06 April 2020

Homily for Sunday of the Passion (2020)

"According to Plan"
Matthew 27:11-54

Listen here.

For some, it seemed to be little more than a tragic accident, a miscarriage of justice. But it was not. Everything we just heard went precisely according to plan—God’s plan; His divine will from all eternity.

The same is true of all we are enduring today. Some may hold that what we experience in this time of pandemic and stay at home orders is a product of random chance. But it’s not. Our gracious God is still in charge, and He still works all things for the good of those who love Him and those who are yet to love Him. God works all things according to plan.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther helps us put things in perspective—the things we just heard in the Passion reading, the things we will celebrate this week, and things going on in the world. And Luther does this in one brilliant gem of a paragraph as he explains the Second Article of the Creed (Large Catechism, II:28-30). Let’s walk through it.

First, Luther writes: “For when we had been created by God the Father and had received from Him all kinds of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil [Genesis 3].” God did not create the sin, death and evil. God did not invent viruses or unleash  brokenness. All of that came by way of us disobedient humans spurred on by the devil. No, God created all things good—His world, His light, His sky and sea, His dry land, His sun, moon and stars, His fish and birds, His animals and His dearly loved humans. “All kinds of good,” as Luther said. So all of the sickness, the brokenness, the doubts, the fears, the mistrust and even death itself—that’s all on us. And yet God still works all kinds of good. He even does so by means of this broken, fallen world full of suffering. He even uses diseases and pandemics to bring us back to Him in repentance.

Next, Luther writes, “So we fell under God’s wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, just as we had merited and deserved.” Don’t picture God’s wrath and displeasure as something erupting from a short-fused tyrant. Instead, picture it as a loving parent’s response when a deadly disease takes control of their child. “I hate it! It angers me what this disease is doing to my child!” That’s God’s wrath. Yes, burning and justly so. But also coming forth out of love for His fallen creatures.

Now ponder what happened to Jesus on the way to Calvary and while hanging on that cross. That should have been you, me and every human being. That’s what we all deserve for our disobedience, mistrust, and rebellion against our loving Creator. It puts the proper  perspective on all we suffer in this broken world. Whether it’s natural disasters, terrorist attacks or deadly plagues, we cannot say that we do not deserve it. We do. When such things happen, we remember Jesus’ words: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3).

And yet, despite what we truly deserve, our Father shows and gives His deep, eternal mercy through His Son. Next, Luther writes: “There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God—in His immeasurable goodness—had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness. He came from heaven to help us [John 1:9].” Remember St. Paul’s wonderful words: “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). In God’s mercy you do not get what you truly deserve—punishment for your mistrust and lack of love. In His grace you richly receive what you really don’t deserve—the righteousness, forgiveness and life of God.

Luther explains more: “So those tyrants and jailers are all expelled now. In their place has come Jesus Christ, Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation. He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free [Romans 8:1–2], and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace.” Because of Jesus’ bitter pains, torment and death, there is now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus. You are now free from the law of sin and death.

In Christ, you are now free from all fear—all fear of God’s wrath and punishment, all fear of whatever you may suffer in this broken world. In Christ, you are now free to live in repentance—repentance for your own sins and shortcomings, repentance when you suffer things you cannot control. In Christ, you are now free to rejoice—rejoice “though now for a little while…you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6), rejoice that in your Suffering Savior you have the hope of the glory of God. Since the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed!

Finally, Luther writes of the glorious goal of God’s eternal plan: “He has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection [Psalm 61:3–4] so that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness.” Because Jesus has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows, because He was pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities, we have peace with God. With His wounds you are healed. Now you belong to Him. Now you live under Him in His kingdom. Now you may serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

When your own sins of thought, word and deed plague you, know that your Lord Jesus is your refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. When this current pandemic frightens you and leads you to worry, take refuge under the shelter of God’s protective wings (Ps. 61:3-4). Your almighty God is in control of all things and all things proceed according to His plan. He has obviously allowed this pandemic to befall us. Never forget: He is still in charge when we clearly are not. Our sin and our current pandemic may be overwhelming for us; but for Him they are not. Your Lord who suffered and died for you to bring you all kinds of good will not allow even a pandemic to separate you from His love or His life from you.
Now He who bore for mortals’ sake
The cross and all its pains
And chose a servant’s form to take,
The King of glory reigns.
Hosanna to the Savior’s name
Till heaven’s rafters ring,
And all the ransomed host proclaim
“Behold, behold your King!” (LSB 444:4)

01 April 2020

Homily for Lent 5 Evening Prayer (2020)

"Covered by Innocent Death"
2 Samuel 11:1-12:14 & Matthew 27:32-66

This homily was prepared before this evening's Lent Evening Prayer had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To prepare for the homily, read the Scripture readings above.
My, how we love to cover up our sins! David sets the example, and we gladly follow in his footsteps. He was Israel’s greatest king, after all, a man after God’s own heart, a good role model, to be sure. But notice how he, a man who could sing God’s praises like no one else, could also cover up his sins like no one else.

It began before the cover-up, before the murder, before the adultery, even before the coveting of another man’s beautiful bride. It began as David neglected his vocation, his God-given calling. It was “the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.” It’s what kings do. It’s in their “job description” under the heading “Defend and protect the citizens of your nation.” But that one time David neglected that duty. He presumed he had better things to do, more important things to accomplish—like play peeping tom and ogle the topless beauty next door. “Who is she? Oh, Bathsheba. Bring her to me. But keep it hush, hush. No one needs to know.”

God knew, though.

Then David, the suave, debonair, romantic lover, easily concealed his sin of neglecting his vocation. And one sin led to another, all too naturally and all too easily. A little sweet talk. A lot of passion. Don’t worry about the guilt or others finding out. After all, he’s the king. Surely he knows how to keep such things under wraps. They don’t call it “Secret Service” for nothing.

Then the big “Uh-oh!” She’s what? Pregnant? Oh, my! Everyone will know soon enough, especially when she starts showing. Hmm. How to fix this? How to clean up this unfortunate mess? Ah-ha! Bring hubby home. Get him to sleep with his wife. Everyone will think it’s Uriah’s child. No one will be the wiser.

Except God.

It turns out that Uriah the Hittite, the foreigner, the little man from an unbelieving people, had more honor and integrity than powerful, respected King David. Enjoy the comforts of home while his army buddies were still out suffering the heat of battle and the fog of war? Perish the thought! And perish David’s cover-up plan too, as it turned out. Even stone-cold drunk, Uriah displayed more honor and integrity than King David, who’s sole intent was covering up his sins. So when Uriah would not participate and cooperate, David would eliminate, in the battle, where it would be sad, to be sure, but only natural. Who would suspect a thing?

God would. And God did.

Notice the pattern. David’s first unnoticeable sin—neglecting his vocation—led to another—coveting—and then another—adultery—and then another—murder—and all under his man-made cloak of secrecy. But God’s X-ray vision sees right through the sheer and flimsy strategies we use to cover up our many transgressions.

