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Sunday, April 5, 2009


Rev. Steven S. Billings
Palm Sunday
April 5, 2009

A Poem for Palm Sunday

Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion! Your King comes to you,
Righteous and having salvation; He is your King, it's true.
He comes to you in splendor, perched on the foal of an ass,
He comes to you in triumph; He is your King at last.

These three long years He labored, healing your sick and blind,
He healed the lame, the deaf, the dumb, yes, sickness of every kind.
To those who were broken hearted He gave new hope and cheer,
Yes it seems, Jerusalem, your King is finally here.

And how do you receive Him? With palms and shouts of joy!
Your people throng to greet Him, every girl and every boy.
Yes, men and women, old and young, they shout to Him and sing,
They crowd into your narrow streets to see the coming of their King.

But what sort of King do they expect? What manner of Man is this?
"He is the Son of David! He is due the royal kiss.
He will free us from oppression; He will set the captive free!"
Ah, Yes, He will, Jerusalem, you need only wait and see.

For in the span of five short days, your attitude will change.
The One you gladly welcome now, you'll drag back here in chains.
You'll hunt Him down like a criminal and those who are His friends
Will hide like frightened children from your wicked angry men.

You'll pretend a legal trial and you will be the judge.
You'll demand that He deny Himself, but, strangely, He will not budge.
He won't say a single word, but will turn it back on you,
"Thou sayest it," Jerusalem, for you know it to be true.

You've seen His works, you've heard His words, you've felt His touch of love.
He could not be a man like you; He must be from above.
From all you've seen and heard and felt, for you there is no doubt,
But how He angered you in the temple when He drove the merchants out!

How offending was He when He said, "I am the Bread of life,
"Whoever eats of Me in faith will surely never die.
But whoever does not eat of Me will surely taste of death."
So offended are you, Jerusalem, that you want to still His breath.

So a pack of lying witnesses you parade before the court.
You try in vain to intimidate Him, but He is not that sort.
For He is God, and you know it well; His miracles testify
That who and what He says He is, He is, and does not lie.

Unlike you, who today will say, "Hosannah to the King!"
And in five days will assemble again to shout quite another thing.
"Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" That will be your cry.
This One you call your King today, you will later ask to die.

But why the change? What went wrong? What caused you to turn on Him?
He did nothing evil, only good; He forgave you of your sin.
But is that why you changed your mind? Did you not want to hear
That you are truly sinful and that your death is near?

Oh, yes, I do suppose that you would gladly take the food
That He dispensed from a small boy's lunch; I'm sure that it was good.
And I'm sure you never noticed that only God could do
Such a feat as feeding thousands from what He had to use.

Nor did you deny Him the healings He performed.
You walked away, who crawled to Him, you ran on feet reformed,
You sang with voices stilled so long, you saw with eyes once dim,
But you looked upon the Son of God and never recognized Him.

He cried for you, Jerusalem, because you are so blind.
"Jerusalem, Jerusalem! How My heart does pine
To hold in My loving arms like the chicks of a mother hen,
But, alas, you will not have Me; you will not be My friend."

But go ahead, Jerusalem, rejoice and have your day.
Sing with shouts and laughter; throw your coats along the way.
Welcome in your new-found King, with royal fanfare cheer.
It won't be long, Jerusalem; His victory is near.

Yes, I do say victory, though you may call it death.
That is what you have planned for Him, your welcome honored Guest.
You welcome Him with bogus praise, while in the coming week
You plan a royal sacrifice for the One of whom you speak.

For surely as He rides today through your noble gates,
You will find Him guilty of a sin against the state.
You will pressure Pontius Pilate to submit to your demands.
And though he finds no fault in Him, His blood is on his hands.

He'll wash those hands and wash them over and over again,
But the stains will never leave them, they're embedded in his brain.
But what of you, Jerusalem, do you feel no guilt?
It surely rests upon you; you are buried to the hilt.

For it was you, Jerusalem, who called for His death.
"Give us Barabbas, crucify Him!", you cried with all your breath.
"But He is your King," said Pilate, "you have said so yourself."
"We have no King but Caesar; there is no one else!"

