The Transfiguration of Our Lord—10 February 2019

5212053Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 17:1–9):   1 And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  2 And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.  3 And behold, there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.  4 And Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”  5 He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”  6 When the disciples heard this, they fell on their faces and were terrified.  7 But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Rise, and have no fear.”  8 And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only. 

9 And as they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, “Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead.” (ESV)

Exodus 34:29–35  29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.  30 Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.  31 But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses talked with them.  32 Afterward all the people of Israel came near, and he commanded them all that the LORD had spoken with him in Mount Sinai.  33 And when Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil over his face.  34 Whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would remove the veil, until he came out. And when he came out and told the people of Israel what he was commanded,  35 the people of Israel would see the face of Moses, that the skin of Moses’ face was shining. And Moses would put the veil over his face again, until he went in to speak with him. (ESV)

The face of Moses is shining with a glory that does not come from within. The glory shining on Moses’ face comes from God. It is only because Moses had been talking with God that his face shines with glory. It is a reflected glory, like the light that the moon reflects from the sun. As the moon does not generate its own light, so Moses is not the source of his shining glory. God is.

But it is different with Jesus. Jesus generates His own glory; He is the source of His own glory. For He is God. Jesus, in His own person, shines with glory like the sun, for He is the Son of God.

Two very different kinds of glory. But Peter does not see the distinction. Now, Peter would have know the Bible very well. He would have known of Moses’ face shining in glory. And he would have known of how Elijah did not die but was carried to heaven by chariots of fire, and that too was a spectacular kind of glory. And now, Peter sees Jesus shining in glory. But he does not see the distinction between the reflected glory of Moses and Elijah and the divine glory of Jesus. And so he says something stupid.

Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.  Peter speaking this comment is stupid on two levels. First, seeing Moses, the great lawgiver, and Elijah, the great prophet, talking with Jesus, who was shining in divine glory, the only proper response would have been for Peter to kneel and bow in reverent silence. But Peter just has to say something. Our text says that Peter was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud spoke. The fact that God the Father had to interrupt Peter is a strong indicator that Peter should not have opened his mouth to begin with.

Some of our Lutheran churches have kneelers attached to the pews. There is something very wholesome and edifying about bowing and kneeling before God in reverence, perhaps not in complete silence but at least refraining from speaking our words and instead speaking God’s words, such as the Lord’s Prayer, back to God.

And then, Peter’s comment is stupid in a more serious and harmful way. Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah. Do you see Peter’s mistake? He is lumping Jesus together with Moses and Elijah, as if these three are on par with each other. Peter intends to give each one a similar shelter, with the implication that each of these three are worthy of the same honour. 

Peter fails to make the distinction between the two kinds of glory, between the reflected glory of Moses and Elijah and the divine glory of Jesus. You see now why God the Father had to interrupt Peter, don’t you? Peter, here, is not speaking the truth. Just six days before, Peter had made the true confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:16). But before Easter, none of the disciples were really 100 percent clear on just what that confession meant. And so, on the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter starts to lump Jesus together with Moses and Elijah. And God the Father has to stop Peter in his tracks!

Speaking from a bright cloud, the Father says: This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. Actually, our English translations do not quite carry the full force of the Father’s words. The original Greek text gives an even stronger emphasis on the uniqueness of Christ: This One is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him. It is as if the Father is saying: “Peter, not this man, Moses, and not this man, Elijah, but this One, this Jesus, is uniquely My Son—true God and true Man. And with Him I am well pleased; listen to him”.

It is certainly good for us to honour and praise the saints who have gone to heaven before us. We honour and praise them for their faith and their holy living and we strive to imitate their godly example. Every so often here at Trinity, I conclude the Prayer of the Church with this petition: We remember with thanksgiving those who have loved and served You in Your Church on earth, who now rest from their labors, especially those most dear to us, whom we name in our hearts before You. In my heart, I always name my parents, William and Laverne, who brought me up in the faith, as well as other loved ones who have died in the Lord. And I also mention a few of the great saints of old, such as St. John and St. Mary. This reverent remembering of departed saints is a God-pleasing way of honouring them. But just as the glory of Moses and Elijah was different from the glory of Jesus, so too we must make a distinction between how we honour the departed saints and how we honour Jesus.

In Holy Baptism, you and I have received holiness from God; we have been made saints, God’s holy ones. And so, when we honour and praise the saints, we are really thanking God for all that He has given His saints and for all that He has accomplished through His saints. But when we honour and praise Jesus, we are thanking Him for who He is, the eternal Son of God, come to save us. We honour Jesus for His dying and His rising again; for His becoming our Brother in Baptism; for His keeping us in fellowship with all His saints and bringing us at last to the joys of His heavenly kingdom.