God sent Pastor Nathan to confront and rebuke King David. Not only was Nathan risking his very life—because the King could easily say, “Out of my sight and off with his head”—but he was about to do the more dangerous task of exposing sin. So Nathan shrouds his rebuke in an innocent story: a poor man cheated out of his only lamb by a rich man who should have taken from his own God-given wealth. When David heard the innocent-sounding story, his passion for justice burned hot. You see, covering up your own sins often makes you quite self-righteous, hotly indignant, and overly judgmental about the sins of other people. All of that pent up energy from keeping your own sins under wraps explodes and erupts at the least little transgression … of someone else.

Nathan’s rebuke of David comes in the simplest of words: “You are the man!” He might as well point the finger and say those same words to each of us: “You are the man! You are the woman! You are the boy! You are the girl! Yes, you are the one who has sinned. Cover it up all you like; you cannot hide it from God. Conceal it under your every excuse and rationalization; hide it with deeds that appear honorable and even devout; but you still cannot fool God. As He says elsewhere: “Whoever conceals his transgression will not prosper.” Man-devised cover-ups never work. No way, no how!

But here is where David becomes a salutary role model in a better way. He simply confessed his sin and sins—no excuses, no justifications, no more covering up. “I have sinned against the LORD.” They are words for you too—and words to utter with no excuses, no justifications, no more covering up. “[I] have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what [I] have done and by what [I] have left undone.” “Lord, to You I make confession: / I have sinned and gone astray, / I have multiplied transgression, / Chosen for myself my way. / Led by You to see my errors, / Lord, I tremble at Your terrors” (LSB, 608:1).

Then, for David and for you, God’s words delivered through the pastor’s mouth come rushing in to heal, to restore, and to give life. “The LORD also has put away your sin; you shall not die.” Sins exposed, forgiveness uttered, life bestowed! What a sweet and glorious moment! What a life-changing and liberating message! God’s own forgiveness comes through the voice of a man, a fellow sinner. As God says in the Proverb: “but he who confesses and forsakes [his transgressions] will obtain mercy.”

There’s a curious little conclusion to David’s confession and absolution, however. Yes, David confessed, but that’s not why he was forgiven. Merely confessing and forsaking our transgressions does not earn or achieve God’s life-giving forgiveness. Listen to God’s words uttered through Pastor Nathan’s mouth: “Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.”

At first we might hear these words as God unfairly withdrawing His absolution, or suddenly hiding His mercy behind a cloak of retribution. But let’s take these words as glorious and comforting Gospel instead! The LORD put away David’s sins; he would not die. But the Child born to David—the Son of David yet to come, ten centuries down the road—He would die, and He would die carrying David’s specific, concrete, and now-exposed sins. The Absolution was certainly free for David, just as it’s free for you and me. But it is very costly for the Child of David named Jesus. No, you will not die for your sins, God says, but the Son of David will. The Son of David has. As we sing: “For Your Son has suffered for me, / Giv’n Himself to rescue me, / Died to save me and restore me. / Reconciled and set me free. / Jesus’ cross alone can vanquish / These dark fears and soothe this anguish” (LSB 608:3)

And we—like role-model David before us—are now covered by an innocent death. Instead of feebly covering our sins, and multiplying them exponentially in the process, we can take comfort in the innocent death of the sinless Son of God and Son of David. When Jesus died on that cross, the centurion marveled saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” He could have said just as truly, “This was the Son of David—the innocent Child whose death covers our sin.” And when the greater Child of David covers the sins that we expose in Confession, they remain truly covered—covered by His innocent blood, covered from God, covered from us, covered and never to be exposed again. The Lord who has suffered and died for you has put away your sin; you shall not die. Amen.

30 March 2020

Homily for Lent 5 (Judica) - 2020

"Never See Death"
John 8:42-59

Listen here.

Why did they want to kill Jesus? Because He was telling the truth. He was telling them things that did not fit into their self-made notions of religion. Earlier He had told them they were from below, but He was from above. He had told them they were of this world, but He was not of this world (John 8:23). Earlier He had said, “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 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 stubborn 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.

Now 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 truth. 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 of truth: “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 One who can sympathize with our weaknesses, our fears, our illnesses because He has lived life in our shoes. 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 this is the very Word of promise 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 beloved 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. It was also more than a test; it was a type, a picture, a preview of another Son of Abraham, our Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus is the promised Son who carries the wood of His cross upon His back. He goes back up Calvary’s mountain to make the great sacrifice to rescue us from the infection of our sin. He is the beloved Son who is bound—willingly bound—and laid upon the altar of the cross to deliver 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 everything that infects us, especially sin and death.

So, yes, Jesus can say, if anyone keeps His Word, that person will never see death. How can He say that? Because He came to see death for us and give us His life. He came to drink the cup of suffering in order that we may be released from death’s iron-fisted grasp. 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 consciences from dead works to serve the living God. As we keep and hold onto His Word, we are rescued from death’s sting and God’s eternal judgment.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You also have His Word. When 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…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—not even that nasty bug called coronavirus or its disease called COVID-19.

“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, especially in this time of pandemic and uncertainty. 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. Remember that now as we must fast from His Body and Blood for a time, at least as His gathered body. And remember that fasting only leads us to hunger and thirst for it even more.

“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 also promises that the one who “is born of water and the Spirit” gets to enter and see the kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). If you are united to Jesus in His holy Washing, you have died with Him, been buried with Him, and are already raised with Him. When you “have been united with Him in a death like His, [you] shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (Rom. 6:5). Even now you get to walk in newness of life.

“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 sends His called and ordained servants to “forgive the sins of any,” and those sins “are forgiven them.” (John 20:23). When you hear Jesus’ Word forgiving your sins, you receive His Holy Spirit, your sins are removed from you “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12), and you have peace. And this is the peace that sustains and soothes in times of upheaval. This is the peace that leads us to rejoice in the midst of our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope in Jesus does not disappoint. (Rom. 5)

So hold onto Jesus and His Word for dear life. After all, His promise is sure and certain: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Amen.

25 March 2020

Homily for Lent 4 Evening Prayer - 2020

"No Cover for Cover-Ups"
Joshua 7:16-26 & Matthew 27:1-31

This homily was prepared before this evening's Lent Evening Prayer had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To prepare for the homily, read the Scripture readings above.
“Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” (Prov. 28:13) Achan sure excelled at concealing his transgressions. Truth is: so do we. But there’s no cover for cover-ups. You see, when we try to cover up our sins, God will make sure that they, and we, are exposed. That’s what we cover-ups have to look forward to on the Last Day.

