26 September 2014

How Do You View the Church?

From my congregation's newsletter, The Hope Lutheran, for October 2014 (a fitting topic for this month as we gear up to celebrate Reformation Day):

In the Nicene Creed we confess that we believe in “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” What is that one Church? Our Augsburg Confession says, “The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered” (AC VII:1).

Yet there seem to be competing “mental pictures” that people have for understanding the Church these days. How do you view the Church, and how do you view your place in the Church?

The Church as a Fitness Center?
One “mental picture” sees the Church as a fitness center. People see the local congregation as a spiritual version of Bally Total Fitness or Gold’s Gym. The “fitness center church” strives to offer a place where people can gather for programs of spiritual exercise and fitness.

At a fitness center, some people like to run or walk on treadmills, while others like to lift weights or do aerobics, and still others choose to swim laps. Many fitness centers hire specialized trainers who set up individualized workout routines “just for you.”

When you view the Church as a spiritual “Gold’s Gym,” then you will look for those activities and exercises that suit your personal preferences for getting into “spiritual shape.” Your sin will merely be a matter of getting a little “flabby around the middle.” Worship services or Bible classes will merely be exercise machines for building your spiritual muscles. And if the religious fitness center (the local congregation) does not have the equipment or the programs that get you in the shape that you want to be in, you may try to find another fitness center that offers what you want.

The Church as a Business?
A second “mental picture” views the Church as a business that offers religious goods and services. As at the grocery store or the mall, people browse and shop at churches for the goods and services that they “need” or want. The purpose of the “business church” is to attract and keep the customers (called “members”). This leads to competing with the “branch office” down the street and viewing the pastor as the store manager who must keep the “customers” happy at all costs.

“Business churches” might be like 7-Eleven or QuikTrip. They offer similar goods and services, and the customer simply chooses which one to go to based on personal likes. Or the “business church” might be like Barnes and Noble, where you go to get some information and reading material. That information might be vital for life, or it might simply be a nice diversion from the hustle and bustle of life.

One congregation may offer some goods or services that a congregation down the street does not. One “branch office” might offer a better youth group, a second might focus on older adults, and a third might offer a unique kind of worship. When you look for the “business church,” you find one that satisfies you right now, but if that changes, then you go shopping for another church.

The Church as a Clubhouse?
A third “mental picture” views the Church as a clubhouse at the country club. After golfers finish their 18 holes, they gather in the clubhouse to enjoy refreshments and conversation. The “clubhouse church” seeks to give people with a common interest a place to gather, socialize, and enjoy each other’s company.

The “clubhouse church” is a welcome sight after a week of grueling work. People expect to see friends and acquaintances. They want to sit down, relax a bit, and just chat. They might have an occasional organized event (the worship service), but what really counts is seeing people and talking with them over the refreshments of choice. If someone new walks in, people may look at him, think, “Who’s that guy?” but then quickly return to their conversation and refreshments. If, by chance, too many new people enter the clubhouse, you can seek out another “clubhouse church” more to your liking.

These “mental pictures” of the Church all have something in common: they offer some personal fulfillment for you. If you are not satisfied with what they offer, you simply go elsewhere to find something that does satisfy. Each of these “mental pictures” may have a grain of truth, such as the first picture with its health theme. But each of these “mental pictures” is quite questionable! Here are some better, more Scriptural, pictures of the Church.

The Church as a Hospital
When something is wrong with you, and you need help in fighting an illness, you go to a hospital for healing. The doctor diagnoses your illness and prescribes the healing medicine. When you are seriously ill or critically wounded, you stay in the hospital for a long time and faithfully receive the medicine and treatments prescribed for you. The healing may take some time, first as you recover your strength and then as you go through therapy.

In the Church, you are the sick patient and Great Physician Jesus comes to heal you. Jesus said of Himself, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick…. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13). Great Physician Jesus uses His Commandments like x-rays and blood tests to see where the sickness of sin is plaguing you.

In this hospital called the Church, Jesus gives you the healing medicine of His forgiveness and life. Jesus said, “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life” (Jn. 6:63). Jesus also gives His Body and Blood for healing medicine: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54).

In this hospital called the Church, we are all patients who must rely on Physician Jesus to heal us. This is what unites us: we all are sick with sin and death, we all receive Jesus’ healing medicine, and we encourage and help each other in the healing process. Some may be stronger than others, but no one is completely healed until the Last Day. That’s when we will be released from the hospital and fully enjoy the sin-free, death-free life of eternity with God.

The Church as a Body
The greatest Biblical picture of the Church is that of a body. (Read 1 Corinthians 12.) This is not just any body; it’s the Body of Christ Himself! Jesus is the Head of this body (Col. 1:18), and we are members of it individually (1 Cor. 12:27). But members of the Body cannot remain individual members, divided by their own personal likes or dislikes. St. Paul says, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12).

