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.

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.

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.

31 December 2018

Homily for the First Sunday after Christmas (2018)

"Holding Life"
Luke 2:22-40

The world has put away the trees and decorations, but the Church still gets to celebrate Christmas. The world has entered the time of returning and exchanging gifts, but the Church still gets to ponder and treasure the gift of all gifts—God’s beloved Son become flesh. The world packs up and moves on to the next thing in its death-avoiding, stuff-centered life, but the Church still gets to meditate on and receive Life Himself as He comes to us in His Body and Blood.

Please, do not grow weary of the Church’s extended Christmas celebration! Let’s not strip the Christmas things away too soon! The world may see December 25th as the end of its rush-rush, get-more season, but the Church sees the 25th as just the beginning—the beginning of celebrating Life itself, Life-in-the-flesh for us.

But there’s a tension. That line between Church and world does not divide as neatly as we would like. It’s not us versus them. You and I live with feet firmly planted in both places. We are in the world, but not of it. Your birthday makes you a citizen of the world. Holy Baptism makes you a citizen of God’s Church and Kingdom. So that dividing line between Church and world cuts right through each of us, right through our very hearts.

Because of your birthday, you live from birth to death. That specter of death governs much of how you live your life—why you succumb to fear, why you are so harried and stressed, why you are so insistent on not missing out or even asserting your rights. No one wants to think about it, but the end of your birth lurks just around the corner; and it can snatch you at any moment. So you live your whole life trying to ignore death’s control over you and, at the same time, trying to run from it. You and I live as if this life and this world are all that matter.

But because of Baptism, you have a different calling. Your Baptism calls you to live as if God actually matters. It allows you to live from birth to life. Sure, each of us must still undergo that death we fear. But the waters of Baptism promise you that this death has already been dealt with. You have been drowned in the waters of Baptism, and so death no longer has a hold on you. Now Life Himself holds you and even lives within you. Now you need not fear death or anything else.

You see, when our Lord who is Life is given to you—washed over you, spoken into your ears, placed into your mouth—when you have this Life who destroyed death, when you have this Life who promises to be with you and see you safely through this world and into the next, then why be afraid of anyone or anything? Why let anyone or anything else control you? Why live your life in any way that goes against Life Himself? Why let anyone or anything else keep you from receiving this Life regularly?

Why? Because the fear of death and the world’s enticements are often strong and successful. They routinely succeed at pushing Life Himself out of your mind, out of your heart, and out of your daily living. No, Lord of Life Jesus does not loosen His hold on you. And, no, death and the world cannot loosen or pry His hold from you. Rather, you and I hold on more firmly to the world’s “life-to-death” vision, and we end up losing sight of the Lord’s “death-to-life” truth. But the Lord’s “death-to-life” way is what’s real. It’s what we have received.

Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth—that’s what distinguishes the church from the world. Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth gives you the courage to live against the world, against your sinful inclinations, and against your fear of death. In this “death-to-life” reality, our Lord plants Himself in you, so that you no longer live for yourself. Now He lives in you and with you and through you.

What does this look like? Look at old Simeon. Simeon lives for only one purpose—to embrace and hold on to Life. But Simeon does not embrace the world’s life, that “life-to-death” vision. Nor does he embrace his own concept of life or someone else’s. Instead, Simeon embraces Life Himself—Life in the flesh.

Now even as Simeon cradles Life in his arms and looks Life in the eye, he does see death—along with persecution, temptation, heartache, turmoil, evil, suffering, and cross. But Simeon will not be scared by these things. He will not let the world and the world’s devil take away the Life he holds. And Simeon will not let the horror he sees tear his heart away from the Life he holds and relies on. Instead, aged Simeon holds Life up and speaks a blessing.

