18 April 2017

Homily for The Resurrection of Our Lord - 2017

"Dawn of New Life and New Creation"
Job 19:23-27 and Mark 16:1-8

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Talk about turning the tables! Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat! On Good Friday it all looked hopeless and lost. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God—through whom the universe was created—fought Satan in a duel to the death. It was the culmination of a cosmic battle that began in the Garden of Eden and has raged through the centuries.

It was also the culmination of a thirty years’ war that began way back at Christmas. Accompanied by angel armies, Jesus entered time and space to reclaim and retake His world from Satan and death. Then Jesus went underground, appearing as a helpless baby born to obscure parents. But Satan saw the plan unfolding and strove to extinguish the threat. The battle was joined when Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempted assassination of their newborn baby. The fog of war openly intensified when Satan confronted grown-up Jesus in the wilderness, trying to bring Jesus over to his side just as he did with Adam and Eve. And the battles flared every time Jesus expelled an evil spirit, healed a broken body, and raised someone from the dead.

The D-Day of this ages-long war took place on a hill called “Skull Place.” Jesus was crucified and put to death. The Son of God died. Then He was buried in a borrowed tomb. To the naked eye, Satan had won the war. Sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther describes it as Satan dragging the Son of God off His throne, killing Him, and then burying Him under his feet. Nineteenth century pastor C. F. W. Walther expressed it vividly in his Easter hymn, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.” Describing Jesus’ death, Walther sings:

“The foe was triumphant when on Calvary
The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.”
(LSB 480:2)

But it turns out to be a short-lived victory. As it happens, Jesus turned the tables on Satan. Walther then sings:

“But short was their triumph; the Savior arose,
And death, hell, and Satan He vanquished His foes.”
(LSB 480:3)

What does this mean for us? Everything! All of our life and all of our hope hinges on this one event that changed the course of history forever. A few years ago, the well-known church historian Jaroslav Pelikan died. It’s been reported that he said these last words: “If Jesus has not risen from the dead, nothing else matters; if Jesus has risen from the dead, nothing else matters!” Let me repeat that: “If Jesus has not risen from the dead, nothing else matters; if Jesus has risen from the dead, nothing else matters!” It’s why we call ourselves Christians. It’s why we call out to God in confidence. It’s why we eagerly anticipate eternal life in the age to come!

When He rises from the dead, Jesus opens up the future. From the earliest days of the Church, this day has been known as the eighth day of creation, also called the first day of the new creation. That’s why our baptismal font, and many others, have eight sides to them. It’s in our Baptism where we are born anew and given life in the new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the vanguard of the new creation.

And because Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we. That’s the joy of Easter. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). When we see the first flower bloom in spring, we know that all the rest are soon to follow. So it is with Jesus. Just as He has risen bodily from the dead, so shall we. And God will complete what He first began in the Garden of Eden. There He raised a human being from dust of the ground. Adam and Eve had access to the Tree of Life. But then they sinned. And God had to expel them from the garden…and from access to the Tree of Life. They were doomed to die, as are we. But now we will be raised again from the ground in the resurrection. “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23). We were deprived access to the Tree of Life, but now we have access to the Tree of Life forever. That tree looks like the cross and all that Jesus achieved for us there.

And because we will rise, the earth will also be renewed and restored. We become the first fruits of God’s entire creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). You see, when we are raised from the dead, creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption. It will live under the gracious and benevolent rule of God’s children—us—along with Jesus. So it goes from Jesus to us to all of creation.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? Does it mean life will be easy for us from now on? Does it mean the prospect of dying one day is easy and no longer fearful? Not necessarily. In fact, the resurrection may even make things more difficult. It might just destroy our illusions and our attempts to avoid, evade, or even sugarcoat what death is.

Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse once pointed out that the message of Easter is not, “Jesus lives,” but rather, “Jesus has risen!” What’s the difference? In our culture, we have become comfortable talking about departed loved ones this way: “So-and-so lives on in our hearts and memories.” Or we say, “They will always be with us.” Huh? What does this even mean? The hard, cold fact is, they died. They’re dead. They’re buried in the earth. Do we mean some kind of disembodied consciousness, floating around somewhere, finally free from the physical world? Do we mean some sort of immortal soul, once entrapped in a body but now freed from that cage?

The resurrection does not necessarily make our dying easier, as if we are moving to some higher form of being with death as a natural portal. No, the resurrection actually makes dying hard. The resurrection clearly shows that death is not a friend at all. It’s not natural at all. It’s an enemy. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Why else do we constantly try to avoid thinking about death, try to cheat death, or try to stem the tide of death? We instinctively know that death is the enemy to life.

That’s why the message of Jesus risen is the message of bodily resurrection. It’s not natural for the body to die and go to the grave. It’s not right for death to rip our body and soul apart. The resurrection is a celebration of bodily life! It’s the celebration of a body given new life, a body enlivened with breath once again, a body that walks on the earth—a body that will live forever. And remember Jesus’ Ascension. When He ascends into heaven, He does not leave His body behind. He ascends bodily!

So Jesus’ resurrection, just like His incarnation, is a wonderful and unqualified affirmation of bodily life. And this is great Good News when we now go through all the pains and sufferings, the aches and pains in our own bodies. The problem is not our bodies; they don’t cause the suffering. The problem is the sin and death that causes the aches and pains to our bodies.

And to what shall we rise? What is this future that Christ has opened for us? What kind of world will we find ourselves in? A feast prepared for us by God Himself! Let’s think of it as a grand welcome-home party. (Remember the parable of the prodigal son?) A feast that we will see, and hear, and feel, and taste.

Perhaps we can think of it as a winery. You’ve heard of Robert Mondavi, the famous California winemaker. It’s been said that whenever he came out with a new wine, he would throw a fabulous party and feast at his winery. He would invite the who’s who of the wine world, the tasters and reviewers. He would invite the rich and the famous, the celebrities and movie stars.

Well, let’s think of Jesus as the One who plants a vineyard, carefully tends it, prunes the branches, manages the canopy cover, tastes the grapes, harvests the grapes, presses them, ferments them, and makes the wine. When all is ready, He sends out the invitations to join Him at His eternal party of food, music, and wine. But these invitations go out not just to the rich and famous; they go out to sinners and rebels, that is, you and me. He has prepared this rich, fabulous feast for you and me in fellowship with Him. This is what awaits us!

Until that day, let’s celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil with the Lord’s Supper! That’s why we worship on Sundays. Here we get to celebrate our Lord’s victory—the first day of the new creation, the first day of the rest of our lives! Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Homily for Easter Vigil - 2017

"This Is OUR Night"
 (Easter Vigil Readings)

Listen here.

“This is the night.” This is OUR night. This is our night to hold vigil with our brothers and sisters all around the planet. This is our night when everything changes. This is our night when all of God’s plans, purposes, and promises for us come to fruition and fulfillment.

