09 February 2015

Homily for Sexagesima

"Divine Seed"
Text: Luke 8:4-15
(with thanks to Johann Gerhard's treatment of this text in his Postilla)

Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a farmer who goes out to sow his seed. Then He tells us about the different kinds of soils which receive that seed. Then He tells us, “The seed is the Word of God.” It’s the Divine Seed, to be sure. But it’s not the only seed.

In the early 1600s, Pastor Johann Gerhard said this, “In His Creation, God the Lord not only made the earth fruitful with various and multitudinous seeds, but He also sowed a noble Seed into the heart of the first two people—it was, of course, the image of God” (Postilla, 199). God’s image—that was the first seed that our gracious Lord sowed in Adam and Eve. Pastor Gerhard continued: “From this Seed within their hearts there was supposed to sprout up and grow forth the noble fruits of divine knowledge, as well as a perfect love for, and heartfelt praise to, God. Indeed, the fruit of eternal life was to grow forth from this Seed in their heart.” (Postilla, 199). Not only were Adam and Eve perfect in that they had no sin or death, but they would also sprout, blossom, and grow to be more perfect in loving and worshiping the God who loved them and created them.

But something insidious happened. The serpent slithered into God’s noble creation and sowed his own seed. Let’s call it the serpent-seed. The serpent seduced Adam and Eve, and they rebelled against their loving God. The serpent-seed of pride and unbelief sprouted and blossomed into the poisonous fruits of rebellion, stubbornness, fear, self-absorption, self-indulgence, hatred, and even death. And each of us is born with this seed. We inherit this serpent-seed from our parents, and they from their parents, all the way back to our first parents. In fact, when each of us is born—when any little baby is born—this harmful serpent-seed lies hidden, just waiting to sprout forth with its prickly, bitter fruits of stubbornness, disobedience, lies, rage, pride, disregard of parents, lewd and crude words and deeds, self-indulgence, and so on. Yes, we inherit this serpent-seed and its fruits from our first parents, and we pass them on to our children, to our seed.

Even we city slickers know that a small seed packs a powerful punch as it grows into, say, a large tree. A little acorn turns into a mighty oak tree complete with limbs, branches, leaves, and, yes, the fruit of more acorns—more of its own kind of fruit. That’s also the way the serpent-seed works. It started out as a small acorn of believing the lie that “you shall be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Now it has become the huge tree of a fallen humanity intent on ignoring God, always trying to refashion God into our image, and every individual thinking, in one way or another, that he or she is equivalent to God.

However, our gracious and merciful God did not want His human creatures to perish. He never has and never will. So He planted a second Seed, the Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in order to overcome the poisonous serpent-seed. Right after the fall into sin, He sowed the seed of His Gospel promise. The Seed of the woman would conquer the seed of the serpent. That Divine Seed born of the woman would stomp on and crush the serpent’s head. And like a seed planted in cold winter soil, the seed of God’s Gospel promise lay dormant for many centuries, waiting for the warmth and moisture of spring to begin sprouting, growing, and coming to fruition. Through all those centuries, God made sure that His Divine Seed would come to fruition. God’s saving Seed would come from the offspring, the seed, of Abraham, and God would bless all peoples through Him. God would raise up for King David an offspring, a Seed, Who would establish an eternal kingdom with an eternal place of worship.

Then, finally, the warm, fruitful spring of God’s saving plan came. He sowed His Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in the world as He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Our Lord Jesus recklessly scattered the seeds of His teaching, His grace, and His mercy as He walked and talked among us, as He healed many, and as He endured the scrutiny of all who were poisoned by the serpent-seed. But most of all, our Lord Jesus, the Divine Seed, was planted into the ground of this world in His suffering and death on a cross. As Jesus said just days before He went to the cross: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). And just look at the fruit! Look at the great, mighty tree of life that sprouted and blossomed and now bears fruit in His Resurrection! It’s better and stronger than an oak tree!

And God’s Divine Seed of a Savior brings forth fruit of His own kind in us. Yes, the Seed of the Word made flesh is planted in us and makes us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That is, the Son of God is planted in us and makes us children of God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Yes, God has re-sowed and re-planted the Seed of His image in us. From this Seed come the fruits of hungering and thirsting for God, of perfect fear, love, and trust in Him, and of heartfelt praise to Him. From this Seed come the fruits of confessing our sins and receiving His full, free, cross-won forgiveness.

