20 January 2020

Homily for Epiphany 2 (2020)

"Restoring Joy and Gladness"
John 2:1-11

Another Sunday after Epiphany, another piece of our new liturgical art to behold. Take a look, either on the wall—the first one on the lectern side—or on your bulletin. Six stone water jars sit on the ground. A servant kneels, holding another water jar. As the servant pours from his jar into one of the six, you can see ordinary, clear water turning into joyous red wine. Liturgical art may not paint the whole picture with every detail of the story, but it does evoke the story and its meaning for us to ponder.

Today we hear Jesus bringing joy back to the wedding at Cana. When they ran out of wine, the bride and groom almost committed social suicide. After all, once the wine runs out, the party’s over. The bride and groom would be the laughingstock of the town for years to come. Not even the joy of being happily married could save them from the ongoing disgrace.

Jesus’ Mother takes the first step to help this young couple in need. She approaches her Son and tells Him the need. While she doesn’t really ask anything, she does intercede to her Savior Son on behalf of the couple in dire straits. “They have no wine,” she simply states. Nothing in the story suggests Mary doubted or had little faith. Quite the opposite! She certainly trusted her Son and asked Him, the only true Savior, to rescue the couple and restore their gladness and joy.

Then Jesus gives what sounds like a brusque response. In most of our English translations, it sounds like a rebuke. How many sons who honor their mothers can actually get away with calling their mothers, “Woman”? But let’s not impose our cultural sensitivities on Jesus and this story. When Jesus answers His Mother’s request, He literally says, “What is it to Me and to you?” Jesus is still showing the greatest respect to His Mother; He’s including her with Him when He talks about His “hour.” What is His “hour”? It’s His time of dying and rising to bring the greatest joy and gladness to the whole world. And the term, “Woman”? It’s actually a term of great respect in Jesus’ day. When Jesus responds to His Mother, He’s saying, “What is it to me and to you, Mother, that they have no wine?” We could loosely translate: “Eh, no big deal, Mom!” Their lack of wine will not deter Jesus from bringing true joy and gladness.

Jesus does not reject His Mother’s request. No, He’s about to grant it so that He can reveal Himself. His “hour” of suffering, dying and rising for the world has not yet come, but He will use this wedding crisis to give a foretaste of what His “hour” will do in greater measure. His “hour” will bring great gladness and joy, just as weddings and wine do. And notice how Mary tells the servants to do what the Lord says. It sounds like the Church, doesn’t it: telling the servants—all followers of Jesus—to pay attention to and “do whatever He tells you.” You see, Jesus brings great gladness and joy in what He says and does. Weddings and wine are but a foretaste.

Jesus tells the banquet servants to fill the six stone jars to the brim with water. After they filled the pots with water, somehow the water turned into wine. And not just any wine; the best wine! The head caterer—who did not know where the wine came from—told the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” No cheap wine for Jesus! He gives only the best. And notice how He used an element of His own creation—ordinary water—to deliver this best wine and all the gladness it would bring. And how about that amount? Anywhere from 120 to 180 gallons of heavenly wine and its earthly gladness! Jesus is not stingy with His gifts; He’s not cheap with His gladness and joy.

Now for those Jews who paid attention in synagogue school, they would have realized what just happened. In Jeremiah 31 God had promised to save His people from exile in a foreign land. The day would come when they would leave their exile and return to their homeland. And they would rejoice greatly. As Jeremiah proclaimed: “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.” (31:12). The prophet Amos said something similar. When God rescues His people, Amos said, “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.” God’s rescued people would return to their cities, they would “plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:13-14). The abundance of wine would send a message: God had rescued His people.

So, when Jesus blesses the wedding at Cana with an abundance of wine, He is manifesting His glory. He is announcing that He has come to rescue us, His people, from our exile in sin and death.

It’s no coincidence that wine shows up only twice in John’s Gospel—here at Cana and then at the end of the Gospel, at the cross. Here Jesus gives the sweet wine of joy and gladness, but on the cross He consumes the bitter wine of our sin, suffering and death. Same thing with Jesus’ Mother, Mary. She shows up here at the wedding, and then at the end of the story at the foot of the cross. Here she gladly intercedes for the couple in distress and instructs the servants to follow her Son’s bidding. At the cross, her tears flow and her own heart is pierced with grief. Yet there Mother Mary receives the tender care of her crucified Son as He gives her into the care and keeping of the Apostle John.

What’s the point of all this, as we continue celebrating Epiphany? When God reveals Himself in His incarnate Son, we see the source of true joy and gladness—our Lord Jesus Christ. Weddings may give joy, but Jesus gives even greater joy in rescuing you from sin and death. Wine may gladden the heart for a time, but the wine that Jesus gives—His blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins—provides eternal gladness.

Everyone loves the joy and festivities of a good wedding. So let this story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana give you the joy and festivity of enjoying life with God and with one another, now and forever. As Isaiah said, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62:5). The Lord of weddings has made you His bride. In fact, every time we gather here in this place, we enjoy the eternal nuptials that come only from Christ crucified and risen. You see, King Jesus loves you, His Church, and has given Himself for you. He sanctifies and cleanses you with the washing of water by the word, so that He might have a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle or blemish. That’s your true joy and gladness.

Wine at the dinner table gladdens the heart. How about the wine that Jesus gives at His Supper table? With the eternal wine and the eternal gladness of His holy Meal,  His very Body and Blood actually present here, Jesus nourishes you and cherishes you from now into eternity. A foretaste of the feast now; the full feast to come when Jesus returns. Now you may also ponder another piece of our liturgical art—the one closest to the altar on the lectern side. Now you may anticipate the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church. Amen.

13 January 2020

Homily for The Baptism of Our Lord (2020)

"Standing in the Water"
Joshua 3:1-3, 7-8, 13-17; Matthew 3:13-17

One purpose of liturgical art is to give us a glimpse of God’s truth and beauty. God has created and placed us in a beautiful world and He does have something to say about what’s good and true. Liturgical art also gives us a glimpse of where and how we fit into God’s truth and beauty. Not only does He give us a beautiful creation; He also makes us beautiful. Now that’s an amazing truth, especially after our fall into sin and death. Beginning with Adam and Eve and ever since, we humans have taken God’s truth and beauty and trashed it, spit on it, rejected it. Very ugly! Somehow, we thought we could come up with something better—something more true and more beautiful than God Himself did. But God still “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God still wants to tell you: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD” (Is. 62:3).

This is the message that flows out of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. When King Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, He also purifies you, His bride, the Church.

Take a look at our liturgical art that evokes our first reading—the Crossing of the Jordan. (If you can’t see it on the wall, it’s also on your bulletin.) Put yourself in the scene, standing in the bottom corner, watching the event first-hand. It’s forty years after leaving slavery in Egypt and marching into freedom. It’s forty years after crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. It’s also been forty years full of ugliness—full of fear, of whining and complaining, of doubting God’s goodness.

"Crossing the Jordan" in the sanctuary of Hope Ev. Lutheran Church, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, by Max Autenrieb Church Interior Decorating, Inc.
Now, as you stand in your little place in the picture, God has brought His people to the edge of the Promised Land. When you see the Ark of the Covenant being carried by the priests, you know that is God present with His people. He is the one stepping into the water first so that the waters upstream stand in a heap. He is the one leading them through the Jordan River on dry ground. He is the one ushering them into the land of milk and honey that is completely His gift and always will be.