Achan’s greedy sin and cover up actually began with the Lord’s glorious victory over the city of Jericho. They marched around the city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day. They blew their trumpets, the walls came tumbling down, and Israel rushed in to conquer, just as God had promised. It was a glorious victory and a joyous day. But God had also given two clear mandates—first: “keep yourselves from the things devoted to destruction”; and second: “all silver and gold, and every vessel of bronze and iron, are holy to the LORD; they shall go into the treasury of the LORD.”(Josh. 6:18-19)

Then Israel turned to its next target for conquest, the city of Ai. Things went much differently. Intoxicated by the victory at Jericho, they assumed they would conquer yet again. But no! They received the thumping of a lifetime; they got their clocks royally cleaned; and God Himself made sure of it. Despair descended on all Israel. Joshua tore his clothes in humble lamentation. “What happened, Lord? Have you rescued us from Egypt just to turn us over to the godless pagans of Canaan-land?” And how did God respond to being put on trial by his puny, defeated general? “Come on, Joshua! Get up! Man up! ‘Israel has sinned; they have transgressed my covenant that I commanded them; they have taken some of the devoted things; they have stolen and lied and put them among their own belongings.’” (Josh. 7:12)

Can’t you just see Joshua dropping his jaw and scratching his head in confusion? “We, Israel, have sinned? We have taken Your possessions, the spoils from Jericho? No way! We heard Your instruction. We followed Your commands. What on earth is happening?”

The Lord, though, told Joshua how to root out the lone culprit of the people’s demise. The whole people of Israel consecrated themselves and presented themselves before Joshua and before God. Then came the process of elimination: the tribe of Judah was singled out, from them the clan of Zerah, from them the household of Zabdi, and finally Achan, the son of Carmi, the suspect and culprit. The sin of this one man, from this one household in this one clan of the one tribe had spoiled things for all Israel, the whole nation, all the people. Other people died because of Achan’s sin!

“Then Joshua said to Achan, ‘My son, give glory to the LORD God of Israel and give praise to him. And tell me now what you have done; do not hide it from me.” One man’s sin of greed and theft had handicapped the whole people of God. Joshua implored Achan to give glory to God by confessing his specific, concrete sins of greed and theft to him, a fellow sinner.

You see, we all sin because we’re all sinners. And when we sin as individual sinners, we affect and trouble the people around us, especially the whole people of God called the Church. It’s like throwing a single stone into a large pond. It’s only a small piece of rock, but the moment it splashes into the still water, the ripples emanate outward and affect the whole body of water. When one of us commits sin—the single stone tossed into the water—the whole body of Christ is disturbed by the affects that ripple outward. And so, we confess.

“Achan answered Joshua, ‘Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath.” (Josh. 7:20-21) See how Achan gave glory to God: by getting specific in confessing his sins. Not just: “I coveted and stole something,” but: “I coveted and stole that beautiful cloak, that silver and that gold. And I’ve hidden them in my tent.”

Will we confess our specific sins? In agonizing detail? To a fellow sinner, usually our pastor? Will we confess at the altar rail before the pastor that we get just as greedy as Achan did? Will we expose our sinful stealing such as cheating on those income taxes, or keeping the extra change we mistakenly received, or getting paid for goofing off at work? Will we admit that we actually do steal from God Himself by thinking and claiming that our money and goods belong to us, not to Him, and by living that lie when we give cheaply in the offering or neglect to help our needy neighbor?

I know: Scandalous! But Joshua did call it giving glory to God, even when confessing to a fellow sinner. After all, why should we be nervous about confessing the dirty details of our rotten sins to a fellow sinner who has his own dirty, rotten specific sins? That sinner cannot do anything to us. In fact, he may even be able to relate to us, in that twisted misery-loves-company sort of way. We really should tremble, though, to confess our sins “directly to God,” as we often say. Why? Because He can – and He does – do something about them! Jesus said, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Mt. 10:28) Confessing sins to a fellow sinner certainly does not kill the body, but what about the rest of that verse? Well, it still applies. Bury your sin, and God will bury you!

Joshua sent his messengers to find and verify Achan’s stash of stolen goods, and it was there. Then Achan received his just desserts for his sin that troubled all of Israel: he and his family were stoned with stones and burned with fire. What?! No absolution? No forgiveness? No second chance? No…? No. Should we think that Achan’s confession somehow deserved God’s response of absolution? God’s mercy is not founded on Achan’s confession – nor yours, nor mine. No, your confession is where the Achan in you must simply die. No putting the coin of your confession in the heavenly vending machine for absolution to pop out on queue. Just stark, repentant confession that says, “Truly I have sinned against the LORD God.” Then leave it there, and realize the Lord can, does, and will have His way. No cover up for us cover-ups, not even in our confessing.

When we confess, we do pray with Psalm 38(:21-22): “Do not forsake me, O LORD! O my God, be not far from me! Make haste to help me, O Lord, my salvation.” And with the Lord Jesus who suffered mock trial, unjust verdict, cruel mockery, and torturous crucifixion, our God does hasten to help. No, He did not help Achan, but He does promise to help you, to be your salvation. When you bury your sins, God will bury you. But when you expose your sins in confession, God will bury them with His Son hanging from a cross and buried in a tomb. You see, that’s where His true love for sinners is truly exposed—not in the anguish of confessing, not in suffering the just desserts of our sins, but in the glory of Christ crucified, buried and risen. And when He absolves in His mercy, he does not bring the Achan in you back to life. No, He gives you His life, His contentment, His trust in the God who is your salvation.

So we do not cover up, but we confess. And we sing with the hymn:

“O Jesus, let Thy precious blood
    Be to my soul a cleansing flood.
Turn not, O Lord, Thy guest away,
    But grant that justified I may
Go to my house at peace with Thee:
    O God, be merciful to me.” (LSB 613:3)

His blood does cover. His peace does go with you. Yes, He is merciful to you. Amen.

22 March 2020

Homily for Lent 4 (Laetare) - 2020

"The Real Game-Changer"
Exodus 16:2-21; Acts 2:41-47; John 6:1-15

Listen here.

Let’s talk COVID-19. Everyone’s talking about it these days. Lately, it’s been just about the only topic of conversation. Okay, some did welcome the news of Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots as a welcome diversion. But just about everything else centers on COVID-19. Social distancing. Self-quarantines and stay at home orders. The economy in general and the stock market in particular. Sports events cancelled. Certain stores and restaurants closed. You name it, we’re talking about it through the megaphone of Coronavirus. COVID-19 has even changed the way we think, talk and “meme” about toilet paper, of all things!

So let’s just do it. Let’s talk COVID-19. After all, it’s also why we’re here today in such unusual circumstances—a very small crowd allowed here in church, our first ever live-streaming service online, and receiving our Lord’s Body and Blood in shifts today and tomorrow. Everything else on the parish schedule is postponed, up in the air and otherwise uncertain. What does all of it mean? How shall we—how can we—live, survive and respond as the body of Christ? So much fear. So much anxiety. So much uncertainty.

So let’s dive right in. Let’s talk COVID-19, but let’s do so in the light of our Lord’s Word. After all, He is the light of the world. Whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness, gloom, or despair, but will have the light of life (cf. Jn. 8:12). It must be more than happenstance that we celebrate Laetare Sunday when we are suffocating with fears, anxieties, and uncertainties. That historic name for this Fourth Sunday in Lent leads us to lift up our heads and hearts for a bit of fresh air—the fresh air of rejoicing, rejoicing in our Lord Jesus, in His provision, in His refreshment.