Jesus is God’s Son, not a saint. And so our honour and praise of Him far exceeds the honour we give to our fellow saints. The honour we owe Jesus is His exclusively. We owe Jesus an honour that cannot be shared with Moses, Elijah, or any other saint. And the honour we owe Jesus most certainly cannot be shared with the gods of this world. No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and [the gods of this world] (Luke 16:13).

When God the Father says This One[—this Jesus] is my beloved Son, He is calling us all to repent of all the ways we lump other objects of worship with Jesus. What are your idols? Well, I can tell you of a very common idol we tend to worship as we age. It is the idol of independence. You see, all our lives, we have been independent. And then the day comes when we can no longer depend upon ourselves. We lose our hearing, our mobility, our clear minds, our health. And we have to start depending upon others. And we become frustrated, angry, and resentful. “Why, God! Why is this happening to me?” We think we deserve to remain independent—able to manage on our own—until the day we die. But do you see? We have made a god, an idol, of the independence we once had. And God calls to us and says: “This independence is not your true god, and so repent of your idolatry. And trust in this One—this Jesus—, who is My beloved Son and your Saviour!”

In the Book of Revelation, St. John sees a vision of a host of angels saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). In their worship, the angels are not lumping Jesus together with other gods. And the same is true in our worship. We do not lump Jesus with the gods of other religions.  Rather, we worship Jesus, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, as uniquely worthy of our highest honour and praise. As we sing in the Gloria in Excelsis: Thou only, O Christ, with the Holy Ghost, are most high in the glory of God the Father.

From the bright cloud, God the Father proclaims the uniqueness of His beloved Son. And then He commands Peter, James, and John, to listen to His Son. Up to now, the disciples had not really listened all that well to Jesus. Just six days before Jesus was transfigured, He had begun show[ing] His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But [Jesus] turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”  (Matthew 16:21-23). Jesus was telling His disciples the whole purpose for His coming to this fallen world. And the disciples just were not listening. 

Six days before the Transfiguration, Jesus had also told His disciples God’s purpose for their lives: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it  (Matthew 16:24-25).  And these same words Jesus speaks to you as the purpose of your life. And so, listen to Him!

To the disciples Jesus was showing the necessity of the cross. Jesus must go to Jerusalem and must suffer death on the cross. And the disciples of Jesus must deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus, losing their lives so that they may find their lives in Christ.

But, like those first disciples, you and I do not like to hear all this cross talk. We want to hear about receiving glory now, in this life. Of course, we do receive a glory now as God’s dear saints, but it is a glory hidden in suffering. It does no good for us to complain, worry, and get angry over our troubles, for we cannot change the pattern set by Jesus. First comes suffering of one kind or another, then comes the glory we have in Christ. First comes the losing of our lives by denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Jesus. And then comes the finding of our lives in Jesus for all eternity.

Jesus gives you a purpose worth living and dying for—the purpose of living in the God-given glory of salvation hidden now in life’s suffering so that one day you will know and experience a glory that is no longer hidden.

The greatest revelation of Jesus’ glory was not when He was transfigured, but rather when He died on Good Friday for sinners, when He died for you. Oh, His glory was hidden in His suffering, but the love that He showed us sinners by dying in our place to save us from our sins—that bloody love was the greatest display of God’s glory the world has ever known. In His words and His deeds, Jesus showed that suffering comes before glory, both for Himself and for His disciples. 

This message caused Peter, James, and John to fall on their faces in fear. And it is not exactly a comforting message for us either. The thought that taking up our crosses and suffering has a place in our lives—well, who among us really wants to hear that? The truth that we all have crosses and sufferings to bear can easily cause us to become anxious and fearful. But then, our crucified and risen Jesus comes to us and tells us to rise and to have no fear. He comes even now through His Holy Word and Supper to forgive us for the times we have not honoured Him and listened to Him. And He comes to give us the strength to praise Him even as we suffer, to praise Him as the Eternal Son of God, who came to suffer the greatest death in all the world—the death we all deserved because we are sinners—so that we may share in His glory forever! Amen.

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany—3 February 2019

5212053Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 8:23–27):   23 And when [Jesus] got into the boat, his disciples followed him.  24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep.  25 And they went and woke him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”  26 And he said to them, “Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?” Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.  27 And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”  (ESV)

 

The Lord rebukes the disciples, Why are you afraid, O you of little faith. The disciples are not wrong to wake Jesus. And they are certainly right to pray [Lord,] save us! and even to confess that they are perishing. But they have two problems. 