As the Body of Christ, we belong to each other, and we rely on each other. We all need the Head, Christ Jesus, but we also need each other. This Biblical picture of the Church shows us that we cannot just separate ourselves willy-nilly from each other. That would be like cutting off your pinky finger or your little toe! As the Body of Christ, we are intimately attached to one another because we are intimately attached to Jesus Himself. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).

As the Body of Christ, we are joined together and strengthened to live together by the very Body and Blood that Jesus gives us in His holy Sacrament!

The Church as a Family
A third Biblical picture of the Church is a family. Not only does the Bible call us Christians the “children of God,” but we also confess God as our Father, Jesus Christ as our Brother (Hebrews 2:11), and the Church herself as our Mother. The Church as a whole and the local congregation in particular are family. We are related to each other by Jesus’ blood, and we must rely on each other.

God the Father gives us life in the family when we are born in our Baptism. Mother Church nurtures us in this life of faith as she feeds us on the words and the Body and Blood of our big brother Jesus. That means that we all are related and get to rely on each other. Unlike the questionable pictures, we cannot merely jump from church to church as consumers shopping for something. Instead, we are intimately bound together as a family. Siblings may bicker and argue with each other, but they are still siblings in the family. Nothing can change that.

The family ties also mean that we try to work things out and live like the family that God makes us. We cannot simply run away when things get tough. We cannot dispose of our brothers and sisters. But we can work together on living together in the peace that our Lord Jesus gives us. We can learn to confess our sins to each other and pray for one another (James 5:16).

The Church is God’s own creation, because in it we receive the new life that God gives us in His Son Jesus Christ. May we all “view” it correctly and grow in it now and forever.

23 May 2014

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12 May 2014

Homily for Easter 4 - Jubilate

Waiting
Texts: Isaiah 40:25:31; 1 John 3:1-3; John 16:16-22

"Eternal clock" by Robbert van der Steeg. Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic 
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Happy Mother’s Day, moms. It’s that one day a year when society says, “Thou shalt honor thy mother with all kinds of affections.” And so I trust, moms, that you know how loved and appreciated you are. After all, none of us would be here without you. And did you catch how even Jesus sings mom’s praises in our Gospel reading? Yes, she has “sorrow” as she goes through the pains of giving birth, but—and it’s our Lord who says this—after the baby comes, “she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” So, moms, we thank the Lord for you and for your vocation of giving us life and nurturing us. And now, let’s hear what our Mother in the faith—the Church—has for us today.

Waiting. We spend so much of our time doing it – waiting in the check out line at Schnucks; waiting for the stop light to change from red to green, especially when there’s no traffic coming from any other direction; sitting in a waiting room waiting to see the doctor; waiting for your teenager to arrive home safe so that you can finally go to sleep. We spend so much of our time just waiting. And we don’t enjoy it at all, not one little bit.

Then along comes Isaiah today, and he talks of waiting in attractive, positive terms. “They who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Normally, we think of waiting as something that wearies and exhausts us, something that tests our patience and makes our kindness wear thin. However, Isaiah suggests that waiting actually invigorates us, strengthens us, and fulfills us. Now, of course, he wasn’t referring to just any waiting; he spoke of waiting “for the LORD.”

And what does it mean for us Christians to wait “for the LORD”? The Apostle John boldly says this in his first letter: “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” Yes, he means it, and it is quite true. In our Baptism into Jesus, all that belongs to Jesus has been given to us. He is the beloved Son, and when we are baptized into Him, WE also become the beloved children of God. His Father becomes our Father. His inheritance becomes our inheritance. Everything that belongs to Him, He gives to us, especially a life that death cannot destroy.

How is that possible? Because He came to take all that belonged to us – our sin, our doubts, even our impatience in waiting – and make it His own. Not only did He take our sin on Himself, but He also took our death and everything we deserved for our sin. And He bore it all for us on the cross. Now He gives to us all that belongs to Him through Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Now, of course the world knows nothing of this. The world sees us Christians as just ordinary people. But let’s not be surprised. After all, as St. John says, “The reason why the world does not know us (that is, as God’s beloved children) is that it did not know Him.” The real problem, though, comes when WE forget to see ourselves that way, when WE forget to BE who we really are, when WE forget to ACT according to our high and holy calling.

You see, we ARE God’s children right now, not just at some time in the far-distant future. And we are His waiting children. We are waiting on the Lord. We are waiting and looking forward to a glorious moment: that instant when Christ Himself will appear. The Bible calls it the “Parousia,” or “Presence of the Lord.” We often call it His “coming,” but it’s really more of an unveiling of His hidden presence. It’s not as if Jesus will come rushing in at warp speed from a galaxy far, far away to save the day. Instead, it’s more like a curtain being lifted suddenly and swiftly so that we can see the wonderful truth that our Lord has always been here, hidden within the life of His holy Church.

