality we see being played out in our Gospel lesson for today.  Where instead of two goats, two men take center stage.

One man was a real goat. His name was “Barabbas,” which means, “son of the Father.” But he wasn’t a son any father would be proud of. He was put in prison for rebellion, murder, and theft. The other “goat” was also a “Son of the Father.” But the other “goat” was no goat at all. He was a perfect Son, who brought nothing but delight and joy to His Father. He was the one John the Baptist pointed to told his disciples, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” So there stood Jesus before Pontius Pilate and Caiaphas the high Priest, who had earlier picked him to die as St. John insightfully points out in the 11th chapter of his Gospel in this little incident following the resurrection of Lazarus:

Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him,  but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.

So there they stood two candidates for sacrifice, Barabbas and Jesus, a sinful man and the sinless son of God. But for the blood that atones and takes away sin, only one “goat” must take center stage. One “goat” must do both things—die for sins, and then remove them from God’s sight forever.

“Behold, Jesus, the goat of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” It all came down to Him.  He would be that one “goat” whose the blood would save us from God’s judgment. He was that  one “Goat” that the two goats of the Day of Atonement pointed to all along. The one Goat that the Lord selected to be slaughtered for sins He did not commit, and then carry them out of God’s sight forever.

He would be forsaken by His Father, so that sinners might be baptized and received as God’s precious lambs without spot or blemish.

Unlike us, He was not difficult or stubborn when it came to God’s commandments. He took on our flesh that He might fulfill God’s law for us and willingly do what we would not and could not do. Note how silent He is before Pilate in that cruel scene of injustice. Not one word of protest. Not one cry for help as the prophet Isaiah had prophesied 700 years before:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, like a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.

We can take great comfort in what He was communicating by His amazing silence—because he was thinking of us, he was focused and determined to rescue you and me and everyone else. Pilate mocked Him. The chief priests and elders accused Him, but He gave no answer. Pilate’s wife alone it seems knew and spoke the truth. She called Him a “righteous man” and indeed he was, the only truly righteous man who has ever lived, but Jesus didn’t use a wife’s natural persuasiveness to convince Pilate of the truth of her words nor to release Him.

And when the crowd shouted “Let Him be crucified!” and “His blood be on us and on our children!” He didn’t take time to tell them that that’s exactly what He came to do. He just did it.

It was no longer time for teaching. The hour had come for Him to go forth bearing the sins of the world on Calvary’s cross, to destroy them, death and the power of the devil over us forever.

And then announce his victory three days later with his resurrection from the dead.

His shed blood did what the blood of goats and bull could never do. It washes away all sin for all time. His blood saves us and everyone who would believe in him. When we were baptized we were baptized in his atoning death and his blood.  Likewise it is his saving blood we receive with the wine in Holy Communion. His is the blood that bespeaks us righteous.

Jesus is the faithful Son of the heavenly Father, whose faithfulness has been credited to us by faith in Him and in His Gospel. He is no lowly goat; He is God’s royal Son, from God’s royal tribe, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, is one of his titles. Yet to release us from the bondage of sins and death, He became like a lowly goat, so that we might be exalted, and reign with Him forever.

As I said at the beginning of this message, a lion might show his kingly glory by roaring. The rooster might show his glory by and crowing. The dolphin might show his glory by swimming and leaping from wave to wave. But the King of kings sent from heaven to us shows His glory by dying on a cross and rising again to forever be our Crucified King. May God in His grace, mercy and love grant that we always believe it.  Amen.


23 Mar. 2014 - Rom 5:1-11

Justified by Faith

Lenten Season: Third Sunday in Lent, Sunday, 23 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

nullA young Scottish lad and lassie were sitting on a low stonewall, holding hands, and just gazing out over the loch.  After several minutes of sitting silently, the girl grew a little impatient and leaned over and whispered in the boys ear, "A penny for your thoughts, Angus."

"Well, uh, I was thinkin'.” He muttered, “I was thinkin perhaps it's aboot time for a wee kiss."

The girl blushed, then leaned over and kissed him lightly on the cheek. And then he blushed.