First, it is pretty obvious that they are panicking. Their boat is being swamped by the waves. Jesus is sleeping through the storm!  The disciples are afraid and they pray in the spirit of fear. Now, contrast the disciples with the centurion from last week’s Gospel, who prays with a bold faith: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. Our Lord Jesus marvels over the faith of this Gentile and says: Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith (Matthew 8:8, 10).  The disciples could have prayed: “Lord, only say the word, and this storm will be calmed”. But they did not; instead, they panicked.

And then, their second problem is that they did not ask Jesus for enough. Their prayer—Save us, Lord; we are perishing—probably meant nothing more than “Lord, keep us from dying at this moment”. If that is the case, they most certainly did not ask Jesus for enough. These words have a deep theological significance. Save us means “Spare us from eternal damnation. Rescue us from our sins.” And perishing does not mean to simply die; it means to go to hell. This is the word that Jesus uses in John 3:16: Whoever believes in Jesus, God’s Son, does not perish but has eternal life. It would seem that in this storm the disciples are more concerned about not drowning than avoiding hell!

And what about you? In the storms of your life, do you panic, like the disciples? Do you pray in the spirit of fear and anxiety, thinking that perhaps God cannot or will not help you? Or have you given up praying entirely, thinking that God does not even care? If so, then remember what we confess every Sunday, that the Lord is good and that His mercy endures forever. The Lord loves you and He desires you to pray not in anxiety and fear but with great boldness and confidence, as dear children praying to their dear Father.

And if you do persist in praying, are you guilty of not asking God for enough? Do you ask God only for relief from your earthly suffering, as if freedom from suffering were your highest priority? If so, then remember that God’s highest priority for you is to deliver you from evil permanently and forever. Oh, at present, you are living in the valley of sorrow, but when your last hour comes, God desires to give you a blessed end and to graciously take you to Himself in heaven. And so, in your earthly sufferings, pray not merely for temporary relief but for permanent, eternal rest in Jesus.

It is only through God’s grace in Christ Jesus that we can pray at all. God helping us, we learn to pray aright. We learn not to pray in panic and not to pray just to escape suffering for the moment. And whether we actually say it or not, we learn to pray in the spirit of “God, Thy will be done!”.  We pray “Our Father, Thy will be done!” because we do not know what is best. Sometimes, drowning in the sea of Galilee or dying of cancer is best. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord.  Blessed are the saints who die in the Lord. That is not to say that we cannot or should not ask to be spared these things. We can and we should. We come as dear children to their dear father. We are bold and confident. We are never ashamed to pray. And so we pray not only that we be spared pain and sorrow but even that we be spared inconveniences or that we be given fun things. You can pray for something new that you want but don’t need or for your children to do well in life and for your grandchildren to receive good grades in school. We can also pray for big things: that people around the world would start honoring the sanctity of human life and rejecting abortion and euthanasia, for the conversion of the Muslim nations, and for an end to hunger and bullying and lying politicians.

But what we are not free to do is to insist on our way. We do not give God ultimatums: “If you love me God, prove it by curing my cancer.” And, by God’s grace, we do not panic. We trust in God even when we are suffering terrible circumstances, even when we are dying, or we are losing our loved ones, or are about to drown in the Sea of Galilee; we trust and we do not panic. At least, the new man in us does not panic. As Luther says in the Catechism, in Baptism the Old Adam in us dies daily that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  The new man in us prays in confidence, but the Old Adam panics. And so, when we do panic, like the disciples, we sin. We fail to trust God. That is why the disciples got rebuked.

The disciples get rebuked by our Lord because they panic and because they do not ask for enough. And when we pray like the disciples in the storm, our Lord gives us the same rebuke: Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?. But it is a good thing to be so rebuked by our Lord Jesus. For you see, in their panic and despite their weakness, the disciples still have faith—small as it may be—and they still do pray. They look to Jesus for help. They seek to wake Him, to rouse Him. And so, in our weak faith—our faith that panics so easily and that fails to ask for enough—, by God’s grace, we still have a smoldering wick of faith that knows where to go, a faith still prays and seeks salvation in Jesus’ Name.

And so, thank God when the Lord rebukes you for having little faith, for that means you still have faith. Thank God that you are weak, for then you are strong in Jesus. The Lord will not let you become dependent on your faith or your strength or good works. He will purify you with a holy chastisement and will not let you ride out the storm in false confidence. He will keep you dependent on Him.

And what if your conscience is plagued by guilt and regret, by doubt and fear? What if you are weary? Thank God for that as well. For it is faith, a living and vibrant faith, that stirs up your heart. Faith causes you to feel sorrow and shame. The pain is proof that your faith is alive. Pray that you never lose that feeling until God relieves you of it on the last day. Pray that you are never comfortable in your sins, that you never think you can handle life’s storms on your own. 

