Babel Undone

Text: Genesis 11:1-9

Today, we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost, which means “Fifty,” used to be called the Feast of Weeks in the Old Testament. It was a harvest festival where, fifty days after the Passover, the children of Israel would present an offering of new grain to the Lord.[1] Pentecost as we know it, received a new meaning in the New Testament; it has sort of become the Lord’s harvest festival. Fifty days after the Passover – which is the day our Lord died on the cross to win for the world the forgiveness of sins – the Lord poured out His Holy Spirit on the Apostles, and the saving Gospel of Christ was spoken in many languages. Men from all corners of the known world heard the Apostles speaking in their own languages and received the gift of faith.

At Pentecost, God worked a reversal of the Tower of Babel. After the Flood, mankind supposed to spread over the ends of the earth and populate it with faithful children of God. Instead, they all gathered in one place – not to worship, but to make a name for themselves. To punish their sin, the Lord confused the languages of mankind and scattered them all over the earth. At Pentecost, the Lord once again united all mankind again – this time, in the faith. Though now we remain separated by language and geography, by sending the Gospel out into many languages the Lord has created a unity which is pleasing to Him – unity in the faith. Today we celebrate the reversal of Babel by the outpouring of the Spirit, who unites us together in Christ.

I.

The account of the Tower of Babel is a brief one, but there are many lessons to be learned from it. After mankind was expelled from Eden as result of our first parents’ sin, humans began to spread over the earth. As they spread, the hope and faith in the Messiah promised first to Adam and Eve grew more and more dim. The world became such that the thoughts of all mankind were only evil continually, and the Lord was sorry He had created man. Yet, Noah and his family trusted in the Lord, and the He preserved them in the ark while the rest of the world perished in the Flood.

When the waters receded, and dry land appeared again, the Lord gave them the same instructions He gave before, “be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”[2] The Lord again desired that the world be filled with His faithful children and that all over the world, people would know to call on and be called by His name. But, instead, we heard in the text, “the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.”[3] As Noah’s descendants spread out across the earth, they eventually stopped. They found a plain and settled there for this purpose: they said, “let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”[4]

Rather than listen to God’s Word and call upon His name, while Noah was probably still alive, His own descendants decided to do things their own way. To prevent God’s will from happening – He had told them to spread – they made a city for themselves and built a tower with its top in the heavens. In their arrogance, they sought to set aside God’s name and will and be known by their own. But, isn’t that what sin is? Every sin is claiming that we know better than God.

They sought to build a tower to heaven, but evidently, they didn’t quite make it. The Lord came down from heaven to look at the tower, you see. Rather than living in the unity that God had desired, living together in the one true faith, mankind created a unity of its own – a unity of sin and arrogance. The Lord saw this sinful unity and knew that there would be no end to mankind’s pursuit of sin. So, in judgment – yet, perhaps also in mercy – the Lord confused their language so that they would not understand each other and, “dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth.”[5]

II.

Let’s shift, now, to Pentecost. As our Lord prepared to ascend to the right hand of the Father, He instructed His disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they were clothed in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would bring to their remembrance all the things Jesus said and did and would cause them also to bear witness. Ten days after the Ascension – and fifty days since Passover – the disciples were together in one place.

And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.[6]

Now, Pentecost was a festival that brought many people to Jerusalem, people from many different countries and languages. When they heard the sound of the Spirit descending on the disciples, they all came to see what had happened. When they got there, they found the disciples speaking in many different languages. Men who were by birth Galileans, were speaking in languages they had not previously known. And what were they speaking? The Good News of Jesus Christ. The disciples were speaking in all those different languages the Good News that Jesus had suffered, died, and rose for the forgiveness of sins. Where, once, all these people were divided before by language, now they were being united in the Gospel of Christ.

So, Pentecost is like a reverse of Babel. Mankind tried to create its own unity by making a name for itself, a unity of sin and arrogance. The result was separation. At Pentecost, God created a holy unity by sending the Gospel out in so many languages. At Pentecost, God sent out the Holy Spirit to unite all mankind in this truth: Jesus Christ, both God and man, suffered on the cross for the sins of the whole world. Though in our lives we experience no end of heartache and trial, Jesus has won for us peace with God and eternal life with Him in heaven. All who were once united by sin and death, may now be united in faith and life. Pentecost is like a reversal of the Tower of Babel. Whereas mankind’s language was confused as a punishment for sin, now God sends out the Good News in all languages, so that we may be united again – this time, in Christ.

Pentecost is a fitting day for our congregations to have confirmation, as well. As our Lord has sent His Gospel out into all the world, uniting men and women all over in the one truth faith, so also has the Gospel been delivered to us. We have one in our presence now, who desires to confess the faith we share and so receive the Lord’s Supper in our fellowship. For this, we thank and praise God. Whereas of Pentecost of old, man brought in a harvest offering, now we celebrate Pentecost as God’s harvest festival. Though mankind was separated as a result of sin, now God has brought all mankind together in the confession of Christ’s name. At Pentecost, God undid Babel. Thanks be to God.


[1] Lev. 23:16, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 9:7

[3] Gen. 11:1-2.

[4] Gen. 11:4.

[5] Gen. 11:8.

[6] Acts 2:2-4.

