08 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 2

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God’s Promised Peace

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 15:4-13

This Advent we are learning to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. After all, Advent is a time of waiting, of patiently preparing to receive our Coming King. Even though waiting and being patient do not come easily for us Americans, God does invite us to learn and grow in such virtues. Last week we heard about “Waiting for God’s Promised Justice.” Our normal sense of fairness, and fair play, demands that we get justice as soon as possible. However, God exhorts us to wait for Him to give justice. And justice He gives—in His Son Jesus Christ, in His victory over sin, death, and the devil for us.

Tonight, we focus on “Waiting for God’s Promised Peace.” Isaiah gives us quite the wonderful picture of God’s promised peace: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together.” Wow! What a picture! After all, we know how wolves, leopards, and lions love to prey upon lambs, young goats, and fatted calves. We’ve come to expect such a “natural” food chain in nature. But it’s far from natural, at least as God first designed it. You see, when wolves eat little lambs for breakfast and lions devour fatted calves for supper, we see death—one creature sustaining its life by the death of another. That’s not the way God created His world to work.

And what about that Christmas-sounding line—“and a little child shall lead them”? Oh, we know better, don’t we? Little children cannot lead. Save the leading for older people, more mature people, people who have grown through the school of hard knocks, or experience in life, or politics, people who have gained their wisdom for dealing with the people they must lead. Again, it’s not the way God planned things from creation. You see, most leadership tactics have to stem the tide of the sin, death, and evil that we human creatures have brought into the world and onto ourselves.

But Isaiah’s picture is still God’s picture of promised peace. No more death. No more killing. No more intrigue and shady, back-room deals among authority figures. No, God’s peace brings real peace. It brings a world of creatures living and lying down together without fear of death. It brings the innocence, purity, simplicity, and trust of a little child as the way in which people deal with each other. As Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see that Day! But wait for it we must, because, obviously, we don’t see such a world of peace and innocence right now.

How does our gracious God accomplish this peace? Isaiah gives us another picture: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Again, we hear a familiar Christmas-sounding picture. Let’s ponder this image. First, Isaiah speaks of a stump—a cut down tree, a lifeless hunk of wood sticking out of the ground, just waiting to trip up folks who walk by and don’t see it. Yes, God had to make this stump. It’s a picture of His Old Testament people. They had strayed from Him by worshiping foreign, false gods. They had ignored His many pleas to return to Him in repentance. So God chopped them down. The grand, glorious tree of God’s people had to be cut down and sawn into firewood. Only a stump remained.

That’s what our sin and death do to us. It may be the sin of getting upset with family members, with each other at church, or even with the tired, cranky store clerk who has dealt with all of those other impatient Christmas shoppers before you. Our sin and death may be our sheer greed in wanting only the best Christmas present for ourselves this Christmas. It may be our tendency to place so much attention on the “spirit of the season” and enjoying that “perfect Christmas” that we forget, or minimize, the God who took on our human flesh to give us His life and His Holy Spirit. So God comes to chop down our sinful pride, our impatience, and our self-reliance. That’s why we wait and prepare during Advent.

But Isaiah does not leave us with only the stump of a sawn down tree. The picture that brings us peace comes in that little “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” That tender little twig speaks loudly and clearly: the tree is not completely dead; the tree of God’s people will come back to life. That tender little shoot is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, He comes as a tender little sapling, born of the pure Virgin. But don’t let His fragility in the manger fool you. This tender Root of Jesse brings God’s eternal peace. He ushers in God’s picture of lions and lambs dwelling together. He inaugurates the reign of innocence and purity among His people. This little shoot named Jesus would hang lifeless from a cross—another piece of lifeless, chopped down wood—but He brings the healing peace of God’s forgiveness for our impatience. His spilled blood brings the pardon for our prideful, self-absorbed ways.  And when He rises from the dead, He shows beyond all doubt that “righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” This tender little shoot, whose birth we will celebrate in seventeen short days, brings God’s promised peace. “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

But again, we must wait. We must wait until the celebration of our Lord’s Birth. It’s not Christmas just yet. We must wait until the Last Day to witness and enjoy the picture of peace between lions and lambs, the scene of utter innocence and purity among people.

And what shall we do until that Day? St. Paul says it well:  “Whatever was written in former days”—think of Isaiah, about 700 years before Christ—“was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We wait, but we wait with hope. And hope is no mere wish, as in, “Gee, I hope we can have a white Christmas.” No, hope is as certain as a young Virgin carrying a Baby in her womb for nine months. All the peace of God is wrapped up in the little Infant inside His mother’s womb. It’s just a matter of time before He bursts forth. It’s just a matter of time before His peace reigns supreme for us to see. And so we wait with hope, with confident expectation, with eager anticipation. God’s promised peace does come and will come. It comes in the lifeblood of Jesus that actually gives forgiveness and life. It will come when He will chop down the ways of this God-ignoring world only to reveal the true life of peace and innocence for all eternity.

What else do we do as we wait for God’s promised peace? Listen to St. Paul again: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now there’s a breath of invigorating fresh air in this world where we suffocate from living by the creed of “I gotta have it my way.” Our gracious God and Savior gives endurance to wait. He also gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other. In our world sadly divided by our individualism and our personal likes and dislikes, our gracious God says, “Live together in harmony with each other, because you are in one accord with Me.” In other words, God uses our time of waiting to train us in His promised peace. Better yet, when we, His redeemed people, live in harmony, Savior Jesus is showing how His cross-won peace is already breaking into our world, our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Call it a preview of Isaiah’s peace-filled picture. Call it a foretaste of the feast to come—both on Christmas Day and on the Last Day.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Amen.

01 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 1

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God’s Promised Justice

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13:8-14

We Americans are an impatient lot, aren’t we? When the speed limit sign says “60,” we insist on pushing “70”…at least. When we go to the store, we just expect our favorite products to be on the shelf; and when they’re not, we insist that we just cannot wait a few days. It gets really bad with things like email. We send an email to a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker, and if they don’t respond, say, within 5 minutes—10 at the outside—then we feel we are being ignored, snubbed. Yes, we are an impatient lot, we Americans. We want what we want, and we want it now…if not sooner.

But Advent is a time of waiting. Advent teaches us to wait, to be patient, to persevere. So, this Advent let’s learn how to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. Tonight and the next two Wednesdays we will focus on readings from Isaiah, readings that promise the Savior and His forgiveness, life, and salvation. These promises will teach us how to wait and what to wait for. We will also look to the New Testament reading each week to teach us how to live as we wait for God’s deliverance. How do we Christians live in this time of waiting until our Lord returns on the Last Day with His full and final salvation? Let’s use this Advent season to learn how to wait with Isaiah.

