In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If you take a look at the front of the special Life Sunday insert in your bulletin, the side with the Scripture passage from First Peter, you’ll see some words highlighted in bold, “always being prepared to make a defense … for the hope that is in you” (1 Pe 3:15b). This is part of the theme passage for this Life Sunday, the theme, “Hope For Life.” What is hope? Just before today’s Gospel, St. Mark records the circumstances of Jesus’ calling of Peter and other disciples: “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. … And going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets” (Mk 1:16, 19). If you asked Simon Peter, his brother, and the sons of Zebedee then about what they hope for, they might have said, “We sure hope to haul in a big catch tonight—and hope our nets don’t break!” With this kind of hope, something like a wish, there is always a possibility that we might not get what we want. When Peter and the other biblical authors use the word “hope,” they’re describing confidence. “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” That hymn expresses a confidence in what Jesus has given and done for our salvation. In our next hymn, “Hope of the world, Thou Christ of great compassion,” Christ Jesus is the source and object of that confidence.
People have put their hope, their confidence, in many different things. Some of these objects of human hope can become elevated to such importance that they are revered, worshiped, idolized, even personified. The Apostle Paul describes them in today’s Epistle reading as “so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’” (1 Cor 8:5). Today, millions of people believe in extraterrestrials and put their hope for the salvation of humankind and the world in those “aliens” from other planets. You’re far more likely, though, to hear someone declare, “I believe in science.” Many millions of people put their hope in “science” as the ultimate source of knowledge and the final judge of what is true and what isn’t. But science isn’t some self-existing “force”; it’s a limited, manmade method for discovering certain kinds of knowledge.
Many scientific discoveries have brought hope through improvements in lifespan and living conditions for many people. The authority and power of “science” have also been invoked in the name of “hope” for “new cures” and a more “improved” humanity—at the cost of bringing harm, death, and destruction to our fellow human beings, especially those among us who are most vulnerable. Pastor Michael Salemink, the Executive Director of National Lutherans For Life, points out what’s at stake: “Jesus entered our world as an embryo. God Himself came among us microscopically. In every moments-old zygote, we behold our Lord and Savior (Matthew 25:40). The Word became flesh and dwelt among us just like this. We see ourselves as well alongside each newly conceived human being. Apart from Christ Jesus, we can do nothing more than they. And the devil perceives the same thing. Satan still rages over the One that got away. So he takes aim at whatever little ones are left. As precious and treasured as they are, so are the rest of us. Whatever threatens them puts all humankind at risk, too” (“The Least of These,” LifeDate, Winter 2017).
As fishermen, Peter and Andrew and James and John were probably familiar with that phrase, “the one that got away,” as are many a hunter—or anyone who’s heard the tale of the prize buck or the whale of a fish, “the one that got away.” “The One that got away” from Satan is Jesus. Satan tried to get Jesus while He was still an infant through the power of Herod the Great. He tried through various temptations to get Jesus to abandon His mission. In today’s Gospel reading, “a man with an unclean spirit” comes into the synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus is teaching. When he speaks, he utters some correct information: “What have You to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?” But mixed with a lie: “Have You come to destroy us?” One of our seminary professors comments, “Satan is using this demoniac as a missionary to picture Jesus as the destroyer of men” (Harold Buls). The unclean spirit calls Jesus “the Holy One of God”; Peter would later confess the same thing on behalf of the Twelve: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6:69). Same words; but, the difference? Peter confesses the Truth, that Jesus has come as the Savior of men. The unclean spirit speaks just enough truth in order to make his lie about Jesus convincing and drive people away from the Savior, destroying their hope and trust in Him, and thus destroying them for eternity.
