29 July 2019

Homily for Re-Dedication of Sanctuary and Organ

"Making All Things New"
Revelation 21:1-5

Listen here.

Hope Lutheran Church, St. Louis, Missouri, USA (2019)
Flashback to 1931. The date was January 18. This space, its organ, in fact, the whole building were brand spanking new. What exhilaration, what excitement, everyone must have felt! Some of them remembered the small portable chapel of the early days. Many of them had worshiped in the basement chapel since 1922. But nine years later, they got to move into their new space—this space—and hear their new organ.

Theodore Steinmeyer, the architect of this building, wrote about the features of the building and this space. After explaining the many details, he concluded:
“This sanctuary is truly a shrine, before which one is brought to grace; where one may hear and meditate on God’s Word; pray and praise; [promise] one’s faith and love; and where one may long to be brought, when entering through it, as a gateway to the Heavenly Mansions above.” (Dedication booklet, 1931)
Fast-forward back to 2019. Today, July 28. This space and this organ are new once again. And here you are, feeling the exhilaration, the excitement. We did not worship in a portable chapel, but we have been in the basement—the catacombs!—for nine months. And now we move back into our new space. Now we hear our new organ. In fact, our organ is so new that it now has new-to-us pipes that were made in 1898, long before our original organ was even born. :-)

How fitting, then, what we hear from our gracious giver God in Revelation 21: “And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Our God is a God of things new. His business, His will, His purpose, His mission in life, is making all things new.

We’re not talking “out with the old; in with the new” the way 21st century American culture does. Too many people think world history began the day they were born. Too many people assume that things of the past are, well, boring and tedious. Give us the future! Let us make our own new day! Why bother with all those old people and old notions of centuries past? When I was growing up, the “oldies station” played music from the ‘60s; now it plays the music I rather liked in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Oh, and you’re using that old smart phone? That is so last year! When we Americans think of something new, we think of something that was not there before. We think of something that has just appeared on the scene, whatever is most recent in history’s flowing river.

That’s not what God means when He says, “I am making all things new.” The Greek word indicates a newness in kind and quality. God makes all things “new” and distinctive, new in nature, different from the usual, superior in value.

The apostle John got a glimpse of God’s new things: “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” John got to see beyond this fallen, broken creation. He got a preview of the perfect creation yet to come. You see, we all know this world—this first heaven and first earth—is tainted, imperfect, damaged, painful and broken. Tornados and earthquakes remind us of that, as do the cancer diagnosis, the shooting of an innocent girl, the strained relationship, the mob riot and so much more. But John got to see all of that—all the mess of sin and death—in the rear view mirror, passed away.

Then John adds this: “and the sea was no more.” Does that mean there will be no oceans or large bodies of water in the new heavens and new earth? Not likely. After all, in the first creation God did create the seas and all of the creatures that live and swim in them. He even called them good. After the Fall into sin, though, “the sea” comes to represent our real problem before God. “The sea” comes to stand for the deep chaos caused by sin—our sin. It stands for the fearful gulf that separates us human beings from God—the separation caused by our sin and our rebellion against Him.

That’s “the sea” that will not be in the new heavens and the new earth. When God makes all things new, He removes the deep, dark, chaotic gulf that separates us from Him. When “the sea” is gone, so is the fear, so is the terror, so is the pain that comes from being separated from our gracious giver God.

As John beholds this preview trailer of the new heavens and new earth, he also sees “the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.” But this is not a plat of land with criss-crossing avenues or winding streets, with buildings of different designs, shapes and sizes. No, that’s so old-creation. This city, this new Jerusalem is dressed and adorned as a bride. And she is ready for her man, her husband, her Lord, her Savior. You see, He is the one who loved her and gave Himself up for her. By His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection, He has sanctified her; He has cleansed her by the washing of water with the word. He is the One  who adorns and beautifies her. He presents her to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish (cf. Eph. 5:25-27). This city is you—God’s redeemed, faithful people, the Bride of Christ, the Church. This is how God makes all things new.

Parsons, Opus 49
You see, “the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” That’s really what we celebrate today—not just a new look, some new artwork, some new pipes and a new sound. We celebrate God dwelling with us fallen creatures. We celebrate God Himself—the Son of God—becoming flesh and dwelling among us full of grace and truth. We celebrate Him who sacrificed Himself at the great expense of His life’s blood. We celebrate that He gives the unending treasure and joy of life with Him in His new creation. We celebrate that we may look forward to that new heavens and new earth.

We certainly thank our gracious giver God for the ability to renovate our organ and sanctuary. What a gift! But let’s thank Him even more for His renovation of the universe through His Son. Let’s thank Him even more for His renovation of us through Jesus’ blood. After all, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore.” All the tears, all the disappointments, all the hurts, all the sins—either done by us or done to us—He will wipe away. All the loss, all the sadness, all the death, all the grief—He will erase and delete forever.

“Behold, I am making all things new,” the Father says from His throne. The Son accomplished this newness on His cross. The Spirit breathes this newness into you—when you are baptized, when you hear words of Absolution, when you eat and drink Jesus’ very Body and Blood. All this gives eager anticipation and fervent hope.

This hope is what our space and organ proclaim. Yes, they also preach our Savior making all things new. When we enter, we cannot miss the font. Baptism is our entry into Jesus and His Church, our entry into this new life of hope, this journey of life with Him all the way to eternity. As we go from font to altar, the images point the way to the new Jerusalem, the new creation:
  • An empty ark after its occupants entered a post-flood new world;
  • God’s rescued people crossing the Jordan River into the Promised land;
  • Water turned into the bountiful best wine of our Savior’s new creation;
  • Five lit lamps of five wise virgins as they wait for Him and get to be included in His cross-won wedding feast;
  • Our Savior’s promised return on the cloud when the trumpet blasts;
  • The great multitude gathered around His throne in the new heavens and new earth;
  • The new Jerusalem, the tree of life, the river of life, all provided by the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world and gives us His life;
  • And, finally, the Lamb and His bride, the Church, consummating their union with the grandest wedding banquet ever.
Wedding Banquet of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church
At this end of the space, we come to the throne of the Holy Trinity, the holy of holies of the Alpha and Omega Himself. We gather to hear Him in His Word and feast on Him in His Supper. Here we get a foretaste of the feast to come. Here we are made new over and over again. Here we enter heaven on earth. Here Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and He bears His new fruit in and through us. Here He renews us time and again until we get to see what John saw.

And the organ! What a day to dedicate a newly renovated organ—this day when the Church remembers Johann Sebastian Bach. And the prayer for remembering Kantor Bach expresses joy that we on earth may glimpse the beauty and richness of our Lord’s new creation through music.  So in this organ, old pipes refitted to sing better. Other pipes added to increase the chorus. All pipes rearranged and repositioned to blend their voices to greater effect. Did you know pipes have mouths and voices? Those mouths and voices serve and aid your mouths and voices to sing our Lord’s new song. “For He has done marvelous things! His right hand and His holy arm have worked salvation for Him” (Ps. 98:1). Whether we sing or listen as the organ sounds waft around us, we are drawn to our Lord who makes all things new. After all, music in a sacred space is new and distinctive, different from the usual. With it we learn to thank the Lord and sing His praise. With it we have hope all our days. With it our Lord prepares us for His new heavens and new earth.

Brothers and sisters of Hope, welcome home! How exciting to be back in our sacred space and hear our organ! To our other brothers and sisters with us today: thank you for joining in our joy. Thank you for your prayers, your support, and blending your voices with ours. While the new sights and sounds exhilarate us now, let’s all remember this: we haven’t seen or heard anything yet. Just wait until we get to see and hear our Lord’s  renovated heaven and earth! Amen.

