30 March 2015

Homily for Palm/Passion Sunday

"Ride On...to Die!"

Philippians 2:5-11 & Matthew 27:11-54

St. Paul sums it up well. Jesus “made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). You see, the “likeness of men” comes from the “image of God” given to Adam and Eve in the garden. And that likeness and image is to be servants—servants of God and servants of one another; trusting God and loving one another. But that’s what Adam and Eve and all of us lost in that fateful Fall into sin. “Here, let me be ‘like God’…on my own terms…in my way…according to my desires.” And that’s what King Jesus marches on to overcome. So He made Himself nothing.

St. Paul continues: “And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). Our Suffering Servant King completely and utterly emptied Himself on that Cross. We just heard St. Matthew tell the story in all its grueling details. So the simplest—and perhaps the best—application for each of us is to hear these words: “For you! All for you!”

But let’s ponder it a bit more. Let’s use our final hymn for today to ponder how Jesus’ emptying of Himself, Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem, and Jesus’ death on a cross changes you and your life.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Hark! All the tribes hosanna cry.
O Savior meek, pursue Thy road,
With palms and scattered garments strowed. (LSB 441:1)

He rides in majesty, but this ticker-tape parade will soon give way to jeers and boos and whips and nails. The adoring crowd, though, shouted something life-changing, even if they didn’t realize how life should change. “All the tribes hosanna cry,” we sing. “Hosanna” means “save now.” And that’s exactly what our meek Suffering Servant King does. He doesn’t necessarily save us from occupying armies or corrupt governments. But He does save us from what enslaves us most—our sin and our sins; our inner rottenness and our thoughts, words and deeds that reveal that inner spiritual “cancer.” So “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!” This week we get to follow our Lord as He rides on…to die. Don’t miss any of it.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, Thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin. (LSB 441:2)

Jesus’ majesty IS lowly pomp. His triumph DOES come in dying. You see, that’s the only way to conquer sin—yours and mine—and capture death that holds all of us captive. It’s that sin and death that make you and I think we are the center of the universe. It’s that sin and death that make you and I think we can dictate to God how He ought to bless and come to our aid. It’s that sin and death that must be conquered in each of us. And that’s what Jesus rides on to do. He dies. He sheds blood. He forgives. He washes you clean. He makes you new. That’s His real triumph. That’s why He rides on…to die. Don’t miss any of it later this week.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The angel armies of the sky
Look down with sad and wond’ring eyes
To see the approaching sacrifice. (LSB 441:3)

King Jesus is commander-in-chief of “the angel armies of the sky”—Lord God of Sabaoth, Lord God of power and might. All He had to do is nod and those mighty heavenly soldiers would have come to His rescue, eyes blazing, swords swinging, with more shock and awe than we could imagine. But no. They sit. They wait. They watch. From the stands. "Our Commander is sacrificing Himself? He doesn’t want our aide?" What a wonder it must have been. King Jesus, Lord God of Sabaoth, was sacrificing Himself to bring an end to this ages long spiritual conflict. King Jesus, Commander-in-Chief, was surrendering Himself in order to win the war. To end the hostilities. To bring peace between God and people. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” (Lk. 2:14). “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by His life” (Rom. 5:1, 10). That’s why He rides on—to die.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
Thy last and fiercest strife is nigh.
The Father on His sapphire throne
Awaits His own anointed Son. (LSB 441:4)

Amazing! God the Father sits and watches too! Since He’s the father from whom all fatherhood is known, and since we know that any human father worth his salt would want to step in and help his suffering son, this is truly amazing. But no. God the Father sits on His sapphire throne. He watches. He waits. His own anointed Son single-handedly engages in this “last and fiercest strife.” His own anointed Son single-handedly bears the full load of sin and death. His own anointed Son single-handedly endures the scorn and the forsakenness. “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” His Son cries out. “Why are You so far from saving Me, from the words of My groaning?” (Ps. 22:1). And the Father just sits there, letting it all happen, without lifting even a finger. But all this was by His eternal will. All was going according to His loving plan. King Jesus was heard because of His reverence (Heb. 5:7). And now we get to draw near God’s throne of grace with confidence. Now we get to receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Heb. 4:16). That’s why He rides on to die.

Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
Bow Thy meek head to mortal pain,
Then take, O God, Thy pow’r and reign. (LSB 441:5)

So, His majesty is seen in lowly pomp. His royalty is evident in a crown of thorns. His throne is a bloody cross. His warm stately hands and feet are pierced through with cold metal spikes. He bows His “meek head to mortal pain.” Why? Why go through all that excruciating shame and torture? Why suffer? Why shed innocent blood? Why gasp in agony for six long hours? Why voluntarily give up His spirit? Why? For you. All for you! That you “may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.”

That’s why He rides on. To die. For you. That you may live. That you may be restored to the “likeness of men” and the “image of God.” That’s what we celebrate this week and into next Sunday. Don’t miss any of it! Amen.

16 March 2015

Homily for Lent 4 - Laetare

"Rejoicing in His Refreshment"
John 6:1-15
with "Farewell and Godspeed to a Pastor Entering Retirement" for Rev. Daniel Preus

Listen here.

For three weeks we have been struggling. First, we struggled with temptations. Second, we wrestled with our Lord for His mercy. And last week we struggled with the demonic forces that influence and inhabit us.

Today we get a break in the struggle. Today we receive some refreshment. Today the Lord of the Church feeds and refreshes us. So, before we plunge into the Lord’s painful Passion and dehumanizing death, we get a breath of refreshing air. Psalm 122 summons us to rejoice in the Lord’s refreshment: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast.” So let’s consider 1) Our Need for Refreshment, 2) Our Source of Refreshment, and 3) Our Lord’s Miracle of Refreshment.

1. Our Need for Refreshment
St. John says the time of the Passover was near. The Passover was the meal given by God to the Israelites just before they left Egyptian slavery. After they were liberated from slavery, they lived in and traveled through the wilderness. There they discovered what it meant to rely on God. They had no food. They grumbled against God and His servant Moses. But God in His grace decided to provide for His people—to refresh them with bread from heaven.

When Jesus feeds the 5000, He realizes that the multitude is far from home and food. He has been teaching God’s Word, and they have been listening. He had even healed many in the crowd. But they needed refreshment; they needed food for strength and sustenance. So Jesus provided it—and in ample quantities.

We also live and walk in a wilderness—the wilderness of this world. This world is not our Promised Land. This world brings all sorts of enticements and temptations to draw us away from Christ our Savior. This world teaches philosophies and mantras that feed our self-serving egos and keep us ignorant of God’s good ways. This world is where we like to grumble and complain just as the Israelites did. Against whom do we complain? Against God and His servants. “How dare He give us salvation and forgiveness and then leave us to struggle in faith!” “How dare He leave us in this world and not make life easy and perfect and carefree for us!” “How dare God tell us not to believe or do things that are popular in the world around us!”

You see, you and I are much more like the Israelites than we want to admit. We want bellies full on food more than we hunger for God’s Word and ways of forgiveness and life. We strive for ease of bodily life but we think little of the refreshment and life that come from Jesus. We wrestle against temptations and sin, and often they put us in a sleeper hold. And so we get drowsy to our need for Christ. We struggle with trusting our Lord, because sometimes our prayers seem to go unanswered, and sometimes His great promises don’t seem to change the harshness of life. Yes, we live in a wilderness. Yes, we need refreshment.

2. Our Source of Refreshment
Our Lord Jesus knew the multitude needed Him and His provision. All they had was a poor boy’s lunch—five loaves of barley bread and two little fish. That could not provide refreshment for well over 5000 people. Neither could the Israelites provide refreshment for themselves—not in the hostile wilderness. Neither can we provide eternal, spiritual, faith-strengthening refreshment for ourselves. Even as forgiven children of God, we need help.