Now the question is: How do you receive this Divine Seed that your Savior plants in you? It’s a good question to ponder just ten short days before Lent begins. On our Reformation banner that also gives us the themes of Pre-Lent, we see the theme "sola Scriptura"--Scripture alone. It might be more accurate to call today's theme "Word alone" since Jesus--the Word made flesh--is also God's Seed.

Will you receive the Divine Seed of your Savior as the first soil—the hard footpath soil—just letting it bounce off of your ears, just letting Satan gobble it up before it can work in you to change you and bear fruit in you? Watch out that you don’t merely hear the Message of Christ outwardly, but inwardly that Seed bounces off due to a hardened heart. That’s what the serpent-seed wants!

Or will you hear the Divine Seed as the second kind of soil—the shallow, rocky soil—letting the Seed penetrate and take root, but then letting it wither and die when the heat of trials comes your way? Remember this, though. Just as seeds in the ground need the sun’s warmth to grow, so also God makes His Divine Seed grow and bear fruit with the heat of temptations and trials. St. Peter said: “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” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Or will you hear and receive the Divine Seed as the third soil—the one with thorn-bushes in it—receiving it with joy, but then letting worldly cares and pleasures and the anxieties of our hectic lives choke out the life that God gives in His Seed? Watch out for those prickly thorns of worldly success and wealth, and all of the ways that the world makes you anxious by compelling you to consume your time. Watch out that those many cares—those giant cares of the economy, the brutality of ISIS, unemployment, illness, or personal tragedy, or those puny cares of the coolest cell phones or the latest winners on The Voice—watch out that those many cares don’t choke out the life that our Divine Seed sows in you. Yes, our hearts need to be rescued from such prickly thorns.

Our gracious God and Father is the Divine Sower who plants the Divine Seed of His Son. And that means He plants the seed of His image and life. He plows up the hardened soil of our hearts. He breaks up the rocky soil so that His love and life can penetrate more deeply. He rescues us from the prickly, choking thorns, so that His life can grow in us. That’s why Lent draws our attention away from ourselves and places it squarely on things like Baptism and Confession, hearing the Divine Seed and praying to our God. That's why the Church gives us the Divine Service every week. And that's why we schedule times for hearing and learning the Divine Seed in Sunday School, Bible class, and Catechism class.

You see, your Lord Jesus wants to make you the good soil, so that you can receive His life and forgiveness with joy. He also wants you to sprout and grow, endure and persevere, and blossom and bear fruit, now and into eternity. So, come to the Table. Here your Lord Jesus plants Himself into you yet again. Come, receive the Divine Seed that He gives in His Body and Blood. And let it bear abundant fruit in you in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. Come, receive Him who overcame the serpent-seed. Come, receive the seed of His forgiveness and life, and let Him bring forth His fruit of love, mercy, and life in you. Amen.

Homily for the Christian Burial of Jeffrey W. Schulte

"Amazed by Grace"
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 5:24-30

Hey, can I interest you in a music CD? It’s by a home-grown talent named “Dutch Schulz.” Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Change those words just a bit, and you can almost hear him trying to sell you one of his CDs, right?

When Jeff first put this CD in my hand, the first thing my eye caught was the name “Dutch Schulz”…and my mind wondered, “Who’s that?” Then I saw the picture of Jeff leaning against the street sign. That guy I knew. But “Dutch Schulz”? Who’s that? So Jeff kindly brought me up to speed on his stage name—the stage name that, for many, is more common than his given name.

Then on Monday evening I received a call from Pr. Bill Wilson. He said, “Randy, one of your members—Dutch Schulz—is in the hospital.” Again my mind did a double take. This time, though, there was a little recollection. As Pr. Wilson was explaining more, my mind was having a separate conversation with itself. “Dutch Schulz. Dutch Schulz. Why do I know that name? But member of Hope?” “Not sure about that one,” I told Pr. Wilson, as I searched the church directory in my contacts. Then up came “Schulte” and it clicked: “Yes, ‘Schulz’ equals Schulte, and ‘Dutch’ equals Jeff.”

Leave it to Jeff—I mean “Dutch”—to have the unique name. But it’s fitting for his unique personality. And— wouldn’t you know it?—leave to “Dutch”—or is it Jeff?—to exit this fallen world in such a unique way—not that he chose that way, of course.