And His “appearing” is not His alone. In an instant we too will be changed, and we shall be like Him, complete with bodies incorruptible, filled with light, shining with the glory of God. Right now, we walk around cloaked. Our glory is hidden from and unknown to all around us.  It’s even hidden from us. But the moment of our Lord’s appearing will also mean the unveiling of who we truly are. And we’re eagerly waiting for it!

“And everyone,” says St. John, “who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.” You see, when you’re waiting for that glorious moment – that moment when you will be revealed as a child of the Eternal Father, a brother of His beloved Son, an heir of His eternal estate – you take care to start living that way already. Even without the glorious robes of our future nobility, we seek to live as princes and princesses who just happen to be dressed as paupers in this world. That’s the way it was for our Lord. So, we always want our behavior and our life-style, our living and our acting, to reflect the hope that we have in Jesus, the hope of the children’s great unveiling at the Appearing of our Savior.

But waiting CAN be painful. Jesus repeatedly says it in today’s Gospel: “A little while…a little while…a little while.” Think of little ones in the back seat on a road trip: “Are we there yet? How much longer? I’m hungry. I have to go….” And the dreaded answer? “A little while.” Grr! Jesus said this to His apostles the night before He entered His Passover. He warned them that they would not see Him – meaning His death and burial. But then, He said, they would see Him again and their hearts would rejoice, and no one would be able snatch their joy away from them – here meaning His glorious, life-giving resurrection.

But as the Church reads these words today, we think of more than just the Apostles and the past. Ever since our Lord ascended to God’s right hand, we also live in the “little while” of our Lord. We see Him no longer, but “again a little while, and [we] will see [Him].” We live and wait for that moment when He will see us again. As He says, our hearts will rejoice. You see, that joyful moment of His return, of His appearing, His unveiling, will also be the rebirth of all of creation. As our Lord says, “See, I make all things new.”

And so we wait. Although sometimes we get impatient and fearful and cry out: “O Lord, how long?” At those times, however many and however frequent they are, we get to hear the sweet voice of our Lord: “It’s only a little while.” When we go through the very real difficulties, the fears big or small, and the trials that tax us and wear us down, we need to hold on to that “little while.” Think of what the Church Father Basil the Great said: “The complete human existence is only a tiny interval compared with the endless age our hopes rest in” (Letter 140).

Just think of it this way. Compared to the glorious inheritance that Christ has won for us – an eternal inheritance, an eternal life, unending joys, and a family reunion that goes on for endless days, and with family members whom you love and adore – compared to this our entire earthly pilgrimage is only “a little while.”

So we wait. And when the waiting grows difficult, when we are tempted to forget who we are in God’s Beloved Son or what we are waiting for, let’s remember this: in His rich mercy our Lord Christ spreads a table before us and feeds us with His very Body and Blood. Here He forgives all our fears and impatience and forgetfulness. Here He reminds us that we are truly, genuinely His – His brothers and sisters, His co-heirs. Here He gives us a foretaste of that glorious Day. It’s how He strengthens us to go on waiting. It’s how He comforts us that the “little while” really does have an end, a glorious end and completion beyond all that we can imagine. Yes, indeed, “they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength…they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

06 May 2014

Homily for Easter 3 - Misericordias Domini

Our Good and Noble Shepherd
Text: John 10:11-16, with Ezekiel 34:11-16 and Psalm 23

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The notion of a shepherd and his sheep may be a bit foreign to us city-slickers. But the image of shepherd and sheep is woven throughout the Bible for our comfort. And something tells me that even though we don’t know all of the ins and outs of shepherds herding their sheep, we still, by God’s grace, draw great comfort and strength from the picture of Jesus as our “Good and Noble Shepherd.”

We’ve heard from the prophet Ezekiel. God Himself is the shepherd who seeks out His sheep. You see, sheep like to wander. And they really don’t know how to wander back to their shepherd. But God seeks them out and finds them. God brings them to their own pasture land. Sheep get hungry and need to eat. God feeds them. Sheep get scraped up, battered, and bruised in their wandering. God heals them. Sheep get distressed and scared. God Himself makes them lie down to rest.

And so here you are—in your proper pasture land called the Divine Service. God Himself has gathered you here today. He has searched you out and found you. Here He feeds you on the food of His Word. He knows how you are scraped up from your own failings and your own sin. He knows how you are battered and bruised in the rough and tumble changes and chances of daily life. He knows, as we heard last week, how you are frightened and scared. But here, in this place, this little heavenly pasture land here on earth, your Good and Noble Shepherd gives you rest.

