30 October 2015

"The Lord’s Laborer for the Lord’s Harvest"

The following is my sermon delivered on 25 October 2015 at the ordination service of James Thomas, a son of Hope Ev. Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO, and now ordained and installed to serve as Associate Pastor at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church, Bridgeton, MO. The text is the selected Gospel reading for the service, Matthew 9:35-38.

Contrary to popular opinion—that’s all of us gathered here this afternoon—today is not about soon-to-be Pastor James Thomas. Oh, yes, it’s sheer joy when the Lord of the Church takes a man—by the scruff of the neck—plants the seeds of theological training in him at seminary, and then—again by the scruff of the neck—places him into this holy office. Oh, yes, it’s great joy when the Lord of the Church answers the prayers of His faithful congregation and places a fellow sinner in her midst to proclaim and live out the joys of forgiveness, life, and salvation in Jesus. But still, this day is not about James. Not primarily.

Today is about Jesus, the Lord of the Church. You see, the Lord Jesus Himself absolutely loves to go through cities and villages, teaching the Truth, proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom, and healing diseases and afflictions. The Lord Jesus absolutely loves to send out men to do exactly what He Himself does. He told His Twelve Apostles, “Proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons” (Matt. 10:7-8). Later, He also sent out 72 other men, saying, “Heal the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you” (Lk. 10:9). He even gave them this promise: “The one who hears you hears Me” (Lk. 10:16). Today is all about Jesus—and by extension His laborer and His harvest. You see, Jesus still absolutely loves to go through all the world—including here in Bridgeton—and proclaim the kingdom, and heal our diseases and afflictions. And He does it through the men, the laborers, whom He sends out.

Dear saints at Beautiful Savior, you have prayed to the Lord of the harvest for a laborer. And look at whom He has sent you! :-) I hate to break it to you, but he’s no spiritual Superman. He’s no church version of Captain America. No pastor is. He brings no magic elixir for fixing whatever ails you, either as individuals or as a congregation. He carries no silver bullets for filling pews or increasing giving. No, he’s very much like Isaiah, when the Lord called him. There was Isaiah, taking in the glorious vision of the Lord on His throne and the angels flying around, singing heaven’s song of “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts” (Is. 6:3). And what did Isaiah confess? “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Is. 6:5).

Brothers and sisters in Christ, whom are you getting here today? You’re getting a fellow sinner—a “man of unclean lips.” You’re getting a man who has the same kinds of faults and foibles, sins and stumblings, trials and temptations, as you. But you are also getting a man who has been redeemed, forgiven, covered and strengthened by the blood of Jesus. You are getting a man who has been washed clean in his Baptism. You are getting a man who must confess his sins and live only by the word of Jesus’ Absolution. You are getting a man whose faith is shored up and strengthened by the Body and Blood of Jesus in His Supper. And so, dear saints, your task—given by Jesus Himself here today—is to receive and love and listen to this man, this laborer of the Lord, in your midst.

And James, take a good look at where the Lord is placing you as He places you into His Office. :-) I hate to break it to you, but these are not perfect Christians; this is not a perfect congregation. There are no perfect congregations and there are no perfect Christians, this side of eternal life. Remember Isaiah’s words: “I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” There may be times when some—a few or many or an individual here and there—may “not endure sound teaching.” There may be times when some—a few or many or an individual now and then—may give in to their “itching ears” and want to “accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).

But, James, they are still people of the Lord Jesus—still covered and forgiven by His blood, still baptized by Him, still absolved by Him, still fed and nourished on His Body and Blood. And so St. Paul’s words to young Pastor Timothy are perfect words for you too: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching” (2 Tim. 2:2). Your task, James—given by Jesus Himself, here today—is to receive them, love them, and give them Jesus in all of your preaching and teaching and visiting. Your task is to pray for them and with them. Your task is to shepherd them with the only tools that Jesus has given—His Word and His Sacraments.

It’s what our risen Lord Jesus also sent Peter to do. Remember how Peter had denied Jesus three times before Jesus went to the Cross. After Jesus had risen, He both absolved Peter and gave him a new mission in life, spoken three times: “Feed My lambs…Tend My sheep…Feed My sheep” (Jn. 21:15-17). Your task—given by Jesus Himself, right here, right now, today—is “to know nothing among [this flock] except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). 

Today really is all about Jesus, the Lord of the harvest. As He said, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” Saints of our Beautiful Savior, you have prayed. And the Lord has  graciously answered! Here’s another laborer—this one, just for you. Also pay attention to the Lord’s language. This man is the Lord’s laborer, and he works in the Lord’s harvest.

The Lord’s laborer does the Lord’s work. The pastor does not run a business that happens to have the word “church” on the sign out front. No, he does what the Lord wants Him to do: he teaches the Truth, proclaims the Gospel of the kingdom, and gives the healing of Jesus for diseases and afflictions of body and soul. That’s the compassion that Jesus had for the crowds. It’s the same compassion that the pastor—the Lord’s laborer—has for his flock. You see, James, when you labor the way the Lord gives you to labor, HE is actually the one doing the work through you.

The Lord’s laborer works for the Lord’s harvest. Did you notice how Jesus calls it “his harvest”? It’s not the pastor’s harvest. It’s not the Christian’s harvest. It’s not even the Church’s harvest. The harvest belongs to the Lord. Remember how St. Paul said it: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:6-7). And the Lord Jesus gives the harvest.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer expressed this Biblical teaching quite well when he preached of Christ building His Church:
It is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church. No man builds the church but Christ alone. Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it. We must confess—He builds. We must proclaim—He builds. We must pray to Him—that He may build

We do not know His plan. We cannot see whether He is building or pulling down. It may be that the times which by human standards are times of collapse are for Him the great times of construction. It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to His Church: you confess, preach, bear witness to Me and I alone will build where it pleases Me. Do not meddle in what is My province. Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough. But do it well. Pay no heed to views and opinions. Don’t ask for judgments. Don’t always be calculating what will happen. Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge! Church, stay a church! But church, confess, confess, confess! Christ alone is your Lord; from His grace alone can you live as you are. Christ builds. (No Rusty Swords, 216-17)
So, saints of our Beautiful Savior, you have prayed, the Lord has answered, and you now have a new laborer. James, the Lord has put you here to labor for His end-time harvest, doing the very things that He Himself did and still does. Amid all the joys of this day, amid all the celebrating and rejoicing and giving thanks, still remember this: Today is really all about Jesus—showing His compassion, shepherding His flock, and working His own harvest. Amen.

29 June 2015

Homily for Trinity 4

"Suffering Forgiveness"
Genesis 50:15-21

Listen here.

The Trinity season is all about growing in the Christian faith and life. That’s what the color green tells us. We are in the time of life and growth.

Also, the Christian faith entails a radical change in life. After all, your God has saved you from sin, death, and hell through your Lord Jesus Christ. So what could be more radical than blessing those who persecute you? What could be more radical than loving your enemies? What could be more radical than forgiving those who wrong you?

Today’s Old Testament reading gives us a true, historical example of this radical, new Christian life. In this story of Joseph forgiving his brothers we have a story of suffering forgiveness. And it really is amazing how God gives us exactly what we need to hear, especially after Friday’s Supreme Court ruling—or we should say, “fiat”—on same-sex marriage.

Joseph, this great man of God, practiced suffering forgiveness. After he had suffered ill-will from his ill-mannered brothers, he practiced forgiveness. After suffering in slavery, false accusation, and prison, he practiced forgiveness. Let’s fill in the story.

