23 May 2016

Homily for the Holy Trinity

"Our Giving God"
John 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-7

Listen here.

How often had Isaiah served in the temple?  How often had he participated in its liturgy?  How well he knew it!  But then came that day, that life-changing day, that day when the earthly scene in front of him melted away and he was left trembling and naked, staring open-mouthed into the very heart of heaven. He saw God. And the sight terrified him.

He saw Yahweh – God – sitting on his throne, high above the earth. The train of his robe flowed swirling down and filled the earthly temple.  He saw six-winged seraphim, angels of fire, above Yahweh, flying and calling out. He heard their song:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

Then Isaiah thought he was in for it, finished. He cried out:  “Woe is me! – I am undone. I am cut off. I am dead meat.” He thought, for sure, that he was about to die.  And so he made confession:  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah realized that he was suddenly in the presence of Truth Himself. Every lie he’d ever told seemed to fill his mouth with a foul, disgusting, polluted taste.

But then something happened, something he could never expect or predict. One of the seraphim took tongs to the altar before God and lifted a live, hot, burning coal. He carried it to Isaiah, and with it he seared the mouth of the seer. He purged the mouth of the prophet. He told Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.” The touch of the living fire of God delivered that gift to him. That day Isaiah became a new man, a man with cleansed lips, and a man with a mission. Now his cleansed lips would speak what his ears heard from God.

Now we come to our Gospel reading. And what a contrast it is! But make no mistake about it: we still see the One whose presence caused Isaiah to tremble in fear. Now, though, He sits, not on a high and lofty throne in heaven, but probably on a dining coach in a humble home on earth. Now He does not wear the great train that Isaiah saw; instead He is clothed in our human flesh and blood. No flying seraphim in sight, but in comes Nicodemus at night. And that darkness describes not only the time of day, but also the condition of Nicodemus’ soul. He was as blind as the darkness outside to Who sat before him. He was as blind as Isaiah was all those times he worshiped at the temple without realizing the terror and awe of God’s unseen presence.

Nicodemus comes eager and ready for some theological chit-chat, maybe even some full-fledged debate. But Jesus cuts right to the heart of what’s on Nicodemus’ heart and mind. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. And how does Nicodemus respond to that?  He argues about how that can even be possible:  “Surely, an old man can’t creep back into his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” But Jesus does not back down.  He cuts to the heart some more. He cuts right to the point of rebirth and new life:  “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

And what did you have to do to be born, Nicodemus?  What preparations did you make? What decisions? What efforts? None! Absolutely none. Your first birth—that gift of life—came to you as a free gift—unasked, unsought, unmerited. And so does being born again. You don’t have to creep back into your mother’s womb. You don’t have to do a single, solitary thing. You only have to receive the gift—the gift of entering into God’s Kingdom by the Spirit in the water.

You see, Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to Baptism. When he says, “You must be born again,” He invites everyone to Baptism. Don’t lose the passive. “BE born.” He did not say: “go, rebirth yourself; go, decide to be born again.” Instead, Jesus is telling you that you need the gift that only water and the Spirit can give, a gift from Him to you.  And here’s why you need it: so that you can see and know who the true God is. “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).

That’s the chief problem of our flesh born of flesh: we are blind to God. Sure, we may know and believe that He’s “out there somewhere,” but we view Him in a very dark light. We see Him as the rule-maker and the joy-squelcher. We see Him as the one Who demands this and that. We see Him as the One determined to make us miserable by not letting us do all the so-called “fun” things we want to do. We view Him as the God who says “No,” the God who is out to get us, the God who makes us pay for all the times we disregarded Him and His rules.

That’s the God Isaiah was afraid he had met in the temple. It’s why he cried out: “Woe is me!”  That’s the God Nicodemus had bargained with his whole life—trying to buy him off, butter him up, or rub him down by frantically keeping all the rules. He came to Jesus to hear if there were any rules he might have missed. After all, he sure didn’t have the peace that he should have had. Most likely, he had that nagging question rattling in his head and haunting his heart: “Have I done enough?” So he wants Jesus to tell him if there’s something more he needs to worry about in order to serve God.

But there’s only one problem. That God does not exist. Isaiah discovered this with the touch of a burning coal and with the words that delivered the gift of forgiveness. Nicodemus discovered it too, when God in our flesh said to him: “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.” Did you catch that, Nicodemus? Not “does,” but “believes.” That is, whoever believes and receives the Son of Man who is lifted high on a cross, whoever believes and receives the crucified and dead Son of God, the risen and victorious Lord of Life, that person receives the free, undeserved, unasked for gift of eternal life.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

The cross, then, shows that our God does not deal with us by means of pay backs or just desserts. Our second reading today asks, “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” The answer is, “No one!” God is not a God who is out to take from you. That’s flesh-born-of-flesh thinking!  The Spirit shows that God, the true God, the merciful God sets His heart on giving Himself to you. He is our giving God. And He is the only true God, the blessed Holy Trinity—the Father who gives the Son into our flesh to suffer and die for us; the Son who gives His life into death and resurrection so that we may not die but live; the Spirit who gives us a new birth in Baptism. He brings us to faith in the Son, so that the Son may present us blameless before the Father, clothed in His own holiness, alive with God’s own life.

Today many of you who have been baptized will come to the Table. Today your lips will be touched with the living Body and Blood of the Son of God.  And suddenly you are there with Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips.  Your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.”  That’s the gift of life from the God who delights in giving, the Most Holy, Most Blessed Trinity in whose presence we are privileged to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising Him and singing, now and forever:  “Holy, holy, holy.”  Amen.

17 May 2016

My Open Break-Up Letter to Target

Dear Target,

In case you haven’t noticed, I have not stopped by for one of our formerly frequent and regular shopping dates in quite a while now. Since I want to be responsible and mature, I want to let you know why. Believe me, it’s not me; it’s ALL YOU!

Your two-timing dalliances with radical left-wing causes have revealed the real you. It is painfully obvious that you want to flirt with the popular, cause celeb, agenda du jour crowd rather than simply, faithfully commit to a steady relationship of selling merchandise that many people want.

First, there was the ad featuring gay dads and the same-sex wedding registry, when you cozied up to a mere 3.8% of the U.S. population. Suddenly and inexplicably the other 96.2% of us who (used to) frequent your stores for simple shopping needs were branded as “haters”?

Then, there was the whole phasing out of “gender-based signage” thing. Somehow, far beyond reason and common sense, we are supposed to ignore the objective, biological reality that the whole human race is nicely and evenly comprised of both males and females? While blue for boys and pink for girls may certainly be an arbitrary social construct, and a recent one at that, boys and girls of all ages do generally have different interests, tastes, and even needs regarding clothing, linens, and hygiene products. And they want to find those products with ease and efficiency. Does that natural diversity suddenly mean nothing to you?