The Holy Spirit, the Comforter

Text: John 15:26-16:4

Let us pray,

O King of glory, Lord of hosts, uplifted in triumph far above all heavens, leave us not without consolation but send us the Spirit of truth whom You promised from the Father; for You live and reign with Him and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

This prayer, the Collect of the Day for the Sunday after the Ascension, is a wonderful prayer. It ties very well into the readings, which speak about the work of the Holy Spirit. It recognizes that we have celebrated the ascension of our Lord to the right hand of the Father and asks that He would send upon His Church the promised Holy Spirit.

In the prayer, the Spirit is called the Spirit of truth who offers us consolation, or, perhaps one might say, comfort. Our text this week comes, again, from the final instructions Jesus gave His Disciples before His passion. In it, He teaches that, though the world will rage against His disciples – and they will be tempted to lose heart – Jesus will send them a helper from the Father: the Holy Spirit. This Helper would help them by comforting them with the Word of Christ – that He will never leave them nor forsake them, and that by faith in Him their place in heaven is secure. In our text, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit to His disciples, to comfort us in all our distress by pointing back to Christ.

I.

Our text today is a hard speech to hear. John 13-17 are all part of Jesus’ final instruction to the Disciples, bits and pieces of which we’ve heard over the Easter season. We heard chapter 13 on Holy Thursday and the last number of weeks have been in chapter 16. Last week, we heard Jesus’ invitation to prayer and promise that the faithful are heard by their Father in heaven. The portion we hear today is difficult because Jesus detailed the opposition His disciples would face after His departure. Up to this point, the opposition they faced – say, from the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests – had mostly been directed toward Jesus. Jesus was the one they were really after. Though, their ire did start to spread – St. John told us that they had wanted to kill Lazarus, too, since many were believing in Jesus because of him.

After Jesus ascends to heaven, though, the opposition directed toward Him will pass unto His apostles. Our Lord described some of things the world would do to His chosen ones, “They will put you out of the synagogues,” Jesus said. “Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor Me.”[1] We don’t have to get too far past Pentecost in the Book of Acts, to see these things being fulfilled. The apostles were thrown of out synagogues and called unbelievers. In Acts 7, we hear how St. Stephan was stoned, being the first martyr. The men who killed him thought that they were doing a good work for God. The same happened with James, the brother of our Lord, when he was thrown from the top of the temple.

In other words, it’s going to get bad after His ascension, according to our Lord. The hatred of the world for Him and the Gospel will pass to His followers. However, Jesus said, “I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Helper, to be with you forever.”[2]When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.”[3] Jesus means, that although the world will rage against His followers and against His Gospel – and though they will be tempted to despair – Jesus will preserve them by sending them a helper, the Holy Spirit.

II.

The word rendered into English in our text as “helper,” is the Greek word Paraclete, which also means, “comforter.” Given the context, comforter is a better translation and gives us a better sense of what Jesus is saying. What He is saying is that, though the sea roar and the world rage, no harm shall come to His Church. The hymn goes, “Built on the Rock, the Church doth stand.” Christ preserves His Church and His faithful ones by sending them the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. It is the Holy Spirit’s work to comfort us, by pointing us back to Christ.

When we talk about the Holy Spirit, we most often talk about His work in connection with Pentecost. It’s the Holy Spirit who works through the Word to call all people to faith in the saving work of Christ. We are all Christians because the Holy Spirit has brought us to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that we have life through His death for our sins on the cross. It is also the Spirit’s work to comfort the faithful in Christ. St. Paul said, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.”[4] When the beloved of Christ’s flock are faced with trial and distress, it is the Spirit’s work to comfort them and make them bold.

We see His work in the Apostles. What Christ told them in our text did come to pass. Yet, none of them fell away. The Apostles faced persecution, beatings, imprisonments, riots, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, and death. Yet, they remained faithful through the work of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit continually put before their eyes the promises of our faithful God. He is our Good Shepherd who never forsakes His flock; He has opened paradise to us by His death on the cross; and, by His resurrection, our own deaths will prove to be but the doorway to eternal life. The Holy Spirit comforted the disciples by pointing them back to promises of Christ.

III.

In our text, Jesus preached a hard sermon to the disciples. The hatred the world had for Him would pass to them. Nevertheless, He would send upon them the Holy Spirit, who would comfort them and make them bold. Jesus said, “He will bear witness about Me. And you also will bear witness, because you have been with Me from the beginning.”[5] The Holy Spirit would comfort them by bringing to their remembrance all the words and works of Christ for them, and thus they also would bear witness to others.

Now, to us. We do not face the same immediate dangers the disciples did, but we face trials and difficulties of other sorts. The disciples faced excommunication from the synagogues. With each passing year, faithful Christians face excommunication from the world as our confession – that Jesus is the only true God – becomes heresy. The teaching of our Lord in the text is mainly directed to this end, that though world rage against the work of Christ and the spread of His Gospel – His work will go on. To comfort us, we who are His hands and feet, He sends us the Holy Spirit to remind us of His promises to never leave us nor forsake us, to never abandon His Church, and to bring us into eternal life.

We might also say something about the experiences of our own personal lives. The comfort of the Spirit is not just limited to making us bold in the face of persecution, but also confident in the promises of Christ within our daily vocations. Because, as if being a faithful Christian isn’t hard enough, living is hard. Some of us are facing cancer, some work difficulties. For some of us, even as we celebrate Mothers’ Day, we recognize that our family life is rife with turmoil. Even if we don’t notice the persecution of the world personally, our own lives themselves cause us no end of trouble.