“Behold, this Child—this Life in the flesh—is born to give life by being put to death. This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel. He will clearly draw the line between Church and world, between life and death. He will make it plain that you cannot live the world’s life and still live after death. And He will call everyone from death to life, but few will hear, few will care to follow. Therefore, this Child will be a sign that will be opposed and spoken against. That opposition will be a sword piercing through your own soul because you embrace Him as I do. But don’t be afraid! Even as the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, this Child is the Sun of Righteousness who brings healing in His wings.”

So do you see how old Simeon embraces Life? He blesses what others may curse. He blesses the suffering, the cross, and the death of the Christ Child. Simeon knows why our Lord Jesus “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.” It was not simply so that our God and Lord may have a taste of what it’s like to be human. It was not so that we may feel better about God, about our relationship with Him, or even about life in general. This Child whom Simeon holds and embraces is Life Himself. He is born to sustain and deliver those who are tempted, those who suffer, those who will die. He is born not to live a life we could never live, but to give us a life we could never have. He is born not to make our suffering go away, but to usher us safely through this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.

Christmas really does mean so much more than “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Christmas means that Life Himself has come into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. Amen.

27 December 2018

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day (2018)

"Our Divine Dwelling Place"
John 1:1-18

Christmas and home just go together. Bing Crosby made the words famous in 1943, and Michael BublĂ© still croons them: “I’ll be home for Christmas / You can count on me.” Other well known pop singers title their holiday album “Home for Christmas” or sing songs such as “Christmas Is Coming Home.”

Home is a treasured thing, to be sure. We pray that our homes may be “a shelter for the defenseless, a fortress for the tempted, a resting place for the weary, and a foretaste of our eternal home” with God Himself (LSB Agenda, 70). Home is not just a physical space; it gives us roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging, and a place of emotional wellbeing. At home we can laugh without being shy, and our tears can dry at their own pace. Our feet may leave our homes, but not our hearts. As someone once quipped, “Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

Treasuring home and longing for home, though, are much more than sentimentality. They go to the very core of our being as God’s created people. We are created to be at home with the living God. He is our truest and best home. But we come from a long line of people looking to leave home, strike out on their own, and even run away from home. Sure, Adam and Eve were given their eviction notice from the Garden of Eden and compelled to leave, but truthfully they had already run away from their true home—from God Himself—by eating that piece of fruit. Thus “The world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Even when “He came to his own,…his own people did not receive Him.”

So the real reason for this season, and this day especially, is us homeless waifs. We wander through life searching for meaning and purpose on our own. We look for some place…any place…and some way…any way…to belong, to be accepted, to feel at home in this fallen world. But since we have left our true home, who is God Himself, our searching is vain and our wandering is aimless. We pile all of our worldly goods of self-sufficiency and self-determination into our rusty, beat up shopping carts with squeaky wheels as we wander through this fallen world. The homelessness of our human fallenness actually leads us to view our cardboard shanty town dwellings as though they were fabulous mansions. But we know they’re not. And we cannot escape the isolating illness of our sin, nor can we avoid the biting cold of death.

So the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, left His eternal home to bring us in out of the cold. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” He was in a face-to-face relationship with God the Father from eternity. ”And the Word was God.” The Word Himself was and is the same divine essence as the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He took on our very skin and bones, our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members. “Dwelt among us” can also be translated “tented among us” or “tabernacled among us.” But this was no temporary “tenting” or “dwelling.” The Son of God did not become flesh only to disrobe Himself of our humanity when He was done with it. Nor did He cease dwelling among us when He ascended to the Father’s right hand.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in order to bring us in out of the cold of our sinful rebellion. He became flesh to bring us home to God for all eternity—home where we receive His healing for our disease of sin; home where we may bask in His life-giving warmth, shielded and delivered from the coldness of death.

Moses proclaimed this homecoming long before Christmas: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27). He also teaches us to pray, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1). We even get to see what God’s dwelling place—our true home—looked like in Moses’ day. It included bases and frames, poles and pillars, and skins and cloth placed over them. In its central room was the beautiful golden ark with the mercy seat on top. Here’s where “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Here’s where and how the LORD would be with His people throughout their journey in the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Though they were wandering, they were still at home, because God was their divine dwelling place.