Joseph was only 17 years old when his brothers sold him into slavery. They were jealous that he was daddy’s favorite. They especially despised him when he dreamed about how the whole family would bow down to him. Once in slavery, he lived in Potiphar’s house, because he was the head slave. But then he suffered misfortune again. Potiphar’s wife tried getting Joseph into bed with her. When he nobly resisted temptation, she cried sexual harassment. So off to prison for Joseph. After a few years there, 30-year old Joseph was summoned to interpret Pharaoh’s disturbing dreams. God would send 7 years of bounty followed by 7 years of famine. And, by God’s grace and favor, Pharaoh appointed Joseph to prepare for the famine. Joseph suffered slavery, false accusation, and prison. But later he was exalted to the second highest office in all Egypt.

Then, when Joseph was about 39, his brothers came to Egypt to buy food to take back home—famine relief for God’s people. After a lengthy charade, Joseph saw evidence that his brothers were repentant over selling their younger brother into slavery 22 years earlier. Then Joseph revealed himself to his brothers and forgave them. Soon after, father Jacob relocated to Egypt to live under the providing hand of Joseph. Then, 17 years later, Jacob died. And then comes our reading.

“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’” After 39 years, their sin of selling Joseph and counting him dead was still tormenting them. Even 17 years after Joseph explicitly forgave them—pronounced absolution to them—after 17 years of living with Joseph’s great kindness and love, they still wrestled with their guilt and shame.

And the same is true for us. Our sins plague us—often weeks, months, even years after the fact. Even after we receive absolution for our specific sins, the consequences and constant reminders may very well plague us. There is no peace, no rest, no quiet conscience for sinners except through faith alone—faith that looks to God’s words of mercy and forgiveness.

“So they sent a message to Joseph saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died, “Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’” We don’t have any record of Jacob giving such instructions—maybe he did; maybe he didn’t. But it does seem that the brothers wanted to force Joseph’s hand to pardon them. The brothers don’t doubt that God forgives them. But they do question if their brother, Joseph, forgives them.

That’s sin for you. That’s your sin for you. We like to rely on God’s Law, even for Gospel pardon. We don’t doubt God’s forgiveness for us. But we certainly don’t trust each other’s forgiveness. Like Joseph’s brothers, we look with jaded eyes upon the pardon and acts of kindness from brothers and sisters in Christ. And our mistrust leads to trying to dictate, or legislate, each other’s actions.

At the same time, Joseph’s guilt-ridden brothers give us a great Biblical truth. Our servanthood to God also means servanthood to each other. To love God means to love the people He puts in our lives. To serve Him means to serve them, especially by forgiving them.

“Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” Surely, he thought, 17 years of showing them his pardon would speak for itself. But even in forgiving his brothers, Joseph suffered. He suffered forgiveness. He forgave them. Period. No questions asked. No forcing them to make promises never to hurt him again. Joseph could very well have been hurt again by his brothers. That didn’t matter. He forgave them anyway. He suffered forgiveness. That is, he let forgiveness happen. He let forgiveness, not self-protection, reign supreme. And now, 17 years after he had first absolved them, he had the privilege of absolving them again.

So why did he weep? Simply because he knew his brothers did not trust his forgiveness. What was the solution? Did he chew them out for not trusting him? No. He forgave them again. Joseph is a good example for us. It really doesn’t matter how much someone offends you or hurts you. You have the God-given privilege of forgiving over and over and over—seventy times seven, as Jesus said.

Joseph preached a wonderfully comforting sermon to his brothers…and to us. “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear.” See how the forgiving flows freely from Joseph to his brothers. Was Joseph in the place of God? When it came to revenge, no. It is God’s place to avenge, to repay, for wrongs done. Ah, but when it came to forgiveness, yes, Joseph was in the place of God. He practiced and lived out the forgiveness that God had first given him. Joseph overcame his brothers’ evil with the good of forgiveness. So it is for us.

St. Paul said it this way: “bearing with one another and if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:13). Jesus said it this way: “Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you” (Luke 6:37-38). Sure people may hurt you. They may hurt you frequently or repeatedly. They may step on your feelings, your ideas, your plans. They may do it intentionally or by accident. But one thing always stays the same. The Christian life is lived in suffering forgiveness—that is, in letting forgiveness, and nothing else, rule the day.

Here’s another way Joseph is a good picture, or role model, for us. Just as Joseph endured his exile in slavery and prison, we too are more and more living in exile in this foreign land. With Friday’s Supreme Court ruling and fiat, we must realize that we Christians are the exiles. We may even end up in prison for holding firm to God’s Truth.

But before we get too worked up about same-sex marriage, let’s remember that heterosexuals have also been doing a pretty good job of destroying marriage themselves. The Supreme Court has only affirmed the inevitable. What should the Church do in response to this Supreme Court fiat? What her Lord always calls her to do: repent. Just because something becomes legal in all 50 states, that does not make it right or godly. But we can repent, just as Joseph did in his exile.

Repent of your own sexual sins, whether they be heterosexual or homosexual, whether they be adultery, fornication, pornography, self-pleasure, or just that so-called “innocent look.” Repent of taking such sins so lightly, for being afraid to confront them in yourself or in people around you.

And just in case you’re wondering how that whole “Judge not, and you will not be judged” thing fits in: Jesus is not advocating for a “live and let live” approach to life in general or to such sins as plague us today. Listen to how Dr. Jeff Gibbs explains this same saying in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Jesus takes in hand an important matter, namely, the danger that a disciple with an arrogant spirit, who is blind to his own personal faults and failings, may pass judgment on a fellow disciple or even reject him. Jesus is not forbidding all judgments with regard to our brothers and sisters, but a hypocritical kind of judging. Moreover, his disciples certainly are to proclaim God’s Word of Law and Gospel to all people, and God’s Law rightfully accuses and judges sinners. Christians must proclaim God’s Word if they are to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ int he world.

“Here, however, Jesus is speaking primarily to relationships between fellow Christians, as shown by his repeated use of the term ‘brother’. That Jesus has in mind an attitude in which a person is blind to his own shortcomings and failings is made clear by the picture of a beam stuck in one’s eye.” (Matthew 1:1-11:1, 369)

Joseph is more than a good picture for us. He is an even better picture of Jesus. Joseph’s life is very much like Jesus’ life. Joseph descended in suffering, slavery, humiliation, and shame. Our Lord Jesus descended to us. He emptied Himself and took on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even the shameful death on the cross. Who sold Him into this slavery and humiliation? We did; we poor sinners. But just like Joseph before Him, Jesus was also exalted to reign supreme. He sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty. And we bow before Him in the famine called our sin, our hard hearts, our unwillingness to forgive each other. And what does our Lord Jesus do? He forgives you. He says, “Don’t be afraid, I AM in the place of God; I AM your God. I came to save many lives. And yours is among them.” And Jesus, your Brother, tells you what Joseph told his brothers: “So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Certainly good news for troubled consciences! Jesus suffers forgiveness for you. Jesus lets forgiveness rule the day, every day, for  you.

So now, what will you do with that forgiveness, that absolution, you have just heard? First, you may trust it. You may stake all your hopes and dreams on it. Second, you may use that forgiveness to forgive one another. You see, only when Jesus stops forgiving you may you stop forgiving your neighbor. And, by the way, Jesus will never stop forgiving you! In fact, He orders His Church so that we may daily receive His forgiveness of sins through the Word and Sacraments. He arranges a wonderful delivery system of the Gospel proclaimed, Holy Baptism splashed upon you, Holy Absolution spoken into your ears, and Holy Supper placed into your mouth. He does all of this to comfort you and speak kindly to you.