The work of the Holy Spirit is not just to make us bold in our witness as Christians, but also to comfort us in our weaknesses, as St. Paul said. And He does this by pointing us back to Christ – in His Word and in His Sacraments. When our bodies fall apart, the Spirit points us to the resurrection, where they shall be restored. When our loved ones die in the faith, the Spirit points us to the blessedness of heaven – which we have through Christ’s work on cross. When we face the loss of our goods, the Spirit reminds us that Christ had no permanent home and that He suffers their loss with us. And, when our faith seems weak, the Spirit points to the Sacrament – where our sins are forgiven, and our faith is made strong.

Jesus said, “when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about me.” As the disciples were to face the difficulty of life in a world that hates the Gospel, Jesus sent upon them the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. The Spirit comforted the disciples by pointing them to Christ and emboldened them in their witness. So, also, does the Spirit work in our lives. When we suffer and are heavy laden, the Spirit points us to Christ, who bore all our sorrows and all our sins.


[1] Jn. 16:2-3, English Standard Version.

[2] Jn. 14:16.

[3] Jn. 15:26.

[4] Rom. 8:26.

[5] Jn. 15:26-27.

Outpouring of Spirit and Word – Pentecost

Text: Acts 2:1-21

Let us pray:

Almighty and ever-living God, You fulfilled Your promise by sending the gift of the Holy Spirit to unite disciples of all nations in the cross and resurrection of Your Son, Jesus Christ. By the preaching of the Gospel spread this gift to the ends of the earth; through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.[1]

Today we gather to sing hymns of praise and thanksgiving to our God on high. We ascribe all glory to our Lord Jesus Christ, who has ascended the right hand of the Father but has not left us without consolation. On this day, Pentecost, we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Christ’s Apostles and the spread of His Gospel – the Gospel of the free forgiveness of sins by grace through faith – to all the world. When the Holy Spirit caused the Apostles to speak in those many different languages, He showed that the salvation that is in Christ is for the whole world. As St. Peter said, “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[2]

Our text today is the reading from Acts. From it, we confess that the day of Pentecost is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise to pour out His Holy Spirit on His faithful people and marks the spread of the Gospel to all nations.

I.

The events of the day took place in the Holy City, Jerusalem. Ten days ago, the Church celebrated the ascension of our Lord to the right hand of the Father. Forty days after the Resurrection, Jesus resumed the glory which was His before the foundation of the universe, which He will continue to hold even when He returns in glory. You may remember these words from His mouth just before He returned to the Father, “Behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”[3] St. Luke also wrote in Acts 1, that Jesus, “ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father.”[4] Jesus’ last words before departing to the Father included the command to remain in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes.

We’ve heard about the Holy Spirit a few times this Easter season. Of the seven Sundays of Easter, at least four speak about the Holy Spirit. Four of our Gospel lessons fall during Jesus’ final teaching in the Upper Room. He taught about how the Holy Spirit would convict the world through the Law and comfort believers with the Gospel. Jesus called the Holy Spirit, “the Helper.” In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus promised that when the Holy Spirit came, He would, “teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said.”[5] As He taught them in the Upper Room, Jesus promised the Disciples the Holy Spirit. He promised Him again before His Ascension. Even John the Baptist spoke about the Holy Spirit when He said Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Jesus promised the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, but He didn’t say when.

Heeding our Lord’s instructions, the Disciples remained in Jerusalem after His Ascension. They were continually in the Temple, worshipping Jesus and praying. On Pentecost, they were all together in one place. Then, St. Luke wrote,

Suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.[6]

As the Disciples were all together, trusting in our Lord’s promise, the promise of the Holy Spirit was fulfilled as a sound like a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire came from heaven. These tongues rested upon the Apostles, and they were caused to speak out clearly the Gospel of Christ in languages they had not previously known. Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Mesopotamians, Cappadocians, and more, all heard the Gospel of Christ in their own languages. Pentecost, which means fifty days, originally was a harvest festival that fell fifty days after Passover. Here, fifty days after our Lord’s Passover, it became a festival of the Lord’s harvest as the Spirit was poured out and the Gospel spread to the nations.

II.

These are the events of Pentecost. The Apostles remained in Jerusalem, trusting our Lord’s promise and awaiting the Holy Spirit. As they were gathered together, there was a great sound from heaven and tongues as of fire rested on them. As it was a loud sound, many who were in Jerusalem also came together, perplexed at what it meant. They found the Apostles declaring the Good News of Jesus Christ, and each heard it in his own first language. St. Luke writes, “All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’ But others mocking said, ‘They are filled with new wine.‘”[7] That’s when St. Peter, standing with the other eleven Apostles, addressed the crowd and explained what this all meant. St. Peter gives the meaning of the day we celebrate today.

First, he said, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days…God declares…I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh.”[8] St. Peter said that this outpouring of the Holy Spirit was not only promised by Jesus and John the Baptist, but it had also been prophesied through the prophet Joel, some eight-hundred years earlier. God never goes back on His Word nor fails to keep His promises, even when the timeline doesn’t make sense to us. All these things were happening, St. Peter said, as fulfillment of God’s promises. The outpouring of the Spirit also demonstrated the significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection. His atonement for the sins of the world has been what it’s all been about all along.