The Book of Proverbs contains this marvelous insight: Faithful are the wounds of a friend;

profuse are the kisses of an enemy (27:6). Now, your enemy, the devil, loves to smother you with kisses, with flattering thoughts of your own self-importance. But Jesus, your faithful Friend, will often wound you with His rebukes and His call to repent of your sins. The wounds which Jesus inflicts upon you—these rebukes—sting and hurt like crazy. But remember this: that these are the faithful rebukes of a Friend whose love for you is steadfast and everlasting. And so, do not become discouraged when Jesus rebukes you for your little faith. Rather, be willing to be rebuked by your Lord again and again. Suffer His insults. Be broken by His Law that convicts you of your sin and unbelief. For in this way He empties you of yourself in order to fill you with His love. He breaks you in order to mend you. He brings you down in order to raise you up. He kills you in order to revive you. For His sake we are killed all day long. We are counted as sheep for the slaughter. And remember this: that His thoughts are not our thoughts. If we stop feeling the Law condemning us, then we lose the Gospel that sets us free from our sins. First comes the rebuke, then comes the calming of the storm. First comes the cross, then comes the glory of everlasting life.

There are times in your life when you pray with the confidence of the centurion: “Lord, only say the word, and your servant will be healed!”. But at times you also pray with the panic and fear experienced by the disciples in the storm. In your weakness, though, learn to do what the disciples did. In your storms, in your weakness, go to Jesus. Yes, go to Jesus even when you think He is sleeping. Do not hesitate to say to Jesus “wake up!”, for such a prayer is found even in the Psalms. In Psalm 3, we pray: Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! (3:7). But even as you are telling Jesus to wake up, remember this Word of the Lord from Psalm 121: [the LORD] who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps [you] will neither slumber nor sleep (vv. 3-4). Even when you are panicking over life’s troubles and when you are more concerned about your earthly well-being than your eternal life, the Lord is ever with you, to save you.

The Lord is with you to exhort you to trust in Him and to not panic. But not only does He rebuke you; He also shows you how to live in the Spirit. For the grace of God in Christ rules over and acts on behalf of those with faith, even a weak, struggling faith. Christ answered the disciples’ prayer. He saved them not only from the waves but also from eternal death. They did not perish—either in the sea of Galilee or in Hell.

And thanks be to God—the same is true for you and me. The crosses that we bear and the suffering we endure teach us to pray in confidence and not to panic, and to pray not just for the little things of this life but also for what we need the most: to be rescued from this world’s evil and to be brought safely home to our Father in heaven forever!

Are we of little faith, O Lord? Indeed, O Lord, we are. We are unworthy in every way. But You have made a promise. You are our God. Your Name is upon us. Save us, O Lord. Be our God, our Saviour. Deliver us from these presents evils and from the Evil One. Count us in that rag-tag, fearful group on Lake Galilee. Let us be your failing disciples that you might show Your grace in us.  We have no boast, no claim upon Your mercy. But we have Your Word and Promise. That is enough. You have calmed the stormy sea of sin with Your sacrifice on the cross.  And being slain for us sinners, You were buried, going like Jonah into the belly of the earth and then coming forth again on the third day. You are our risen Saviour, victorious over sin, death, and the devil. And so, rebuke us if You must, send the waves over the sides of the boat, make us desperate and full of fear. But teach us to pray. And then, O Lord, give us peace according to Your Word. Give us the faith we lack. Give us Your Holy Spirit and bring us home. Remember, O Lord, Your Word and Promises even while we wait for the Resurrection to come and the consummation of all our hope. Save us, O Lord. Save us. Amen.

Third Sunday after the Epiphany—27 January 2019

Our text is today’s Old Testament Lesson (2 Kings 5:1–15a) and Gospel (Matthew 8:1–13):

 

2 Kings 5:1–15a

1 Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria. He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.  2 Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife.  3 She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”  4 So Naaman went in and told his lord, “Thus and so spoke the girl from the land of Israel.”  5 And the king of Syria said, “Go now, and I will send a letter to the king of Israel.”