28 March 2019

Homily for Lent 3 Evening Prayer (2019)

"A God Exposed"
Genesis 3:7-21; John 19:1-5, 23-24

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Jeff Hemmer and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Man!" Lenten series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

How things have changed. Naked once meant “innocent, selfless, and perfect.” The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed, Genesis 2 tells us. Shame is different from guilt. Shame includes an unhealthy preoccupation with oneself. It makes sense that Adam and his wife were unashamed even though they were naked. After all, they did not have that level of self-awareness that comes from sinful, selfish navel-gazing. But then, as soon as they sinned, their eyes were opened to a new reality. Sure, they knew good and evil, that knowledge their Creator had withheld purely for their good. But now they see that they are naked. Exposed. Vulnerable. And when their eyes turn toward themselves for the first time, they are ashamed. “Look at me,” Adam thinks. “Look at me,” his wife muses. But each of them is too preoccupied with himself or herself to notice the nakedness of the other. Sin does exactly that; it curves our gaze in on ourselves.

What could they do? Hide themselves, they hoped. Fig leaves hastily stitched together, before they fled from their Creator into the garden, were their garments of choice. But fig leaves cannot hide sin and guilt. So, after God exposes the couple in their ashamed hiding, gets them to acknowledge (though not confess) their sins, and doles out the curses to the two and the serpent, He then upgrades their wardrobes from bloodless fig leaves to garments made from skin. And they quickly learn that God was not wrong when He had threatened death the very moment they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. But He mercifully stayed their executions by shedding the blood of some innocent animal, an animal whose skin would cover the sin and shame of the man and woman. Their nakedness would be covered at the cost of an even deeper nakedness. After all, what could be more exposed than an animal stripped of its skin? And so the first death, the first bloodshed, happened at the hands of the Creator Himself. God granted these rebels the luxury of hiding their shame behind the innocence of another creature.

You never want to admit it, but this is the true nature of sin—your sin. Instead, you want to hide it behind pious-seeming fig leaves, but fig leaves cannot do the job. No matter what you do to delete your browsing history, you cannot hide your shame or obscure your guilt from the eyes of an all-knowing God. No matter how you try to couch your gossip in thinly veiled requests to “pray for her,” those words remain reputation-damaging slander against your neighbor, and they render you guilty before a Holy God. Even if you call it “just getting what’s rightfully yours,” it’s still greed. Excuses for why you can’t make it to the week-after-week Sunday morning Divine Service don’t allow you to receive the gifts that God delivers there. And those excuses cannot hide your sin. Claiming “Everyone else is doing it” is a very flimsy fig leaf. Repent of these and all other fig-leaf attempts to hide your sin and trick yourself into thinking that you are blameless.

Sin can only be covered with skin.

No one knows what that animal was in the garden, the one whose innocent skin the Creator peeled away in order to hide the exposed, vulnerable parts of Adam and his wife. But, given how immature offspring of sheep are often selected to be sacrifices on Passover, in the tabernacle, in the temple, it might be a good guess that the first animal to die, flayed to fend off death for mankind, was a lamb.

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” John the Baptist proclaimed about Jesus (John 1:29). Behold, the fulfillment of every lamb with its throat slit and its blood spilt to render it a sacrifice in the temple. Behold, the fulfillment of every Passover lamb roasted and completely consumed the night before God brought His people out of slavery. Behold, the Lamb who is not actually a lamb but a man. Behold God with skin.

Behold the man scourged by the Roman soldiers with their evil flagrum, designed to shred the skin from the back and sides of the person whipped, tearing away flesh so deep that the internal organs are nearly exposed. Behold the man on whose head the soldiers pressed the crown woven of thorns to ridicule Him as a madman for His belief in being King. Behold the man on whom they drape a soldier’s dirty purple robe to intensify the joke. Behold the man whom Pilate brought forth to say, “This is no king!” Here is God, with skin, clothed in the mockery of sinful men.

Behold the man who, when He was nailed to the cross, was stripped naked. Behold the man whose clothes the soldiers divided amongst themselves. Behold the man whose seamless tunic was the prize for which the godless gambled. Behold the man, God with skin, whose skin is shamefully exposed for all passersby to mock. Behold the bare naked God.

Behold the man who will bear your sin and shame. Behold the man who will suffer in your place. Behold the man whose nakedness answers for Adam’s. Behold the man naked and unashamed, with nothing to hide, with no sin of His own to clothe in garments and rationalization. Behold the man stripped bare to bear your own sins. All of them. The ones you try to hide and obscure, the ones you pretend are not there, the ones that cause you the greatest shame. All of them hang there on the cross with this man, this God, Jesus, naked and dying for you.

Behold the man, stripped naked so He might clothe you in new skin. Behold the man who will hide your sin with His own righteousness. Behold the man who gives you Himself to wear. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. Behold the man in whose washing of Holy Baptism you are clothed in the boundless perfection of His own righteousness. Behold the man who covers your sin with His own skin. Wear His garment. Wear Him. Your sin is gone. Your shame is removed. Your guilt is dissipated. Behold the man! Amen.

25 March 2019

Homily for Lent 3 - Oculi (2019)

"Victory in Mercy"
Luke 11:14-28

Jesus is no milquetoast, panty waste deity. He most certainly is merciful, but He is far from meek and mild Mr. Nice Guy. He absolutely is compassionate, but not in a wimpy, moisten-your-finger-and-stick-it-in-the-air sort of way. No, Jesus comes to fight. He comes to kick some tail. He comes to win the war and divide the spoils. He comes to be the manly Messiah, the soldier Savior. He comes to take away the armor of strongman Satan and divide his spoil. As Luther wrote in his Large Catechism, “Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, righteousness, and every good and blessing…has snatched us, poor lost creatures, from the jaws of hell, won us, made us free, and restored us to the Father’s favor and grace” (LC II:30).

I suppose that’s what makes Jesus such a polarizing figure. You see, there is no neutral position in relation to Jesus. Whoever is not with Him is against Him. Whoever does not gather with Him scatters. No middle ground. No compromise. No shades of grey. No “Let’s wait and see” or “The jury’s still out.”

Ask the crowd who watched Jesus cast a demon out of the mute man. Some of them thought and even said, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul”—by “prince Baal.” Really? The prince of demons casting out his own demons, his own soldiers? Jesus did not back down. He pushed back. “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls.” Not only that, Jesus also pushed back in a more personal way, to show them their folly. “If I cast out demons by and with the help of ‘prince Baal,’ then by whom do your own religious leaders cast them out?” Hmm? What do you have to say for yourselves? Your own beloved religious leaders—they cast out demons too, remember—they will be your judges. There’s no neutral position in relation to Jesus. You’re either with Him or against Him.

Now, if you’re with Him, you will realize that it’s by “the finger of God” that He casts out demons. That’s the same finger He used to thwart and flummox the magicians back in Egypt. Through Aaron’s staff God brought pesky gnats out of the Egyptian dust, but the magicians could not replicate this one. They had to admit that this was God’s finger at work—a mighty finger that shows God is no “Mr. Nice Guy” when it comes to combating Satan and overcoming his tyranny over us poor lost creatures.

You see, Satan is the strongman whom Jesus mentions. And if Jesus casts out demons by the finger of God, He is the “one stronger” who “attacks [the strong man] and overcomes him.” Remember, this is the same Jesus who had already taken on and defeated the tempter in the wilderness. This is the very Suffering Servant promised by Isaiah (53:12)—the One who will pour out His soul to death and thus divide the spoils of victory with the strong. So you’re either with Jesus in His victory over strongman Satan, or you’re still under the deceiver’s tyranny and chained up in his dungeon. There’s no neutral position, no in-between neutral zone.

How do you get from Satan’s camp of tyranny into the camp of our victorious Savior? Jesus Himself overcomes the strongman ultimately, finally, and once for all when He goes to the cross. Yes, that whole event appeared to everyone, especially strongman Satan, as the weakest of all weaknesses. What a foolish way to win a cosmic war—by dying! I mean, what “stronger man” would let himself be betrayed, beaten, falsely convicted, tortured, and nailed to a tree? How can a soldier who dies in battle claim victory over the enemy who slew him?