So when you find yourself not forgiving your brother or sister in Christ, you may confess that sin. Christ promises to forgive. That way, you, along with Joseph and Jesus, are free to suffer forgiveness, to let forgiveness rule the day. Amen.

26 June 2015

"Through Persecution Christendom Grows"

In light of today's unconstitutional, tyrannical fiat by the U.S. Supreme Court, and in preparation for the onslaught yet to come:

From St. Peter: "Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." (1 Peter 4:12-13)

From St. John: "Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you." (1 John 3:13)

From Jesus Himself: "If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." (John 14:18-19)

From Martin Luther: "To this day it happens that when tyrants rage against the Gospel, they do no more than blow into the ashes. Then the fire becomes greater, and the ashes fly into their eyes. This is the success which their tyranny is to meet. When they shed innocent blood, this blood of the Christians is to act as a fertilizer on the field, making it rich and productive. For through persecution Christendom grows; conversely, Christians become lazy and lax when conditions are peaceful and quiet" (What Luther Says, #3307).

22 June 2015

Homily for Trinity 3

"Jesus Sinners Doth Receive"
Luke 15:1-10

Listen here.

Our Lord Jesus receives sinners. He welcomes them. He embraces them. He does not turn them away when they cry to Him. He does not ignore their prayer or turn a deaf ear to their plea. Our Lord receives sinners. And our Lord eats with them. He feeds on their bread of sorrows. He drinks down their cup of suffering. And He consumes their grapes of wrath. In other words, Jesus does not shy away from meeting us where we are. He does not shrink from coming into the filth and fallout of our natural desires. He does not refuse to take into Himself the very thing that kills us.

As one hymn sings:

Thou cam-est to our hall of death,
O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air,
To drink for us the deep despair
That strangled our reluctant breath.
How beautiful the feet that trod
The road to bring good news from God!
How beautiful the feet that ran
To bring the great good news to man! (LSB 834:3)

Because of this—because our Lord Jesus receives sinners and eats with them, because He embraces them when they come and goes to them when they wander and stray—because of this, our Lord is scorned, despised, rejected, mocked, jeered and finally crucified. What kind of God—what kind of man—does not demand something, some better life or some assurance of payback, before helping or taking in an unsavory character? What kind of God—what kind of man—does not first insist that you shape up before He gives you a penny or comes to your aid? And what kind of God—what kind of man—does not first lecture you and try to fix you before He lifts a finger to shoulder your burden and pay your debt?

So our Lord is scorned and despised. Not by those who cry to Him in time of need, but by those who religiously try to defend God, by those who want others to see their religion, by those who want to impress Jesus by their tears and their hard work for the church. Those who say they’re on Jesus’ side and simply want to make Him into their own kind of Jesus. And they grumble when Jesus stands before you and proclaims His Gospel of peace. They complain when He opens His table to sinners. They murmur when He declares forgiveness even for those you don’t think deserve it.

So beware! You may think that the lost sheep and the lost coin are someone else—the people you pity, the person you refuse to acknowledge, the woman you don’t want to be bothered with, the man you don’t like much. But actually, as our Lord tells His parables, the lost are not just the sinners Jesus receives and eats with. The lost are also those who stray from Jesus by their grumbling, by their hatred for their brother or sister in Christ, by their refusal to love and forgive as they have been loved and forgiven, by their unwillingness to embrace “sinners” just as Jesus has embraced them.

Jesus tells the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin not simply to let the Pharisees have it, not simply to proclaim His own mission for sinners, not simply to remind His disciples and us of His purpose. He also tells the parable to draw and entice, to welcome and invite, to gather and sit down with and eat with YOU and ME.

Or do you think that you are one of those just persons who needs no repentance? Remember, it's the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven—those who now rest from their labors and await the resurrection on the Last Day—those are the just ones who need no repentance. They are the ninety-nine sheep that are left behind. They are the nine coins that are safely tucked away. They can no longer be lost, because Jesus has wiped away their tears forever.

No, we—each and every one of us—are the ones still who need repentance.

We are still as in a dungeon living,
Still oppressed with sorrow and misgiving;
Our undertakings
Are but toils and troubles and heartbreakings.
(LSB 679:2)

So according to Jesus’ parable, you and I are the sheep that goes astray. We have turned, everyone of us, to his own way, doing as we please, trusting in ourselves and despising others—living as if we deserved God’s mercy and as if His grace had no effect. But Shepherd Jesus comes searching for us and finds us. And you and I are also the coin that the Holy Spirit seeks out. He lights the lamp of His Word and overturns everything to find us and gather us back at the table where our Lord receives and eats with sinners.

Do you see the grace of our Lord Jesus? Do you understand the constant searching of the Holy Spirit? Do you take to heart the all-embracing love of the Father?

Our God does not teach us sinners by scolding and screaming so that He can get us to live right. Instead, He teaches in order to shower us with His mercy, to give us His Righteousness and Love, to speak into our hearts and minds His grace that forgives us, and to supply us with His true and abundant Life.

Jesus does this by receiving sinners and eating with them. And so our loving Lord Jesus comes in our flesh. He willingly drinks from and swallows down and drains our cup of sin and death. He does whatever it takes to seek us out, to shoulder our burdens, to carry our griefs, to endure our sorrows. The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. So this Jesus is our Jesus. He comes in our flesh. He becomes our sin. He is tempted in every respect as we are. He gets what we deserve. And He is sacrificed to appease God for who we are and what we do.

That’s how our Lord Jesus is the tender and gentle shepherd. He carries us back to Himself. He demands nothing in return. He does not make us first prove our faith. He does not require us to do even the smallest part of the sacrifice. He only draws us to Himself. He gives us the confidence and courage to trust Him and what He gives. He encourages us to give thanks with all we are and with all we have.

He does all of this so that He might welcome and receive us back to Himself. He does all of this so that we might return to Him in true repentance—a repentance that does not seek any other self-gratification, a repentance that does not demand others to live as we think. Rather, as the sheep rescued by the shepherd and as the coin found by the woman, we get to live in true repentance, in true faith. That repentance and faith is completely satisfied with whatever our Lord gives. We get to live in true repentance and faith that feeds on and lives from Jesus’ boundless goodness and mercy. We get to live in true repentance  and faith that lives for others just as our Lord has lived for us.

May God grant us this true repentance and faith—the repentance and faith which leads the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to rejoice. You see,

We deserve but grief and shame,
Yet His words, rich grace revealing,
Pardon, peace and life proclaim;
Here our ills have perfect healing.
Firmly in these words believe:
Jesus sinners doth receive. (LSB 609:2)


15 June 2015

Homily for Trinity 2

"The Master's Invitation"
Luke 14:15-24

Listen here.

The master of the feast made doubly sure that the guests all received their “invites.” He issued two “invites” to each one. The first “invite” simply said, “You’re invited!” The second “invite” came on the day of the great supper itself. The master sent a special messenger to announce that the dinner is now served: “Come, for everything is now ready.”

All of this teaches us the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. “Come!” The Gospel is not a command; it’s an offer. It’s not a demand; it’s a gift. It’s not a royal fiat; it’s an invitation. It’s the Master’s invitation to share in the unbelievable joy of the Kingdom of God.

“Come!” God is expecting you. He wants you to join in His feast. He is ready for the poor, the maimed, the blind, and the lame. He is ready for those who spend their lives in the highways and byways of life. He invites everyone: “Come, for everything is now ready.”

Just as a shepherd seeks for his lost sheep; just as a woman gets down on her hands and knees to look for her lost coin; and, yes, just as a father eagerly waits for his lost son to return home and looks down the road for him—in the same way God is always seeking, calling, inviting us back into loving, joyous relationship with Him.