You can do more than merely imagine yourself standing on the dry river bed of the Jordan. The artwork does proclaim what actually happens in your Baptism. So put yourself at the font. That’s your reality. There your God brings you out of the slavery of your sin into the freedom of life with Him. There He washes you clean even as you wander in the filthy wilderness of this world. And there you stand, eager and ready for the eternal Promised Land—that land of milk and honey that always was, always is, and ever shall be His gift to you.

The problem is, you’re not in that Promised Land just yet. You still walk and live in the wilderness of this filthy, fallen world. And the temptations abound to wallow in the muck of sin. Actually, that muck infects and flows out of your heart and mine. Like our Israelite forebears, we too give in to the filth of fear, of whining and complaining, and of doubting God’s goodness. We need a good cleansing. We need a purification that comes from outside of us.

That’s why our God steps into the Jordan a second time. This time He is not merely represented by a golden box being carried by priests. This time He’s in the flesh. If Christmas proclaims that God, the Son of God, became a man, Epiphany proclaims that this man is God—true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary. He’s the One who steps into the water to purify you.

Now John objects. “That’s not right,” he claims. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The One who comes to purify does not need to be purified! After all, He’s like us in every respect, yet without sin. And John was right. We should say the same thing. “Jesus, we need to be baptized by You, and do You step into the water for us?” Listen again to Jesus’ reply: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” No, the all-righteous One did not need to be made righteous; the all-pure One did not need to be purified. But He still stands in the water for you and for your salvation.

How does that work? Consider what you hear every time someone is baptized. When your Lord stepped into the Jordan’s water, He “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” (LSB, 269). We might even say that when Jesus steps into the water, He, the pure One, soaks up all of the impurities—all of your impurities and all impurities of every human being—like a sponge. He will carry all those impurities all the way to the cross. There He will nail all that filth—including your filth—to the wood with Himself. There your sin—your fears, your doubts, your whining and complaining—will die with Him. This is how Jesus’ Baptism fulfills all righteousness. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

What does it mean for you that your Lord stands in the water in your place? Jesus’ Baptism expresses itself in your life at three big events: your Baptism, your communing, and your death.

In your Baptism, you were immersed with Christ. With Him, you died and were buried; and with Him, you were raised. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Heaven has opened up for you. The Holy Spirit has come upon you. Now the Father says, “You are My beloved child.”

So why do you fear? Why do you doubt? Why do you whine and complain? Why do you fear such things as supposed climate change or recent news of international hostilities? Why do you doubt that your Father is still in charge in His beautiful world? You have been through “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). By Jesus’ washing of death and resurrection you have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:7). You may leave behind the ugliness of your sin and stand with your Lord in His purifying water.

Jesus’ Baptism also works for you when you commune at His Table. In His Body and Blood truly present under bread and wine you receive all the benefits of His sacrificial death. Heaven opens. The Holy Spirit descends. And the Father renews and enriches you as His own beloved children. So why fear? Why doubt? Why whine and complain? When you eat and drink at this Table, you are filled with Him in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). After all, you have also been “buried with Him in baptism, in which you were raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God” (Col. 2:12).

Finally, Jesus’ Baptism takes place in you at your death. When your heart stops beating and your brain activity ceases, you plunge into the darkest depths. But in Christ you will arise from those depths. Your Baptism has already taken care of the big death—the separation from God for all eternity that you deserve. So when you arise from bodily death, you will be on the other side of the Jordan, in our Lord’s pure gift of the eternal Promised Land. “Death’s flood has lost its chill / Since Jesus crossed the river” (LSB 482:2). You will get to see the Blessed Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—no longer in a mirror dimly, but finally and clearly face-to-face.

So ponder all these things in your heart as you put yourself in the Jordan River in that picture. Rejoice in them every time you pass the font into Your Lord’s presence. Jesus stands in the water for you, and you stand there with Him for life. That’s God’s truth and beauty—for you, for your family, for your friends, and for every neighbor He puts in your path. Amen.

07 January 2020

Homily for Second Sunday after Christmas (2020)

"Freedom Fulfilled"
Matthew 2:13-23

Today our Infant Lord shows us how He fulfills our freedom. In His flight to Egypt our Lord Jesus reenacts and fulfills God’s exodus salvation for us sinners.

First, we see Joseph, Mary, and our Infant Savior fleeing to Egypt as a safe haven. This happened repeatedly in the Old Testament. In Genesis 12, Abram fled to Egypt during a time of famine. That was also when Abram tried to pass his wife Sarai off as his sister. It seems even faithful Abram had some difficulties trusting in God’s protection. But God still took care of His servant Abram by sending him to Egypt.

In Genesis 37, one of Abram’s great-grandsons, Joseph, son of Jacob, was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt. Later he was imprisoned on a trumped up charge of sexual misconduct. As God’s providence would have it, Joseph was later released from prison and became second in command of all Egypt. That’s when he prepared the land for a severe famine and managed the resources through the famine. All of it revealed how God was with him.

Then, in Genesis 46—our first reading—God tells Jacob, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” Now this was a big deal! About 30 years earlier, God had told Isaac, Jacob’s father, “Don’t go to Egypt; don’t leave the land I’m giving you” (Genesis 26). But now it’s another time of famine. And here in Genesis 46, God wants to protect and provide for Jacob and his family by sending them to Egypt. God also wants to reunite Jacob with his long-lost son, Joseph. So He gives Jacob a mighty promise: “there I will make you into a great nation.” For our Old Testament fathers in the faith, fleeing to Egypt often meant going to a safe haven.

So Infant Jesus also flees to Egypt as a safe haven—for refuge from wicked King Herod. Jesus is born, but even for Him life is no bed of roses. He quickly becomes a refugee. He is hated and hunted down. The Magi had come to visit and worship the new-born King Jesus. Then they left by another route and did not go back to Herod. Herod was furious! You see, Herod had a history of brutally eliminating any and all perceived threats to his throne. So he especially wanted to destroy this Newborn King. And God instructs Joseph—Jesus’ guardian—to take Mary and the Child and flee to Egypt. They would find refuge there, but it would not be their home.

What can we take away from all of this? We Christians are in the world, but not of it. Outside of the Divine Service, there’s no such thing as heaven on earth. Remember what Jesus said before Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). And St. Paul insisted on boasting “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Let’s remember this in the “culture battles” we face year in and year out. It’s what we face in keeping Christ in Christmas. It’s what we face when many voices reject our Christ-confessing Christmas hymns and decorations. It’s what we face in speaking up for and defending the unborn. It’s what Christians face on university campuses. It’s what Christian business owners face as the culture tries to “redefine marriage” and penalize them for standing on God’s Word and will. The Egypt of this world is not so welcoming of us Christians!

St. Paul would remind us to rely on our Savior, not the state of our culture: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).

For the Old Testament saints and for our Infant Savior, fleeing to Egypt did mean going to a safe haven. But Egypt was also a place to flee from. And fleeing from Egypt means freedom from slavery.

In Exodus, Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Israel had been there for over 400 years and enslaved for much of that time. We even read of baby boys being slaughtered in Egypt to keep the Hebrews from becoming too strong. So God raised up Moses and protected him from the widespread slaughter of innocent baby boys. Moses grew up as an Egyptian in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. Then he fled from Egypt. Then he returned to lead God’s people out of slavery and oppression. Of course, Moses delivered God’s Ten Commandments, and then he led the children of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years.