The final nail in the coffin of our former relationship came when you decided to woo the very tiny “transgender” population. (Is it a whopping 0.3% of the population, or a mere 0.03%?). You actually said, “[W]e welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity. ...Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.”

If “everyone deserves to feel like they belong,” what about the innocent, unsuspecting grandmothers, mothers, wives, single ladies, teen juniors, and little girls who will now be easy prey for sexual predators merely posing as “transgenders”? Your indiscretion now exposes them to harm and tells them that their own privacy needs no longer “belong.”

So, madam Target, you and I must part ways. I can easily find the toiletries, greeting cards, and other merchandise I want at more faithful places, such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, not to mention locally-owned businesses. I have urged and will continue to urge people I know—especially the women in my life—to take their shopping elsewhere, where they can truly “belong” and be safe.

Yes, I have signed the pledge to boycott you for your most recent dalliance with the “party crowd,” and I will keep urging others to do the same. I wonder, is your flirtation with only 1 out of 2,400 people in the U.S. actually worth the loss of millions of shoppers and billions of dollars?

Formerly yours and good riddance!


16 May 2016

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

"What Does This Mean?"
Genesis. 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Listen here.

“‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” It’s that famous question we Lutherans have learned to love so well, especially as we’ve learned the Catechism. “What does this mean?” It’s an excellent question. It’s what the Christian faith is all about. You see, faith in Christ is not a matter of knowing about Jesus. No, faith is a matter of receiving what Jesus says and does for you. It’s one thing to know about medication. It’s quite another to receive the dose of medicine that the doctor gives.

And that’s what Pentecost Day is all about too. It’s one thing to know the story of and about Jesus and His dying and rising. It’s quite another thing to have that good news given to you so that you trust it and cling to it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He teaches you to say, “What does this mean?” to the wonders of God’s salvation in Jesus.

The Tower of Babel: What Does This Mean?
If we want to get a handle on Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time. It happened about 100 years after Noah navigated the Flood, after the water had receded and the dry land appeared once again. Off in a plain called Shinar, a region called Babylon—today we call it Iraq—they built a tower. Who is “they”? Ambitious people; people trying to find purpose and meaning in life; people just like us. They had great technology; they had great man-power; they had great ingenuity. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” A skyscraper into the heavens. A temple shrine for a top floor suite. An architect’s dream. A contractor’s masterpiece.

But there was one problem. Why did they build it? They said with their own lips: “let us make a name for ourselves.” Just like you and I, they wanted to protect their reputations. Just like you and I, they wanted to be known for their accomplishments. Just like you and I, they thought they knew best how to be their own gods or how best to get to God. But, you see, they could never get to God. No tower can go high enough. No person can get religious enough. But God came down to them! “Look what they can do,” God said. “They can use all their technology, all of their modern ways, to make a name for themselves. They like to rely on themselves. They like to crowd Me out of their lives and their daily activities.” Just like you and I! So, God confused their language and scattered them. For the people of Babel, talking turned to babble. They went their different ways. They talked their different tongues.

What does this mean? Their self-seeking sin separated them from God and from each other. They refused to trust God. Now how would He talk to them? What language would He use? Now they couldn’t even talk to—let alone trust—each other. Just like you and I!

Jesus’ Words on the Spirit: What Does This Mean?
Many centuries later, God would come down yet again to deal with the people of planet earth. This time He would come for a different purpose: to rescue them from their self-seeking sin, to bring them back to Himself, to reunite them with each other. God came down in Jesus, first a baby, then a toddler, then a teenager, then an adult—just like you and me. The night before He would die on the bloody cross, Jesus consoled His grieving disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

What does this mean? Jesus was about to leave. Someone else would come. That Someone Else would be the Holy Spirit. What would He do? He would comfort Jesus’ disciples by reminding them of everything Jesus said and did. Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.” Jesus gives and delivers His cross-won peace through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther proclaimed it this way in 1532: “This is surely a most excellent comfort, so that no Christian need ever wonder—whether he’s from Jerusalem, Rome, or wherever on earth, outside in the field or in the house—how he will ascend into heaven, for it will be so. God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires to be with him and make their abode with him. This promise we have here on earth in the Word and experience it in our hearts through faith; but in the life to come it will also finally be fulfilled.” (II:38-39) And what does this mean for your day-to-day life now? Luther continues: “Now, to have God dwelling with us here on earth means nothing else than that all we do, speak, think, and endure will be God pleasing, whether we eat, drink, work, rise up, go to bed, or pray, study, sing, or read; it will all be pleasing to him…. When God dwells with a person, that individual becomes mightier than death, devil, hell, thunder and lightning, and all evil. That is not only a precious comfort but also a wondrous delight and glory” (House Postils, 2:180-81).

Pentecost Day: What Does This Mean?
Now, all this leads up to Pentecost Day. The Lord Jesus had left His Eleven apostles 10 days earlier. In those ten days they had chosen a replacement for Judas. Matthias got their number back to Twelve. Then came the big day: Pentecost—the Fiftieth Day. A loud wind sounded. In the Scriptures “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word. And then came the tongues, tongues of fire. But tongues don’t belong on top of the head. Tongues belong in the mouth. Tongues are for speaking. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Many nationalities and many languages were there. But “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Holy Spirit and speaking and hearing—they all go hand in hand.

What does this mean? Blessed Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel. They exclaimed, “‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’” No matter what tongue they spoke, they heard the universal language. What universal language is that? The wonders of God, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The languages coming from the Babel curse would now be used for Gospel blessings! Blessed Pentecost also fulfills the promise of the coming Holy Spirit. God promised it centuries earlier through the prophet Joel (2:28): “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Jesus promised the Spirit to His disciples before He went to the cross: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26).

What does this mean? The Holy Spirit has come and still comes for you. Don’t look for the spectacular, spooky “Holy Ghost” that the Charismatics and Pentecostals portray. And don’t look for the speaking in strange-sounding tongues that the Charismatics and Pentecostals preach so loudly. If anything, that sounds more like Babel that disunites, rather than Pentecost that unites. No, look for the testimony of Jesus. That’s what unites us. He’s your Savior. The wonders of God are Jesus’ perfect life, His innocent suffering, His cruel death, His glorious resurrection and His victorious ascension. God’s wonders in Jesus are your wonderful confidence.

An unknown African preacher in the 6th century gives us a good way to receive the “speaking in tongues”:
Now the love of God was to gather together the Church all over the world. Consequently, while a single man, if he received the Holy Spirit, could speak in every tongue, now the one Church in its unity, which is established by the Holy Spirit, speaks in every tongue.