Do we have it any worse than the people of Israel in the wilderness? The Lord’s gift of delivering them from Egyptian slavery had cut them off from their supply chains of meat pots and bread to the full. They had socially distanced themselves from their familiar homes in Egypt and were dwelling in tents out in no-man’s land. And the fear, uncertainty and grumbling began. “Would that we had died…,” they cried. No one enjoys being confronted with the unknown wilderness! It can be quite discombobulating, to be sure, but it does happen.

And yet Yahweh was gracious and merciful. It was actually His work of saving them that compelled them to confront the unknown wilderness and face their own fears. So He told Moses that He would “rain bread from heaven” for His people. With this gracious promise intended to overcome their fears, God also said He would “test them, whether they will walk in My [Word] or not.” So quail was on the menu that evening and manna would rain down day by day, and only enough for each day. Would they trust the God who loved them and had saved them? “Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack. Each of them gathered as much as he could eat.” Some, of course, did not listen to Moses or the Lord. They tried to hoard and their hoarding left them with rancid, worm-infested food.

God most certainly cares for you in both body and soul. Not only has He redeemed you from sin and death through His Son, the very Bread of Life, but He also provides for your every bodily need. The test in this unknown, fearful wilderness of our COVID-19 time is this: Will you walk in His Word of promise or not? Will you rely on Him who has loved you with a love that overcomes plagues and pestilences? Will you depend on His light in the midst of any and all darkness? He is gracious and merciful, and, yes, He does provide.

Now put yourselves on that grassy knoll up on the mountain with Jesus and His disciples. You’ve seen “the signs that He was doing on the sick.” It’s evident He cares, and that He can and does heal. And the holy week of Passover is just around the corner. Through the day, you’ve been listening to Jesus teach the light and life of God’s kingdom (cf. Lk. 9:11). Now it’s evening and you’re hungry. And Jesus decides to test His disciples: “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” We can relate to such a critical question, with news and experiences of empty store shelves.

Now put yourself in Philip’s sandals. “Lord, the need is overwhelming! Even if we did have enough money, we could only buy enough food for everyone to have just a nibble.” The huge scope of the problem will do that to you. Rising numbers of those infected and dying. Shrinking mobility. Economy tanking and 401(k)s evaporating. It’s enough to lead you to despair.

Or put yourself in Andrew’s sandals. For him it’s not the massive need; it’s the meager resources. Only five barley sandwich rolls and two small fillets of fish? “What are they for so many?” Empty store shelves? No hand sanitizer? No Lysol hand wipes? Not enough protective masks or gloves for our medical heroes? What shall we do? How shall we survive? Such meager resources! It’s enough to lead to panic or hoarding.

Now notice how Jesus does not even answer Philip or Andrew. Oh, He hears their fears—and yours too. He knows the needs of the crowd—and your needs, and the needs of our city and nation, even the needs of the whole world and everyone in it. Since “He Himself knew what He would do,” He calmly tells His twelve assistants to “have the people sit down.” Then, as only Jesus can do, He faithfully gives thanks for the meager resources and distributes them into the mouths of the massive need. Everyone—5,000-plus—has full, happy tummies. All is good once again. And left over fragments even fill twelve baskets.

So fear not! Your Lord Jesus knows your needs, as well as your fears. And He knows how best to meet those needs and squelch those fears, especially when you do not. But it’s also instructive and helpful to notice what Jesus did when the crowd tried to “take Him by force to make Him king.” He “withdrew again to the mountain by Himself.” Jesus is no mere bread king to fill empty stomachs or  remove every physical malady. No, He’s a bigger king; He’s a better king than that. He can give medical authorities and governing authorities to address pandemics and bless their efforts.

But only He can address that most infectious virus we all have from birth, that most infectious virus we will ever know—our sin, our mistrust, our rebellion against God. That’s what He came to heal. And He showed His kingship by taking the throne of a cross. There He shed the healing medicine of His innocent blood. From there He went into a tomb to sanctify the graves of His saints. On the third day He rose again to bring life and immortality to light. And then He ascended to sit at the Father’s right hand, ruling all things—even pandemics—for our eternal good.

That, dear friends, is the real game-changer. Last week, when the so-called “rule of 10” came down, I called it a game-changer for how we can carry on our worship life in this time of pandemic. Another game-changer came yesterday with the City’s “stay-at-home” order. And, who knows, certain medications recently reported on may be game-changers in dealing with COVID-19. But the truest, mightiest, absolutely everlasting game-changer is our Lord’s own sacrifice, death, and resurrection. That helps us put everything else—even Coronavirus—in perspective.

We need not fear or panic or despair. We especially need not fear death itself, however it may come. Instead, we may freely and joyously devote ourselves “to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” We may happily and readily show the world the power of being fed on our Lord’s Word and Sacrament, of banding together to care for one another, and of using our possessions and belongings for all, as any has need.

Dear ones, remember these words from St. Paul: “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37-39) Amen.

18 March 2020

Pastoral Letter: COVID-19 Response at Hope

+ Wednesday of Lent 3 (Oculi) +
March 18, 2020

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ at Hope,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:3-9)

These words from St. Peter provide great comfort, peace and hope for a time such as this! While we rejoice in being born again through our Lord’s resurrection, we still must endure various trials in this fallen, sin-infected world. The current COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic is one such trial. No doubt our Lord Jesus is using this to test the genuineness of our faith in Him.

Due to recent guidelines given by our governing and medical authorities, we at Hope are voluntarily making some major changes to our life together—worship and other activities—for the coming weeks. As your pastor, I really wish we did not have to do this, but this topsy-turvy time is what it is and we receive it as an opportunity from our faithful God and Savior to continue bearing witness to Him. We will continue to proclaim and hear the Gospel. We will continue to receive His forgiveness, life and salvation in Holy Communion. And we will continue to love one another and be His witnesses in our community. How we do that now will simply look different for a time.

Right now our Lord is leading us to waltz (a dance in triple time) with three of His commandments at once. In the Third Commandment, God calls us to hold His Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it. We will continue to do this, though in different ways for a time. In the Fourth Commandment, He calls us to honor our authorities, serve and obey them, love and cherish them. God has graciously given us our current governing and medical authorities for our good (Rom. 13:1-4). And in the Fifth Commandment our Lord calls us to help and support our neighbor in every physical need. This includes protecting those at high risk from the coronavirus.

Our governing authorities are not taking away our First Amendment rights, nor are they forbidding us from proclaiming Jesus. This is not an Acts 5:29 situation in which we must obey God rather than men. Our authorities are working to stem the tide of this novel virus and exposure to it. The temporary changes we are making are largely driven by our love for neighbor, especially those in the high-risk category in this pandemic.