Even when God’s people became homeless in Babylonian exile, God still wanted to bring them home to Him. Ezekiel proclaimed God’s promise of homecoming: “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezek. 37:27-28). That promise came somewhat true when the people returned to their own land. But it became completely fulfilled when the Word became flesh.

You see, when the Word became flesh to dwell among us—to bring us home—He came to bring us the fullness of His grace and truth. “And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Gifts abounding more than under any Christmas tree and more enduring than any we can unwrap last night or today. Forgiveness for our many doubts and misplaced priorities. Life to combat the coldness of death. And salvation as the best gift of all from the Word become flesh who came to die on a cross. To all who believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God—children in God’s home, both now and for eternity.

Oh, we do not have that right by our own birth, but we do have it in the rebirth Jesus gives by water and the Spirit. We do not have that right by our own bloodline, but we do have it through the blood of Jesus, both on the cross and at the altar. We do not have the right to be in God’s home as His children by the will of our flesh or any other human plan or design. No, we only have this right because “of God.” The Word of God. The Word who became flesh and remains flesh. The Word who dwelt and still dwells with us. “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

On this Christmas 2018, we find ourselves a bit homeless in our own building—gathering in a basement auditorium doubling as a sacred sanctuary. Despite appearances, though, we are still at home in our divine dwelling place—not the brick and mortar, but in our flesh and blood Savior. And even as we eagerly await returning to the sanctuary, we are even more eager in anticipating our eternal home. It’s the home the Apostle John heard promised for all of us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, 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’” (Rev. 21:3).

Today as we celebrate our Savior’s Incarnation, and as we enjoy our various family traditions, we rejoice in our divine dwelling place. We are home for Christmas. We can count on Jesus. Amen.

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Eve (2018)

"Pondering the Mystery"
Luke 2:1-7

The Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that burned with fiery flame, but was not consumed (Ex. 3). That Angel of the Lord was the Son of God, before He took on human flesh. In that burning bush we get a preview of our Lord’s Incarnation. The Lord was about to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt. When He takes on our humanity, He comes to rescue us from slavery to sin and death. The bush was not consumed by the fire; our Lord’s human nature is not consumed by His divine nature. The Lord God is “a consuming fire” and He “dwells in unapproachable light,” but His human nature is not harmed by His divine nature. “In Him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” This Child is true God and true man.

Tonight we celebrate the mystery of God the Son taking on our human nature. Let’s imitate Moses as he approached the burning bush to see why it was not consumed. Let’s ponder this mystery and miracle of Christ being both God and Man. As Moses took off his shoes on that holy ground, let’s take off the shoes of our sin-stained thoughts and come near with the bare feet of humility and faith given by God. Let’s ponder the time of Jesus’ Birth, then the place, then His mother, and finally the manner of His Birth.

Let’s ponder THE TIME. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was perhaps the most powerful emperor of Rome. He united the Romans and reigned at a time of peace and prosperity. So Augustus decreed a registration—a census—for taxing his united empire. It’s into this world the Son of Almighty God comes—the universal King, who alone holds all power and peace. But He comes to bring His eternal kingdom. He comes during a time of Roman peace to bring the  peace that surpasses all understanding. He is the “Prince of Peace.” He’s born into this world of sin and death to set the human race at peace with God once again. He wants to give the true, inner peace of faith in Him and His salvation. “For where there is faith, there is Christ; where there is Christ, there is God’s grace; where there is grace, there is peace and joy of the heart” (Gerhard, Postilla I:48). “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

We also note that our Lord was born at a time of census and taxation. But He does not come to tax us. No, He comes to keep the taxing Law of God Himself. “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). He comes to free us from the curse—the taxation—of God’s Law. In fact, our New-born King registers our names in His Book of Life. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). More than that, because our Lord has taken on our human nature, you can rejoice when He tells you, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16). “Yes, He loved His people, all His holy ones [are] in his hand” (Dt. 33:3).