People hold vigils on notable nights for many and various reasons. A wife may await her husband’s return from an overseas battle field. The night before he returns she spends in anxious prayer and eager anticipation. A son or daughter may hold vigil at the bedside of their dying parent. After all, that loved one’s departure should not go unnoticed by those who are living. A parent may keep vigil at the bedside of a feverish and restless child. As that parent soothes the hot brow of her child with a cold compress, she also prays to God for health. Such needs just demand that we keep watch.

So tonight, our Lord calls us to watch with Him just one little hour. You see, this is our night to watch and wait with quiet yet excited anticipation. That eternal day of resurrection light is coming! Our deliverance from death’s darkness is fast approaching. Just as our eyes rejoice at the splendor of the lighted candles, so our hearts and minds rejoice at the new light of the life to come. And the vigil this night gives new meaning to all those other vigils of many and various times. Nothing else can compare to this vigil on this our night.

This is our night of creation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The burning flame outside pierces yesterday's darkness and takes us back to that first day when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Just as He then ordered all things—sky, sea, and dry land—He now orders our lives to look to Him for all good things. We get to receive, appreciate and benefit from sun, moon, and stars, fruit trees and veggie gardens, birds and fish, critters and beasts. And, most of all, we rejoice in being restored to His image, the image of God Himself, especially rejoicing in our maleness or femaleness, whichever our Creator God has given each of us for our joy.

This is our night of coming out of the great flood. God once judged humanity’s wickedness by a deluge of water, but now He has fully and finally judged our sin and conquered our death through the death of His Son Jesus on a tree. And those eight persons who “were brought safely through water” show us God’s way of life. “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20-21).

This is our night of coming out of bondage in the Egypt of our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The blood of Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, covers the lintels of our hearts, minds, and consciences, and eternal death now passes over us. We have been brought through the sea of Baptism and are delivered from the pursuing armies of the evil one. So we sing to the LORD, “for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:1).

This is our night when salvation is offered freely to all. With God’s people of all times and all places we get to delight in the rich food of God’s resurrection life—the life-giving Body and Blood of our risen Lord Jesus. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Our God has compassion and abundantly pardons. His Word refreshes and waters and brings forth joy at this Easter feast.

This is our night when our risen Lord cleanses us, gives us a new heart beating with His life, and puts a new spirit of faith, hope, and love in us. He has put us back together, bone to bone. He has restored our sinews and covered us with new skin and breathed new life into us who were dead in trespasses and sins. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27). And now, when He raises you from your graves, He will put His Holy Spirit within you, and you will live…with Him…with your brothers and sisters in Christ…for all eternity.

This is our night of dancing in the fiery furnace. We still live in a fallen, broken world—where Christians are edged out of the public square and religious liberty is under assault, where Christians are slaughtered while celebrating these holy days. But while we do still live here, the One Man who has the appearance “like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25)—the One Man who truly is the Son of God—joins us in the midst of the fire. And we are not hurt, we are not singed, no matter what the powers and principalities may say or do to us. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37, 39).

So, dear catechumens newly confirmed, this is your night. Don’t wander from it, and certainly don’t ever fall away from your risen Lord. And that means faithfully hearing His Word and receiving His Body and Blood in His house. That means making Jesus and His gifts more than just a priority; it means making Him, His Word, His Sacraments, being at His house THE priority for all your life. And for the rest of us, let’s all help them do that, for the rest of their lives. And let's do that ourselves, for the rest of our lives.

This is OUR night—“the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from bondage to sin and are restored to life and immortality.” Amen.

Homily for Good Friday - 2017

"The Day Creation Fell Apart"
John 18-19 with Romans 5:8

If you lived in St. Louis back in 1993, you no doubt remember the great “500-year flood.” If you lived elsewhere, you probably heard about it in the news. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers both rose to heights not seen in many generations. This flooding happened about a year after the state of Missouri legalized riverboat gambling. So some preachers at the time connected the dots and declared that the flood was God’s judgment on the riverboat gambling. Just one problem: the riverboats survived. After all, they do float! If this were God’s judgment, perhaps lightning would have been more effective.

Viewing God’s judgment in such a way sounds, well, a bit humorous, as though God merely sits on a cloud and shoots down His lightning bolt judgments on various human behaviors, even somewhat arbitrarily. And in our day, many believe that God certainly cannot get angry. After all, He’s a loving God, you know.

So, does God get angry? If so, why? And how does He express that anger or judgment? And upon whom? That’s what Good Friday is all about. The death of Jesus around AD 30 forces us to confront how seriously God takes human sin…and, more importantly, what He does about it.

Through Lent we have explored how God works in and through creation to carry out His purposes. When God blesses, creation flourishes and life abounds. When He curses or judges, creation falls apart and life ceases to exist. The Bible gives many examples of God’s blessing and God’s cursing.

When God created the earth, He blessed it. Life sprouted and blossomed, animals and humans became fruitful and multiplied in number. But also, when Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground. Now that very earth that gave us life would grind us back into dust. And what happened in the flood of Noah’s day? Man’s great evil was judged, the earth and the skies opened with water, creation fell apart.

We can see similar things in our day. But without a clear word of revelation from God, let’s not declare a particular tragedy as God’s judgment on a particular action. But we can speak in a more general way. You see, God’s blessing and curse are embedded in creation. We realize this especially when we remember that everyone dies—sometimes subtly and slowly, other times suddenly and tragically.

We see this in our own bodies. Our own bodies carry God’s creative blessing as well as His judgment. God gives us life through our parents, and He sustains and nourishes that life as we grow into adulthood. But as we grow and age, we also see our bodies slowly fall apart, no matter how healthy we may be.

And because of us, the creation suffers as well. By God’s blessing, planet earth has a stable orbit, babies are born, vineyards grow, and life springs forth, despite sin and evil in the world. At the same time, the curse embedded in the earth fills our lives with toils and worries and tragedies and widespread death. Again, not necessarily specific punishments for specific sins, but certainly times for us to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We especially see God’s blessing and God’s curse on Good Friday. God pours out His wrath upon His only-begotten Son. Jesus dies in His created body, the body He took from His mother, Mary. And so Jesus “bowed His head and gave up His spirit/breath.” His body falls apart. It stops functioning. It stops moving. And creation suffers too. The sky darkened and the earth quaked. Creation fell apart—ripped apart at the seams. Jesus’ body grew limp. He was taken down from the cross, wrapped, and placed into a stone tomb.

But as we ponder the death of Jesus, let’s do more than merely dwell on His physical agony—the nails through His hands and feet, the dehydration, the asphyxiation. After all, many others suffered the very same agonies and even for much longer than six hours. And their suffering is not nearly as significant for us or for others. Now, we do not take Jesus’ physical agony lightly, but we do focus on what made His suffering unique. What made Jesus’ agony and bitter pains unique in human history? In that one created human body, Jesus experienced the full outpouring and venting of God’s wrath upon the entire human race from Adam and Eve to the present day. Jesus experienced all of the wrath that God could use to annihilate the world and everything in it. Remember Jesus’ words: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” God’s wrath is being abandoned by God, rather than embraced by Him. And when God abandons us or His creation, everything falls apart.