We’ve also heard from King David. As a young lad he was a shepherd boy. Then God graciously recruited him to be a king—that is, a shepherd—for the people of Israel. And David sang the sweet, soothing words of Psalm 23. “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We also learn to pray these words because they are a balm of healing and a wall of protection. But next time you pray these words, go ahead and add a word. Add the name “Jesus.” “The LORD JESUS is my shepherd.”

Your crucified and risen Lord Jesus makes you lie down in green pastures. Your Lord Jesus leads you beside the still waters of your Baptism. He restores your troubled, disjointed soul. He leads you in the paths, the well-worn tracks, of His “right-ness.” And what about the shadows of death all around you—the dark spots of wars and broken families, of cultural chaos and inner doubts? Well, your Lord Jesus is with you in the midst of it all. His rod and staff comfort you and guide you. And think of the table that your Lord Jesus prepares for you right here in the presence of enemies all around. He anoints you with the oil of His forgiveness every time you come to rest in this pasture land called “church.” Your cup runs over with the very Blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Yes, you may be lost, little lambs. Yes, you may scared, scattered sheep. But your Lord Jesus—your Good and Noble Shepherd—gives you His goodness and mercy, in this house and forever.

This all sounds very good. And it is! But what really makes our Shepherd good and noble? Is it the beautiful, pastoral settings of green pastures and babbling brooks? Is it the image of a shepherd holding a little lamb in his arms? Certainly it can’t be that someone—anyone—would deign to associate himself with such stinky little critters as sheep?! Any old shepherd can do these things.

What makes your Shepherd good and noble? Listen again to the Shepherd’s voice: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (Jn 10:11). And just a few seconds later in His sermon He says: “Just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep” (Jn 10:15). And even later He adds this: “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn 10:18).

What makes Jesus your Good and Noble Shepherd? He lays down His life for you, His sheep. An ordinary shepherd just protects and defends his sheep. If he dies on the job, the sheep are quickly scattered and devoured by wolves. But Good and Noble Shepherd Jesus does lay down His life for His sheep. And this is the very way that He gathers you together and protects you from the wolves. That’s what Good Friday and Easter Sunday are all about. Jesus, your great Passover Lamb, is slaughtered and sacrificed in your place. And now He is the risen, victorious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This Lamb of God is also your Good and Noble Shepherd.

This is what our altar and our Easter banner proclaim. Here stands the Lamb of God. He holds the banner of His victory over death. And from Him comes the radiant sunburst—the sun of healing, the dawn of new life that only He can bring. His victory over death is your victory over death. He heals you and makes you whole. This is what makes your Shepherd Good and Noble.

Good Shepherd Jesus talks about wolves who catch and scatter the sheep. Yes, there are wolves in this sin-plagued wilderness of the world. And yes, we do need to be aware of them. Wolves can come in all sorts of disguises. They can ravage the flock of Jesus—that is, His Church—in physical ways and in spiritual ways. Wolves can use the evils all around us—evils such as illness and disease, wars and conflicts, poverty and drugs, sex outside of marriage and even changing the definition of marriage. What do they try to accomplish? These wolves want to separate you from Christ and make you scared, scattered little sheep. These are things we can see.

But wolves also ravage in spiritual ways. They come dressed up as preachers who proclaim twisted messages. “All religions are equally valid.” “We’re all going to the same place anyway.” “We all worship the same God; we just call on Him with different names.” Or even “You can have your best life now.” Again, these wolves of false preachers twist things so that you end up being scared and scattered and distracted from the one true Shepherd, Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Here’s why Jesus says, “they will listen to My voice” (Jn 10:16). The sheep who listen to Jesus and His words and His deeds, they are the singular, united flock that rests comforted and protected. But Jesus doesn’t want you merely to imagine that you’re comforted and fed. He wants you to hear and receive His sweet Good News. And so He sends under-shepherds called “pastors.” The faithful pastor speaks so that you can hear the voice of Jesus. When you hear the sermon, when you see the Baptism, when you receive the Communion, you really do hear the voice of your Good and Noble Shepherd. He says, “I laid down My life for you. I took it up again for you. Now I give you My healing, My life, My peace in the forgiveness of sins.”

What makes Shepherd Jesus so Good and Noble? The simple, undeniable, historical fact that He lovingly and willingly laid down His life for us and took it back up again. Now Good and Noble Shepherd Jesus leads us and feeds us, comforts us and heals us. Amen.

22 April 2014

Homily for the Resurrection of Our Lord

Gift of Immortality
Text: Mark 16:1-8, with Isaiah 25:6-9

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Let’s play pretend for a moment. Suppose that every social program in the world today were completely efficient. Suppose that all members of the United States Congress, all the courts, and even the United Nations had a sudden conversion, all got together, worked together well, and resolved to do something that actually works. They eliminate poverty. All sicknesses are cured; disease is a thing of the past. Everyone on the planet has something to eat; hunger has disappeared. We only have to work a 20-hour work week, the minimum wage is $100 per hour, and we all get one week of vacation each month. Sadness, depression, anxiety and frustration are non-existent, and crime has been abolished. Happiness reigns supreme, and everyone will die happy.