The changes we are making, in faithfulness to our Savior and out of love for our neighbors, are being planned through at least April 5. We also must be prepared to continue with these arrangements if they are needed for longer than a few weeks. Realistically, these measures may even be necessary well into the summer or beyond. Only God knows how long we will need to hunker down to fight against the spread of this coronavirus. Yet however long it does take, we are confident that our Savior Jesus is with us, protecting us, and giving us the healing balm of His Word and Sacraments.

By unanimous decision of the Board of Elders on March 17, the following changes will take place effective immediately:
  1. Lent Evening Prayer services—March 18, 25, and April 1—are cancelled. Since Holy Week and Easter services fall outside the 15-day period specified by the CDC, no decision has yet been made for those times. I will post my homilies for the Lent services online (Hope’s website and my blog) and can make printed copies available as desired.
  2. All non-Divine Service activities (Sunday School, Bible Class, choir rehearsals, and Youth Catechism Class) are suspended until further notice. ThriVe Parent University has also cancelled its sessions for March 19 & 26 and will notify us of further developments.
  3. For the Sunday morning Divine Service, we will not gather as a whole congregation, but we will stream the Service of the Word online on Hope’s Facebook page. We must ask everyone to stay home on Sunday mornings in keeping with the “rule of 10” guideline. We will assemble a small group for conducting the Service of the Word. You may still hear and be fed on God’s Word by watching the service online. Bulletins will be prepared and made available on Hope’s website for you to use as you watch.
  4. For the Service of the Sacrament (Holy Communion), each week we will offer a series of 30-minute time blocks when up to 10 people (including Pastor and Kantor, as available) may sign up to attend. The service will be a brief, spoken liturgy of Communion with opportunity to be fed on Christ’s Body and Blood. These 30-minute time slots will be available:
  • Sunday mornings after the Service of the Word live-stream—beginning at 10:00 am, ending at 12:00 noon;
  • Wednesday afternoons—beginning at 12:00 noon, ending at 2:00 pm;
  • Wednesday evenings—beginning at 7:00 pm, ending at 8:30 pm.
Each week you are asked to sign up either online or by calling the church office so that we can ensure no more than 10 people (including non-communing children) in the sanctuary at one time. Those who are unsure or uncomfortable with signing up online are encouraged to call the church office. We will make those details available as soon as we have a system set up.

After each brief Communion service, communicants will exit, elements will be refreshed, and the Communion rail will be cleaned and disinfected prior to the next group attending.

Other times to receive Holy Communion, as well as Individual Absolution, may be made by appointment with Pastor Asburry.

During this time of uncertainty, we want to look out for and care for each other in the body of Christ. This is an excellent time to grow in our life together and mercy work in our midst. We are assembling a team of volunteers to reach out and visit by phone with those who cannot get out or get to church. Hope member Deaconess Cara Patton is organizing this effort. This care team will call to check on our homebound members and others as we all continue to stay home and ride out this pandemic. If you have needs—such as prescription refills, groceries, etc.—please contact either Cara, Pastor Asburry, or one of our elders:
  • Dcs. Cara Patton
  • Pr. Randy Asburry
  • Jeff Nielsen
  • Tom Egger
  • Kevin Robson
  • Chad Rolland
Even though we will not be gathering as normal on Sunday mornings to receive our Lord’s gifts, the gifts of your offerings and financial support are still very much needed, perhaps now more than ever. As much as possible, we will continue to do the work our Lord has given us in this place and at this time—proclaiming the Gospel and caring for those in need. We still depend on your stewardship to support the Gospel both at home and abroad. The church staff must still be supported, utilities and bills must still be paid, and we may need to increase our aid to those impacted by this pandemic, both in our congregation and in our community.

We do ask you to send your regular offerings to church as frequently as you would give them in the offering basket. Simply stick your offering envelope in a regular mail envelope and address it to:
Hope Lutheran Church
5218 Neosho Street
St. Louis, MO 63109
You may also arrange with your bank to automatically send a check for your offering, as several members already do.

Jesus said, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.” (John 14:1). By His grace we will get through this uncertain time, and He promises to strengthen our faith in Him and our love for one another. Please use this time of staying home to read God’s Word and pray, thus staying strong in our Lord’s promises. I plan to make more devotional resources available soon. Please keep checking our website and our Facebook page for additional updates and information.

“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)

In Christ’s service, +

Rev Randy K. Asburry

Homily for Lent 3 Evening Prayer

Sins Covered: For Even the Worst
2 Chronicles 33:1-13 & Matthew 26:57-75 (Passion Reading III)

This homily was ready to be delivered before this evening's Lent Evening Prayer had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To prepare for the homily, read the Scripture readings above.

The great Lutheran theologian Johann Gerhard once wrote that the devil has two trick mirrors.  He uses “the minimizing mirror” when he tries to lure us into sin; to make us think that the sin is “not that big, not that bad.”  Then, after he’s snared us into the sin, he whips out his “maximizing mirror.” With that mirror he makes the sin look magnified in order to make us despair of God ever being able or willing to forgive sinners as terrible and awful as we are. 

No doubt the devil tried that on Manasseh.  Manasseh’s father was the good king, Hezekiah. But as so many sadly discover: godly parents are no guarantee of godly children. As good and wise, as devout and kind as Hezekiah was, Manasseh was as stubborn and wicked – yes, downright evil. No doubt, it started little by little – toying around with idolatry, moving into the occult and practicing Satanic arts, finally fighting against the true faith and seeking to destroy everything his father had done to restore that faith in Judah. The writer of 2 Kings even says that Manasseh was so depraved that he ended up burning his own son as an offering to some demon parading as a “god.” Manasseh was responsible for filling Jerusalem with all kinds of blood shed. Get the picture of this guy? He was bad news. Surely, if ever there were a person that God would simply have given up on, washed his hands of, let go straight to hell, it was Manasseh. 

But the Lord’s ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. As the Psalmist sang: “The LORD is good to all, and His mercy is over all that He has made” (Ps. 145:9). All? Yes, all. In mercy and unspeakable love, the Lord let Manasseh experience some unspeakably hard times. His enemy at the gates, he was captured and carried away with hooks and shackles into a foreign land, to Babylon. 

As his own life had come crashing down all around him, a remarkable thing happened to the evil king. He remembered everything his father had taught him about Yahweh—how He is gracious and merciful, and how He delights in forgiveness and steadfast love. Did he dare to hope? 

No doubt, Satan pulled out that maximizing mirror and pointed it directly at old Manasseh. “No way! There’s no way that someone as evil as you can have hope! You’ve murdered people left and right. You’ve been down on our face worshipping other gods. You’ve consulted necromancers and mediums and done every abomination that the Lord says he hates. You’ve even killed your very own child! You’re toast. You’re going to roast with me forever. Hang it up!”