The way that Jeff has exited this fallen world, though, reminds me of many a conversation he and I had through the years. I remember the many years that Cheryl, Kristen, Lauren, and Brandon would come to church faithfully, but Jeff would come only occasionally. They were members at Hope, but Jeff resisted the whole religion thing. He had too many questions. But over time, and through the faithful, patient witness of family and many friends, Jeff dared to learn more.

“Ask questions about God and religion? Of course, Jeff!” That’s what we all do, in one way or another, at one time or another. And, boy, were his questions deep and penetrating. No mere idle curiosity for Jeff. He grappled with weighty questions. Questions such as, “If God is so good, then why is there evil in the world?” Questions such as, “I know the things I have done in my life. How can God love someone like me?” “How do I know God can love and forgive someone like me?”

One of the songs on his CD expresses this internal wrestling match quite well. Even at age 16 he was grappling and wrestling with the deep things of God and this fallen world. As he said in his side note: “I wrote ‘Child of Innocence Again’ at U. City H.S. in History class, Sophomore year. Flip the numbers and it’s ironic that I’ve recorded it at the age of 61 how I felt at 16.” The refrain poetically captures the struggles we all have in and with this fallen world so full of sin and evil: “I want to be a child of innocence again. I want to be a child in a world without sin.” Somehow we know there’s gotta be something better, something without the evil in all of its manifestations.

Why do people turn against each other, or try to control one another with the tactics of a tyrant? Why do people cheat on their taxes or get nasty when the repo man comes to collect the car that they bought from Jeff but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for it?

As Jeff grappled with such questions—as he knew he wanted to “be a child in a world without sin”—he also discovered that it was not God who brought sin and evil into the world. It was our first parents—Adam and Eve. God created the world perfect, without sin, without evil, and we human beings are the ones who messed it up and who keep reveling in our messes. You know, kind of like a baby sitting in a dirty diaper and not wanting it to be changed.

It’s the death in trespasses and sins that St. Paul mentioned in our second reading. We’re all there—Jeff, you, me. We all live in “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This was the message that resonated with Jeff like a blues song in his soul.

But it was the flip side of God’s message to him that amazed Jeff. Yes, God could and did love a sinner like him. Yes, God could and would forgive him—and all of us—inside and out. The more Jeff heard that message of God’s amazing grace, the more Jeff was amazed by that grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“Yes, Jeff,” I would tell him, “that includes you. No matter how bad, no matter how evil, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve experience from other people, that includes you.” And that is God’s message for you and me here today as well.

This message of God’s forgiveness, love, and eternal life in Christ Jesus so amazed Jeff that he loved to sing it. Yes, you know it—“Amazing Grace.” I will never forget the time he said, “Pastor, next week I want to bring my guitar to Catechism class, and after class can I sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and some other songs?” I said, “Sure.” The next week came. And Jeff brought his guitar. And—fitting for Jeff—it was his unique way of singing “Amazing Grace.”

You see, God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ started to restore Jeff to being “a child of innocence again.” It’s that amazing news that we heard about from Jesus: “Whoever hears My words and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life.” God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, into this world to conquer our worst enemy: death itself. It’s true for Jeff. It’s just as true for you. Jesus Himself suffered the kinds of evil, the kinds of betrayal, the kinds of liars, cheats, and scoundrels, that Jeff and we endure too. The difference with Jesus is that He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And because of Jesus and His death on a brutal cross, Jeff, and you, and I, and all people get to receive God’s amazing grace. Because of Jesus and His resurrection on the third day, you, and Jeff, and I get to rejoice in the hope of eternal life—in being children of innocence again.

Our first reading captures this so well. God promises to prepare “a feast of rich food” and “aged wine well refined” for the likes of us. And what will God Himself consume? “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.” That’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross—for you, for Jeff, for me, and for all people who hear His voice.

Yes, we have just witnessed a shocking turn of events. A nasty little bacteria—a result of this fallen world—has suddenly snatched a dear husband, father, and grandfather, a loved son and brother, a treasured friend and colleague, a unique personality. But in Jesus, God has swallowed up the effects of that nasty little bacteria. So, when it seems like this thing called death is swallowing us whole—and in a sudden, suffocating way—look to Jesus for your comfort and hope. He has swallowed death forever. Jeff rejoiced in that message, I know. And I’m sure he would want you to rejoice in it too.