So he went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten changes of clothes.  6 And he brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”  7 And when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” 

8 But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent to the king, saying, “Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.”  9 So Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stood at the door of Elisha’s house.  10 And Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  11 But Naaman was angry and went away, saying, “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper.  12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage.  13 But his servants came near and said to him, “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it? Has he actually said to you, ‘Wash, and be clean’?”  14 So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.  15 Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company, and he came and stood before him. (ESV)

Matthew 8:1–13

  1 When [Jesus] came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him.  2 And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.”  3 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed.  4 And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

5 When he entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him,  6 “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.”  7 And he said to him, “I will come and heal him.”  8 But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  9 For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  10 When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 11 I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, 12 while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  13 And to the centurion Jesus said, “Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.” And the servant was healed at that very moment. (ESV)

Naaman, the Syrian army commander, thinks his big problem is his leprosy.  But his really BIG problem is that he both over-estimates and under-estimates.  He over-estimates his own worthiness.  “How dare this backwater prophet tell me to wash in his river when the ones back home are so much better!”  In his heart, Naaman the leper thinks he can do better, that he deserves better than what Elisha is offering.  And then, Naaman under-estimates the power of God’s Word—the promise, the word of healing, that says:  Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.  Yes, Naaman’s BIG problem is that he thinks too much of himself and too little of God’s Word. 

You and I have the same problem as Naaman—and I am not talking about leprosy.  I am talking about our sinful tendency to both over-estimate how well we are doing and also to under-estimate our great need for God’s Word and Sacraments.  We say to ourselves: “I’m doing all right, so it is not really that crucial that I spend time each day in prayer and in meditating on God’s Word.  In fact, I had such a great week that I can afford to skip the hearing of God’s Word and the receiving of the Lord’s Holy Absolution and Supper this Sunday.”  When we think too much of ourselves, we end up thinking too little of God’s Word and Sacraments. 

Naaman thought so much of himself that at first he despised the Word of the Lord.  He is a warning to us all that in the Kingdom of God, if you think you are doing ok, you really are not.  That is why St. Paul gives this admonition to all who are in Christ: by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment (Romans 12:3).  And so do not think too much of yourself, of your spiritual progress and maturity.  Instead, realize and confess just how weak you are in the faith and how grievously you have sinned against God and against your loved ones and your colleagues and against those in authority and those in need of your help.  Now, your heart might tell you that you are doing all right, but remember the words of the prophet Jeremiah: the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?  (17:9).  In terms of faith toward God and love toward your neighbour, you are not quite as far along as you might like to think, and neither am I!

Now, we all would like to be known for our great faith, but great faith always goes hand-in-hand with confessing one’s unworthiness before God.  True spiritual maturity occurs only when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we confess how poor and weak we really are in faith and love and that we are unworthy sinners in desperate need of our Lord’s forgiveness. 

In the Gospels, Jesus commends only two people for their great faith.  Can you guess who they were?  Of course, it was not the scribes and Pharisees—they thought too much of themselves and too little of God’s Word.  And it was not even the disciples, for time and again—for example, while they were crossing the Sea of Galilee during a storm—the disciples had to be reprimanded by the Lord with these stern words: O you of little faith!  (Matthew 8:26; 14:31).  Have you made your guesses?  Well, the first person commended by our Lord for having great faith was the Canaanite woman.  She thought it perfectly natural to be counted among the dogs, who had no right to eat the bread of the children.  And yet she was to hear from Jesus that she had great faith  (Matthew 15:21-28).  And the second person to be commended for his great faith was the centurion in today’s Gospel.  We read here that Jesus marveled at this man’s faith.  Imagine!—having such a great faith that the Lord of heaven and earth marvels and says Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. 

Now, what does Jesus mean by a great faith?  Well, for starters, those with a great faith confess their own lack of greatness, for the centurion believed that he was a most unworthy sinner.  Like the Canaanite woman, the centurion does not think of himself in terms of greatness.  Rather, he makes such a humble confession: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  The centurion, then, has a deep awareness of just how poor and weak he is in his faith toward God and in his love toward his neighbour.

Here we see that a great faith is never a great faith in one’s self.  But there is more.  A great faith also believes great things about Christ.  In the face of seeming rejection, the Canaanite woman continued to pray: Lord, help me!  She knew to whom she should turn.  And the centurion also knew to whom he should turn in his great need.  The Canaanite woman and the centurion remind me of John Newton, the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”. Newton was fond of saying “I am a great sinner, but Jesus is a greater Saviour!”  That is what a great faith knows.  It knows its own weakness, and then it puts its trust in the great power of the Saviour, Jesus.  Such great faith says: Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.  

A great faith always does two things: it confesses its own weakness and unworthiness and then it trusts wholeheartedly in Christ and in His power to save and to heal.  That is your calling in Christ—to confess your unworthiness and to boldly trust in Christ.  Until the day you die, with a contrite heart you must cry out, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner!”  But with a heart filled with faith you must also continually say, “Lord, only say the word, and my sins will be forgiven!”.  