Only by God’s wisdom and mercy, of course! God’s glory is always to have mercy, and He shows it on a cross. This message of victory through a cross is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God…. It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1: 18, 21, 25). That victory was won on a cross, when our Lord disarmed the old evil foe. Then it was put on glorious display when our “stronger man” Savior rose from the grave—when our Savior divided the spoil of life for all.

And how do you claim this victory? How do you get your share of the spoils? Actually, you cannot “name it and claim it.” That’s impossible. Jesus’ victory, and being in Jesus’ camp, is complete, pure gift—undeserved, unearned, sheer mercy. Enter Holy Baptism. That’s when and where God qualifies you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. That’s when and where He applies the spoils of Jesus’ victory to you, delivering you from the domain of darkness and transferring you into the kingdom of His beloved Son. That’s when and where you receive redemption, the forgiveness of sins (cf. Col. 1:12-14).

And we witness another dividing of spoils this morning. Little Elinor Victoria has now been forgiven all her sins—past, present, and future. She has now been rescued from death and the devil. She has now received eternal salvation. What a glorious coup over strongman Satan! The wily serpent thought Elinor belonged to him from the moment she was conceived. And she did. We all did, until Jesus worked His victory in mercy for us through water and Word and thus divided the spoils to give us peace and hope. Even little ones born to Christian parents are conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity (cf. Ps. 51:5). Sure, they may have the benefit of hearing the Word of God from faithful mommies and daddies, both in the womb and after their birth. But they still need Jesus’ victory given to them and the spoils of life applied to them in the drowning and rising at the font. This is God’s own chosen, ordinary way of sweeping clean the house of every human soul.

So little Elinor Victoria becomes our role model—for all of us. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it” (Mk. 10:16, NKJV). Let all of us little children thus receive Jesus and His victory in mercy. And Elinor’s name even teaches this to us. Mom and Dad embraced the first name from the character Elinor in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Godparents got to put in their suggestions for the middle name. (Nice way to be part of the child’s life!) But let’s dig for the meanings. “Victoria”—the middle name—of course speaks of victory. And what of “Elinor”? It actually finds its roots in the Greek word eleos—mercy. So my granddaughter’s name, in translation, is “Mercy Victory,” or “Merciful Victory,” or, to fit with our theme, “Victory in Mercy.” It’s God’s mercy that gave her in the first place. It’s even more God’s mercy that she now gets to share in Jesus’ victory over strongman Satan.

Because of that victory—won on a cross and delivered through water and Word—her soul and your soul are “swept and put in order.” The crucial question now is: will her soul, as well your soul, remain swept and in order, or will it stand vacant, thus allowing the demon and his seven vagrant buddies to move back in and vandalize it again? Take Jesus’ beatitude in our text to heart: “Blessed...are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” That’s the only way to remain swept and put in order in Jesus’ merciful victory over “prince Baal.” It’s not just being in the Word; it’s having the Word being put in you—by means of words, and water, and bread and wine. It’s the only way to be imitators of God, as beloved children. It’s the only way to walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us. It’s the only way—for Elinor and for the rest of us—to be a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

So “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 136:1). In mercy our stronger man Savior has won the victory, snatching us from the jaws of hell, winning us back to Himself, making us free, and restoring us to the Father’s favor and grace. Amen.

21 March 2019

Homily for Lent 2 Evening Prayer (2019)

"A God Beaten"
Isaiah 52:13-53:12

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Jeff Hemmer and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Man!" Lenten series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

You need a God you can punch. You really do. You might not think so. You probably think you’re more pious than that. That’s not how you envision God, after all. You think you need a God who can hold your hand as He walks with you and talks with you in some ethereal garden. You think you need Him to hoist you onto His shoulders as you’re walking along the beach together, leaving only one set of footprints in the sand. You need a God, you suppose, like the statues that show Him playing soccer with little kids or towering over the little kids on the basketball court. But you don’t. You need a God whose lip you can fatten with a well-placed right cross.

This is the human predicament. Since Adam’s rebellion in the garden, since he fearfully fled and hid himself at the sound of God walking in the garden, mankind has been alienated from God. Nothing had changed in God, of course. But everything changed in man. He sought to be his own god, and in so doing, he turned away from his Creator, from the source of his life. Only a dying Adam would flee from a perfectly good Creator.

Since then, rebellion has been fallen man’s plight—our plight. Enmity with a holy God is all that sinners like us have. Sinners hate God. He is holy. They are not. His Law is an affront to their do-it-yourself divinity schemes. He calls His people to be holy just as He is holy. Jesus demanded perfect righteousness, just as the heavenly Father is righteous. No matter what you score on the righteousness self-assessment you take in your head every morning, you simply are not—righteous or good, that is. The Law is absolute. The Commandments allow no wiggle room, not for even a moment, not from even the least little part of the Law. So Adam and Eve were banished from the garden, alienated from God, on their own.

It’s little wonder that people prefer a god of their own making, a Jesus of their own imaginations, over against the Holy God of Scripture. After all, that God, the true God, demands that your holiness perfectly match His. A good-teacher Jesus, or a life-coach Jesus, or a model-CEO Jesus, or a moral-example Jesus, or a nice-guy Jesus, or a guru Jesus is not an affront to your sinful nature. And that kind of Jesus would not have been struck in the face, verbally and physically bludgeoned, nailed to a cross, and killed.

But that god cannot save you. He’s fake. Adam does not need a god who encourages him to do better next time. He does not need a mulligan. He has eaten. He has rebelled. He is wholly other from a Holy God. He needs a God who can plead his case, a God who will take up his cause, a God who will bear his flesh, a God who will do in Adam’s place what Adam failed to do. He needs a holy God who will give His holiness as a gift. He needs a God with human flesh who keeps the Law perfectly. He needs a God with a face he can punch.

Unless He can bear your hatred, this God cannot save you. Unless He can receive your blows, this God cannot bear your sins. So behold the man. God has become man. Jesus is a God you can punch. He has drawn near, not in wrath, but in mercy. Behold the man who has come to seek and save lost human beings. In Jesus, God walks in the midst of His creation again. And He desires to draw all people to Himself, out of their fearful hiding, out of their sin and their shame. Behold the man! Behold, God is man!

Now the Creator’s “Where are you, Adam?” has become “Why do you strike Me?” When asked about His teaching, Jesus answers, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” So Annas commands one of the officers to strike Him in the face. Behold, this is your God. Behold the man Jesus. Behold, God has a face that can be struck. Behold, God has a back that can be scourged. Behold, God has hands that can be bound so that He can be sent to Caiaphas.

This is good. Behold the man who comes to allow Himself to be struck by the very sinners He seeks to redeem. Behold the man, the God you can punch, who can bear your striking, smiting, scourging, and hating. Behold the servant who will suffer in your place. Behold the One despised and rejected by men, truly despised, whom no one esteemed. Behold, this One who can be struck in the face has borne your griefs and carried your sorrows. Behold the man who is stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted in your place. Behold Him pierced for your transgressions, crushed for your iniquities. Behold the man upon whom is the chastisement, the punishment that has brought you peace. Behold the wounds by which you are healed.

In His flesh, Jesus bears all of mankind’s sinful, rebellious hatred of God. He receives the blows you would have lined up behind the official to be next in line to deliver. All this He gladly suffers. For you.

His holiness is a gift He gives, not to those who deserve it, but to those least deserving. He has borne all of man’s hatred of God, and worse, all the Father’s punishment for man’s rebellion, and He has answered for them with His life, with His face, with His cheek that bore the striking in this kangaroo court.

The solution to your hatred of God, to your desire to punch Him in the face, is not to clench your fists, bite your tongue, and abstain. The solution is to confess, to speak in unison with the Law what you know to be true. Your flesh is sinful. It does not desire God. And then, even though you would have raised a hand against Him, Jesus sends His officials, His pastors, His men with His word of Absolution. And when you confess your sin, He is faithful and just, merciful and compassionate. The pastor raises a hand, not to strike, but to soothe. He places his hand upon your head and pronounces the verdict of a Holy God: In the stead and by the command of the God-man who bore these and all your sins, I forgive you.