And so if anyone says to one of us: “You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?” he should reply: “I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that his Church would speak in every tongue?” (For All the Saints, vol. II, p. 187)
The Holy Spirit has a simple and singular job: He delivers Christ Jesus to you. When Christ is preached for your forgiveness, the Holy Spirit is doing His job. When you are baptized, the Holy Spirit washes you into Christ’s death and resurrection. When you confess your sins and hear spoken forgiveness, the Holy Spirit enlivens you with the Word. When you eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, the Holy Spirit sanctifies your mouth and body with Jesus’ perfect life and soothing forgiveness. When the Holy Spirit is doing His work, you won’t focus on Him, but on Savior Jesus.

What does all of this mean? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Amen.
 

09 May 2016

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

"Comfort in Persecution"
John 15:26-16:4

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And He is ascended—“gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet” (Ps. 47:5). And now He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). And God the Father “put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

But we find ourselves in the same spot as the disciples. No more seeing Jesus—instead, walking by faith that He keeps His promise to be with us always; instead, living behind enemy lines in a fallen world hostile to Jesus, hostile to His followers, hostile to His Gospel. Jesus warned His disciples and us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn. 15:18-20).

That’s how Jesus Himself leads us into our Gospel reading. Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us two themes: first, about the Holy Spirit, and second, about the persecution we may expect with 100% certainty.

Who is this Holy Spirit? Jesus says He “proceeds from the Father.” He’s no mere energizing lightning bolt from heaven. Nor is He some cosmic force that, properly felt and channeled, aides a Jedi-in-training in conquering the “dark side” and blowing up the latest version of a death star. The Holy Spirit is a Person—a Person of the Godhead. Since He proceeds from the Father, He is God, just as the Father and just as the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father. And all of this from eternity—never a time when the Father did not exist, never a time the Son did not exist, and never a time the Spirit did not exist.

The Greek word for “proceeds” gives the picture of a soldier marching out on a mission. The Holy Spirit certainly marches out to carry out the mission of God to bring Jesus to you and you to Jesus. That word for “proceeds” can also give the image of a “flowing forth”—like a little stream that flows from a spring of water. As Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit” (Jn. 7:37-39). It’s what we confess when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed).

Jesus says three things about the Holy Spirit to give us the ultimate in consolation as we walk by faith while we live behind enemy lines. First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraklete,” “the Helper,” the “Comforter.” Don’t think of a fluffy comforter keeping you cozy warm on a chilly night. Instead, think of a comforter—an advocate—who comes along side you and comforts you before a judge when you stand accused. The devil accuses you before God’s throne of judgment day and night (Rev. 12:10). But that’s where the Holy Spirit performs His best work on your behalf as He intercedes for you. Your own conscience accuses you, because you know you do not and cannot keep God’s Law. You falter and stumble at loving God with every fiber of your being. You struggle with loving the neighbors whom God has given you. But, again, the Holy Spirit comforts and intercedes for you. He holds before you the comforting promises of God, His grace, His forgiveness, His gift of eternal life—all through Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Next, Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of Truth.” He guides the apostles and all believers into all truth. Before our text, Jesus said the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Just a few verses after our text Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13). When the Holy Spirit guides you and your fellow Christians into all truth, He guides you to Jesus. Jesus Himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) wrapped up in flesh and blood. When you know Jesus, when you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism, you know the truth—the truth of sin, the truth of God’s forgiveness, the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and devil. As Pastor Johann Gerhard said, the Holy Spirit “thus empowers us inwardly by the Word of Truth. Like unto the finger of God, He inscribes Christ into our hearts and ignites in us true knowledge of God…. He creates and works in our hearts the fact that we are truth” (Postilla, vol. I, p. 444).

Third, Jesus says the Spirit, “the Helper,” “the Spirit of Truth,” will bear witness about Him. The Holy Spirit does not want to draw attention to Himself. (Sorry, Pentecostals and Charismatics!) No, the Holy Spirit wants to draw attention to Jesus. He works in your heart and mine to comfort us with Jesus. He etches the Truth who is Jesus on our hearts and minds. But He does not do this mysteriously or only in the unseen, hidden recesses of our inward selves. The work of Jesus taking on our flesh, restoring our human lives, dying on the cross, and rising again the third day are objective facts. But, as Luther says, “If the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried, but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed. In the Word He has the Holy Spirit bring this treasure home and make it our own” (LC II:38-39). The Holy Spirit comes to you and works in you, bearing witness to Jesus, through the Word and the Sacraments. That’s where and how He works faith, when and where it pleases God. The Holy Spirit gives comfort and gives truth only by the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection. This alone comforts. This is the heart of all Truth.

The disciples were quite distressed when they could no longer visibly see their resurrected Lord. And we find our selves in the same predicament—not seeing Jesus, walking by faith, and stuck for a time behind enemy lines in this fallen world. Is it any wonder the world looks on Jesus’ followers as hopelessly behind the times, or dusty relics from a bygone era, or sorely out of step with modern progress and enlightenment, or even as annoying bumps in the road on the way to ultimate “freedom” in sexual expression and control by those elites who know what’s best for the rest of us? The Jesus followers have His comforting Spirit, His Spirit of Truth. The world's so-called truth, or truths, simply do not measure up. In fact, the Truth of Jesus exposes the world for the dark, lying place it truly is. The Jesus followers have THE Truth of Jesus, His forgiveness, His life, His way of life, His meaning for all of life, and His freedom to be the children of God.

So Jesus prepares us: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you”—or exiles you from the public square, or levies massive fines when you won’t abide by their agenda du jour, or enacts policies to change your bathroom habits, or judicially tries to change the truth of what marriage really is, or seeks to keep you, your faith, and your ability to express your faith within the confines of your own home—“will think he is offering service to God.” Jesus prepares us to live under such persecution behind enemy lines. He also sends His Holy Spirit to give us His consolation, to strengthen and sustain us.

St. Peter’s words are most fitting and really say all that we need: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).

This is your comfort in persecution behind the enemy lines of this fallen world. You have the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, proceeding from the Father, to give you life and hope and consolation. He gives you a heart of flesh to love Jesus and love your neighbor, even when that neighbor seeks to string you up and run you through. He gives you a heart of flesh to walk by faith and in God’s statutes, whatever the cost. And He gives you this comforting, true, and Spirit-filled promise: “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:28). Amen.

06 May 2016

Homily for the Ascension of Our Lord

"Ascension Blessing"
Luke 24:44-53

Listen here.

For this first half of the Church Year—the festival half—we have followed the life of Jesus. We have followed Him from His silent conception in the womb of His virgin Mother to the red, wrinkled infant lying on straw in a feeding trough. We have followed Him from the young toddler receiving the worship of the Wise Men to the 12-year old lad learning and teaching in the Temple. We have followed Him from John the Baptizer proclaiming Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) to the water pouring over Him, the Spirit descending upon Him, and the Father declaring, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Jesus then went into the desert to be tempted by the devil as He firmly held onto God’s saving purpose. Then we journeyed with Him through the fulfillment of that purpose—Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Good Friday and Easter are certainly the high-point of the story, but they are not the end of the story. So we’ve followed Jesus forty more days. Now we see Him lifting up His hands to give a blessing and then being carried up to heaven.