God does withdraw His support. He does turn His back on the human race and His creation. But He does so to Jesus in our place. St. Paul writes: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Died for us? What does this mean? Jesus died in our place. He died so that we may not have to endure God’s eternal displeasure and disappointment.

The Bible calls this an “atoning sacrifice,” or “propitiation.” This Jesus turns aside God’s wrath. He deflects God’s anger off us and onto Himself. Just as a lightning rod attracts a bolt of lightning, absorbs it, and dissipates it into nothing, that’s what Christ does for us. He attracts the wrath of God to Himself so it will not strike us. He absorbs it and He dissipates it until it is no more. This is no mere man who dies, but the very Son of God in the flesh. He absorbs all of God’s wrath against all of humanity. And He does so in His creaturely body.

So as God turns His back on Jesus, He turns His loving face toward us!

That means we can be certain of God’s love for us. Look how He showed and acted upon that love: He sacrificed His own Son. That’s how much He wanted—and still wants—you and me. That’s how much He wanted—and still wants—us to enjoy the benefits of His love and His gift of life. Let’s never take it for granted, because, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Amen.

Homily for Holy Thursday - 2017

"Meal of Faith and Life—Sacrament of the Altar"
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 34-35

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says the words of Christ are the main thing in the Sacrament of the Altar: “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.” These words deliver “exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” The words are the main thing. The words of Christ deliver the gifts of Christ.

So, what’s the big deal about whether we actually receive Christ’s Body and Blood? Why bother with the actual, physical eating and drinking? Why focus so much on whether or not Jesus’ Body and Blood are actually, really present in this Meal?

This has been a major issue since the 16th Century Reformation. In fact, it’s on this rock that the unity of Protestant churches has broken apart. Whether Jesus’ Body and Blood are really given and received in the Sacrament is the issue that separates Lutherans from most other Protestant church bodies. But why? What’s the big deal? Why can’t we just come together in unity? After all, don’t they have the words of Jesus? Aren’t these words the main thing in the Sacrament? Don’t the words still deliver the forgiveness of sins?

The bigger question is this: What is really at stake in this centuries-long debate? What’s at stake is the Gospel itself! Yes, Luther says the words are the main thing. But he also says this—going back to the first question: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” Translation: the words of Christ are embedded in the very Body and Blood of Christ. First, the words embrace the bread and wine so that they also become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Second, the Body and Blood of Jesus actually deliver the forgiveness of sins. They actually impart the forgiveness, life, and salvation from Jesus. To say it another way: no Body and Blood, no forgiveness in the Sacrament! Take away the Body and Blood of Jesus—or deny that the Supper really is Christ’s Body and Blood—and you take away the Gospel!

It’s that very Gospel we need, that very Gospel we depend on for life, that very Gospel that strengthens our faith in God’s love.

And now we circle back to creation—or at least elements of creation. After all, it’s in the created order where God works for us and is present with us. From the beginning, God deals with us, communicates with us, is present with us only in and through His creation. From the beginning, we can only deal with God through our bodies—our eyes, ears, mouth, brain, etc.—and elements of the physical world. It’s how God works with us. And it goes to the heart of the Lord’s Supper.

Those who reject the actual presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood do so on two basic assumptions. First, they say, “God is spiritual, immaterial. He does not have a physical body. Nothing in creation can contain God.” So, they claim, we must deal with God through a spiritual/immaterial realm. The second assumption says this: “The physical world, and with it our bodies, is an impediment to a truly spiritual life.” Our spirits—that is, our disembodied consciousness—must transcend, or leave, our bodies and ascend above this world to where God lives. Think of transcendental meditation or contemplative prayer, by which the mind tries to detach itself from the body.

But all of this goes against real life. It also goes against what the Bible teaches. As humans, we are made of both body and soul/spirit. Our bodies connect us to the earth; our “spirits” draw us upward and connect us to God. And the Bible clearly shows us that our bodies and the physical creation are not impediments to life with God. In fact, they are the very vehicles for God’s presence and activity. The universe cannot contain God, and yet He is very much present in the petals of the smallest flower.

What picture does the Bible paint of our God? Scripture portrays our God as a very down-to-earth God, a God who gets His hands dirty in the work of everyday life. How does God do this work? Who comes to whom? It’s God who comes down from the heavens to us. He comes to meet us where we are, so to speak. And where are we? Here on earth! He comes here on earth where we can receive Him in our bodies. After all, we are enlivened bodies, that is, bodies given life by the breath of God.

Consider how God came down to earth to meet Adam and Eve in the garden in “the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), perhaps early morning or late afternoon or early evening. That sets the pattern we see throughout the Bible. God comes down to earth and meets with Moses in a burning bush. He comes down to Mt. Sinai. He comes down in a pillar of cloud and fire. And then, most importantly, God comes down and meets us in the real, visible, tangible flesh-and-blood body of Jesus Christ. God is this man Jesus; and this man Jesus is God Himself! And after the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples and dwells in our hearts by faith. Then, on the Last Day, Jesus will come down to rule the new heavens and new earth forever.

The Christian story is never one of ascending to God, or of rising up above our bodies and this physical world to some spiritual, ethereal plane. Instead, we encounter God right here on earth, with our physical bodies. And now, with our mouths in the Lord’s Supper.

So tonight, we commemorate Jesus’ institution of His holy Supper. It’s the night when He was betrayed, the night before He goes to His death on the cross. He will leave His disciples, but He will not leave them alone. So He institutes and gives this Supper as His last will and testament. And it’s a last will and testament like no other. In this testament—this meal—Jesus bequeaths the entire history of Israel to His disciples and to us. He bequeaths to them and to us a covenant, a promise, sealed by the blood of countless sacrifices that pointed to Jesus. But it’s a new covenant. The old covenant in the Old Testament was sealed by the blood of sacrificial animals; this new covenant is sealed by the blood of the Son of God. The old covenant was constantly renewed with repeated sacrifices; this new covenant is sealed once and for all times with the blood of the sinless Lamb of God.

Just as the old covenant gathered God’s people into a nation, this new covenant unites God’s people in the very body of Jesus. As the Body and Blood of Jesus go into each of us, we share something in common. What’s that? The Body and Blood of Jesus! Not only does this meal unite us to Jesus and all of His blessings; it also binds us together into one body. That’s why we call it Communion—koinonia. This is the real fellowship—the genuine sharing in common of the Body and Blood of Jesus.

And what is the covenant, or promise? The Creator will be our God, our Father. In this covenant, God promises and seals His forgiveness for us. God comes and makes this promise to us. He even puts the promise into our hearts by putting it into our mouths.

