Sunday, January 29, 2017

Epiphany 4

Matthew 8:23-27 – Epiphany 4 – January 29, 2017
The Wind and the Waves Obey Him
He whom the world cannot enclose
In Mary’s bosom doth repose;
To be a little Child He deigns
Who all things by Himself sustains. Alleluia! (ELH 136:3)
What a marvelous thing to ponder.  This beautiful hymn stanza was written by Martin Luther for Christmas Day.  With it we consider the marvel of the incarnation and the humility with which the Son of God chose to become true man.  Nothing was made without him.  He sustains all things he made.  He cannot be contained or limited by anything in all creation.  And yet to save us he submits to extreme limitation.  He joins his creation in the truest, most literal sense by becoming a real human being.  Taking both human body and human soul he is made true man.  He contains himself in the womb of his mother.  He who is himself the source of life relies for a time on Mary for the life he needs.  He sweetly rests in her lap.  Thus he deigns to visit man and rescue us and serve us in our greatest need.  Hidden in his weakness is the greatest power in heaven and on earth.  In a helpless display of infant slumber, he is at the same time preserving the entire universe.   

This hymn stanza inspired the following poetic verse, which ties this great mystery of Christmas to his manifestation of glory in today’s Gospel lesson:
The Virgin Mary’s lullaby
Calms the infant Lord Most High.
Upon her lap content is He
Who keeps the earth and sky and sea. Alleluia! (LSB 382:3)
Now if he was content to sleep in Mary’s lap as a human baby even as he retained his almighty power as God to keep the earth and sky and sea, why should it have surprised his disciples to see him sleeping in the boat?  If being lulled as an infant did not impede his almighty control of all things, how would his might be hindered by sleeping as a man? 
Jesus was tired.  He had been preaching all day.  After preaching his Sermon on the Mount, he cleansed a leper, healed a paralytic, cast out demons, and restored the health of countless others, including Peter’s mother-in-law, as the crowds pressed upon him.  He was tired.  His body was exhausted.  So he slept.  But did he then cease to be God?  No! 
When God became man, he did not become less God.  When God became man, the human nature he assumed was not something different than our own.  He had no sin, of course.  But neither did Adam and Eve before they disobeyed.  And as surely as Adam rested at night even before sin perverted him, so surely the innocent Jesus, the second Adam, required what all men needed.  He was not less God.  He was not something other than man.  He was both God and man.  Even as he upheld all things by his divine power, so he allowed his human strength to be drained by the same things that wear us out. 
During his time on earth Jesus chose not always or fully to use or reveal all his divine strength as the Son of God.  We call this his state of humiliation.  As a man he chose to rely on food and drink and rest.  As a man he chose not to avoid pain and sadness.  As a man he chose to submit his mind to the study and meditation of God’s written word – even though in all these things, as God, he did not need to.  We call this his state of humiliation.  He humbled himself.  It began when he was conceived of a lowly virgin.  It ended when he was raised from the dead three days after he died.  The Son of God humbled himself.  But he did not cease to be very God of very God.  
Why did he come in such a way?  First of all, and most obvious, was so that he might take our place under the law and free us from the tyranny of the devil.  The Bible says,
Now since all these children have flesh and blood, [Jesus] in the same way took on flesh and blood in order to die and so take away all the powers of him who had the power of death, that is, the devil … And so in every way He had to become like His brothers to be merciful and faithful as High Priest before God and pay for the sins of the people.  (Hebrews 2:14, 17 AAT)
So there we have the first reason Jesus humbled himself: so that he might save us.  As the prophet Isaiah wrote: “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses” (Matthew 8:17).  He could not do this unless he hid his glory and suffered with and for us. 
This brings us to the other reason why Jesus humbled himself so much.  It was so that we might not expect God’s help in any other way than in the midst of worldly pain, trouble, sorrow, and danger.  We must live by faith.  We must not expect God to help us by removing us from the world, but by caring for us in all things even while we are in the world.  We are not to expect God to rescue us immediately from all troubles.  We are to wait on the Lord.  We are to trust in his grace and mercy even when all we see is the opposite.  Even now, we have what often appears to be a distant and aloof God.  But by faith in his promises we know he is both near and intensely invested in our lives.  This often means we must suffer.  But here is the very next verse from what I quoted earlier: “Because He Himself suffered when He was tested, He can help others when they’re tested” (Hebrews 2:18 AAT).  How wonderful.  He has been where you are.  God has been where you are. 
And where are you?  What are these troubles in life – even the ones that we bring upon ourselves by our own sin and foolishness – what are these pains and sorrows that we must endure other than tests?  Yes, God tests us.  He tests our faith.  In the same way that he who slept permitted a tempestuous storm to overtake every boat on the lake in order to test his disciples’ faith in him, so he tests your faith.  He permits all those things in the world of nature and human activity to cause fear, distress, and anguish in order to train your faith to flee to his own promise: “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Psalm 27:9).  As children who must turn to their father when the world and their own mess of it all comes crashing down, so Jesus tests our faith so that we might turn to the gracious face of the Father whom Jesus himself reveals.  It is as we sing:
Those who love the Father,
Though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within.
Yea, whate’er I here must bear,
Thou art still my purest Pleasure,
Jesus, priceless Treasure!  (LSB 743:6)
