15 February 2017

Homily for Septuagesima - 2017

"Reversal of Grace"
Matthew 20:1-16

Listen here.

Jesus sure loves turning things topsy-turvy. He seems to relish turning things on their head and making us squirm. Just consider this parable. A landowner goes out at 6:00 a.m. to hire workers for the day. He contracts with them, and they sign on the dotted line—a full day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Then, at 9:00 a.m., the landowner hires more workers. After all, it’s not good that men should sit idle all day. He promises to pay them “whatever is right.” The landowner goes back to the employment agency again at 12:00 noon, and then again at 3:00 p.m. The grape harvest is going so well, and the landowner is so elated with such a bountiful harvest. He wants it all finished in one day. He goes out again at 5:00 p.m.—one hour before quitting time—to hire yet more workers. So far so good.

Then comes 6:00 p.m.—paycheck time. The landowner instructs his foreman: “Pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first,” he says. First, pay those hired last, go in reverse order, and then, at the last, pay those hired first. Okay, not so bad. Everyone still gets their paycheck, whatever the pecking order. But the landowner does not stop there. Now comes the bombshell. Now comes the slight, the offense, the topsy-turvy. He pays all of them the exact same amount! Equal pay for different amounts of work? Now if you were hired at 5:00 p.m., you really like this generous boss, even if he does seem, well, rather reckless with his profits. But! if you were hired first, at 6:00 a.m., and worked all twelve long hours in the scorching sun, you are not happy at all.

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus loves turning things topsy-turvy.

Jesus uttered this saying once before. Right before our parable, a rich young man came to Jesus and asked Him, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). “Keep the commandments,” Jesus said. Sounded good to this rich young man. “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus said, “Do all those commandments of loving your neighbor.” The rich man said, “Been there, done that. What do I still lack?” Ah, there’s always a catch. If you think you can please God and get to eternal life with your good, upstanding life, there’s bound to be something you’ve overlooked, something you’ve neglected. So Jesus turned things topsy-turvy for this rich young man: “Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me. You’ll have plenty of treasure heaven.” The man went away sad and dejected. It was not a matter of his possessions. It was, rather, a matter of his heart, and where he was placing his trust.

The disciples were flummoxed too. You mean, that’s not how we please God and get into heaven? “Nope,” Jesus said. You, a human being, a mere mortal, a person infected by sin and enslaved by death, cannot save yourself. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Peter jumped in on behalf of the twelve: “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow You. What will we get in eternal life?” Still thinking in terms of work and fair pay, putting something in and getting something out. So Jesus said, “Oh, Peter, you’ll get plenty in eternal life—a hundredfold even—but not because you earned it or deserved it. You see, Peter, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first’” (Matt. 19:30). Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy.

What about you? How do you like it when Jesus turns things topsy-turvy for you? We’re not talking about the topsy-turviness of family strife, or losing a job, or hearing a cancer diagnosis. Sure, those things make us squirm and turn life on its head enough already. We’re not talking about about downturns in the economy or questionable policies by elected leaders that lead to uncertainty or confusion or an erosion of our liberties. Sure, those things make life plenty topsy-turvy. No, what Jesus is focusing on is your life with Him, your life in His kingdom, now and into eternity.

How would you like to be those first workers, hired at 6:00 a.m., having borne the burden and scorching heat of the day, and "merely" get paid what you were promised, what you had agreed to…while all those other lazy bellies got the exact same pay for putting in much less time? How would you like it if Landowner God called you “friend” with that little growl of disapproval and told you just to take your pay and get out? That term for “friend” is not a positive one. In another parable, a king uses it for the guy who snuck into the wedding feast without the proper wedding garment (Matt. 22:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus uses it of Judas, who is about to betray Him (Matt. 26:50). Talk about topsy-turvy!

You and I, if we’re like those workers hired first—and we are—might just turn to grumbling and complaining. “That’s not fair! That’s not right! Why is their hourly wage more than ours?” We might—and do—become just like the Israelites grumbling and quarreling in the wilderness. “Where’s our water? Where’s our food? Where’s what we have a right to have?” You and I—since by nature we are like those first workers and those Israelites—might and do put God Himself into our handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet of spirituality and find Him coming up short. In our spiritual bean-counting, God Himself just doesn’t seem to offer a balanced budget for His eternal kingdom. After all, doesn’t it mean something that we’ve been Christian for however many years? Doesn’t it count that we’re here, in His house, however many Sundays out of the year, or put X amount of dollars in the weekly offering? See how much I’ve been serving you, Lord? See how dedicated I’ve been? See how much I read Your Word and pray and help other people and…?

This is why Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy. We need Him to. We need to have our spiritual bean-counting turned on its head and we need to squirm in our self-centered spiritual bookkeeping. We need Jesus’ reversal of grace. You see, God’s kingdom of heaven reaches into our earthly life and works solely by grace, solely by the generosity of Landowner God and His foreman Jesus. It’s Jesus Himself—the eternal Son of God, the eternal foreman of our salvation—who doles out all the gracious rewards that come to us in God’s vineyard. After all, He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Topsy-turvy, yes. It’s the reversal of God’s grace.

But do not let this bountiful grace of Landowner God and Foreman Jesus lull you into a false sense of idleness. Life in God’s vineyard—His Church—does involve work. No, not work in order to “get the job,” so to speak. You’re already in God’s vineyard, completely and solely by His gracious work—sola gratia. And, as we see in the parable, our divine Landowner is very generous with His rewards at the end of the day on the Last Day. But now that you’re in, it’s time to get to work.

What is that work to which you and I are called? Using himself as our example, St. Paul calls us to exercise self-control like an athlete. He exhorts us not to run aimlessly and not to box as someone merely beating the air. In the spirit of St. Paul, we are to discipline our bodies and keep them under control.

The work we are given to do in the vineyard of Landowner God is the work of confessing our sins and learning to live at the receiving end of His bountiful grace and mercy. It’s the work of rooting out the pride that leads us to cry “Unfair!” or to think we deserve more and better than what our Landowner God already gives. It’s the work of taking our eyes off of ourselves and fixing them squarely on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, and the eternal reward He has labored to win for us and give to us. It’s the work of learning His Word and learning to rely on His promises. It’s the work of taking the time to pray, gathering around His Word with our fellow workers, and faithfully receiving His Body and His Blood for our refreshment and strength. It’s the work of having our whole life, even our whole self, turned topsy-turvy by Jesus’ reversal of grace.

You see, when Jesus turns you and me topsy-turvy by His bountiful grace and and lavish forgiveness, He actually sets everything right-side-up with Landowner God, both now and into eternity. Amen.

08 February 2017

Homily for the Transfiguration of Our Lord - 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

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This past Tuesday, Treasury of Daily Prayer gave us 2 Timothy 3 for our New Testament reading. If we didn’t know better, we might think that St. Paul, who wrote these words almost 20 centuries ago, was writing about life in today’s world. Paul said: “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Now, how many of you, as you hear these words again, think of things going on in our time—news headlines or recent protests, Facebook or Twitter posts, popular sitcoms or movies, Senate committee hearings or Supreme Court decisions? How many of us honestly admit that even we too have these same disruptive loves, desires, and passions? After all, such things well up and bubble forth from our fallen, sinful hearts. It certainly adds new depth of meaning to the Bible’s words being “the prophetic word” and “a lamp shining in a dark place,” doesn’t it? And, as our Epistle reading exhorts us, we “will do well to pay attention.”

Enter Jesus and His glorious transfiguration in our Gospel reading. To set this brilliant scene in its proper light, let’s back up into Matthew chapter 16. Jesus quizzes His twelve disciples on who He, the Son of Man, is. Some were saying John the Baptist, others, Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or some other prophet. Jesus turns the question on the Twelve. Peter boldly answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). “Well done, Peter,” Jesus responds. This confession of faith does not come from flesh and blood, but from God Himself. Jesus promises to build His Church on this very confession. And not even the gates of Hell can prevail against Jesus’ Church as she confesses Him. Then Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem, about suffering many things, about being killed, and about rising on the third day. But Peter cannot stomach that! He tries to save Jesus from Himself. Then Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God. Then Jesus speaks of followers following Him by denying self, taking up a cross, and losing life. The dark shadow of the cross suddenly looms large.