There’s only one problem with our pretend world: no matter how happy they might become, everyone would still die. And that’s certainly the bottom-line problem with our real world, isn’t it? Death holds us in its clutches. We are slaves to our sinful desires, and that scares us, well, to death. And we are powerless to change it. Just as the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, we are enslaved to sin and death. But our Lord Jesus, the Risen Savior, the Victorious Son of God in the Flesh, gives us His gift of immortality.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that the women went to the tomb early in the morning. They expected to finish the burial process for Jesus. However, they got to see what they did not expect—an empty tomb and angels telling them, “He is not here, but is risen!” (Lk. 24:6). John’s gospel tells us that Mary ran back to tell Peter and John, and then Peter and John went running off to the empty tomb. There they saw proof positive that Jesus had risen—grave cloths on one end and the head cloth on the other end, folded up, nice and neat. No grave robbers would have taken such care. But the Lord of Life did. He chose to send a message through that folded up napkin. What message? He overcame death by His death; He lives and gives life; and He would give them His immortality.

I. Risen Jesus gives us the gift of immortality, that is, salvation.

Isaiah says death is “the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations” (Is. 25:7). And don’t we know it! We know how death suffocates us and snuffs out our life, as if we were wrapped too tightly and for too long in a thick blanket! Not only must we endure funerals and the loss of loved ones, we must  also persevere through sicknesses and injuries. We must put up with the minor little aches and pains, along with eyes that need glasses and ears that need hearing aids. And if that isn’t enough, death even suffocates us at the beginning of life. How else should we consider still births, congenital birth defects, and babies who are lost or aborted before they can be born? Even creation, the world of nature, suffocates under the pall of death. “The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” because it too lives in “bondage to decay.” Just notice how flowers fade away, trees die and rot, and water causes erosion. “The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now” (Rom. 8:19-22). 

However, when Jesus rose from the dead, He swallowed up death forever. The thick blanket of death wrapped Him up and suffocated Him as He hung on the Cross. Then He, the Lord of all life, lay dead in the tomb, wrapped with grave cloths. Then He awoke from the sleep of death and swallowed the covering of death, and not just His own death, but “the covering that is cast over all peoples.” Jesus, the immortal Son of God, took on our flesh and blood so that “through death He might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil.” And what does that mean for us? He releases us, frees us, rescues us, and saves us “who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Heb. 2:14-15). That’s what the Bible calls “salvation”—being delivered from the bondage of sin and death, both now and into eternity. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22-23). Now that Jesus rose from the dead, He gives you the gift of immortality.

Now every illness, every tragedy, and every funeral looks different to the eyes of faith. Instead of being bound to endure them with suffocating fear, we get to live through them trusting our Lord of Life. Death no longer holds us captive. Instead, it’s a gateway to life immortal with our Lord and Savior. “I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God—with His gift of immortality—in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39).

II. Risen Jesus gives us His immortality in His holy Meal.

But how do we get to live in this gift of immortality that Jesus gives us? Well, in your Baptism you are “united with Him in a death like His” and “united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Rom. 6:5). Jesus’ immortal life becomes yours. And, yes, there’s more! With the Lord of Life, there’s always more life to enjoy, now and forever!

Isaiah also talks about “a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.” If you’ve been fasting during the season of Lent, now you get to feast. Even if you haven’t fasted, or if you tried but fell short, the Lord’s feast of life is still for you. The Lord Jesus certainly swallowed death for you, but now He gives you the privilege of feasting on His life. And He gives His life, His immortality, in the feast before us today. Yes, at this very Table the Risen Lord Jesus prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies of sin and death. Our risen Lord gives us His immortality in His holy Meal. As Jesus said, “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54). We have access to immortality through sharing in the flesh and blood of our Risen Lord. “Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever” (Jn. 6:58).

But you don’t have to wait until the Last Day to receive Jesus’ immortality in His Body and Blood. You can also receive His immortality here and now, this side of eternity. Yes, the Lord’s Supper helps you fend off the symptoms of death that still assault you. In the face of illness, tragedy, even death itself, let Jesus’ Body and Blood strengthen and comfort you. Let them be your “medicine of immortality.” Not only do you receive forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament, but you also receive life and salvation—Jesus’ life and His immortality that is your salvation. What a Savior! What a Life!

And finally today, let’s enjoy Jesus’ gift of immortality as Pastor John Chrysostom proclaimed it about 1700 years ago:

Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!
First and last alike receive your reward;
rich and poor, rejoice together!
Sober and slothful, celebrate the day!