Second, St. Peter quoted from Joel, “In the last days…I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh…and I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below…before the day of the Lord comes.”[9] By this, St. Peter showed, not only is God fulfilling His promise of the Spirit on Pentecost, but these things show that we are in the Last Days. It seems that every year there are more and more predictions of the End Times. But, the most Biblical way to speak on this topic, is to hold with the inspired words of Peter that the Last Days began with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost. Now, all the work of our salvation has been completed by Christ on the cross. All that remains is the spread of the Gospel of Jesus to the world – which is the third thing St. Peter taught in His Pentecost sermon.

The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is the fulfillment of our Lord’s promise and it marks the spread of the Gospel to the whole world so that, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” God spoke through Joel that in the Last Days, His Spirit would be poured out on all flesh. On the Day of Pentecost, that happened visibly upon the Apostles. The Holy Spirit was poured out on believers throughout the book of Acts as the Gospel of Jesus Christ was preached to them. The Holy Spirit is poured out on us through Baptism and through the preaching of the Word. Through these things the Holy Spirit dwells in us and causes us to confess with heart and mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, who has redeemed us not with gold or silver, but with His precious suffering and death in our place.

As the Holy Spirit caused the Apostles to tell out the greatness of the Lord, leading them to speak boldly about the Gospel of Christ to all the world, so also the Holy Spirit causes us to speak forth the Good News in our lives. Today we give thanks to God Almighty for the fulfillment of His promises and for the Holy Spirit which we received in our Baptism. And, we pray that God would continue what He started on Pentecost – the spread of the Gospel to all nations, that all might be led to repentance and faith, so that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.


[1] Collect for the Eve of Pentecost

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Acts 2:21.

[3] Lk. 24:49.

[4] Acts 1:4.

[5] Jn. 14:26.

[6] Acts 2:2-4.

[7] Acts 2:12-13.

[8] Acts 2:16-17.

[9] Acts 2:17, 19-20.

A New Heart and a New Spirit

**The audio for this sermon may be found here:https://www.spreaker.com/user/trinitystjohn/2016-05-08-exaudi-sermon**

Text: Ezekiel 36:22-28

Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of My holy name, which you have profaned among the nations…I will sprinkle clean water on you…and I will give you a new heart.” Such were the words of the Lord God that Ezekiel preached beside the Chebar canal in southern Babylon to anyone who would listen. The nation of Israel was his audience, which, during his ministry, was carried off into exile in a number of waves and ultimately destroyed through the Fall of Jerusalem. The ones standing immediately before him were the ones carried off to Babylon early in the exile and they had just heard that Jerusalem had indeed fallen. The walls were torn down and the temple destroyed. What hope could be left?

It is good that our fathers in the faith placed this text here in the lectionary, the Sunday between the Ascension and Pentecost. We heard from Jesus in the Gospel how the world will react after His Ascension. Some will claim to be worshipping God by killing Jesus’ disciples. St. Peter likewise reminded us in our Epistle not to be surprised when faced with trial and tribulation. In the Collect of the Day we prayed to our ascended Lord Jesus that He would not leave us without consolation, but send us His Holy Spirit. That is what God tells Ezekiel to prophesy about in our Old Testament text. God promised that He would do something marvelous. Even to those poor, dejected exiles, and to us in our suffering, God promised that He was actively at work to vindicate His name and remove their plight. From our text we’ll learn about God’s work, including the work of His Son. Today we’ll especially celebrate His work in Holy Baptism, for it is in the washing of Holy Baptism that God gives us the new heart and Spirit that He promises in our text.

  1.   

Before we go any further, we should talk a little bit about what’s going on in our text. Long story, short: Israel is in exile in Babylon. Now for the longer story: When we study the Old Testament we usually divide it up into two categories, the Law and the Prophets. We can also divide the Prophets into two categories, the Major and Minor Prophets. The Major Prophets are called that because their writings are longer (try reading the 66 chapters of Isaiah), the Minor because they’re shorter. Ezekiel is one of the Major Prophets with Isaiah and Jeremiah. The Fall of Jerusalem happened in 587 B.C. Isaiah prophesied about 100 years earlier. Jeremiah and Ezekiel preached at the same time around, during, and (in Ezekiel’s case) after the Fall of Jerusalem – Jeremiah in Jerusalem, and Ezekiel in Babylon.

Ezekiel prophesied to a people displaced and removed from their homeland. God gave the land of Israel to His chosen nation as gift promised to Abraham, but now they have been driven out of it because of their sinfulness. For generations God spoke to His people through the prophets that Jerusalem would fall unless they repent of their sin and be forgiven. Remember when God sent Jonah to Nineveh with that same message? Nineveh was a pagan city, and they repented and believed. But Jerusalem, the city of God, rejected Him. Instead of living in faithfulness to God and love toward one another, the people were altogether corrupt, hating each other and being hated in return, cheating everyone they could, worshipping false gods, and putting themselves first in all things. Even when they did come to worship God, it was tainted by sin and false pretense. God said through the mouth of Isaiah, “When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

But, now, God says in our text, this is all going to stop. Israel’s uncleanness, its disregard for God and His Word led to the Fall of Jerusalem and the Exile – but even then it didn’t stop. The Fall was meant to lead to repentance, but instead, God’s name continued to be profaned. The nations surrounding Israel gloated at their demise rather than repent of their own sinfulness. And Israel, instead of being sorry for their sin, just continued to sin in Babylon. But now God has had enough. He is going to do something radical. He’s going to do something amazing to purify Israel from their iniquity and vindicate His name among the nations. What is He going to do? He’s going to send His Son. That’s what God is talking about in our text. Already His plan is in motion, just as He promised to Adam and Eve to send them a savior. This Savior would be the Son of God who would bear the weight of the world’s sin on the cross to redeem us from our guilt. And, not because we are particularly special or good or merit salvation, but as God says, “It is not for your sake…but for the sake of My Holy Name.”