So Jesus turns the other cheek. God turns from wrath to mercy. Behold the man who would rather endure shameful abuse at the hands of sinners than allow sinners to have to answer for their own sins. In Him, you are made holy and whole, a new man. Behold the man. Amen.

14 March 2019

Homily for Lent 1 Evening Prayer (2019)

"A God Who Prays"
Hebrews 7:20-28; John 17

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Jeff Hemmer and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Man!" Lenten series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

It must have been quite a sight—Aaron, the new high priest, in his vestments. I wonder if the Israelites protested at the elaborate details and the exorbitant expense of making vestments for Aaron. Did they have to scuttle the plans until the voters could approve of the design and the expense? Did they put it out for bids to see if someone had a stash of pure gold or blue dye so that they might come in under budget, and then put the rest in an CD with LCEF? “I don’t know why one priest needs to be dressed in something way more elaborate and costly than anything we ourselves wear. Does Aaron think he’s better than we are?” “When my grandkids became priests in Egypt, they had to save up all their own money to purchase vestments; no congregation was buying those for them!” “I don’t see why we have to use all this gold; tin would look almost as nice and for a tenth of the price!”

However, when God commanded the vestments Aaron would wear as he was consecrated high priest, His orders were strangely particular. First the ephod, made of gold, with two gold shoulder pieces, each with an engraved onyx stone with six names of the sons of Israel on it, joined together with blue and scarlet yarns and fine linen. Second the breastpiece, matching the ephod, of gold, with blue and scarlet yarns and fine linens, with twelve different stones set in gold settings, and two gold rings to attach it to the ephod. Then, the robe, all blue, with blue, purple and scarlet pomegranates on the hem, interspersed with golden bells. Next, the engraved gold plate attached with a blue cord to the front of Aaron’s turban. Finally, a cloak, the turban, and a sash of fine needlework. All these Aaron is to wear so that when he presides as high priest, he does not die. (see Exodus 28:6–39). Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Israelite high priests!

It’s hard to discern the spiritual meaning of such apparel. Clothing is unavoidably physical. And yet, despite the beauty of those vestments, no matter how real the priesthood of Aaron, his sons, and the Levites, they were merely shadows of something more real, of a more permanent priesthood, of a High Priest who serves eternally. Aaron’s vestments, like a pastor’s vestments, are a sign of the beauty of the office he occupies—an office that does not truly belong to him. He merely stands in between God and His people. The vestments do not signify Aaron or the pastor; they signify Christ. The office is beautiful because of Christ, no matter the ugliness or lack of good taste of the men in the office.

Aaron is no longer the one to intercede between God and men. Nor am I. But behold the man! There is One who intercedes, One who is a Priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek, the priestly King of righteousness. Behold the man who is also God—He intercedes for men before God. Behold God who has become man and who, as man, intercedes for us men.

Who wants an intercessor, a priest, a go-between, though? A go-between implies you are insufficient for the task of getting yourself to God. An intercessor implies that you cannot climb the ladder of heaven to plead your own case. Jesus taking on human flesh to be an eternal Priest between men and God implies that you, on your own, are not good enough. You need someone else to take up your case. Behold the man!

Because, if you’re honest with yourself, you are not good enough. Who seeks for God as he should? Whose thoughts are undistracted in prayer? Whose hatred for—okay, call it annoyance with—his brother does not interfere with his prayer? Who loves God perfectly enough to be able to approach Him in prayer? Who keeps the Sabbath perfectly, hears the Word of God gladly and regularly? Who uses the name of God correctly, never letting an “Oh, my God” slip when things don’t go according to plan? And who calls upon that name regularly? Who? No one. Well, at least not you. You are a sorry excuse for your own priest. So behold the man!

Jesus is the perfect High Priest. Sinful mankind cannot approach a holy God. We need someone to take our place, someone to plead our case. Behold the man! Jesus has taken your flesh. He will take up your cause before His heavenly Father. Behold the man! In Jesus, God has a voice that He can raise before the Father. He has hands He can fold in prayer. He has a head He can bow correctly and reverently. Behold the man who prays perfectly. Behold the High Priest whose office, whose role, is to pray for you. Behold the man who prays for you without ceasing.

Jesus has hands to raise in prayer. He has eyes so that He can lift them up. He has lips that can shape sounds and syllables. He has vocal cords that can craft words His Father will hear. He is man so that He can intercede for men. And for what does He pray? For His disciples. For His Church. For you. Because sinners cannot approach a holy God, Jesus intercedes. Because rebellious man’s petitions will fall on deaf ears, the only obedient Son of God has taken flesh in order to pray for you, to give voice to your prayers, to pray for you.

Since you cannot keep yourself from sin, from idolatry, from rebellion, Jesus prays that the Father would keep you: that He would keep you in His name put upon you in the waters of Holy Baptism; that He would keep you from the evil one, as we ask in the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus, as perfect God and man in one person prays for you. Behold the man who prays for you constantly before His heavenly Father.

So, in Jesus, who prays for you without end, you are no longer rebels against your heavenly Father. You are no longer sinful aliens. You are no longer unable to bend the Father’s ear with your petitions. You are in Jesus, and Jesus prays perfectly. And your prayers are perfect, not because you pray regularly or correctly or even that well, but because you are in Jesus. Because Jesus lifts up His hands perfectly in prayer, so do you. Because Jesus lifts up His eyes perfectly in prayer, so do you. Because Jesus’ voice is perfectly attuned for prayer, so is yours. Because Jesus is the man who intercedes for the rest of mankind, you have hope. You have a Lord who prays for you. You have a man who redeems men. You have the God who became man for you. You have a Savior. You have the man on the cross. Behold the man, the Priest who bids you to pray and who prays for you without ceasing. Amen.

11 March 2019

Homily for Lent 1 - Invocabit (2019)

Victory Over Temptation
Matthew 4:1-11

Satan tempts and tests Jesus, but Jesus wins the eternal victory over all temptation. For you! Today’s episode in the life of Jesus replays and reverses the temptation of our first parents in paradise. There the tempter enticed Eve with the forbidden fruit and the prospect of being “like God.” Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise” (Gen. 3:6). Adam and Eve both gave in to the temptation to be more spiritual than physical, attempted to be “like God,” and plunged God’s good world into sin, chaos, unbelief, despair, and death.

But our Lord Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, came to reverse this Fall. He came to do battle with Satan, win back God’s creation, and restore you to life with God. On this First Sunday in Lent, we see two powerful princes engaging each other in battle. It’s the prince of this world vs. the King of heaven. They engage in a brutal battle over you, your life, and your soul. Today we see how Jesus wins the victory over sin, temptation, and the devil for you.

Each of us must endure a variety of temptations. Some may be easy to resist, but others hold you as captive as a prisoner of war. And those temptations wear down your resistance until finally you break down and give in. So, as we begin the season of Lent, here’s your invitation to enroll in Jesus’ school for training warriors. Today you are beginners as you battle your temptations, but come Easter you will be victorious, without any merit or worthiness in you.

In this lifelong struggle against temptations we learn to pray: “Lead us not into temptation.” And you know what this means: “God tempts no one. We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful nature may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice. Although we are attacked by these things, we pray that we may finally over come them and win the victory.”

We constantly fight against three things. As Luther said in the Large Catechism: “Temptation…is of three kinds: of the flesh, the world, and the devil.” (LC III:101). What kinds of temptations bedevil us under these headings?