Infant King Jesus does not burden us with taxation, as do Caesar or Uncle Sam. Instead, He rescues us from the debt and taxation of sin and death. “To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder” (Is. 9:6). Earthly governments may govern on the shoulders of their subjects or citizens, but King Jesus carries the load of His eternal kingdom on His own shoulders; He willingly takes the burden of sin and death upon Himself.

Let’s ponder THE PLACE of our Lord’s Birth. “Joseph went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Joseph and Mary resided in the backwater town of Nazareth. But that’s not where the Christ was to be born. Micah had prophesied: “You, O Bethlehem…, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). God knew how to fulfill His promise through Caesar’s decree. That’s how God works for us too. We all suffer worldly troubles, personal mishaps, interpersonal strife, individual illnesses and limitations. And yet God works through these things to achieve His purpose. What purpose? To turn our hearts away from other helpers so that we may cling solely to Jesus for help and comfort. Not only is Christ born in Bethlehem, but He is also born in us. And He gives peace. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). It all starts in Bethlehem.

And speaking of Bethlehem, there’s great comfort and joy in that name. It means “house of bread.” This Babe born in “House of Bread” is the true food for our hungry souls. He says, “I am the Bread of Life…. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:48, 51). We get to leave the insignificant, little villages of our self-serving hearts and minds, and we get to receive the Food of the Christ, the food that fills and satisfies our souls—our lives—with His grace, with His mercy, with His life.

Let’s ponder our Lord’s VIRGIN MOTHER. Why be born of a young virgin girl? Isaiah had foretold it: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). Mary fulfills that promise. But how can a child be born of a virgin? God has a unique way of bringing something out of nothing. In the Old Testament Aaron’s staff “sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds” (Num. 17:8). On one day Gideon’s fleece (a lamb skin, not a sweatshirt) was filled with dew water, but the ground was completely dry. Then the next day the ground was covered with dew, but Gideon’s fleece was dry as a bone (Judg. 6:36-40). In the same way, God works supernaturally through Mary. By the Holy Spirit, Mary, a natural virgin, produces the supernatural fruit of the Christ Child. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, Mary was filled with the heavenly dew of Christ the Savior. As Isaiah foretold: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Is. 45:8). When Jesus is born, the dew of His righteousness, salvation, and forgiveness is spread over all the earth. And Mary remained pure virgin after the birth just as before the birth.

Why was the Christ Child born of a Virgin? So that He might be born without sin. You see, if He were born in the normal, natural way, the infection of sin would have been passed on to Him too. But Jesus wanted to take on pure, holy, untainted flesh, in order to heal our sinful, tainted human nature.

And the mystery of Jesus’ Virgin Mother applies to us in another way. Just as Mary was at the same time a virgin and a mother, the Christian Church is also both virgin and mother. As a virgin, the Church lives in complete fidelity to her coming Bridegroom, Jesus. And the consummation of that relationship will come at the eternal wedding feast. And as a mother, the Church daily conceives and bears and nurtures us, the children of God, children “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

Finally, let’s ponder THE MANNER of our Lord’s Birth. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the [guest room].” In the home where Joseph and Mary most likely stayed that night, the guest room was already taken. So after Mary gave birth, she placed her Child in a manger at the back of the main family living room. This Little Child came into the world to rescue us and all sinners. We humans have been driven out of Paradise because of our own sin and rebellion. So, this Little Child comes to bring us back to our heavenly home. He comes to where we are in order to find us and lead us home. Psalm 49 says, “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (49:12). How fitting, then, that the King of the Universe should be born and placed in a feeding trough. It’s where He would find us in order to lead us back home to His heavenly Paradise.