In our text we get the joyous opportunity to touch on one of the distinctives of our Lutheran faith. We call them the Solas: Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Sola Scriptura. In our text we get a beautiful picture of God’s grace. Even in the mire of Israel’s iniquity, even in the despair of the exile – the just consequence of their sin – God promises to save. He promises to purify them from their sin and rescue them from death, not through any works of their own, but by His grace alone. God also promises in our text to save us and to cleanse us from our iniquity, and in fact He has through the washing of Holy Baptism.

  1.  

God says these beautiful words in our text, “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove your heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you.” In the midst of their iniquity and sinfulness, their depravity and darkness, God promised to sprinkle His people with water, and this water will make them clean. That is what Baptism does. You might remember this question from the Small Catechism. “What Benefits Does Baptism Give? It works the forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this.”

God promised to His people our text that He would sprinkle them with water and make them clean. In doing so He would remove their callous hearts of stone and give them hearts of flesh. And, this is what makes our text fitting for this Sunday, the Sunday after the Ascension. As He ascended into heaven, Jesus promised to put His Holy Spirit within His people. This happens in Holy Baptism when the Triune God puts to death the sinful nature within us and makes us new creations. In Holy Baptism the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ’s death and burial, so that we too die to sin and rise to righteousness.

In our text from Ezekiel God promised to His people that He was going to vindicate His name. No longer would Israel’s sinfulness be in the spotlight. Instead, God is going to wash it away. He did this by sending His Son Jesus to die for the sin of the world, both for Israel in Ezekiel’s time and for us now. Then, in Holy Baptism, washes us clean. He rips out our hearts of stone and gives us beating hearts of flesh. In Baptism He gives us each His Holy Spirit. And what does the Holy Spirit do? Jesus tells us in the Gospel, “When the Helper comes…He will bear witness about me.” That is, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to make us Christians through the preaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments, and to keep us Christians through the same. And, having received a new heart of flesh and God’s Holy Spirit, we are led outside of ourselves.

In the washing of Holy Baptism, we are made new creations. We no longer live seeking to serve our own flesh and passions, but we live for those around us, serving those in need in response to the love we receive from Christ. That is what St. Peter exhorts us to do. This is how he said it, “Keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another.”

This week we stand with the Holy Apostles. Our Savior, Jesus Christ, has ascended into heaven to be with us always and everywhere. Two thousand years ago the Apostles waited for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, and we likewise are expecting Christ’s return. In our texts this week we learn about how God operates. He spoke through Ezekiel that He was going to vindicate His name and remove the iniquity of His people. He did this by sending His Son to die for the forgiveness of our sins, which He gives to us by grace alone. Then, in Holy Baptism He gives us clean hearts of flesh and puts His Holy Spirit within us. May He ever continue to grant us His Holy Spirit that we be led to live in love toward Him and our neighbor.

Sola Gratia: Sealed and Delivered

Text: Revelation 7:(2-8) 9-17

“Oh, how blest are they whose toils are ended, who through death have unto God ascended! They have arisen from the cares which keep us in prison. We are still in a dungeon living, still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving; our undertakings are but toils and troubles and heart-breakings.”[1] These are the first two stanzas of the hymn “Oh, How Blest Are They,” #679 in our hymnal. Today we celebrate the feast of All Saints. This day was set aside by the Church many centuries ago to commemorate those who have preceded us in the faith. We do so not by invoking them, but by giving thanks God for the faith that He gave to them and to us and for the grace that we have all received in Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God for their great example in the faith and the forgiveness they received, but we would be remiss if we ignored one major thing.

One thing we can’t ignore today is that all the saints that have gone before us have done exactly that – they’ve all died. Though they were forgiven their sins and covered in the robes of Christ’s righteousness, they still died as a consequence of the sinful condition which we’ve all inherited from our first parents, Adam and Eve. But now they have been freed from all that. As the elder says in St. John’s vision of the throne room, they have come out of the great tribulation. Those who have passed from death to life stand before the throne where there is no hunger or thirst, no death, for the Lamb of God is in their midst and wipes every tear from their eyes. But what about us? We live amidst a culture of death; what about us? When will we get what the saints now enjoy? The answer to that is now, actually. At Holy Baptism God signed and sealed you as His, and He continues to keep you until, by His grace alone, He delivers you into His eternal kingdom.

I.

We have in our text a vision of the heavenly throne room. We’re in an interlude in the outpouring of God’s wrath, as if to see how the saints are doing while the world is in tribulation. The period described in the text relates to us now. The 144,000 in the first part of the text are those who are coming out of the tribulation of the times, but are still in it. Those in the throne room are those who now rest from their labors. They are in the presence of Christ continually as they await His second coming and the resurrection of their bodies. The camera pans and we see four angels with the authority to pour out God’s wrath on the earth and sea. Then we see another angel, who says to the first four, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”[2]

This is where we fit into the text. The 144,000 put before St. John and us is not a literal number of the elect, but a signifier of the completeness of the Church that will enter into eternal life. In Scripture the number 12 signifies wholeness or perfection. You multiple that by twelve and you get a number of completeness. Then multiply that by 1,000 – and you get the picture. Those who are sealed upon their foreheads are those marked as redeemed by Christ the crucified. Though they are now in the midst of trial and tribulation, they have received upon their forehead and heart the mark Christ, which signifies them as inheritors of eternal life.