Fast forward six days. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain, probably Mt. Tabor. Crucial things in God’s saving plan often take place on mountains. Then it happens. Jesus’ appearance suddenly transforms in a bright, radiant, glorious metamorphosis—His face radiating like the sun, His clothing as white as pure light. This was no Hollywood spotlight beaming onto Him; this was pure light coming from Him. He is the source of this light. After all, He is the light of the world, and whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (cf. John 8:12). Not only that, but in the Kingdom to Come, that eternal city which God will give to His faithful people “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

The Greek word for “He was transfigured” is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” When you look up “metamorphosis” in Merriam-Webster, you get these meanings: first, a “change of physical form, structure, or substance by supernatural means,” and second, “a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.” That’s most certainly true for Jesus on the mountaintop. The real question is, why? Why does Jesus show this change of His physical form? Why this striking alteration in His appearance?

Remember, Peter had just made that glorious, brilliant confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Remember, Peter had just rebuked His Savior for merely speaking of suffering and going to a cross. Remember, Jesus had just spoken of self-denial, taking up crosses, and losing one's life as hallmarks of following Him. And remember, just like Peter, we do not like to hear such things either. Even less do we like to experience them, that is, suffer them.

What’s even more radical is that Jesus Himself would actually show the way. He Himself would come down from that glorious mountain of metamorphosis. He would once again hide His glorious appearance. He Himself would walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He would suffer in the garden. He would be arrested. He would be falsely tried and unjustly convicted. He would carry His own cross to Golgotha. He would feel the heavy nails piercing His wrists and feet. He would experience the lifting of the cross into its place in the stone. He would feel the weight of His body against His hands pulling out from the horizontal beam. He would willingly give up His last breath. In fact, all of this is what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were discussing, even in the midst of the glorious metamorphosis. Luke’s account says they “spoke of His departure” (Lk. 9:31)—literally, His “exodus,” His work of leading His people out of slavery, not from Egypt, but from sin, death, and devil, from all the self-centered things that Paul says will come—and do come—in these last days.

Knowing all this lay ahead of Him, our Lord Jesus wanted to give just a glimpse of His glory. Why? In order to sustain and strengthen His world-weary disciples—not only Peter, James, and John, but us too. You see, as glorious as His mountaintop metamorphosis was, Jesus’ real glory is revealed most brilliantly in the shadows of His suffering and the darkness of His death. In His transfiguration, Jesus reveals His true “exodus.” He leads God’s people—you and me included—through the gates of death into His eternal life. Now that’s a genuine metamorphosis!

And so the voice from heaven—God the Father—proclaims the same thing we heard at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But now the Father adds a crucial, life-giving command: “Listen to Him.” You see, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. So God the Father tell us to listen to His beloved Son alone. Moses and Elijah also direct us to the Savior. As Moses once said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15).  Not the decaying world, lunging headlong into deep, dark death. Not the sin-tainted voices in our own heads and hearts that lead us to be “ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control” or even “swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

Rather, “Listen to Him.” Listen to this Jesus who transfigures Himself so that He can transfigure you. His metamorphosis is no shallow show or trivial rebranding. His metamorphosis is meant to sustain and strengthen you, because this is what He works in you and me, both now and into eternity.

This Greek word for “metamorphosis” also gets used of Christians—even in this life, in this fallen world. Hear this exhortation from St. Paul in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed—metamorphosed—by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). When you listen to your Savior Jesus, the Word of life, you hear His words of life and forgiveness and salvation. And you are transformed—metamorphosed. Because of Jesus and His glorious cross, you get to have a striking alteration in your character and circumstances. The times of difficulty need not perplex you or depress you. Instead of being a lover of self, you become a lover of God in Christ. You become a lover of your neighbor too.

Also, hear this proclamation from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed—are being metamorphosed—into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (v. 18). New life in Christ; new character; new circumstances. Whatever your vocations—male or female; mother, father, or child; in the family, in the workplace, or in the Church—you now live as God’s glorious child. However mundane your work, however hectic your home life, you are being transformed into the image of Christ, now and into eternity.

How can you be sure of this, even in these times of difficulty? Ponder what we are about to do yet again, here, this morning, around this altar. Here, even today, Jesus is still transformed. He was transformed—metamorphosed—from humility into glory. Now He comes transformed in the bread and wine of His holy meal. And not only that, but there’s still another transfiguration yet to come. Our God will take our bodies and transform them into bodies just like the body of Jesus. Today, again, in the Sacrament our God begins to transform our bodies to be like the glorious body of His Son Jesus Christ. “And in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed. The final chapter of the transfiguration has not been written. When it is written, we will be a part of it: a final metamorphosis; a final transformation; a final transfiguration; a final resurrection” (Scaer, In Christ). Amen.

23 January 2017

Homily for Epiphany 3 - 2017

"Bringing Good from Ill"
Matthew 8:1-13

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“Manifest in making whole
Palsied limbs and fainting soul;
Manifest in valiant fight,
Quelling all the devil’s might;
Manifest in gracious will,
Ever bringing good from ill;
Anthems be to Thee addressed,
God in man made manifest.” (LSB 394:3)

So we sing in that wonderful hymn that summarizes the whole story arc of the Epiphany season. When Jesus reveals Himself to be God-in-the-Flesh—our Rescuer from sin and death—He reveals Himself as the One—the only One—who brings good from ill.

Let’s put ourselves in the place of the poor leper who came to Jesus and knelt before Him. Let’s learn to live all of our lives pleading what that leper pleaded: “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” No presumption. No demanding. No claiming any “rights and privileges.” Just a simple, humble request. “Lord, if you will it. Thy will, not my will, be done, Lord.” Then the leper says, “you can make me clean.” Let’s strengthen that. It’s more than a mere possibility, more than an uncertain wish. The original Greek indicates a bold statement: “You ARE ABLE to make me clean.” It’s a strong confession of faith, a firm conviction. Jesus—God in man made manifest—IS all-powerful, all-merciful, and can do, and does do, anything He wills. Of course He is able to make the leper clean! Of course He has the authority to heal and make whole! The real question—and the leper knows it, asks it, and reveals it—is this: does the Lord will it, at this time, in this place, to reveal Himself, to be received by faith?

Now, before we presume to know what the Lord wills, let’s consider the other leper we hear about today—Naaman, the Syrian army commander. He also sought healing from his illness. But he was presumptuous. He was prideful. He found out about the prophet in Israel. Then, like the rich and powerful in our day, he reallocated some of his vast wealth to pay for only the best medical care. And when he finally came to the prophet’s doorstep—with wealth in hand and prideful self-importance in high gear—Elisha did not even greet him. Instead, he sent an an assistant, an underling. What an insult for someone so self-important, so presumptuous! Naaman went away fuming. “How dare he not come out to me! How dare he not wave his hand and heal me right here, right now, on the spot, for all to see!” Presumption and pride will do that to you.

It took one of Naaman’s own underlings to whittle him down to size, to show him how to be a humble receiver of God’s mercy. “My father, it is a great word the prophet has spoken to you; will you not do it?” “Master, the prophet has told you how to be cleansed. He’s the one in charge here.” Then the Lord, not the prophet, brought good from Naaman’s ill. Naaman “dipped himself seven times in the Jordan…and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” The Lord did will it—on His terms, in His way, in His time, according to His Word and promise.

And that brings us back to the leper in our Gospel reading. The Lord did will it. “Jesus stretched out His hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will [it]; be [cleansed].” Jesus touches this unclean leper and takes that leprous uncleanness into Himself. Jesus makes Himself the unclean one. It’s sort of like a sponge soaking up an icky, messy spill. And in exchange, with that touch Jesus gave His very own cleanness to the leper. Wholeness and healing took the place of the itchy, mottled skin. Restoration to the community took the place of being isolated in the leper colony. God-in-man-made-manifest brought good out of this leper’s ill, and with only a simple touch.