But through a miracle of God’s grace, Manasseh did not believe Satan’s accusations. Oh, he knew he was sinful, bad to the bone, evil to the core. He knew he deserved absolutely nothing. But with hope against hope, he prayed to the Lord. His prayer is actually a book of the Apocrypha. Listen in to part of it: 
“O Lord Almighty, God of our ancestors, of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and of their righteous offspring,… your glorious splendor cannot be borne, and the wrath of your threat to sinners is unendurable; yet immeasurable and unsearchable is your promised mercy, for you are the Lord Most High, of great compassion, long-suffering, and very merciful, and you relent at human suffering. O Lord, according to your great goodness you have promised repentance and forgiveness to those who have sinned against you, and in the multitude of your mercies you have appointed repentance for sinners, so that they may be saved.  …You have appointed repentance for me, who am a sinner. For the sins I have committed are more in number than the sand of the sea; my transgressions are multiplied, O Lord, they are multiplied! I am not worthy to look up and see the height of heaven because of the multitude of my iniquities. I am weighted down with many an iron fetter, so that I am rejected because of my sins, and I have no relief; for I have provoked your wrath and have done what is evil in your sight, setting up abominations and multiplying offenses. And now I bend the knee of my heart, imploring you for your kindness. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, and I acknowledge my transgressions. I earnestly implore you, forgive me, O Lord, forgive me! Do not destroy me with my transgressions! Do not be angry with me forever or store up evil for me; do not condemn me to the depths of the earth. For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, and in me you will manifest your goodness; for, unworthy as I am, you will save me according to your great mercy, and I will praise you continually all the days of my life. For all the host of heaven sings your praise, and yours is the glory forever. Amen.” (Prayer of Manasseh 1, 5-15)
Now isn’t that an amazing prayer? We heard in our reading today that Manasseh in his distress humbled himself greatly before the Lord and prayed. We also heard that God was moved, heard his prayer, and restored him. “Then Manasseh knew that the Lord was God.”

He experienced first hand that the greatest filth of human wickedness is but a spark that is soon extinguished in the vast ocean of divine mercy and love. Then He knew that the Lord was God. Satan’s mirrors are tricky, but when we lift our eyes from our sin to God’s vast ocean of mercy, we soon see the truth.

I’m sure Peter had his experience with the mirrors too. No big deal, right? Just say: “I don’t know him.” And then when the rooster crowed, Peter remembered. He remembered exactly what our Lord had said would happen. Suddenly Satan was holding up the magnifying mirror: “You think he could possibly forgive a man who swore that he’d stand by Him even if he had to die with Him, and who then caved at the question of a little servant girl? Your sin is too big, Peter. Despair and die.” Peter’s bitter tears bear witness how the sight in the mirror terrified and saddened him—just like Manasseh. But also like Manasseh, Peter would find in the Man whom he denied a forgiveness deeper than all his sin, a love wider than all his denials.

You can find that too. “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.” Dear friends, the mercy that awaits you in your Lord is simply and unbelievably huge – far bigger than your sin, far mightier than your betrayals and denials of Him – immeasurably and unspeakably firm and steady and unshakable. 

So when Satan would use his “maximizing mirror” on you, when he would suggest to you that YOUR sin is just way too big, too bad, too awful, too ugly, too hopeless, remember Manasseh, remember Peter. Most of all, though, remember Him who came into the world to save precisely such honest-to-God, real down-and-dirty sinners:  Jesus Christ, whose blood has indeed blotted out the sin of the whole world. No sin is the match for His grace. No sinner is so far gone that His love cannot reclaim and restore. Confess to Him, and you will see!  Amen.

08 March 2020

Homily for Lent 2-Reminiscere (2020)

"When God Ignores You"
Matthew 15:21-28

Listen here.

What do you do when God ignores you?

Last week, Satan was the enemy with his temptations. This week, Jesus Himself seems to be the enemy.

There’s a fictional story about a man who lived out in the country. On his property was a huge rock sticking out of the ground—about ten feet tall and twenty feet around. God came to this man in a dream and said, “Go out every day and push as hard as you can on that rock.” The man, always glad to know and do God’s will, did as the Lord said. Every day he went out and pushed on that rock with all of his might. After pushing on that rock for a couple of weeks the man prayed, “Lord, I don’t understand why You want me to do this, but I’ll keep pushing.” Another couple of weeks goes by. He keeps pushing on that rock with all his might. Now the man is getting frustrated. Finally, he prays with exasperation: “Lord! I can’t budge this rock! It’s just too big, too heavy, and sunk too deep in the ground! I can’t do this anymore! Why?”

What was God’s purpose for this fictional man? What was Jesus’ purpose for giving the silent treatment to the Canaanite woman, or for wrestling with Jacob? What is God’s purpose when He seems to ignore you?

God has a history of “ignoring” even His faithful people. Consider Abraham. When he was about 75 years old, God called him and promised that he would become a great nation. Just one problem: Abraham had no children and his wife Sarah was barren. Years later Abraham wanted to make the servant of Eliezer his heir. Then he tried having a child by Sarah’s servant Hagar. Each time, God ignored Abraham’s efforts and said, “No! Not that way.” Then, when Abraham was 100 years old, and Sarah was 90, they finally had a son: Isaac. Then, of all things, a few years later, God told Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son. And so Abraham learned that God builds the nation in His own way and provides the Lamb!

Or consider Jacob. He wrestled with a Man through the night. That Man dislocated Jacob’s hip, and Jacob pinned Him to the ground until he was blessed by Him. And Jacob received a new name: “He Who Wrestles with God.”

Or consider Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son. He was sold into slavery in Egypt at just 17 years old, then was unjustly accused of “sexual harassment” and wrongfully imprisoned. Sure seemed God was ignoring his plight. Then, several years later, Joseph was elevated to Pharaoh’s service after interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams about the long famine, but still in Egypt. All of this so that God would deliver His people centuries later.

Or consider David. Saul was Israel’s king, but God decided to anoint David as the next king. So jealous Saul set out to take David out, literally hunting him down to kill him. David expressed his angst in Psalm 13: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Sounds like words we might cry when God is ignoring us. Yet David learned to rely on God and His deliverance even while being ignored.

And what of our Lord Jesus? Did God ignore Him? Absolutely! In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed about His coming torture and death: “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done” (Mt. 26:42). The Father answered with silence that spoke volumes: “Yes, My Son, You must bear it!” And hanging on the cross, Jesus prayed, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). Was God the Father ignoring His only-begotten Son? Yes, but ponder the wonderful deliverance that came by it!

So what do you do when God ignores you? You follow the lead of the Canaanite woman. She gladly receives the crumbs that fall from the Master’s Table. And so do we.

The God who ignores is also the Lord who loves. When we see Jesus acting the way He does with the Canaanite woman, either He’s being mean and cruel, or He has a greater purpose for treating the woman as He does. Is He trying to lead her to realize that she is not an Israelite and therefore has no claim on Him? Is He giving her opportunity to put her faith on display as an example for all of us? Is He endeavoring to strengthen her faith in Him? How about, “Yes, all of the above!”