And the two turned once again to gaze out over the loch.  After a while the girl spoke again. 

"Another penny for your thoughts, Angus."

The young man knit his brow.

"Well, now," he said, "my thoughts are a bit more serious this time."

"Really?" said the girl, filled with anticipation.

"Aye," said the lad.  "Din'na ye think it's aboot time ye paid me that first penny you promised me?"

Perhaps you have to be a Scott to understand that one. At any rate I believe many people view God as the same way Angus approached his girlfriend. They are looking for a something a little different from God. Many look for worldly things, when the greatest blessings that God has to offer are those things that we cannot lay our hands on. As St. Paul reminds us in our Epistle Lesson:  “THEREFORE, SINCE WE HAVE BEEN JUSTIFIED BY FAITH, WE HAVE PEACE WITH GOD THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST!”

What good new that is for us. God is no longer angry with us because of our sin. Instead, He wants to make peace.  In fact, He already has made peace with us because Jesus took away God’s anger at our sin.  That’s the thought that is summed up in that beautiful word justified.  It’s the Greek verb dikaiowo and this is what Bible scholar William Barclay has to say about it: 

All Greek verbs that end in” owo” do not mean to prove or make a person something.  They always mean to treat or account a person as something.  If God justifies the sinner, it does not mean that He finds reasons to prove that the sinner was right. Far from it.  It means that God treats the sinner as if he had not been a sinner at all. Instead of treating him as a criminal to be obliterated, God treats him as a child to be loved.  That is what justification means.”

In other words, our justification means a change in our status.  It means that God does not view us as His enemies to be destroyed, instead He considers us as His sons and daughters, forgiven and free. And all thanks to what Jesus did for us on the cross.  However, Jesus’ death on the cross didn’t just affect a change in our status, but also a change in our state or condition, the way we live our lives.  We call that sanctification, the process of the Holy Spirit working within us to make us more holy like Jesus. 

That’s what Paul was getting at in our text, when he said that now that we’ve been justified, we rejoice in our sufferings.  In other words, justification leads to sanctification  -  because we’re saved, we live our lives a way that’s different from the rest of the world.  And rejoicing in suffering truly is different.  Notice, Paul doesn’t say we rejoice “because of”  our suffering.  We’re certainly not happy when we are in pain or when bad things happen to us.  But when they do come, we should react differently from the rest of the world.  We can rejoice, because we know our suffering isn’t meaningless.  God has a purpose in it, to strengthen our Christian character and fill us with hope.  That’s why we can rejoice in our sufferings.  As a matter of fact, in the Greek text Paul puts it a bit more strongly than that.  He literally says that we can boast in our sufferings.  And the reason we can boast, is because no matter what happens to us, we know that our good and gracious God will take care of us!

But do we always do that?  Do we rejoice in our sufferings or do we gripe about them?  Do we boast about God’s great deeds, or do we blame Him for our troubles and thanklessly boast about how we go ourselves out of them?  If so, then perhaps it is because the motivation for our sanctification has gotten messed up.  I’m told that there’s a collection letter sent out by an ingenious collection agency that produces terrific results.  It’s supposedly a two-page letter, but the first page is missing.  The top of the second page, the one that’s actually sent, reads:  “And we’re sure you don’t want us to do that to you, do you!”

Fortunately, that is not how God deals with you and me.  He doesn’t try to motivate us by the fear of the Law, but by the comfort of the Gospel.  For the Law may get results, but as far as God’s concerned they’re the wrong kind of results.  You see, the Law’s main purpose is to bring us back from our destructive ways and shoo us towards the Gospel.  For only the Gospel can produce the right results and the right attitude behind the results.  Thus, if you and I are living our Christian lives out of fear, then the motivation for our sanctificaiton has gotten messed up.  And we once again need to hear the pure Gospel message.