The Church has long understood this passage, this sealing of the elect, as a reference to Baptism. The word for seal in the Greek is σφραγίζω (sphragizo), and it means to mark as a means of identification or to certify something for delivery. This is our connection to Baptism. In the ancient Church, at Baptism the pastor would take some olive oil, the sphragis, and make the sign of the cross upon your forehead and heart. This would be a sign to you and others that you have been claimed by Christ. In the same way we might put a seal on the back of an envelope, certifying that what’s inside comes from us. We carry on this practice today, though usually without the oil. When you were baptized the pastor made the sign of the cross on your head and heart, marking you as one redeemed by Christ.

It doesn’t always feel like it, though, does it? In Holy Baptism you are marked by the blood of Christ. You were given the gift of faith and the forgiveness of sins. You received eternal life and salvation in the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And yet it doesn’t look like it. All around us we see death. We see the death of loved ones. We see long, protracted, painful illnesses. We live through the loss of jobs and closing of businesses, even the closing of churches. It says right here in Scripture the saints of God are before His throne and neither hunger or thirst, nor cry or suffer pain. When do we get that?

II.

The painful reality we live in is that, because of the Fall, we who are baptized into Christ are not only marked on our forehead and heart for redemption, but also with a target on our back. This is what St. Paul preached to the Christians at Iconium and Antioch. He taught them to continue steadfast in the faith, for, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”[3] You see, the devil hates you. This is why we suffer so many things. Ills of body and mind, broken relationships and lives, persecutions of various kinds – especially when we confess the pure Gospel of Christ against all false doctrine – these are all the result of the Fall into sin and the instigation of the devil.

Jesus promised that in this world we will have tribulation. But, “take heart,” Jesus says. “I have overcome the world.”[4] When we look at our text from Revelation, and see those saints and the rest they’ve entered, where there is no suffering of any kind, and then we look at our lives, it’s easy to feel short-changed. We look at the pagans and atheists who prosper and cry out to God, when we will have what they (seemingly) have. When will we have eternal life and rest from our labors, when will we be free from the effects of sin? When we will come out of the great tribulation? Now. St. John wrote, “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”[5]

By God’s grace alone, you were marked as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and now share in the inheritance of the saints in heaven. One of the meanings that I shared with you for the word seal is to certify something for delivery. In Baptism you were marked as Christ’s, and by that mark He promises to you that you will enter eternal life. He promises that He will guard and keep you until the time when we all feast together in the new creation. How does He do that? Through the preaching of His Word and in His Sacraments. In Baptism He washes you and makes you clean, and daily you rise before Him in righteousness and purity. Through the preaching of the Word He reminds you of your sinfulness, but also comforts you with the fact that He died for you. In the supper of His own body and blood, He gives, again, the forgiveness of your sins and the faith and love to serve Him and each other. Through these things He guards and protects you as His own redeemed and inheritors of eternal life until we become the saints who’ve gone before.

Today we celebrate All Saints Day. We celebrate not because they were better than us or more perfect examples of the faith. We celebrate because of the grace and forgiveness that they received, as we do, through faith in Jesus Christ. They have passed from death to life and rest from their labors. Some from among us are there now, too. May Christ keep us ever steadfast in the one true faith, and may He always remind us that we are marked by His blood for the redemption of our souls until these words are said of us:

They are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[6]


[1] “Oh, How Blest Are They,” Lutheran Service Book, 679.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Re 7:3.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ac 14:22.

[4] Jn. 16:33.

[5] 1 Jn 5:4–5.

[6] Rev. 7:15-17

The Righteousness of God: Sola Fide

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This year we mark the 498th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. To celebrate, we’ve been looking at three pillars of the Reformation, the truths that the Holy Spirit worked to preserve among us: Scripture Alone, Grace Alone, Faith Alone. God’s Word comes to us in the Scripture alone, it is the only place where we hear the Good News of Jesus Christ. We hear through it that we justified through faith alone, which we receive through God’s grace alone. Last week we spent some time looking at the Scripture Alone part; this week we will look at the idea of Faith Alone. It is only through faith that we are counted righteous in God’s eyes. We are justified by faith alone, without any merit or work on our part.

There was a period of time while I was back in seminary where I thought that record collecting was a cool thing. I would take weekly trips down to Neat Neat Neat Records to peruse the bins until I found something I had to have. Then I would take it back to my dorm room and fire it up. Almost always, everything would work just fine. But, was I ever filled with fury when a record skipped. That thing that I most hated about records, I also love about Lutheranism. Lutheranism is like a broken record. No matter what we’re talking about, no matter where we are, we always return to the fact that we are saved by God’s grace through faith. We preach Christ and Him crucified for the forgiveness of sins. That is what the Bible is all about, and so it’s what we’re all about. This week as we look at the Faith Alone pillar of the Reformation we confess with St. Paul that the righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Jesus, and by this faith we are justified, that is, forgiven our sins.

I.