Isaiah lived and proclaimed God’s message about 700 years before Christ. It was a time of prominence for Judah and its capitol city Jerusalem, but the kingdom would soon decline in decades to follow. It was a time of international treaties and alliances as the king of Judah sought to protect his land from invading attackers. God’s people tended to trust those political alliances and solutions for their safety and security more than they trusted God and His promises. It was a time of prosperity as the people of Judah enjoyed their splendid homes, abundant possessions, and nice clothes. Does this sound at all familiar? It’s very much like our day, isn’t it?

So, God sent Isaiah to proclaim His words of judgment and promise to His people in this prosperous, prominent land, safe in its own “homeland security.” And Isaiah had some pretty stern things to say to this people redeemed by God. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’” (Is. 1:2-3). God’s own people were laden with iniquity and dealt with each other corruptly. Isaiah even compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah! God used Isaiah to warn His people that He would have to remove all of their “nice things,” because they did not trust and cling to Him. He would take away “the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments” (Is. 3:18-23) and so on. Well, there went that shopping list! All those treasured possessions from the 8th century B.C. version of the shopping mall and Best Buy would be gone!

But right in the middle of these two sermons of judgment, in the passage we hear tonight, Isaiah gives a sweet promise, a promise of the Lord’s holy mountain. The Lord’s mountain will be “lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Yes, God would have to humble Jerusalem, but He promised to lift it up again. And what would happen on God’s holy mountain? People would invite one another to go up to it “that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Instead of being consumed by and worried over the things of international politics and how to have lots of stuff in nice big houses, God’s people would much rather have His teachings and His paths. Isaiah also says, “[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” God would work His pure, fair, and loving justice. And here’s what it would look like: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” There would be actual, real-life, world peace—not just a dream, but a reality.

Great picture, isn’t it? I’m sure that people who first heard Isaiah’s words would say, “Please, show us this mountain!” Even now, 2700 years later, we want to say, “Please, show us this mountain!” But the people would have to wait for this promised paradise. They would have to wait about 700 years. You see, “the mountain of the house of the LORD” would be built from the wood of a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. The Lord Himself would come and build it, but He would build it by dying on that cross. Yes, God would work His justice, but He would do so through the weakness of His Son being born of a virgin, living a humble, penniless life, suffering rejection and crucifixion, and then rising again on the third day. The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Calvary. His cross shows His ways of mercy, forgiveness, and true life. His path leads us to trust and enjoy Him much more than the national security or seasonal goodies of our day. The Lord would work His justice by conquering our real enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Now, at first, we may say, “Well, they had to wait for the Lord’s promised justice, but we know it’s already come.” Yes, people had to wait 700 years to see how God would give justice by forgiving sins in Christ Jesus. So, why do we need to learn to wait? Don’t we already have God’s justice? Yes, we do. His justice, His righteousness, His forgiveness, comes in Christ Jesus, wrapped in human flesh and bone, hung on a cross, and risen again. But we still wait. We wait for that final grand display of God’s justice when Christ shall return on the Last Day.

But it’s so hard to wait, isn’t it? We are an impatient lot, even though we know the promise fulfilled on Calvary. It’s hard enough to wait until December 25th each year before we start celebrating Christmas. We want the celebration right now, on our terms, with all of the material trappings of the season. We want the picture-perfect Christmas with all the sugary joy and smiling cheer, hot cider and Christmas sweaters, and everyone else doing things our way.

But have you ever noticed how tired, tense, and irritable we can become this time of year? Focusing on ourselves does that! When things don’t go our way, what do we do? Complain. Complain about the driver who cut you off on the way to the mall. Complain about not finding the right gift for that certain someone. Complain if things don’t look, sound, or go as you want in church, at work, or at home. Complain…. Well, you can fill in the blank. We want the perfect celebration of Christmas now, and if we don’t get it, well….

We really need to hear St. Paul’s words in our second reading: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” That’s God’s promised justice! Now that He has conquered our sin and death, we are free to love one another. We are free to take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on our neighbor. We are free to wait for God to deliver the perfect Christmas. We are free because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” We are free to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are free to put off the drunkenness and sensuality and indulgence of this time of year. We are free to put off the quarreling and jealousy that happens at home, at work, and at church.

And how are we free from all that? God has worked His promised justice already in His Son Jesus. God promises something far, far better than the “perfect Christmas.” He promises real, eternal peace that comes only by feasting our eyes, our ears, and our hearts on the Son of God made flesh. Whatever happens to us in the meantime, whatever disappointments we endure, we can persevere. We can wait. You see, when we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” we can resist gratifying our selfish desires. His mercy helps us wait. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Amen.

15 June 2016

Sacred Meditations: Learning to Pray via Podcast

Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray, that is, actually to engage in praying (see Matthew 6:7-13; 7:7-8; Luke 11:1-13). Jesus reminded us of the importance of prayer when He quoted Isaiah 56:7—“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”—as He cleansed the temple of its entrepreneurial distractions. He even told the Parable of the Persistent Widow “to the effect that [we] ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

However, Jesus’ exhortations for us Christians actually to engage in praying—along with St. Paul’s “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)—are too often met with laments of “I’m too busy” or “I just don’t know how to pray.” That goes for pastors as well as laypeople.

For such disregard of our Lord’s Second Commandment—to call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks—and for not trusting His promises to hear and answer us, we do need to repent. We also need to learn to pray…by actually praying.

 Sacred MeditationsEnter a new resource for learning to pray by actually praying: Sacred Meditations - sacredmeditations.org. Utilizing the First Article blessings of modern technology in podcasting and social media, Sacred Meditations is “a short-form podcast (short-cast) for finding peace by meditating on Jesus Christ.”

At Sacred Meditations, you can listen to prayers throughout the Church Year, find prayers to fit various occasions, ponder your deep need for life with the God who loves you, and meditate on the work of His Son Jesus the Christ who bled, died, and rose again to restore you to life–and peace–with God.

What is Sacred Meditations all about?
In our technology-driven Information Age, we have easy access to endless information, news, talk, commentary, and debate about many and various topics, even religious and theological ones. This stirs us up as we wend our way through the many voices and conflicting views, especially when listening to and discussing the hot-button issues of the day.

Sacred Meditations seeks to be different. Here you may find peace by meditating on the person and work of Jesus Christ for you. Here you may find peace by pondering the life that He gives and works in you.

To help you do this, we draw from the the prayers of the Church and classic devotional works of Lutheran piety–works of Johann Gerhard, Johann Arndt, and Johann Starck. Let the devotional insights of these great Christian voices give you the solace you can’t find anywhere else.

