The Third Sunday in Lent
March 19, 2017
St. Luke 11:27-28
And it happened, as He spoke these things, that a certain woman from the crowd raised her voice and said to Him, "Blessed is the womb that bore You, and the breasts which nursed You!" But He said, "More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!" Luke 11:27-28
During Lent we watch our Lord Jesus do battle against the devil. It can feature the devil tempting Jesus to sin, or Jesus casting out a demon. The most common form of the battle, however, is an argument. Christ’s battle against the devil is a theological argument about Christian doctrine.
People argue against arguing about Christian teaching. Those who will not contend for the true doctrine refuse to do battle against the devil. But the devil does not refuse to do battle against them. They lose by default. There is no such thing as spiritual neutrality. The church on earth is the church militant. She fights or she dies. Just as Jesus fought against the devil and his lies, so must his church.
Doctrinal indifference concedes to Satan his victory over souls. The devil isn’t a cartoonish character with a pointed tail and a pitchfork in his hand. He’s not a scary looking monster who growls at you when you are walking by. He’s a liar and the father of lies. His chief weapon is false teaching. By teaching lies about Jesus he destroys true faith in Jesus.
The truth about Jesus is also the truth about his mother, Mary. In Mary’s Magnificat, we sing Mary’s words, “For behold, from this day all generations will call me blessed.” The woman from the crowd called her blessed. She cried out to Jesus, “Blessed be the womb that bore you and the breasts which nursed you.” Blessed be Mary, the mother of God.
Here we need to avoid two extremes. On the one hand, we do not pray to Mary, seek her guidance or help, or rely on her to obtain grace for us from God. Our Lord Jesus tells us to pray to our Father in heaven and he promises that our heavenly Father hears our prayers. He does not tell us to pray to his mother and he does not promise that she can hear or answer our prayers. To elevate Mary to the position of Co-Redemptrix is to dishonor Christ.
On the other hand, we do not take issue with what the pious woman cried out in her spontaneous confession of faith, for when she blessed Mary she was blessing Jesus. St. Luke doesn’t tell us how much this woman knew about Jesus, but when she blessed Mary for being the mother of Jesus, she was blessing her for being the mother of God.
This is a vital truth that Satan would love to overthrow, but cannot. In the early church there were persistent attacks from heretics who would not acknowledge the truth that Jesus is true God and true man at the same time. The teaching of God’s word is clear. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary.
He is one person. There is only one Lord Jesus Christ. There is not the human Jesus here on earth and the divine Jesus up in heaven. He is one Lord Jesus and he fills all things in heaven and on earth. He is one, yet he has two natures: divine and human. Whatever he does, God does, because he is God. Whatever he does, a man does, because he is a man. St. Paul writes of Jesus, “In him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” (Colossians 2:9) There is a union – we call it the personal union – between the two natures in Christ so that whatever he does God does and a man does. Whatever is done to him is done to God and to a man. This is because he is true God and true man. Therefore, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she gave birth to God because Jesus is God.
During the fifth century, there was an archbishop of Constantinople by the name of Nestorius. He denied that Mary was the mother of God. He denied, in effect, the personal union of the two natures in Christ. His teaching was condemned at the Council of Ephesus where the title, “God-bearer” was given to Mary. She is indeed the God-bearer, the mother of God. The child she bore and nursed at her breasts was, is, and will always be the almighty God. We join this unnamed woman in crying out to the Lord Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts which nursed you.”
I hope you don’t find this ancient history lesson boring. It is a very timely lesson for us, because here in America, the ancient Nestorian heresy is alive and well. His doctrine was condemned by the Council of Ephesus and again at the Council of Chalcedon, but his error is commonly taught throughout American Protestantism. Just refer to Mary as the mother of God sometime and see what kind of reaction you get from your Protestant friends. I’ve even heard Lutherans object to this title. If Mary is not the mother of God then God didn’t really become a man. If God didn’t really become a man, then we don’t really have a Savior, for only God can save us from our sins. Only the sacrifice of God in the flesh can satisfy the justice of God. To challenge the personal union – the union of the divine and human natures in the person of Christ – is to attack the Christian faith.
