As we enter into Holy Week, we hear a profound message from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians. He tells us that Jesus, who is the visible image of the invisible God “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” What does this mean? The translation is a little difficult. Another way to translate that phrase is that Jesus did not consider His equality with God a thing to be forcibly hung onto, a thing to be touted. Instead, Jesus lived as if He was not God in the flesh. He became a bondservant, humbling Himself and becoming obedient to death on the cross. He, who knew no sin, became sin, bearing the sin of the whole world.
“The Lord spoke to Moses.” This is the refrain of Leviticus, beginning each of the sections of the Law given on Mount Sinai and in the Tabernacle. For the most part, Leviticus is twenty-seven chapters of Law—regulation upon regulation, prohibition and commandment, rules and codes governing every aspect of the life of Israel. Buying and selling, hygiene and diet, dress and conduct, social and religious laws. Everything demands that the whole self be dedicated to God. The Law requires holiness: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Today’s Gospel is one of many times that we see a heated confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Especially as we read John’s Gospel, we see the tensions escalate the closer things get to Good Friday. After all, today’s Gospel is just the first time the Jews attempt to stone Jesus.
According to church tradition, March 25 is a very important date. Tradition holds that three very important things happened today. First, it is the day Satan tempted Eve and through the sin of Adam and Eve, the world was plunged into death. Second, that same tradition holds that this is the date the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to tell her she had been chosen by God to bear the world’s Redeemer, the promised Messiah. Finally, the twenty-fifth of March is the traditional date for Jesus’ crucifixion. So, on this day, the world was hurled into sin and death, the Savior from that same sin and death came into the world, and He accomplished the salvation He came to bring.
As we hear about Jesus feeding the five thousand, our thoughts turn to daily bread. It’s only natural. The crowd following Jesus, eager to hear His preaching, had no food. They were several days into the wilderness. No food could be purchased, even if the disciples had enough money to do so. Sermon applications for this Gospel Reading quite naturally turn to the things needed for daily life: food, money, and shelter. God will provide you food. Don’t be anxious about it. Trust Him.
In 1524, Martin Luther set about adapting, improving, and expanding a well-known medieval hymn. What resulted is the hymn, “In the Very Midst of Life.” The hymn opens with a question that seems entirely fitting for the situation we find ourselves now in 2020: “In the very midst of life snares of death surround us; who shall help us in the strife lest the foe confound us?” Our world is asking this same question right now. What do we do? Is death imminent? Is the world ending? How do we manage in the short term? How do things recover in the long term? These are uncertain times that God has spared us for some time. But now, in His wisdom, He has allowed this pandemic. God’s wisdom and ways are beyond our understanding. We know that He has promised to bring good from ill. We know that He can take what is meant for evil and use it for good. So in this time of pandemic and fear and uncertainty, we ask that question of Dr. Luther’s hymn: Who shall help us in the strife lest the foe confound us? Thou only, Lord, Thou only. The Christian response to our current situation is repentance and faith.
Good is regarded as evil. It happened to the Prophets and it happened to the One whom the Prophets foretold. Our Lord casts out a demon and instead of thanks, instead of acknowledgement that God Himself is in their midst, the people respond with unbelief. Their hearts are hardened. Some say that Jesus is in league with the devil, sent by Beelzebub to do showy things. Others treat Jesus like an entertainer and demand more signs and wonders under the thin veneer of trying to make a decision. They are like the people standing at the free sample carts in the grocery store, eating as much as they can, claiming “I’m not quite sure if I want to buy this. Give me another bite and maybe I’ll know.” Jesus rebukes both parties in no uncertain terms. To the first group, claiming Jesus was from the devil, He says that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Satan isn’t going to let himself be defeated for any reason. And besides, if Jesus is using demonic power to cast out demons, what kind of demonic power are their dear children using to do the same thing? To the second group He makes the declaration that there is no place for religious fence-sitters. You are either for Jesus or against Him. There is no contemplation, trying to make up your mind, seeing what each god has to offer. You are either for Jesus, gathering with Him, or you are working against Him, scattering what He has sown.
This section of Psalm 119 assigned to this week in Lent interacts perfectly with Sunday’s Gospel of the Canaanite woman whose faith was tested by Jesus. Here the Psalmist teaches us that this kind of testing comes to all of God’s children. This is part of how our faith grows and is strengthened. But by this Psalm we are given the words to pray when the testing comes, a prayer that God would give us His grace to endure the testing and the grace to be an example to others of trusting in God, even when it’s hard to do.
Today’s gospel reading is all about distilling things down to their most essential parts. As He interacts with this Canaanite woman, Jesus distills her prayer to its most basic form, her knowledge of herself to its most basic form, and her trust in God to its strongest.
Of all the Psalms, the ninety-first Psalm is the most comforting. It promises divine protection and deliverance no matter what befalls us. No matter how or when Satan tries to attack and destroy, God is our Refuge and our Fortress who keeps us safe. We can trust in Him completely because He is always watchful and always guarding us from sin and the devil.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.