As Lutherans, that is our bread and butter. We eat, sleep, and breath justification by faith alone. We all have those verses in our text from Romans and from Ephesians 2 in our brains, and rightly so, but this was not always the case in God’s Church. I’m going to read you a little bit of a lengthy quote from Martin Luther, but I want you to pay close attention because it is very telling of the Church at the time:

I hated that word “righteousness of God,” which…I had been taught to understand philosophically…God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

Though I lived as a monk without reproach, I felt that I was a sinner before God with an extremely disturbed conscience. I could not believe that he was placated by my satisfaction. I did not love, yes, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners, and secretly…I was angry with God, and said, “As if, indeed, it is not enough, that miserable sinners, eternally lost through original sin, are crushed by every kind of calamity by the law of the decalogue, without having God add pain to pain by the gospel and also by the gospel threatening us with his righteousness and wrath!” Thus I raged with a fierce and troubled conscience. Nevertheless, I beat importunately upon Paul at that place, most ardently desiring to know what St. Paul wanted. [1]

What Luther was confessing here is that during his time, the Church had lost faith in the words of Holy Scripture – that man is saved by faith alone. Instead, it taught that our works contribute to our salvation. It held that, since God is righteous, we must also be righteous. How do we become righteous? Not by faith, but by following God’s Commandments. As if the keeping the commandments wasn’t hard enough, God then punishes with eternal damnation those who fail to keep them. So much for a righteous God, thought Luther. God is not love, God is not mercy. According to Luther at the time, God was an unjust tyrant.

The Church was mired in a misunderstanding and a misapplication of the Mosaic Law (The Ten Commandments). They taught that the chief work of the Law was to justify sinners. Here what St. Paul says in our text, “we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”[2] The role of God’s Law in the Commandments is not to justify, but to condemn. The Law stops mouths. It cuts through our lies, our false pretenses, our attempts to justify ourselves; it shows us for what we really are: sinners. It shows that, according to God’s standard of righteousness, we aren’t.

St. Paul continues, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.”[3] The role of the Law, the right understanding and application of it, is to show us our sin. True, it is God’s will for our lives, and after repentance and as a result of faith, we do try to keep it. But that’s the key – without faith, the Law only kills. Jesus said that those who live by the sword die by the sword. In another context: those who attempt to justify themselves through the Law will die by it. As Paul said, through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. No human being will be justified in God’s eyes through its works. And at that thought, Luther crumbled. “If there ever was a person who could be saved through monkery,” he said, “I was that monk.” But, alas…

II.

With Luther we come to these words in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.”[4] What a brilliant statement! Such profound gospel! The righteousness of God is not something that He alone has and then demands of us. The righteousness of God is something He has, and He gives it to you. The righteousness of God comes apart from the works of the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it. This means that the entire Old Testament testifies about the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. Remember on the road to Emmaus, how after the resurrection Jesus went through the books of Moses and the Prophets to show how it was about Him? Or, remember how Abraham was credited as righteous, even over 400 years before the Ten Commandments were given? The text says, “Abram believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness.”[5]

This is the chief article of the Reformation, the chief article of our faith. Luther, and those with him, really did face the possibility of death for their confession of faith, but they knew – as we do – that it’s all about Jesus. It’s all about Jesus because, as the text says, “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”[6] There is no distinction among us. We have all sinned. We are all sinners, and, because we are born this way, we lack the glory of God. Man no longer exists as God created him to be. Therefore, the Son of God took on human flesh. He became the new Man, the new Adam, to obey God’s will and fulfill the Law in our place. Apart from Him there is no salvation, be we who believe are, “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.”[7]

Therefore, in this the 498th anniversary of the Reformation, let us hold fast our confession. From Luther’s own words:

Jesus Christ, our God and Lord, died for our sins and was raised again for our justification…

All have sinned and are justified freely, without their own works or merits, by His grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, in His blood…

Nothing of this article can be yielded or surrendered, even though heaven and earth and everything else falls…

Upon this article everything that we teach and practice depends.[8]

We confess that we are all by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned in thought, word, and deed. We deserve nothing but God’s eternal wrath and punishment. But, He sent His Son Jesus to take on human flesh and die in our place for the forgiveness of sins. We are justified by God’s grace through faith alone. We receive faith through the preaching of the Word and the Sacraments, and faith becomes the channel through which we grasp the forgiveness of sins. We neither earn eternal life, nor do we deserve it. We made righteous before God only through the blood of the Lamb, who sets us free through alone.


[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 34: Career of the Reformer IV, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 34 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 336–337.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ro 3:19.

[3] Rom. 3:20.

[4] Rom. 3:21-22.

[5] Gen. 15:6.

[6] Rom. 3:22-23.

[7] Rom. 3:24-25.

[8] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 263.

Everything – Everything = Everything

Text: Mark 10:17-22 (23-31)

“How do you get to heaven? Well, I’m a good person.” That’s what most people think. Or, at least, that’s what you hear at funerals. “So-and-So was a good person.” They’re meant to be words of comfort, and they’ve probably come from my mouth; but when I hear that, in my head I always ask, “Why?” What do you mean? Do you mean that they were a morally good person? Okay, I’ll give them that – at least on the outside. Were they then a good enough person morally to get to heaven, though? Is that even the right thing to say, “So-and-So was a good person,”?