You that have kept the fast, and you that have not,
rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!
Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one.
Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith.
Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty,
for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again;
for forgiveness has risen from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free.
He has destroyed it by enduring it.

He destroyed Hades when He descended into it.
He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.
Isaiah foretold this when he said,
"You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below."

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.
Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.
O death, where is thy sting?
O Hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!
Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead;
for Christ having risen from the dead,
is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Homily for Easter Vigil (19 April 2014)

Your Life is Hiding

Last night we ended in the cold hard reality of death, and we left in darkness and silence. Our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. If we stop there, the wind is taken out of our sails, our breath is brutally knocked out of us, our energy is zapped and lost.

But we don’t stop there. Don’t get me wrong. Good Friday is the holiest day we have. It is the victory day--the one day that changed all of human history. On Good Friday God the Father sacrificed His own Son to rescue you from your lifeless wandering in sin and death. On Good Friday your Lord Jesus spoke the best words you can ever hear: “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). The slavery of sin is finished. The dungeon of death is finished. God’s will of saving sinners by forgiving them is finished … accomplished … completed … a done deal … forever. “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

By the ancient reckoning of time we are now in the third day. The first day started with Jesus eating the Passover with His disciples and giving us the Lord’s Supper. It ended with Jesus hanging dead on His Cross. The second day started and ended with with Jesus buried and resting in the tomb. His followers also kept the Sabbath Day sacred by resting. Sundown this evening marks the beginning of the third day. The Lord of life went into death and was buried. He rested in the tomb. But then He came out alive! Tonight the darkness of Good Friday gives way to the light of Resurrection. The cold, hard reality of death gives way to the bright, blessed reality of new life.

Tonight let the words of St. Paul encourage you: “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:2-3). This is especially meaningful for you who have just been confirmed. It’s also good refresher for all of us. Tonight, tomorrow morning, and for the rest of your lives, set your minds on things above. Set your minds on the things that bring you fellowship with Christ. Ponder the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross—Jesus conquers death by dying. Meditate on His Sabbath rest in the tomb—even Jesus trusted God to work the work of life in Him. Rejoice in the Lord of life rising on the third day—Jesus gives you His victory over sin, death, and grave.

Now you are people of new life. So do not set your minds on things that are on earth. Do not try to find your life in things that hinder fellowship with Christ. Do not try to find your identity in earthly success, in worldly fame, in money and possessions that decay and break. Do not try to find your meaning in the opinions of people around you. These things may be necessary for life in this world. But for life with Christ, you have a different source of identity and meaning—Christ Jesus Himself.

The tricky part is: your new life is hiding.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. You need not fear death. You’ve already died in Jesus. In your Baptism, you’ve died the “big death.” God baptized the Israelites by leading them through the Red Sea. He gave them the victory by drowning their Egyptian foes (Ex. 14). God has also led you through the Red Sea of your Baptism. There He drowned your foes of sin, death, and the devil. Now you live. Even when you die physically, you still have the life of Jesus and His resurrection. Your new life is hiding … in that water.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Your new life comes to you in the free banquet God has prepared for you. On the surface, the Lord’s Supper appears to be only bread and wine. But your hidden life is there. It’s the hidden life of Jesus’ very own Body and Blood. “Eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is. 55:2). In tonight’s rich banquet Jesus gives you His life. The Lord endows you with the splendor of forgiveness so that the world may see your new life, so that you may summon the nations to the life of Christ. Your new life is hiding … in that meal.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. God gave the promise to Ezekiel, and He has delivered it in Jesus. God always keeps His promises. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you,” He said. “And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezek. 36:26).   Here’s what  St. Paul means by, “your life is hidden.” Your new, fleshly, warm, beating, loving heart is hidden from the world’s eyes. When the world looks at you, it sees ordinary people—outwardly no different from anyone else. Your new heart is even hidden from your own eyes. You see the sin that still clings to you. You see your weaknesses and failures. But rest assured. Be comforted. You do have the life of Christ—His new heart—living and beating in you. You have it right now. You may not see it, but you have it by faith. Your new life is hiding.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. In all the trials and sufferings, you still have new life in Christ. Nothing will ever change that. For all of their suffering and misfortune, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego still had the life of Christ. Even with the governing authorities and the pagan culture set against them, and even as they were cast into the fiery furnace, the living Christ was with them. They walked unbound in the midst of the fire, and they were not hurt. The same holds true for you. The flames of trials and sufferings, the blazing furnace of persecutions, cannot overcome the life of Christ in you. Your new life is hiding.

You have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Yes, you are joined to Jesus. In Jesus you die to yourself and to your sin. In Jesus you live to God. Now all of your earthly life is devoted to trusting and confessing this heavenly reality. Yes, for now it is hidden. But soon it will be revealed. The Lord will gather you, His living people, to live with Him eternally. “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you; He has cleared away your enemies…. The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing” (Zeph. 3:15, 17). Amen.