So when Infant Jesus returns out of Egypt, He is reenacting everything the children of Israel went through. The prophet Hosea had proclaimed, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1). Jesus doesn’t just reenact the exodus from Egypt, though; He fulfills it. In fact, He gives it a whole new meaning. Coming out of Egypt means freedom from slavery—especially freedom from slavery to sin.

You and I may not be freed from our Egypt of this world until the Last Day, but we are freed from our slavery to sin even as we journey through this wilderness. We Christians get to flee the Egypt of our sin and death. We are freed to live all of life with our Suffering Savior. How so?

When the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt,  they were set free by the death of the first-born of all of Egypt. They were baptized as they crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground. They were freed to live with God. As they wandered through the wilderness, God fed and sustained them with the food called “manna.” We Christians are set free from sin and death by the death of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. In that Baptism, we are freed to live with God—with our Suffering Savior—for all of life. This Little Savior who fled to and from Egypt makes us His people. We confess our sins, and He forgives us. He also feeds and sustains us with the food of His very Body and Blood right here on earth under the bread and wine.

You see, from His earliest days as God in man made manifest, our Lord Jesus was the Suffering Savior who comes for us suffering people. We need Him to fulfill the freedom first revealed in the Old Testament.

Have you ever noticed that the Apostles’ Creed does not say much about the earthly life of our Lord Jesus? Only one verb is used between His Birth and His Crucifixion—the verb “suffered.” He was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” Our Lord Jesus came to live our life, the way we live it—in suffering. And He came to rescue us from it. And He has freed you from it.

But, pastor, we still suffer! We suffer from illnesses of various kinds. We suffer from economic uncertainties, family discord, violence in the streets, even shootings in churches. We suffer scorn just for being Christians. How can you say that Jesus has freed us from our suffering?

St. Peter is most helpful for us this morning: “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…. If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name [of Christ]…. Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet. 4:12-19).

When Jesus flees to and returns from Egypt, He is showing you that He is your true Deliverer. He comes to fulfill your freedom—freedom from sin and death, even if and when you do suffer. “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Our Savior came to take the place of Israel, and now He still comes to take our place and walk with us. That’s how He fulfills our freedom from sin and death. Amen.

30 December 2019

Homily for First Sunday after Christmas (2019)

"Holy Child and Holy Families"
Luke 2:22-40

Today we see the Infant Jesus when He is only 40 days old. Long before He can walk or talk, He is brought to His proper home—the Temple of God. Since He opened His mother’s womb, He is holy—set apart—to the Lord. And Joseph and Mary faithfully keep the Old Testament law of offering a humble sacrifice to God. Holy Child and holy family. Blessed by God. Set apart by God for His purpose of bringing salvation to all people—for all children and all families.

If we left Christmas behind on December 25, we would only have some well-loved poetry, a heart-warming picture of mother and Child beside a lowly manger, and some sentimental memories of worship services. But that’s not enough to get you to life with God. By themselves those things don’t get to the real heart of the matter—your heart of sin and God’s heart of forgiveness. On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we can finally locate God—He’s in the flesh, lying in a manger. But that’s just the beginning of the picture. We need the picture to be filled out; we need the vibrant colors added. This little, holy Child is God’s salvation before your very eyes. This little, holy Child is destined for the fall and rising of many people. This little, holy Child is the very source of holiness for you, no matter what your age or family situation may be.

Today we move from the stable to the Temple of God, the place where God’s glory dwells on earth. And notice how worship life and family life go hand in hand in this account.

Mary and Joseph bring Baby Jesus to God’s house—holy mother, holy father and holy Child. They make a sacrifice according to God’s Word. Simeon is waiting in God’s house for God-in-the-Flesh to reveal Himself. A devout, holy man focused on God’s salvation. The Holy Spirit gave him faith. And that faith kept him in constant vigil in the Lord’s House. That faith prompted him to sing a marvelous song of God’s salvation. And aged Anna, a devout, holy widow, lived her life in constant attendance in God’s house. She lived a life of Temple prayers, she gave thanks to God for sending His Son, and she spoke of the Christ Child to all who looked for redemption. Christ-centered, liturgical worship always gives birth to confessing Christ in daily witnessing.

In our ongoing celebration of Christmas, we see how this holy Child comes not just to be born, but to redeem and make holy. Jesus’ conception in Mary’s womb makes all conceived children sacred. Jesus’ birth makes all births sacred miracles from God. And Jesus’ infancy—complete with nursing, spitting up and dirty diapers—makes infancy pure and holy for us and our children and grandchildren. When the Word becomes flesh, He revels in taking ordinary, fleshly things and making them sacred. And this also applies to families.

We can see from our Lord Himself that God’s design for a family is mom, dad, and children. Family is a holy and precious thing in God’s eyes. It’s not just some traditional invention of society that we can throw in the trash dumpster because we think we have better, more modern, alternative lifestyles. You see, in God’s design the family is the very foundation for society. All the centuries of history prove this. When the family—mom, dad, and children together—is revered, honored and protected, society does well. When the family is scorned or dishonored, used and abused, society crumbles.

In our society the family is under assault. And we Christians seem to be tripping and falling under the pressure rather than standing up to the assault. Instead of holding on to the life-long, one-flesh union and commitment of one man and one woman in marriage, we give in to the world’s disposable marriages, successive marriages, even same-sex marriages. Instead of parents treasuring their children and taking the responsibility to raise and teach their children, parents go off pursuing their own interests and viewing their children as inconveniences or nuisances. Instead of children respecting their parents as gifts from God, pop culture and progressive education teach our children either to ignore parents or despise them.

This is exactly what Jesus comes to purify and make holy: the family broken by sinful self-seeking. He comes to purify and restore us in our family relationships. How does He do this? By being God’s very life and salvation in the flesh. By living in a family Himself. By keeping the very law of God in our place. By being spoken against by people who did not want Him. And, ultimately, by being rejected, nailed to a cross, and killed in our place. That’s the destiny of this holy Child. But that dark destiny of death for Him means pure, life-giving forgiveness for you in your family.

Is any family perfect? No, not this side of heaven. Even Christian marriages have their flaws. Perhaps you suffer from a past indiscretion as a spouse or as a parent. Perhaps you look at yourself in the mirror of God’s law and see only sin and failure—as a child, as a spouse, or as a parent. Let today’s story of the holy Child in His holy Temple be your comfort. This holy Child came to die for you. As Simeon said, “My eyes have seen Your salvation.” Look to the Christ Child for God’s rescue from your sin and failure. Look to the Christ Child who lived a perfect family life for you.

So, whether you wrestle with infidelity or divorce, whether you suffer pain from abuse or guilt over abortion, or whether you endure the daily bickering and hassles of family life, Christ Jesus the holy Child is for you. His falling in death and His rising in resurrection is yours. Now you may die in your sins by confessing them and you may rise again in Jesus’ forgiveness. And your Baptism ushers you into a lifetime of such dying and rising. “What does such baptizing with water indicate? It indicates that that Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.” All of that just for you; all of that just for your family; all of that courtesy of the Holy Child.

And by the way, no matter what your family situation is, this whole story of Christ in His Temple is for you. It’s for the married, the single, and the divorced. It’s for the young and the old, the tot, the teenager, the thirty-somethings, the middle-agers, and the senior citizens. No need to divide ourselves up by group or class or age. Holy Jesus wants to keep us together. Notice what everyone in our story today is focusing on: the Holy Christ Child. Mary and Joseph go to the Temple because of Him. Simeon is waiting for Him, and when he sees the Holy Child, his life is complete. And Anna sees the Child, thanks God for Him, and confesses Him. Here’s the medicine and the hope for today’s troubled family, for today’s weary senior citizens, and for today’s singles: the holy Christ Child, God in the flesh, salvation in God’s house.