We also combine these devotional oases with soothing music to please the ear and calm the soul.
 iTunes Podcast
Why listen to yet another podcast?
Sacred Meditations is no ordinary podcast. It will not take 30 minutes or an hour out of your day. In just 60 seconds (1 minute) you can listen to and pray a prayer of the Church or a prayer for a specific need. Other prayers and meditations run no more than 3 minutes.

We don’t just talk about prayer–we actually pray. We don’t merely talk about Jesus or other matters of faith–we draw you into the joys and the life that God gives you through Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you.

Consider Sacred Meditations your easy access to calm in the frantic busyness of your day!

How can you listen? Visit the Sacred Meditations website and come back often. Subscribe to Sacred Meditations via iTunes. Follow Sacred Meditations on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s the pertinent info.:

    •    Website: http://sacredmeditations.org/
    •    On iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sacred-meditations/id1121860303
    •    On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sacredmeditations/
    •    On Twitter: https://twitter.com/SacMeditations

Feel free to download and keep these prayers and meditations for future use and for our Lord’s peace whenever you need it. Search for prayers and meditations as you need them and want them.

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

06 June 2016

Homily for Trinity 2

"Feasting on Jesus"
Luke 14:15-24

Listen here.

Today we join our Lord Jesus as He dines at the house of a Pharisee. It’s a Sabbath Day, so we also think of remembering the Sabbath Day and gladly hearing and learning God’s Word. Jesus is trying to teach us some table manners in God’s kingdom. When God invites us to His great banquet, He wants us to feast on what He says.

One man tries to impress Jesus and says, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Jesus then answers with a story. A man puts on a great banquet and invites many people. But the invited guests refuse the invitation. It seems they’re just too busy to make it to this feast. So the master invites other guests, people you would never expect to see at a grand social event. And even some of them must be compelled to come to the feast. Even though one man at the banquet table was trying to butter Jesus up, he did catch on. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

As Christians, we are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of the earth and the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom of the earth people eat and drink, sleep and work, rest and play. Here they take care of all their physical and social needs. Here people are very glad to take part in picnics and barbecues, especially on days such as Memorial Day, Father’s Day, or Fourth of July. Sometimes they don’t even need to be invited in order to receive some food. In the kingdom of heaven the food and life are very different. Here the Lord of the Universe, the Creator of heaven and earth, throws a lavish, sumptuous meal. Here the food is far richer, far more nourishing than in the earthly kingdom. But here the invited guests are reluctant to come. It’s as if they’d rather have watery chicken noodle soup than eat the filet mignon that God carefully prepares and freely gives.

So, the Lord Jesus talks about God’s rich banquet table of heavenly food. God the Father prepares a great, rich, sumptuous banquet. He invites us poor beggars on earth to eat and drink with Him at His heavenly supper table. So the question is: How will we earth-bound beggars respond to His gracious invitation? Will we be rude and spurn His invitation? Or will we gladly feast on His divine delicacies?

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true, spiritual banquet. Our heavenly Father is the rich man and host. He has prepared the banquet. He sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary, to live a perfect life, to suffer a horrible death—thus to be slaughtered and prepared by the divine Chef. And just as a good host puts juicy steaks on the barbecue grill, so did the heavenly Father. He allowed His own Son to be roasted on the cross and offered up in fiery, burning love. Yes, Jesus is our Paschal Lamb sacrificed for the sin of the whole world.

But a good host never leaves the filet mignon on the grill permanently. No, when the meat is done, he removes it from the fire and serves it up for his guests to eat and enjoy. It’s in the eating that people are refreshed, nourished, and strengthened. In the same way, our heavenly Father removed Jesus from the fiery grill of the cross, laid Him in the tomb, and raised Him from the dead. Now we and the whole world can feast on this food. Christ Jesus is the world’s true, nourishing Food of Life.

So, wherever Christians gather together, you have God’s banquet table. The preaching of the Gospel is the dish. The servers are the pastors. Jesus is the food. Through the pastor’s mouth the food is laid on the table and served. When the Gospel is preached, this food is served and offered for you. And everyone gets to feast—rich and poor, old and young, learned and unlearned. There are three essential ingredients to God’s feast: first, the dish, that is, the Word of God; second, the waiter, that is, the pastor’s mouth; and third, the guests, those who believe the message of Christ with the heart. When these three things come together, our heart and soul start to eat and say, “Here is a juicy steak. Here Christ is proclaimed. Here the food is the roasted Christ. I get to feast on Jesus. I get to find my strength and joy and comfort in Christ alone.” Whoever believes this with his heart eats and drinks Jesus.

How does this food taste? Well, a good barbecued steak has a delicious flavor. It refreshes body and soul, it satisfies the appetite, and it strengthens the body. In the same way, when you hear and believe the Gospel, you feast on Jesus. This rich, tender filet of Christ nourishes and strengthens your soul. It has the delicious taste of forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and heavenly bliss. This food gives life—life now, life for all eternity, life that only Jesus can give.

Jesus tells us about this food in John 6: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (vv. 53-55) So whoever believes with heart and mind that Jesus Christ has given His body and shed His blood for him or her need not fear death.

So in Jesus you have pure joy, everlasting joy. He is no longer sorrowful or fainthearted. He no longer sweats great drops of blood as He did in Gethsemane. But in Him there is true joy and gladness. And this same Jesus, who is comfort and joy in the flesh, has become your food, served up in the Gospel to be eaten by faith. So when you are forsaken, cast down, oppressed, and assaulted for being Christians, you may run to Jesus. There you revive and strengthen yourselves. Since Jesus, your food, is filled with gladness, joy, and life, you too are filled with gladness, joy, and life. What a glorious banquet it is! And all you have to do is come to the banquet table of Jesus’ pulpit and altar and partake of Christ.

But here is where our Lord laments. He laments over the world’s callousness and indifference. He laments that people—even in His Church—ignore and despise this great, delicious banquet. He laments that so many—even self-proclaimed Christians—have no desire for the preaching of this Gospel, this feast of the roasted Christ. They refuse to come to God’s banquet table. And they excuse themselves with pretty flimsy excuses—real estate to see, animals to take care of or vehicles to test drive, or even family affairs.

Now these things are not evil in themselves. After all, God gives the land, the animals, the vehicles, and especially spouses and children. But Jesus laments when people refuse His banquet of forgiveness and life because they are so attached to enjoying the land, or to using the machines and the technology for work or play, or to arranging so many family activities.