First, Luther says, “We live in the flesh and carry the old creature around our necks; it goes to work and lures us daily into unchastity, laziness, gluttony and drunkenness, greed and deceit, into acts of fraud and deception against our neighbor…. All this often wounds and inflames even an innocent heart.” (LC, III:102)

How does this play out in your life? Yes, you have “the old creature” hanging around your neck. Day by day, hour by hour that little sinner that lives inside you lures you into many sins. You may be lazy as you spend countless hours in front of the TV or keeping up with Facebook. You may get up and go to work with frustration raging in your heart or fatigue grinding you to the bone. Maybe you have one too many drinks after dinner, or maybe your gluttony shows in eating more than you need, or buying those new clothes just because they’re “in” this year.

Just as our sinful nature tempts us, the world also entices us. Luther says the world “assails us by word and deed and drives us to anger and impatience. In short, there is in it nothing but hatred and envy, enmity, violence and injustice, perfidy, vengeance, cursing, reviling, slander, arrogance, and pride, along with fondness for luxury, honor, fame, and power. For no one is willing to be the least, but everyone wants to sit on top and be seen by all.” (LC, III:103)

Sounds like Luther is describing the politicians, the pundits, the Hollywood elites, and many others in news stories of our day! The world despises you because you love and confess Jesus. The world would much rather teach you to follow your own pride and seek your own fame. And, like little pieces of filet mignon, you and I baste in the poisonous juices of this proud, arrogant, evil, corrupt world. You are constantly tempted to get along with the world, and most of the time that means downplaying your faith and confession of Christ. It’s often expressed in the slogan, “Can’t we all just get along?” when people want to downplay religious differences and keep Jesus on the sideline of life.

The third way we are tempted, Luther says, is by the devil himself. “Then comes the devil, who baits and badgers us on all sides, but especially exerts himself where the conscience and spiritual matters are concerned. His purpose is to make us scorn and despise both the Word and the works of God, to tear us away from faith, hope, and love, to draw us into unbelief, false security, and stubbornness, or, on the contrary, to drive us to despair, denial of God, blasphemy, and countless other abominable sins.” (LC, III:104).

Whenever you are tempted to think and feel that God is not good—even unfair—you can be sure that the devil is firing his assault rifles at you. Whenever you treat God’s Word lightly and think that you really don’t need to read and study it at home, the devil is trapping you in his minefield. Whenever you flex your spiritual muscles and think that you don’t need to confess your specific sins—to God or privately to your pastor—the devil has made a successful strike to keep you from enjoying Jesus and His blood-bought forgiveness. Remember what St. Peter said: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Temptations all around, some like hidden terrorist snipers and others like suicide car bombers causing as much damage as they can! “As long as we remain in this vile life, we are attacked, hunted, and harried on all sides.” (LC, III:105)

But don’t despair! Let today’s Gospel of Jesus conquering temptation give you comfort, joy, and hope. Satan entices hungry Jesus with food, but Jesus relies on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.” When Satan uses God’s Word to lure Jesus into showing off His trust in God, Jesus refuses to test the Lord His God. And then Satan tempts Jesus with immediate success in His mission of saving the world, but Jesus refuses to misplace His worship. “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.”

Notice how Jesus resisted the devil simply by using God’s Word. You too can resist Satan and His hellish temptations by hearing, reading, marking, learning and taking God’s Word to heart. The more you cling to God in His Word, the more your Lord Jesus arms and equips you in this battle. “For 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. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Eph. 6:12-13)

But Jesus does more than just give you good strategies for defeating the devil. He actually wins the victory for you and in your place. Not only does He win the temptation battle in the wilderness, but He also wins the whole cosmic war by agonizing and bleeding and suffocating on the cross. You don’t need to give in to Satan’s hollow, empty promises, because Jesus is your daily bread, His victory is your success, and He does reign over the whole world by His cross-won grace and mercy.

So today Jesus draws you to God’s Word as God’s food. As you hear the Gospel you are strengthened to resist temptations and you are forgiven when you fall. Through the washing of your Baptism you are made the “sons of God,” and that strengthens you to deflect the doubts that Satan would try to sow in you. And through Christ’s Body and Blood on the altar, you are nourished and fortified to trust His forgiveness and resist all temptations.

Luther said, “We Christians must be armed and expect every day to be under continuous attack.” (LC, III:109) He also said, “We cannot prevent the birds from flying over our heads, but we can prevent them from building nests in our hair.” Your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has conquered the old satanic foe for you. When you pray to God that you may finally overcome temptations and win the victory, remember that Jesus has already answered your prayer. In His gory, bloody death, He won the eternal victory for you. In His life-giving, soul-strengthening water, Word, and meal, He sustains you in His victory over temptation. Amen.

07 March 2019

Homily for Ash Wednesday (2019)

"A God Who Hungers"
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Jeff Hemmer and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Man!" Lenten series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

“When you fast,” Jesus says, “do not be like the hypocrites.” Not if, but when you fast. And this from the Sermon on the Mount—everyone’s favorite good teachings from Jesus that they’ve never read. Because once you read it, you realize Jesus isn’t a good teacher. He’s an unyielding taskmaster. Sure, the Beatitudes are nice. Maybe. Until He starts talking about persecutions. But then He warns His disciples not to relax the Law by even one tiny dot. Instead, Jesus ratchets up the Law—“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” That leaves you and everyone else slack-jawed and stupefied. What a legalist! What a hard-nosed dictator with the Commandments! And then Jesus’ punchline: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). That’s what precedes “when you give to the needy…when you pray…when you fast.” Do not be like the hypocrites.

You can get behind prayer. Maybe even giving to the poor. But fasting? It’s just weird. It seems too physical to be spiritual. It’s too concerned with what you eat—or don’t eat—to be a Christian activity. Weight Watchers clients, yes. Christians, no. Not Lutheran Christians, anyway. Not people liberated from the Law, basking in the glorious freedom of the Gospel. Not people liberated from the works-righteous, earn-your-ticket-to-paradise Roman Catholics with their fish fries and their days of fasting.

And yet, “when you fast,” Jesus said. Later in Matthew’s account, the disciples of John the Baptist came to Jesus to ask why they fasted and the Pharisees fasted but Jesus’ disciples did not fast. Jesus answered, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (9:15). Then they will fast. After Jesus the Bridegroom is taken away. As in now. “When you fast,” Jesus said.

Fasting, oddly enough, involves hunger. Stumbling out of the Knights of Columbus hall after cramming fried cod and French fries into your gullet, buzzed on Coors Lite, is the opposite of fasting. Fasting means abstaining—not just from diet sodas or chocolate bars for forty days, but from food. Properly done, fasting leaves your belly grumbling and aching for just a morsel. This is why fasting seems too physical. What does a rumbling belly have to do with your piety, with your Christian devotion?

“Behold the man!”; Jesus, the God-man. Before the jeering crowd, Pontius Pilate trotted out a freshly flogged Jesus wearing a crown meant to inflict suffering and a faux-royal robe intended to invite ridicule. As he did this, Pilate preached an unintentional, yet profound, sermon: “Behold the man!” (John 19:5). We’ll take that advice. We’ll do just that this season of Lent: “Behold the man!”

In Jesus, God is man. The Word has become flesh. Like you. God is your Brother. The One begotten of the Father from all eternity is now the One born of the Virgin Mary. And your Lord. Behold the man! Just like you, He has skin and bones, blood vessels and lymph nodes, teeth and hair, heart and lungs, blood and saliva, hands, feet, eyes, lips, tongue, stomach, spleen, and epiglottis. Behold the man! He eats. He breathes. He walks. He sleeps. He prays. He weeps. He laughs. He bleeds. He dies. He rises. He ascends. He sits. And He will come. He is completely human and completely divine, two perfect natures in one indivisible person. He has fingerprints and DNA. Behold the man, Jesus, your Brother.

Unlike you, though, He has no sin. His human nature is perfect, unspoiled by Adam’s rebellion. Because of sin, you are subhuman. But not Jesus. Oh, He was tempted in every way, just as you are, yet He is without sin. His desires were never distorted into lust, greed, coveting, or idolatry. Behold the man! Like unblemished Adam at the close of day six of creation, when God declared His handiwork “very good,” Jesus is as human as human can be, as human as He intends to make you in the resurrection.