It’s interesting that many people have no problem thinking that our spirits can disconnect from our bodies and rise above them to meet God in heaven, but they have a major problem accepting that the Son of God has come to us in a human body and even now comes in His Body and Blood in the Supper. It reveals a lack of confidence in God’s Word, the Word that actually does what God says it will.

Now we circle back to the words of Jesus as the main thing in the Sacrament. Who speaks these words? Jesus Christ Himself—the almighty and powerful Creator and Lord. He uttered a word, and entire galaxies and millions of stars came into being. Well, that same word that created you, me, and everything in this world now brings the Body and Blood of Jesus to us in, with, and under the bread and wine. Yes, God’s Word does what it says! Jesus first spoke these words in the Upper Room, and they still do their thing to this day as Jesus invites us to this feast.

When a person writes their last will and testament, they bequeath their goods and treasures to those they leave behind. Here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus bequeaths to us all that He has to give us—His Body and His Blood, the very Body and Blood that accomplished our salvation in His death and resurrection. And with this Body and Blood, Jesus guarantees in advance a place for us at His table—the table of His banquet, a banquet to end all banquets in His new creation. And what a feast it will be! A feast of fellowship and joy that even now God is preparing for us. Amen.

Homily for Palm Sunday - 2017

"In Our Place"
Matthew 27:11-54

Listen here.

“Truly this was the Son of God,” said the centurion. We’d better tweak that: “Truly this IS the Son of God.” Not a past tense has been, but a present tense Savior of sinners. Truly this is the Son of God for you—even as He hangs shamed, mocked, beaten, bruised, bloodied, and dead.  Our Lord Jesus, truly the Son of God, puts Himself in our place to rescue us.

We heard the Triumphal Entry a mere four months ago when Advent began. Then it was a story of welcome with eager rejoicing—Christ coming into our human flesh and our fallen world. Now we hear the story as we say farewell with somber thanks. Now Jesus marches on to His ultimate mission: to suffer, die, and rise again…for us.

A mere five weeks ago and through the weeks since, Jesus has been engaging in battles and winning victories against Satan and his temptations. Now, we hear the account of the ultimate battle. And it looks like anything but a victory! But Christ was putting Himself in our place. That should have been you and I on that cross!

He is called “king,” and so He is. We should be the kings and the queens, but we fell from our appointed thrones. So Jesus lowers Himself to take the title in mockery and disgrace.

He was falsely accused. We are rightly accused in our transgressions against God and against our various neighbors. But "We have rights!” we insist. Jesus, though, waives His divine rights and privileges and silently endures the shame.

Barabbas was released instead of Jesus. His name means “son of the father.” From the beginning, we should have been the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. Instead, we were found guilty of rebellion against God and imprisoned in sin. Jesus, the true Son of God, is the innocent One, the One taken into custody so that we guilty ones may go free.

“His blood be on us,” cried the ginned up crowd. A little thing it was, or so they mused. But it was bearing the blame. Do we treat His blood too lightly, as a little thing? Ah, but Jesus’ spilled blood cleanses us from our sinful state and our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Pray “His blood be on us” with weighty joy and gratitude when you come to the Table.

He endures the spitting and the mocking. We were the ones who mocked the genuine royalty of being “like God.” We thought it better to rely on ourselves instead of the God who made us in His image. But Jesus endures the spitting and mocking to rescue the likes of us. Jesus was stripped naked to clothe us with His rightness, His image. Truly, this Son of God strips us of the tattered rags of our sin and the false robes of our self-rule.

And the pain on the cross. Excruciating! We think pain is so unfair, something to flee at all costs. Even though we truly deserve it. We would love to drink the drugged wine to ease the pain. Jesus, though, does not deserve the pain; but He takes it, He suffers it, He drinks it down, refusing any pain-killer.

He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” We are the ones who should have been and should be forsaken by God, all for turning against Him. But Jesus still trusts His Father in the very midst of being utterly forsaken by Him.

Jesus “yielded up His spirit.” We rail against death at every turn, with every fiber of our being, even though we brought it into God’s good creation. Jesus, though, willingly goes into death, utterly and finally to defeat it.

All of this Jesus did, endured, and suffered in our place.

We call it the “Great Exchange,” the great trading places. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

We also call it “Atonement.” The blood is for cleansing and making us holy. Jesus took our place to make us “at-one” with God once again. “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” (Hebrews 9:14).

We also call it “Justification.” Though we are sinful and guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, He makes us righteous and innocent through His work on the cross. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We also call it “Redemption.” Because of Jesus paying the price, making the ultimate sacrifice, paying the ransom, we are bought back and brought back for life in His kingdom. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18).

We also call it “Reconciliation.” Warring factions are brought back together. Hostile enemies are brought to peaceful life together. Now “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Amen.

06 April 2017

Homily for Lent 5 Evening Prayer

"Battle Cry of Faith--The Lord's Prayer"
Small Catechism, The Lord's Prayer
(sixth in a catechetical series)

When a father has to travel for his work, it’s quite common that he will bring home gifts for his children. It might be a pin from a town or country. It could be a toy or stuffed animal, or even some special chocolate or candy. Over time the children come to expect such gifts from daddy. When daddy comes home from a trip and enters the door, the children come running to him, hug him, welcome him home, and then ask, “What did you bring us?” I know it’s happened in my home; perhaps it’s happened in your home.

It’s not so bad that children ask, “What did you bring us?”, is it? It’s not purely out of selfishness or entitlement, I think. You see, we fathers actually teach our children to expect something when we bring gifts home from our trips. They learn that this is what dad does. And dad does this because he loves his children.

That’s how it is with our heavenly Father. It’s what our spiritual father, Martin Luther, has pointed out out in the Catechism, especially in the Creed. God has withheld nothing from us. He has given us Himself and His entire creation. He then gave us His only-begotten Son. Then He gave us His Holy Spirit and the age to come. So no wonder He exhorts us to run to Him and ask for His blessings “with all boldness and confidence” as “dear children ask their dear father.” God has tenderly invited us to do so!

What does it mean to pray? Quite simply, to pray is to ask. This is the heart and core of prayer. Now this may sound a bit odd to our ears. In fact, it may sound like “gimme, gimme, gimme.” And isn’t that rather self-centered and selfish? Well, in our human relationships, it can certainly reveal a sense of entitlement. “We deserve it! We ought to have it!” But when it comes to our relationship with God, it actually reveals something of our standing before God. We never don’t need everything from God; we are never independent from Him.

We’ve seen this in previous weeks. Everything we are and have comes from God Himself. As St. Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). You and I did not deserve to be born. We did not earn or merit it. We did not deserve this life. God did not owe it to us. Instead, we receive all of life as a gift. We, you and I, exist solely as gifts of God. And so our life and our lives are completely dependent upon God. We live from the gifts of God. That’s what it means to be creatures and not the Creator. You and I will never not need food and drink, family and friends, good weather, health for our bodies. And so God tenderly invites us to ask, and to receive all these gifts, and many more, with thanksgiving.