Let’s be clear on one thing about Jesus’ Ascension. It does NOT mean that He has gone away. Before He ascended, Jesus did promise that He would be with us always and to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). He did say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; Josh. 1:5). What, then, does Jesus’ Ascension mean? It means that Jesus no longer shows Himself visibly to our physical eyes. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if He would still show Himself to our sense of sight, as He did before His resurrection. We would have to wonder where He might be this evening. Would He be here in St. Louis, or half-way around the world in, say, Istanbul? We would have to admit that if He’s there, then He’s not here. But since Jesus has ascended, His people half-way around the world, and here in this room, and in various other places, know that He is with them. He promised it, and He always keeps His promises.

How can Jesus do that—be present where we cannot see Him and in many places at once? Only Jesus knows how He can do that, and it’s silly for us to try and figure it out. The bright cloud that “took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) tells us that. This was no ordinary cloud. This was the bright cloud that led Israel on their journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. This was the cloud that stood above the two angels on the ark of the covenant. This was the bright cloud that appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. This bright cloud was the guarantee of God’s presence for His people, to lead them and bless them. So this bright cloud marks Jesus’ re-entry to the realm of God. We cannot see that realm; we cannot measure it; we cannot witness what happens there. But it is just as real as anything we can see, measure, or witness.

Jesus did not take a space shuttle ride or travel at warp speed to the other side of the galaxy. He rose up a little way above the earth and “a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Jesus Himself is not gone; just the physical sight of Him is withdrawn. Now Jesus is present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things—and He’s still a man, a man fulfilled and glorified. It’s what we confess when we say that He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” That right hand is not a specific place. It’s the whole power and authority of God that Jesus, true God and also true Man, gets to exercise—for us and for our blessing.

That is the true joy of Jesus’ Ascension. After He led His disciples “out as far as Bethany,” He lifted “up His hands and blessed them.” He was still blessing them as He was “carried up to heaven” and being taken out of their sight. Luke does not tell us what words Jesus spoke in that blessing, and we really don’t need to know. Instead, let’s look at His hands. In those hands raised in blessing we can read the meaning and blessing of Jesus.

These are the hands that pushed at Mary’s breast in our human littleness and frailty. These are the hands that could learn to hold a pen and write the words of Scripture that Jesus knew so well by age 12. These are the hands that worked with hammer and saw, thus sharing in our work and blessing our labor. These are the hands that touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute to open our eyes of faith and loose our tongues to sing His praise. These are the hands that held the pale cold hand of a little girl and gave her back to her grieving mommy and daddy—giving us the hope of the resurrection of the body and being reunited with those we love who have departed in the faith. We can read just how often Jesus stretched out His hands and touched and grasped with that personal, one-to-one touch of love and healing. He was there, giving His blessing and His healing, for each one that needed Him, using His hands to take hold of each one. And never forget that moving scene when, after a long and busy day, Jesus continued His work of healing and blessing well into the night: “When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40).

These are the hands that gathered the little children into His arms to hug them and bless them. These are the hands that grabbed Peter when he looked away from Jesus and began to sink. These are the hands that broke the bread which had been blessed and gave them His body to eat. These are the hands that Thomas held and overcame his doubt.

But here is the biggest thing of all. These hands of Jesus--extended in blessing as He is taken up and hidden from physical sight--these are the hands that show the print of the nails. These are the hands still scarred from the jagged wounds of the cross. These are the hands that speak the greatest blessing, the super-sized blessing, the blessing for each of us now and into all eternity, and how it was won for us on the cross. Wouldn’t it be great to see a painting in which the artist depicts the scars in Jesus’ hands in the shape of a cross?

That’s the real blessing of Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus took on Himself all our wrongs, all our sins, and He bore the punishment for them. We deserved to be forsaken by God, but Jesus was forsaken in our place. Instead of being forsaken, now we are forgiven. Because of what Jesus did there on that cross, we are made alive again as God’s children. We are healed from the plague of sin and death. Because Jesus’ hands were stretched out on the cross and pierced with spikes, now, today, they are stretched out in blessing on His disciples, on you and me. Jesus ascends and blesses with the marks of the cross in His hands. No cross, no blessing. That’s why the sign of the blessing is made in the shape of the cross. That’s what Jesus’ Ascension means: life and blessing won and given.

No, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Quite the opposite. He is with us now even more powerfully than when He walked the earth visible to people around Him. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present Lord and Savior. Because He is with us, His Christians cannot be destroyed. He has overcome the world, and His victory is ours as well. And so He leads us, so He gives us strength, so He gives us courage, and finally He will bring us to that bright cloud of heaven. And so we go on from the Ascension just as the disciples did: “with great joy.” Amen.

03 May 2016

Homily for Easter 6 - Rogate

"The Privilege of Prayer"
John 16:23-33
(With thanks to Dr. Norman Nagel, whose 1957 sermon on this text has here been "creatively appropriated" and reworked a bit.)

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It was just a matter of hours before Jesus would leave His disciples. Soon they would not see Him. What sadness and despair they felt, especially after the crucifixion. They had given up their businesses to follow Him. Their lives revolved around Him. Where Jesus went, they followed. But when Jesus was gone, it seemed the bottom had fallen out of their lives. We also know that feeling. We get close to people around us. Our lives get intertwined. When one leaves, we feel the emptiness, the sadness.

Jesus knows this feeling too. He is human, just like you and I. And He knew just how little the disciples could rely on their own strength. So during those forty days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus prepared them for His departure. Before Calvary the disciples had leaned heavily on Him. Like a parent carrying a child, He had carried them. But now He wanted them to stand upright and go into all the world. Now He wanted them to be brave and proclaim the crucified and risen Savior. Soon His visible presence would be withdrawn.  And yet He still promised, “I am with you.” They would have to graduate from the wobbly steps of a toddler to the steady walking of a grown-up. He wanted them to walk by faith, not by sight.

Jesus’ knew the disciples’ weaknesses, and so He promised to send them His comfort—the Comforter called the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit the disciples would be comforted and strengthened. Though they could no longer see or touch Jesus, they would have a deeper, more intimate contact with God. They would have the privilege of prayer. Sure, they had prayed before, but now prayer would become their mighty, strengthening contact with God. Before, they had prayed with sight, but now they would pray with faith alone. Jesus gives this same privilege to all His followers who walk not by sight, but by faith. That includes us.

Many people ridicule prayer. They wonder how you, a tiny speck in the vast universe, can change the laws of the universe. How can you possibly expect to change the course of the world or interrupt the flow of world events? Others scoff and say, “If there is a God, what makes you think He’ll pay any attention to you?” And sometimes, in the face of such scorn, we Christians get weak-kneed and back down. In our little faith, we qualify and weaken the Lord’s promise to hear us and answer us. We do not realize that we do not have, because we do not ask (James 4:2).