So why fasting? Behold the man! Jesus fasted. The Gospel for this coming Sunday places Jesus in the wilderness, after His Baptism, fasting for forty days, being tempted by the devil. This is not the faux fasting of feasting on fried fish or giving up some pet vice for just a season. For forty days, Jesus ate nothing. Matthew and Luke simply report that He was hungry. You don’t say!

Actually, it should not surprise us that God hasn’t eaten for forty days. Eating is not something natural to God. But, behold the man! Behold the God who took human flesh in the virgin womb of a Jewish girl. Behold the unborn baby, being nourished for nine months in His temporary, earthly throne room. Behold the crying infant, rooting for the breast to fill his newborn stomach. Behold the toddler to whom His parents introduced new foods, all of which He had created. Behold the boy, eating the Passover lamb with His extended family. Behold the man, God in human flesh, who needs to eat in order to live. And now, behold the man, who has not eaten for 40 days—that’s 960 hours, or 57,600 minutes. And you were thinking the time since your last snack was growing a little long.

Behold the man, the incarnate God, with lips, teeth, tongue, and taste buds that have not savored a morsel for forty days. With an esophagus, stomach, and intestines that have been empty and aching for forty days. Behold the man who fasts for you. The First Adam sinned by eating. The Second Adam will fast before enduring an onslaught of temptation, and withstanding every one. Behold the man who fasts and who assumes His disciples will also fast.

Like fasting, Lent is weird. Who has time or patience for a season of repentance, for subdued joy, for bottling up our “Alleluias” until we can uncork them and get punch drunk with Easter jubilation? Who wants to explain to the Wednesday-evening pinochle club that they won’t be around for the next six weeks? Who wants to give away more money to the poor from their already penny-pinched budget? Who wants to devote more time for prayer from their way-too-busy schedule? Yes, Lent is weird.

Like fasting, Lent is also oddly physical. Germans call this penitential season before Easter Fastenzeit, literally “fasting time.” The disciplines of Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—are designed to guard you against that age-old temptation of being too spiritual. That temptation is as old as creation. When the serpent seduced Adam and his wife to give in to the spiritual desire to be like God, knowing good and evil, over the physical prohibition against eating from that one tree, they set the pattern for the rest of us. We, too, prefer the spiritual over the material. After God settled the Israelites in the Promised Land, they quickly abandoned the very physical worship of Yahweh alone. They traded the earthy sacrifices offered in the Jerusalem temple for the more spiritual, less-precise worship of the Baals and the Asherah. And Nicodemus cracked a joke that true religion could never be so physical as to involve rebirth. And the Sadducees concocted their ridiculous story about the woman who married one of seven brothers to prove that physical resurrection is impossible. And your children insist that they are spiritual but not religious. And you give your “amen” when your friends tell you, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” All of that is an attempt to substitute safer, spiritual platitudes for real, physical, fleshly realities. And it’s all sin.

Give up your pious, hyper-spiritual pretensions. God is not like that. The incarnation has been His plan from before the first words of creation. Behold the man! You have a body and you have the complete inability to use it properly, as your Creator intended. But in Jesus, you have hope. Here is your God: a man, your Brother. Behold the man!

Jesus fasted. For you. He is a God who can eat—who needs to eat—so that He can abstain from eating, and endure the pains of hunger to deny His flesh what it desires. For you. For your tendency to prefer the spiritual over the physical, for your fake spirituality that leads you to indulge the flesh with its desires, both good and evil. Jesus endured temptation and never sinned, so that He could be the man to redeem all other men, the Creator who would ransom His creatures, God who could give His life for sinners, for you.

So fast freely. Fast to discipline and chasten your flesh. Fast so that you learn to control your belly. That will give you discipline to control the other parts of your flesh as well. Fast and let the rumbling of hunger teach you that your belly is not your God. Pray until you realize that your schedule is not your God, your time is not your own, and your daily bread does not come from the work of your own hands. Give alms, tithe, give offerings, and give money until you know down in your gut that money is not the source of your security or happiness. Behold the man who fasted, who prayed, and who gave alms perfectly for you. His rumbling stomach, His hunger pangs, are your comfort in temptation. His flesh is your hope. Where you have failed, He succeeded. Behold the man!

And then break the fast. Eat and drink at His altar. Eat and drink His Body and Blood veiled in bread and wine for the forgiveness of your sins. Behold the man, with His flesh as true food and His blood as true drink! Let the growling of your belly in Lent and anytime lead you here, to the place where the Lord bids you to fast and hunger no more. Here is food that endures to eternal life, drink that quenches your deepest thirst. Here at His altar is the man who gives Himself for you to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, for the enabling of your fervent love for one another, for the salvation of your flesh. In bread, in wine, behold the man! Amen.

05 March 2019

Homily for Quinquagesima (2019)

"The Seeing Blind Man"
Luke 18:31-43

And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. It’s the simplest prayer you can pray or sing. Yet those two simple Greek words, or three simple English words, communicate more about God than we can imagine. We pray them at least twice in our liturgy every week. At the beginning of the Divine Service, we sing, “Lord have mercy,” several times. Then later in the service, just before receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament, we sing: “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” Kyrie eleison. The words roll off your tongue like you’ve been saying them your whole life. What do they tell you about who you are as sinner and who Jesus is as Savior?

First, we hear about Jesus taking His disciples aside to tell them what’s about to happen to Him. He will be handed over to the Gentiles, He will be spat upon and mocked, He will suffer as a common sinner, and He will die the death of a criminal. Then He will rise. This is God’s immediate future. Even though Jesus’ disciples had been with Him for over two years by this time, they still couldn’t hear what He had to say. They still couldn’t understand that Jesus’ death was the whole purpose of His life. The point of Jesus’ life was hidden from them. But it would be revealed in the faith of a blind man sitting alongside the road.

Before we meet this blind man, let’s pause here for a moment. How often is it that people come to church, attend Sunday School or Bible class for years or even their whole lives, and somehow miss the point? We like to think that just going through the motions is enough. But it’s not. God is very clear in His Word—going through the motions is not the same as faith. Remember, Jesus’ disciples had been with Him every step of the way. They had seen the healings. They had heard the teachings. Some had even seen Him transfigured before their very eyes, receiving a glimpse of divine glory. Time and time again He had predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. This was the point! Yet Jesus’ disciples didn’t get it. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would eat and drink with sinners. They couldn’t believe that He was going to die. They couldn’t believe, even though it was right in front of their faces!

This is true in our own lives as well. How many of us know people—children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, cousins, even friends—who grew up in the Church? They came to God’s house. They heard the Word. They were baptized. They feasted on Jesus’ Body and Blood. Yet they never got it. They fell away from the faith. Like the seed that fell upon the rock or among the thorns from last week, many come week after week, but it’s like they are sitting in a different place. They don’t hear the simple truth of Law & Gospel: you are a sinner, and Jesus comes to save sinners just like you. It’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it? Not too complicated. Jesus wants you to be in His house so that He can forgive your sins and give you His life. This was the message the disciples couldn’t get. This is the message that we sinners need to get again and again, week after week.

Let’s move on. Jesus travels on the road to Jericho. As He does, a crowd of onlookers follows Him. A blind man alongside the road hears the crowd and asks what’s going on. We learn from Mark’s account that this man’s name is Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus hears from the crowd that Jesus is passing by. When he hears this, Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Kyrie eleison! It’s the cry of every sinner who needs Jesus. It’s the cry of every soul weighed down by the cares of this life, by the trials and sorrows we all face as sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. It’s the cry that does not try to manipulate God or demand our own way. It’s the cry of faith. Lord, have mercy on me!

This blind man, upon hearing that Jesus was close by, cried out to the Son of David for mercy. And notice that this cry continued, even after the crowds tried to shut him up. Bartimaeus cried out because he knew that God would grant him mercy. He knew that God loved him with an everlasting love. He knew that God would hold him in the palm of His hand and would keep him forever. All the pressure from the crowds to shut him up didn’t matter. All the scrutiny from curious onlookers didn’t mean a thing. All the socially popular and politically correct pleas to be quiet did not deter him. He knew that Jesus would heal him. He knew that he would see new life in Christ. That meant more than fitting in with the crowd.