Your Epiphany Lord does will to heal and cleanse you as well. He reaches out and touches you in your Baptism, soaking up your sin, your doubt, your pride, your presumption--all of it into Himself. And then He gives you His very own cleanness. He also touches you when He places His very Body and Blood on your tongue, again, cleansing you, making you whole, and strengthening you in body and soul. Not only is He able to do it; He truly wills to do it—“ever bringing good from ill.”

And now notice how our Epiphany Lord works with the Gentile centurion. The centurion knows he has no rights and privileges before Jesus. No presumption, no pride—all despite his high rank and his reputation for power and might. His sick servant reveals his powerlessness. Isn’t that the way it works for us too? Illness comes. We are powerless. We merely suffer it, endure it, wait for it to run its course, or submit ourselves to medications, therapies or treatments. So the centurion appeals to Jesus: “Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly.” We can almost hear and feel his angst seeping through the words. “And, Lord, I cannot do anything about it.”

Our English translations put Jesus’ words in the form of a statement: “I will come and heal him.” The Greek grammar actually lends itself to more of a question: “Shall I Myself come and heal him?” No, Jesus is not reluctant to heal the poor lad. After all, He had just brought good from the leper’s ill. But it would be quite unexpected for Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, to enter the home of a Gentile soldier. So the question behind Jesus’ question would be more like: “Are you, a Gentile, actually asking Me, the Messiah of Israel, to come to your house?” Jesus wants to peel back the outer skin of the centurion’s plea to see what fruit of faith lies underneath. After all, the Gentile centurion did call Him “Lord,” the name used of the God of Israel.

A little speech on knowing authority, and then Jesus marvels and smiles and goes into teaching mode. “I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Translation: “This centurion—this Gentile—gets it!” This centurion has no authority before the Lord. The Lord Jesus has all the authority. This Gentile centurion needs the mercy and healing that only the God of Israel—only God-in-man-made-manifest—can give. And the Lord gives it! Authoritatively. Mercifully. Graciously. “Go; let it be done for you has you have believed.” That’s the way of our Epiphany Lord. “Ever bringing good from ill.”

Our “God-in-man-made-manifest” takes our sins, our sicknesses, our fears, our powerlessness into Himself. He Himself brings the greatest good from our greatest ill. Isaiah said it this way: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Is. 53:4-5). That’s what the Lord came to do. His authority is most clearly revealed on a cross. His will was and is to come “from His home on high, in human flesh He came to die” (LSB 401:2). That’s what heals you and me and makes us clean. It is done as for us as we have believed. “For [the Gospel] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16).

And this is great Good News on this 44th anniversary of the legalized holocaust we know as Roe v. Wade and abortion. What an ill that has been thrust upon our land! Well over 58,000,000 innocent lives snuffed out in those 44 years under the cloak of legality. Many of those mothers also suffering physically, emotionally and mentally as a result. But…yes, but…our Epiphany Lord still knows how to bring good from ill. The numbers of abortions each year are indeed dropping. That’s great news! Yes, even one aborted baby is one too many, but we can thank our Lord for the good trend. We can also plead to Him: “If You will it, You are able to heal this ill.”

We can also thank our Lord who brings good from ill for another trend that’s very much related. One headline this past week read, “Study finds skyrocketing rate of abstinence among Millennials.” The study focuses on young people in their early twenties; perhaps it’s also true of those in their upper twenties and even into their thirties. Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse was quoted: “I think a lot of them are watching the adults around them and concluding that sex without limits is not making people happy,” particularly “parents with multiple marriages and divorces.” Again, we can thank our Lord for this good trend. Again, let’s plead to our Lord: “If You will it, You are able to heal this as well.”

Living the way God designed us to live is the greatest good. We know we don’t, we know we can't, even we who humbly appeal to our Epiphany Lord for His healing and help. But the take-away for today is this: Our Lord Jesus IS able to cleanse and heal. Our Lord Jesus DOES come under our roof to restore and make whole, “ever bringing good from ill.” He alone has the authority, and He does will it. So we pray as we’re about to sing:

“Lord, once You came to earth’s domain
And, we believe, shall come again;
Be with us on the battlefield,
From ev’ry harm Your people shield.” (LSB 401:5)


09 January 2017

Homily for the Baptism of Our Lord - 2017

"About Being 'Sinner'"
Matthew 3:13-17

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Epiphany—revealing—continues today with the Lord Jesus being baptized. Jesus went to His pastor, John the son of Zechariah, and asked to be baptized. Today commemorates Jesus’ own “baptismal birthday.” But if you think about it, something awfully strange is going on. Why would Jesus need to be baptized? The answer really has two parts: 1) to reveal Himself publicly as the Savior, and 2) to show Himself to be a “sinner.” Jesus’ baptism is the first time He comes out publicly to begin His ministry among people. And in that revealing, in that coming out, Jesus identifies Himself as a “sinner.”

First, bear in mind the message Jesus sent just by going to John for baptism. John preached and practiced “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Lk. 3:3). As John was preaching, he was calling sinners to repentance. He was boldly confronting people with the truth: they were sinners who sinned; they were sinners who truly needed help and rescue. John called for repentance—“a new thinking”—as the way to receive the revealed Messiah.

The Greek word for “repentance” quite simply means “a new mind-set," or "a new way of thinking.” This is not a new thinking that you can conjure up on your own. Here’s why. We have to go back to the Garden of Eden, before Adam and Eve fell into sin. There we see God’s original thinking. He wanted all creatures to live and exist for His praise and glory. Humans were the crown of His creation. He would graciously provide everything for them. He would be in the closest, purest relationship with His people, and His created people would trust and worship Him alone.

But something went tragically wrong. Adam and Eve conjured up a thinking of their own. Let’s call it a “free-thinking.” Adam and Eve thought, and then acted, as if no one—not even their God and Creator—should tell them what to do. “I’m free, man; don’t tell me what to do. Don’t bind me with your notions of good or bad, right or wrong. Life is about what feels good to me.” Sounds like our “free-thinking” today, doesn’t it? Now, Eve could rightly say the devil made her do it. But that was no excuse for having a “free-thinking” that led her into the prison cell of sin and death. It’s no excuse for you either. Freedom from the God who made you and loves you is really no freedom at all! Instead, it’s a curse…on you, me, and all humanity.

Then an amazing thing happened. God decided He would not throw out the whole dead, rotten, sinful mess. No, He decided to cleanse it, purify it, and give it a new thinking—a thinking that would return Adam and Eve, and you and me, to His original thinking.

When Jesus is baptized, we see that plan kicking into high gear. But baptism is only for sinners, not for “good, upright people.” Only sinners, only Satan-seduced “free thinkers,” need baptism. Remember how John the Baptizer chastised the “good” Pharisees when they showed up. They weren’t looking to be baptized; they were merely curious. Besides, the “good, upright” Pharisees themselves would never dare be baptized. That would mean they’d have to confess their sins. After all, they just knew—they presumed—that God saved them without worrying about that messy, ordinary water stuff.

So when Jesus shows up and asks to be baptized by John, John did not want to baptize Him. John knew that Jesus was not a “sinner.” He was without sin, after all! Despite John’s protests, though, Jesus said, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus also knew He had no sin, but He was making Himself a sinner by being baptized.

Yes, you heard that right. Jesus made Himself a “sinner.” He made Himself the chief of sinners. Jesus’ baptism is about Him identifying Himself as “sinner.” You see, Jesus becomes sinner for the benefit of all sinners. Not only does Jesus take on our flesh and blood, and everything about us, but He also takes on our sin, our guilt, our curse. This was to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus does this to identify Himself with the cesspool of our lives. Not just the rotten things we do or say or think—that’s too shallow and superficial. Jesus identifies Himself with the rottenness and corruption that dwells within us, within our heart.