As blessed as Mary was to give birth to God in the flesh, there is something more blessed than that. Jesus said in response to the woman from the crowd, “More than that, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” You who bear God in your heart, are even more blessed than she who bore God in her womb.
These are wonderful words! To hear God’s word and to keep it is to have God within us, even as God was within Mary. Some argue that Mary had to be sinless to be the God-bearer. That doesn’t follow. It’s like arguing that we must be sinless in order for God to dwell within our hearts. But if we hear God’s word and keep it, God lives within us. God cannot be separated from his word. When we lay hold of God’s word, trust in it, put our confidence in it, God himself lives within us. Where his word is, there God is.
To keep God’s word is to keep God. God makes himself known by his word. God’s word is written. It is written in the Holy Scriptures, the prophetic and apostolic writings gathered together in the book we call the Bible. God’s word is preached. It sounds forth from pulpits all over the world as ministers sent by God preach out loud in words God’s people can hear the same word that is written down in the Bible. God’s word is incarnate. The Word became flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was made man. The word of God brings God. God comes to us in his word.
Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. The word keep means obey when it refers to keeping God’s law. We keep the law by doing what the law requires. God doesn’t give us his law to disobey but to obey. To keep God’s law is to delight in doing it because this is what God wants us to do. It is to ponder his holy will for our behavior as he teaches it to us in his word and to conform our lives to it.
The word keep means believe when it refers to keeping the gospel. To believe the gospel is to receive the benefits the gospel bestows: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. The Bible often uses the word keep as another word for faith. In St. John’s Gospel Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” It is as if he said, “If anyone believes the gospel, he will never see death.”
The word keep literally means to hold onto, to guard, to hold fast to. To keep isn’t to let God’s word go in one ear and out the other. Our generation is quite spoiled when it comes to the art of listening, of paying attention. It’s like a mass epidemic of attention deficit disorder. You cannot open a magazine or watch a news story on television without seeing all sorts of graphics designed to grab your attention. Even preachers resort to power point demonstrations in their sermons! I’ve heard pastors say that there’s no point in preaching for more than ten minutes because nobody can pay attention any longer than that. It’s as if we need to be entertained while being taught or we’ll zone out into lala land.
“We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his word, but hold it sacred, and gladly hear and learn it.” This is the explanation to the Third Commandment that we learn in Luther’s Small Catechism. This is the source of tremendous blessing. I’ve been reading, listening to, and studying theology for many years, and I am constantly learning and relearning – not sterile and irrelevant facts that I can do without – but the wisdom that comes from God himself and that imparts true and eternal life.
“Blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” So says Jesus, the Word made flesh, who for our sakes fulfilled every word written of him in the books of the prophets. God’s word had to be kept. The promise of forgiveness had to be fulfilled. Jesus alone could keep it. Jesus kept it. It sent him to the cross. On the cross he suffered for the sins of those who despised his word, neglected it, disregarded it, disobeyed it, and denied it. He took away the sins for which he suffered. He destroyed the power of the devil. No longer can the devil claim us by luring us into sin, trapping us in confusion and unbelief, and ruling over our souls. We have in God’s written word and in God’s preached word the Word made flesh who by keeping God’s word faithfully all the way to his death on the cross, has delivered us from sin, death, and the power of the devil.
“The kingdom of God has come upon you, Jesus says.” It has already arrived. Here is how the Catechism puts it:
The Holy Spirit comes to us and lives within us. He comes to us by the word that we read, the word that we hear, the word that we keep. God’s word is a living word, a word imbued with the power of Christ’s obedience and suffering. The word we keep is what keeps us. When our strength is failing, our health is deteriorating, and our faith is flickering, the word of God sustains us in the true faith.
There is nothing we own in this world that is as precious as God’s word. Keeping God’s word is keeping God. Where his word lives he lives. Mary became the God-bearer by conceiving in her womb and giving birth to him who is the eternal God. We, too, bear God within us.
Rolf D. Preus