Your Lord Jesus Christ is very glad to give you that refreshment and help. He is your true Source of refreshment. You see, it is truly a blessing that you know and feel your need, your poverty, and your inability to refresh yourselves. It’s a blessing because Christ wants you to turn to Him for relief. He takes the insignificant five barley loaves and two fish, and makes a feast for five thousand.

But poor five thousand! If they had to depend on the disciples, they would not have had a crumb apiece! Poor Church if she must depend on us! You and I are not the source of refreshment for the Church, not even for our congregation. Our “niceness” and our good intentions are poor substitutes for the Lord’s rich feast. When we draw attention to ourselves, we give other people a poor boy’s lunch rather than the Lord’s rich feast of refreshment.

However, our Lord Jesus Christ drew faith out of the need of the disciples. He also raised the faith and expectation of the multitude when He said, “Have the people sit down.” Five thousand people sat there, eagerly waiting. Yes, waiting on Christ is the secret of the Christian faith and life. When you wait on Christ, He fills you with Himself, the Bread of Life. When you wait on Christ, you’ll never go away empty from sermon, prayers, or Sacrament. When we draw attention to Christ, we draw each other and others around us to the true Source of Refreshment!

3. Our Lord’s Miracle of Refreshment
When Jesus feeds the five thousand, He’s teaching you that He, and He alone, has the power and ability to satisfy human hearts. Your Lord Jesus Christ satisfies your human nature as nothing else can—not the world, not sin, not passing pleasures, not high positions, not great learning, not even health, wealth, or happiness. Today your Lord Jesus teaches you that He alone is Bread for you; He alone is your daily Bread. And He is the true, solid, satisfying, sustaining, life-giving Bread of Life.

After Jesus fed the 5000, He taught His disciples and the crowd what it meant. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven,” He said. “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is My flesh.” (Jn. 6:51). Notice how your refreshment flows from the Savior’s torture on the Cross. Notice how your life is found in the Savior’s death. What a miracle of refreshment!

Jesus went on to explain it this way: “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on My flesh and drinks My blood abides Me, and I in him.” (Jn. 6:55-56). This may not yet be the Institution of the Lord’s Supper in Jesus’ ministry, but who could miss the connection? Real refreshment comes from the Holy Communion with our Lord. As you eat and drink, you are abiding in Christ and Christ is abiding in you. After our Lord fills us with Himself, we thank Him for His refreshment. One prayer after Communion says, “We give thanks to You, almighty God, that You have refreshed us through this salutary gift.” Another prayer says, “You have given us pardon and peace in this Sacrament.” The Lord’s Meal of Body and Blood is real refreshment indeed!

Is it any wonder, then, that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and the prayers”? They knew their source of refreshment in this barren wilderness of a world. And when the Lord added to their numbers those who were being saved, it reminds us that many outside the church need the Lord’s refreshment in our day too. The Church is not a place for us to think only of ourselves. No, it’s a place where the Lord refreshes us, and His refreshment energizes us to bring others to be refreshed in and by Christ.

Today we also get to rejoice in the refreshment that our Lord has given through Pastor Daniel Preus. By God’s grace, Daniel has served the Lord and His people for many years. Our Lord has used Daniel’s service to bring the real refreshment of forgiveness, life, and salvation to many. Whether Daniel served in the parish, or at Concordia Historical Institute, or as one of our synod’s vice-presidents, or as Director of Luther Academy, he has always labored to dish out the Lord’s refreshment that comes only from Christ crucified and risen. In his book, Why I Am a Lutheran: Jesus at the Center, Pr. Preus says this about the Lord’s Supper: “In this family Meal, the Lord provides the forgiveness and life that we need. In this eating and drinking, our bodies and souls receive hope and strength as we spend a moment in eternity” (122). That’s the Lord’s real refreshment!