We end up standing all alone in our puny weakness. In us, there’s no hope. And if there’s no God in heaven, then there’s no Father, and then we certainly cannot pray. But our Gospel reading speaks not only of God; it also speaks of the Father. And that makes all the difference in the world—all the difference between life and death.

We can pray, because God has come to be our Father. We can pray, because Jesus has taken our sins and our weaknesses on Himself and wiped them out by His victorious death and resurrection. By Jesus’ victory over the world and over our sin and death, we stand before God—forgiven, cleansed, made whole, made His children in Christ. Only when we are bound to Christ can we come before our dear Father as His dear children. He sees us in Christ, wearing the garment of Jesus’ righteousness. That’s why we pray in the name of Jesus. All of our prayer must be in Christ, that is, with faith in Him.

Prayer can only come from faith in Jesus. You cannot have God as your Father without having and trusting Jesus and His saving, atoning work. Those without Jesus do not and cannot call on God as their Father, because those without Jesus are not His children by faith. But those who are with Jesus—that is, Jesus is with them—can and do call on their Father. And calling on our Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, means admitting that we have nothing to offer. “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to Thy cross I cling” (LSB 761:3). We come as beggars before God; we have no right to ask anything. “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Small Catechism, Fifth Petition).

The tax collector in the temple is our perfect example for humble, selfless prayer. He could not even lift up his eyes, but instead beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). His empty heart had plenty of room for God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, had no room for God. He had no lack. He had his life in order and on the right track. His prayer was for God to admire him. But the tax collector—he’s the one who “went down to his house justified” (Lk. 18:14). So Jesus declares. And so Jesus declares to you in the Absolution that you hear from the pastor’s mouth, forgiving your sins in Jesus’ name.

So praying “in Jesus’ name” means praying in the spirit and manner of Jesus—with His voice, we might say. Just as He creates faith in us by His Word and Spirit, our Lord also gives guidance and example for prayer by His Word and Spirit. With the disciples we learn to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1), and He gives us the words and the way to pray. As He draws us closer to Himself, our prayers take on more of His way of praying—more of His voice. Praying “in Jesus’ name” means being drawn more and more into His purpose for our life—His saving purpose, that is. We pray for those things that benefit us and are “in sync” with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. Whatever might harm us or draw us away from our Savior: that’s not praying in Jesus’ name.

Do we always know what is good, right and salutary for our salvation and life with God in Christ? Of course not. We do admit that “Father knows best” when it comes to Him answering our prayers. And none of us would ever claim to be wiser than God, I’m sure. And yet, when we pray, we often do speak to God as though we know better than He does. We get impatient. We wonder if He even hears us. We grumble when God does not snap to attention and carry out our feeble orders and wishes. And we object, tossing Jesus’ words back in His face: “Come on, Lord, didn’t you say “whatever you ask of the Father…, He will give you”?

Yes, Jesus did say, “Whatever you ask.” But He also said, “in My name.” And, no, that’s not a “loophole” or a “legal fine print” for God. You see, God loves us too much to give us everything we want. We know that it’s a poor parent who gives his/her children everything they want. God does draw a boundary around the things that He promises to give us when He answers our prayers. That boundary is His love. Because the Father loves us in Christ, He restricts His own promise to those things that are for our good, those things that draw us close to our Savior. So praying “in Jesus’ name” means bringing our wishes, our requests, more and more in line with our Father’s wishes. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we learn to pray, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).

Does this mean that we should not ask for particular things? Not at all. We should not be ashamed to bring any and every need, any and every desire, to our Father. He is pleased when His children call upon Him as dear children ask their dear father—even if it’s about new shoes or the tomato plant in the garden. But let’s always pray with this confession: “Lord, You know all too well how foolish I can be, and how I can ask for things that may harm me. This seems good to me and for my neighbor, but I leave it all up to you.” “Not as I will, but as You will” Instead of asking, “Lord, give me more money,” we really do better to ask, “Lord, teach me to serve You with everything You have given me.” It always helps to remember that in the perfect prayer that Jesus taught us, only one petition covers all of our earthly needs. The other six petitions cover our greater needs—those needs of being drawn closer to our Savior and basking in His forgiving love.

Just as our Lord prepared His disciples to walk, not by sight, but by faith, He also prepares us as He gives us the privilege of prayer. In this act of worship called “prayer,” we open ourselves up to God because He has made us His children. We are guided by His Word. We are attentive to His love and His will. First, He loves us in Christ Jesus, and then we reply back to Him, returning our love, our adoration, our praise, our loyalty, and our very lives. We breathe in His Word, His love, His salvation, and we breathe out as we “call upon [Him] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks” (Small Catechism, Second Commandment). Amen.

21 April 2016

Homily for Easter 4 - Jubilate

"Grief into Joy"
John 16:16-22

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Jesus says at the end of our Gospel reading that He will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you. What does it mean to have resurrection joy? Simply this: God wants you to have joy in His presence. This joy from God is not simply happiness or giddiness. It's being connected to the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Rejoicing in God means having your life connected to the life of your risen Lord Jesus.

That sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? Let’s look at our text, though, and see what Jesus is really talking about. Today’s Gospel takes place on the night Jesus was betrayed. Shortly after He gave the disciples the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says to them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.” He also gives this series of statements, a little while. “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.” Seven times we hear that phrase, a little while.

Jesus gives us the picture that He is going on a journey. For the disciples, there would be a time when Jesus would be gone, and a time when He would return. When did Jesus leave them? He left them when He was betrayed, suffered and died. And when did he return to them? He returned to them when He rose again from the dead. This is what He means when He says that their sorrow will be turned into joy. The world rejoiced at His death, but now the heavenly world rejoices at His resurrection.

God turns the sorrow of death into resurrection joy. Simple, isn’t it? Yes, it is simple, and if this is all that it meant, then it wouldn’t have much to do with you today, now, would it?

So what else does Jesus mean when He says, “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me”? Notice that word "see". Jesus says that there will be times in each of our lives when we will not be able to see Him. We can’t experience Him first-hand, with our eyes, as the disciples did. But we know that He is still here, with us. Remember again Jesus’ words at His Ascension, “Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Jesus promises that He will always be present with you. God’s presence does not disappear when things get tough in your life. Instead, it’s when you are weak and helpless that He is strong and helpful.

How did St. Paul discover this and confess this? He had some thorn in the flesh--what, we don't know. He pleaded with God to take that thorn away—not just once, not just twice, but three times. Then the Lord Jesus answered Paul’s plea this way: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). Jesus’ saving, life-giving, resurrection power is made perfect in your weakness.

