Today's sermon, preached by yours truly at a St. Louis city LCMS church, is based on the one-year lectionary's readings for the 19th Sunday after Trinity, including Genesis 28:10-17, Ephesians 4:24-28, and Matthew 9:1-8. Even more than on Wednesday, pardon my long-windedness. This is a case where I rely on my energetic delivery to get people through; but as far as that goes, you're out of luck...In Genesis 28, Jacob has a dream of a ladder reaching from heaven to earth, and the angels of God going up and down it. His first words on waking are: “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Then Jacob is afraid, and says: “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” He then takes the stone his head rested on and builds a pillar on top of it, and changes the name of that place to Bethel, which means “House of God.”
What made Bethel a place where the Lord dwells? It was not the stone that Jacob slept on. Nor is it the dream, and its imagery of a ladder covered with angels. People have dreams all the time, and some dreams are exciting or disturbing; but very few dreams prove to be revelations from God. What made Bethel a holy shrine, and what made that dream a divine revelation, was God’s Word of promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac,” He tells Jacob. “In you and in your descendants shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” This is a promise of the Gospel. It points to Jesus, who is the Savior of all nations, whether Jew or Gentile. It is a powerful promise, because it is God’s Word and God does not lie. And it is a saving promise, because it brought Jacob to faith, as he showed by the words he spoke and the pillar he built when he woke from the dream.
The dream and the place were holy because God’s Word was there. God’s Word accomplishes what it says and delivers what it promises. What makes any place a holy place, a place where heaven touches earth, a place where God is working, strong to save? The answer is nothing else than the Word of God.
But what about Jesus? Well, whatever Jesus says is God’s Word. Wherever Jesus is, and whatever He does, He is carrying out God’s purpose for mankind’s salvation. After all, Jesus is the Word made flesh. And God declares: “My Word… shall not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please” (Isaiah 55:11). So wherever Jesus is, there is God’s holy temple, and there He is present with power to bless and give life.
Even before Jesus was born Elizabeth’s unborn child leapt in her belly at the sound of Mary’s greeting. Elizabeth cried, “Why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). This Virgin on the hoof was a mobile tabernacle, or an ark of flesh, carrying the Holy of Holies wherever she went. For the child growing inside her is the fulfillment of God’s promise at Bethel, and His plan to save the world.
Indeed, that child is the Word of God. While He lived in Mary’s belly, her body was the gate of heaven, the house of the Lord. At the hour of Jesus’ birth, angels appeared to herdsmen in the fields, as if the whole cast of Jacob’s dream had slid down a chute into our visible world. They declared that the way to heaven is not a ladder of good works, offerings, alms, or prayers. The way to heaven is the One born that day, who was laid in a bed little softer than the stone Jacob slept on.
The angels called Him Savior, Christ, and Lord, and they told the shepherds to seek Him out. The shepherds, like Jacob, were afraid. Why? Because of the presence of God. But it was a fear mingled with joy. For a dream, carrying the mere promise of Christ, once turned a stony campsite into the house of God. So the arrival of God Himself, bundled in the body of a child, must make our whole world—or at least the human race—a temple of the Most High. Wherever Jesus goes, and whatever He does, God is at work, fulfilling His promise and carrying out His will to save sinners.
So we find Him in Matthew 9 crossing the Sea of Galilee by boat and coming to his home-base of Capernaum. There, in the presence of the Bible scholars of His time, Jesus is met by a paralysis victim. This man could only get around by being carried by his friends, bed and all. Jesus sees their faith and tells the paralyzed man: “Take courage, My son, your sins are forgiven.”
How can you tell whether this promise is true or not? You can’t see forgiveness, any more than you can see faith. Yet Jesus “sees their faith,” according to Matthew. And when the local scribes question whether Jesus has the right to forgive sins, He gives them a demonstration of what God’s Word is worth, what it is capable of. First He says, “Why are you thinking evil in your hearts?” Not only can Jesus see faith, but He can also see the evil in men’s hearts. John tells us that Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25). This is fitting for the Word made flesh, since God’s Word is “able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
He sees what is in your heart. He knows the burdens that you carry, often better than you do yourself. He knows what you have done, what you plan to do, what you regret doing, and what you have failed to do. He hears what you have said to others, and to yourself. He knows even the thoughts you have never spoken aloud. He knows what is in your invisible heart, even before visible sins like “murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and slanders” come out of it (Matthew 15:19).
He sees your sin, but He does not condemn you. Rather, He makes it His business to save you. Yes, He has an intimate and detailed knowledge of your sin. And I don’t just mean your “sins,” open or secret. I mean your sinfulness, the fallen condition that goes to the root of your nature. He sees that you have a disease, inherited from Adam and Eve: a disease that infects every fiber of your being and that constantly prompts you to seek things that are bad for you and to flee from your Physician and the medicine He brings.