Today we also get to rejoice in the refreshment that our Lord is now giving to Pr. Preus in retirement. We have been blessed by his faithful service here at Hope these past ten years, and we thank God for bringing him here to us. Now we say, “Farewell and Godspeed.” But we also know that our Lord will continue to refresh Pr. Preus with forgiveness and life. And, while we may say, “Farewell and Godspeed” now, we also know that we have an eternity of our Lord’s refreshment where we will all be reunited.

Rejoicing in the middle of Lent? Yes! Here we find true refreshment in the Lord’s House, with His Word and at His Table.

“O living Bread from heaven,
How well You feed Your guest!
The gifts that You have given
Have filled my heart with rest.
Oh, wondrous food of blessing,
Oh, cup that heals our woes!
My heart, this gift possessing,
With praises overflows.” (LSB 642:1) Amen.

09 March 2015

Homily for Lent 3 - Oculi

"One Stronger"
Luke 11:14-28

Listen here.

In Judges 14 Samson was looking for a wife. He came to the vineyards outside the town of Timnah, and a young lion confronted him. “The Spirit of the LORD rushed upon [Samson], and although he had nothing in his hand, he tore the lion in pieces as one tears a young goat” (Judg. 14:6). Some time later Samson returned to Timnah to take his bride. He turned aside “to see the carcass of the lion, and behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. He scraped it out into his hands and went on, eating as he went. And he came to his father and mother and gave some to them, and they ate” (14:8-9). A while later Samson gave this riddle based on his victory over the lion: “Out of the eater came something to eat. Out of the strong came something sweet” (14:4).

What does Sampson have to do with Jesus and our Gospel reading? When we view Samson as a prototype—a preview, a teaser trailer—of our Lord Jesus, our Gospel reading makes perfect sense. Just as Samson went to Timnah to find and marry his bride, our Lord Jesus comes into this fallen world to gather His spiritual Bride, the Church. Just as Samson conquered the strong lion, our Lord Jesus conquers the hellish lion, the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). Just as Samson scraped sweet honey out of the lion’s carcass and gave some to his parents, Jesus scoops sweet salvation out of His conquest of the devil and gives that sweet life and love of God to us. We can also say that our Lord Jesus scoops the sweetness of a holy people—forgiven, redeemed, and rescued from sin—a people who in turn give a sweet smelling aroma in their lives of thanksgiving, praise, service, and love—and He gives that people—us—to His Father.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals a demon-possessed man. You would think that people would rejoice. After all, a man had been freed from Satan’s shackles. But no! Some folks complain. They accuse the loving Lord of life of committing nefarious no good. “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons,” they claim. Then our Lord Jesus speaks to the nonsense of Satan being divided against himself. He says it’s foolish that a kingdom would be so divided. After all, Satan and his evil horde of devilish minions are far from divided. They are very much united. They are united around the single purpose of drawing you and me away from God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They are united in consuming you and me in order that we may not enjoy the sweet life, love, and salvation of our Mighty Savior.

Consuming? Yes, consuming! Remember St. Peter’s words. The devil “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.”

C. S. Lewis illustrated this quite nicely in his book The Screwtape Letters. In these fictional letters from the underworld, senior tempter Screwtape instructs his young nephew, Wormwood, on the art of tempting a Christian “patient.” Like salt and pepper throughout these letters, Screwtape sprinkles little hints about the demonic urge to sink their teeth into and devour the souls who belong to “the Enemy,” who is God. C. S. Lewis capped off these delightfully wicked letters with a juicy sequel. It’s called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Screwtape is the guest of honor and main speaker at a banquet of young devils who have just completed their training at tempter school. Screwtape begins his toast by commenting on the low quality of the souls on which they were feasting. Screwtape says:

It would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality…. Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII or even a Hitler! There was a real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own…. Instead of this, what have we had tonight? There was a municipal authority with Graft sauce. But personally I could not detect in him the flavour of a really passionate and brutal avarice such as delighted one in the great tycoons of the last century…. Then there was the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t…. The Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition was perhaps a shade better. He had done some real harm. He had, not quite unknowingly, worked for bloodshed, famine, and the extinction of liberty (The Screwtape Letters, pp. 154-155).