You see, that’s the real thing that Paul was boasting about in our text.  As He summed it up in verse 11:  “MORE THAN THAT, WE ALSO REJOICE (OR BOAST) IN GOD THROUGH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, THROUGH WHOM WE HAVE NOW RECEIVED RECONCILIATION!”  Reconciliation  -  that’s the key to living our Christian lives with the proper motivation; namely, because we have been reconciled to God.  Certainly reconciliation is what those folks at the collection agency need  -  a settling of differences between them and those who owe them money.  Well, that’s exactly what Jesus provided for you and me, when He died on the cross.  He paid the debt of our sin in full and settled our differences.  He reconciled us to the Father.

Interestingly enough, the Greek word reconcile actually means:  ‘to exchange.’  And isn’t that what Jesus did?  He exchanged our sin for His righteousness.  He exchanged God’s anger for His love.  He exchanged our enmity with God for friendship with our Creator.  In other words, He made us one with God.  It’s similar to the Old Testament concept of atonement.  In the Old Testament, we read that on the Day of Atonement, the people of Israel would take a goat and send it out into the wilderness.  One man would lead the goat with a rope and the rest of the people would follow close behind it, pulling out its wool, pricking it, spitting on it and urging it to be gone.  In this manner they would bring the goat to the edge of a cliff in the middle of the desert.  Once they were there, they would tie a scarlet string around the goat’s neck and attach the scarlet string to a rock.  Then they would push the rock over the cliff, thereby causing the goat to plummet to its death.

This unusual ceremony signified to the people that their sins were gone for good.  That’s why a goat was used.  The goat had long been a symbol of evil and wickedness.  It represented the sins the people had committed in the past year.  And it was taken out to the wilderness, because that was thought to be the abode of the demons, the very dwelling-place of the devil himself.  Thus, by leading this goat out into the wilderness and pushing it off a cliff, the people were symbolically taking their pasts sins and taking them back to the devil, back to the place they had come from.  That was the method God had given the Hebrews for escaping from their sins.  And that’s where we get our term scapegoat.

However, this was all meant to be a foreshadow leading up to our Savior Jesus Christ.  He is the true scapegoat, who took all the blame for our iniquity, so that we could be set free.  Now the ancient Hebrews had a legend that on the Day of Atonement, at the very moment when the goat was pushed over the cliff, the scarlet string around its neck turned white to show that their sins had been purified.  Well, when Jesus was pushed over the cliff of Mount Calvary, so to speak, that legend became a reality.  By His scarlet blood we are purified.  And the most wonderful part about it is the God did not wait until we had our act together before He came to our rescue.  He did it while we were still sinners.  As verse 8 of our text says:  “WHILE WERE STILL SINNERS, CHRIST DIED FOR US!”  In other words, that old saying about how God helps those who help themselves has got it all wrong, because God helps the helpless.

My friends, that is the one and only proper motivation for our sanctification.  Because Jesus atoned for our sins, and reconciled us to God  -  that’s why we live for Him.  That’s why we can boast, even in the face of our suffering and troubles  -  because we have been justified through faith.  May God empower us to do just that, for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.


19 Mar. 2014 - Mat 26:69-75

The King Denied

Lenten Season: Wednesday, 19 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

It didn’t take much for Peter’s courage to fail. At least when the Israelites’ courage failed them at the Red Sea, it was because Pharaoh and his mighty army were chasing them. At least when the ten faithless spies discouraged Moses from trying to go in and take the Promised Land, it was because they claimed that they had seen “giants” who made them feel like “grasshoppers” And at least when King Saul chickened out, it was because he caught a good glimpse of a 9-foot tall enemy warrior named Goliath.

But in the end, all it took for Peter were two little servant girls and some bystanders.

Whatever happened to bold Peter, who made the Great Confession? “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” said he (Matthew 16:16), confessing Jesus to be God’s anointed King. What happened to the brave Peter of bold promises who had said in the upper room? “Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!” (Matthew 26:35). And whatever happened to the loyal and protective Peter, who when they came to arrest Jesus, had the courage to draw his sword and stretch out his arm and slice away at Jesus’ opponents? What happened to brave, valiant Peter, who went further than most of the disciples, all the way to the courtyard of the high priest?