You and I could never fulfill all of God’s righteousness. Even if you and I lived a thousand lives and died a million deaths, we could never fulfill God’s justice. When a crime is committed, we want justice to be served. We want the murderer or the thief or the vandal to be arrested, convicted, and sentenced. Rightly so. The same holds for God’s justice. A crime was committed—on God’s perfect creation, on God’s loving care, on whole-hearted trust in God. And we—you and I—are the culprits. There must be justice. Sinners must pay. So Jesus identifies Himself as a sinner by being baptized. He would, and later did, receive the full, crushing weight of God’s arrest, conviction, and sentencing—God’s wrath. When He was baptized, Jesus was marked for death all the way to the bloody cross. And here’s why: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (1 Cor. 5:21).

In His baptism Jesus made Himself a dirty sinner, so that in our Baptism He might make us clean saints. When Jesus goes through baptism, He hallows it and holds it up as a treasure for us. And, at the same time, our Baptism teaches us to be “sinners.” Ponder that for a moment. When you were baptized, you were identified for all of life as a sinner who needs daily forgiveness. This is the “new thinking” of repentance. You are freed to admit it—you are “sinner.” You cannot save yourself. And once saved, you cannot keep yourself saved. Because of your sinful flesh you are too weak to do that. And so, you need Jesus. You need His Baptism.

It’s a bit like the Alcoholics Anonymous routine. Their first step—and it’s a good one—is for an alcoholic to admit that he/she is an alcoholic. Denying it or avoiding it only prevents the help. The same is true—even more so—for baptized Christians. What does such baptizing with water indicate? “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Remember, sinless Jesus made Himself the chief of sinners for you. You and I have nothing to lose by daily admitting we are sinners who constantly sin in all we do or say or think. In fact, we have everything to gain. The “new thinking” of repentance also includes Jesus’ forgiveness in Baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4). That newness of life is the life of forgiveness—confessing you need it and receiving it in all the ways that God gives it: in water, in words, and in bread and wine. “Consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).

This is how Baptism opens heaven for “sinners”—for you, for me. As Matthew tells us, the Spirit of God descended on Jesus as a dove, and the Father’s voice was heard: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” In your Baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on you in His gentleness and peace. Now that same Spirit leads you in all of your believing and living. In your Baptism, the Father speaks for you just as He spoke for Jesus. Your Father tells you, “You are My beloved son or daughter. I am pleased with you.” How can God say that? Because you are joined to Jesus in that Baptism.

It’s all about being “sinner.” When Jesus was baptized, He identified and revealed Himself as “sinner.” He made Himself one of us so that He might make us like Himself: beloved children of God our Father. Amen.

06 January 2017

Homily for the Epiphany of Our Lord - 2017

"Gifts for the King Who Has Everything"
Matthew 2:1-12
Delivered at the International Center of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, 6 January 2017.

What do you get for the person who has everything? Perhaps you asked that question during your Christmas shopping. On this Epiphany, let’s ask the same thing of the Christ Child. What do you give to the King who has everything? Even as young child, King Jesus already owns everything, doesn’t He? “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Ps. 24:1). This Word-made-Flesh made all things long before He took on Flesh, “and without Him was not anything made that was made” (Jn. 1:3). What do you give to the King who literally does have everything?

The Magi came all the way from Persia (modern-day Iraq). Perhaps they learned of the coming Messiah from Daniel and other exiles over five centuries before Christ came. Perhaps they figured out the coming of the Bright Morning Star from studying the stars themselves. But come they did. They came specifically to worship the Newborn King. Once in the house with the Virgin and the Child, they gave their gifts. We sing of the gold, and frankincense, and myrrh, but let’s not forget the worship. First, “they fell down and worshiped Him,” and then they opened “their treasures.”

What do you get for the King who has everything? Gifts that honor who He is, of course. After all, He is God and Man in one Person. Incense is a gift for God. It speaks of the gifts of faith and prayer ascending to God in response to His goodness. Myrrh is a gift for a Man. This gift looks ahead to the death of Jesus, true God and true Man, on the cross and His proper burial. And gold—it’s the gift fit for a king. Some say that this gold may have supplied the needs of the humble Holy Family for many years.

But the Magi offered much more than material gifts; they offered their faith and their worship. The incense, the myrrh, and the gold were simply the first fruits of that faith. The Magi fell down and worshiped Him. You see, they trusted in the promise of God’s Savior who would come into the world to restore all humanity to God Himself. Physically, the Magi saw a humble infant in “such mean estate.” But their eyes of faith saw beyond the lowliness. They saw the God who came to make all people rich in His mercy.

The Magi saw in this humble Child “the Sun of righteousness” Who rises “with healing in His wings” (Mal. 4:2). This holy Infant would heal all people from the wounds, the sores, and the scars of their sins. The warmth of His mercy and forgiveness would radiate out for all to enjoy. He would heal the breach between Jew and Gentile; He would make them one nation in His Church.

When the Magi looked at this holy Son of Mary, they saw “His glory from the rising of the sun” (Is. 59:19). Their eyes of faith could see that God “has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6). And why did He come? “To give light to those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death” (Lk. 1:78-79, NKJV). Even as you face the darkness of death—in ill-health or time of sorrow, in anxiety or depression, in conflict or disappointment—the dawn of a new day has come. This holy Child brings the new day of life with God and resurrection from the dead. This holy Child is your “bright morning star” (Rev. 22:16).

The best gift the Magi bring to this King of the universe in humble guise is their faith. So, what will you give to the King who has everything, the Child who radiates God’s boundless mercy and gives you peace with God? What will you give to the Word made Flesh who heals you from the sores of your sins and your disease of death?

You could offer Him gold, the gift befitting a King. But all wealth and all things already belong to Him. Your Lord bids you to give Him gold by giving it to the poor. As Jesus will say, when you feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, you do it to Him. What better way to give your gold to your King than to the poor in your own midst, in His family, the Church.

You could still give incense, both literally and figuratively. As we sing in Evening Prayer, “Let my prayer rise before you as incense.” Offer your prayers to the God who promises to hear you and answer you, because He identifies with you and with your troubles in this world. The Son of God enjoys the sweet fragrance that accompanies your prayers. That’s why we offer up to our God and Savior prayers on behalf of the Church, the world, and all sorts of needs.

As for myrrh, that’s definitely not necessary. The myrrh was for His crucifixion and burial. And since “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10), He does not need to die again. “The death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives, He lives to God” (Rom. 6:10). And because of Jesus’ one-time sacrifice, you get to “consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11).

What can you give to the King who has everything? Most of all, give Him your faith and your worship, just as the Magi did. Just as they left their country in the East, you can leave the country of your self-serving desires and sinful ways. Just as they endured the arduous journey, you can endure the trials of your journey through life, learning to trust your Savior. And just as they bowed down to the Almighty King when they saw Him in humble guise, you can bow down to your God who still comes to you in humble ways.

Behind the humble water, you can see God’s life-changing washing of forgiveness and life. Behind the humble words from your pastor’s mouth—in sermons and in the Absolution—you can hear and recognize the voice of your Savior who heals you from all sins and enables you to live with God again. And behind the humble bread and wine, you can see Jesus coming to you in the Body and Blood that He assumed from His Virgin Mother—the same Body broken in suffering and the same Blood shed from a cross, the same Body and Blood that are now the “medicine of immortality.”

Just as the Wise Men saw the Child Jesus sitting on His Mother’s lap, we get to see Jesus in the bosom of His Church, our mother in the faith and life with God. So, the best thing you can give to this King is … yourself, your faith, your worship, your whole life. After all, that’s what He has done for you. “For Christ goes with us all the way—Today, tomorrow, ev’ry day! His love is never ending!” (LSB 395:5). Amen.