So, when you need help and strength in family matters, here it is: Holy Jesus in His holy house. After all, the Church is our true family and this holy place is our true home. Here we learn Jesus’ forgiveness so that we can forgive in our families. Here we are made holy, so that we can live as holy people in our homes, set apart for God’s own special use. Here we not only see the Christ Child with eyes of faith, as did Simeon, but we also get to taste Him in His Body and Blood. And pay close attention to what you get to sing right after Communion. It becomes your song for all of life: “Lord, now You let Your servant go in peace; Your word has been fulfilled. My own eyes have seen the salvation which You have prepared in the sight of every people.” (LSB, p. 165) Amen.

26 December 2019

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day (2019)

"Free Grace Supplying"
John 1:1-14

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Kevin Golden and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Child" Advent series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

I’ll be home for Christmas. Just mention the words and you can hear Bing Crosby crooning away. It’s part of today’s delight. Children home from college for Christmas. A reprieve from business travels lets you be home. The overstretched schedule with sports practices, music lessons, and social engagements is suddenly empty. It’s not just you; it’s the whole family home for Christmas.

As much joy as that brings, it gets better. How long will the tranquility last? It’s only a matter of time before an argument erupts between siblings. And, at some point, that holiday tradition you wish would just die will come to life again—the comments on the attire of others, the rolling eyes when a certain family member enters the room. Being home means you need grace to forgive one another. And that grace is yours because Someone else has made His home with you. God has pitched His tent with you so that you may behold His grace.

When something is important, we attach a lofty word to it. So it is today. Christmas rejoices, not just in a birth, but in the incarnation. That’s from the Latin for “in the flesh.” Today we rejoice that the Son of God is in the flesh. It’s a chief mystery of the Christian faith—the eternal God takes on human flesh.

St. Augustine marveled at the incarnation: the Creator of all things enters His creation; He enters a womb that He had formed. It transcends our minds, because God transcends our minds.

Still we confess the incarnation; we believe it; we rejoice in it, because we receive unending blessings from it. God in human flesh brings all of God’s blessings to humans. The chief blessing is His grace. John speaks of the incarnation, saying that the Word became flesh. And then he tells us the divine purpose for the incarnation. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

As we heard it sung last evening:
“There they found the wonder child, in lowly swaddling clothes lying,
Yet all the world with His free grace supplying.”

Today we rejoice. The Word has become flesh so that He dwells among us. It’s the great news for us today. The Word—the eternal, divine Son of God—has become flesh. He has taken on a human nature, flesh and blood, in the womb of Mary and has been born in the flesh. That’s why we celebrate today. But there’s more to this verse, more reason to celebrate. A more precise translation says, “The Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”

In the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ, God tabernacles among us. The tabernacle was a tent designed by God Himself so that He would have a place to dwell among His people. That design was given to Moses shortly after the exodus from Egypt. “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Ex. 40:34). The tabernacle would serve for nearly five hundred years before it would be replaced by the temple, which had the same design but was a permanent structure rather than a tent.

Jesus tabernacles among us. Everything that God promised about the tabernacle now stands fulfilled in Jesus. He is the place where God dwells among us. No more need for a tabernacle or a temple. Jesus is where it’s at. And that is saying a lot.

The tabernacle was a place of awe. It was apparent that God was present in the tabernacle, because there you beheld His glory. It was a cloud that rested in the innermost part of the tabernacle, the Most Holy Place. While only the high priest would enter the Most Holy Place, and only once a year, the glory of the Lord went out the top of the tent into the sky. It could be seen by all, no matter where they were standing or sitting. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

And now that awe is bound up in Jesus. He is born and appears as any other child. There is nothing in His appearance to make Him more glorious than any other person. Yet you can still marvel at Him. In this man, the eternal God dwells. This child lying in His mother’s arms is the one who created the whole universe and even the motherly arms that hold Him. Marvel at the majesty of that. How great is your God that He can humble Himself to be born of Mary yet remain the source of all things.

Just as the tabernacle inspired awe, it also produced fear. The glory of the Lord that could be seen coming out of the tabernacle is the same glory that the people of Israel had seen on Mount Sinai when the Lord descended to speak to Moses. It looked as if the mountain were on fire. A boundary was set around the mountain so that no person or animal would step on it, lest they die.

That same fear should be ours as the Word tabernacles among us. It’s no small thing to be in the presence of God. The Most Holy Place was the precise location of God’s presence in the tabernacle. Only one day a year would the high priest entered it, and that only after certain sacrifices had been made to cleanse him. To walk into the Most Holy Place outside of that protocol would mean death. Sinners do not just waltz into the presence of the holy God.

That has not changed. Don’t be fooled by Christ’s humility. Yes, He comes as a baby, but He is still the holy God. He is still the Creator of all things. When I honestly assess my sin, it leaves me shuddering in fear when I think of approaching the One in whom we behold of the glory of God.

Yet the faithful kept coming to the tabernacle, and for good reason. Yes, it is an awe-inspiring place as you behold the glory of the Lord. Yes, it is fearful to know you cannot hide your sin or explain it away as you behold the glory of the Lord. But you also have His Word and promise. The Lord commanded Moses and the people of Israel to construct the tabernacle, and He told them why. He promised that it’s the place where He would dwell among us, His people, with grace.

God desires to dwell with His people. But He also knows they are sinners who cannot live to tell the tale if they behold His unfettered holiness. So He puts on a mask. He desires to be truly present with His people, and He wants them to live to tell the tale. That is grace. That is the tabernacle.

And it’s all bound up in Jesus. Here in the child born of Mary God is dwelling among His people with grace. He will not be apart from you, so He puts on human flesh as a mask. That is grace. All of that grace is in Jesus, and that explains why He took on our human nature. Grace comes at a price—a price that you and I cannot pay. So Jesus pays the price in His flesh. The glory of God will be revealed in its fullness at the cross. On the night when He is betrayed, Jesus prays, “The hour has come; glorify Your Son” (John 17:1). At other times, Jesus says it is not yet His hour (John 2:4). His hour is at the cross; that is the time of glory, glory that abounds in grace.

With His unending grace, you have just the place to dwell—in the tabernacle, in Jesus. His presence, His glory, and His grace is no less available for you today than it was when He was lying in Mary’s arms. He still wears a mask today so that He can dwell with you. His glory was manifest to you in your Baptism, a glory that remains with you. His glory is ever present with you in Scripture and in hearing the Word of Christ, a glory that remains with you. His glory is truly present under bread and wine. Right there, He comes to you with the very same body and blood that Mary held in her arms, the very same body and blood that was crucified for your salvation, the very same body and blood that rose from the dead, the very same body and blood that will come again for you on the Last Day, the very same body and blood in which you behold His glory, the glory of the one and only from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Jesus tabernacles with you. So welcome home! You are home right here because here is where Jesus is present through His Gospel, His Baptism, and His Supper. That means God is at home with you because of Christ. “God’s own Son is born a child . . . ; God the Father is reconciled.”