We must learn to put things in proper perspective. We must learn the differences between coming to the banquet of Christ’s kingdom, on the one hand, and enjoying the land, the machines and toys, and the family, on the other. God gives the good things of land, material things, and family to enjoy. He also gives us spouses to avoid immorality. He gives us all family members to love and serve and forgive. But Jesus laments when we put these good gifts from Him over and above coming to His kingdom banquet.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer. First we pray for God’s name to be hallowed, for His kingdom to come, and for His will to be done. Only after these things do we then pray for daily bread—the things of physical and social life. When we put the things of physical and social life before the banquet of the roasted Christ, then our Lord laments. Then we deserve the wrath of God. But as Jesus says in Matthew 6(:33), “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So our first priority in all of life is to hear and learn the Gospel—to feast on Jesus. Only with that nourishment can we truly enjoy the nourishment for  stomach and social life.

You see, our loving and giving heavenly Father puts on this rich feast by giving His Son, and He truly wants us earthly guests to fill His banquet all. So, let’s not pass up this banquet. Let’s invite and bring our family members, our friends, our fellow Christians, and our neighbors to this banquet. After all, in this banquet Jesus says, “You have My righteousness, My life, My comfort, and My peace.” Amen.

01 June 2016

Homily for Trinity 1

"Created for Your Neighbor"
Luke 16:19-31

Listen here.

We have just finished the festival half of the Church year. In Advent we eagerly awaited the coming Christ. At Christmas we celebrated God taking on our human flesh. Epiphany gave us the God-Man Jesus revealing Himself to the world in word and deed. Then came Lent and preparing to go to the cross with our Lord. In the festive season of Easter we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and His glorious gift of life. Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost and the Holy Spirit working the miracle of preaching and hearing the Gospel. Last week, of course, we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Now we shift gears from focusing on the life of Christ to focusing on the life of the Church. The green on the altar reminds us of life, the holy life, the life that Christ lives out through His holy Church. The life of the Church, and of every Christian, goes in two directions. We often pray it after we receive the Lord’s Supper. We pray that the Lord would use His Body and Blood to strengthen us “in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another.” First, trust in God; second, love toward neighbor. Put them together and we see how we are created for our neighbor.

Jesus tells a story to the Pharisees. They were “lovers of money.” In His story, Jesus says there was a certain rich man. To put him in modern terms, rich man wore $1000 suits with bright, fancy ties. He lived in a luxurious mansion, complete with a big screen TV, Blue-ray DVD player, the newest computers, the latest WiFi-operated appliances, and the best sound system. He ate only the best foods: steak, lobster, caviar, etc. But there was also a beggar named Lazarus. He was homeless, just lived on the streets. He was always looking for a handout. So sad…and so annoying! And his skin! Those rashes! Those sores! He really should see a dermatologist. The rich man knew about Lazarus. He saw him walking past the house everyday. As the rich man sat in the comfort of his leather recliner, he thought, “It really is a shame how some people have such bad luck in life.” And off went Lazarus, walking down the street.

Was it a sin for the rich man to be rich? No. Was it a sin for the rich man to hoard his wealth and ignore the need of Lazarus? Yes. Is it a sin for you to have money and own possessions? No. God is the Giver of those good gifts too. Is it a sin for you to hang on to your money and possessions, guarding them and using them only for yourself? Yes. You see God gives you money and possessions for a purpose: not only to provide for your self, but also to love your neighbor. God gives you money and possessions so that you can turn and use them to help and serve your neighbor.

The real problem is not the money. The real problem is not trusting God. Yes, Jesus must preach this sermon to us—the holy Church, people redeemed by His blood. No, you and I don’t fully trust God to supply our need. No, you and I don’t trust God to take care of us day by day. That’s why we scrimp and hoard. That’s why we rely on ourselves. That’s why we always want more and more and more. We do it in our families; we do it in the church. All the while God is watching and saying, “Hey, I gave you that money and stuff so that you could serve your neighbor, not yourselves!”

Lazarus and the rich man both died, and each of them went to their eternal reward. Beggar Lazarus went to heaven. Nameless rich man, who had the good life, went to hell. And in the midst of his torment, the rich man was still blind to his sin. “Hey, Abraham,” he called, “send Lazarus over here to serve me with a couple drops of cold water.” During earthly life, rich man paid no attention to Lazarus. In everlasting torment, rich man thought Lazarus should serve him as a slave.

Sometimes we talk of needing more giving in the congregation. And it’s true: we all could stand to be more generous in the offering and thus promote the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. But we often think and speak in these terms: “Let’s get those other people giving more.” That’s the same selfish thing the rich man said in his hell. “We seem to have a problem. Let’s get other people to solve it for us.” And do you know what God says to that? “Baloney!” He says, “I always give you what you need--even more than you need. You simply don’t trust Me or look to Me.” Do you want to know how to increase giving? It’s simple: Give! To everyone who says, “We need more giving,” the solution is simple: take out your wallet and give.” Don’t expect other people to do it for you. Set the example. Generosity leads to more generosity. Giving leads to more giving.

That’s the way God works. That’s the way God wants His Church to work. Giving leads to more giving. Generosity leads to more generosity. God gives you money and possessions so that you will turn and use them to help and serve your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? Take a hint from the parable. The rich man’s neighbor was right at his gate—right under his nose. In the same way, your neighbor is right under your nose. Your neighbor eats at the dinner table with you, attends worship with you, and works on the job with you. You don’t have to go searching for a neighbor. God is so good and gracious to you that He has already given you neighbors, the people with whom you live, worship, work, and play. You are created for them, not them for you.

This is how God has worked to save you. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came into the world for one purpose: to save you by dying for you—to lay down His life for you, His neighbor. He gave up the privileges of being God and took on human flesh. He gave up His own precious life to serve you. What marvelous generosity! As St. John says: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). St. Paul says the same thing: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

St. Paul is not talking about money or economics when He says that Jesus was rich and became poor. Jesus became poor—became a beggar—by taking our sin into His own body. As Jesus hung on the cross, God looked at Him and said, “You are the poorest, most beggarly sinner. You must die.” So, Jesus died and went through the torment and agony of hell to save us. You see, Jesus had to go there, because that’s where we were. And we deserved to be there, in the same place as the rich man in the story. But Jesus bridged the gulf, the grand canyon, between us and God. When Jesus rose from the dead, He brought us with Him from death into life. Now, we belong in Abraham’s bosom—right along side beggar Lazarus.