So, He humbles Himself to exalt us. By His poverty we become rich. He becomes weak to make us strong once again. He takes our debt of sin and pays it in full, and He frees us to enjoy the wealth of His eternal mercy. As Johann Gerhard proclaimed on this day some 400 years ago: “If a rich brother can bequeath the inheritance of the father’s treasures to his brothers and sisters, how much more will not this our wealthy Brother, who is Lord of heaven and earth, be able to give us the kingdom of His treasures which He has won for us through His birth in poverty, through His holy life and through His bitter death! By grace He wants to do this. Amen.” (Postilla, I:54)

24 December 2018

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli (2018)

Who Are You?
John 1:19-29

Who are you, John? This is now the second week we’ve pondered the identity of John the Baptizer. Last week we heard John asking if Jesus was the “Coming One.” Jesus answered, “Yes, just look at the words that I speak and the works that I do.” Jesus was rolling back sin and death. The blind could see. The deaf could hear. The Gospel was preached to the poor. And then Jesus drew our attention to who John really was—a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet. “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).

Today we hear the question again: “Who are you, John?” This time we receive a different kind of answer—not one telling us who John is, but telling us who John is not. “No,” John says, “I am not the Christ.” On this Sunday before Christmas, John the Baptist shows us how to deflect attention away from ourselves and instead focus ourselves, and others, on the true Christ.

“John, who are you, anyway?” John was at the highpoint of his preaching career. He was proclaiming repentance and baptizing for forgiveness, and crowds were going out in droves to see him. John was successful! So the priests and the Levites came to John, asking, “Who are you?”

This was no question of basic identity, such as “What’s your name?” or “Where do you work?” No, this was a question with another question—even a hope and a dream—hiding behind it. You see, these Jewish leaders respected John. He was from a priestly family. They liked his way of life, complete with camel’s hair wardrobe and that austere diet of locusts and wild honey. They liked his preaching of repentance. After all, fire and brimstone always appeals to the good and the religious.

Contrast all of that with what the Jews knew about Jesus. As far as they knew, He was the son of a lowly carpenter. And He came from that wretched little village called Nazareth. Can anything good come from there?

But John, John, he’s our man, they thought. If only they could get him—lure him, convince him—to confess that he was the anointed one, then they would love for him to be the long-promised Messiah. You see, these good, religious folks wanted a Savior of their own choosing.

But John burst their bubble! “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.” Then he just had to add, “And no, I’m not Elijah either. And no, I’m not  ‘the Prophet’ either.” “Well, then, who are you?” they persisted. So John said he’s “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s vocation—his whole purpose in life—was to speak of Someone Else, point to Someone Else.

So these priests and Levites asked a different question. “Well, if you’re not the Christ or the Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing?” And John answered that he was baptizing simply to prepare for the true Christ. After all, John knew he was not worthy to untie the sandal of the true Savior. All of John’s actions and explanations bring to mind a quote by someone called “Anonymous”: “Humility is the acceptance of the place appointed by God, whether it be in the front or in the rear.” John knew and accepted his place appointed by God. And John’s place was not in the front as the Messiah, but in the rear, pointing to the Savior.

Let’s ask the question of ourselves. “Christian, who are you, anyway?” Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, or wife? Are you a worn-out worker or a stressed-out student? Are you a frantic, frazzled shopper, decorator, baker, or party-goer? How about that identity we like to keep secret: “sinner”? Or do you look in the mirror and see your very own self-made savior?

You see, who you are comes out in what you do. If only you can find that perfect gift for that someone special, then you will really make their Christmas. If only you can receive just the right gift, then you can proclaim this a wonderful Christmas. If only you can get the clerk at the store to say “Merry Christmas,” not just “Happy Holidays,” then all will be merry. If only you can get that overgrown To-Do list done, bake all the goodies, run all the errands, sing all the right songs, then you will make it a “good Christmas.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these activities. Not at all. But God wants to shine the light of His Truth on you and what lurks within you—that identity we’d all rather keep secret, that identity of “sinner.” You see, the real reason for the season is, yes,…our sin. We—yes, we Christians—are sinners who need the real Savior. What really matters is that you and I are not the Christ. You and I really don’t make the season any “more Christmas” or any “less Christmas.” We are the ones who need the Christ. We are the ones who need to keep Christ in Christmas—for others and for our own sake.