Lord, have mercy. What does it mean? It means first of all that Bartimaeus recognized Jesus as Lord. His faith came from hearing the message of Jesus—that Jesus is God and that He alone has power over life and death. Because of this, Bartimaeus can cry out to this Lord for mercy. He is asking that God not give him what he deserves. Bartimaeus knows that he deserves the blindness of his eyes just as we deserve the blindness and other bitter fruits that sin brings. But Bartimaeus prays that God would open his eyes in sight even as God opens our eyes of faith to see His mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Bartimaeus isn’t afraid to ask God for what he needs. Are you? Are you afraid to ask God for forgiveness? Are you afraid to ask God to be with you in times of trouble? Are you afraid that God will abandon you when you need Him most? Are you afraid that God’s ways and teachings will make you unpopular and unliked by people around you?

Don’t be afraid. Today we also  hear the “great love chapter” from 1 Corinthians 13. It’s one of the most beloved chapters in the Bible. But what’s often missed about this chapter is that Paul is describing, not just any love, but God’s love. This is the depth of God’s love. His love is so deep and wide that it will engulf the sinner—you—in a flood of forgiveness. This love of God will put you back together when you are beaten and broken by sin and its oppression. This love of God does not look for the easy way out. No, God’s love goes the very hard road, the road to Calvary and death on a cross. That’s God’s love. That’s how far His love will go to save you.

Psalm 77(:14-15a) exclaims, “You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples. You with your arm redeemed your people.” That’s who God is. And what’s the greatest wonder of all? It’s not that Jesus healed Bartimaeus’ blindness; it’s that He gives you faith. That’s the great miracle of God. He gives you the faith to journey with Him to Calvary and death, faith to receive the new life of His resurrection, all so that you may journey with Him to life eternal.

So we in the Church hold up the faith of Bartimaeus as a wonderful example to hear and follow. Bartimaeus didn’t try to make sense of things. He didn’t complain to God that his life was so miserable or that so-and-so had it so much better than he did. Blind Bartimaeus looked at Jesus and cried the only words that make any sense at all: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

This week we begin our Lenten journey to the cross. This is a time of deep reflection for the Christian. This is the time when you need to look at your sin through the lens of the Law and realize the depth of your sinfulness and depravity. But this is also the time when you get to look to Jesus, the author and perfecter of your faith, who for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, scorning its shame. This is the time when we all learn to cry out with the Church of all ages: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

It is no accident that we pray these words right before receiving Christ’s Body and Blood in the Supper. After all, it’s right here, at Jesus’ Holy Table, that we receive God’s mercy more than any other place. It’s here that God’s mercy is poured out for you in the cup of His salvation. Oh, taste and see how gracious the Lord is, blessed is the man who trusts in Him. Come to the Lord’s Table, and receive a foretaste of His mercy that knows no bounds. Amen.

18 February 2019

Homily for Septuagesima (2019)

"The Wages of Grace"
Matthew 20:1-16

You and I are called to work in the Lord’s vineyard. We are called to work at different times of the day of this world. We are called to work for the wages of God’s grace.

Today we enter the mini-season of Pre-Lent. We have seen the goodness of God in Christ in the Babe of Bethlehem. We have witnessed our Lord revealing Himself as God in man made manifest. Now we turn our attention to a season of serious reflection on Christ’s teaching and kingdom.

The scene in today’s Gospel reading sounds a lot like the time of the Great Depression. People who lived through the Great Depression remember the days of standing idle outside of factories and offices, just hoping that a foreman would come out in the morning and say, “I need people to work today.” If you were fortunate, you would be told how much you’d be paid at the end of the work day. Then you could take it or leave it. If you refused the low pay, someone more desperate than you would gladly accept the job.

But rarely would you refuse. Any job was a good job. If you worked hard, and if the foreman liked you and your work, then you might get invited back the next day, or the next time they needed workers. The dollar or two that you earned might have been the first cash you had seen in weeks. In those days no one assumed they had a “right” to health care, or paid vacation, or retirement benefits, or even “income equality.” You took what you could get, even if it meant you had to leave your friend outside, standing idle in the market.

By our current standards, this was a time of “unfair labor practices.” Men and women did not get what they thought they deserved for their labor. And this was often true. Some employers certainly took advantage of the high unemployment to hire people for a pittance.

Yet there have also been times when people got paid very well, and still they thought that they were underpaid. Even today, when you ask someone if they are getting paid enough, I doubt they will say, “Oh, yes, I’m getting paid a lot. In fact, I think I’m getting paid more than I’m worth.” Just doesn’t happen, right?

Most people—no matter how well they are paid—will complain that they aren’t being paid nearly enough, especially compared to someone else. That’s envy for you. It’s always the other person who’s overpaid and underworked, and it’s always you who are overworked and underpaid.

In God’s vineyard—the spiritual realm—things work much differently. The ultimate reward is living with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, along with all His saints. But you cannot earn this “reward” with hours of labor or “community service.” The wage is God’s forgiveness, and you receive it only by His generous grace in Christ.

So, let’s picture ourselves as Jesus mentions in the parable: as unemployed, doing no works that profit us spiritually. After all, by birth, we stand idle outside God’s Vineyard. And our old Adam continually seeks to stray outside of God’s Vineyard.

But then in His kindness, our Lord Jesus comes to us and arranges for us to have profitable labor in His Vineyard. First, He announces the wage of His grace. God gives benefits for any and all who labor in His Vineyard—eternal life at His banquet table and the resurrection of our bodies on the Last Day. Like workers during the Great Depression, you and I get to view God’s call to work as an undeserved invitation to receive wages that save our lives in desperate times. So, don’t think you deserve to work for Him. And don’t think you can bargain with Him for wages or perks.

You see, you will receive all the “wages” God delights to give you. And you will not receive any more or any less than your fellow workers. God does not give one person half-pay and the other person full-pay. No, He gives only full-pay, and He gives that same full-pay to all workers in His Vineyard. And what is that “full pay”? Forgiveness of sins and eternal life through Christ Jesus, and resurrection of your mortal flesh. There’s no way you can earn a greater or lesser “reward” than that!

So, if you have worked your whole life for the Lord, do not expect your Master to reward you with extra, even though you’ve borne the heat and burden of the day. Instead, be ready to receive joyfully your fellow sinners who come to faith late in life. Also, don’t look around the vineyard of the congregation and think, “I do more for my church than him or her! Who has worked harder, or longer, or at more events than I have?”

Put such thoughts as far from you as the east is from the west. The only worker who truly got what he deserved was sent away empty. Everyone who works in the Lord’s Vineyard is “overpaid,” always receiving more than he or she deserves. Yes, your labor in the vineyard of Jesus’ Church is just that—undeserved wages of His grace and mercy. Thank Him that He has placed you in this world and in His Church to work for Him. Rejoice that you labor long and hard to love the Lord your God with all your heart, strength, soul, and mind. Count it all joy when you love your neighbor as yourself … even when you get no earthly reward for your work!

And what happens if you fail at your work? You know you will. When you look at God’s Commandments, His “job description” for truly loving Him and your neighbor, you realize that you have failed to keep them fully. You always do. You always will. But don’t despair. You and I will never perfectly perform the work the Lord gives us to do. Yet God is still kind and merciful. He still calls you to labor in His vineyard. He still rewards you with the wage of His grace: forgiveness of sins and life with Him both now and into eternity.

He has washed you in the water connected to His Word. His Spirit lives in you by the free gift of your Baptism. He feeds you week after week with His own Body and Blood to sustain you in your work for Him. So, when you do fail to labor as you should in loving God and loving your neighbor, your merciful Lord of the Vineyard still rewards you with forgiveness, resurrection, and life eternal.