The centurion has such great faith in Jesus that he believes that Jesus needs only to say a word and his servant will be healed.  More than anything else, a great faith is faith in the word of Christ.  A great faith takes a firm grip on the Word of Christ and holds on tight to it even in the midst of suffering.  In ourselves, we experience great failures and doubts and we feel nothing but weakness.  But with great faith, we confess that [on the cross Jesus] gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever  (Galatians 1:4).   Do you see?  A great faith is never a great faith in one’s self but always a wholehearted trust in the crucified Christ and His Holy Word.

Left to ourselves, we are all like Naaman the leper.  We think too much of ourselves and too little of God’s Word.  But God does not leave us to ourselves; He did not even leave Naaman to himself.  Rather, the Lord cured Naaman of his unbelief.  God worked through Naaman’s servants to stir him to faith in the Lord’s Word, so that he finally went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan.  And then God performed a miracle through ordinary water:  Naaman’s flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.  And what God did for Naaman, He does for you and me.  In Holy Baptism, He has washed us clean of our sins.  And now, through His Holy Word and Absolution and His Holy Supper, the Lord washes away all the times we have thought too much of ourselves and too little of His Word.  And what is more, He gives us a faith like the centurion’s—a great faith.

Martin Luther observed that the greatest miracle in today’s Gospel was not the healing of the leper nor the healing of the centurion’s servant, but rather the great faith of the centurion.  That explains why the centurion speaks to Jesus the way he does.  He orders Jesus to speak a word.  He orders Jesus as if Jesus would actually do what the centurion asks Him to; as if Jesus is such a Lord who would serve even a centurion who is not a child of Israel; as if Jesus is such a Lord Whose Words do and deliver what they say.

And Jesus is that much the Lord for him.  He serves the centurion.  He speaks a word and the servant is healed.  He did just as the centurion told Him to do, and Jesus’ Words did and delivered what they said.

And Jesus is that much the Lord for you as well.  He serves you.  He served you on Good Friday by taking your place on the cross, thus winning your salvation. And now He serves you by forgiving you in Holy Absolution and His Holy Supper. Yes, through His Word, Jesus heals you from what ails you most—your sins. 

And now, by God’s grace, you do not think too much of yourself and you do not think too little of God’s Word. For God has worked in you the same great faith as the centurion’s.  And so, with a humble heart, you say to your Saviour Jesus: ”Jesus, you died on the cross to win my salvation.  Now, Lord, just speak the word, and my sins are forgiven!”  

Could it be that easy?  Could it be that when you pray for the crucified and risen Christ to heal you with His forgiveness, that He actually does what you tell Him to do?  Could it be that all the sins that trouble you are forgiven by the simple words: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce the grace of God to you, and in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins”?  Could it be that God is that much the Lord for you?

Yes, He is.  That is what faith says.  Faith says Lord, I am not worthy…but only say the word and [Your] servant will be healed.  In fact, according to an ancient Christian practice, these words of the centurion have been adapted into a beautiful prayer for receiving the Lord’s Supper: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under the roof of my mouth, but only say the word, and Your servant will be healed.  Do you see? Faith is expecting only good from the Lord’s hand, only forgiveness, and only eternal life.

And to all who have been given such faith, the Lord Jesus says let it be done for you as you have believed.  And such faith God has given to you—the faith to believe that Jesus is that much the Lord for you, to believe that the love of Jesus is greater than your sins.  And with such a faith, you tell your Saviour Jesus to speak a word of healing, and He does!  He speaks and He feeds forgiveness to those who are unworthy of His service—even you and me.  Praise be to God!  Amen.

Second Sunday after the Epiphany—20 January 2019

5212053Our text is today’s Gospel (John 2:1–11):   1 On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.  2 Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.  3 When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.”  4 And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.”  5 His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” 

6 Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  7 Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim.  8 And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it.  9 When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”  11 This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him. (ESV)

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The Baptism of Our Lord—13 January 2019

5212053Isaiah 43:1-7

1  But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. 2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  3 For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.  I give Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in exchange for you. 4 Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life.  5 Fear not, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you.  6 I will say to the north, Give up, and to the south, Do not withhold;  bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, 7 everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” (ESV)   

Romans 6:1-11

1   What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? 2 By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

5   For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For one who has died has been set free from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  (ESV) 

  

Matthew 3:13-17

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him.  14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.  16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him;  17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (ESV)



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The Babylonians were once a great and powerful people, and they conquered nation after nation. One of those conquered nations was Israel, the apple of God’s eye. Now, because of Israel’s idolatry, God allowed Babylon to conquer Israel, destroy Jerusalem, and to drag the people off into captivity for seventy years. The prophet Isaiah foretold this long before it happened. But there is even more that Isaiah foretold. He speaks of a time when God will give men in return for you [O Israel], peoples in exchange for your life and when God will bring [Israel’s] offspring from the east, and from the west.  The day would surely come when God would give the Babylonian nation over to destruction in exchange for setting Israel free from her captivity, free to go home. Yes, God promised to gather and to bring His sons and daughters home from afar. 