Jesus does not condemn you for your pain.  He does not sneer at your sadness or mock your inability to cope.  Though he may rebuke your fears and doubts, he does so to dispel them and replace them with faith — and this as surely as he stilled the storm with a much mightier rebuke and replaced it with a great calm … because, remember, he is God!  Nothing is impossible with him.  And yet he is also your Brother.  So even what seems to be out of his character – too far beneath him – is also not impossible.  As we learn from the Bible, “We have a High Priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses.  He was tempted in every way just as we are, only without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 AAT). 
Without sin he was tempted to sin.  Without sin he was tempted to doubt his Father.  Without sin he was tempted to regard God as too slow to satisfy.  Without sin he endured this all.  And with the word of God he resisted.  He is our Champion.  We are tested by God.  And so being tested we are urged to retreat and find refuge in the word of God – in the Bible – in that proclamation by sermon and hymn that is proven and valuable to strengthen our faith and calm our fears and cheer us.  For though when we are tempted we are not without sin, it is precisely in these temptations that we call to him who takes our sin away: “Lord, save us! We perish without you!” 
The God who controls all things is also the God who sympathizes with us when things seem to get out of control.  They are not out of his control.  And that’s the point.  He does not let things go too far.  He only permits what is good for our faith in him.  It was good for our faith that he came to earth as a zonked-out baby whom Mary nursed to sleep.  It was good for our faith, because by so joining us in our weakness he took our place in our faithlessness.  He took our place in our grumbling.  He took our place in our selfishness and self-imposed heartaches.  He took our place in our sin.  He did so without doubting or complaining.  He did so without deserving any of it.  He did so for you – to save you who do deserve what is too much for you to bear.  And yet he bore it beyond magnitude for you.  He bore not only the discomfort of life in a cursed world.  He bore the very curse of God against sin itself in order to give you eternal blessing. 
Commending in pure faith his every moment to God his Father, Jesus offered his life as a holy sacrifice for you – even unto death.  His perfect obedience was offered so that it might be yours.  His willingness to suffer was offered so that your guilt and punishment might be his. 
This is the gospel.  The fool listens to this and thinks he’s got it down pat.  The fool thinks that this need not be repeated to him and pondered every week and every day.  The fool.  But Jesus comes to fools like you and me – to us of little faith – and he continues to teach us.  He comes to us who are afraid and earthly minded.  Whether because of lack of money or poor health or chronic pain or the stubborn will of someone we love who won’t listen to us, we begin to fear the very things that Jesus came to free us from – until we cry out with the Psalmist:
“Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord?
Arise! Do not cast us off forever”
(Psalm 44:23). 
And of course he doesn’t.  He can’t.  He became true man in order to see to our deepest need.  And if we must suffer earthly troubles in order for this need to become all the more obvious, so be it.  He who is always awake will not remain sleeping for long.  He will see an end to our troubles when he sees fit.  But first he will see to it that our faith is strengthened in his holy word – when we learn to believe that 
He whom the sea and wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou, God’s own Son, with us art one,
Dost join us and our children in our weakness. (LSB 372:2)
We must not tempt God or expect Jesus to behave a certain way as though to prove that he does indeed have the power he has.  We do not expect Jesus to end all evil at our command.  Instead as the Church of God, who has been appointed especially to suffer with Christ, we trust in him who came to bear all evil.  When the Pharisees demanded a sign, Jesus said:
“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.  For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.  The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.”  (Matthew 12:39-41)
Yes, a greater than Jonah is here.  He sees his Church through stormier seas than Jonah saw and yet calms them just the same.  As with his word he calmed the wind and waves, so by offering himself up to be cast into the sea of sin and judgment and divine wrath, he spared the little boat that he loves so much, his dear Church, his ark that cannot sink.  He gave his life for her.  And yet he remains with her still.  This is the only sign we need: the pledge of his love and power and of our salvation.  We receive this sign of Jonah in our own Baptism by whose washing we also enter the ark.  These waters continue through our life to drown the Old Adam within us who would put God to the test or doubt his word like Jonah and the disciples did.  But by this mighty yet simple water, we who were buried with him in Baptism are also raised anew to live forever.  And we are safe. 
So great is faith that it takes hold of such joy in the midst of sin.  That we would be sad in the midst of temporary earthly troubles only proves how amazing it is that we are nonetheless taught to cheer up when sin remains in us and guilt would consume us.  Not only in earthly sorrow, but in hellish gloom, even in this we are able to lift up our heads and be sure that God does not condemn us, but forgives us everything even as he continues to pilot our ship to his own heavenly shores.  As it is written, “This is the victory that has overcome the world, namely, our faith” (1 John 5:4).  Faith is only as powerful – but also just as mighty and sure – as the one in whom we put our trust.  And so we sing to Jesus: 
Of death I am no more afraid;
New life from Thee is flowing;
Thy cross affords me cooling shade
When noonday’s sun is glowing.
When by my grief I am opprest,
On Thee my weary soul shall rest
Serenely as on pillows.
Thou art my Anchor when by woe
My boat is driven to and fro
On trouble’s surging billows.  (TLH 142:5)
In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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