02 January 2017

Homily for the Circumcision and Name of Jesus

"What's in a Name?"
Luke 2:21

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What’s in a name? In our culture, we use a name when we want to identify someone. When you talk about the Jones family, obviously you are not talking about the Smith family. Your name is your identity. If your name is George, chances are you will not respond if someone tries to get your attention, saying, “Hey, Martha.” In our culture, we use names chiefly for identity.

What’s in Jesus’ name? Today we celebrate the circumcision and naming of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Infant Jesus was eight days old, He was circumcised to fulfill the Law and He was given His name that points us to the Gospel. Remember what the angel told Joseph even before Jesus was born: “You shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). What’s in that name, “Jesus”? Let’s explore the name “Jesus” and how it gives us God’s holy name.

Before we look at the name “Jesus” itself, let’s figure out the importance of God’s Name. About 960 years before Jesus was born, King Solomon built the Temple for the worship of God. Until that time the people of God had only a portable tent—the Tabernacle—as a place for worship. The Tabernacle was where God chose to dwell with His people. God chose to be in that specific place to bless His people. The permanent Temple built by King Solomon was again the place where God would dwell with His people. After Solomon dedicated the Temple, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I have consecrated this house that you have built, by putting my name there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time.” (1 Kgs. 9:3). God made the Temple a holy place by putting His Name there. Where God puts His Name, that’s where He chooses to dwell for the benefit of His people. God likes to be in specific locations to bless His people.

What does this have to do with the name “Jesus”? When God sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary, He was dwelling in a specific place. Remember what we heard on Christmas Day: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:14). When the Son of God—the Word—took on human flesh, He was God dwelling with us. In fact, the word for dwelling is the same word for “tent” or “tabernacle” in the Old Testament. In the Person named “Jesus” God is dwelling with His people to bless them by saving them.

Now to the name “Jesus” itself. Jesus’ name is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Joshua.” The name very simply means “God saves” or “God is salvation.” This tells you two things about Jesus. First, it tells you who He is. He is God. Yes, He has a common, human name, but He is also God, God in the flesh. He is God living among His people in a particular place. Second, Jesus’ name tells you what He does. He saves. He does much more than just give you some good moral teaching. He doesn’t merely give rules or principles for living. No, He saves. “He will save His people from their sins.”

When the Bible talks about Jesus’ people, it’s talking about His race of people, His community of people, His Church. Yes, it’s talking about you. Jesus saves you from your own sins. He also saves you from the sins in which you are sinned against. Today, let’s focus on the ways we sin against God’s Name.

God teaches us about His Name in the Second Commandment: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.” What does this mean? “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie or deceive by His name, but call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” As you look back on the year just past, no doubt you have shattered this commandment. When troubles came, you did not pray, praise, or give thanks—certainly not all the time. Instead, you worried. You fretted. You practiced the fine art of wringing your hands. And when something good happened, or when you narrowly escaped some tragedy, such as a fender bender, perhaps you gave credit to “good luck.” Or think back on ways you failed to pray, praise, or give thanks in general. Chances are that you did not use your mouth to bring glory to God alone. All of this is your sin against the Name of God.

God also teaches us how to use His Name in the First Petition of the Lord’s Prayer: Hallowed by Thy name. What does this mean? God’s name is certainly holy in itself, but we pray in this petition that it may be kept holy among us also. How is God’s name kept holy? God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it. Help us to do this, dear Father in heaven! But anyone who teaches or lives contrary to God’s Word profanes the name of God among us. Protect us from this, heavenly Father!

You and I certainly need help in keeping God’s name holy! We cannot do it by relying on ourselves. Our sinful nature does not want God’s Word taught in its truth and purity. When God shows you your sin, your sinful flesh does not want to admit it. In fact, chances are, you really don’t want to admit that you are a sinner, or that you have specific sins to confess. But that’s going against God’s Word. And when it comes to God’s forgiveness, you may want to take it for granted. “Well, I know I’m forgiven. Now tell me something else.” Yes, you and I have profaned God’s Name this past year, and, no doubt, we’ll do it again and again in this coming year.

But this morning let God’s Name be your help and your comfort. After all, our Lord was given the name “Jesus” because “He will save His people from their sins.” Here’s how the Name of Jesus cleanses you and forgives you all your sins. When Jesus was given His name, He was also circumcised. This happened so that Jesus would fulfill the whole Law for you. Even at only eight days old, Jesus is perfectly keeping God’s Law. But there’s also wonderful Gospel comfort in that circumcision. Already when Infant Jesus was only eight days old, He shed His blood for you. Jesus’ circumcision was the first time He shed His blood for the good of His people. It was the same blood that He would later shed on the cross. It is the same blood that He gives you even now in His Supper. And we know that wherever the Blood of Jesus is, there is forgiveness, life, and salvation.

And there’s more. God is very rich in His grace and forgiveness. Jesus takes His name and puts it on you in your Baptism. It’s just like being born into your earthly family. When you’re born, you are given the family name. As you grow up, you learn to wear that family name with pride and honor. That is your identity. In the same way, when you are baptized, you are born into the family of God. In Baptism, God literally puts His name on you: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” That’s your identity as a member of the family of Christ. You are given a name. You are called “Christian.” You get to bear the heavenly family name with pride and honor, because you are saved and made alive by Jesus Himself.

This name that you receive in your Baptism also unites you with each other and with the whole Christian Church. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Mt. 18:20). Where God puts His Name, there He is to bless His people, His family, His Church. You see, God works the same way today as He did in Solomon’s day. He chooses specific places to dwell with His people—the font, the pulpit and the altar. Yes, in these very places, Jesus gathers you in His name and He is right here in our midst. When you hear the words of Absolution, remember that they are Jesus’ words. In a few minutes you will receive Christ’s very Body and Blood into your mouths. That’s also Jesus’ forgiveness. As Christ’s holy people, you may trust that Word of God with all of your heart, soul, and strength.

Today we begin another year in Jesus’ Name. Remember the meaning and importance of Jesus’ name for you. Yes, He is God with you, and, yes, He saves you from your sins—the sins of this past year and the sins yet to come in the new year. Amen.

26 December 2016

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day

"The LOGOS Became Flesh"
John 1:1-18

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John begins his gospel with a most unique take on the Christmas story. John uses a very high-octane, supercharged term. “In the beginning was the LOGOS, and the LOGOS was with God, and the LOGOS was God.” LOGOS. It’s where we get words such as “logic” and “logical.” It also gets added to all those words that end in L-O-G-Y—“biology,” “psychology,” and “theology.”

What is this LOGOS that was in the beginning and that is God? The term can suggest something like “reason”—hence “logic” and “logical.” It can also suggest “a means of communication,” or an “expression of what is on one’s mind.” Greek philosophy used LOGOS to describe what gives order to the universe—something like “natural law”—and even what constitutes the rational soul in humans.

Such is this supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. But John is not shaped by Greek philosophy. Instead John is shaped by his Hebrew roots. For John, the LOGOS is the “Word of God” from the Old Testament. Through those books and those centuries, the Word of God is God in action—God in action creating the world, God in action revealing Himself, God in action delivering His people.

At creation, God spoke. He uttered what was on His mind and it happened. “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:6). At Mt. Sinai, God spoke. He communicated His will and revealed Himself to Moses in order to deliver His enslaved people. “I AM who I AM…. The LORD, the God of your fathers…. I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Ex. 3:14, 16, 10). And here’s a delightful image. The apocryphal book of Wisdom speaks of all things lying peaceful and silent at midnight, and then, all of a sudden, the almighty LOGOS leaps from the royal, heavenly throne to conquer and slay the enemies of God and His people (18:14-15).

Such is this supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. God in action. God inserting Himself, even leaping, into human history to rescue and redeem and deliver. This LOGOS “was with God.” This Word of God is distinguished from God, yet He also exists in a very, very close personal relation with God the Father. But John does not leave it there. This LOGOS “was God.” He shares the same nature and being with God the Father. Perhaps we can say He is an extension of the personality of God. Perhaps we can say, “What God was and is, the LOGOS was and is.” Certainly we can and do say: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed).