But at the same time, we are fallen creatures, sinful creatures. You and I stand before God always needing to be cleansed from sin, constantly restored to God’s favor and grace. It may seem anything but natural to go before God and ask for forgiveness and a new lease on life. Some may call that the height of chutzpah. And yet, right here, right at this point, is where God approaches us and tenderly invites us to call Him “Father.” He does this so that He might not frighten us or chase us off. Instead, He extends His hand so that we may take it. And because of Jesus, we have been adopted as His children. Because of the Holy Spirit of His Son who comes into our hearts, we can cry out, “Abba, Father.” As long as we live in this current age, there’s not a moment when we do not need to ask for God’s forgiveness and favor. And we are bold to do so because of Jesus Christ.

So what does Jesus give us in the prayer that He has taught us? Seven petitions. Seven requests. Our Lord wants us to open our arms wide—much like a child on Halloween opening a pillowcase wide to receive as much candy as possible.

Yet prayer is no easy task…at least not in this life. And that’s not just because we may have our doubts or questions. It’s because when we pray, we actually place ourselves on the front line in the battle between God and Satan. You see, the moment the Spirit enters our hearts and kindles faith in God, at that very moment we then turn to God crying, “Abba, Father.” At that moment, we also turn our back on Satan. And Satan considers that a declaration of war. Nothing infuriates him more than to have someone liberated from his prison and returned home as a child and heir of God. So Satan, with every fiber of his being, sets out to deprive us of faith, to destroy our faith, and to turn us against our Lord who has created and redeemed us. So it’s in prayer that we especially encounter the struggles of faith. After all, the struggle of the Christian faith does not happen before faith. The struggle begins with the birth of faith!

C. S. Lewis captured this beautifully in his book The Screwtape Letters. In this book, an apprentice devil named Wormwood seeks the advice of his uncle Screwtape, a senior devil and tempter. Wormwood has been assigned the task of overseeing a young man who is not a Christian. Wormwood’s task is to make sure the man does not become a Christian. As long as the man is not a Christian, Wormwood’s job is pretty easy. But one day, the man meets a young Christian woman. Their relationship develops, and the young man becomes intrigued by Christianity. Now Wormwood has to kick it into high gear and find ways to prevent the man from becoming Christian. When the man does become a Christian, Wormwood’s challenge is to bring him back into the clutches of “Our Father Below,” who is Satan. So senior devil Screwtape has to write some letters to Wormwood and advise him in this battle, especially on how to destroy the man’s faith once it is kindled.

So it is with us. In each of the seven petitions, we pray above all for the most precious gift that God can give us—the gift of faith. The gift of faith is the very relationship God wants us to have with Him. So we pray against unbelief. We pray against all of Satan’s attempts to undermine our faith and to tear us from the gifts of God and His love. Satan knows his time is short. So he pulls out all the stops. He holds nothing back. He begins by trying to undermine the name and Word of God. He continues undermining faith in that Word. He even seeks to keep us from receiving our daily bread, the necessities of daily life, in peace and with thanksgiving.

As Peter reminds us, our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But rarely does he make a frontal attack that we can prepare for as we defend ourselves. Instead, temptation most commonly sneaks up and attacks us from behind. To say it another way, temptation ambushes us in ways that we never see coming.

Consider this analogy. Sometimes a husband and wife decide to divorce because their love has simply gone cold. They never intended it to happen. They never wanted it to happen. Instead, it happened without them even realizing it. They got married and things were great. But then life got busy, they pursued their careers, they raised their children, they found less and less time for each other, and they eventually found themselves little more than roommates. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to stop loving each other. No, it happened without them realizing that it was happening.

That’s often how it happens with Christians who fall away from Christ. They never intend it to happen. They never want it to happen. It just happens. Perhaps they move to a new city for a new job. They find a new doctor, a new dentist, new stores, new friends, and a new church. They attend church a few weeks, then miss a few weeks. They attend one week, then miss five weeks. Before they realize, they are no longer attending at all. God has become distant and drifted off their radar screen. In other words, a Christian doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to renounce the faith. Instead, they drift away without realizing it. Preserve us from this, dear heavenly Father! This is why St. Paul exhorts us, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

Through this Lenten season, though, we’ve seen that we do not stand alone in this battle. We do have Someone who goes into the battle ahead of us and fights for us:

“But for us fights the valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever” (LSB 656:2).

He is the One we follow through Lent and soon to Good Friday and Easter. He is the One who fights for us. So His victory is our victory. He has given us His Word that we tightly hold onto. And no one can snatch us out of His hands. He is the same One who has given us the privilege to run to our heavenly Father, the same One who created and rules over every galaxy, every star, every planet, and every living creature. This is why Martin Luther can describe our prayer life as our greatest weapon in the fight against Satan. After all, in our prayers, we enlist the aid, the support, and the power of our heavenly Father. Amen.

03 April 2017

Homily for Lent 5 - Judica - 2017

"Never See Death"
John 8:42-59

Listen here.

They picked up stones to throw at Jesus, but He hid Himself and went out of the temple.

Why did they want to kill Jesus? Because He was telling them things that didn’t fit into what they thought their religion was. Earlier He told them they were from below, but He was from above. He told them they were of this world, but He was not of this world (John 8:23). Earlier He told them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

They replied by saying that they were descendants of Abraham, that they had never not been free, that they had never been enslaved to anyone. I guess they conveniently forgot the facts of their past and their present—slavery in Egypt, exile in Babylon, and then occupation by Rome. They misunderstood what Jesus was telling them. He meant that they were slaves to sin and death. He meant that He, the Son, had come to set them free. But they would not recognize or admit their slavery. And thus they would not accept Jesus’ Word. So they remained enslaved in their sin.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Another word of Jesus that they have difficulty hearing and accepting. Who does this Jesus think He is? Our Father Abraham died. The prophets died. Everyone dies. So Jesus has to tell them yet another word: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

Who is this Man? This is the Son of God, the eternal Son of the Father, the One who was with the Father before all things were made. This is the One who became incarnate, who came into our world, who took on our flesh and bone and body. He is the timeless One, the One who existed before Abraham, and yet He also became Abraham’s descendant. He is the One—the only One—who can say, ”If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

Scripture gives no record of these exact words being spoken to Abraham, but it is the Word that Abraham believed, kept, and held onto. Remember how he saddled his donkey and took his only son, whom he loved, to the mountain as the Lord directed him. Remember how he took the wood and laid it on the back of his beloved son. Remember how he built the altar, most likely with the help of his son, and then tied up his son and laid him on top of the altar. Abraham held onto the Word of the Lord as “he considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19). Yes, Abraham believed and kept the Word of the Lord, and that day his son Isaac did not see death.