God cries out: “Come, for everything is now ready.” Come, you who seek meaning for life. Come, you who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Come, you who falter under the burden and shame of your original sin, your actual sins, and even death itself. Come, you who are anxious and fearful. Come, you who mourn.

“Come you all; enter into the joy of your Lord. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet.  The calf is a fatted one; let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let none grieve over their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let none weep over their sins, for pardon has shone forth from the grave; let none fear death, for the death of the Savior has set us free.”  (John Chrysostom - Easter homily)

You see, Christianity is not first and foremost a religion that says, “Do this and don’t do that.” Yes, we do receive God’s Law, especially in His Ten Commandments. And, yes, based on those Ten Commandments, we know that we sin in thought, word and deed. But that’s not what makes Christianity Christianity.

Instead, Christianity is first and foremost a faith that says, “Come!” The great “magnetism” of Jesus Christ comes not in His “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots,” but in His invitation: “Come to Me.” Come, be filled with the Holy Spirit. Come, be filled with the life and energy of God’s presence. And when we do come to Him, we will surely do certain things and live a certain way—not merely because we “should” do those things or "should" live that way, but because we delight in living with our loving Father and Savior. We delight in living and doing as the expression of our love for the One who laid down His life for us. We delight in living and doing with the One—Jesus—who gave His life on a cross to give us life.

In the 4th century, Pastor John Chrysostom commented on the Master’s invitation, “Come to Me all you who labor.” He said these precious words: “His invitation is one of kindness, His goodness is beyond description. ‘Come to me, all’ – not only rulers but also their subjects; not only the rich, but also the poor; not only the free, but also the slaves; not only men, but also women; not only the youth, but also the old; not only those of sound body, but also the maimed. All of you, He says, come!  For such are the Master’s gifts. He knows no distinction of slave and free, nor of rich and poor, but all such inequality is cast aside.  ‘Come,’ He says, ‘all you who labor and are burdened!’ And see whom He calls! Those who have spent their strength in breaking the law, those who are burdened with their sins, those who can no longer lift up their heads, those who are filled with shame, those who can no longer speak out. Why does He call them? Not to demand an accounting, nor to hold court. But why? To relieve them of their pain, to take away their heavy burdens.”

Now when Jesus says, “Come!” He does not stand on the top rung of a long, high ladder in heaven to signal us to start climbing. After all, He Himself has climbed down that ladder to stand alongside us. He has come to us. “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger.” He came and was born in a stable. He came and died on the cross. He came and rose victorious from the grave. He came to prepare the banquet of life and salvation for us. And now – today – Jesus sends His servants to extend His invitation: “Come, for everything is now ready.” There is nothing that you can or need to add to this feast. He has prepared it all. “It is finished!” He cried from the cross. He has prepared the feast of salvation for you. The only thing He asks of you is that you let Him serve it to you, and that you enjoy and delight in it.

But sadly and tragically, the invitation is not always accepted. This gracious invitation is too often rejected. “I have bought a field…. Please have me excused…. I have bought five yoke of oxen…. Please have me excused…. I have married a wife…. I cannot come.” And so flew the excuses. It was and is the response of so many of His own people. “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive Him.” Is this not the same response today? Tragically, and sadly, we end up accepting the wrong invitations in life. We miss the banquet, the abundant life of Christ, and we settle for the lesser lunches and the fleeting feasts. And Jesus still laments, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

“Come, for everything is now ready.” “But I am not worthy to come,” you might object. “My clothes are not suitable. I wouldn’t know how to act in the Master’s palace. Besides, I’m just too busy and have too many other things to do.”

None of this makes any difference. The invitation goes out to all: to those who are on the back streets, to those who live in dirty, little houses, as well as to those who live in fine homes. Come! The good news is that you don’t have to be perfect to come. Come as you are—come with all of your sins and sorrows and shame; come with all of your weaknesses and failures; come with all of your problems and anxieties. Come to the only One who can forgive you and heal you. Come to the One who on His cross opened wide His arms to welcome you. “Come, for everything is now ready.”

And coming to Jesus is not a one time thing. Let no one say: “Oh, I did that years ago.” Coming to Jesus is a way of life. It begins with Baptism. It involves living out our Baptism in daily repentance and sorrow for sin, and in turning from that sin to God. We come to Him and find Him right where He has promised to be for us. We come to Him in the Divine Service. “For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them.” We come to Him in reading our Bibles. As Jesus says, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep my word, and My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” We come to Him in regular and faithful Communion. As Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him.” Yes, He who came down from heaven to meet us on our level, and to die in our place on a cross, still comes to meet us on our level.

No, He does not stand at the top of the ladder and call us to climb home. Instead, He stands at the bottom, lifts us up on His strong shoulders, and carries us up the ladder Himself. When we lay aside the excuses and dare to accept the invitation, then we truly know the wonder of the glorious banquet hall. Then we know the goodness of the food of life. Then we know the joy of amazing fellowship with God Himself. Yes, dare to accept it daily—today, tomorrow, the next day and all the days of your life. Live in the promise that our Lord will one day speak the greatest invitation of all: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.

08 June 2015

Homily for Trinity 1

"Rich Man or Lazarus?"
Luke 16:19-31

Listen here.

Wouldn’t you like to be the rich man—receive and enjoy your good things in your lifetime? Certainly none of us would want to be like Lazarus’ in this life, would we—poor, covered with sores, eating only scraps, dogs licking our sores? But then consider how each one ended up. Certainly, no one would choose to be in the rich man’s shoes in the next life, “being in torment” and “in anguish” for eternity. No, it would be much better to be in Lazarus’ eternal shoes—carried to Abraham’s side and comforted forever.

Or what about this? How would you write the epitaph for these men after they died? Based on Jesus’ story, here’s what we could write for the rich man: “He liked nice clothes and good food.” Talk about shallow! And here’s the epitaph we could write for Lazarus: “Oh, how he suffered!” Certainly not shallow, but also nothing glorious, or noble, or memorable.

So, which of these two men before us today would you rather be—rich man or Lazarus? And, no, you can’t cheat by picking and choosing. You can’t choose the rich man’s earthly life now and Lazarus’ eternal life then. That’s not an option. Sorry, can’t eat our cake and then have it too! Which of these men would you rather be? To answer that, you might want to remember that Jesus’ story is not about the evils of wealth and riches, nor is it about some odd but noble virtue of intentionally putting yourself under the wheels of life and saying, “Please, run over me!” No, Jesus’ story before us today draws our attention to faith in Him, the eternal Son of God.

Nils Jakob Laache was a Lutheran bishop at Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim, Norway. In his Book of Family Prayer Bishop Laache wrote a great little devotion for today’s Gospel reading. Here’s what he said about the rich man:

“‘It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Mat 19:23). Not that the rich man is condemned because he is rich, but rich people are so severely tempted to worldliness and unbelief. The rich man in our Gospel was unfortunate because he was unbelieving, worldly, and self-righteous. His life is summed up in few, but very significant words: ‘He was clothed in purple and fine linen and fared sumptuously every day.” Then we hear that “in his lifetime he received his good things,” that he did not acknowledge God’s Word as necessary for salvation and did not understand that faith is the way to life. If you strive for earthly things and think that salvation inevitably belongs to you and all decent people, then you are the rich man’s partner, whether you have much or little in the world” (398-99, emphasis his).

Now, that hits close to home, doesn’t it? If you strive for earthly things—things such as the nice clothing and the best food, things such as the esteem and popularity in the eyes of others, things such as the latest goodies from cell phones to home entertainment—if you strive for these things, yes, you are the rich man’s partner.