Yet it was there he said, “I do not know the man” (Matthew 26:72). In the end, it didn’t take much for loyal Peter to become disloyal Peter and for Jesus to go from God’s Christ or King to being just a man, and even a man he didn’t know.  Peter was a terrible actor, his Galilean accent gave him away to those in the courtyard, but his words gave him away as a denier of the One who said, “Whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny before My Father who is heaven.” (10:33). In the end, Peter loved his life too much to lay it down for a friend. And when the pressure was on the Great Confessor became the Great Denier.

But when you stop and think about it, it doesn’t really take much for you and me either, does it? At least Peter’s life was on the line. All it takes for us to deny we know Jesus some days is the risk of a little loss of popularity among the co-workers, classmates or friends. All it takes for us some days to deny Jesus is the risk of a little strife in the family, or even the risk of being alienated by worldly acquaintances whom we know despise Jesus and anyone who would follow Him.

It reminds me of the story about the young man who was a Christian college student who went out to work in the oil patch one summer. And when he got back together with his Christian friends in the fall, they asked him about his experience in being surrounded by so many rough and vulgar men and what they said when they found out he was a Christian. The young man just smiled and said, “They never caught on.”

They never caught him talking about Jesus. How many of us would sadly have to make the same claim.  In the end, it really doesn’t take much for those bold promises we made at our confirmation, to “suffer all, even death” rather than fall away from “this confession and Church” to be conveniently ignored. It doesn’t take much at all for us to deny Jesus before men.

And this particular sin renders us more than just being lawbreakers and rebels, like everyone else, it makes us traitors.  Last week we focused on the treachery of Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, our Crucified King, but as bad as he was, when you think about it, he never denied He knew Jesus.  So between he and Peter, who was the bigger traitor?

This is important, because when we stand before God in the end, who will be held to greater account? Those who did not know of Jesus or those who knew much? We all know the answer to that question and it should give us pause.  There I go again being like that rooster in our text. Preaching the law as he cock-a-doodle-dooed, and brought Jesus words of warning home to Peter, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” (26:34)

Beloved, what can we do, but repent? Repent of our sin and believe the good news. The good news that while our loyalty our King has its limits, that same King’s mercy to us has no limits. It wouldn’t take much for Peter or us to be remembered as deniers. But in the end, the King’s mercy wouldn’t let us be remembered that way. For while Peter’s courage took him further than most men would go, Christ went further because He loved sinners like us more than He loved His own life. And He went further, all the way to the cross to do alone what only He alone could do. He went to suffer and to die for our sins, and not only our sins, but for the sins of everyone who has ever lived or ever will live.

As St. Timothy wrote in his second epistle:

If we are faithless, He remains faithful—for He cannot deny Himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13). In the end, the King of kings could not deny His office as the Servant of servants, so He set aside His divine power, and fearlessly went to the cross to bear our disloyalty so that we will not be denied before the Father, who now delights in us. In the end, Jesus courageously went to his death exposing Himself to all of God’s wrath against all of mankind’s sin and against all that makes us fear and, he defeated it. In the end, He could never deny His office as Savior, and he rose from the dead to impart to us that peace that surpasses all understanding, the peace that comes to us through his shed blood on His cross, and His discarded shroud in Easter’s empty tomb.

The heavenly Father allowed Peter to stand among friends and make the Great Confession. But our great comfort is that Jesus left that courtyard that night without his friends, so that he could soon stand before Pontius Pilate and make the good confession that Peter did not.  While Peter’s accent gave him away and it made him hold on tightly to his life. Our comfort is that Jesus Christ, who is God in the flesh, and who had that same Galilean accent, had a different heart, one that made Him willing to lay down His life for guilty sinners like us.

It reminds me of the story about a man named Ray Blankenship. One summer morning as Ray was preparing his breakfast, he gazed out the window, and saw a small girl being swept along in the rain-flooded drainage ditch beside his Andover, Ohio, home. Blankenship knew that farther downstream, the ditch disappeared with a roar underneath a road and then emptied into the main culvert. Ray dashed out the door and raced along the ditch, trying to get ahead of the foundering child. Then he hurled himself into the deep, churning water.