So, living the Christian life means learning to look at ourselves as beggars. That’s what we are. We have no claim on God, yet He loves to call us His children and His Church. We don’t deserve anything that God gives us, yet He still takes care of our needs. He lets us keep breathing every night while we sleep. He lets the sun come up in the morning to waken us and give us light. He lets us eat food every day. And we don’t deserve any of this. God is truly rich in mercy. Trusting Christ means learning to see ourselves as beggars who rely only on God. We keep sinning, but Jesus keeps forgiving us. We still fall into trusting ourselves rather than God, but Christ overcomes that sin too. He has already suffered torment for it and killed it.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we come as beggars. Our mouths and our hands are open and empty. But be comforted. Jesus fills our mouths and hands with His own Body and Blood. In this Supper God teaches us to be beggars. He teaches us to trust Him and love our neighbor. When we receive Jesus’ Supper, we trust the forgiveness that He gives us in His Body and Blood. When we receive the Supper, we are also learning to love our fellow beggars as we eat and drink with them. We are beggars, and we need the Lord to feed us with His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

When I say that we are beggars, I am not insulting you. Instead, I’m complimenting you. After all, you and I are free beggars. As we rely on God in Christ for every little thing, we are free to serve our neighbor. You see, beggars have nothing to hold onto, nothing to hoard. And what little they do receive, they always use it to help and serve their fellow beggars. Beggars are created for their neighbor. Amen.

23 May 2016

Homily for the Holy Trinity

"Our Giving God"
John 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-7

Listen here.

How often had Isaiah served in the temple?  How often had he participated in its liturgy?  How well he knew it!  But then came that day, that life-changing day, that day when the earthly scene in front of him melted away and he was left trembling and naked, staring open-mouthed into the very heart of heaven. He saw God. And the sight terrified him.

He saw Yahweh – God – sitting on his throne, high above the earth. The train of his robe flowed swirling down and filled the earthly temple.  He saw six-winged seraphim, angels of fire, above Yahweh, flying and calling out. He heard their song:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

Then Isaiah thought he was in for it, finished. He cried out:  “Woe is me! – I am undone. I am cut off. I am dead meat.” He thought, for sure, that he was about to die.  And so he made confession:  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah realized that he was suddenly in the presence of Truth Himself. Every lie he’d ever told seemed to fill his mouth with a foul, disgusting, polluted taste.

But then something happened, something he could never expect or predict. One of the seraphim took tongs to the altar before God and lifted a live, hot, burning coal. He carried it to Isaiah, and with it he seared the mouth of the seer. He purged the mouth of the prophet. He told Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.” The touch of the living fire of God delivered that gift to him. That day Isaiah became a new man, a man with cleansed lips, and a man with a mission. Now his cleansed lips would speak what his ears heard from God.

Now we come to our Gospel reading. And what a contrast it is! But make no mistake about it: we still see the One whose presence caused Isaiah to tremble in fear. Now, though, He sits, not on a high and lofty throne in heaven, but probably on a dining coach in a humble home on earth. Now He does not wear the great train that Isaiah saw; instead He is clothed in our human flesh and blood. No flying seraphim in sight, but in comes Nicodemus at night. And that darkness describes not only the time of day, but also the condition of Nicodemus’ soul. He was as blind as the darkness outside to Who sat before him. He was as blind as Isaiah was all those times he worshiped at the temple without realizing the terror and awe of God’s unseen presence.

Nicodemus comes eager and ready for some theological chit-chat, maybe even some full-fledged debate. But Jesus cuts right to the heart of what’s on Nicodemus’ heart and mind. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. And how does Nicodemus respond to that?  He argues about how that can even be possible:  “Surely, an old man can’t creep back into his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” But Jesus does not back down.  He cuts to the heart some more. He cuts right to the point of rebirth and new life:  “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

And what did you have to do to be born, Nicodemus?  What preparations did you make? What decisions? What efforts? None! Absolutely none. Your first birth—that gift of life—came to you as a free gift—unasked, unsought, unmerited. And so does being born again. You don’t have to creep back into your mother’s womb. You don’t have to do a single, solitary thing. You only have to receive the gift—the gift of entering into God’s Kingdom by the Spirit in the water.

You see, Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to Baptism. When he says, “You must be born again,” He invites everyone to Baptism. Don’t lose the passive. “BE born.” He did not say: “go, rebirth yourself; go, decide to be born again.” Instead, Jesus is telling you that you need the gift that only water and the Spirit can give, a gift from Him to you.  And here’s why you need it: so that you can see and know who the true God is. “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).

That’s the chief problem of our flesh born of flesh: we are blind to God. Sure, we may know and believe that He’s “out there somewhere,” but we view Him in a very dark light. We see Him as the rule-maker and the joy-squelcher. We see Him as the one Who demands this and that. We see Him as the One determined to make us miserable by not letting us do all the so-called “fun” things we want to do. We view Him as the God who says “No,” the God who is out to get us, the God who makes us pay for all the times we disregarded Him and His rules.

That’s the God Isaiah was afraid he had met in the temple. It’s why he cried out: “Woe is me!”  That’s the God Nicodemus had bargained with his whole life—trying to buy him off, butter him up, or rub him down by frantically keeping all the rules. He came to Jesus to hear if there were any rules he might have missed. After all, he sure didn’t have the peace that he should have had. Most likely, he had that nagging question rattling in his head and haunting his heart: “Have I done enough?” So he wants Jesus to tell him if there’s something more he needs to worry about in order to serve God.

But there’s only one problem. That God does not exist. Isaiah discovered this with the touch of a burning coal and with the words that delivered the gift of forgiveness. Nicodemus discovered it too, when God in our flesh said to him: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Did you catch that, Nicodemus? Not “does,” but “believes.” That is, whoever believes and receives the Son of Man who is lifted high on a cross, whoever believes and receives the crucified and dead Son of God, the risen and victorious Lord of Life, that person receives the free, undeserved, unasked for gift of eternal life.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

The cross, then, shows that our God does not deal with us by means of pay backs or just desserts. Our second reading today asks, “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” The answer is, “No one!” God is not a God who is out to take from you. That’s flesh-born-of-flesh thinking!  The Spirit shows that God, the true God, the merciful God sets His heart on giving Himself to you. He is our giving God. And He is the only true God, the blessed Holy Trinity—the Father who gives the Son into our flesh to suffer and die for us; the Son who gives His life into death and resurrection so that we may not die but live; the Spirit who gives us a new birth in Baptism. He brings us to faith in the Son, so that the Son may present us blameless before the Father, clothed in His own holiness, alive with God’s own life.

Today many of you who have been baptized will come to the Table. Today your lips will be touched with the living Body and Blood of the Son of God.  And suddenly you are there with Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips.  Your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.”  That’s the gift of life from the God who delights in giving, the Most Holy, Most Blessed Trinity in whose presence we are privileged to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising Him and singing, now and forever:  “Holy, holy, holy.”  Amen.