So as we prepare to celebrate the joys of Jesus’ Birth, let’s learn to imitate John. That’s why we heard that extra verse at the end of the Gospel reading. “The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn. 1:29). Now there’s the Messiah—the Christ! There’s the Savior for you, for me, for everyone around us. I’m not the Christ. You’re not the Christ. But Jesus? He is the Christ! He’s the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a grungy feeding trough. He’s the Coming One anointed by the Holy Spirit in the humble water of the Jordan River. He’s the One who endured the shame of betrayal by His friends, felt the sting of Pilate’s lash, bore the crown of thorns, and heard the jeers and taunts of unbelief. He’s the One who felt the metal spikes piercing His flesh and crunching His bones. He’s the One who endured forsakenness from His Father. He’s the One who slept in the breathless silence and darkness of death. And—are you ready?—He’s the One who received the sudden resuscitation of resurrection life! Who is that? The real Christ! Your true Savior! Jesus Himself!

That’s why we learn to imitate John and say, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). You see, when you and I decrease, and when Jesus increases as the real reason for this joyous season, we find that He increases us in Himself. How does St. Paul say it today? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Christmas is coming soon. Immanuel is God with us and among us. And He comes to change who YOU are.

The prophet Isaiah said: “And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken” (Is. 62:12). The apostle Peter echoed that. Who are you in Christ, the real Savior? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

Who are YOU, people of Hope? You are a people confessing the true Christ, both individually and together. What does that look like? It looks a lot like John that day beside the Jordan River. It looks like people looking beyond themselves. It looks like people fixing their eyes on Jesus and pointing others to Jesus. It looks like each of us building one another up by pointing to Christ, the Lamb of God. It looks like each of us inviting others to come and celebrate Christ and His coming, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It looks like people at peace, because the real Savior, the Lamb of God, is near.

Who are you, people of God? You are people who live in the comfort, joy and confidence of St. Paul’s words: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Amen.

17 December 2018

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete (2018)

"Less Than a Failure" 
Matthew 11:2-11

Jesus says there’s no one greater in the human race than John the Baptist. Then He seems to contradict Himself. He also says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” How can he be the greatest and then someone lesser than he becomes greater than he? Does that make John’s greatness a failure? Actually, John’s greatness is that he was a failure—by worldly standards, that is. And if you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be less than John, less than a failure.

If you want to talk greatness and success, John the Baptist does not seem to qualify. In today’s reading, he’s in prison and about to lose his head, quite literally. But let’s push the rewind button on John’s life. He was miraculously born, yes, but he was an only child of older parents, and he did not have a family of his own. After his circumcision and naming ceremony, John “grew and became strong in spirit,” but he “was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). John probably grew up and learned God’s Word at Qumran, an isolated, monastic-like community in the desert. Nothing too great about that!

And consider when John did appear to Israel. He came looking rugged and ragged, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. He fasted from wine and strong drink, and he ate, of all things, locusts and wild honey. So much for greatness there! In addition to his wild look and his wilderness food, John no doubt came across as a wild-eyed preacher of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). He told the crowds to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8) and not rest on the laurels of their ancestry. He told tax collectors to be fair. He told soldiers not to shake people down, but be content with their wages. He told people with extra clothing to give it away to the poor. John even called on the governing official to repent of his sins. That’s what landed him in prison to await execution. By worldly standards, John was an abject failure.