When he surfaced he was able to grab the child's arm but the force of the current was so great that they both tumbled end over end. Within a few feet of the yawning culvert, Ray's free hand felt something--possibly a rock-- protruding from one bank. He clung desperately, but the tremendous force of the water tried to tear him and the child away. "If I can just hang on until help comes," he thought.

He did better than that. By the time fire department rescuers arrived, Blankenship had pulled the girl to safety. Both were treated for hypothermia and shock, but recovered. On April 12, 1989, Ray Blankenship was awarded the Coast Guard's Silver Lifesaving Medal and it was well deserved, because Ray Blankenship couldn't swim.

The good news for is that we have an even better Savior than that. A Crucified King who was willing to die to rescue us, so that we could live forever.  Jesus didn’t chicken out, but stretched out His arms on the cross and defeated the “giants” of sin, death, and the devil, so that we could enter heaven. And he was raised from the dead so that we would know that he was victorious and that in the end he will raised us up as well, so that we might rejoice with those we love in his glorious kingdom. May God grant us the strength to ever believe it and never deny Him. In Jesus Name.  Amen.

16 Mar. 2014 - Romans 4:1–8, 13–17

Faith Like Abraham

Lenten Season: Second Sunday in Lent, 16 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Once a grandfather took his young grandson, Billy, up to the woods for vacation.  When they entered the cabin, they kept the lights off until they were inside to keep from attracting pesky insects.  Nevertheless, a few fireflies followed them in. Noticing them first, little Billy whispered, “It’s no use, Grandpa. The mosquitoes are coming after us with flashlights.”

Now that’s what you call persistence – when the mosquitoes start coming after you with flashlights.  Well, in a strange way that gives us a good example of the Christian faith, because that is the same kind of persistence God is looking for when it comes to our faith. He wants us to keep seeking His out with the flashlight of His Holy Word, never giving up or letting go.

In other words, our faith is not just a vague knowledge about who God is.  Instead, it’s a firm trust and confidence that God will do right by us, even when all the evidence points to the contrary.  It means not giving up on Jesus’ promises, when the chips are down, but continuing to go after God’s Word and grab hold of it, in spite of the doubts and insurmountable odds that the devil throws in our face!

Such was the persistent faith of the man spoken of in our Old Testament and Epistle lessons for today – Abraham.  Abraham’s faith was filled with a tireless and dogged determination.  But it was based on the fact that the mercy and kindness of our God is even more tireless and dogged and determined than we are.  His forgiveness and grace pursue us with a persistence even beyond that of mosquitoes, because His forgiveness and grace never give up!  And it is that sure and certain hope on which the faith of Abraham rested.

However, Abraham did not always possess such faith.  In fact, he did not always possess that name. He was originally called Abram (without the ‘H’).  Abram means: ‘exalted father.’   It was a very proud and arrogant name, a humanistic name indicating that man himself was the center of glory and honor.  That name reflects the culture from which Abram came.  He lived in the city of Ur in Mesopotamia.  Thus, he and his father, Terah, would have been pagan idol-worshippers who belonged to the religion of Nimrod.  Nimrod was a mighty, warrior/god who had to be appeased through offerings and sacrifices.

This religion was the forerunner of the Babylonian mystery cult, which paid homage to the devil by trying to gain power and success, wealth and happiness through the dark and secret forbidden practices of magic and the occult.  Strangely enough, it is that Babylonian mystery religion which is at the heart and core of the New Age movement that has greatly impacted our increasingly pagan culture today.

At any rate we might well ask why would God choose a man like Abram, a man who followed such a false religion and why would He choose such a man to be the ancestor of the Messiah?  In our text, St. Paul indicates that it was as a sign of God’s grace.  In other words, it was on account of God’s free and undeserved love that He chose Abram to be His servant.  And to prove it, God changed his name to Abraham, which means: ‘the father of many nations.’  This was God’s promise that Abraham would have many descendants, and that one of them would be the ultimate descendant, the Messiah, and through him, all the nations of the earth would be blessed. 