You see, faith in Christ receives His gifts as a little dog receives scraps from the master’s table. The Canaanite woman was doggedly determined. Silent treatment from Jesus? No problem. Rudeness from His disciples? Just side-step it. Oh, He says He didn’t come for my kind? I’m not giving up! And now He’s comparing me to a little dog who shouldn’t receive the children’s bread? “Yes, Lord, even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” This needy, pious woman looked beyond the harsh circumstances of the moment to the boundless mercy and love of Jesus Christ.

What does “God ignoring you” look like for you? Prayers unanswered? Difficult circumstances that won’t go away? Whatever it is, the challenge is to keep calling on the Son of David and keep begging for His mercy even though life is rough. One Bible commentator said it this way: “Faith believes Jesus is good even when reason is not so sure” (Bruner, 552). Luther’s comment is even better: “You say, the woman responds, that I am a dog. Let it be, I will gladly be a dog; now give me the consideration that you give a dog. Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught” (HP 1:325).

And how does your crucified and risen Savior give you the consideration that He would a dog? Look to His “table scraps.” A small amount of water combined with His Word washes away all your sins, makes you His dear child, and gives eternal life even now. A few small words—“I forgive you all your sins”—spoken into your ears are “just as valid and certain, even in heaven, as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us Himself.” And a bit of bread and small sip of wine—carrying Jesus’ very Body and Blood themselves—is your medicine of immortality and source of Divine nourishment. Jesus is not ignoring you, even when it seems He is. No, you have His full attention and His full mercy won on the cross and delivered by means of His Word and Sacraments.

And with those “table scraps” of Jesus’ mercy, faith in Him receives all things—including the bitter crumbs of life—from our Lord’s loving hands. Is it the personal trials? Is it the news of this new virus or a recent tornado? Keep catching Christ in His own words! Keep receiving His “table scraps.”

St. Paul says it well in Romans 5(:1-5): “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” You have access by faith into His grace, dear saints. You may rejoice in the hope of God’s glory, even when He seems to ignore you, your needs, and your prayers. Then St. Paul adds this: “Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” How can that be? “Because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

So when God (seemingly) ignores you, remember that He loves to be wrestled in faith and caught in His own words to forgive and heal.

Let’s return to that man frustrated at pushing the huge rock with no visible results. “Lord! I can’t budge this rock! It’s just too big, too heavy, and sunk too deep in the ground! Why?” God might just respond with this: “Who said I wanted you to move the rock? My goal was to make you stronger.”

What do you do when God seems to ignore you? He may have a purpose different from what you assume. That would be to lead you to repentance and strengthen your faith in Christ. After all, He is your ultimate healing through His cross-won forgiveness and resurrection life. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:16-18). Amen.

01 March 2020

Homily for Lent 1-Invocabit (2020)

"Save Us from Temptations!"
Matthew 4:1-11

Listen here.

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). Is it any wonder you struggle in trusting God above all things? And if you experience little or no struggle, you’d better wonder if you’ve been tempted into slumber in the midst of the battle. We all face temptations; we cannot avoid them. The question is: how shall we deal with them?

In our 21st century mindset, we think of our selves as unique. We presume we are the first ones to experience the things we experience. This may be true of cars, computers and this new thing called “coronavirus.” But not of things that matter more—things such as identity, security and meaning, or life and death, or matters of trust and temptations. As St. Paul said: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13). Adam and Eve first set the pattern for temptations. Then the children of Israel—God’s own chosen people—lived in that pattern. We also toe the temptation line, trapped in the same pattern.

In the Garden of Eden, God graciously created Adam and Eve to be His perfect children, the crown of His creation. But the sly satanic foe disrupted their perfect fear, love, and trust in God. He created doubt in Eve’s heart and head. He unbuckled her from God’s Word. He promised her something seemingly better than God Himself had given. “You’ll be like God,” he claimed. Then Eve noticed the forbidden fruit. And three things about temptation jump out: 1) the fruit was good for food, 2) it was a delight to the eyes, and 3) it was desirable to make one wise. So, “she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (Gen. 3:6). By that eating came death!

Bread temptations are common to God’s people. The Israelites had been rescued from Egyptian slavery. Out in the barren wilderness they needed food. God graciously provided them with daily, nourishing, honey-tasting manna. But somehow that was not good enough. They moaned and groaned, griped and complained. “We want something different, something tastier!” they cried. The bread of God’s freedom wasn’t good enough. They longed for the spicy food of slavery again. Longing for something different and tastier, they showed how they despised God and His Word of promise. They too had become unbuckled from God’s Word.

We also have our bread temptations. We may not be hungry; in fact, we may be too full—too full on the daily bread of physical life. Our food, our possessions, our bank accounts, our retirement funds, our physical comfort, and our momentary happiness tend to get in the way of life with God. All too often we fear, love, and trust these things more than God. In our hearts and heads God must make us happy and keep us happy with a certain standard of living and ease of life. But we’re only showing how we too are unbuckled from God and His Word—not trusting God when He says He will provide.

Temptations are also delightful to the eyes. Whatever fruit it was in the Garden, its plumpness cried out, “Pick me!” But what really looked good to Adam and Eve was the glory of being “like God.” Why settle for being under God and His care when you can be like Him and on His level? How blind they were! Weren’t they already created in God’s image and likeness?

Such eye-delighting temptations also blinded the Israelites. They did not like what they saw in the wilderness, so they rebelled against God and His servant Moses. They feared the size and strength of the people they would conquer for the Promised Land. So they whined and griped some more. And spent 40 years wandering in the wilderness for their rebellion. God’s wrath is severe when you give into temptations, when you want to live by sight, not by faith.

We too want to live by sight, not by faith in the Son of God. We lust to see measurable proof and progress in our faith life—that we’re better people for all our efforts. We long to see the Church be successful and welcomed by worldly standards. We want to put God on the spot and make sure He will really do what Scripture promises, at least the way we think it should happen. We want Him to take care of coronavirus right here and right now. And until then, we’ll join in the hand-wringing. Actually, what we’re doing is lusting to see ourselves in control, in authority, and being “like God.” But God doesn’t much like it when we make a run for His throne.

Back in the Garden, Eve also thought, in her religious mind, that the piece of fruit would be good for gaining wisdom. No longer was God the source of wisdom for her; the created fruit was. No longer was her total trust and devotion directed to God; it was instead pointed to a piece of fruit. It was a wisdom-worship temptation.

The people of Israel also failed to worship only the one, true Triune God. Instead, they put Him to the test. “Prove Yourself, God,” was their constant cry. Instead of enduring the wilderness and gladly receiving the manna and trusting God’s promises, they were trying to make God bow to them and their demands. Remember the golden calf?

We also seek to gain wisdom by seeking glory apart from God. We seek it by means of worldly honor, power, and glory. “God, if you love me, take away my sickness, pain or suffering. God, why is my life so topsy-turvy? It should be easier and better than this.” Such pleas sound faithful and wise. Too often, though, we do try to control God. “Lord, look how good I’ve been this week. Look how well I’ve tended to my family. Look how well I worked at my job.” We want the glory and we expect God to work according to our wishes. But we surely deserve nothing but punishment.