Let God’s words through Isaiah give you peace and comfort in the days, weeks, and months ahead: “The Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” He has already done that for Jeff; He promises to do that for you too.

Here’s the amazing thing about God’s grace, the grace that amazed Jeff. God Himself has made Jeff “a child of innocence again.” It happened when Jeff was baptized, and our Lord Jesus brought Jeff to realize it and love it throughout his life. And now God has completed that task. We can actually rejoice that, yes, Jeff is “a child of innocence again.”

I, for one, gladly echo Jeff’s poetry written while he sat in history class at the tender age of 16: “I want to be a child in a world without sin.” I’m sure those words resonate in you as well. Well, Jeff is there now! And, by God’s amazing grace in Jesus, you may look forward to that too. Amen.

Homily for Septuagesima

"Living by Grace--Really!"
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:15; Matthew 20:1-16

So…what do you think of that so-called “absolution” you received earlier? Did it surprise you? Did it sound familiar? Just in case it didn’t quite do the job, or just in case you missed it, or just in case you tried to block it out, hear it again: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce to you that God says, ‘That’s okay. No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Go in peace, but don’t come back!” What’s the matter? Isn’t that the way you might respond to someone who apologizes to you? But you don’t want your God to forgive you that way?

Can you imagine if God had said that to the Israelites in the wilderness? They had just been rescued from their slavery in Egypt. They had just experienced the Lord’s grace in delivering them by means of the plague of the first-born of Egypt. They had just witnessed the Lord’s gracious and mighty arm parting the waters of the Red Sea and allowing them to walk through on dry ground, escaping from Pharaoh and his army. And they had just sung His praises for doing that. God also graciously turned bitter water into sweet water for them to drink. God also graciously sent them quail so they could eat meat. And God also graciously rained honey-sweet bread—called “manna”—from heaven to sustain them on their journey.

Still they struggled to live by grace. They came to Rephidim, and “there was no water for the people to drink.” So they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And Moses’ reply goes to the spiritual heart of the matter: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” Translation: “Why do you insist on living in your sin and not trusting God and His gracious ways? Why do you insist on not living by grace?

Can you imagine what would have happened if God had told them, “Alright, I forgive you. But don’t do it again. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t come back”? Then they really would have known misery in the wilderness! As it turns out, St. Paul reminds us today, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” That’s what happens when we don’t live by God’s grace in Jesus. But then, forty years later, God did take the next generation into the Promised Land. God did continue to deal with them by His grace. God still wanted them to live by grace—really.

But living by grace—I mean really living by God’s grace; I mean really and joyously receiving God’s grace in Jesus; I mean really and joyously reflecting God’s grace in Jesus—is quite the struggle, isn’t it? Take, for example, those workers who were hired first thing in the morning, at 6:00 a.m. They agreed to the proper day’s wage that the vineyard owner offered. They “signed on the dotted line” we might say. Then they bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat”—all twelve hours of it. But when those other workers—those slackers who started their workday at 5:00 p.m. and worked only one hour before quitting time—when they received a full day’s wage,  for only one hour of work, well, the first workers cried foul. “You’re paying them the same as you’re paying us?! That’s outrageous!” They struggled with the master’s graciousness and generosity.

And so do we. We struggle with living by God’s grace when we think that God must favor us just a bit more because, after all, we’re the ones in church. We’re the ones who picked up our box of offering envelopes and give in the offering. We’re the ones who help out with our time, our skills, and our work. We’re the ones who have been Christians for blank number of years—fill in the number that fits for you. God’s smile upon us must be, well, just a little bit bigger, right? But that’s turning God’s grace into a punch the time clock and get your paycheck system. That’s not grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we take His free and lavish forgiveness to mean that we can live any old way we want. We go along with the culture and say, “If it feels good, then it must be right. God would want me to be happy, right?” Or, as the Israelites did, we turn to the grumbling and complaining and quarreling. After all, this world is not perfect, things just don’t go as we expect or want, and someone needs to hear our discontent. But that’s turning God’s forgiveness into free-reign with no responsibility or repentance. That’s not grace. It may be cheap grace, but not God’s grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we “forgive” others in the same way as that so-called “absolution.” No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. What? You don’t want your fellow Christian, your family member, your friend, your co-worker, to receive the same “day’s wage” of forgiveness from you that you have already received from God Himself?

