In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It was not long after the wreckage of the space shuttle Columbia had fallen to earth that voices were heard in the Middle East pointing to the tragedy as a sign of the judgment of Allah upon the United States. Undoubtedly, those who spoke thus viewed the tragedy as a divine indictment of U.S. foreign policy, western culture, and above all the Christian faith, which all too many in the Middle East (and all too many Christians) erroneously equate with America. Be that as it is, one is moved to ask those who made this judgment, “How do you know this is so? Can you prove your contention? Will you say the same thing when thousands of Islamic Turks lose their lives in the next earthquake, which plague that region? To whom did you assign the judgment of God when it came to the wholesale slaughter of the war between Iran and Iraq?” Sinners have a way of being selective when pronouncing the judgments of God on his behalf, with the lightning bolt usually pointed in another direction. However, trying to determine the secret things of God by sifting through the “tea leaves” of his dealings with mankind is not only risky business, but also strictly forbidden. A group of inquirers learned this the hard way when they asked the Lord about the fate of certain Galileans, whom Pontius Pilate slaughtered as they were offering their sacrifices in the Temple. Jesus said, “Do you suppose that these Galileans where worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Speculations about God’s judgments put off true repentance and faith; that is, terrors of conscience over our sins and comfort through his Gospel.
Yet, can we learn anything about God’s intentions for us? Are there signs, which can be read and interpreted? Is there a place where we can encounter God? The questions are valid, and there are answers. Yes, we can learn of God’s intentions, and there are signs for the reading, and there is an encounter with the Living God, but all of this comes on God’s terms and not our own. In the waning verses of St. Mark, we hear about Jesus scolding the Eleven for not believing the reports about his resurrection. The disciples had rejected the words of the women, and Thomas doubted the report of his brothers. However, now there was no doubt that he was alive – so why the rebuke? It would not be surprising if misguided notions were still held by the Eleven, such as, “What is the Lord’s grand plan for Israel? Will he take Jerusalem by storm? What cabinet posts will we receive?” Such notions would be laid to rest by the Lord’s ascension and what he would ordain them to do in his stead. There would be no “holy huddle” in Jerusalem. Instead, he commanded them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved…” (Mk 16:15-16) The Lord would withdraw his visible presence from the Eleven, yet he would not withdraw his divine/human presence from the world. His apostles, along with many others, would go out into all the world accompanied by wondrous signs, and through these signs, the invisible, ascended Lord would encounter sinners in need of redemption. Through all this, a great irony would be revealed: Only in his apparent withdrawal from the world would the Savior go out into the world.
Consider the signs that accompanied the apostles, which are among us today, for they are evidence of Christ ministering to the world. Jesus promised that demons would be driven out in his name. The Book of Acts gives a record of this; and today, through every baptism, and through every exorcism which accompanies the rite of baptism, the old evil foe is driven out. Jesus promised that those who proclaim the Gospel would speak in new tongues. Whether these languages are miraculously given or laboriously learned, the wonders of God are proclaimed throughout the globe. Jesus also promised, “they will take up serpents” and be unharmed, as St. Paul was preserved on the Isle of Malta. Even today, wherever the forgiveness of sin is preached in Jesus’ name, the head of Satan is being crushed, and his accusations silenced. Jesus further promised that deadly poison would not harm those whom he commissioned, nor would it harm those whom they instructed, be it the poison of the pagan, Greco-Roman world, or the poison of the post-modern era, for the scriptures are the antidote for all untruth. No matter what the Lord places before his people in this life, no matter how bitter the experience, there still is no poison in the cup which he gives - only blessing. This is most profoundly true when it comes to the “cup of blessing” on the Lord’s altar. Finally Jesus said, “they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” Prayed over, anointed with oil, absolved, and communed by the ministers of Christ, the sick are restored, until his called ministers confirm the eternal healing of the sick as they officiate at their burials. Death no longer has dominion over him who suffered our death on account of our sin, and death no longer has dominion over those cleansed in his blood.
With that, the Lord was taken from their view to reign at the right hand of God the Father. Now that great irony spoken of comes into being: Jesus withdraws his visible presence from the Eleven, so that he might be truly present in every Eucharist for all time; He speaks no more to them, so that he might be heard throughout the world through the preaching of those who followed in their footsteps. He subtracts himself from his believers, so that through them, he might be multiplied throughout the earth for the blessing of people everywhere. As the Blessed Dr. Luther has said, “We are Christ’s, whether with or without the apostrophe.” Where is Christ in the world? What are the signs of his presence? Where can we learn of his intentions for his Church? You will not learn this from daily news reports, nor from what you think God might be doing in your life, nor from your feelings and intuitions, and certainly not from the proclamations of false prophets. These things can only misguide us.
It is our great sin that we seek to understand God’s hidden things through such visible things. Since our flesh insists that it will only believe that God is good if we have health, wealth, and happiness, and since our flesh refuses to believe that trial, cross, and tribulation are for the Christian’s good, we are tempted to call evil what God has called good, and to call good what God has called evil. May our Savior keep us from trying to discern his secret things by our own reason and strength, but rather may he fix our eyes on our baptism, attune our ears to his Gospel, and whet our appetite for his Supper, for here we encounter the living God, and here we learn of his good intentions toward us, even when it appears that everything around us has gone wrong. As he himself has said, “For I know the thoughts I think toward you….thoughts of peace and not of evil.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. §
The Reverend Peter M. Berg is pastor of Our Savior Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Chicago, Illinois.