“O sing of Christ, whose birth made known
The kindness of the Lord,
Eternal Word made flesh and bone
So we could be restored.
Upon our frail humanity
God’s finger chose to trace
The fullness of His deity,
The icon of His grace.” (LSB 362:1)


Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Eve (2019)

"Excitingly Ordinary"
Luke 2:1-20

Christmas time has so much ceremony, family tradition, and glittery attention. But if you think about it, all the attention given to Christmas is out of proportion with its humble, ordinary beginning. The Scriptural account of Christmas is very brief and oh, so ordinary. And there’s great joy in that ordinary, humble birth of Christ. What’s extraordinary about Christmas is that it’s NOT extraordinary! It’s full of ordinary things—a government decree, a journey home, an ordinary husband and mother, ordinary labor and delivery, ordinary strips of cloth, and even humble mangers and shepherds.

In 1697 a twenty-five year old Peter Mikhailov left his homeland in Russia to travel abroad. He wanted to learn and experience the culture and technological advances of Western Europe. While such a journey may be ordinary for many young students, both in Peter’s day and in ours, Peter was anything but ordinary. You see, “Peter Mikhailov” was the alias for none other than Tsar Peter I of Russia. He took on the alias and appearance of a commoner to achieve the goals of “The Grand Embassy.” He wanted to obtain ideas to turn Russia into a modern European nation at the time. Most Europeans did not even notice that the leader of the Russian Empire was walking their streets as a commoner.

This is the very point St. Luke makes in telling the story of Jesus’ Birth: Christ our Savior enters the world in very ordinary, unnoticed fashion. He comes without royal fanfare. How excitingly ordinary is the birth of our King!

At first hearing, you might think Caesar Augustus is the king that heaven and earth must notice. He’s one of the most powerful rulers the world has ever known, ruling the mighty Roman Empire. At the time of Christ’s birth, the empire was at its high point. It’s Caesar’s decree from on high that forces Joseph and the Virgin Mary to make a journey to Bethlehem. But it’s an ordinary decree—similar to the one we’ll have this coming year for a nationwide census. It appears the Roman emperor is in control.

If he’s not in control, then we might focus on another ruler—King David. Why must Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem? It was a small town of only about 200-300 people. Very humble and ordinary. But it was the hometown of Israel’s greatest king. David had established Israel as the superpower of his day. He had located the nation’s capital in Jerusalem. He had put the Israelites on the world map. And both Joseph and Mary were his descendants. So, by decree of the current king, Caesar, the Holy Family travels to the town of its former king, David.

But notice how ordinary, how humble, our royal Savior is. He enters the world without the attention of Caesar or David. He comes without pomp or circumstance, without grand proclamation or fanfare, without visits from royal dignitaries. He is born without the silky comforts of royalty, without the posh pampering of a palace. Our God and Lord enters the world in very ordinary, even poverty-stricken fashion.

That’s exactly how it should be. Our God and Lord comes down from His royal, heavenly throne and is enfleshed in the womb of Virgin Mary. He is born of Mary not to rule in the power and might of a Caesar Augustus or a King David. He does not come to lay down the law or force Himself on anyone. He does not earn respect by show of force. He does not win people over by lavish government spending. The peace and goodwill He brings do not need to be enforced by might. This infant King is not like the other two kings at all. He does not become king by overwhelming His enemies. He does not retain His power by efficient government or political posturing.

Instead, our God and Lord comes in poverty on purpose. He comes knowing that He is unknown. He comes to skirt the glitz, the ceremony, and the power. He comes to submerge Himself into our manner of life. He comes not just to bring peace and good will, but to BE our peace, to live His goodwill in us. Our divine King comes not just to know about our heartaches and pain, but to take them all into Himself. When He takes on our ordinary flesh and blood, He also takes into Himself the anxieties that trouble us, the sicknesses that weaken us, the uncontrollable desires that dominate us, the grief that overwhelms us, the hardships that threaten to undo us, and the dying that mortifies us.

So our Lord comes not necessarily to bless you with money, possessions, power or glory. No, He comes to give you His peace and good will. Not only that, but He IS your peace and goodwill from God. What more can we troubled, sorrowful, anxious souls desire than the good news that God is gracious and compassionate? This is the peace and goodwill our Jesus is born to be. He does not come to earth to shove you into hell. He does not come to place extra demands and burdens on you. He does not come to demand your obedience. That’s not why He was crucified, died and buried. Instead, your Lord Jesus comes so that you may have peace and joy in Him. He is the great joy that is for you and all people.

Our Lord Jesus comes to live an ordinary life like yours. He comes to die in your place. Make no mistake—He is still King, and He uses all of His royal wisdom and might to conquer His enemies and yours. He conquers not by torturing, but by being tortured; not by killing but by being killed. So it’s only fitting that King Jesus enters the world not with a big splash, but with a lowly, ordinary birth—born of an ordinary teen-aged Virgin, wrapped in ordinary strips of cloth, and placed in an ordinary feedbox.

Exciting, isn’t it? All this ordinary stuff from the King who comes to help and save you. And His kingdom is like no other on earth. Jesus is King who rules with compassion and loving-kindness, with mercy and forgiveness. Who are His subjects and citizens? You commoners—you with troubled hearts and broken spirits, you who are completely unable to make yourselves be at peace with God. He is born not to bring fear and trembling, but to comfort you who live in fear and trembling. He brings you into His kingdom simply by helping you see your sin and death and then by speaking His forgiveness and life into you. As He took on your flesh and blood when He was born, He also puts His Body and Blood into you when you eat and drink at His royal Supper table. Ordinary elements for us ordinary people, but they bestow His divine, royal, heavenly forgiveness. Most exciting!

How fitting, then, that poor, ordinary shepherds are the first to greet the Savior King. The high and mighty—those who want to spend great riches on themselves, those who pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, those who think they matter most—they despise this King and ignore Him. But the unskilled laborers, the field hands, the coal miner types—the shepherds—they receive the angelic message. They hear it and take it to heart. They thrive on the preaching they hear. Regardless of position or wealth or birth or education, King Jesus comes for you who are brought low before God, for you who are on the lowest rung, unable to climb to God.

Those shepherds are the first to receive King Jesus. They are also the first to proclaim His excitingly ordinary birth and what it means. They praise God for sending a King who comes down to common, ordinary people. He comes to tend, nourish and feed them like a flock, to shelter them from harm, to lay down His life and rise again for His sheep. Jesus the Shepherd-King is the very food and sustenance of His people. The Good Shepherd whom the shepherds proclaimed is also the Lamb of God laid in a feedbox to be our Food and Life in His very Body and Blood.

What’s your joyous task this Christmas Eve? It’s very ordinary, and it’s very exciting. Receive King Jesus as He comes to you—hidden in the ordinary things of strips of cloth and manger hay. But don’t stop there. King Jesus still comes down to and among us commoners. Now it’s in ordinary Gospel preaching, ordinary washing with water, and the ordinary Supper of His Body and Blood. Our kingly Savior no longer makes His bed in a feedbox, but now in your ears, hearts, and minds, now in your flesh and blood as He lives His risen life in you. He is lowly and gentle of heart. He is your peace and goodwill. He is your great joy and comfort. Amen.

23 December 2019

Homily for Advent 4 (Rorate Coeli) - 2019

"Blessed Mother of God"
Luke 1:39-56

“Why is this granted to me,” Elizabeth asked, “that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” We do well to ask the same thing. Why is this granted to us that we should ponder the mother of our God and Savior? We rightly confess that Jesus is the reason for the season, but that reason would not be here without His poor, young virgin mother. And so she is called blessed among women. We do well to join elderly Elizabeth in confessing the blessedness of young Mary. What lies behind Mary being “blessed”? Three things.