10 April 2014

Homily for Lent 5 - Judica

My homily for this past Sunday, Lent 5 - Judica:

Jesus Picks a Fight
Text: John 8:42-59, with Genesis 22:1-14 and Hebrews 9:11-15

Jesus sure knows how to pick a fight! Of course, He does so without sin, because He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21); His every thought, word, deed, and motivation were “without sin.” (Heb. 4:15). But pick a fight, He does. And not only does He pick a fight with the religious leaders of His day; He also picks a fight with…are you ready?…with YOU!

What else do you call it when you hear Jesus say provocative things like this in our Gospel reading: “If God were your Father, you would love Me” or “You are of your father the devil” or “You have not known [God]” or—and here’s the real kicker—“Before Abraham was, I AM.” Each of these statements by itself lays down the gauntlet. But fire them off like a machine gun, and, well, Jesus is lighting a short fuse to a warehouse full of TNT. Yes, Jesus is picking a fight. And it’s a fight He intends to win.

Now, before you get too incredulous about Jesus picking a fight—and before you swoop in to rescue Jesus by dressing Him up as a silky soft, meek and mild Savior—remember what the Bible says about our God who is a mighty warrior. Psalm 89 sings of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. But it also sings to God: “You have a mighty arm; strong is Your hand, high Your right hand” (Ps. 89:13). The picture of a warrior charging into battle. And Moses told the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, “and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Dt. 5:15). And how did God do that? By “picking a fight” with Pharaoh and the Egyptian slave masters, sending plagues to show His might, and thus delivering His people. And let’s not forget how Moses and the Israelites sang God’s victory song after they crossed the Red Sea: “I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea…. The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is His name” (Ex. 15:1-2).

Truthfully, the whole story of salvation is one of God “picking a fight” with His enemies, that is, with those who undermine His good creation and His people with sin, evil, and death. What happened right after Satan seduced Adam and Eve to eat from the fruit and fall into sin? God promised the evil foe a fight he would not forget: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall [crush] your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:15). Yes, God picks a fight with those who oppose Him.

It’s exactly what happens in our Gospel reading. The Pharisees and scribes have been dogging Jesus with their snide questions and their innuendos. So, our Lord takes the fight right back to them. “If God were your Father”—but by your thoughts, words, and deeds, it’s clear He’s not!—“you would love me”—and it’s clear you don’t love Me.” And Jesus knew who was really behind their snide suspicion and their lurking unbelief: the devil himself, the same satanic foe who invaded and spoiled God’s good order in the Garden. “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”

Jesus knew who was pulling their puppet strings. He knew they were but the marionettes of the master liar and murderer. And that’s whom Jesus really came to fight—the old evil foe—just as God had promised in the Garden.

But that does not let the Jewish leaders off the hook. They were still willing accomplices as they challenged the Lord, as they accused Him of having a demon and being a Samaritan. In other words, they were trying to protect themselves and safe-guard their own man-made, man-focused religion. That’s why Jesus had to “pick a fight” with them.

It’s also why He has to “pick a fight” with you! You see, you and I are not that different from the scribes and Pharisees. We want to protect ourselves. We want to safe-guard our own man-made, man-focused religion and worship. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to  “be like god, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).

Pastor Jonathan Fisk has written a fabulous book that exposes this. It’s called BROKEN: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible. For six chapters Pr. Fisk unmasks six spiritual lies that we Christians often stumble into and hold onto. They have names such as Mysticism, Moralism, and Rationalism. They also have idols—things we fear, love, and trust more than God and His Word—things such as Emotion, Reason, Material Things, Religion and Freedom. What are those six rules, or spiritual lies? Pr. Fisk outlines them: #1) You find God in your heart. #2) You find God in your hands. #3) You find God in your mind. #4) You find God in the world. #5) You find God in the churches. And #6) You find God in God’s absence.

Now, I’m not trying to give you a book report (though I do recommend the book). Rather, I’m leading you to Rule #7 that you need to break—or that Jesus needs to break in you. What is that final rule? It’s the common thread in all of those other rules: that YOU can find God. It’s the rule that you are all too eager to follow, because it leads you to worship yourself—keep yourself in charge of your religion, your faith, your “spiritual walk,” and so on. It’s the lie that we human beings are the measure of all things. It’s the lie that says you and I can fear, love, and trust in ourselves. But when we do, we end up lacking true fear, love, and trust in God above all things.

It’s the lie that Jesus came to fight. It’s why Jesus came to “pick a fight” with the scribes and Pharisees. It’s why Jesus comes to “pick a fight” with you, even on a daily basis. He wants to rescue you from “the father of lies.” He wants you to hear the words of God. He wants you to keep His word so that you “will never see death.”