Jesus uses the example of a woman in labor. A woman in labor has one thing on her mind: safely bring the child into the world. That’s all that matters. Yes, there’s sorrow. Yes, there’s pain. But in a way it doesn’t matter, because a mother knows that all of it will be worth it in the end. A mother can endure the hardship because she knows that the joy of the child soon to be born will make it so she can hardly remember the pain that came with labor. This is what Jesus means when He uses the words, “a little while.” The sufferings and hardships and sorrows of this life last but a little while. In the scale of eternity in God, it just isn’t that significant. Is it real? Yes. Do these struggles and trials and sorrows hurt? Certainly. Sometimes, very much so. But Jesus promises here that He will be with you through the trial.

Remember the words from Romans chapter six: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:3-4).

When you were baptized, you entered into this “little while” that Jesus is talking about. You are now in the time of sorrow and trials that we all face in this life. Don’t let this surprise you. Your life is Christ’s life, and like your Lord, you, too, face trials and tribulations in this life.

And notice, too, where these struggles come. They come in your daily life. They come in dealing with your children and your parents. They come at work, from the pressures of making a living. They come from friends. They come from a culture that grows increasingly hostile to Christians and a Christian worldview. In other words, the struggles of being a Christian rise out of wherever God has placed you in this life. God is the One who has made you a father, a mother, a son or a daughter. He’s the One who has given you a job, or a classroom. He’s the One who put you into a family, has given you friends, and the like. And so it’s in these places in life that the trials of the baptismal life take their shape.

What’s difficult, of course, is to keep your focus. Like the woman in labor from our reading, we really have one goal in life: to endure this life as a Christian so we may live in Christ’s presence in the end. We could say it another way: the goal of the Christian Church is to give birth to Christians who are born into eternal life. That is our purpose. That is our place in this world. Now, sometimes it’s hard to see how that interacts with being a husband or wife or a child. But see it we must. After all, it is only in this hope of eternal life that life makes any sense.

Perhaps this is why God allows sorrow and hardship to befall you, the Christian. He wants you to remember that coming through life alive is a hard thing. Actually, it’s an impossible thing without His grace. God is of the firm opinion that He is God and you are not. God wants you to remember that He is God, and that you are not. He wants to give you all the blessings of eternity, but He can’t do it if you make yourself out to be your own god, or if you pretend that you can make it on your own.

But take heart, dear Christian friends! Remember again the words of Isaiah:
“They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint” (Is. 40:31).
 Remember that scene at the end of The Lord of the Rings. Frodo and Sam had made their arduous, trial-filled, painful, sorrowful journey to Mt. Doom. The golden ring of evil had fallen into the fiery lava, along with Gollum, who was trying to steal it for himself. And there lay Frodo and Sam on the side of the mountain, beaten and bruised, worn-out and exhausted from their journey. Then, all of a sudden the giant eagles come flying to the rescue. And they carry Frodo and Sam away to safety.

Even though you and I live with sorrow for a time today, God will see you through. You cannot see Jesus with your eyes, but He is very much here with you—hidden in your Baptism, hidden in words that absolve you, hidden under bread and wine, that is, His Body and Blood. He does and will give you joy like nothing else, or no one else, can. You are the children of God, and God always keeps His promises to you.

The time and struggles of this life last just “a little while.” But there will come a time, soon, when you will no longer even remember these trials, because of the joy that is in Christ, the joy that is yours now and will be yours forever. May it be so for you. Amen.

28 March 2016

Homily for The Resurrection of our Lord

Are You Sure?
Job 19:23-27; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Mark 16:1-8 

Listen here.

Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Are you sure about that? Are you absolutely certain that Jesus is raised from the dead? That He has conquered death? That He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel? I mean, when was the last time you actually saw someone come back to life after their funeral? Dead people just don’t come out of their graves! This world of death just keeps plodding along through the valley of the shadow of death.

Just this past week, the people of Brussels in Belgium were served a heaping portion of death on a platter of terror. Before that San Bernardino, and before that Paris. And who can count the countless stories of shootings and knife attacks and beatings that leave bodies behind? And we haven’t even touched on the so-called “normal death” that takes its toll on the famous as well as the nameless. Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, heart attacks, strokes, various cancers and all the rest take one and all, regardless of class or caste, regardless of fame or infamy.

Are you really sure that Christ is risen? Are you certain that this Easter message, this Easter celebration, this Easter fanfare really makes a difference in life…for you?…for others around you?

You do know, don’t you, that there are various objections to Jesus’ Resurrection out there? Some say that the first disciples really just hallucinated that Jesus had risen. After all, they say, we know how some people in their severe grief can sense or imagine their lost loved one in the home even after the funeral. Some say that Jesus really did not die on that cross, and therefore He could not have been raised on the third day. It’s actually in the Koran. Some say that our enlightened, modern, scientific knowledge rules out any miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus. After all, the thinking goes, the laws of nature cannot be violated by miracles that we enlightened modern people never see anyway. So, how sure are you that you can shout out with confidence, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”?

Let’s take up those objections one-by-one. First, some say the grieving disciples only hallucinated, or imagined, seeing Jesus risen from the dead. Yes, it is true that some people can be so grief-stricken that they think they hear or even see their deceased loved one after the funeral. However, psychologists say that only 7% of those who grieve have such a false sensory experience. That’s certainly a far cry from claiming that 100% of Jesus’ disciples merely imagined or sensed that Jesus had risen. After all, He appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve, and then to more than 500 brothers at one time (1 Cor. 15:5-6). And how could more than 500 people all have the same hallucination, all at the same time? And don’t forget St. Paul himself. He did not grieve the death of Jesus. In fact, he tried to snuff out the message of Christ crucified and risen. And yet, by God’s grace, St. Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, could later boldly proclaim: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:17, 20).

What about the second objection to the resurrection—that Jesus did not really die on the cross, and therefore He couldn’t possibly rise from the dead? Yes, the Muslims claim this from the Koran, and other skeptics pick it up too. There’s just one problem with it. The Koran also calls Jesus a “great prophet,” trying to give Him some respect. But ponder this. The prophet Jesus did predict and proclaim His horrific death, and He did so very close in time to His death. So, if He did not actually die as He Himself predicted and right after He predicted it, then what does that make Jesus? Not a “great prophet,” but a false prophet! Koran mistaken. And on the other hand, if Jesus did die, as He actually proclaimed and predicted, then once again the Koran is mistaken. In this case, strike two; you’re out!