We know that promise was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ our Savior, who gave us His righteousness to cover up and blot out our unrighteousness.  That’s what St. Paul was talking about in our text, when he said:

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,

Now by nature credit is a gift, like when you go to the store and get something on credit.  They give it to you, even though you can’t pay for it.  Of course, they assume you will eventually pay for it.  God assumed no such thing.  He knew that we could not pay the debt of our sins.  So He sent Jesus who paid off that debt for us and cancelled it out completely by nailing our sins with Himself to the cross and destroying them once and for all.  And all of that is ours simply by faith in Jesus Christ.  Interestingly enough, the word credit comes from a Latin verb that means: ‘to trust or believe.’  And it is by putting our trust in God’s grace through faith in Jesus that we are saved.

In other words, like Abram, we too were once under the spell of the devil, following his dark and wicked secrets, believing the lie that we could exalt ourselves or save ourselves by our own efforts, thinking we could achieve power and success, wealth and happiness, by listening to his advice.  Jesus broke that spell once and for all, and conquered the devil when He died and rose again.  But you know Satan is not about to give up that easily.  He continues to exert his influence over us, because he wants to get us back.  And we fall under that influence, whenever we forget to put our full confidence and trust in God and try to please Him on our own, or when we fail to daily repent of our sins and lean upon God’s grace to save us.

It’s rather like an incident from the life of the famous preacher, Dwight L. Moody.  At a certain church where Moody had been invited to preach, he was warned that some of the members usually left before the end of the sermon, especially if it got too long.  So when Mr. Moody rose to begin his sermon, he announced: “I am going to speak to two classes of people this morning; first to the sinners, and then to the saints.”    After which, he proceeded to address the “sinners” for a while; then he said they could leave, while he would continue to talk to the saints.  Not surprisingly, for once every member of the congregation stayed to the end of the sermon.

That, of course, is a facetious idea – that there are two classes of Christians – the sinners and the saints, the not-so-holy and the super-holy.  The Bible indicates that we as Christians are simultaneously sinners and saints.  Which means that the only difference between us and unbelievers, is that we are forgiven sinners.  The problem is that Satan is constantly trying to convince us that that’s not true, that we really aren’t sinners, that we’re good enough to save ourselves.  That’s why St. Paul wrote our text in the first place.  He was speaking to people who had that very idea.  They even pointed to Abraham as their example.  They said that Abraham was a righteous man who always obeyed God, even to the point of being circumcised, and that’s why He found favor in God’s eyes. 

As a matter of fact, to the Jewish audience that Paul addressed, circumcision was so essential for salvation, that some Rabbis even said:  if a Jew was bad enough that he had to be condemned by God, then there was an angel whose task it was to make him uncircumcised again before he entered into punishment.  So to the Jew, circumcision was one of the key works a man must do to please God and enter into His kingdom.  But as Paul so aptly points out in the Book of Romans, Abraham received the promise of God’s blessing a full 14 years before he was ever circumcised.  Thus, circumcision was not a righteous act that Abraham performed in order to earn God’s favor.  Rather, it was the outward sign which showed that he had first received God’s favor as a free gift.  It was not the gate by which he got into God’s kingdom, instead it was the seal which verified that he had already entered in.

So it is for you and me.  In the book of Colossians, Paul tells us that circumcision finds its fulfillment in the sacrament of Baptism.  For just as circumcision is to some extent a physical measure which improves sanitation and can prevent the spread of disease, so Baptism is a purifying spiritual measure which removes the filth of sin and prevents eternal death.  Baptism is the sign and seal of our covenant with God, just like Abraham was in covenant with God.  In fact, we see that in Abraham’s name.  The ‘H’ that was added to Abram’s name was taken from God’s own name, Yahweh, so that God was putting His name on Abraham, much in the same way that a woman will take on her husband’s last name when they get married.  It was a reminder that God and Abraham were now inseparably bound together in an everlasting covenant, where God would always be there for Abraham, to rescue and deliver him, to help and befriend him.  Well, in our Baptism God has placed His name upon us as well, We have all been baptize into the Name of the Triune God, The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, which shows that we are bound to Him in an everlasting covenant, where He will always be with us, to rescue and deliver, to help and befriend us.