Martin Luther captured this grand, cosmic fight well in his Large Catechism. Listen carefully for how Jesus picks this fight and what it means for you: “For when we had been created by God the Father and had received from Him all kinds of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil. So we fell under God’s wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, just as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God—in His immeasurable goodness—had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness. He came from heaven to help us. So those tyrants and jailers are all expelled now. In their place has come Jesus Christ. Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation. He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free, and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace. He has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection so that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness” (LC II 28-30).

Yes, Jesus comes to “pick a fight,” a fight with sin, death, and the devil—a fight with the sin that lives in you. Not only was it a fight He intended to win from eternity; it was also a fight to the death—His death. Just as God provided the lamb for a sacrifice in place of Isaac, He also provides the true Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—for the ultimate sacrifice in place of you and me and all people. Jesus’ fight for your salvation came to its climax on the Cross. However, instead of flexing His mighty right arm, He extended His arms in weakness to be nailed to a tree. Instead of triumphing with might and power, He gained the victory by giving up His spirit and dying. But the victory would reveal its glory on the third day, when He rose from the grave.

And we can truly thank Jesus for coming into the world and picking this fight with us—that is, with our sinful desire to be like god. As Hebrews says, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Jesus’ fight with sin, death, and the devil—a fight that bloodied Him and nailed Him to a tree—forgives all your sins, all of your worship of yourself.

And, yes, this fight is a daily event for you and every Christian. After all, “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires.” But remember, it’s Jesus, the great I AM, who picks the fight, and it’s Jesus, “Yahweh in the flesh,” who wins the fight. And so in your Baptism, “a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever" (SC, Baptism).

So, as we head into this “Passiontide” phase of Lent, now we begin focusing more on Christ’s cosmic fight against the devil and our sin and our death. What great Good News that He, our Victor, has come to pick that fight and win that fight! Amen. 

That’s how Jesus wins the fight in you on a daily basis. That’s also how you live with a pure and clean conscience.

02 April 2014

Pres. Harrison Encourages Pastors

"It's not easy business being a pastor," says the Rev. Dr. Matthew C. Harrison, president of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, as he examines the charge given to pastors in 2 Tim. 4:1--2. "But I want to encourage you. The Word of God is living and mighty and active ... . And the Word of the Lord does not return void." Watch this video to hear more from President Harrison as he offers words of encouragement from Martin Luther's Invocavit sermons from 1522.

Sasse on the Word of God, the Church, & the Sacraments

What is the relationship between the Word of God and the Bible? Between the Word of God and the Church? Hermann Sasse provides some excellent and necessary insight:
For the church of the Reformation, both belong inseparably together: the written and the proclaimed Word, the Bible and the "preaching office or oral Word" [Predigtamt oder mundlich Wort], as Luther said in Schwabach Article VII, the forerunner of Augustana V. This homogeneity explains how the church sank roots among hitherto pagan peoples. If the Word of God were identical with the Bible, it would suffice to send the Bible in their own language to the people concerned. But because the Bible and the Word of God are not identical, there is sent to every people one or more preachers of the Word.

But neither would it suffice were these preachers to come without the Holy Scriptures, bearing the Word of God only in their heads and hearts. The Scriptures and the preaching office, the written and the proclaimed Word, belong together. The content of the Scriptures must be preached, and not only read in private. And the preaching office should expound the Scriptures, as the content of its sermon is bound throughout to the Scriptures. But because every form of the Word of God is truly the Word of God, the church of necessity can never be deprived of one of these two forms....

The Word of God, the written and proclaimed Word, creates and builds the church. There is no other means to build the church of Christ. For the Word of God alone creates faith. Certainly the Sacraments belong to the Word, and it is the experience of church history that wherever the significance of the Sacraments is misunderstood or neglected, the Word will also be despised or falsified. But the Sacraments ever exist only together with the Word, with the Word of the institution and the Word of promise. Thus the Augustana says that through the Word and the Sacraments the Holy Spirit is given, who works faith, "where and when it pleases God" [AC V 2]. This means we cannot prescribe the effectual power of Word and Sacrament. It is God's free grace, should he bring a person to faith through them. But we have the promise that the Word of God "shall not return void" (Isa 55:11). Thus the church will exist everywhere the Gospel is rightly preached, but only there. And it must be the continual prayer of the church that it be and remain the true church of Christ, as we pray in Luther's hymn in the worship service: "Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word." Herein as we pray we also admit that we cannot keep ourselves steadfast in this Word, nor can the church by itself do so. (Hermann Sasse, "The Church and the Word of God," in The Lonely Way: Selected Essays and Letters, Volume I (1927-1939), 156-157.