Thirdly, what about the scientific objection? As they say, we 21st century people now know the laws of nature and how things naturally, normally work. We do not observe miracles happening, therefore they cannot happen. Those 1st century people just didn’t know the laws of nature; therefore they believed in miracles, such as Jesus’ resurrection. But consider this. Laws of nature simply describe how things normally work. They cannot make anything work. Laws of nature can describe how a billiard ball rolls and how it bounces off the bumper at certain angles. But those laws of nature cannot make the billiard ball start rolling. An outside force must do that with a cue stick. Or consider this. Let’s say one day you put $100 into your dresser drawer. Then, the next day, you put another $100 into your dresser drawer. The laws of arithmetic say that equals $200. Then, on the third day, you open your dresser drawer and find only $50! Which laws were broken: the laws of arithmetic, or the laws of the state? Obviously, the laws of the state that say, “Don’t steal.” Again, some outside force had to act. Laws of arithmetic did not change over night. (And laws of nature stayed in tact too; after all, dollar bills cannot sprout legs and walk away! :-)

And this brings us to the whole point of this festive time: Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Are you sure? I hope so! You see, God does not break the laws of nature; after all, He created them. God simply steps in and exerts His life-giving power from outside the normal system, which He also created in the first place. God simply exerts His power—like a billiard player—to get the “billiard ball” of new life rolling. The Son of God Himself has stepped into this dying world of ours, taken our flesh on Himself, suffered death in our place, and has now risen from the grave. The only laws broken are the law of sin and the law of death. And God did not create those.

Can you be absolutely certain that Jesus IS raised from the dead in His body? That He has conquered death? That He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel? Yes, you can be! Why else would you be here today? What other message would you expect to hear? What else could give you peace, hope, and confidence in this world of death that just keeps plodding along through the valley of the shadow of death? What else could comfort your troubled heart and steel your resolve as you face the loss of a loved one or even your own mortality? And what else could give you the joy and exuberance to laugh in the face of death with St. Paul, saying, “O death, where your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).

You see, the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning were not so sure, even after they heard the angel say, “He has risen; He is not here.” But they did end up telling the disciples. And the disciples were not so sure. But then they did see the risen Lord Jesus—not just an hallucination, but a real body raised from the dead, a real body with wounds that could be poked and examined, a real Man who ate fish and bread, a real Man who breathed on them to give them His Spirit.

You can be as sure as Job—even more sure. Job lived somewhere around 2,000 years before Jesus came and died and rose again. You live about 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Job trusted and proclaimed God’s promise yet to come. You get to trust and proclaim God’s salvation accomplished as a real historical fact. You can say with absolute confidence: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). You can also say with absolute confidence: “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27).

St. Paul reminds you: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

Before we leave this festive gathering today, we will sing our absolute confidence this way:

Jesus lives! The vict’ry’s won!
Death no longer can appall me;
Jesus lives! Death’s reign is done!
From the grave will Christ recall me.
Brighter scenes will then commence;
This shall be my confidence. (LSB 490:1)

Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

26 March 2016

Homily for Easter Vigil

"How to Say 'CHRISTIAN'"

Surely, you remember the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings—Frodo, Sam-Wise, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo and Sam-Wise had gone off to return “the Ring” to Mt. Doom—save the world or some such thing. Merry and Pippin, though, had been captured by the Uruhkai. Then they escaped and were wandering through Fangorn Forest. That’s where they met the “Ents”—the tree creatures that  walk and talk. The first “Ent” they met was Treebeard—an wise, old Ent. At first Treebeard wasn’t sure he had ever heard of little creatures called Hobbits. Treebeard went through his whole list of creatures—elves, dwarfs, ents, and humans; beavers, bears, hounds, and eagles; swans and serpents. Nope, no Hobbits. But he was pleased to meet Merry and Pippin.

So, Merry quickly introduces himself by name. And Treebeard says, “Hoom, hmm! Come now! Not so hasty.” He wants to ponder why they call themselves “hobbits.” Pippin quickly introduces himself by name. And Treebeard responds, “Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see.” Then Treebeard slowly declares, “I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.” Why not? He says, “For one thing it would take a very long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story.” In Treebeard’s story-language, Entish, things take a long time to say. Then Treebeard says, “It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

Tonight we are being good little Ents! What does all of this have to do with Jesus, Easter, resurrection, and new life? Don’t get hasty now; just wait. It’s truly amazing how hasty we get in our world of 24/7 news, and Facebook status updates throughout the day, and email correspondence where we feel insulted if we don’t get a response in under three minutes. Yes, we’re suffering from a plague of hastiness. Yes, the symptoms of that plague are not saying much that’s worthwhile and not hearing much that’s worthwhile. Certainly, our hasty speaking, our hasty listening, and even our hasty living, all tend to crowd out our God who loves us for the long-term of eternity.

According to Treebeard, anything worth saying is worth taking some time to say it. Think about this evening. We actually gather here with the express purpose of taking longer than normal to worship ... waiting and watching in vigil … of hearing lots of God’s Word … of remembering our Baptism … of confirming two young men … of praying … and of receiving His gifts. We began with preparing and lighting the Paschal candle. Yes, Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Oops. I’m getting too hasty here. We processed in and that light of life spread through the congregation. One candle after another, Jesus the resurrected light spread for each person here. Just think how gloriously long it would take to spread through the country or around the world.

Then we heard the Word of God. If there’s anything worth saying and listening to, here it is. Story after story of how God loves us to redeem us, of how God steps into our story to rescue us, rescue us from sin … and from death … and from the devil. First, came Creation. Yes, He loved us so much He wanted to give us His whole perfect world. Then came the Flood. Yes, our rebellion against Him is judged. And yet He delivers us through the water, safe and secure in the ark—the ark of His holy Church, that is. I hope I’m not going too hastily here! Then came the Exodus. Our gracious God delivers us from our slavery to sin, just has He delivered His ancient people from slavery in Egypt. And finally Daniel and his friends. Notice we did not speed through that story! Daniel and his friends would not bow down to the human king, regardless of his unjust legislation and mandate, regardless of how the governing authorities sought to curtail their religious freedom. And the consequences for their civil disobedience? A fiery furnace. But there was a Helper in the midst of that blazing oven—the Son of God Himself. Yes, we’ve taken a long time to rehearse these stories. If there’s anything worth saying, it’s worth taking time to say it. You see, these are our stories. They teach us how to say, “CHRISTIAN.”

And this evening we’ve had the privilege of remembering our Baptism and new life with God in Jesus' death and resurrection. And, yes, it happened far more hastily than the story deserves. You see, we get to spend our whole lifetimes learning this new life in Jesus, life that lasts into eternity. Yes, for years to come, we get to learn how to say “CHRISTIAN” … and how to live as “CHRISTIAN” … and how to serve as “CHRISTIAN” … and how to love as “CHRISTIAN.” It’s what we all get to do when we are baptized.

After that story we witnessed the story of two young men confessing the one, true faith and being confirmed in that faith. If there’s anything worthy saying—especially in those confirmation vows—it’s worthy saying slowly, over a long period of time, even over the long period of your lifetimes. Yes, you did confess faith in the true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, you did promise to remain true to Him for the rest of your lives. Yes, you did promise to live the rest of your lives in His Church—hearing God’s Word, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood faithfully and regularly. It’s how you say, “CHRISTIAN.” You live it. You don’t make a promise, and then hastily rush off to other pursuits. No, you live the story. You live life within God’s family, the Church. We all do. How do you say “CHRISTIAN”? By coming to Jesus’ house, by hearing and learning His words, by eating and drinking His Body and Blood—week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out. If there’s anything worth saying—and living—it’s worth taking time to say it and live it. So, Blake and Evan, welcome to the family.