In fact, let’s be honest and say that we all are the rich man’s partner. We may not be “clothed in purple and fine linen,” but we do have our pretty nice wardrobes. We cannot imagine wearing the same set of clothes day after day. Not only would the aroma get, well, a bit ripe, but we just don’t want to be seen wearing the same thing every day. After all, that would be boring. And what about that habit so many of us have of organizing our garments into “winter clothes” and “summer clothes,” if not one set for each of the four seasons. Yes, we have received our good things in life.

And let’s be honest. We do feast sumptuously every day. No, we may not dine on the richest of fare, but most of us really do not suffer from lack of food. Just think of how easy it is to get food. If the cupboard does become bare, we can easily go through the drive-thru at McDonald’s or Burger King or take something to go from Bread Co. or some other place of our choosing. As one friend’s mom would say, “We don’t wait until we’re hungry to eat; we eat so that we won’t be hungry.” Yes, we have received our good things in life.

For rich man and for us, the problem is not in the clothing and food. The problem comes in where we place our trust, where we look for good, for comfort, and for blessing. My, how we look to the “good things” we can receive in this life! But that did not help the rich man in eternity, nor will it help us.

The poor man, Lazarus, gives us a different picture. And let’s remember that Lazarus does not attain heavenly life because he was down and out. No, Lazarus shows us the necessity and virtue of faith. Here’s what Bishop Laache said about Lazarus:

“Poverty and sickness press hard, and no one is saved merely because he suffers here on earth. But these things can help us to hear God’s Word and turn our hearts away from the world. Lazarus was not saved as a reward for his suffering, but he inherited life, because he believed in the Lord. We learn this from the name ‘Lazarus’ which means one who trusts in God, and, besides, we hear that he is at home in the bosom of Abraham—Abraham, ‘the father of believers’—and that he did not seek his goods in earthly life. You are no ‘Lazarus’ and are not saved—even though you suffer ever so much on earth—unless you believe from the heart, suffer as a Christian, and have your treasure in heaven. But if you do this, your suffering is blessed and your tears are sown for a rich harvest” (399, emphasis his).

It’s no accident that Lazarus ends up side by side with Abraham. After all, Abraham is the “father of the faithful.” In fact, today’s Old Testament story about Abraham believing and being counted righteous is the first time that faith is explicitly mentioned in the Bible. Abraham trusted his Savior to deliver him and give him an heir. Lazarus trusted his Savior to deliver him from poverty and sores, and give him an heavenly inheritance.

That’s what our Lord calls us to do here today: trust Him above all things; trust Him for deliverance from whatever we may suffer, even if that deliverance comes only in eternity. You see, our Lord Jesus Christ is the true Lazarus. He is the one who did not set his hopes on worldly gain and wealth, but rather had no place to lay His head. He is the one who was left outside the gate of the world’s niceties. He was also taken outside the gate of His own holy city to be nailed to a tree. And on that cross He did not have dogs licking His sores, but He did have people wagging their tongues against Him.

But this Jesus, whom our sins of greed and coveting crucified, is also the One whom we hear in Moses and the Prophets. He is the One who does rise from the dead to tell us there is a better way than trusting nice clothes and good food. He is the One who gives us life now, in the midst of our sufferings and poverty. He is the one who brings us to Abraham’s side where we may be comforted both now and forever. As St. Paul said: “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 as we trust our Savior God who loves us enough to rescue us from trusting our good things in this life, we also learn to love our neighbor—every Lazarus whom God puts outside our gate. As St. John tells us today in the Epistle reading: “We love because He first loved us.” Instead of using our good things in life solely for ourselves, we get to use the good things given by God to help and serve the people around us.

So, which of the two men in Jesus’ story would you rather be? Perhaps Proverbs 8(:10-11) can help with that. Wisdom, personified in the Son of God, says: “Take my instruction instead of silver, and knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is better than jewels, and all that you may desire cannot compare with her.” You see, our Wisdom, our Lazarus, our Savior, comes to us today in His Body and Blood. Let’s take, eat, and drink, for here is the true sumptuous feast. Here we learn to trust our Savior and love our neighbor. Here we learn to be like Lazarus and rejoice in our Savior’s deliverance. Amen.

01 June 2015

Homily for Holy Trinity

"Trinity in Unity for Us"
John 3:1-17

Listen here. 

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Perhaps you remember that song from a few years back, “God Is Watching Us.” Many thought it was a nice Christian song. After all, it mentioned God. But there was a major problem. It sang about God watching us “from a distance.” It ranked right up there with the old “watch-maker God” image—that God made the world, wound it up like a watch to run by itself, and then went somewhere else in the universe. How can we be close to a distant deity? How can we be attached to a detached god? We cannot. And we certainly cannot have our sins washed clean by a god who won’t get his own hands dirty with us. And we certainly won’t be made a community with him, if he won’t associate with us.

There’s a lot of mystery in the one, true, Triune God. On the one hand, Scripture says, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one” (Dt. 6:4). And, on the other hand, God also identifies Himself as three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—when He sends His apostles out to make disciples by baptizing and teaching (Mt. 28:19). Then get ready for how we will confess Him in the Athanasian Creed: “we worship One God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity, neither confusing the persons nor dividing the substance.” So far this might seem rather philosophical, even distant and detached.

So, what does it mean that we confess the Triune God? Do we want to be saved from sin, death, and the evil one? Then hold on to “the catholic faith.” And what faith is that? “that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity.” No, He’s not a distant deity. Our Triune God comes close to us. He attaches Himself to us. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit come to us in very real and personal ways. He dirties His almighty hands to cleanse us from our sinful weakness. Trinity in Unity for us.

Too often we like to compartmentalize God. We put Him in various boxes. There’s the Sunday morning box. Sunday morning is the time for God, we think, but the rest of Sunday and the other days of the week are ours to do with as we please. We think and act as if our ever-present God were rather absent and detached from our everyday lives.

Then there are the “Trinitarian boxes”—one box for each Person of the Trinity. As we learn in Catechism class, the Father created us, the Son redeemed us, and the Holy Spirit makes us holy. True enough! But then we box the divine Persons in. “Pastor, we’re supposed to pray to the Father, right?” “Right.” “And in Jesus’ name, right?” “Right.” Is it wrong, then, to pray to the Holy Spirit?” Not at all. Let’s remember that when we pray to one we pray to all, and when we pray to all we also pray to each one.

And here’s another thing to watch for. In some modern, “creative” worship services, God is almost divided into three gods. The invocation might be changed to go something like this: “In the name of the Father who created us; in the name of the Son who redeemed us; and in the name of the Holy Spirit who makes us holy.” At first we might think, “Wow, some nice variety.” However, if we take the words at all seriously, we end up having not only three Persons, but also three names. Three names can open the door to thinking of three different gods. The Biblical wording, though, still works best: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” One name, one God, and yet still three Persons. True God. True worship. Trinity in Unity for us.

You see, everyone has a god. The real question is: Is it the true God? Politicians, businessmen, and radio talk show hosts often give a lot of “god talk.” Pop music might even sing of “god.” Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses even speak of “god” and “gods.” But which god? Everyone has some kind of a god. It could be money, or power, or fame, or learning, or even the spirits found in a bottle. It might even be the ever-present “get-along-with-everybody-and-don’t-make-anyone-upset” god that wants to downplay the teaching of Scripture and the Church. As Martin Luther said in his Large Catechism: “A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress…. Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god” (LC I:2-3).

Today, Trinity Sunday, is about the true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—making Himself known to us. Our God has a passion to make Himself known to us and for us. Jesus tells us about God loving the world and sending His Son, and He also speaks of being born again by the Spirit.