Yes, yes, Jerusalem, this all waits for you.
In five short days your mood will change and these things you will do.
Your people will be madmen, like lions smelling blood.
They'll demand the release of a murderer, and call for the death of the Son of God.

And He will not deny you; He'll come forth willingly.
He'll bow His head in submission, He'll enter a "guilty" plea.
He will endure your insults, your mockery and shame,
He'll take the thirty-nine lashes even though they cause such pain.

He will let you beat Him with your fists across His face.
He will even let you spit on Him, but never once forget His place.
For you are right, Jerusalem, this Man is your King,
Though you do not recognize the kingdom that He brings.

"My kingdom is not of this world," He said again and again.
"I have come to serve, not be served; I've come to free you from your sin.
And this I do by dying, by taking up this cross
And carrying it to Calvary where I will save the lost."

"For there is where I'll pay the price for the sins of the world.
I'll let them drive the spikes in and pierce Me with the sword.
And above Me you will read the sign carrying the news,
'This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.'"

"But, why will I let you do this? What reason could there be?
I know you must be wondering, but it is plain to see,
Jerusalem, I love you, I love you with all My heart.
And I'm willing to do anything to keep us from being apart."

"This is something I must do, for without Me, you will die.
But now I will die for you, and you needn't wonder why.
For Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, I have come for you,
A meek and humble servant, though I am your King, it's true."

"And out of love I do this, a love you've never known.
All that I do, I do for you, to redeem you as My own.
Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, for you my heart does burn.
Perhaps one day, Jerusalem, you will love Me in return."

And thus He prays for you, dear friend, and I do pray as well,
That you, the new Jerusalem, will hear and mark it well,
The story of the old one, to whom He came that day,
Who laid the palms before Him and threw their coats along the way.

Yet, five days hence, they killed Him, for He did not fulfill
The expectations held for Him, for these were not His Will.
Let it not be true of you as was true of them,
Who would rather have an earthly king than the Savior of all men.

Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion, at the coming of your King,
But listen oh, so carefully to the message that He brings.
The message of undying love that causes us to see
The actions of the dying Son as done for you and me.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

7:42 pm edt


Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 5 Mid-Week

St. Luke 23:26-31

26 And as they led him away, they seized one Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, and laid on him the cross, to carry it behind Jesus. 27 And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him. 28 But turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ 31 For if they do these things when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

On the day that Jesus died, there weren't too many sympathetic faces in the crowd. You could practically count them on one hand. But there was no shortage of haters, that's for sure!

So you might wonder why, when we're doing a series that focuses on Jesus' enemies, we would include some of the very few people who actually felt sorry for Him as He struggled with His cross to the place of the skull.

Well, of course we don't lump them in with Jesus' enemies! But we do count them among the many people who stood that day in need of the forgiveness Jesus was in the very process of earning for us. Their sorrow for Him was sweet and admirable, no doubt about it, especially compared with the shouts of the mob crying for His crucifixion. The angels themselves may have been weeping that day!

Yet it was this very man for whom they were crying such heartrending sobs who told them that they were weeping for the wrong reasons. Their sympathy for Jesus - heartfelt and genuine as it was - still missed the mark. There were other tears to be shed, tears that these good women had no idea they should be shedding. Can it happen that we, too, sometimes cry the wrong tears? I think so, and when it happens, we must pray: "Father, forgive our misplaced sorrow!"

The sentiment of the women was truly heartfelt. They felt genuine sorrow for Jesus as He struggled under the weight of that cross. And it wasn't a sudden jolt of pity like you might feel passing an accident on the highway. This was a deep sorrow. How deep? Luke tells us that they mourned and cried, which means they made gestures of woe common to people of the Middle East: beating their chests, throwing their hands up in despair, crying out in misery, loudly and pitifully, as Jesus passed them on the Way of Sorrows.

In spite of all that, Jesus told them: "Do not weep for me; weep for yourselves." In saying this, He was making it clear that what He wants from us is not mere sentimentality, but true repentance of the heart.