This was very much the case with St. Patrick whose day many of us, Irish and not so Irish will celebrate tomorrow.  Patrick was 16 years old in about the year 405, when he was captured in a raid on Britain, his homeland, and became a slave in what was still radically pagan Ireland. Far from home, lonely and afraid he finally began to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, whom he had ignored up until that time. Even though his grandfather had been a priest, and his father a town councilor, Patrick in his own words, "knew not the true God." But forced to tend his master's sheep in Ireland, he spent his six years of bondage mainly in prayer until he was able to escaped and return to Britain.

In his mid-40s God moved that once frightened slave to return to Ireland and to preach the saving Gospel and to baptize people in the name of the one true God, the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Intimately familiar with the Irish language and the clan system, Patrick converted the chieftains first, who then converted their clans. He was very successful and made many missionary journeys throughout Ireland and even though he was not solely responsible for converting the island, by God grace and through faith in Christ, he was able to spread Christianity so widely that Ireland soon became a stronghold of Christianity and they sent out missionaries throughout western Europe. 

Beloved, the good news for us is that St. Patrick’s God is our God as well. God the Father who sent his Son to die on a cross for our sins; God the Son, Jesus Christ who willingly took our sins upon himself and destroyed them and the power of death and the devil over us on Calvary and announced it with his glorious resurrection from the dead; and God the Holy Spirit who has worked and continues to work faith in our formerly faithless hearts.  Not because of anything we have done, or could ever hope to do, but simply because of the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Such was the faith of Abraham, and such is our faith too. May God through His Holy Word and Sacraments continue to bolster us in that faith all of our days!  In Jesus Name.

Amen. ​ 

12 Mar. 2014 - Mat 26:47-56

The King Betrayed

Lenten Season: Wednesday, 12 March 2014.  

Rev. Bruce Skelton, Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Highlands Ranch, Colorado

Some sins are considered “hot.” They are ones where you just lose it, like outbursts of rage or anger, lust or a mad craving for what is forbidden. Think of Adam and Eve craving and grabbing the forbidden fruit that was not theirs to have. Or think of David, burning with lust for his loyal soldier Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Or think of anxious Peter, slashing away with his sword and taking off the ear of the high priest’s servant.

Other sins are considered “cold.” They are the ones that coolly planned and plotted, those sins that take some thought, some scheming and some calculating.  Picture Adam thinking quickly on his feet in the garden and handing over his own wife to God’s judgment. “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Think of King David plotting the death of Uriah, to cover up his affair with Bathsheba. Or think of cold-blooded Judas, one of the Twelve, scheming with Jesus enemies and then betraying his Lord with a kiss. Now that’s cold.

Dante would agree. In his fictional work, Inferno, the author reserves the innermost circle of hell for betrayers. That’s where he locates Judas’s soul. But surprisingly, Dante doesn’t surround his soul with flames. Dante places Judas into a lake of ice. His plight is to spend eternity frozen in the ice, because he had such a frozen heart when he lived.

Consider how his cold heart plotted. It started out with his greed for money which St. John highlights in chapter 12 of his Gospel which reads:

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.

No doubt Judas had become weary of the humble life of being a disciple of Jesus, so he was looking for a bigger payday and wondered what he could get for His friend and Rabbi. He had to get all his ducks in order and somehow keep it a secret. There would have to be hypocrisy and deception, “Is it I, Lord?” he asked with the other disciples in the upper room after Jesus announced he would be betrayed by one of them. Then he’d have to figure out the best time and place for Jesus’ enemies to arrest him. Since it would be at night, He had to think of a way to identify Jesus to the men he brought with him.  

Judas was just the man Jesus enemies were looking for, at last they would have him in their grasp as they had long dreamed of and it would be with the help of one of the one of twelve men Jesus had chosen, befriended, taught, fed, and even sent out with his own authority to heal the sick, raise the dead and proclaim the kingdom of God. One he had loved.

So Judas handed the one he had called his Lord over to his enemies, singling him out with a kiss, a sign of warmth and affection. Now that’s about as cold as it gets.