God makes Himself known to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—Three Persons. And yet He always works for a unified purpose: to love us and have us as His very own people. Because of His great love, He created us. After we fell into sin, and even in the midst of our daily sinful thoughts, words and deeds, He loves us to redeem us and bring us back to Himself. And in the Christian faith and life He works all things to keep us as His own precious people. As Scripture says, “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before Him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will” (Eph. 1:4-5).

Now if that isn’t great Good News, I don’t know what is! Just think of it. All of your joys and sorrows now take on a new light. Whatever happens to you—good or bad, joyous or grievous—the true, Triune God is always working to keep you as His own. Take, for example the recent storms and flooding in Texas. Such disasters show the raw power of God’s creation, a creation that only He can control, a power that rightly humbles us. And yet Jesus the Son of God shed His blood to redeem everyone affected by storms, tornados and floods. And the Holy Spirit constantly works to make known the saving deeds of Jesus and bring true comfort to the devastated regions.

And best of all, the holy Trinity and blessed Unity worked most gloriously at the cross and empty tomb. God makes Himself known to us by rescuing us from our sin and death. God’s good creation took a rotten turn. We masterpieces said to our Maker: “We don’t want You anymore; we’ll be our own gods.” We still say that as we box God in, as we keep Him at a distance, as we try to detach ourselves from Him. It’s no wonder that when we endure sufferings, we think God has abandoned us or left us. The truth is, we’ve left Him.

So the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all three together in Unity—work to bring us back to Himself. The Father shows His love for us by sending the Son to sacrifice Himself on the bloody cross for us. When Jesus the Son died for us, God died for us. The riches of God and His grace are in the blood shed for us for the forgiveness of sins, the very blood we receive today in the Supper. So the Son bowed His head and gave up the ghost. But then the Holy Spirit breathed life back into Him on the third day. Now He breathes new life into us. Three Persons of the Godhead work to rescue us from sin and death. That’s the new life we have when we are “born of water and the Spirit” (Jn. 3:5).

It’s also the new life of community in the Church. Just as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a unified community, He joins us together in a community of loving and serving each other. We live in that community here at Hope as we hear God’s Word, receive His Sacrament, and care for one another, always learning in humility to count others more significant than ourselves (see Phil. 2:3). We also live in that community as we say farewell and Godspeed to brothers and sisters whom God has placed here these past several years—the Palmer family. Even as they must leave us, we still remain in the same family, the same community, of Jesus’ Church. Yes, we need each other, just as we need the Trinity in Unity. When our Triune God lovingly rescues us from sin and death, He also binds us together in His community called the Church.

God’s singular plan of making us, saving us, and keeping us holy comes from the Father, through the Son and in the Holy Spirit. As St. Paul says: “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” and “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom. 5:1, 5). Even today the Spirit delivers that peace with the Father in the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus. So, our lifelong prayer, indeed our way of life, echoes the hymn: “My Maker, hold me in Your hand; O Christ, forgiven let me stand; Blest Comforter, do not depart; With faith and love enrich my heart” (LSB 876:4). Amen.

28 May 2015

Same-Sex Behaviors & Desires: God Speaks to Both

This article also appears in my congregation's newsletter, The Hope Lutheran (June-July 2015) and is cross-posted at Brothers of John the Steadfast (www.steadfastlutherans.org).

Matters of same-sex behaviors and desires have become commonplace in our sexually super-charged and pleasure-obsessed culture. Pop-culture doles out regular helpings of such behaviors and desires in both dramatic and comedic settings, and the U.S.  Supreme Court will soon issue a landmark ruling on what is being called “the right” to same-sex “marriage.”

From God’s Word, we Christians know that these behaviors and desires go against God’s good design and will for us and for all human beings. However, even as we look to God’s Word for help and guidance, some pose this question: When the Bible calls homosexuality (same-sex behavior and desires) sinful, does that apply to both the behaviors and the desires, or just to the behaviors?

We do well to look to the Scriptures—what God says—in order to discuss these matters and provide a faithful witness to the forgiving love of God in Christ Jesus. Yes, God speaks to both same-sex behaviors and same-sex desires.

What is “sin”?

Before we can know what God says about the “sin” of same-sex behaviors and desires, we need to know what He says about “sin” in general.

Augsburg Confession, Article II faithfully and succinctly explains Scripture’s teaching on “Original Sin”:

Our churches teach that since the fall of Adam, all who are naturally born are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with the inclination to sin, called concupiscence. Concupiscence is a disease and original vice that is truly sin. It damns and brings eternal death on those who are not born anew through Baptism and the Holy Spirit (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, 2006, p. 31-32).

All human beings are born with “sin,” that is, without true fear and trust in God and with the inclination to believe, desire, and behave in ways that go against God’s good will.

What is “concupiscence,” you ask? Coming from Latin, com- + cupere, it means “to ardently desire.” The Apology of the Augsburg Confession refers to Augustine’s use of the term to define original sin as “wicked desire” (Ap. II, 24; Concordia, p. 78). The Apology then explains:

“Since diseased nature cannot fear and love God and believe God, it seeks and loves carnal things…. Concupiscence is not only a corruption of physical qualities, but also, in the higher powers, a vicious turning to fleshly things” (Ap. II, 24-25, Concordia, p. 78-79).

To call someone or something “sinful” is simply to acknowledge two things: 1) the absence of fearing, loving, and trusting in the God who made us and loves us, and 2) the presence of a disease that ardently desires to fill the void (“God-shaped hole”?) by pursuing and loving carnal things.

Same-sex behavior is, clearly, sinful.

Now let’s apply this Biblical understanding of “sin” to matters of same-sex behavior.

God’s original, pre-sin design gave us “man” (human beings) created “in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). From the beginning, God’s purpose for the male and the female in this relationship is for them to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). God’s good will and design gives us male and female in order 1) to reflect and show forth His image and 2) to procreate.

God further clarifies His design for male and female in Genesis 2. The first man, Adam, is the only human being, but “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So God creates the woman (Genesis 2:21-22) and institutes the estate of marriage: “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (Genesis 2:24).

After the fall into sin (Genesis 3), anything—any desire, any behavior—that strays from God’s original design is labeled “sin” and “sinful.” In matters of physical sexuality and intimacy, this includes, but is not limited to, same-sex behaviors. Even natural law and common-sense reason can determine that same-sex unions cannot procreate.

According to what God says in His Word, same-sex behaviors clearly go against His good will for all human beings. Relevant Old Testament passages include:

  • Genesis 19, where men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house and demanded that his male visitors be brought out “that [they] may know them” (19:5; see Genesis 4:1 for “know” referring to the sex act). Lot even urged these concupiscent men not to act “so wickedly” (19:7), and Sodom was ultimately destroyed by God Himself;
  • Leviticus 18:22, which says, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination”;
  • Leviticus 20:13, which says, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.”

The New Testament is no less bold in calling such behavior “sinful,” that is, against God’s good will.

  • Romans 1:18-27 – St. Paul identifies various sins that show how all human beings are fallen in “original sin” (concupiscence). Among these sins, he says, “women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another” (1:26-27).
  • 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 – St. Paul lists “men who practice homosexuality” among other sinners with their sinful behaviors who “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (6:9). (The original Greek actually specifies both the receiver and the giver of the male-on-male sex act!)
  • 1 Timothy 1:8-10 – St. Paul proclaims that God’s law is good, if used lawfully, in order to expose sinful behavior (1:8). Among other sinners, he again mentions “men who practice homosexuality” (1:10).