Nevertheless, Jesus loves you and wants save you. Before dealing with any of your visible symptoms or sins, He treats the root disease. Knowing your sinfulness, He chooses to take your faith into account; He “imputes it to you as righteousness.” Even knowing how little your faith is, and perhaps before you have any, He takes compassion on you. He doesn’t wait for you to confess your faith, but He tells you to “take courage,” and His Word creates what it says. He doesn’t wait for you to claim Him as your Lord, but He addresses you as “My son,” and His Word changes what is not into what is. He doesn’t wait for you to say you’re sorry, but He tells you, “Your sins are forgiven,” and His Word delivers what it promises.
How does He show that His Word really does these incredible things? As a rule, He binds His Word to a visible sign. For example, in today’s Gospel lesson, He binds His promise of invisible forgiveness to the visible sign of making a paralyzed man get up and walk. Just like sign language is a form of speech that you can see, a sign, or miracle, is also a form of communication. What does the miracle of healing the paralytic communicate? Jesus says: “In order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…Rise, take up your bed, and go home.” And it happened, just as He said.
That was visible evidence that Jesus’ promises come true, even in an invisible realm such as sin and forgiveness. No one but God is supposed to be able to forgive sins; that’s why the scribes accused Jesus of blasphemy. But here, a Man forgives sins. This leads to two apparent alternatives. Either this Man’s Word is God’s Word, or His promise of forgiveness is invalid. Jesus visibly shows which alternative is true when He re-creates the sick man’s paralyzed body. He does what no one could do without power from heaven, and heaven would not give such power to a false prophet. If the paralyzed man obeys Jesus’ command to get up and walk, then Jesus speaks the Word of God and His promise to forgive is true. And since only God can forgive sins, Jesus not only speaks for God, but is God. So Capernaum has become the gate of heaven, the house of God.
When the multitudes saw this, they were filled with awe. That is to say, they were afraid—like the shepherds, like Jacob. Why? Because they were in the presence of God. But they were also filled with joy; they “glorified God, who had given such authority to men.” This brings the story to an interesting point. For now the miracle is more than just a sign that Jesus is God, and therefore He can forgive sins. It also means that, since God has become a Man, He has imported that unique right to forgive sins into humanity.
If you go to the ruins of Bethel today, you won’t find Jacob’s pillar. If you go to the ruins of Capernaum, you won’t the spot where Jesus healed the paralytic. Even if you could, what good would it do? You don’t need to go to those places to seek God. God is present where His Word is spoken, promising forgiveness and salvation. In fact, you don’t have to go any farther than this house. Yes, the Lord is in this place! This is the house of God, the gate of heaven! This is where the forgiveness of sins is spoken, by virtue of the authority Christ brought from heaven to earth. This is where you receive His gifts. This is where He heals the inbred, chronic, flesh-eating disease of your sin. This is where He tells you to take courage, and so creates faith in your heart. This is where He looks inside you and chooses to see not your sin, but the faith He put there.
In today’s Epistle lesson, Paul tells all who have been baptized: You have put off sin and put on Christ! You have laid aside your old self and been created anew. How? Not by any virtue in the water itself, nor by any authority in the minister who pours it, but by the cleansing merit of Jesus’ blood and the life-giving power of His Word.
Then Paul tells the Ephesians to lay aside falsehood, to speak truth to each other as members of one another. So when we gather to hear God’s truth proclaimed, we are being built together into one body under Christ the Head. As for those who are about to eat Christ’s body and blood, “You are what you eat.” Not even our keenest minds can grasp how it is that He is in us AND we are in Him, in communion as one body and yet eating His body and being filled with His blood. He does not ask you to understand, but to say “Amen.” For it’s not just a figure of speech when Paul says we are “one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12:5).
Paul tells the Ephesians to “Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger.” Here Christ is telling all of you who have received Absolution that forgiveness is now the habitat in which you live, like the air a bird flies in, or the water a fish swims in. “Do not give the devil an opportunity” to puncture this life-support bubble of reconciliation by denying it to one another.
And finally, “Let him who steals steal no longer; but rather let him labor, performing with his own hands what is good, in order that he may have something to share with him who has need.” This command from Paul’s pen is not a prescription for how to become cured of the disease of sin, or instructions in how to become pleasing to God. He has already looked into your sinful heart. He has already said, “Take courage, my son, your sins are forgiven”—which is as much as saying, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). He has given it all to you up front, freely, purely out of love. He has given you a new heart and prepared for you a new path. Therefore Paul urges you to do “what is good” so that you may become a new Bethel, a living pillar founded on Christ, showing the world that, indeed, “the Lord is in this place.”