And God kept His promise. The Babylonians, who had conquered so many nations, were themselves conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Israelites to return home and to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. And this historical example of God setting the Israelites free from their captors and gathering them and bringing them back home is a picture of what God does in Holy Baptism. Just as God came as a Champion to set His people free from the Babylonians, so now in Holy Baptism God comes as a Champion to set us free from the enemies that seek to enslave us forever to our sins.

And of course, when we talk of God being our Champion, we cannot help but think of our Saviour Jesus. And that is precisely what is going on in today’s Gospel. Here we see, in such a strange way, Jesus becoming our Champion. He who has no sins to wash away enters into the Jordan River to be baptized. And in that water Jesus steps into my person and yours and He stands in the place of all of us sinners and thus He becomes a sinner for us all.  Yes, Jesus comes to be a sinner, as Isaiah 53 says: The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all (v. 6). For since, as Isaiah says: we all like sheep have gone astray, God found this remedy: He took the sins of all human beings and hung them all around the neck of Him who alone was without sin. Jesus, God’s Son, thus becomes a great sinner—indeed, the greatest sinner of all and the only sinner on earth—so that there is no other. For the Lord has laid on Him the sins of us all.

Jesus truly becomes our Champion in such a strange way. In His Baptism, Jesus takes all of our sins and plunges them into His Baptism and washes our sins away from us, since He has stepped into our person to take from us the awful burden of our sins. Therefore, He is the greatest and only sinner on earth, for He bears the sins of the whole world, and He is also the only righteous and holy One, since no one is made righteous and holy before God except through Jesus (adapted and excerpted from Luther’s Works, vol. 58, pages 44–45).

Of course, our Lord’s work of bearing our sins at His Baptism culminates with His death on the Good Friday cross. But we can truly say that already in His Baptism, Jesus bears the sins of the whole world. And since He bears all sins, He is both the greatest and only sinner on earth. Which means that there really is only Baptism. Now, it is true that we each were baptized as individuals. But we should not think of our baptism as our own unique possession. Rather, we all were baptized into the Baptism of Jesus. 

At His Baptism, Jesus stepped into our persons to take all our sins away and to bear them Himself. At our baptism, we step into Jesus and we receive His righteousness. That is why Jesus is baptized: to fulfill all righteousness. He partakes of a baptism for sinners in order that He might be our substitute and bear the judgment we deserve. In the water Jesus trades places with us. Our sin becomes His sin. His righteousness becomes our righteousness. And the amazing thing is that this exchange is equal on both counts. To the same degree that Jesus became Sin, so you and I have become righteous in God’s sight. On Good Friday, our heavenly Father turned away from Jesus because there on the cross Jesus was Sin in all its fullness. And now, our Father will never turn away from us because we are baptized into all of Christ’s righteousness. Remember that as you struggle with your trials and temptations, as you bear your crosses, as you suffer, and as so often you experience defeat rather than victory. To say that Jesus fulfills all righteousness is to say He becomes all of our sin so that we may become all of His righteousness, so that our Father in heaven receives us with the same love with which He welcomes His Son.

Do you see how in Holy Baptism, your life is intimately connected to the life of Jesus? In Baptism, Jesus stepped into your person to bear your sins and you stepped into Christ to receive His righteousness. And in today’s Epistle, St. Paul describes in detail just how intimate is your connection to Christ: We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 

This now is your life: as Christ died on the cross, you now die daily to sin; and as Christ rose from the dead, you now arise each day as a new person to live before God in righteousness and purity. This is God’s gift to you. Yes, Baptism is God’s gift that connects you to Jesus, so that you are united to Him in His death and resurrection. You die to sin by confessing it in true repentance, trusting that God forgives you for Jesus’ sake. And the Good News of forgiveness in Jesus gives you the strength to amend your sinful life—not that you will ever be perfect in this fallen world, with your sinful nature still at work—but that by God’s grace, you consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.  

Now, there may be times when you feel as though you have cut yourself off from God’s grace and that your baptism is null and void because of your falling into sin again and again. You might even think that you deserve to have your name erased from the Book of Life. But in the Name of Jesus, reject such dismal thoughts! Remember that God does not take back His gift of Baptism. And remember that Baptism is like a door always standing open for you to return to through true repentance. If we refuse to repent of our sins, then, sadly, we do cut ourselves off from God’s grace. But God remains faithful to His promise, and so He always keeps the door open for us to return to our baptism through true repentance. 