From these well-known passages, same-sex behavior is clearly “sinful,” that is, it strays from trusting and loving God and His design for male and female. It also strays from His good design for sexual relations as the activity in which a husband and a wife express their union and mutual companionship, find delight in one another, and carry out God’s purpose of the procreation of children (see Lutheran Service Book, p. 275).

But what about same-sex desires?

While it can be helpful to distinguish between same-sex behaviors and same-sex desires, such a distinction does not make the desires any “less sinful.” Nor does it mean that same-sex desires are any “more sinful” (more serious, more damning, etc.) than other sinful desires.

If we look for a handy-dandy Scriptural proof-text that says, “Same-sex desire is sinful” (or “an abomination” or…), we will come up empty-handed. However, from what God does say in His Word, we can discern that same-sex desires do fall into the category of “sinful,” as do other desires, such as desires of adultery, greed, revenge, etc.

Not only can, and should, every human being confess, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5), but also every individual must admit that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Romans 3:10-11). Every human being—along with all of his or her desires—is infected with concupiscence, that “vicious turning to fleshly things” to find meaning and fulfillment in life.

The New Testament is replete with references to the sinful desires—a.k.a. “passions”—that war against our life with God. Here is a small sampling:

  • Romans 1:26 – “God gave them up to dishonorable passions” (in the context of women and men exchanging natural relations for same-sex relations).
  • Romans 6:12 – “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”
  • Galatians 5:24 – “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
  • Ephesians 2:3 – “…among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind….”
  • 2 Timothy 2:22 – “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
  • Titus 2:12 – “…training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age….”
  • 1 Peter 1:14 – “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance….”
  • 1 Peter 2:11 – “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

Having certain “passions” (desires) does not mean that they are innocent or innocuous.

Our Lord Jesus illustrates this when He refers to adulterous desires and thoughts: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).

The most incisive comment from Jesus comes when He identifies with precision the true source of our sinful behaviors. They actually come from within, from our sinful desires: “What comes out of mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person” (Matthew 15:18-20).

Does God have anything else to say?

Having said all of that, what else does God say? Same-sex desires and behaviors are indeed sinful, as are many other desires and behaviors (such as alcoholism, cheating, theft, adultery, slander, gossip, etc.). However, God has a better, more life-giving, more comforting word to speak to all of us: He forgives us and restores us through His Son Jesus Christ.

Pastor Tom Eckstein expresses it well as he addresses those who wrestle with same-sex desires and behaviors:

If you are a person who bears the burden of homosexuality, you need to understand that when God uses Holy Scripture to show that your homosexual desire and behavior is sin, He does this because He LOVES you! God exposes your sin so that you can trust in Jesus, your Lord and Savior, through whom you are completely forgiven and holy in God’s sight—even as you continue to struggle with homosexual desires and behavior! In fact, once we are set free by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are then able to see God’s sexual laws as gifts from a loving Father (Bearing Their Burden: Speaking the Truth in Love to People Burdened by Homosexuality, p. 39, emphasis original).

The Gospel of Jesus Christ applies to all sinners, whatever their sinful desires and behaviors. By His resurrection, we get to live a new life. In our Baptism, we are called daily to drown the Old Adam “with all sins and evil desires” and daily to “arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (Small Catechism, Holy Baptism).

Listen to my "Family Shield" interview with Dr. Beverly Yahnke on giving Gospel healing to those who struggle with same-sex attraction.

25 May 2015

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

"The Pentecost Harvest"
Acts 2:1-21 & John 14:23-31

Listen here.

If you want to know who the Holy Spirit is and what He does, don’t listen to the Pentecostals or the Charismatics. They get it all wrong. They insist that the Holy Spirit is somehow in business for Himself, making a name for Himself, doing His own thing, making us ooh and aah over unusual things like hearing unknown, babbling languages. Instead, if you truly want to know who the Holy Spirit is and what He does, listen to Jesus. He says, “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” No “Lone-Ranger” Holy Spirit there! With Father and Son, He is God, and He works in concert with the Father and the Son. And His number one work is to point you to Jesus.

Jesus also says, “When the Helper comes, who I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26). The Holy Spirit is God, comes from God, and testifies about our Lord Jesus and His salvation. Jesus also says, “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you” (Jn. 16:13-14). Nope, no “Lone-Ranger,” independent contractor work for the Holy Spirit! Instead, He comes to guide you into the Truth—and Truth has a name; His name is Jesus. The Spirit takes the things of Jesus—His forgiveness, His life, and His salvation—and He declares them to you.

If you want to know what this Day of Pentecost is all about, again, don’t listen to the Pentecostals or the Charismatics. They focus on the out-of-the-ordinary “mighty rushing wind” and the “divided tongues as of fire”—as if we should expect those same spectacular things actually to benefit us in our normal, non-spectacular lives today. They miss the point! If you truly want to know what this Day of Pentecost is all about, listen to God in His Word.

This “Day of Pentecost” is also called “The Feast of Pentecost.” It comes straight from the Old Testament, and it reminds us of a festival, or feast, God gave for a fiftieth day (The word “pentecost” means fifty.). St. Paul speaks of questions of festivals and Sabbaths and then says, “These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:17). Just as the Holy Spirit does, those Old Testament feasts and festivals—including Pentecost—point us to Christ Jesus Himself.

Let’s start with the biggie of Old Testament feasts—the Feast of Passover. About 1500 years before Jesus, God was about to lead His people out of Egyptian slavery. He told Moses how to celebrate a feast for this deliverance. Take a lamb. Slit its throat. Paint the blood on the doorposts, so that the Angel of Death would pass over the homes and the people could live. Roast the lamb. Eat it, all of it, with a meal that rehearses the Lord’s mighty acts of rescuing His people from slavery. And celebrate this feast every year.

When Jesus comes to deliver us from our slavery to sin and death, He actually comes as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). He is slain when He is nailed to the cross. And that happens on Passover. His blood covers us so that we may live and not see eternal death. And, on the night when He is betrayed, when He celebrates the Passover meal with His disciples, He even gives us His Body and His Blood for us to eat and to drink and thus live in His mighty acts of rescuing us from sin, death, and the devil. And we get to celebrate this new, Christian “passover meal,” not just once a year, but every Lord’s Day and at other times. Jesus fulfills the Old Testament Passover feast for us. “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7).

Close on the heels of Passover came another ancient feast: the Feast of Firstfruits. At the same time of the year as Passover—late March or early April—during the same week as Passover, God’s people living in God’s Promised Land would see the first fruits in their wheat and barley fields. God told Moses to tell the people: “You shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted” (Lev. 23:10-11). Along with this ritual action of waving the sheaves that God had given, God’s people would offer sacrifices of thanksgiving—lambs and grain and wine—and would feast on the Lord’s goodness. After this Feast of Firstfruits, every household in Israel could enjoy the new harvest. It joined together their “eating of ordinary meals at home with sacred meals at the sanctuary” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 502).

Jesus fulfills the Passover Feast in His death on the cross. He also fulfills the Feast of Firstfruits in His resurrection, at the same time of year, in the same week, on the third day. For several weeks now, we’ve been celebrating what St. Paul boldly proclaimed: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). The first fruits of the wheat field give hope and promise that more fruits, more heads of grain, will soon follow. Christ Jesus is the first fruits of all of us who are bound to fall asleep into death. But High Priest Jesus waves the first fruits of His resurrection for all to see—you, me, all people, even God the Father. More resurrections are sure to come—for you, for me, for all who trust Jesus for forgiveness, life, and salvation. “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:21-23). “Jesus’ resurrection marked the beginning of the harvest time that will not end until the close of the age” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 509).