But before we say, “How could he do that to Jesus?” we must take the temperature of our own icy hearts and our own evil schemes and plots. Have we ever stabbed anyone in the back? Have we ever smiled and joked with a co-worker, fellow student, friend, neighbor or family member, while at the same time spreading gossip about them behind their back. Perhaps you recall what Luther wrote in his explanation of the eighth commandment, if not, let us turn to page 321 in the front of our hymnals. Please read with me: 

 We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.

Do we do that always? I think if we are honest, we must say that we do not. We have all betrayed someone, even as we have all been betrayed ourselves and we all know how much that hurts, yet is doesn’t stop us from being cold-blooded gossips.

Judas got 30 pieces of silver for his betrayal of Jesus. We have betrayed others for much less, perhaps just to feel better about ourselves. As British playwright Somerset Maugham once told a friend, “Now that I’ve grown old, I realize that for most of us it is not enough to have achieved personal success. One’s best friends must also have failed.” There it is again, the coldness of the human heart.

Beloved that is why we all need to repent. Whether they are “hot” sins or “cold” sins, they all come from a heart that is opposed to God and capable of all sorts of evil. From King David’s lust and murder to Judas’s betrayal they and we have all earned for ourselves nothing but God’s present and eternal punishment and a spot in hell’s inner circle.

But tonight, God in His grace and mercy has gathered us together so that we might sit in wonder as we ponder the good news of how He deals with betrayers through His Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior. He is merciful with them to the end. Notice that Judas really does not catch Jesus by surprise. In fact, Jesus knew all along that this betrayal was coming because it was prophesied. Psalm 41: My enemies say of me in malice, “When will he die, and his name perish?” And when one comes to see me, he utters empty words, while his heart gathers iniquity; when he goes out, he tells it abroad.  All who hate me whisper together about me; they imagine the worst for me… Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.

Also a full year or more before Jesus came to Jerusalem, after His the feeding of the 5,000 and his great “bread of life” sermon in John 6 there is this related this little incident:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.

You see Jesus knew what was going to happen to Him. He was and is God after all. He didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t say, “Here comes Judas, the traitor.” No, he let Himself be kissed and even called the betrayer “friend” and told him, “Do what you came to do.” He put up no fight when they seized Him, because He knew that he was there as the One who would be betrayed and handed over so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled, so that all sinners, yes even betrayers, like Judas and us could be saved.

We stare in awe and wonder as we see the will of God the Father being carried out. The Father whose love for sinners drove Him to come up with a plan to deliver man. A plan he had conceived from the foundation of the world. He coolly plotted how He would save us from the threatening peril of our sins and eternal ruin. His love for us drove Him to do for us what no other Father would ever do.

What Father would be silent while his only-begotten son was betrayed and sent to die on a cross? What Father wouldn’t spare His Son the mocking and injustice? What Father wouldn’t muster up all his strength and to stop it? Only One, God our Heavenly Father, who is so faithful about His promise to save us that He delivered His own beloved Son into death in our place. God, who forsook Jesus, deserted Him, and abandoned Him, or our sake.

Yes, it seems that when it came to our salvation, there was no one more cold-blooded than God, who allowed His Son to be handed over for sins He did not commit. You might say, He was willing to be the chief of betrayers for our sake.

Yet the Father’s plan was exactly what Jesus was eager to carry out. The Father’s plan called for Him to be betrayed in the garden and handed over to the high priest, then handed over to Pilate, then handed over to those who crucified him.  And Jesus willingly submitted himself to His Father’s will, so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled and so that we might be handed over from the domain of darkness to the kingdom of light.

The Father’s plan called for Him to bear on the cross all our sins—the “hot” ones, the “cold” ones, and all the ones in between—and then triumph over them in His resurrection, because only by being handed over could His blood be shed, the blood that atones for all sin and the kingdom handed over to us and all who would believe.

Ever loyal to His Father, our King, Jesus, willingly let himself be betrayed and given to the enemy, that we might be baptized into his death and resurrection, and presented before our Father as faultless and holy.  He was a far better king than craving Adam or lusting David could ever be. Jesus was and is our crucified King, willing to be handed over to die so that we might live forever.  There is no better King or Lord than He. Long may He live and reign in our hearts and minds. Let Him reign forever. Amen.