Why? Because He sees the bigger picture. He knew what was going to happen to the city that finally and irrevocably rejected its God. He spoke of the terror and despair that would overtake all the inhabitants of Jerusalem:

The time will come when you will say, "Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!" Then "they will say to the mountains, 'Fall on us!' and to the hills, 'Cover us!'" For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?

Jesus Himself was the green tree, the very picture of spiritual health and vigor, the one in whom God was well-pleased. Israel, on the other hand, was the dry tree, spiritually lifeless. Israel had proven to be a nation that was pretending to be religious, all the while denying the very God who alone gives life. And if Christ, who is perfect, had to suffer as He did in this dark world, what in the world could the sinful people of Jerusalem expect?

The sin of rejecting their Messiah would have horrible consequences for the people of Jerusalem. The earthly consequence included great suffering at the hands of Rome. Not 40 years in the future, the legions of the great general Titus would sack the city and burn the temple to the ground. An eyewitness account of that siege reads like a horror story. How much happier the people of Jerusalem would've been to be swallowed up by the hills!

Yet even worse than that would be the eternal consequences suffered by those who rejected their Messiah. They had every opportunity to repent and believe in Christ who had walked among them for three years preaching and teaching and performing signs and wonders. But they refused and in the end demanded His blood. On the day of judgment, when, as Scripture says, they have to look upon Him whom they have pierced as He comes in the clouds of heaven, what excuse can they offer? How can they escape the eternal flames, torments and regrets of hell?

You'd have to be made of stone, I think, if the image of Christ's suffering didn't bring out some sense of pity for the one who had to undergo such torment. If it didn't, we could hardly even call ourselves human. But, as we've seen, that's not the reaction Jesus is looking for. He wants a deeper sorrow, a godly sorrow over our sins. This doesn't mean you can't feel sympathy for your suffering Savior, but sympathy must never be all you have.

Our Lord would tell us, just like He told those women: He doesn't need our compassion; He wants our repentance. It was our sins, after all, that He was suffering for in the first place, right? If your sins hadn't been as scarlet, it wouldn't have taken the blood of Jesus to make you white as snow, you know what I mean? Do you give that fact the amount of thought it deserves? We're so permeated by sin that the only thing in all of creation that could keep us from an eternity in hell was the sacrifice of the Son of God.

So what God wants from us is a true and godly sorrow over our sins, a sorrow that confesses with the psalmist, "Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are proved right when you speak and justified when you judge" (Ps 51:4). My friends, when the Scriptures condemn all people as sinners against the commandments of God, we have to understand that that includes us. We too have done what is evil in God's sight, and we need to be moved by the suffering of Christ to admit that and repent of it.

But, as you may have discovered, repentance is a hard thing, and not many of us are very good at it. It's a sorrow that's often more than we want to deal with. We'd rather make it seem like our sins aren't all that serious. We'd rather compare them to the supposedly "greater" sins of others. We'd rather distract ourselves with worldly pleasures so that we don't have to think about our guilt. We'd rather try to convince ourselves that somehow we've done more good than bad, so things should balance out pretty well in the end.

But none of that is what our Lord calls for. "Weep for yourselves," he told the women of Jerusalem. And He says to us, "Repent of your sins. Don't hide them. Don't ignore them. Don't try to make them less serious than they are. But confess them, and then come to me for full and free forgiveness." That's the path He sets before us, and that's what we're asking for when we pray, "Father, make us truly repentant!"

The sight of Jesus on the cross should drive home to us the deadly nature of our sins so that we would come to terms with how serious they are before God. How could our guilt not be that big a deal when it cost so much to atone for it? And how could we think that Jesus' suffering wasn't that big a deal when the night before, He prayed almost desperately for His Father to find some other way?

Beloved, an unrepentant attitude is an insult to Christ. The cost of our salvation was greater than we can even begin to imagine. But Jesus selflessly paid that cost out of love for us. In return, the first thing we need to do is confess our sins, showing honor to Him who took all our sins onto His own back and paid for them with His innocent suffering and death. Don't try to excuse them or rationalize them away. Just confess that you too are one of the sinners for whom our Savior suffered and died.