Genesis says that God did this to test Abraham. But it was more than a test; it was also a type, a picture, a forecast of another Son of Abraham, our Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus is the promised Son who carries the wood of His cross upon His back, and He goes back up Calvary’s mountain to make the great sacrifice to save us from our sin. He is the beloved Son who is bound—willingly—and laid upon the altar of the cross to rescue us from death. He is the Lamb whom God provides for Himself for a burnt offering. He is the Lamb who is offered for us, who is willingly caught in the thicket of our sin and wears the crown of thorns upon His head. Yes, on that Mount of the Lord, Jesus provided our deliverance from sin and death.

So, yes, Jesus can say, if anyone keeps His Word, that person will never see death. Because Jesus came to see death for us. He came to drink the cup of suffering in order that we may be released from death’s power. He came to be our High Priest who entered into the Holy Place of Heaven and with His own blood gained everlasting redemption for His people, that we might receive the promised eternal inheritance. He came to offer Himself without blemish to God and spill His innocent blood to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As we keep and hold onto His Word, we are rescued from death’s sting and its eternal judgment.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You also have His Word. If you keep it and hold onto it, you gain a share in that life which is stronger than death. Martin Luther proclaimed it this way: “Whoever, therefore, heeds God’s Word has both its glory and benefit: glory, in that he is of God and is God’s child; benefit, in that the Word which he believes saves him. And though he will still become ill, be assailed somewhat by the devil, and experience physical death, yet at the moment his soul is released he will, as it were, fall asleep and come into Christ’s bosom, with the angels ministering to him and bearing him up, so that his foot is not dashed against a stone, as promised in Psalm 91:12” (House Postils, 1:364).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You have His Word. Keep it and hold onto it for dear life. Jesus is the One who promises: “I AM the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). If you believe in Jesus, you already have eternal life. And nothing can take that away from you.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You have His Word. Keep it and hold onto it for dear life. He is the One who promises: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54-55). If you are united to Jesus in His Holy Supper, you already have the victory over death, because His risen and glorified Body and Blood give you His life, now and forever. Amen.

30 March 2017

Homily for Lent 4 Evening Prayer

"Re-creation--Third Article"
Apostles' Creed, Third Article
(fifth in a catechetical series)

The art of living by faith starts to see a certain modus operandi—way of operating—on God’s part. God’s way of operating opens our eyes to see Him at work in our world and within our lives. This art of living by faith then leads us to receive and embrace God’s gifts as our very own.

We’ve seen this over the past couple of weeks. We’ve seen how our God and Creator remains present and active in His creation. Despite our ongoing misuse and abuse of it, He keeps His creation going. We’ve also seen how God comes into the world to be active and present in a very unique way—as an embodied human being. He does this in order to rid His creation of the sin and evil that Satan and we humans brought into it. Now, God comes to be present and active in another way. Now, He brings His creation to fulfillment as the result of Jesus’ saving work. This time, God sends His Holy Spirit into us, into our bodies. He does this to renew and remake us for the new age and the new world to come. It’s the re-creation taught the Third Article.

This week we come to the divine breath that breathes the life of God into His creation. As we saw with our Lord Jesus, this is not the first time that the Spirit has been present and active in the world. The Holy Spirit was there in the beginning, hovering over the waters of creation like the wings of a mother bird spread out over her chicks and gathering them to herself. The Spirit was there piling up the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites might pass through. The Spirit was there appointing, guiding, and equipping Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings as God’s plan of redemption unfolded. The Spirit was there at Jesus’ baptism anointing, appointing, and identifying Jesus as God’s prophet, priest, and king for all time—all wrapped up in one person. And now the Spirit of God’s Son (Gal. 4:6) brings God’s gifts to us and gives us life. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation” (SC, Sac. of Altar).

The Old Testament word for Spirit is ruach, which means breath, wind, or spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is pneuma, which also means breath, wind, or spirit. This Greek word gives us English words such as “pneumatic gun,” which simply means “air gun.” And in Latin the term is spiritus. When medical people say that someone has “expired”—that is, they have died—it simply means that the breath has left them. So, it’s not surprising, then, that God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is identified in the Nicene Creed as “the Lord of Life.”

That’s what breath does. It enlivens. It animates. It creates movement. When God breathed into Adam, he “became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7), a living, moving being. In the Bible, to be living means to be moving. If you are not moving, you are dead. One time, an x-ray technician x-rayed a woman in her nineties who was vibrant and alive. The technician asked, “What is your secret to life?” The woman answered, “Keep moving!” Think about it. If you stop moving, you’re dead. And nothing animates us like our breath.

So how does the Spirit give us new and eternal life? By speaking words carried on the breath of others. When we speak, we breathe, and we utter words within the breath. God is present and active by speaking with us. This is not new; God has been speaking from the beginning. Dr. Robert Kolb even describes the God of the Bible as a “chatterbox.” God begins talking and does not stop talking. And His speaking does what it says. Think about it. God speaks and a blue planet appears. God speaks and trees and flowers appear. God speaks and fish, birds, and animals appear. God speaks and His creation bursts forth with abundant life. God speaks and His Son enters the world as the Word of God made flesh.

And now God speaks yet again—as the Holy Spirit. He speaks life-giving, re-creating words to us. What are these words? They are words that say, “You are forgiven. God has justified you. God has welcomed you home. You are a new creation of God!” These words are promises of God for us now and into eternity. God speaks them. God stands behind them.

These promises seek to engender and strengthen faith. They seek to arouse faith that embraces God’s gifts and does a happy dance for them. Consider this: why do we make promises to other people? What do we hope to accomplish by making a promise or giving our word? I suspect that we are trying to give other people confidence and faith that we will do as we say. Think of the best known example: promises made at the wedding altar. The bride and groom speak their vows, their promises, to each other. They promise to be there for each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” The purpose of the promise is to give the spouse confidence and joy. So it is with God. He promises to engender faith. Promise and faith go hand in hand. This is the relationship God establishes with us—speaking and hearing, promising and believing.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? It means we get to live by those words of promise that God makes to us. We cling to those words. We cherish them in our hearts. Our faith is not directed inward, toward our feelings or emotions. No, our faith is directed outward, outside of ourselves. It clings to a word that is spoken from outside of us, a word that breaks into our lives. Do you remember the first time a high school or college sweetheart uttered the words, “I love you”? Did you repeat them over and over to yourself? Did it give you a new outlook or new lease on the future? That and so much more is what happens as faith receives and clings to the promises of God. Faith is the new life, the re-creation, that the Spirit breathes into our bodies and into our cold, lifeless hearts.