If God had a list of clichés that He hates to hear, I’m sure that “I’m a good person,” would be on there. Do you know why? With those four words the devil cuts the cross and Jesus out of the picture. It’s marvelous. We see it our text. The rich young ruler comes up to Jesus and asks Him what he can do to inherit eternal life, and then he rejects the answer Jesus gave, figuring that he was already a good person. He was already a good person, so he didn’t need Jesus. The devil wants us to answer the question, “How do you get to heaven,” with those four words instead of the ones God’s Word gives: “Jesus died for me.” Of our own powers, we will never say that. The Bible says no one can call Jesus Lord except by the Holy Spirit. By the works of man salvation is impossible, but with God all things are possible.

I.

In the text we’re couched square in between the time of Jesus’ transfiguration and the Triumphal Entry. We have here a period of intensified instruction. During this time Jesus predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins three times. All three times the answer He was looking for (amen) was rejected: first, by Peter, then by the rest of the Disciples, then by James and John – who wanted to be seated in glory. The whole point of Jesus’ teaching is that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins so that our trespasses may no longer be held against us. He is suffering so that we can be given salvation as a gift.

Now, as Jesus was setting out on His journey toward Jerusalem, the text says, “a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’[1] Have you ever met someone for the first time and made a total fool of yourself? Maybe you called them the wrong name or sneezed on them, or in whatever other way made yourself the butt of a joke. It’s called getting started off on the wrong foot, and it’s what the young man in our text is doing. To start with, the man calls Jesus, “teacher.” This isn’t necessarily bad, but it’s definitely a red flag. Anyone who believes in Jesus in the Gospels calls Him, “Lord, Son of David,” or something similar. Those who address Him as teacher are the Jewish authorities who see Jesus as just another rabbi, whose opinion people are to seek.

The man really steps in it, though, because he puts these two words together: good teacher. See, if Jesus is just a teacher to you, why call Him good? Jesus rebuffs the man from Scripture, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”[2] I’ve said before, aside from the demons and few others, nobody gets it in Mark’s Gospel. Nobody gets that Jesus is out to die, that He is going to suffer and die for the forgiveness of sins. The man, believing that Jesus is just a teacher, is asking Him what must be done to earn eternal life. It’s not a stupid question, but it’s definitely the wrong one.

Jesus lets him have it. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’ ”[3] There it is. What must we do to get into heaven? Follow the commandments. Perfectly. Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t lie. If you want to earn eternal life, Jesus says, go for it. Keep the commandments. But remember – it’s not just your actions that count, but the things you don’t do, and your thoughts either way. Jesus shows us that in the Sermon on the Mount. If you want to earn eternal life, go for it. Knock yourself out; But, if you fail once – in thought, in word, or deed – it’s over, and you’re going to the eternal hell of fire where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth. Deal?

What does the man say? “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”[4] The text says that Jesus looked at the man and loved him. Certainly his zeal for God’s Word was commendable. His desire to live according to God’s commandments was laudable. But, there was just one thing. Jesus said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”[5] The man thought he had all the commandments down, but he missed one: the First. He had all his ducks in a row, but he wasn’t ready to forsake his possessions and take up the cross of Christ. Instead, he went away sorrowful.

II.

How difficult it will be, Jesus says, for those having possessions to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. To inherit the kingdom of God one must keep a perfect guard upon their heart and mind by obeying God’s Law to completion, which means forsaking all things – family, home, possessions, and life – to follow Christ, and Him alone. Upon hearing this, the Disciples were exceedingly astonished. “Who then can be saved?” With man it is impossible.

With these words, Christ puts us all in our place. We all think we’re good people. On the outside, it appears that way, too. We are present in the community, we give our offerings, we give keeping the commandments the good old college try. But if you think that you are going to get into heaven because of those things, you might as well give it up now, because you still lack one thing. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, you will not get into heaven. Unless you give up your cabin, your farm, your devotion to the Bison, your whatever, and spend all that you have and are seeking to learn and obey God’s Word – you will not earn either God’s grace or your way to heaven. With man it is impossible.

With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”[6] According to man’s power, salvation is impossible, but not according to God’s. My friends, when the rich young man went to Jesus looking for a way to earn his way to heaven, Jesus sent him away in sorrow. The answer to his question was right before his eyes, even though he didn’t want hear it. What must we do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Absolutely nothing, except believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”[7] That is what one must do to inherit eternal life. There is nothing that we must do except know and believe in Jesus Christ, and Him crucified for our sins. Though He was in the form of God, He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped. Therefore, He emptied Himself by taking on the form of a servant. The eternal Son of God took on our human flesh and was tempted in every way, yet without sin. In that way He became the perfect sacrifice for all sin on the cross. By His death you have been forgiven all your sins.

Through the preaching of His Word and through the Sacraments, Christ comes to you with that forgiveness. You don’t have to search and scour where to find Jesus. He finds you here. He found you at the fount when you received the Holy Spirit and the gift of faith. He finds you here, at His altar, as He gives you to eat of His body and drink of His blood for the forgiveness of sins.

The rich man went to Jesus figuring that he was already a good man. According to himself, he had kept all the commandments since he was baby. Jesus showed that he still lacked one thing: faith in Christ. Without that, all the riches in the world, and all the righteousness that we appear to have, come to nothing. What must you do to inherit the kingdom of heaven? Believe in Jesus Christ and Him crucified. Call yourself a disgusting sinner, but one clothed with the white robe of Christ’s righteousness.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mk. 10:17.

[2] Mk. 10:18.

[3] Mk. 10:19.

[4] Mk. 10:20.

[5] Mk. 10:21.

[6] Mk. 10:27.

[7] 1 Cor. 2:2.