When you fail to love your family and friends as you should, “Return to the Lord your God, for He is gracious and merciful.” Ask Him to make you a profitable worker day by day. If you have neglected your family and friends for years, or if you have borne the heavy toil of loving the people God puts in your life, remember that Jesus rewards with a feast of eternal life at His banquet table. And you get a foretaste of that feast here today!

Perhaps you fail to labor constantly as God wants. Perhaps you pridefully look down on your fellow workers, thinking you’ve done more than they have. Christ still “pays” you from His treasure store the very same wages He pays to all. Christ is the One who labored and toiled, all the way to the bloody cross. Jesus is the One who bore the burden of your sins and the heat of God’s wrath. He does all the labor, and you get all the “wages” of His grace and mercy and forgiveness. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

So we come to this day with a funny sounding name—Septuagesima. It’s Latin for “About 70 Days” until we celebrate the joys of Easter, the joys of God’s banquet table and eternal life with Him. Until then, we labor in His Vineyard. Lent, the time for preparation, is coming. We labor in matters of confessing our sins and returning to the Lord and His forgiveness.  We labor in matters of fasting, giving to those in need, and praying. We labor in matters of relearning and rehearsing the Catechism teachings. So, start planning now to take out your Catechism, and blow off the dust if necessary. Get ready to open up that Catechism and relearn the Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Then tackle the Catechism meanings and explanations. Then move on to the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. Your labor will not be in vain. It will be very profitable. You will relearn and rehearse the “wages” of God’s grace for you in Christ Jesus.

So, fellow workers, the labor is not your own. Christ labors with you. In fact, Christ’s work—His life, death, and resurrection—make your labor profitable in body and soul. He is your great reward and your only benefit. And that benefit gives you abundant life. Christ comes to you, forgives you, invites you into His Vineyard. Remember the vines around the altar upstairs. He promises you the wage of His grace, the gift of eternal life, even now. Amen.

04 February 2019

Homily for Epiphany 4 (2019)

"The Lord of Nature"
Matthew 8:23-37

This little story gives a powerful message. Jesus calms the storm and reveals Himself as the Lord of nature. Jesus steps into a boat with His disciples. They set sail across the Sea of Galilee. All of a sudden, a furious storm hits and this little fishing boat gets tossed about and covered by the waves. On the bowl-shaped Sea of Galilee storms like this happen all the time. You would think the disciples—many of them fishermen—would have been able to handle it. But not this storm! They panic. They despair. Nature is their enemy. They realize they are powerless against it. They cry out to the Lord Jesus: “Save us, Lord; we are perishing.”

And where is Jesus during this storm? He’s in the boat. But He’s sleeping! A Lord who sleeps? God closing His eyes and being unconscious? Yes. Remember, Jesus is both God and Man—as God, all-powerful; as Man, able to become tired and need rest. Yet He is still the Lord of nature, the Creator of His creation. So, all-powerful Lord Jesus wakes up from His slumber and calms the storm. And the men marveled, saying, “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

Many sermons allegorize this story as if it were a parable. Such sermons refer to the boat as the Church. In the boat—the Church—we see Jesus and His followers, His disciples. The Church gets tossed around on the stormy sea of this world. And this is most certainly true. Today the unbelieving world is constantly trying to tell the Church how to worship, how to live, and what to believe and confess. Think of politicians and celebrities demanding the Church get with the times and support culture’s anti-life and pro-sexual revolution agenda. And you can see the waves flooding the boat—the Church—as Christians give in to worldly demands, worldly lifestyles, and worldly views. Yet it’s most certainly true that Jesus in His Church is the One Person who can calm the storms of these trials and temptations.

But let’s take this account as it actually is—a narrative of an actual, historical event. Let’s take a good look at Jesus as the Lord of nature. Let’s ask what the disciples asked: “What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?”

For a couple of centuries, we have been living with a split head. Our minds and our way of viewing the world have been divided between two, seemingly opposite things. On the one hand, there’s God. He created the world. He sustains and preserves the world. And He guides how everything works in the world. On the other hand, there’s nature. How trees grow; how the weather works; how puppies and guppies grow up; how rivers flow; how planets orbit the sun; and so on. And for about 200 years, we’ve been taught and trained to compartmentalize these two things. Keep God in His box of faith and the soul; and keep nature in its box of things that can be observed in a laboratory.

This split head over God vs. nature has led us to one of Satan’s biggest lies: evolution. Evolution is the view—actually, the belief—that all things come about only by natural methods. Evolution teaches the belief—not the science—that all things come about purely by random chance and gradual changes over millions of years. God is left out of the picture. That’s what Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, wanted. He wanted natural explanations for life. He wanted to keep God out of the picture.

Now, we Christians have been riding in the boat, suffering this storm, this onslaught of unbelief in the world of nature. And some Christians have even been going along with the storm and welcoming the waves into the boat. The Bible says that God created the heavens, the earth and everything in them in six, 24-hour periods called “days.” Evolutionists say that the universe began suddenly with a big bang and has gradually evolved over billions of years. Some well-intentioned Christians have tried to mix the two teachings. Maybe, they say, the “six days” are really long periods of time. Maybe, they say, God did indeed create the world, but He chose to use evolution.

But that does not make much sense. Why would God say “days” when, as it is claimed, He actually took millions of years? Is God a liar, or at least not quite honest with us? Why would an all-powerful, caring God leave His precious world to random chance development? Why would He promote the life of people, plants, and animals by mutations and death?

But also consider this. Nature itself gives ample witness that there’s some intelligence behind it. We’ve all likely seen Mt. Rushmore, either in pictures or by visiting the monument. You see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Now when you see those faces of famous men carved into a mountain, how many of you think: “Wow, look how the erosion by water and wind carved out that sculpture over millions of years”? Not likely. You know that there is some kind of intelligence behind that great monument.

The same is true of nature. You can tell there’s some kind of intelligence, design and purpose behind it. You plant a seed in the ground. You water it and fertilize it. And up comes a little shoot. The shoot turns into a beautiful stem with leaves and a flower on top. Or look in a powerful microscope and see living cells. All kinds of things are going on in the cell to make it duplicate itself and function for the good the body. Take out one of those microscopic parts of the cell, and it won’t work. Or think of your circulatory system—your breathing and your pulse. In just the minutes you’ve been sitting here listening, you’ve been breathing and your blood has been pumping, and you haven’t even thought about it. Tinker with anything in the system, and your breathing or your pulse doesn’t work so well.

What does all this have to do with Jesus calming a storm? The wind and the waves listen to Jesus and do what He says. So does the plant; so does the living cell; so do your heart and your lungs; so does all of nature. And this is for your benefit.

Our problem is that we get scared. We get scared because we don’t trust the Lord of nature. We convince ourselves that He’s off sleeping somewhere. And so we worry and we despair at the storms of nature, especially when a tornado or a polar vortex comes rushing in. And when we give in to the false teaching of evolution, we are robbing Jesus of His rightful place as Lord of nature. We are showing that we don’t trust Jesus—we are little faith people.

You see, when Jesus is Lord of nature, He is also Savior for sinners. When He forgives sinners, He is also restoring His nature and creation. He created all things good, but we humans ruined and messed up God’s creation. So God sent His Son to restore creation and nature, as well as you and me. When Jesus comes to reveal Himself, He comes to restore God’s good creation. After all, when He forgives you all your sins, He is restoring creation in you and for you.

St. Paul says it this way: “the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Nature suffers from human sin too! But also remember this: “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God…the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

So, when Jesus calms the storm, let’s marvel at His Godhood, at His power over nature. But let’s also be strengthened in faith toward Him. For this Lord of nature not only calms storms, He dies on a cross for sinners—for you and for me. That’s His greatest work for you and for nature around you. And never forget how Jesus even gives you His forgiveness by using elements of nature—water, bread, and wine.

“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!…
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!” (Ps. 107:1, 8). Amen.