17 May 2016

My Open Break-Up Letter to Target

Dear Target,

In case you haven’t noticed, I have not stopped by for one of our formerly frequent and regular shopping dates in quite a while now. Since I want to be responsible and mature, I want to let you know why. Believe me, it’s not me; it’s ALL YOU!

Your two-timing dalliances with radical left-wing causes have revealed the real you. It is painfully obvious that you want to flirt with the popular, cause celeb, agenda du jour crowd rather than simply, faithfully commit to a steady relationship of selling merchandise that many people want.

First, there was the ad featuring gay dads and the same-sex wedding registry, when you cozied up to a mere 3.8% of the U.S. population. Suddenly and inexplicably the other 96.2% of us who (used to) frequent your stores for simple shopping needs were branded as “haters”?

Then, there was the whole phasing out of “gender-based signage” thing. Somehow, far beyond reason and common sense, we are supposed to ignore the objective, biological reality that the whole human race is nicely and evenly comprised of both males and females? While blue for boys and pink for girls may certainly be an arbitrary social construct, and a recent one at that, boys and girls of all ages do generally have different interests, tastes, and even needs regarding clothing, linens, and hygiene products. And they want to find those products with ease and efficiency. Does that natural diversity suddenly mean nothing to you?

The final nail in the coffin of our former relationship came when you decided to woo the very tiny “transgender” population. (Is it a whopping 0.3% of the population, or a mere 0.03%?). You actually said, “[W]e welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity. ...Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.”

If “everyone deserves to feel like they belong,” what about the innocent, unsuspecting grandmothers, mothers, wives, single ladies, teen juniors, and little girls who will now be easy prey for sexual predators merely posing as “transgenders”? Your indiscretion now exposes them to harm and tells them that their own privacy needs no longer “belong.”

So, madam Target, you and I must part ways. I can easily find the toiletries, greeting cards, and other merchandise I want at more faithful places, such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, not to mention locally-owned businesses. I have urged and will continue to urge people I know—especially the women in my life—to take their shopping elsewhere, where they can truly “belong” and be safe.

Yes, I have signed the pledge to boycott you for your most recent dalliance with the “party crowd,” and I will keep urging others to do the same. I wonder, is your flirtation with only 1 out of 2,400 people in the U.S. actually worth the loss of millions of shoppers and billions of dollars?

Formerly yours and good riddance!

16 May 2016

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

"What Does This Mean?"
Genesis. 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Listen here.

“‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” It’s that famous question we Lutherans have learned to love so well, especially as we’ve learned the Catechism. “What does this mean?” It’s an excellent question. It’s what the Christian faith is all about. You see, faith in Christ is not a matter of knowing about Jesus. No, faith is a matter of receiving what Jesus says and does for you. It’s one thing to know about medication. It’s quite another to receive the dose of medicine that the doctor gives.

And that’s what Pentecost Day is all about too. It’s one thing to know the story of and about Jesus and His dying and rising. It’s quite another thing to have that good news given to you so that you trust it and cling to it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He teaches you to say, “What does this mean?” to the wonders of God’s salvation in Jesus.

The Tower of Babel: What Does This Mean?
If we want to get a handle on Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time. It happened about 100 years after Noah navigated the Flood, after the water had receded and the dry land appeared once again. Off in a plain called Shinar, a region called Babylon—today we call it Iraq—they built a tower. Who is “they”? Ambitious people; people trying to find purpose and meaning in life; people just like us. They had great technology; they had great man-power; they had great ingenuity. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” A skyscraper into the heavens. A temple shrine for a top floor suite. An architect’s dream. A contractor’s masterpiece.

But there was one problem. Why did they build it? They said with their own lips: “let us make a name for ourselves.” Just like you and I, they wanted to protect their reputations. Just like you and I, they wanted to be known for their accomplishments. Just like you and I, they thought they knew best how to be their own gods or how best to get to God. But, you see, they could never get to God. No tower can go high enough. No person can get religious enough. But God came down to them! “Look what they can do,” God said. “They can use all their technology, all of their modern ways, to make a name for themselves. They like to rely on themselves. They like to crowd Me out of their lives and their daily activities.” Just like you and I! So, God confused their language and scattered them. For the people of Babel, talking turned to babble. They went their different ways. They talked their different tongues.

What does this mean? Their self-seeking sin separated them from God and from each other. They refused to trust God. Now how would He talk to them? What language would He use? Now they couldn’t even talk to—let alone trust—each other. Just like you and I!

Jesus’ Words on the Spirit: What Does This Mean?
Many centuries later, God would come down yet again to deal with the people of planet earth. This time He would come for a different purpose: to rescue them from their self-seeking sin, to bring them back to Himself, to reunite them with each other. God came down in Jesus, first a baby, then a toddler, then a teenager, then an adult—just like you and me. The night before He would die on the bloody cross, Jesus consoled His grieving disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

What does this mean? Jesus was about to leave. Someone else would come. That Someone Else would be the Holy Spirit. What would He do? He would comfort Jesus’ disciples by reminding them of everything Jesus said and did. Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.” Jesus gives and delivers His cross-won peace through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther proclaimed it this way in 1532: “This is surely a most excellent comfort, so that no Christian need ever wonder—whether he’s from Jerusalem, Rome, or wherever on earth, outside in the field or in the house—how he will ascend into heaven, for it will be so. God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires to be with him and make their abode with him. This promise we have here on earth in the Word and experience it in our hearts through faith; but in the life to come it will also finally be fulfilled.” (II:38-39) And what does this mean for your day-to-day life now? Luther continues: “Now, to have God dwelling with us here on earth means nothing else than that all we do, speak, think, and endure will be God pleasing, whether we eat, drink, work, rise up, go to bed, or pray, study, sing, or read; it will all be pleasing to him…. When God dwells with a person, that individual becomes mightier than death, devil, hell, thunder and lightning, and all evil. That is not only a precious comfort but also a wondrous delight and glory” (House Postils, 2:180-81).

Pentecost Day: What Does This Mean?
Now, all this leads up to Pentecost Day. The Lord Jesus had left His Eleven apostles 10 days earlier. In those ten days they had chosen a replacement for Judas. Matthias got their number back to Twelve. Then came the big day: Pentecost—the Fiftieth Day. A loud wind sounded. In the Scriptures “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word. And then came the tongues, tongues of fire. But tongues don’t belong on top of the head. Tongues belong in the mouth. Tongues are for speaking. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Many nationalities and many languages were there. But “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Holy Spirit and speaking and hearing—they all go hand in hand.