Now we’re ready for the Feast called Pentecost—the feast of day fifty, also called the feast of weeks. In the Old Testament—fifty days after Passover; that is, seven weeks after Passover—the people would once again bring their sheaves of wheat for the priest to wave as an offering. These sheaves now came from the full harvest. God had made the fields fruitful. God had provided for them from His land. God had caused the harvest. Now His people could enjoy God’s mighty works of providing for them.

How does our Lord Jesus fulfill the Feast of Pentecost? He keeps His promise to send the Holy Spirit. When the Holy Spirit manifests Himself on Pentecost, Jesus’ disciples begin speaking in various normal and down-to-earth languages. And what do they speak? “The mighty works of God” (Acts 2:11)--His works of saving and forgiving us sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit manifests Himself on Pentecost, God is causing a harvest—a harvest of people who hear the mighty, saving works of God in Christ Jesus in their own languages, a harvest of people who rejoice in Jesus’ death and resurrection for them, a harvest of people who live in the new life of Jesus. That harvest is YOU and all Christians. “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Acts 2:21). Welcome to the Pentecost harvest! “At Pentecost God the Father poured out the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ. He did not give them the blessings of a bountiful harvest from the land, but conveyed the firstfruits of the Spirit to them as his priests through the risen Lord Jesus” (Kleinig, Leviticus, 509).

You, and I, and all who hear and receive the Gospel of Jesus ARE the harvest. “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth” (2 Thess. 2:13). And God the Holy Spirit—along with the Father and the Son—will bring in the full harvest on the Last Day. You, and I, and all who hear and receive the Gospel of Jesus “have been redeemed from mankind” and are “firstfruits for God and the Lamb” (Rev. 14:4). That’s what Pentecost is all about, and that’s who the Holy Spirit is and what He does FOR YOU. Amen.

18 May 2015

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

"The Spirit, Your Comforter"
John 15:26-16:4

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Today we come to the end of the “week of Sundays." This is now the seventh week of celebrating the joys of Christ’s victory over the grave, over every deadly thing that separates us from our God who loves us. We’ve been enjoying the life that He gives as He restores us to life with God. But now we need comfort, just as the disciples did.

Jesus’ words in our Gospel reading actually come from the night before He would die. He told His disciples that He must leave them. He said that where He was about to go, they could not follow. Jesus leave them? What were they supposed to do? How would they carry on without Him? Since we celebrated Jesus’ Ascension on Thursday, we might be tempted to think that Jesus has left us too. Jesus’ answer is simple: “When the Helper/Comforter comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.” Just as Jesus comforted His disciples with the promised Holy Spirit, He also comforts you by sending His Spirit.

How we need some comfort these days! No, not just “some comfort”—A LOT of comfort! News reports of Christians being persecuted in far off lands continue to confront us—and rightly so. After all, our brothers and sisters in Christ are teaching us to remain faithful even in the midst of suffering. In our own land, we Christians are seen more and more as the problem to be remedied and the enemy to be vanquished. The hour is coming, and is now here, when many think ostracizing and marginalizing Christians is actually offering service to God. Well, not to the true God, but it is offering service—praise and worship—to false gods such as immediate gratification and self-chosen pleasures. As Jesus warns: “they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me.”

But Jesus does not tell us these things to frighten us or to lead us to constant hand-wringing. No, Jesus says “all these things to keep you from falling away.” After all, as He said, if they hated Him, they’ll hate His Christians. If they persecuted Him, they’ll also persecute His Christians. If they executed Him, they’ll also execute His Christians. And, no, I don’t mention these things to frighten you or lead you to constant hand-wringing either. No, this is all about how our Lord would comfort us. Peter said it well as he echoed our Lord’s words: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet. 4:12-14). It’s all about how our Lord comforts us with His Spirit—“the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father.”

When Jesus spoke to His disciples, He was preparing them for that little “in-between time”—that time when He would leave them to go the cross. But He would come back to them in the resurrection on the third day. And then He would leave them again—for “a little while”—when He would ascend to God’s right hand. And with those first twelve disciples, we’re still in that “in-between time” before our Lord comes again. The difference is, we have the crucified and risen Lord Jesus. His cross and His shed blood forgive all our doubts and apprehensions. His victory over the grave gives us confidence and hope—and comfort.

That comfort comes not in the form of a cozy, warm blanket that you put on your bed. It does not come in the form of a comfy chair in which you relax to watch TV. It does not come in the form of “comfort food,” whether chocolate or something called “Southern Comfort.” No, the comfort that Jesus gives is very mighty and very fortifying. “When the [Comforter] comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.”

Our word “comfort” actually comes from two Latin words. Put together those two Latin words literally mean “strengthen together” or “fortify together.” Instead of cozy warm blankets or soothing chocolates that melt in your mouth, think body builder’s muscle. Or, better yet, think of a towering castle wall, as in “a mighty fortress.” Our Lord’s “comfort” comes through His Comforter, the Holy Spirit.

And how does the Spirit of Truth, the divine Comforter—the divine Fortifier—strengthen you together as Jesus’ disciples? He bears witness about Jesus. He teaches you all things and brings to your remembrance all that Jesus has said and done for you. He gives you the peace of sins forgiven that the world cannot give (see John 14:26-27). He also convicts you and the world of sin. He convinces you that Jesus has come from the Father, has won your salvation, and has returned to the Father. And He convinces you that the ruler of this world—the old evil foe himself—has been judged and awaits his sentence (see John 16:8-11). Now that strengthens. That fortifies. That gives comfort.

The Holy Spirit helps and comforts you by fortifying you, by nourishing you, by transforming you, and by renewing your strength. In your Baptism, you have received new life by being joined to Christ in His death and resurrection. You have been reborn, born anew into life with God. In your Baptism, your Lord says to you: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you” (Ezek. 36:25).

But you cannot live that new life without constant care or sustenance. Just as no infant can care for himself/herself, no child of God can care for himself/herself. The Holy Spirit comes to give you the love and food of Jesus Christ. And not only that, but He also protects you from things that you may not know or understand. Not only do you need protection from the obvious problems in life, but you also need it from the spiritual assaults that you cannot see coming. So the Holy Spirit feeds and nourishes you, protects and defends you as God’s holy and dearly loved children. He gives you a new heart. He puts a new spirit within you. He removes your heart of stone, and He gives you a heart of flesh—flesh that lives with God and from His Word.

The Holy Spirit feeds and protects you in ways that you cannot see but can only believe. When the Holy Spirit feeds you on Holy Communion, you cannot see that you are actually receiving Christ’s life-giving Body and Blood. But you believe it, and so you receive the nourishment and immortality that the Spirit gives there. When the Holy Spirit protects you with the word of forgiveness, you cannot see Jesus speaking that word to you. Yet you believe that the pastor’s forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness, and thus you receive the Spirit’s defense and protection given there.

Our Lord Jesus says, “the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me.” Where does this testifying take place? Not in a courtroom. Not in a congressional hearing. Not in a baseball stadium or a movie theater. But right here, in the Church, right here where the Gospel and Sacraments are delivered to you. Here you have the Spirit’s comforting, strengthening, fortifying testimony. No, He does not necessarily give you a warm feeling in your heart. But He certainly does testify that you have received and still receive the life of the Lord Jesus. He does testify that Jesus’ life shapes you and renews you in the life that you have from birth. And by this testimony, the Spirit feeds and fortifies the Lord’s life in you so that you may continue to grow and mature until the day when your renewal is complete.

Just as Jesus comforted His disciples with the promised Holy Spirit, He also comforts you by sending His Spirit. So, with the Holy Spirit not only working for you, but also working in you, you can be bold and say with certain confidence: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” (Ps. 27:1). Amen.