But don't stop there. Confession is only the first part. Jesus is the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world. He didn't offer up His life just to make us feel guilty; He did it to make us holy! "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him!" Forgiveness was the ultimate goal, and our forgiveness is guaranteed, as Paul tells us in Romans 8: "There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

Salvation is yours through faith in His promise. Through faith you lay hold of the forgiveness Jesus won for you. His Word has promised it to us, and we know His Word is true. And we honor Him when we place all our hope and confidence in His Word of promise.

"Do not weep for me," Jesus told the women of Jerusalem, "weep for yourselves." May we take these words to heart, but in the right way. Let's pray to our Father in heaven that He would fill our hearts with truly repentant sorrow over our sins so that we would then honor Christ's death all the more. Pray that you would trust in Him with all your heart. And pray that He would help you to live a life filled with the fruits of repentance that prove to everyone that His love is real and vibrant and living and makes a difference in the lives of those He loves. Let this be your prayer: "Lord, let this holy season of Lent bring the right kind of tears to my eyes, the tears that lead to eternal life in your Son. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen"

7:19 pm edt


Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 5

Jeremiah 31:31-34

31 “Behold, days are coming,” says Yahweh, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out from the land of Egypt, my covenant which they broke, though I was husband to them,” says Yahweh. 33 “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” says Yahweh: “I will pit my law within them and I will write it upon their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people. 34 “And no longer shall a man teach his neighbor and a man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” says Yahweh, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

You will hear yet this morning the words of Jesus: “This is the new testament in my blood.” But listen to those words carefully: not a new testament, but the new testament. In order for Jesus to say that, the disciples must've known that the new testament was coming. Indeed, they did. Today’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah is one of the key passages that speak about it. This morning, I want to look at this text and see what it teaches us about the new testament Christ has established.

Jeremiah, in contrasting the new covenant with the old, first describes the new testament by saying what it isn't, and then goes on to say what it is.

One of the things the new testament is not is that it isn't a covenant made with Israel alone. The Old Covenant was made with the Children of Israel, and that included all Israelites, believers and unbelievers alike, everyone who was delivered out of the land of Egypt. It was comprised of laws - laws which governed the religious, political, social, and home life of every citizen. Acts fifteen describes this covenant as a yoke - a burden which neither their forefathers nor the Jews at the time were able to bear. In Galatians five Paul calls it a "yoke of bondage."

But the new covenant is not just made with the Israelites; it's a covenant with “the house of Israel and the house of Judah,” which means to say, all the people of the earth.

At the time, Israel and Judah were separated. Israel had been taken into captivity by Assyria to the north. Later, Judah would fall to the Babylonians, who, in the meantime had conquered Assyria. The result of this was that the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah were reunited in captivity, so that when they returned, they came back together. Listen to what Jeremiah had written earlier: “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem. No more shall they follow the dictates of their evil hearts. In those days the house of Judah shall walk with the house of Israel, and they shall come together out of the land of the north to the land that I have given as an inheritance to your fathers.” “Out of the land of the north” refers to their eventual return from exile and bondage. Hosea adds: “It shall come to pass in the place where it was said to them, ‘You are not My people,’ There it shall be said to them, ‘You are sons of the living God.’” So, Israel would return from the land of the gentiles, but not by themselves; their presence in Assyria and Babylon would lead the gentiles there to worship the one true God, so that those who at one time were not God’s people, would become God’s people through faith in the Holy One of Israel.

Another thing that the new testament is not is that it isn't a covenant that can be broken. The old covenant could be broken - and was! You see, the old covenant was law. It was a covenant in the usual sense of the term today: an agreement between two people. The old covenant was an agreement between God and Israel, and each agreed to do certain things - like a marriage. In fact, a marriage is a good description of what God did with this people. He loved them, loved them as a bridegroom loves his bride. And He cared for and provided for His people. But it was a covenant, and as a covenant, it needed both parties to keep it for it to be valid. Israel did not keep the covenant. She was unfaithful. She worshiped idols. She did not keep the law.