Where do we find these life-giving words and promises of God? We find them on the lips and tongues of fellow Christians—our parents, our spouses, our pastors, our teachers. Just as God works through His creatures to bestow the gifts of food and water upon us, and just as God worked through the human body of Jesus to accomplish salvation for us, so the Spirit does His speaking through human creatures. Yes, they are the very creatures who once rejected God’s words, but they now become His mouthpieces. We are the people who have heard God’s promises. We have been gathered by those promises. Now we speak those promises to others. Pastors do so as their full-time calling. Others do it as part of their vocation in the world as parents, citizens, employers, or employees. It’s why Luther can speak of the church as both a creature of the Word, gathered by the Word, and as a “mouth-house” where the Word of God is spoken.

But aren’t these plain, ordinary people? How can ordinary people do the extra-ordinary thing of bringing the life-bestowing Word of God to others? This is how God works. Plants are ordinary, but by God’s blessing they convert the sun’s energy through photosynthesis into food that we can eat—an extraordinary process and gift. So also with people.

The art of living by faith sees the pastor speaking words of forgiveness and hope. It perceives the parent speaking words of forgiveness and hope. It hears the Christian friend speaking a word of forgiveness and comfort. All of this as God Himself speaking to us. As Jesus said, “The one who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16). In these words faith perceives the voice of the Holy Spirit. Faith perceives the Word of God making the water of Baptism into a life-giving water rich in God’s grace. Faith perceives Jesus’ words bestowing His Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and wine.

God’s commitment and faithfulness to us, His rebellious people, is truly remarkable. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation (Genesis 1), He now hovers over the waters of Baptism, creating and gathering a new people to Himself. God breathed the creating breath of life into us when He first created us, making us living creatures (Genesis 2). Now the Holy Spirit has breathed and continues breathing into us not just the breath of life, but also the breath of eternal life. Amen.

27 March 2017

Homily for Lent 4 - Laetare - 2017

"God's Food"
John 6:1-15

Listen here.

From a mere five loaves of barley bread and two small fish Jesus feeds 5000 men plus women and children. And each person in this multitude received more than just a little crumb or two. They ate “as much as they wanted.” And the disciples gathered 12 baskets of left overs. After all, waste not, want not. From empty, grumbling bellies to full, contented tummies.

But what on earth are we doing with this great story of Jesus feeding the multitude in the middle of Lent? Isn’t Lent a time when we learn to fast, to discipline ourselves and our appetites, to prepare for Easter by restraining ourselves now so that we can feast later? Lent is not over yet, but today we get this story of God’s food?

On Ash Wednesday we began the stark season of Lent with our Lord Jesus talking about doing works of charity, praying, and fasting. On the First Sunday in Lent we heard how Adam and Eve chose not to fast but rather to indulge their appetite for the forbidden fruit. Because of their ravenous sin, we all suffer the disease of death. We also heard how Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations not by indulging His desire for food, but by fasting from it and relying on the “food” of God’s Word. Lent is a time to separate ourselves from relying on food, a time to reign in our appetites, a time to tell the body, “Body, you’re not my master; God is my loving Master.”

But now we get to rejoice in food, glorious food? With half of Lent still ahead of us?

The Latin name for today is Laetare—meaning “Rejoice!” It could be that in the early days of the Christian calendar this day was the final day of regular eating before the fasting time of Lent—something like “Mardi Gras” is today. Then the season of Lent developed into the “forty days of purple” we know and love so well. This Sunday called Laetare, or “Rejoice!”, has become a sort of Rest Area along the freeway. We get to pull off the long highway of Lent for just a brief pause—take a stretch, get some refreshment, and get ready for the final leg of the journey as we approach Passiontide, Holy Week and then arrive at Easter.

Yet even as we take our pit stop and look down the road where we are about to go—to the Cross and the Empty Tomb—we still get to live in repentance. Notice how the disciples worried and fretted over their food. Jesus asked them, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” You can almost see the anxiety on their faces. Philip said, “Uh, Lord, 200 days’ wages worth of bread would not be sufficient.” In the currency of our day, that’s at least $12,000 worth of food. Andrew spotted a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, or perhaps fish cakes, in his lunch basket. “But what are they for so many?” he asked with worry and doubt dripping from his words. Poor Philip and Andrew! Their eyes of faith just did not see Jesus, the Bread of Life, “God’s Food” in the flesh, standing there in front of them. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they thought that they had only themselves to trust.

And we, you and I, are just like them. Sometimes we worry about our food. Will we have enough, or will we run out? Will it taste good? Will it be prepared just right? Other times our worries turn us to our food. My, how that glass of wine or that box of chocolates or that slice of pizza makes all of the day’s worries fade away! Another problem is how we use our food. Instead of simply eating to live, we turn it on its head: we think we must live to eat. That’s when you eat just because the food is there, or you “hear it calling your name” as you pass by the cupboard or the refrigerator. Oh, the power that food has over us! Food itself is not the problem; letting it and our appetite control us, though, is.

Our chief problem is that we do not look to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, for our food. No, we look to ourselves and to Schnucks or Dierbergs or Shop N’ Save. We expect our paycheck to be there so that we can go grocery shopping. We can’t imagine not having a grocery store or a fast food place nearby. Since the disease of death infects us, we sin by looking to ourselves as the source of our daily bread. The power of food makes us think, as Adam and Eve did, that we can be “like God” by trusting ourselves, by indulging our own appetites.

When Jesus feeds the great multitude, He shows us the better way, the way He created us to live. Instead of pining for food, we may rely on our God and Savior. As Psalm 145 teaches us to pray, “The eyes of all look to you, [O Lord,] and you give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”  God certainly gave the Israelites their food at the proper time. Every day He sent manna from heaven, and every day just enough for that day. Except on Fridays. Then He would give enough for that day and the Sabbath Day. But it was a miracle of God’s food. A miracle that God provided it, a miracle that through that food, God sustained His people in their journey through the wilderness.

Our Lord Jesus performed just such a miracle of food for the multitude gathered on the mountain. It’s quite a miracle to feed over 5,000 people from a mere five loaves of bread and two fish. But remember the other part of the miracle. Through that physical food He sustained them for their journey with Him or their trip home. Yes, our Lord uses food, ordinary food, to show us that He is the Lord of life, that He is the antidote to our disease of death. And that’s true all the time, not just when you’re starving on a mountainside with Jesus. As Luther put it, “What he did here he demonstrates year in, year out, and day for day, with the trees, fields, meadows, bodies of water, and all creatures, so that apples, pears, wheat, barley, grass, fish, and all other things necessary to sustain life are produced. He does it that we might believe that he will sustain us” (Church Postils, I:348).

And let’s not forget the other miracle of God’s food before us today. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also think of the Lord feeding us in His holy Supper. After all, Jesus Himself connects His physical feeding of the crowd with the spiritual feeding He gives in His Body and Blood. Some may argue that this chapter, John 6, has nothing to do with the Eucharist. But listen carefully to the words of Jesus, listen to this miracle of food that Jesus gives us: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51). Not only does ordinary, everyday food sustain our physical life, but the food of Christ’s very Body and Blood, under the bread and wine, sustains our eternal life. Yes, the very Body pierced and broken on the Cross for you, the very Blood poured out from His sacred veins and side for you—they cure you of your disease of death. They heal you of your sins of worrying about food and over-indulging in it.