Now, if all of that makes your heads hurt or spin on this Christmas morn, good! That’s exactly John’s point. Christmas is about much more than a mommy, a foster daddy, a baby lying on some hay, and some animals standing around, chewing their cud. It is that, but it’s, oh, so much more. Now John uses another high-octane, supercharged term in his Christmas story. It’s a term that’s sure to raise eyebrows, challenge sensibilities, and send elitist Greek philosophers, and their modern heirs, running to their “safe spaces.” “And the LOGOS became FLESH and dwelt among us.” The term for “flesh” is sarx. It’s not the skin that you and I can see on the outside; it’s the layer of muscle—the meat—that lies beneath the skin and covers the bones. Thus, we get those terms beginning with “sarco-,” such as “sarcoplasm” or “sarcoma” or “sarcophagus.”

Such is this other supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. John’s unique take on the Christmas story gives us a perfect marriage and melding of the exalted and the base, of the heavenly and the mundane, of God and Man—that is, the Son of God who takes on our full humanity, with all of its “flesh-and-bone-ness,” with all of its heart-pumping, lung-breathing, organ-secreting realness, and, yes, even with all of its bed-head and morning-breath qualities.

“The LOGOS was God…and the LOGOS became [meat].” Just like us, in every way…except the sin that infects us. That He did not take on! You see, sin is not part and parcel of human nature, but it does infect all of us and each of us.  It is our congenital birth defect received from Adam and Eve. Sin is the reason the LOGOS assumed and took on our full-fledged, meaty, down-to-earth humanity. God took on our meat and flesh to have it pierced and torn with thorns and spikes. God leaped down from His royal throne to leap up onto a cross. “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Nicene Creed).

When John marries these two supercharged terms together in his Christmas story, they also become fighting words. John is actually poking a finger of truth into the eye of false teaching, performing some doctrinal surgery with a chainsaw. Through the ages, some have objected to the LOGOS—the divine Son of God—taking on flesh and bone and blood in this material world, this “meat-space.” They view this material world as inherently evil. For them salvation is getting away from—escaping, really—the prison cell of flesh, bone and blood, of rocks, trees, and rivers. What counts is what you feel. What counts is your supernatural knowledge of non-material matters. (Trust your feelings, Luke! Use the force, Luke!) Think of Greek philosopher Plato and his famous image. He said life in this material world is merely looking at shadows on the cave wall; the reality is something different and out of sight. And this view of life—that material, fleshly, meaty things are bad, and only the unseen, spiritual forces are good—leads some to view Jesus as only appearing to be human, only seeming to be flesh and blood.

So, along comes John in his supercharged Christmas story. He marries and melds the LOGOS with the sarx, the divine with the human. The eternal Son of God becomes a Man with real flesh, bones, blood, muscles, lungs, and kidneys--all to suffer, bleed, and die on a real tree. And we need John’s supercharged Christmas story in our day too. You see, we live in a time when the same false teachings confront us. A baby in mommy’s womb is not considered a full-fledged human being. Snuffing out the baby’s life is not considered killing, but rather some sick, social virtue. Whether a person is male or female, some claim, is not a matter of biological fact, but rather a matter of how one feels or dresses. What’s true for you may not be true for me. The worship that matters for many is the worship of the god within, the inner light, the special feeling. And we, dear Christian friends, are not immune to these false thoughts and views and feelings. After all, we live and move and have our being in the same communities; we converse with people who believe these ways; and we steep in these cultural juices. We even have these thoughts and views and feelings within ourselves.

This is why we need John’s Christmas story, supercharged with LOGOS and sarx intimately married and melded together. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be” (LSB 384:1). 

The truth is that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—loves you too much to let you wallow in the mess of this fallen material world, a mess that you and I continually add to with our own sins of mistrust and lack of love. God loves you too much to let you dream of escaping this material world by some “spiritual” quest based on your feelings of the moment or the age.

“Oh, that birth forever bless-ed,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face” (LSB 384:2).

You see, when the LOGOS takes on flesh, He takes on your “meat”—your flesh, your blood, your humanity—to restore you to real life, body and soul, with God Himself.  God is placed in a manger. God ends up on a cross for you and in your place. No need to spurn the flesh or the material world. No need to seek the abstract god within. God comes to you and to me. Just as He once came and dwelt in the tabernacle built by Moses, He also comes to dwell in flesh and bone and blood for you in Jesus Christ, “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary.” And He still comes to dwell with us, in His Body and His Blood on the Altar. “Christ alone our souls will feed; He is our meat and drink indeed; Faith lives upon no other!” (LSB 458:7).

Since Jesus took on your flesh and mine, since Jesus assumed your sin and mine, since Jesus bled and died for you and for me, you and I can receive and rejoice in the flesh and blood life in this material world that He Himself gives. You and I can rejoice that He has given us our bodies and souls, our eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses, and that He Himself makes us males and females.

John’s Christmas story actually adds eternal meat and weight to the other accounts of Jesus’ Birth. It’s much more than a cute story; it’s much more than a picture on a Christmas card. Jesus’ Birth is your new birth. The LOGOS taking on flesh is God’s very own means of communicating and expressing what is on His mind for you. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). Amen.

19 December 2016

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli

"Mercy Magnified"
Luke 1:39-56

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She is “blessed among women” because she carried the very Son of God in her womb. This morning we focus on the song that Mary sang. It’s one of the song staples that the Church has sung for centuries. In this song—“the Magnificat”—we get to see how God’s mercy is magnified, not only for us and to us, but also in us and through us. In this song we get to see how God answers the prayer we prayed in our Collect—that He would help us by His might and use His grace and mercy to lift from us the sins that weigh us down.

The world could sure use mercy. The oil of mercy would certainly make the engine of life run more smoothly for every person on the planet. When a dictator rises to power and then subjects his people to his will by harsh means, there’s certainly a lack of mercy. When you’re driving west on Interstate 64 and you come to that ever-present bottle neck of cars between Hanley and I-170, you can see a certain lack of mercy. Everyone races to where they’re going, and get there the fastest, and so one driver hits the gas pedal to prevent that other driver from getting in front of him and slowing everyone down. But God’s ways are different.

When we listen to and sing the words of Mary’s song, we hear how God’s mercy was magnified for her and in her. Young Virgin Mary had just heard the words of the angel that she would bear and give birth to the Son of God Most High. She had traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth sang to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Then came Mary’s turn to sing. And notice, she does not sing of herself. She does not sing of her feelings about these magnificent words and events that have just taken place. No, the young Virgin sings of God. “My soul magnifies the Lord…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Not only does Mary sing of her God and Savior, but she also sings of His goodness. She sings of what God has done for her: “He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” God loves to look upon the lowly, not just those in lowly circumstances, but especially those who humbly confess their sins, those who see their need for God’s mercy and compassion, those who are weighed down by their sins.

Martin Luther said that the Virgin Mary teaches us a twofold lesson. “First,” he said, “every one of us should pay attention to what God does for him rather than to all the works He does for others.” My, how we love to compare ourselves to other people! We do notice the great things God is doing for other people. Then we think that God is somehow cheating us, or not giving us our due. After all, friends at work always seem to have nicer clothes. The neighbor across the street always seems to  have a nicer car. Or a fellow Christian always seems to have a stronger, more vibrant faith—a faith that can endure trials and move mountains. But Mary teaches each of us to focus, not on ourselves, but on God and what He does for each of us. After all, He gives us Himself in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the paths of Galilee, on the streets of Jerusalem, on the cross, and out of the empty tomb. Yes, your Lord and Savior gives Himself to you in your Baptism and in the Holy Supper. Your God is certainly merciful to you, just as He was for Mary.

And look how merciful our God is to little Elijah Mark. Here this little guy is brought forth in iniquity, in sin did his mother conceive him (Psalm 51:5), and yet the Lord swoops down and washes him clean. In this little washing the heavens open and rain down the mercy of God-in-the-Flesh, without any merit or worthiness in little Elijah, and certainly not by his own reason or senses.