First, Mary is blessed in a manner that no one else is. We all are blessed by our Lord’s undeserved mercy, grace and forgiveness, to be sure. But Mary is blessed in a unique way; she is blessed with a unique gift and task. Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women,”—blessed more than anyone else. Somehow by the Holy Spirit, old Elizabeth knew and proclaimed this remarkable blessing.

But what did that mean for Mary? And did she understand that this would be a blessing through which other people would be blessed? These two women had come to the focal point and climax of God’s centuries-long plan and promise. As St. Paul would write: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4). God would send His own eternal Son. The Son of God would come among us as any other human being. This is the marvelous, incredible thing that would happen through this young lady, a woman so humble, poor and lowly. This is the first blessing. Other young ladies would probably say, “No thank you! Not for me!” But Mary had said, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38).

What else does it mean that Mary is blessed? Second, it means that she is blessed for our benefit. She is a blessing for us and the world. If none of this had happened, if Jesus had not been born, we would still be in our sins. He existed in eternity, begotten of His Father before all worlds, very God of very God, begotten not made. And now He would be like each of us, true man, sharing our human nature, born of the Virgin Mary.

So Elizabeth asks, “Why is this granted to me?” Of course, she was wife of a priest. She was much higher on the social ladder than young Mary. Yet here she honors this young mother of low estate. Why should the mother of her Lord come to her?

The Greek word for “Lord” is kyrios. It also translates the Hebrew name for God, “Yahweh.” “This is God’s mother, the mother of the Lord Jesus Christ, coming to me,” Elizabeth confesses. And don’t let that term—“God’s mother”—bother you. Jesus is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. The Greek word used for centuries is theotokos. It means, “God bearer,” or “mother of God,” the Son of God, that is, the Word become flesh. “Mary conceived and bore not merely a man and no more, but God’s true Son. Therefore, she also is rightly called and truly is “the mother of God” (FC Ep VIII:12).

The Son of God took up the very same human nature that Adam had. Now the climactic battle of the great cosmic fight would be fought. Now He would fight against the tempter, Satan. And Satan would try to get rid of this Second Adam just as he successfully got rid of the first one back in the garden.

So Mary is God’s mother. She herself is not God, but she carries God’s Son in her womb and in her heart. But it would be no easy task. She takes on a mother’s duties to love Him, educate Him and nurture Him; feed Him, change His dirty diapers and wipe His runny nose. It would be no easy task, especially in little backwater Nazareth. But she faithfully took it. It was her vocation given by God. When she gave birth to the Son of God, she treasured up all of those events and pondered them in her heart (Lk. 2:19). Then she heard that a sword would pierce her own soul, because her Son was “appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed” (Lk. 2:34). When her Son was twelve years old in Jerusalem, she did not understand why He stayed behind in the temple to listen to teachers and ask them questions (Lk. 2:46). Then Mary had to do the hardest thing a mother can do. She had to stand there all day and look on as His enemies tormented Him, mocked Him, and put Him to death by nailing Him to a cross. That certainly was no easy task. Nor was it glorious. What human being, let alone a caring mother, would say they were privileged to see that?

This, though, is not what made her more blessed than other women. What made her blessed was the fruit of what happened to the Fruit of Mary’s womb. That was the blessing for us and for the whole world. The Son of God took on our human nature to rescue it from sin and death. Our Lord became one of us to redeem and restore each and every one of us. God became man so that we might restored to the image of God.

And now we come to the third thing. How could young Mary be blessed? What made it possible? Elizabeth also proclaimed, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Belief, or faith—that’s what is greatest about Mary. She teaches us what faith is all about. And what did she believe? She received and believed what the Lord said to her. Belief holds on to what God says no matter how impossible or inconceivable for us humans. “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Lk. 1:37), the angel had told her. The Lord had said it. Mary believed it. “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word”(Lk. 1:38). Thus she was blessed.

Now to be blessed is not something that always feels warm and fuzzy. Think of the beatitudes our Lord would teach. Being blessed can mean being poor in spirit, mourning, being humble, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and even being persecuted. All this describes Mary quite well. She was blessed to cling to God and His promises even in the darkness. She was blessed to know His saving will and purpose for her. She was blessed to receive and hold onto His gift of life through the Word made flesh.

This, dear saints, is the greatest message of all—the Gospel that makes no rational sense, the message that the world either ignores or mocks. The Word became flesh, dwelt among us, was crucified and was raised for us sinners, for all sinners. It’s foolishness for some and a stumbling block for others. “But to us who are being saved”—and that includes Mary—“it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

It happened only once, but it changed all of history. It changes you. It reveals the meaning of your life, so that you may be truly human. God’s Son, born of a woman, placed under the law, faithfully emptying Himself, and being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s Mary’s great blessing, and it’s yours as well. “His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” He fills you who are hungry for forgiveness and real life with the good things of His Body and Blood.

Why is this granted to you that the mother of your Lord should come to you? For you to receive Him who comes to you in the flesh; for you to receive Him who comes in water, words, and bread and wine. Mary is blessed to be the mother of God, and by the Fruit of her womb, you are blessed to be His sons and daughters—exalted from your humble estate both now and forever. Amen.

16 December 2019

Homily for Advent 3 - 2019

"Shall We Look for Another?"
Matthew 11:2-11

“Shall we look for another?” This is John’s question in today’s Gospel. Many have the same question today. You may have this question at times.

John the Baptizer sat in prison. Was he plagued with doubt? Was he sending his own disciples to follow Jesus instead of him? Perhaps Gregory the Great put his finger on it. Perhaps John was asking something like this: “Since you thought it worthy of yourself to be born for humanity, say whether you will also think it worthy of yourself to die for humanity.” What if John had been wrong? What if Jesus was not the Coming One after all?

If such questions can come from the lips of John the Baptizer, it’s not surprising they can also come from us. Are you the Coming One? Shall we look for another? Is Jesus really the Son of God? Does He really forgive my sins? What will happen when I die? Where will I go?

Can you find answers for such questions? Can you be certain? Certain that Jesus is God’s eternal Son? How can you be certain?

Jesus gives the answer: through hearing and seeing. Notice that Jesus did not answer the question directly. “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” He pointed to His words and deeds. Why didn’t He answer simply and directly? Sometimes the direct, simple answer does not suffice. It may not help a person hear and see that Jesus is God’s Son. It may not lead to or strengthen faith. When a difficult time comes, faith is shaken. You may have a mistaken notion of what it means that Jesus is  God’s Son. That’s what many had in Jesus’ day. They expected the Messiah would be a great, powerful king who would give them political freedom and a guaranteed income. That’s what many thought as they sang their “Hosannas” on Palm Sunday. But then they ended up crying, “Crucify Him!” on Good Friday.

People in our day have their own faulty notions of Jesus. They learn them from other people, through conversation or from online sources. They’ve heard that Jesus is God’s Son. They’ve heard that He’s loving and merciful. They’ve heard that God exists. But then comes the car crash, the cancer diagnosis, the layoff, or the conflict with friend or neighbor. So much for what you had hoped for. Then come the doubts, the frustrations. Now you’re like John sitting in his dark prison. Perhaps the bitterness creeps in. Perhaps it all seems like nonsense. Perhaps you tell yourself, “If God were God, this would never happen.”

The problem is that you have not heard and seen Jesus Himself. Living faith is not built on what you have heard from others. It’s built on what Jesus does for you. It’s built on being in His presence and Jesus working on you. That’s what happens here today. Jesus Himself comes to you in His Word. You hear that Word and say, “That’s for me.” You speak that Word back to Him in prayer.  And He truly comes down to you in Holy Communion.

