Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Maundy Thursday April 21, 2011

Maundy Thursday Sermon
The Lamb of God Who Has Mercy on Us”
(Exodus 12:1–7; 1 Corinthians 5:7b)

We continue with our Lenten series revolving around the hymn “Lamb of God, Pure and Holy,” and tonight we arrive at the final line: “Have mercy on us, O Jesus” (LSB 434). And so we consider the Lamb of God who has mercy on us. 

Not exactly a household word, “mercy.” It sounds a little strange in everyday speech, as in “Mercy me!” It sounds like something your old-fashioned aunt might use as an exclamation. But as words go, it receives precious little usage outside of the Church, where we use it all the time. “Lord, have mercy on us,” we pray in the liturgy, echoing the blind men who sought their sight (Matthew 9; Luke 18). We, too, seek healing and recovery, but our blindness is a matter of the heart, clouded and scarred as it is by sin. Yet in that very cry for mercy at the beginning of the service, we acknowledge that we are waiting for One who is capable of addressing our deepest need. Mercy: the tender loving-kindness of God who comes among us to distribute His healing and life.  

“Lord, have mercy on us,” we pray. It is both praise and prayer, acclamation and petition. With these words we welcome Him and pray His gracious help. So also in the final line of our Lenten hymn: Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world; have mercy on us, O Jesus.

We have come to the right place tonight to welcome Jesus, as He comes in both Word and Sacrament. We have come to the right place to receive His mercy, since He has plenty of it to give. He gives it to His beloved Church in an exceptional way this holy night. Tonight we commemorate that night Christ founded the Sacrament of the Altar, in which He feeds us with His body broken and gives us His blood outpoured to drink.

This, then, is the night of our deliverance, the beginning of our three-day journey with Jesus from His arrest in the garden, to Pilate’s judgment hall, then to the Place of the Skull, through His cross and death, to His glorious resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Day—it sounds like four days, but by biblical reckoning it is only three. The Jews begin each new day at the setting of the sun, and anything that happens after sundown is part of the next day. By that calculation, then, it is a three-day journey we commence this Maundy Thursday evening. And it all started with a meal.

We have heard the words so often we can almost recite them in our sleep: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: ‘Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you.’”

In a few minutes we will once again approach the altar, there to bend the knee and receive with our mouths the very Bread of heaven. Under this earthly bread we break and the cup we bless we will eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus. And when we do, we will follow His last will and testament: “Do this in remembrance of Me” (Luke 22:19). In this Sacrament, the Lamb of God has left us a memorial of His mercy.

It is a memorial far different than any other. The Lord Jesus is the Lamb who once was slain but now is alive forever. And the memorial He instituted is a meal. In this eating and drinking we actively recall, recite, and rehearse His saving mercy.

“What good is that?” we ask. “Give me something I can use, Jesus. I could use some pointers on how to get along in this world. I could use some advice on how to be happy and successful. I could use some instructions on how to find my way through the confusion and turmoil, since my life has become a mess. But mercy? What good is that?” And that is our problem. God sends us His gifts and we keep trying to mark them “return to sender”—or take them back ourselves and exchange them for something we like better.

But there is nothing better than mercy. It is in His mercy that God opens up His heart to the world, sending forth the pure and holy Lamb of God to be slaughtered in our place, which is mercy in action. As a result of His mercy, you and I do not receive the penalty we deserve; instead, God’s own Son took it upon Himself. That substitutionary gift of Jesus and His death is at the heart of the New Testament Meal, the Sacrament of the Altar, the remembrance of God’s mercy to end all other remembrances.

On the night of their deliverance, God’s people Israel ate that first Passover with mixed emotions: with gratitude and joy, to be sure, but tinged with dread—for the angel of death was passing overhead. Imagine a banquet given in your honor but with live ammunition whizzing over your head. These people knew they had received mercy; they had been miraculously delivered from sure and certain death. 

This, then, was Israel’s Passover, the Old Testament sacramental meal of deliverance. In that meal God’s people dined on the body of the very animal that gave them life by dying in their place. It was a communion of sorts—a communion in the body that died to save.

In the Meal we eat this night there is a communion as well. But it is a communion in a living body, the body of the Lamb of God who has mercy on us. Jesus intervened to rescue us from slavery to sin and death. He was made a curse for us and died upon the cross, giving His body and shedding His blood for the remission of our sins. Jesus, too, was a Lamb without blemish or defect. He had no sins of His own but took upon Himself our sins so that He could die to bring down the ancient curse of death and to end the Father’s wrath against all sin and every sinner. That body of His was the sin-offering. His blood is the sign and seal of our redemption. And when we eat the bread and drink the cup of this Supper, it is a communion in the body and blood of Christ, the Lamb.

As Israel once dined on the flesh that revealed God’s mercy and gave them life for death, so the Church continually dines on the flesh and blood that rescued us once and for all. St. Paul drives this home when He calls the Lord Jesus our “Passover Lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7b). Those lambs who gave their lives to death in Egypt were only a dress rehearsal for the real thing. At the cross, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world gave His body and shed His blood as the ransom price of all the world.

And so at the Lord’s Table this night you and I are given yet again a front-row seat in the great drama that won our salvation. The old song that asks “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” is a sweet thought, but the plain fact is that you and I weren’t there. But tonight the cross comes to us. While we cannot go to Jesus, He comes to us. First at our Baptism and now repeatedly in this holy Supper, the Lamb who shed His blood that we might live says to us, “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” In this sacred memorial Meal, He does more than ask us to remember Him. He Himself actively recalls and gives us once again the fruits of His love and all the benefits of His saving death as He says to us: “Take, eat; this is My body, which was given for you.”

And those two little words “for you” bring us confidence and consolation in this hour. For God’s love is no shadowy abstraction, some warm fuzzy feeling. It is concrete reality. Now sin, death, and hell have been overcome, since Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us. Now we may know for certain that we are not alone in this world, that all the burdens and sorrows of life that threaten to overwhelm us can never rob us of the love of God in Christ our Lord.

His love, you see, is big enough to include the whole sorrowing, hurting world, but it is exact enough to address each and every one of us personally and individually. God’s love is not a general “to whom it may concern” message, some sort of vague “have a nice day” bulk mail flyer or electronic spam memo. In this Supper His love has your own name on it.

So take heart this night. Death and destruction may loom and lurk on every side, but everything that troubles you and all that robs you of your joy is eclipsed tonight in this banquet feast of love. Now sin and death and hell are defeated. Heaven intersects with earth at this altar, and in this eating and drinking we have a foretaste of the feast to come, the wedding banquet of the Lamb and His beloved bride. “Yes, I am coming soon,” He says (Revelation 22:20).

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus,” we reply. “Come soon.” Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. Amen.

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