So, what we turn upside down and inside out, Jesus comes to set right. He says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood—eating and drinking in faith, of course—has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And when we think that we just cannot fast, we just cannot do without our physical foods, Jesus gives us Himself, the Bread of Life, God’s food. He provides the food we need and when we need it, and with it He gives us His life. Amen.

23 March 2017

Homily for Lent 3 Evening Prayer

"Redemption--Second Article"
Apostles' Creed, Second Article
(fourth in a catechetical series)

Here we are. The Second Article of the Creed. The heart of the Christian faith. Jesus’ work of redemption for us. Why must Jesus redeem us? Our human sin. Here we deal with human sinners and God the justifier. But notice this: the problem is not that we are creatures. The problem is not that this world is a material world. As we heard last week, these are God’s good works and gifts. In addition, animals did not sin; the physical world did not sin. In a way, they are “innocent” even as they have suffered because of human sin.

No, the problem is us. The problem is that we, God’s prized human creatures, have misused and abused His world. Martin Luther made a very insightful statement in his theses for debate at the town of Heidelberg. He said that “we use the best things in the worst way.” We don’t use bad things in the worst way; we use the best things in the worst way. What do we mean by best things? God’s great gifts to us: our bodies, our lives, our family, our work, our income, and so on. What does it mean to use these things in the worst way? It means we idolize them. We force them to do things for us that they were not created to do. We try to get our security and happiness from them. And when we do that, we further misuse them by keeping them for ourselves rather than for serving our neighbor.

So we become enslaved to and trapped by these best things. Or, better, our desires for them entrap us. Then we become disappointed. You see, these best things cannot give us what we seek from them. Satan has lured us, God’s beloved human creatures, into captivity. We have become POWs behind enemy lines.

But here’s the wonderful and remarkable thing about this Second Article. Since God has created this world, He refuses to let go of His creation. He made it good. He loves it. The world is not the problem. So God does not scrap His creation and start over. No, He sets out to reclaim and restore His creation—beginning with us, because the problem began with us. Just as God made room in His creation for us creatures, now He makes room for us sinful creatures who rebelled against Him. He who created us is He who redeems us—true God and true Man.

How does God redeem us? First, God dives down into the depths of His creation, to take up residence in it and fix it for good. But He does this in a completely unexpected way. Ponder this: God has always been present and active in His creation. The universe cannot contain Him, but, as Luther noted, God is still present and active in the smallest flower petal. It’s how He keeps His creation going. Also ponder this: God revealed Himself in many ways in the Old Testament—the angel to Abraham, the burning bush to Moses, the pillar of cloud and fire to the Israelites.

But now in Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself and intervenes in His creation in a most personal and intimate way. He takes a created body into Himself and He lives a creaturely life. He makes room in His life to take on a human body and all that entails—a human mind, a human history, and human DNA that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. He is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary”; Creator of the universe and a creature within that creation, all at the same time. Who would have imagined this?

Jesus’ incarnation affirms the goodness of creation like nothing else. God is saying His creation is good and important to Him. And Jesus does more than just take on a human body to live in the midst of sin and evil. He becomes human in order to do away with, to destroy, and to overcome sin and evil and everything that pollutes and disfigures His beautiful world.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? First, it means that we cannot and should not look for God anywhere else than in this Man, Jesus Christ. Faith does not look to some spiritual, ethereal realm. It does not look to some impersonal “force” on the outer fringes of the galaxy. No, faith looks to this one Man, our brother, as God Himself. Where Jesus is, there is God. This Man is God; God is this Man. As Jesus said, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). So, whoever rejects Jesus also rejects their Creator God. It’s personal—a personal rejection.

Second, Jesus’ incarnation also means that God’s work of redemption does not devalue the physical creation nor our physical bodies. They are just as important as our souls. They are so important that God Himself has embraced them by becoming part of His own creation. He comes to redeem both body and soul.

Not only does God redeem us by taking on a physical, creaturely, human body, but He also works through that creaturely body to accomplish our redemption. You see, our sin and rebellion were deeply personal. They offended God because they showed our rejection of Him and His good purposes for us. They showed our betrayal of God. And yet God in the most personal way enters His creation, personally takes our sin and rebellion upon Himself, personally does away with it, and personally conquers it.

Our loving God works through His creation—His human body—to accomplish the redemption of all human bodies and all of creation itself. How so? As Luther wrote, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” The Creed itself hammers it home. In His very body Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” And He rose again in that same body.

C. S. Lewis spoke of Jesus as a pearl diver who strips himself, then dives into the murky depths in order to reclaim a priceless pearl, and then bursts back up through the surface with that pearl firmly in his grasp. The entire Christian story turns on this point. As Lewis said: “God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders [emphasis added]. The miracles that have already happened are, of course…the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise.”

In the First Article, we cannot deal with God apart from His creation. Now in the Second Article, we cannot deal with God’s graciousness in redeeming us from sin apart from the creaturely human body of Jesus. Through this physical human body of a Jewish man we encounter our Redeemer and Lord!

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? It means that we seek God’s gifts only in Jesus Christ, only because of Jesus Christ. Only in the body of Christ does God reveal His attitude and His intentions toward us. Like a devoted parent, God will stop at nothing to reclaim and restore His creation. That includes taking upon Himself a frail human body—a body that He keeps into all eternity. It also includes suffering and dying in that human body at the hands of His rebellious, lost human creatures. All this He does for us—creatures made in His image, creatures made to manage all creation, creatures who rejected Him and tried to usurp His glory. All this He does to restore us and adopt us as His children and heirs of His kingdom.

This changes everything for us. It means that when things happen—things we cannot understand, tragic things that defy explanation, things we cannot make sense of—faith turns to the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

This is what Luther gets at when he speaks of the “hidden God” and the “proclaimed God.” When we look for answers in places other than Jesus, we often get lost, frustrated, and angry. When we look elsewhere, we encounter the silence of God. He doesn’t always give us the answers we want, because, after all, He is not answerable or accountable to us. But in the flesh and blood of Jesus, in His life, and especially in His death and resurrection, we encounter God speaking to us. And what does He say? He speaks His word of love. As Paul said in Romans 5[:8], “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So, when I cannot answer a question, when I have no explanations, I can say, “I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know what this means. But I do know this: nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

C. S. Lewis once said that Jesus is the missing chapter to our lives, the missing chapter that makes sense of our lives. In Jesus, our stories now make sense. You see, in Jesus, we see our true story, the entire story of our lives. We see in Him our past and our present—He created us and He preserves us. We see in Him our present and our future—He redeems  us and will raise us from the dead. Since He is our Creator and Redeemer, our past, present, and future are all found and united in Him. Amen.