Here’s the second lesson that Luther sees in Mary’s song: “In the second place, she teaches us that everyone should strive to be foremost in praising God by showing forth the works He has done to him, and then by praising Him for the works He has done to others.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a little friendly competition to outdo each other in thanking and praising God for what He has done for each of us? Wouldn’t it be great if in every little detail of life each one of us would pause and say, “Wow! Thank you, God, for…!” Wouldn’t it be great if you could praise God for those nicer clothes that He gave to your co-workers, or for that nicer car that He gave to your neighbor? Wouldn’t it be great to see God working in every little circumstance of life—even the less fortunate ones—and especially in the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out? It would be great. And that’s exactly how God works. When we celebrate the Incarnation and Birth of our Lord Jesus, we are celebrating this: God has shown His mercy and continues to show His mercy. When the Son of God takes on our human flesh, He is making all things whole and holy once again. “He who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is His name.”

So Mary teaches us to sing, “His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Here’s the heart of Mary’s song, as well as the heart of every Christian’s faith and life: God’s mercy is on you who fear Him. The Blessed Virgin knew that she could live and have life with God only by His great mercy. The ten lepers, infected with that skin-ravaging disease, knew that Jesus, Mary’s Son, could and would show divine mercy. So they cried out to Him for help and healing (Lk. 17:13). When the blind man sitting outside Jericho heard Jesus coming down the road, he cried out for the Son of David to have mercy on him (Lk. 18:38). Yes, God loves to have mercy on us sinners, on us who are infected with the leprosy of sin, on us who are blinded by our sinful desires.

Yes, God loves to show mercy. And He magnifies His mercy by focusing it and revealing it in His incarnate Son. In Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection we get to see that God is not a terrible Judge. Instead, He’s a loving Father who loves all of us weighed down by our sins. In the Word-made-Flesh we are freed from the burden of our self-centered, self-controlling desires. And just as Mary sang of God’s mercy while she was carrying the Son of God in her womb, we get to sing of God’s great mercy because the Son of God lives among us in His Church. Where else can you hear and sing of God’s mercy but in His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?

So, don’t try to be proud. After all, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Proud, selfish desires are not becoming for you, people of God’s mercy. And don’t try to be high and mighty, because in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Even as a pre-born infant Jesus the Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He does not come to hob-nob with the powerful and the rich. Instead, He comes to exalt you who are lowly in your sins. He comes to fill you who hunger for His righteousness, His justice, His vindication. And while He may send the rich away empty, He fills you with the treasures of His goodness and mercy. Come to His Table and be filled!

As Mary teaches us by her example, let’s learn to live by and sing of God’s great mercy. Yes, each of us needs His mercy magnified on us. No doubt nerves get frayed from the shopping, from battling the traffic, from the winter weather, and from putting up with the selfish desires from other people as well as from within ourselves. We’re all tempted to resort to judgment. But remember the words of James (2:13): “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Yes, God shows you mercy so that you will also show mercy to people around you. Just as Mary proclaimed the greatness of God and His mercy, He wants you to do the same, especially as we celebrate His coming in the flesh. Amen.

15 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 3

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God's Promised Land

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10 and James 5:7-11

This Advent we’re learning to wait with Isaiah. The Prophet Isaiah spoke some pretty amazing promises about the coming Messiah—and all about 700 years before the Messiah would finally come. God’s people would have to wait to receive and rejoice in God’s promised Savior. Just as God’s people waited, lo, those 700 years, we’ve been learning to wait with Isaiah, and just a few weeks to celebrate the Savior’s Birth. So, how well have we been doing?

Two weeks ago we heard about “God’s Promised Justice.” Since our coming King promises and gives His cross-won justice—His victory over our enemies of sin, death, and Satan—we can learn to wait for God to give us His final victory, His final vindication, for all eternity. As we wait for that day, we strive to put off the works of darkness. Last week we heard about “God’s Promised Peace.” When our King came in the flesh, He inaugurated lasting peace between us sinners and our loving God. That peace, which passes all understanding, fills us with encouragement, hope, and harmony as we wait for His full, final, and eternal peace. So, how well are we doing in our waiting?

Let me ask that question another way. Are you just plain tired and worn out—tired of the rat race called “the holiday season”? Are you already stuffed to the gills from the Christmas goodies and the Christmas luncheons, dinners, and parties? Do you feel absolutely under the gun to get everything done, frantic that it won’t get done, and stretched too thin in too many directions all at once? Are you looking forward to December 25 so that you can just crash and burn and say, “Whew, glad that ‘merry chaos’ is over”? If so, perhaps the waiting has not been going too well.

Yes, waiting is pretty difficult for us Americans. Being patient is just not in our cultural DNA. Like children waiting for Grandma and Grandpa to arrive so that we can begin opening presents, we get antsy and fussy if it takes too long at all.

Perhaps it’s hard for us Christians to wait for God’s promised justice and His promised peace because, well, they don’t seem real enough. “Hey, we gotta live in the here and now, Pastor. We gotta be practical and down to earth, you know.” That justice stuff, especially from things like sin, death, and the devil, may seem more like a dream than real life. That peace stuff, especially if we can’t see it, may seem more like a Christmas card wish than something real to experience and enjoy.

Isaiah’s words tonight give the soothing, healing medicine we need. Isaiah promises: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Now that’s more real—a barren, dry land blossoming with vibrant life. Sounds like a real promised land. The prophet continues: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” More joyous, real-life stuff—blind people able to see again; deaf people able to hear; limping people able to walk and leap without hindrance; and tongues loosed to sing for joy. It’s a new creation, folks. It’s a creation that bubbles forth with good life—life without the problems we face day to day and at different stages of life. Truly a promised land. And, yes, Isaiah promises; it will happen.

And between these great, real-life promises, Isaiah says: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” My, how we need those words as our weariness leads us to stumble through the “merry chaos” season! “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” Great words for us who are so anxious about getting everything done and just enduring until December 25! “‘Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” Normally, vengeance is a bad thing, but when it’s God’s vengeance on behalf of His redeemed people, then we welcome it with open arms. You see, God is our mighty King who comes to rescue us from our prisoner of war camp in Satan’s domain.

You see, dear friends, our worries, our weariness, our impatience with crazy drivers, with shopping mall clerks, and with each other show that we are not waiting so well. In fact, they show that, spiritually speaking, we still live in Satan’s prisoner of war camp called this fallen world. If we are stressed out and anxious, it’s because we are diverting our eyes from our Coming King. If we are impatient with fellow Christians, loved ones, and friends, it’s because we falsely think that all of our efforts at creating that “perfect Christmas” (again, this year) just may create heaven on earth, at least for a day or two.

But, dear friends, Isaiah promises our real heaven on earth, our real new creation, our real promised land. It all comes when our Lord God comes as the Infant in the manger to save us. It all comes when the Son of God takes on our flesh and blood and bones to restore us to life in His kingdom. It all comes when Jesus Christ spills that innocent blood and has His perfect body broken on a cross to rescue us from being prisoners in Satan’s war against the Triune God. Our Lord Jesus comes to inaugurate His eternal “promised land,” a land where we need not worry over or succumb to crowded malls, forgotten gifts, hectic schedules, or overindulging. You see, God’s promised land is where Jesus gives His forgiveness, His life, and His rescue from our self-centered concerns. God’s promised land is not in the shopping mall or around the Christmas tree (as fine as these things may be); God’s promised land is in His Church. It’s where the Son of God stretches out His arms, even as they are nailed to a tree, and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

It’s the promise that Isaiah gave some 2700 years ago, and it’s still true: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Did you hear that? In God’s promised land of Jesus and His  Church, our sorrow and sighing shall flee away. What replaces our anxieties and our stresses? The singing, the everlasting joy, the gladness that our God, that Infant small, has conquered our sins, our death, and the devil himself.