And this is where we need to make a distinction between covenant and testament. In a general sense they're very much the same, but not in a legal sense. Legally, a covenant is two-sided, but a testament is one-sided.

A testament is like a will. It's not a contract between two parties; it's a document issued by one party, stating what that one party wishes to do. In the case of a will, it lists what the person intends to be done with his belongings after his death. In the case of the new testament, it lists what God intends to do with that which is His, namely, His righteousness and justice. He intends to give it to us on account of His Son. Those to whom the belongings are given in any will or testament have the right of refusal, but they cannot change the will. I may not appreciate the gaudy lamp I inherit from rich old Aunt Gladys, but I can’t say: “Give me the Cadillac instead.”

The only time a will can successfully be challenged is when the testator is proven to have been mentally incompetent when issuing the will, and we can hardly say that of God, now can we. Barring that, the will has to be honored precisely as it's written, to the letter, which means that if rich Aunt Gladys is in her right mind and wants to leave a million dollars to her pet frog Myron, the money has to go to the frog, like it or not. All you can do is hope you're in the frog's will! Anyway . . . since we know God to be in sound mind, we know there's nothing that can break His testament. The Jews couldn't break it, we can't break it, no one will ever be able to break it.

Well, enough about what the new testament isn't. What about what it is? One of the things it is, is that it is a testament written on our hearts. And this is done for everyone who's part of the New Testament, not just a few. God is the God of every member of the New Testament, as Jeremiah goes on to say: "'And no longer shall a man teach his neighbor and a man his brother, saying, ‘Know Yahweh,’ for they all will know me, from the least of them to the greatest,' says Yahweh."

Now, does this mean that we're no longer to teach one another? Of course not, but the essence of the teaching is different. Before, members of the old covenant needed to teach one another the basic fact of trust in the Lord. Not all of them were believers. But now, in the new testament, all members are believers, from the least to the greatest, from baptized infants to those standing at the threshold of eternal life. We don’t teach our children their need to know the Lord. Instead, we simply teach them about the Lord who has called them. We don’t say: “You need to know God. If you don’t, you’ll go to hell.” Instead, we say: “This is God. He’s the One who keeps you from going to hell.” See the difference?

There’s one final aspect of this new testament that really wraps it all up. The Old Covenant was Law; the New Testament is Gospel. The Lord says in our text: “I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

So, maybe you’re wondering how you get to be a member of the New Testament. Herein lies the primary motivation behind the Reformation; it's what Luther struggled so to teach the world.

Contrary to what the Church had been teaching for years, to become a member of the New Testament requires no work on your part, no self-acquired holiness. The sacrifice of this New Testament in not one that needs to be repeated, but it's the sacrifice pointed to by all the prophecies of the Old Testament. All that's required for membership in the New Testament is the forgiveness found only in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that forgiveness is lavished on us when we hear God’s Word, when the water of God’s approval is poured out on us in Holy Baptism, and when the body and blood of our crucified and risen Savior are implanted within us through His Holy Supper. Through the means of grace God writes this New Testament on our hearts and we become His people.

The two testaments are quite different. The Sinai Covenant demanded perfect obedience. The New Testament offers eternal salvation. The Sinai Covenant was written on tablets of stone. The New Testament is written on our hearts. The Sinai Covenant was made with the descendants of Israel. The New Testament is made with all believers, Jews and Gentiles alike. The forgiveness of sins in the Old Testament was based on a hope in future events. The New Testament forgiveness is based on an accomplished reality.

Beloved, we can find no greater reality than the one Christ offers us again today. For here, the reality of God’s kingdom, indeed its very essence, is placed within our own flesh and blood as we eat and drink the body and blood of Christ. Christ makes a New Testament with us, , a covenant, a promise - and we consume it, making His promise ours, and making us His. May your participation of the Lord’s Supper strengthen and preserve you steadfast in the one true faith to life everlasting. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

7:05 pm edt

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For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
(Philippians 1:21)

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