Remember when Peter was a bit confused about how many times he should forgive his brother who sinned against him? Should it only be seven times? Jesus then told another parable—about a forgiving master who graciously forgave a billion dollar debt, but an unforgiving servant who could not forgive a debt of only a few hundred bucks. It did not turn out well for that unforgiving servant. You remember. Perhaps you also remember Jesus’ punchline: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

We do struggle with living by God’s grace. We love the sweet sound of God’s amazing grace, but living by it? And in real, everyday life? That’s harder. It feels more like St. Paul’s athlete who has to train hard to exercise self-control and not run aimlessly. As we admitted in today’s Collect, or Prayer of the Day: we “justly suffer the consequence of our sin.”

But we also prayed that our gracious God would graciously hear our prayers and deliver us by His goodness. Talk about dripping with the sweetness of God’s grace!

When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard—all hired at different times through the day, but all getting the same wages after quitting time—He’s drawing our attention to God’s rich, deep, endless generosity and grace. You keep sinning against Him, and He keeps forgiving you. You keep complaining—like the first workers and the Israelites before them—and He keeps forgiving. You keep treating sin—your sin—as thought it’s “no problem,” “no big deal,” and yet He keeps showering you with His forgiveness in Jesus. In fact, not only is Jesus the vineyard owner who delights in being generous with the things that belong to Him, He is also the real worker who bore the burden of our sins and the scorching heat of the cross—all for you, and all for your neighbor.

Not only do we hear a strange, so-called “absolution” today, but we also see a strange banner for this time of year. No, this is not Reformation Sunday. But these three Sundays of Pre-Lent strike the same three Reformation themes that we know and love. Today, of course, strikes the theme of sola gratia—“by grace alone.” You and I labor and struggle in God’s vineyard to live by His grace and to reflect that grace and forgiveness toward each other. And yet God is amazingly rich in His generosity. He just keeps giving and forgiving. In the waters of your Baptism; in the words you hear proclaimed; in the Body and Blood under bread and wine. And in Confession and Absolution—when you confess your sins, even individually to your pastor, and then hear the forgiveness that God speaks to you. And with that forgiveness you get to forgive your family, friends, co-workers, and others with the same delight as the vineyard owner paying his workers.

Let’s go back to our so-called “absolution.” A certain Pastor Williams once used that very “absolution,” just as I have today. He also used it to introduce a sermon on grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He wanted to make the point that living by God’s grace—living in and with forgiveness—happens in real, everyday life. At the end of his sermon, he did give the real Absolution. Several weeks later, a young couple thanked Pastor Williams for his unusual message. They said, “Pastor you’re helping change the culture of our home.” The pastor asked, “What do you mean?” Andy, the husband said, “Last week Janet and I had one of our typical spats in the kitchen. But was we cooled down and regained our senses, we used a different way of speaking. We used words such as I confess and I forgive. You reminded us that as Christians, we have a new language to deal with wrongs. It’s God’s way for us to share the Good News with each other.” (Kober, p. 171)

Ted Kober tells this story in his book Confession and Forgiveness. He also points out how sin is never “okay.” Sin is never “no problem.” There’s only one cure for sin—forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ. Living by that forgiveness in the burden and scorching heat of each and every day. How generous our gracious God is! That’s living by grace—really!

Now please stand for the real Absolution:

“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

16 December 2014

24 Years Ago Today

Twenty-four years ago today the Church put me "under orders" to serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry of God's Word and Sacraments.

Thank You, Lord, for Your faithfulness to me, a poor, unworthy sinner, in the task of making disciples by baptizing in Your name and teaching everything You give in Your Word (Matthew 28:18-20). Thank You, Lord, for Your faithfulness in making me a steward of Your mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Thank You, Lord, for Your promise that "it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends" (2 Corinthians 10:17-18).

In addition to the joy of rehearsing the ordination vow (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, pp. 165-166), I continue to find great solace in these words from Eugene Peterson, drawing out the meaning of that ordination vow:
The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of word and sacrament.
Word.
But in the wreckage all words sound like “mere words.”
Sacrament.
But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?
Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.
“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.
“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives – in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.
“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”
That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors. (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 22-25)

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

steadfastthrowdown.org - Check it out!

CHECK OUT our NEW WEBSITE over at http://steadfastthrowdown.org/. Listen to all of our audio by individual segments. Follow links to articles we feature. Catch up on topics or guests you may have missed. 

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!