Still Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” You see, John had the great distinction of preparing the way for God’s promised Messiah. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was no reed shaken by the winds of cultural trends and faddish teaching for itching ears. No, John was a mighty oak planted by the rivers of God’s unchanging Truth. He did not come in the soft clothing of pampered royalty, but in the rough garments of a prophet proclaiming the coming of God in the flesh. That’s what makes John great—a failure in the eyes of the world, but great in God’s plan of restoring us to life with Him.

This really is an odd message for this Third Sunday in Advent. The Latin name for today is Gaudete!—“Rejoice!” Notice the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath is lit. For two weeks the Church has turned her attention to repenting, fasting, praying, giving to the poor, cleaning the house of the soul, and preparing for the Savior to come. Today, though, we get a little joy thrown in to lighten the mood of preparation. But it’s a restrained joy. It’s not yet time for the exuberant celebration. That will come, but for now, this little bit of joy sustains us in our preparing, our repenting, our praying, our fasting and our giving for a couple more weeks.

To the world such habits seem like failure. Once Thanksgiving is finished and the left-over turkey and cranberry sauce are tucked away in the fridge, the world thinks the unrestrained celebrating must begin. People must eagerly rush off to places of “worship” such as Best Buy or Walmart. They must give their offerings at those little altars with cash registers and scanners built into them. Songs of joy, of trees, of snow and mistletoe, and even of an overweight elf dressed in red are piped through omnipresent speakers. These are the things that make for a great Christmas. Who has time for prayer and repentance when there’s so much to do? How can you fast when there are so many delightful treats to be had? And giving to the poor? Perhaps those spare coins in the Salvation Army bucket will suffice.

Perhaps the greatness is yet to come, in all those favorite goodies with chocolate, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and peppermint. It just wouldn’t be a great Christmas without them. And don’t forget the gifts. Oh, the gifts! None of us wants a tacky, thoughtless little something under the tree. No, we want that brand new game, that awesome tool, that outfit that fits just right, or that shimmering bit of bling. These are a few of the season’s great things.

But what if none of these great things were to happen? What if you cannot get done everything you want to get done? What if the shopping does not get finished? What if the decorations do not all get up? Would Christmas be a failure?

Let’s learn to rejoice in being less than a failure. Let’s learn to be least in the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus says, “The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” And who is “least in the kingdom of heaven”? You are. I am. And, yes, you and I are greater than John—not in our persons, but in the gifts that God gives us.

John may have said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), but he never got to witness the fulfillment of that on the cross or in the Supper. John shooed his disciples away from himself so they could follow the Christ, the Giver of forgiveness and life. And John spoke those immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). John did not get to receive the gifts of the promise, but you do!

You who are blind to God’s ways, get to see. God shows you your sin so that you can cry out to Him for mercy. And He gives you His mercy so that you can see how He loves you from eternity and for eternity. You who are lame in your sins—unable to walk through this world without giving in to the worldly notions of greatness—you get to walk. You get to walk in the forgiveness of the Son of God who shed His blood on the cross for you. You who are unclean and infected by the leprosy of self-serving—the disease of thinking that the world must focus on you and your desires—you are cleansed. In the waters of Baptism, Jesus joins you to Himself, to His perfect flesh and His life of giving and serving. In the Supper, Jesus puts His own flesh and blood into you, so that you will be cleansed from all self-serving, so that you will love and enjoy God and love and serve your neighbor. You who are deaf from the din of worldly greatness, you get to hear the sweet words of Absolution and the Gospel proclaimed. You have the joy of sins forgiven. You get to rejoice in being less than John, because you have the true greatness of life with God. And you who are dead in trespasses and sins get to be made alive in the Coming One whom John proclaimed.

These are the things that make for true joy—being least in the kingdom of heaven, repenting of our sins, and rejoicing in the life and forgiveness of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As we’re about to sing:
“See the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heav’n.
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all, to be forgiv’n;

So, when next he comes in glory
And the world is wrapped in fear,
He will shield us with his mercy
And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345:3-4).