So today’s Gospel comes as pure comfort and sheer joy. Jesus is tempted just as you are—with bread temptations, delight-to-the-eye temptations, and wisdom-worship temptations. Satan tries putting doubt in Jesus’ head, but Satan loses and Jesus wins the battle. He is the only Person who overcomes temptations. He is the only One to overcome your temptations!

Jesus overcomes the bread temptations. He sees the need for food, clothing, and so on. But He does not let bread consume God. You see, your identity and meaning in life come not from diet, possessions or lifestyle, but as a gift from God. Jesus Himself is the bread of life from heaven. He bakes and breaks Himself on the cross and feeds you, His people, on Himself. His Body and His Blood are the real food of heaven, the manna that sustains you to face your temptations. By this eating comes real life!

Jesus overcomes the delight-to-the-eye temptations. He doesn’t let the glittery traps of worldly kingdoms distract Him. In Jesus’ kingdom, glory comes after suffering. Jesus’ horrible suffering and bloody death on the cross bring you the true and genuine glory in God’s eyes. His gift of glory is the glory of forgiveness for you. His gift of authority is the authority to speak and live that forgiveness with one another. That’s what Jesus’ Church is all about—relying on and living in Jesus’ spoken Word of forgiveness. Jesus’ forgiveness overcomes all your temptations.

And Jesus overcomes the worldly-wisdom temptations. He does not need to test God and look for a way around suffering. He goes right through the middle of it. He absorbs the pain and the shame, the punishment and the disgrace. Most of all, Jesus absorbs God’s wrath for you. He is obedient to God even to the point of death. That’s what makes Jesus the solution, the help, the medicine, and the victor to your temptations. Jesus knows that wisdom comes in trusting God, not in testing Him. Jesus’ perfect trust makes up for your faltering trust.

So Jesus reverses and overcomes the pattern of temptations. Even as you are tempted and distressed, battered, bruised and beaten by the satanic foe, you may hold on to your Lord. Even as you seek to resist temptations, don’t look to your own feeble efforts to save yourself. Instead, look to Christ. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Yes, our temptations are common to all people. But “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). That way of escape is your Lord Jesus Himself. Amen.

23 February 2020

Homily for Quinquagesima (2020)

"Seeing True Love"
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 & Luke 18:31-43

Listen here.

In our second reading, St. Paul extols the virtues of love. But this love is a lot different from the love that the world pursues, a lot different from the love we know or experience. The love that we long for is the feeling that satisfies every desire and craving we have. It’s a love that indulges every need we believe we have. That kind of love is aimed at the heart. It zeroes in on and plays on the emotions. Its beginning and ending is in ourselves. So the words, “love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast…love never ends,”—well, they’re a foreign language. These words are hard to live up to.

But when St. Paul speaks of love, he’s not talking about a verb, but a noun. He’s not talking about what it means to be loving, but what love is. It’s not a feeling. Instead, it’s a Person. And St. Paul does not intend to accuse you or to give you ammunition to use against someone else. No, he  proclaims the Love that came down from heaven. This is not the Love that comes from you; it’s the love that comes to you. It’s not the Love that you must live up to, but the Love who lives for you and in you. And so St. Paul is not focusing on right behavior or a good feeling. No, he’s focusing on the Love of God who is Jesus Christ our Lord.

You see, our view of love is so distorted and muddled. It’s so centered on what meets our needs and pleases our flesh. Is it any wonder that we are puzzled—even offended—to hear that the Love of God is tied to suffering and death? We admire a love that sacrifices one life for another, sure. But what about the Love who immerses us in His self-sacrifice? We think highly of love that is loyal in sickness and in death. But why do we pull back from the Love who says, “Take up your cross”? And what’s our response when He says, “Forsake house, parents, spouse, children—everything and everyone you love—all for the kingdom of God”?

Yes, our love is so interwoven with everything we want and to everyone who does something for us. Is it any wonder, then, that we quickly glance over the “we” in today’s Gospel? Love-in-the-flesh says, “We are going up to Jerusalem.” And going we are—starting Wednesday and for forty days, not counting the Sundays. We are going up to Jerusalem with Love Himself and to be joined to Love Himself. We do not go up just to see what it takes to be Love. We go up to be with Love and in Love as He is delivered, as He is mocked, shamefully treated and spit upon, as He is flogged, as He is killed, and then as He rises again on the third day. Love calls us to come and die with Him, to be immersed in His suffering and death, to dwell in His dying as He dwells in our life and living. Yes, Love calls us to come and die with Him and in Him.

This is not about some kind of death with dignity. This is about rising with Him. His death puts to death the sin that kills us. His death gives live where we can see only death and the fear of death.

So it’s much more than simply Jesus dying for us. It’s more than the good Person being sacrificed to save the evil people. It’s us dying in Him and with Him. It’s the rebellious, sinful you being killed in the holy, innocent suffering and death of Jesus the Christ.

When Jesus first spoke these things, the disciples “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They could not see how this could be. They could not see the need or the benefit. They could not see how this suffering and death would be good for them, how it would give them any good. They could not see the love of God in the Love who would be crucified on the cross.

But what the disciples could not see, a blind man does see. And he sums it up in one word: “mercy.” That’s what the Love of God is all about. Not behavior. Not emotions. Not random acts of kindness. But mercy. The Righteous One becomes the sin of the unrighteous. The Life of the world undergoes our death so that we may live in Him. God-in-the-flesh dies for the ungodly, so that the ungodly may be called the children of God.

“Have mercy on me!” That’s what the blind man cries out. Even though he is blind, he sees who Christ is—the undeserved, unconditional, self-sacrificing Love of God. What the blind man believes allows him to see what those with perfect vision cannot see. You see, the blind man relies on what he hears; and then his sight is restored. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

What you have heard—and what you continue to hear—is that the Lord God has mercy on you. No, not because you are loving, but in spite of your refusal to live in love for God and for your neighbor. God has mercy on you in spite of your living as if God does not matter. He has mercy on you in spite of your constant chasing after what you love, making that matter most. In spite of you, the Lord God gives you His Love and then He also puts you in that Love.

Now you no longer need to live for the self-centered love that you crave. Instead, now you get to join in the chorus of the blind man, the saints, the angels, all the company of heaven. Now you get to join with all those unloving and unloveable ones who cry out: “Lord, have mercy upon us. Christ, have mercy upon us. Lord, have mercy upon us.”

Now you see. Now you are confident. Now you trust and believe. Not only does your Lord hear this cry and answer your need; He especially has mercy on you. Now you may see, believe and be confident that the Lord God, in His mercy, has put you in His Love—that same Love who came to take on our flesh and blood, that same Love who came to live our life and die our death, that same Love who gives you His life now and into eternity, that same Love who even now comes to feed you on Himself. Now you see true Love—our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.