Now you learn what it truly means that He’s the Son of God. You learn that Jesus is not merely some 9-1-1 rescue team you call upon only when you’re in trouble, when life goes crazy. Life always goes crazy. You see, you don’t have a single day when you have perfectly kept His commandments. Not a single day when you love Him with your whole heart. Not a single day when you love your neighbor as yourself. You have not been clean in heart or life.

But in all of this craziness and chaos, Jesus is the Coming One. He comes to intervene, to live in your flesh, to suffer, die and rise again for you, to pay for your sins. When you believe in Him and cling to Him, all is forgiven. So you need Him not just sometimes, but all the time—24-7-365. Now you know who Jesus is, not just from what others tell you, but because you are one of the poor to whom the Gospel is preached. You are the blind one who receives sight. You are the leprous one cleansed of sin. Now you have heard and seen.

How certain is all of this? Even if you hear and see, even when you learn to know and cling to Jesus, a person can still take offense. Jesus also said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by Me.” Even John, in his prison, was tempted to be offended. If Jesus is the Coming One, why doesn’t He intervene? Why doesn’t He clean up the mess of my life, the mess of this world? Why does He let all this happen? Why doesn’t He use His power to beat down evil? After all, He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and raised the dead. But remember this: when the craziness and chaos of sin came upon Him, He let Himself be bound and led away, only to be nailed to a cross.

People around you may scoff at this Jesus. A neighbor may think that the story of Jesus’ Birth and other stories in the Bible are only fables. A coworker may scoff and smirk: “How can you believe all that?” The temptation is to take offense at the apparent weakness of Jesus. A baby in a lowly manger? No place to call home? A king without a throne? A death as a criminal? What did John do when such questions plagued him? He sent some disciples to Jesus. He turned to Jesus for the answers.

But not everyone is that wise. Jesus speaks of a reed shaken by the wind. It’s a picture of those who find their answers based on the opinions and fads of the moment. We can see this in the attempts make Jesus the spokesman for whatever cause of the day. The holy family in cages as refugees? Jesus portrayed in film for the same-sex cause? Jesus also talks about being dressed in soft clothing. This is the picture of those who seem to be secure, sophisticated, and have it all together. But on the inside, they are empty and afraid to go against what’s trendy. How can they take Jesus seriously when He might ask them to go against the wisdom of the time?

So Jesus can be a stumbling block. After all, He does call us to be, think, and live different from the culture and world around us. Is He the Coming One, or should we look for another?

How was John certain? How were the disciples certain? They were certain through the hearing and seeing. Through the words and deeds of Jesus. You also have these words and deeds of Jesus. They’re among us here today. All you need to do is hear and see.

It’s what we proclaim and live as this new church year begins. Christ has come, still comes, and will come again. Long ago He wandered through the world in the flesh. He still dwells in the flesh and He still wanders through the world. Though now He wanders by means of His Word and Sacraments. He is present in the Gospel, forgiving sinners and giving hope as you listen. He is present in the washing, making clean and giving new birth as you live in that bath. He is present in His Meal, sustaining faith and giving salvation as you eat and drink His Body and Blood.

You are the poor to whom the Gospel is proclaimed. You are the leper who has been healed. You are the blind one who now sees. And now you have the privilege and honor of conversing and interacting with those who ask their questions. How can they be sure of Jesus? How can they know He truly is the Son of God and their Savior? You cannot argue them into salvation. They may still have their questions or doubts. But you can bring them to Jesus. Here they get to hear and see what you do. And what’s that? Not a mere prophet. Not a simple teacher. But the Son of God who loves them by suffering and dying for them. After all, that’s what He’s done for you. That’s why He brings you into His Church. You can be certain. Jesus Himself makes you certain that He is God’s Son and your Savior. Amen.

12 December 2019

Homily for Advent 2 Evening Prayer - 2019

"To Set You Free from All Your Sorrow"
Micah 5:2-5a; 1 Peter 1:3-9; Matthew 2:1-12

With complete credit and much appreciation to Rev. Kevin Golden and Concordia Publishing House's "Behold the Child" Advent series, and with slight revisions for my proclamation.

The music in malls and stores drips with sweetness. The scent wafting from Christmas fudge and cookies is even sweeter. And visions of family and friends with beaming faces because of the gift you gave—something still sweeter. Such is the marketing of joy. It can be produced by what you do, as long as you follow the wisdom of the advertisers. And yet for all the joy we are promised, joy can be quite elusive for many. Mourning for loved ones, anxious over strained finances, uncertain whether estranged family will even respond to invitations. Some may be expecting a blue Christmas.

Joy can be hard to come by. Where will you find it? Right here. This Advent season brings joy as you wait for and anticipate Christ’s birth. We are four days from the Third Sunday of Advent, the day called Gaudete. That’s Latin for “rejoice.” Even the Advent wreath will call you to rejoice this Sunday when the rose candle is lit. But it takes time to arrive at His birth. We are tempted to jump the gun, skip over Advent, and get right to Christmas. But that’s not how life works. The things that bring us joy are worth the wait. The things that bring us joy don’t come easily; they require patience. And as we wait, distractions sneak in to rob us of joy. Then sorrow fills the void. When joy should be flooding upon us, it escapes us. If joy can be elusive, sorrow takes hold far too easily. But you are blessed as the Magi come full of joy.

Rejoice with the Magi, because Jesus answers your sorrow.

Rejoice. You do have reason for joy. Consider everything you enjoy. God provides you with daily bread—everything that has to do with the support and needs of your body and even more than you need. You have reason for joy. But it’s too easy to be distracted from joy.

Herod was distracted. The Magi arrive in Jerusalem looking for the One who has been born King of the Jews. Herod calls the scribes so they can tell him where The Christ was to be born. They find the answer in the prophet Micah. God’s promise delivered by the prophets is fulfilled in Christ. Generations of the faithful had been longing to see it. Many had spent their lives desiring it. Now it stands fulfilled. That’s reason for joy. But not for Herod. He is distracted from joy. He is distracted by power and love of the status quo. He plots to kill the Christ Child to safeguard his own power. He is quite content with the way things are. He will not tolerate a rival to his throne.

When joy departs, sorrow finds a home. You know how that works, perhaps in the opposite direction of Herod. You have been distracted from joy by your lack of power, and so you sorrow over things never going your way. “Why can’t things just work the way that I want them, at least this once?” Then notice what happens. You focus on what you don’t have. You lose sight of what you do have, and so joy flees. Rather than rejoicing in all that God provides for you—your daily bread and more—you are distracted by frustration with the status quo. You covet more; you covet what others enjoy. Instead of seeing the Lord’s bounty bestowed upon you, you see what others have and you do not.

When joy departs, sorrow moves into your heart. Sorrow exceeds sadness, both in duration and in intensity. Sadness comes and goes, but sorrow remains for longer periods. The longer it stays, the more piercing it becomes. Sorrow is the opposite of joy. Joy requires patience as you wait to realize what you desire—waiting for graduation, waiting for marriage, waiting for a birth, waiting for Christmas. But sorrow feeds off your impatience. The longer you must go without having what you desire the deeper sorrow becomes. Sorrow tells you that joy does not come from waiting; it says your desire must be satiated right now. How has sorrow robbed you of joy?

However it has happened, Jesus answers your sorrow by who He is. He will not be who Herod wants Him to be. He will not be a rival who can be killed so that power can be preserved and the status quo maintained. He will not be who you want Him to be either. He will not be a servant who bows to your every desire. He will not treat you as if you were the king or queen. He will not be the one who upends the status quo so that you can have your dreams right now. Jesus will only be who you need Him to be. And He will be far more than you want.