We hear in the news about new “technologies” that are being studied for the possibility of providing cures for genetic diseases and solving other medical problems. They are touted with great fanfare, but with little or no attention given to the researchers’ own cautions and concerns, or the moral questions involved. We’re told of the prospects of “three-parent embryos,” genetic editing, artificial wombs, and embryonic stem cell therapies. What are the dangers? How might the fundamental makeup and nature be changed of humans who undergo genetic editing, and all their progeny after them? When embryos used in experiments don’t develop properly—and every experiment has its failures—the embryos are destroyed. It’s one thing to do so with animals; it’s quite another to destroy our fellow humans, as though smaller size and younger age makes them less human. As Pastor Salemink observes, “These least of the Lord’s (and our own!) brothers and sisters are neither experiments nor expendable [neither property nor projects … neither mistakes nor merchandise … neither spare parts nor lab samples]. Human worth does not depend on a person’s size, … level of development, … location, … [or] degree of dependency” We are all dependent upon other human beings to some degree, and each one of us is completely dependent upon God for our very existence, as Paul says in the Epistle. We are dependent upon the Lord Jesus Christ for our salvation and being able to stand as righteous and innocent before the Father. We are completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit for our hope, our confidence, in Christ, and for every breath we take in our earthly life, as declare Job, “The Spirit of God has made me, and the Breath of the Almighty gives me life” (33:4) and the Psalmist, “You take away their breath, they die and return to their dust. You send forth Your Spirit, they are created” (Ps 104:29b–30a). And consider that of all the members of the human race most like God whom we cannot see are those in the womb whom we cannot see by ordinary means.
God has greatly blessed us through the work of doctors, scientists, and researchers, as He has and still does through every proper, godly vocation. The enemy tries to appeal to our self-centeredness and our desires for self-preservation, glory, power, property, and comfort. When Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man, He spoke hope to the man. What hope did that man have against a power greater than himself? None, until Christ came to him. By the power and authority of Christ, that man became another “one that got away” from the devil’s clutches. Satan tries to destroy the community God designed for His human creatures. Christ comes to you in the waters of Holy Baptism, uniting you to Himself and giving you the hope, the confidence, of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not to oppress and destroy, but to make you a new creature and give you fullness of life, that you walk in newness of life! Satan tries to deceive you into believing either you’re not a sinner, or you’re too sinful for God to forgive. Christ comes to you in the mouth of your pastor speaking Holy Absolution, and gives you the hope, the confidence, of the burden of sins lifted, removed, taken away, cast out, that they no more haunt you! Satan tries to convince you that you should be a completely separate individual, not even needing God, and at the same time that you need the groupthink of the collective. Christ comes to you in His Word, Holy Scripture, the Truth, the hope, the confidence, of His Presence in your reading and hearing, and among your brothers and sisters in the church, those with whom the Triune God chooses to dwell. By His gracious authority and power in His Word and Sacraments, He makes you, and each one of us, “ones that got away,” set free in Him.
What makes a good window? That’s easy! A good window is clear and colorless, fully transparent, so you can get a good look at whatever is on the other side. That’s the point of a window, right? It lets you see outside. But if that’s what makes a good window, then the windows in our churches need some work: they’re made of stained glass. Stained glass windows aren’t clear or colorless, and they completely obscure whatever is outside. And yet, we love our stained glass windows, because rather than showing us what’s outside, these special windows instead portray the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is far more beautiful than mere transparent glass. Isn’t that odd? A window that fails so badly at being a window could actually be something better. Yet God chooses things like that all throughout history. All the major characters in the Bible, from Adam and Eve to Abraham and Sarah to Moses to David and Bathsheba to Peter and Paul, are flawed, weak, foolish, evil. Yet God is in the business of bringing strength from weakness, wisdom from folly, and good from evil. Look at what He did in Jesus. Jesus came to conquer sin, yet He didn’t do it with a glorious display of power. Instead, Jesus came into the world as a human, a weakling, a zygote even. To many He appeared foolish. On the cross, He was covered with our sins and punished for them. And yet, rather than being corrupted by them, He defeated them. He rose from death, and now that dreaded wage of sin is but the open window to eternal life for all who believe in Him. [Adapted from “Stained,” Pr. Daniel Larsen, LifeDate, Winter 2017.]
In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.