And so, dear friends, we once again hear very timely and wise words to help us wait, this time from James, the brother of our Lord: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” We can be patient, because our God has come in the flesh. As a farmer plants his crop and waits for rain and soil to work together to bear the fruits of the crop, we can wait for our God to deliver us from our self-inflicted “merry chaos.” James continues: “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Yes, when you keep the eyes of your faith on your Coming King, the anxieties of “merry chaos” fade away.

And James even gives an additional bit of sage, sanctified advice: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” Yes, the King is coming. He has come in flesh and blood. He continues to come in the preaching of His forgiveness and life. He continues to come in the very Body and Blood on the Altar. And He will come again to rescue us from this fallen land and bring us to our eternal promised land. With such great promises already given and yet to come, why grumble against one another? We get to spend eternity together, with our God who is Love and with each other. We get to celebrate His mercy and compassion now and into eternity. There’s no need to let the world’s chaos get the better of us. As James also says: “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Amen.  

12 December 2016

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete

"What Did You Go Out to See?"
Matthew 11:2-11

Listen here.

Today we see the third candle on the Advent wreath lit; only one more Sunday to go before Christmas. And today’s candle is a different color. Purple is the traditional color of Advent, for the repentance and the traditional fasting, praying and almsgiving as we prepare for our coming King. Blue, which we see before us, is the newer color of Advent, the color for hope in our coming Messiah. Just as the sky is dark blue just before the dawn, so we wait in hope for the dawn of our Savior, the Light of the world. But what’s the rose color for? It marks a little reprieve in the repentance and preparation. The Latin name for today is “Gaudete!” which means “Rejoice!” Today we get a little taste of joy as we get a little break from the traditional fasting, praying, and almsgiving of Advent, a little rejoicing-break to tide us over until Christmas Eve.

Now you may enjoy a little reprieve of rejoicing, but I’m not sure that I can rejoice too much. You see, this Friday I will observe my 26th anniversary of ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry. God has blessed me with 26 years of preparing the way of the Lord, of preaching His Gospel of mercy and grace in Christ, of shepherding a part of the flock that belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But now I look at today’s Gospel reading. The preacher is about to get his head lopped off! Nope, I’m not so sure how much I can rejoice! Faithful preachers getting their heads lopped off?!

It would seem that John wasn’t sure how much he could rejoice either. After all, he was in prison. As he looked out from his prison cell, it would seem that he was wondering if Jesus really was the Coming One promised long ago, the Messiah for whom he had been preparing the way. You see, John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and look where it got him! Some say John began doubting if Jesus really was the Messiah. Others say that John did not waver in his faith, but rather wanted to direct his own disciples to follow their true Lord and Master. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Perhaps we’ll never know until the Last Day.

So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Coming One. Instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” answer, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Sounds like a pretty resounding “yes” to me! Giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing lepers, enabling the deaf to hear, and raising up the dead are all sure and certain signs of the Messiah. After all, Isaiah had promised that in the day of the Messiah “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…” and “then shall the lame man leap like a deer” (Is. 35:5-6). Isaiah also said that the Lord’s Anointed would “bring good news to the poor…bind up the brokenhearted… and proclaim liberty to the captives” (Is. 61:1). Whoever can do these miraculous healings can only be sent from God. And preaching the Good News? Who better to do that than the Son of God who is Good News in the flesh!

Then Jesus gives us a little lesson about John. Three times our Lord asks, “What did you do out to see?” Did the people going out to see John go out to see a reed swayed by the wind of popular, public opinion? Did they go out to see a man in fancy, soft, luxurious clothing? Or did they go out to see a prophet sent from God? Well, let’s take Jesus’ question and apply it to ourselves. What do we go out to see when we leave our comfy homes for any Sunday Divine Service or any Evening Prayer Office? What do we go out to see when we venture to church during Advent or even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? What do we go out to see when we sit in the pews and open our hymnbooks and listen to a man ramble on from the pulpit and the altar?

Do you go out to church to see a reed shaken by the wind? One Bible commentator says that a reed shaken by the wind “is symbolic of a man who yields to popular opinion, veers with it, and has no solid convictions of his own” (Lenski, 430). Is your pastor supposed to gauge popular opinion and preach, teach, and minister accordingly, perhaps as the majority wants? Should he try appealing to the most people possible so that we can have fuller pews and more offering money? Should your pastor fret and worry about needed changes for fear that some people may get upset and leave? Is it your pastor’s task when he steps into the pulpit simply to tell you things that you want to hear, or like to hear, or things that simply make you feel good? When it comes to the liturgy and hymns we sing, is it your pastor’s job simply to choose the dearly loved favorites so as to please the most people possible? Should your pastor moisten his finger and stick it in the air to see which way the winds of popular opinion go for life in God’s Church? Would you really want a pastor who veers with public opinion and has no convictions of his own?

Do you go out to church to see a man dressed in soft clothing? The same Bible commentator says this about the soft clothing: “A man who yields to popular opinion, who bends to the will and the word of the influential and the mighty, will be rewarded by them, will be given a high place and the finest kind of garments” (Lenski, 432). I know one pastor who was tempted by the soft clothing of success. One well-to-do lady in his congregation really wanted this pastor to “succeed” in his preaching and teaching. One day this lady invited the pastor over to her home for coffee. After the pastor arrived, the lady talked about how she would really like to see him “succeed.” As the two sipped their coffee, the lady turned on a video tape of Dr. D. James Kennedy. He was preaching to a full auditorium of interested and happy people. “Pastor, I really want you to be like that, preaching to a whole auditorium full of people,” she said. “Perhaps you could even have your own show,” she added. Well, the pastor knew the unspoken message. You see, this lady did not like his preaching of repentance and forgiveness; she did not care much that he was teaching on every-Sunday Communion or on the practice of individual Confession & Absolution. But she did want her pastor to enjoy the “soft clothing” of her approval.

What do you go out to see? Do you go out to church to see a prophet? Again, our Bible commentator has an insight on seeing a prophet: “Jesus does not mean ‘merely to look at a prophet’ but ‘to see him so as to get into personal touch with him,’ [that is], to hear him and his proclamation with their own ears, to let him move them to repentance and to the baptism for the remission of sins” (Lenski, 433). Those who went out to see John saw more than a prophet alright; they saw the one man whom God sent as a messenger to prepare the way for His only-begotten Son. And isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John came baptizing and preaching the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John pointed people to Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet is supposed to do in the Church today? When the crowds asked John about this Jesus who seemed to be gaining more disciples than John did, John simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Isn’t that what any faithful steward of God’s mysteries is supposed to do—draw people’s attention more to the Savior and less to himself?

Yes, our Lord Jesus sends His prophets and His pastors out ahead of Him. He gives them the task of proclaiming Him, preparing the way for Him to come with salvation and healing in His wings. Our Lord gives His preachers today the same task that He gave to Isaiah or John or St. Paul centuries ago. He gives them a certain message to proclaim—a message of comfort, a message that our warfare against sin and death is ended in Christ Jesus, a message that our iniquity is pardoned and that we receive double the forgiveness in Christ crucified and risen. It’s a message that takes our eyes off of ourselves and puts them on Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And pay close attention to those words when you sing them today. After you sing them, you will come to the Lord’s Table to eat and drink the Lamb of God and have your sins taken away. That’s how your Savior must increase, but your pastor must decrease! And not only must your pastor be a faithful, trustworthy steward of “the mysteries of God,” as St. Paul says, but he must also echo St. Paul’s other words: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor. 2:2).

What did you come out to see this morning? Hopefully not a preacher who sways like a reed with the ever-changing winds of popular opinion or human emotions! Hopefully not a preacher who strives for the soft clothing of so-called “success”! What did you come out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet. I pray that you came out to see the Christ Himself. After all, the pastor-prophet is only good and useful if he draws your attention to the Savior who rescues you from death and sin. And that’s his job not just in the pulpit, but in everything else he does. Amen.