What does this mean? Blessed Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel. They exclaimed, “‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’” No matter what tongue they spoke, they heard the universal language. What universal language is that? The wonders of God, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The languages coming from the Babel curse would now be used for Gospel blessings! Blessed Pentecost also fulfills the promise of the coming Holy Spirit. God promised it centuries earlier through the prophet Joel (2:28): “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Jesus promised the Spirit to His disciples before He went to the cross: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26).

What does this mean? The Holy Spirit has come and still comes for you. Don’t look for the spectacular, spooky “Holy Ghost” that the Charismatics and Pentecostals portray. And don’t look for the speaking in strange-sounding tongues that the Charismatics and Pentecostals preach so loudly. If anything, that sounds more like Babel that disunites, rather than Pentecost that unites. No, look for the testimony of Jesus. That’s what unites us. He’s your Savior. The wonders of God are Jesus’ perfect life, His innocent suffering, His cruel death, His glorious resurrection and His victorious ascension. God’s wonders in Jesus are your wonderful confidence.

An unknown African preacher in the 6th century gives us a good way to receive the “speaking in tongues”:
Now the love of God was to gather together the Church all over the world. Consequently, while a single man, if he received the Holy Spirit, could speak in every tongue, now the one Church in its unity, which is established by the Holy Spirit, speaks in every tongue.

And so if anyone says to one of us: “You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?” he should reply: “I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that his Church would speak in every tongue?” (For All the Saints, vol. II, p. 187)
The Holy Spirit has a simple and singular job: He delivers Christ Jesus to you. When Christ is preached for your forgiveness, the Holy Spirit is doing His job. When you are baptized, the Holy Spirit washes you into Christ’s death and resurrection. When you confess your sins and hear spoken forgiveness, the Holy Spirit enlivens you with the Word. When you eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, the Holy Spirit sanctifies your mouth and body with Jesus’ perfect life and soothing forgiveness. When the Holy Spirit is doing His work, you won’t focus on Him, but on Savior Jesus.

What does all of this mean? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Amen.

09 May 2016

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

"Comfort in Persecution"
John 15:26-16:4

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And He is ascended—“gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet” (Ps. 47:5). And now He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). And God the Father “put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

But we find ourselves in the same spot as the disciples. No more seeing Jesus—instead, walking by faith that He keeps His promise to be with us always; instead, living behind enemy lines in a fallen world hostile to Jesus, hostile to His followers, hostile to His Gospel. Jesus warned His disciples and us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn. 15:18-20).

That’s how Jesus Himself leads us into our Gospel reading. Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us two themes: first, about the Holy Spirit, and second, about the persecution we may expect with 100% certainty.

Who is this Holy Spirit? Jesus says He “proceeds from the Father.” He’s no mere energizing lightning bolt from heaven. Nor is He some cosmic force that, properly felt and channeled, aides a Jedi-in-training in conquering the “dark side” and blowing up the latest version of a death star. The Holy Spirit is a Person—a Person of the Godhead. Since He proceeds from the Father, He is God, just as the Father and just as the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father. And all of this from eternity—never a time when the Father did not exist, never a time the Son did not exist, and never a time the Spirit did not exist.

The Greek word for “proceeds” gives the picture of a soldier marching out on a mission. The Holy Spirit certainly marches out to carry out the mission of God to bring Jesus to you and you to Jesus. That word for “proceeds” can also give the image of a “flowing forth”—like a little stream that flows from a spring of water. As Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit” (Jn. 7:37-39). It’s what we confess when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed).

Jesus says three things about the Holy Spirit to give us the ultimate in consolation as we walk by faith while we live behind enemy lines. First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraklete,” “the Helper,” the “Comforter.” Don’t think of a fluffy comforter keeping you cozy warm on a chilly night. Instead, think of a comforter—an advocate—who comes along side you and comforts you before a judge when you stand accused. The devil accuses you before God’s throne of judgment day and night (Rev. 12:10). But that’s where the Holy Spirit performs His best work on your behalf as He intercedes for you. Your own conscience accuses you, because you know you do not and cannot keep God’s Law. You falter and stumble at loving God with every fiber of your being. You struggle with loving the neighbors whom God has given you. But, again, the Holy Spirit comforts and intercedes for you. He holds before you the comforting promises of God, His grace, His forgiveness, His gift of eternal life—all through Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Next, Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of Truth.” He guides the apostles and all believers into all truth. Before our text, Jesus said the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Just a few verses after our text Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13). When the Holy Spirit guides you and your fellow Christians into all truth, He guides you to Jesus. Jesus Himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) wrapped up in flesh and blood. When you know Jesus, when you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism, you know the truth—the truth of sin, the truth of God’s forgiveness, the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and devil. As Pastor Johann Gerhard said, the Holy Spirit “thus empowers us inwardly by the Word of Truth. Like unto the finger of God, He inscribes Christ into our hearts and ignites in us true knowledge of God…. He creates and works in our hearts the fact that we are truth” (Postilla, vol. I, p. 444).

Third, Jesus says the Spirit, “the Helper,” “the Spirit of Truth,” will bear witness about Him. The Holy Spirit does not want to draw attention to Himself. (Sorry, Pentecostals and Charismatics!) No, the Holy Spirit wants to draw attention to Jesus. He works in your heart and mine to comfort us with Jesus. He etches the Truth who is Jesus on our hearts and minds. But He does not do this mysteriously or only in the unseen, hidden recesses of our inward selves. The work of Jesus taking on our flesh, restoring our human lives, dying on the cross, and rising again the third day are objective facts. But, as Luther says, “If the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried, but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed. In the Word He has the Holy Spirit bring this treasure home and make it our own” (LC II:38-39). The Holy Spirit comes to you and works in you, bearing witness to Jesus, through the Word and the Sacraments. That’s where and how He works faith, when and where it pleases God. The Holy Spirit gives comfort and gives truth only by the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection. This alone comforts. This is the heart of all Truth.

The disciples were quite distressed when they could no longer visibly see their resurrected Lord. And we find our selves in the same predicament—not seeing Jesus, walking by faith, and stuck for a time behind enemy lines in this fallen world. Is it any wonder the world looks on Jesus’ followers as hopelessly behind the times, or dusty relics from a bygone era, or sorely out of step with modern progress and enlightenment, or even as annoying bumps in the road on the way to ultimate “freedom” in sexual expression and control by those elites who know what’s best for the rest of us? The Jesus followers have His comforting Spirit, His Spirit of Truth. The world's so-called truth, or truths, simply do not measure up. In fact, the Truth of Jesus exposes the world for the dark, lying place it truly is. The Jesus followers have THE Truth of Jesus, His forgiveness, His life, His way of life, His meaning for all of life, and His freedom to be the children of God.