What does all of this have to do with Jesus, Easter, resurrection, and new life? Don’t be so hasty. It’s what we’ve been hearing all evening. New life from God and His rescue of sinners. New life in Jesus Christ, crucified and now risen. New life in Baptism. New life in practice, lived out in His family, the Church. New life that is worth taking time—our whole lifetime—to say, to live, to shout, to sing.

When we shout out and sing out that “Christ is risen,” we mean all of this. When we shout out and sing out that “He is risen indeed,” we mean His story is our story, His life is our life. When we shout out and sing out, “Alleluia!”, we shout out and sing out a word that is worth saying over and over and for a long time to come. Praise the Lord that He has sent His Son! Praise the Lord that He is risen from the dead! Praise the Lord that He has raised us to live with Him! Praise the Lord that He teaches us how to say, “CHRISTIAN”! Praise our risen Savior that He has given us something to say, and a whole lifetime to say it!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

25 March 2016

Homily for Good Friday

"Sacrifice in the Flesh"
John 18:1-19:42 & Luke 1:26-38

Listen here.

This single service called the “Holy Three Days”--Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—is the most sacred time of our Christian year. This year Good Friday also falls on March 25, the day the Church also sets aside for the Annunciation of our Lord—the time when the angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced that she would become pregnant with and give birth to the Son of God.

What a marvelous intersection of Jesus’ Birth and Death, of His taking on flesh and His offering the ultimate sacrifice! The very flesh and blood Savior conceived and born of Mary would reveal Himself as God’s great sacrifice in the flesh for you. The Son of God stooped down to take on our human flesh and blood for the express purpose of sacrificing Himself on the cross for you. Without His flesh and blood, He could not have suffered and died for you. And when He suffers and dies in His flesh given by Mary, He restores you, in your flesh, to life with God.

In the ancient world, people thought that a person died on the same day that he was first conceived. Instead of celebrating birthdays, as we do, they would mark the day that a person died and then say, “That’s the day, all those years ago, when Uncle Barnabas was conceived in his mother’s womb.” So the early church marked the day of Jesus’ death as the same day, 33 years earlier, when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. So, today we get to mark the day when He first took on flesh and blood along with the day on which He sacrificed Himself in the flesh.

On Annunciation Day we fix our eyes on the Virgin who conceived and bore a Son, and we call Him “Immanuel.” On Good Friday we fix our eyes on the suffering, suffocating, dying Son of God who is with us in our place on the bloody cross. Annunciation draws us to the fullness of time when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman. Good Friday shows us how He redeems us who are born under the law and how God adopts us as His heirs of His heavenly gifts.

God showed His favor to Mary as He prepared for His Son to be born. He shows you His favor through His Son crucified, dead, and buried. Mary was to name Him “Jesus” because, as He shows on the Cross, He saves you, His people, from your sins. Mary was promised that her Son would reign over the house of Jacob forever. You see that promise fulfilled as Jesus hangs lifeless on His cross-shaped throne, crowned with thorns, with the charge “King of the Jews” hanging above His head.

His tiny infant hands grew to bless and heal, to cleanse the temple and comfort the downtrodden. But then they received the piercing nails pinning Him to the cross in your place. His adorable baby feet grew to walk the dusty roads as He proclaimed God’s kingdom, to walk miraculously on the water as He rescued Peter from drowning, and, finally, to stomp on the serpent’s head by being nailed to a tree. His vibrant infant eyes once looked to His Virgin Mother in dependence and adoration, but from the cross He could only see the mocking gestures, the angry faces, and His God who had forsaken Him instead of you. At first, His mouth could only coo and gurgle, but then it would speak the great wisdom of the Triune God and His loving mercy, especially as it uttered those immortal and life-giving words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

The security of swaddling cloths had to give way to the shameful nakedness of the cross, because our sin made us naked in shame before God. But wrapped in Christ’s blood, you have security in His forgiveness. The friendly wood of the manger had to give way to the hard, rough wood of the cross. It might seem like “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The sweet milk from Mary’s breast had to give way to the bitter, vinegar-filled cup of God’s wrath. It was the only way that you and I could taste and see that the Lord is good.

Mother Mary made sure to clothe Him as He grew up, but the soldiers made sure to strip Him bare as they lifted Him from the earth. But never fear: in your Baptism you are clothed with the robe of Christ’s perfect life. When Jesus was an infant small, His Virgin Mother held Him and tended His every need. But as He hung from the Cross, He tended to her need as He gave her to the Apostle John and gave John to her as a new son. Not only does this crucified Son of the Highest reconcile you to God, but He also reconciles you to each other and teaches you to sacrifice yourselves for one another.

When Mary took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, she was told, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). But the piercing that saves you and heals you came when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side “and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19:34). Yes, He, not His Mother, was “wounded for [your] transgressions” and “crushed for [your] iniquities…and with His stripes [you] are healed” (Is. 53:5). And long after Jesus last rested in the warm, tender embrace of His Mother, He finally rested in the cold, hard tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus’ rest in the tomb shows you that you now have rest with God.

When we celebrate the Annunciation, we hear Mary respond to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). When we celebrate Good Friday, we ponder the cruel blows, the mock trials, the contrived death sentence, the scourging that shreds His flesh. We hear the echoes of the nails being pounded into His wrists and feet. We hear the words spoken from the cross. We visualize the blood flowing mingled down, and we recall Him giving up His own breath of life. As we ponder these sacred events, let us also speak Mary’s words: “Let it be to me according to your word.”

And what does that Word say about a crucified and dead Son of God? It says: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). It says, “For our sake [God] made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). May God grant you the same faith that the Virgin Mary confessed. Like her, may you ponder and adore the Son of the Highest, especially for His sacrifice in the flesh for you.

St. Ephraem (306-373) teaches us how to pray, ponder, and adore on this Good Friday:
You love humankind, O Christ, and I glorify You for that. You are the only Son, the Lord of all things. You alone are without sin. You gave Yourself up to death for me, an unworthy sinner, the death of the cross. Through this suffering, You have delivered all human beings from the snares of evil. What shall I render to you, Lord, for such goodness?

Glory to You, friend of all!
Glory to You, O merciful Lord!
Glory to You, longsuffering God!
Glory to You, who takes away all sins!
Glory to You, who came to save us!
Glory to You, who became flesh in the womb of the virgin!
Glory to You, bound in cords!
Glory to You, whipped and scourged!
Glory to You, mocked and derided!
Glory to You, nailed to the cross!
Glory to You, buried and risen!
Glory to You, proclaimed to all humankind, who believe in You!
Glory to You, ascended to heaven! Amen.