When the Magi arrive, you get to see who He is. Matthew says that when they saw the child, the Magi fell down and worshiped Him. A more accurate translation would be they fell down and prostrated themselves to Him. Thirty years later, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary will find Jesus outside an empty tomb. They will do the same thing, fall down and prostrate themselves. Then the Eleven will meet Jesus in Galilee and they will also prostrate themselves to Jesus. You only prostrate yourself before God. The Magi knew it. The women at the tomb knew it. The disciples knew it.

That act of prostrating oneself reveals joy. The women at the tomb were overjoyed to see Jesus resurrected, and so were His disciples. This is the God you have: the God who chooses to humble Himself to be born not in legendary Jerusalem but in lowly Bethlehem, the God who chooses to die and rise so that you may receive what you need—forgiveness and salvation—rather than what you want. The King’s greatness is found in His humility. So Matthew tells us, literally, that the Magi “rejoiced a great joy greatly.” That’s two joys and two greats. Matthew is making the point that there is reason aplenty for joy, and it’s all because Jesus is who He is. He is the God who gives you not what you want but what you need—His coming in the flesh, His dying and rising in the flesh, all that you may have forgiveness, that you may be saved, that you may have joy.

“He whom sages, westward faring,…Humbly worshiped, off’rings sharing.” Why worship this child? Because the Lord has revealed to the Magi who this Child is and why He has come. “Lying helpless in a manger, poor and bare and lowly, To set you free from all your sorrow wholly.” Amen.

08 December 2019

Homily for Advent 2 (Populus Zion) - 2019

"Raise Your Heads & Hearts!"
Luke 21:25-36

The world will not last forever. Someday the heavens and earth in which we live, move and have our being will pass away, and a new heavens and a new earth will take its place. C. F. W. Walther likened this fallen world to a tent that serves only a passing purpose. One day it will be taken down. This tent is not our abiding city or our permanent dwelling. Walther also called the world “the scaffolding of the eternal dwelling place” (Gospel Sermons I:10).

One year ago, we had a veritable mini-building erected within this very space—the scaffolding for the renovation project. It was its own structure—solid, sturdy, supportive, four levels tall, immovable by us, and, well, kind of ugly. And the whole space was quite messy much of the time. Yet we knew that state was only temporary. We knew that the scaffolding would come down. We eagerly anticipated the new space to be revealed when the scaffolding would be removed. So it is with everything we see around us in this fallen creation.

This is why our Lord invites us to straighten up and raise up our heads, and even our hearts: “Because your redemption is drawing near.” This is why we spend four weeks preparing to celebrate our Lord’s Birth. It’s not Christmas yet; but that day is coming. As is our Lord. So we let Advent be Advent, and we make our Advent cry: “Come, Lord Jesus!” But be careful what you ask for! You just might get it. He may just come. As C. S. Lewis quipped, “Aslan is not a tame lion!”

How did Jesus say it? “There will signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Our Lord gives us ominous signs of the end of the world. His good creation—created very good by Him but disfigured by us and our sin—will come unglued. Despair and anxiety over what’s happening in the world and to the world. We get anxious over matters of politics and the economy. We despair over crises and inconveniences that happen at home or down the street. Can you imagine the fainting with fear and foreboding when the world literally comes apart at the seams?

There are only two reasons for the world to come unglued. One is God withdrawing His benevolence. His patience with corrupt and perverse humanity can and will indeed come to an end. That’s what happened in the days of Noah and the worldwide flood. The second reason the world comes unglued is God Himself stepping onto the world’s stage. That’s when He comes to rescue His faithful people. That’s when “the mountains melt like wax before the LORD” and “the heavens proclaim His righteousness” (Ps. 97:5-6). When God comes into His creation to rescue His people, the mountains skip like rams, the hills like lambs (Ps. 114:4).

So your Lord Jesus exhorts you to raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near. Remember that as you ponder the image of Jesus coming on the cloud at the sound of the trumpet. For the unbeliever, that day and that coming spark fear and foreboding. But for you who look to Jesus for forgiveness, life and salvation, that day and His coming give no reason to fear. No, that’s time to stand tall, look to the heavens, and get ready for life—real life, true life that never ends, life with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When we ponder “the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” we do not ponder a doomsday. Instead, we anticipate a regeneration—the rebirth and refashioning of us and all creation.  It’s what you can see in the fig tree and all the trees in the springtime, Jesus says. “As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near.” When springtime comes, you know that summer is just around the corner. When the “blossoming” of signs in the sun, moon, and stars comes, you know that the kingdom of God—your true, abiding, permanent residence—is near.

So lift up your heads and hearts because your redemption is drawing near. It’s the same redemption—the same ransom and release—inaugurated and set in motion when the Son of God first set foot on the world’s stage. He was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary. He was made man. And He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures. So straighten up, raise your heads and your hearts to look upon the Man upon the tree. There He dies with your sin, your shame, your death, and your hell. Look upon the crucified One who is now risen and reigning in endless glory. He has promised to come again and bring full redemption for you.

When the children of Israel lived in tents and wandered in the wilderness, they had a nasty habit of complaining. One time God sent fiery snakes for punishment. The people cried out. God told Moses to make a serpent of bronze and put it on pole. Anyone who would raise their head and look at that serpent would be healed of the burning snake venom and live (Num. 21:4-9). Jesus applied this account to Himself. “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:14-15). Raise your heads and look upon Him lifted upon the pole of the cross. As you do, you have life—not just biological life, but life with God. And with your heads raised, you also get to confess: “I LOOK for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen.”

Jesus then turns from the worldwide scope to the narrow, individual, and personal focus. “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” The usual pattern is this: indulge, then watch out. Enjoy the holiday goodies, then worry about getting in shape and shedding pounds. Jesus reverses that pattern. Watch out first, so you won’t over-indulge…and then regret. You see, all that indulging weighs you down. And still you want more. That’s what happens when you focus on the visible world, the cares of this life. The worries and anxieties come flooding in, especially this time of year. And the day of Jesus comes suddenly, like a trap.

How do you combat that? Raise your heads and hearts by staying awake in prayer. “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” The word for “praying” suggests begging in response to an urgent need. Your need is your own sin and sins that weigh you down. So you beg and cry out: “Lord, have mercy!” “Come, Lord Jesus!”

How do you prepare for such praying? By living a life and a lifetime of liturgical prayer. Such praying includes your prayer life at church and your prayer life at home. At church, lift up your hearts as your Lord comes to you in His Supper. You do not go up to Him; He comes down to you. And He brings your redemption near in His very Body and Blood actually present under bread and wine. How near your redemption is as Jesus puts it right in your mouth and down your gullet!

At home, lift up your hearts as you set aside time and place for reading, hearing, praying, even singing Jesus’ words that will not pass away. Dust off that Lutheran Service Book and Treasury of Daily Prayer, with their treasure troves of readings, prayers and hymns. And keep those appointments with your Lord just as sacred—no, more sacred—than you would an appointment with your doctor. All of this is how you persevere with patience, how you stay awake, how you raise your heads and hearts.

“Raise your heads [and hearts], because your redemption is drawing near!” Your Lord Jesus “advents”—He’s coming. Now He comes to bring comfort in the tent and scaffolding of this world. Then He will come to rescue you and bring you home to His eternal dwelling. Amen.