So Jesus prepares us: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you”—or exiles you from the public square, or levies massive fines when you won’t abide by their agenda du jour, or enacts policies to change your bathroom habits, or judicially tries to change the truth of what marriage really is, or seeks to keep you, your faith, and your ability to express your faith within the confines of your own home—“will think he is offering service to God.” Jesus prepares us to live under such persecution behind enemy lines. He also sends His Holy Spirit to give us His consolation, to strengthen and sustain us.

St. Peter’s words are most fitting and really say all that we need: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).

This is your comfort in persecution behind the enemy lines of this fallen world. You have the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, proceeding from the Father, to give you life and hope and consolation. He gives you a heart of flesh to love Jesus and love your neighbor, even when that neighbor seeks to string you up and run you through. He gives you a heart of flesh to walk by faith and in God’s statutes, whatever the cost. And He gives you this comforting, true, and Spirit-filled promise: “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:28). Amen.

06 May 2016

Homily for the Ascension of Our Lord

"Ascension Blessing"
Luke 24:44-53

Listen here.

For this first half of the Church Year—the festival half—we have followed the life of Jesus. We have followed Him from His silent conception in the womb of His virgin Mother to the red, wrinkled infant lying on straw in a feeding trough. We have followed Him from the young toddler receiving the worship of the Wise Men to the 12-year old lad learning and teaching in the Temple. We have followed Him from John the Baptizer proclaiming Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) to the water pouring over Him, the Spirit descending upon Him, and the Father declaring, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Jesus then went into the desert to be tempted by the devil as He firmly held onto God’s saving purpose. Then we journeyed with Him through the fulfillment of that purpose—Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Good Friday and Easter are certainly the high-point of the story, but they are not the end of the story. So we’ve followed Jesus forty more days. Now we see Him lifting up His hands to give a blessing and then being carried up to heaven.

Let’s be clear on one thing about Jesus’ Ascension. It does NOT mean that He has gone away. Before He ascended, Jesus did promise that He would be with us always and to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). He did say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; Josh. 1:5). What, then, does Jesus’ Ascension mean? It means that Jesus no longer shows Himself visibly to our physical eyes. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if He would still show Himself to our sense of sight, as He did before His resurrection. We would have to wonder where He might be this evening. Would He be here in St. Louis, or half-way around the world in, say, Istanbul? We would have to admit that if He’s there, then He’s not here. But since Jesus has ascended, His people half-way around the world, and here in this room, and in various other places, know that He is with them. He promised it, and He always keeps His promises.

How can Jesus do that—be present where we cannot see Him and in many places at once? Only Jesus knows how He can do that, and it’s silly for us to try and figure it out. The bright cloud that “took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) tells us that. This was no ordinary cloud. This was the bright cloud that led Israel on their journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. This was the cloud that stood above the two angels on the ark of the covenant. This was the bright cloud that appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. This bright cloud was the guarantee of God’s presence for His people, to lead them and bless them. So this bright cloud marks Jesus’ re-entry to the realm of God. We cannot see that realm; we cannot measure it; we cannot witness what happens there. But it is just as real as anything we can see, measure, or witness.

Jesus did not take a space shuttle ride or travel at warp speed to the other side of the galaxy. He rose up a little way above the earth and “a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Jesus Himself is not gone; just the physical sight of Him is withdrawn. Now Jesus is present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things—and He’s still a man, a man fulfilled and glorified. It’s what we confess when we say that He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” That right hand is not a specific place. It’s the whole power and authority of God that Jesus, true God and also true Man, gets to exercise—for us and for our blessing.

That is the true joy of Jesus’ Ascension. After He led His disciples “out as far as Bethany,” He lifted “up His hands and blessed them.” He was still blessing them as He was “carried up to heaven” and being taken out of their sight. Luke does not tell us what words Jesus spoke in that blessing, and we really don’t need to know. Instead, let’s look at His hands. In those hands raised in blessing we can read the meaning and blessing of Jesus.

These are the hands that pushed at Mary’s breast in our human littleness and frailty. These are the hands that could learn to hold a pen and write the words of Scripture that Jesus knew so well by age 12. These are the hands that worked with hammer and saw, thus sharing in our work and blessing our labor. These are the hands that touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute to open our eyes of faith and loose our tongues to sing His praise. These are the hands that held the pale cold hand of a little girl and gave her back to her grieving mommy and daddy—giving us the hope of the resurrection of the body and being reunited with those we love who have departed in the faith. We can read just how often Jesus stretched out His hands and touched and grasped with that personal, one-to-one touch of love and healing. He was there, giving His blessing and His healing, for each one that needed Him, using His hands to take hold of each one. And never forget that moving scene when, after a long and busy day, Jesus continued His work of healing and blessing well into the night: “When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40).

These are the hands that gathered the little children into His arms to hug them and bless them. These are the hands that grabbed Peter when he looked away from Jesus and began to sink. These are the hands that broke the bread which had been blessed and gave them His body to eat. These are the hands that Thomas held and overcame his doubt.

But here is the biggest thing of all. These hands of Jesus--extended in blessing as He is taken up and hidden from physical sight--these are the hands that show the print of the nails. These are the hands still scarred from the jagged wounds of the cross. These are the hands that speak the greatest blessing, the super-sized blessing, the blessing for each of us now and into all eternity, and how it was won for us on the cross. Wouldn’t it be great to see a painting in which the artist depicts the scars in Jesus’ hands in the shape of a cross?

That’s the real blessing of Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus took on Himself all our wrongs, all our sins, and He bore the punishment for them. We deserved to be forsaken by God, but Jesus was forsaken in our place. Instead of being forsaken, now we are forgiven. Because of what Jesus did there on that cross, we are made alive again as God’s children. We are healed from the plague of sin and death. Because Jesus’ hands were stretched out on the cross and pierced with spikes, now, today, they are stretched out in blessing on His disciples, on you and me. Jesus ascends and blesses with the marks of the cross in His hands. No cross, no blessing. That’s why the sign of the blessing is made in the shape of the cross. That’s what Jesus’ Ascension means: life and blessing won and given.

No, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Quite the opposite. He is with us now even more powerfully than when He walked the earth visible to people around Him. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present Lord and Savior. Because He is with us, His Christians cannot be destroyed. He has overcome the world, and His victory is ours as well. And so He leads us, so He gives us strength, so He gives us courage, and finally He will bring us to that bright cloud of heaven. And so we go on from the Ascension just as the disciples did: “with great joy.” Amen.