And so, do not become discouraged by the sins of your natural, human weakness—your pride, anger, lust, greed, and lack of love—but simply confess your unrighteousness before God and then with joy thank God that in Holy Baptism you are covered from head to toe in the righteousness of Christ.  

In Ephesians, St. Paul writes that Christ has cleansed the Church by the washing of water with the Word (5:26). That means that all the evils that you have committed have been cleansed and healed by the baptismal washing of regeneration and sanctification by the Word. Not only are the sins of your past washed away in Holy Baptism, but also those sins committed in the future by human ignorance or weakness. And it is not that Baptism has to be repeated as often as we sin. Rather, Baptism is God’s gift which, although just given once, continues to work in the lives of God’s children their whole lives long. That is why we say “I am baptized!”, for Baptism is a present ongoing reality of being cleansed of our sins and living in Christ’s righteousness.

Baptism always brings us back to Christ our Champion. Think back to our Old Testament lesson, where God’s work of redemption consists of three actions: 1) He defeats Babylon in order to set His people free; 2) He gathers His people from the four corners of the earth; and 3) He brings them home. And Christ has done the same for us.

First, our Lord Jesus has defeated all the enemies seeking our eternal damnation. In the rite of Holy Baptism, we pray: Almighty and eternal God, You drowned hard-hearted Pharaoh and all his host in the Red Sea, yet led Your people Israel through the water on dry ground, foreshadowing this washing of Your Holy Baptism. Do you see? God parted the waters of the Red Sea and led His people through on dry ground and then sent the waters crashing down on the Egyptian army. So too, in His Baptism, Jesus enters into a battle with sin, death, and the devil, a battle that will result in their utter defeat on Good Friday.  Yes, in His Baptism, Jesus shows Himself to be our Champion over the enemies that seek our destruction.

 And there is more. Just as He gathered the Israelites from the four corners of the earth and brought them home to Jerusalem, so now our Lord gathers His Holy Church from around the world and He promises to bring us safely to our eternal home, the New Jerusalem.  

As baptized children of God, our eyes are always fixed upon the everlasting life we have in Christ. But meanwhile, we struggle and we suffer and we sometimes become discouraged.  With a doubt, our being baptized has brought us into a fierce battle against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. This battle will last our whole lives long. But we live in the certainty that Jesus is our Champion, who has defeated our enemies and has set us free and has gathered us into one flock and who, as our Good Shepherd, will bring us safely home.

And we must also remember this, that in Holy Baptism, you and I are recreated as co-victors, co-champions with Christ. Yes, it is beyond amazing what happens in Baptism. We emerge from the baptismal waters as the sons and daughters of God, surrounded by the holy angels, and wearing the crown of victory. In Romans, St. Paul tells us that in spite of our tribulations we are more than conquerors through him who loved us (8:37). Oh, you may often feel defeated by sin and troubles and sorrows. But in Holy Baptism, you share in your Lord’s victory over sin, death, and the devil—the victory Jesus won for you through His Baptism and His death on the cross. And the fact that Jesus rose from the dead shows that He is indeed your Champion. And He will do what He has promised: He will bring you safely home.

Meanwhile, as you struggle against the weakness of your flesh and the temptations of this fallen world, He speaks to you a word of comfort: Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. You were baptized by name; God knows you by name and His Name has been placed upon you, which means you belong to Him. You belong to the Champion of heaven and earth, who in His Baptism became the greatest and only sinner in all the world, to redeem you, to save you, to set you free from your enemies, so that now you have nothing to fear. When you pass through the waters,…they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For you are united in Holy Baptism to Christ Jesus, your Saviour, your Champion, who goes with you every step of the way, leading you in the paths of His righteousness until the day you dwell safely in the House of the LORD forever. Amen.  

The Epiphany of Our Lord—6 January 2019

5212053Our text is today’s Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12):   1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem,  2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him;  4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: 6  “ ‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’ ” 

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”  9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.  11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.  12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. (ESV)

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First Sunday after Christmas—30 December 2018

5212053Our text is today’s Epistle (Galatians 4:1–7):   1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything,  2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.  3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.  4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.  6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!”  7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (ESV)

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Fourth Sunday in Advent (Rorate Coeli)—23 December 2018

5212053Our text is from today’s Gospel (Luke 1:39–56):   39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah,  40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.  41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,  42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!  43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”  

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.  For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  50  And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.  51  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.  54  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (ESV)  

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Second Sunday in Advent (Populus Zion)—9 December 2018

5212053Our text is from Luke 21:25–36:   25 [Jesus said:]  “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.  35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  (ESV)  

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