Screwtape goes on to say, however, that the quality of the souls is not as important as the quantity, the numbers. Even though it means less “quality,” Screwtape rejoices in the greater numbers. He says, “The sort of souls on whose despair and ruin we have—well, I won’t say feasted, but at any rate subsisted—tonight are increasing in numbers and will continue to increase” (p. 157). What’s the point? Satan and his minions love to devour Christians. And by ourselves, we Christians are powerless to prevent it—as powerless as juicy, red slabs of meat tossed to a hungry lion.

And just how do Satan and his army of tempters try to consume and devour us? You see, they are constantly trying to stew us and marinate us in the juices of the fallen world.

Ponder how Satan and his tempters flex their muscle in the world. ISIS persecutes Christians in Iraq and Syria, abducting and killing them. Security in shopping malls increases due to terror threats. Moms and dads at odds with each other, fighting over child custody. Hospital beds where labored and irregular breathing signals death’s nearness. Inappropriate images of men and women causing lustful thoughts. Adulterous hearts enjoying a love affair with earthly riches and pride. Tongues twisted with unkind words about another child of God. Indifference towards hearing and learning God’s Word and receiving His Sacrament. New man-made teachings which ask “Did God really say?” Nonexistent family devotions because life is too busy. Constant accusations that God could never forgive such bad thoughts and actions.

Also ponder what St. Paul tells us today. He warns us against sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking, and deceiving with empty words. These are just some of the ways that the devil prowls around looking for tasty little filets of Christians to devour. While we’re at it, we might as well remember St. Paul’s list of works of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). When you find yourself participating in such things, Satan is sinking his claws into you, basting you for his consumption, and just waiting, with mouth watering, until you finally end up on his dinner plate.

Not a pretty thought, I know! And that’s why we need One Stronger than strongman Satan. We need Someone to come into Satan’s domain—this fallen world—and attack him, overcome him, take away his armor, and divide his spoil. That One Stronger is the Son of God Himself, the Word made flesh. Just as Samson fought against the lion at Timnah, our Lord Jesus came into our fallen world to fight against the old evil foe, the lion who prowls around looking for souls such as ours to devour. Every time Jesus healed someone from a disease, and especially from demon-possession, He showed that He is the One Stronger who came to defeat strongman Satan. But never forget the way that Jesus ultimately defeated the devil! The ultimate disarming of the devil came in the death of the Son of God. The devil thought that he had his greatest feast of all eternity—conquering and consuming the Son of God. But death cannot swallow the Lord of Life! Even in death, our Lord Jesus is like a poison pill, a good dose of arsenic, to Satan and his minions. On the cross, in the tomb, and then on Easter Sunday, our Lord Jesus conquered our hellish foe.

So now, returned to life, our Lord continues coming to His world to fetch His Bride, the Church. And He brings to her—to you, to me, to all who belong to His Bride—the sweetness of forgiveness, life, and salvation with God. Yes, your house—the house of your soul—has been swept clean by Jesus’ dying and rising. Now, you can leave it empty, and risk more demons moving back in to ravage the place again, or you can keep it filled with the Holy Spirit. And how does the Holy Spirit fill the house of your soul? He comes to you in the Gospel proclaimed, in your Baptism, in the Absolution, and in the Holy Supper. I highly recommend the sweetness of the life of God over the bitterness of satanic captivity. You see, the sweet life of God leads you out of your sin and death, and into real life—life of trusting our Mighty Savior, life of living in His love for you, life of practicing His love for those around you. As St. Paul says in our Second Reading: “And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

So, when you sense Satan prowling and growling, eager to sink his teeth into you, remember this: your Savior Jesus is the One Stronger. By His Cross, He has overcome Satan. In your Baptism, you have been joined to Christ for His sweet life and love. In the Supper, you get to taste and see that out of the strong one has come something sweet. Ah, how sweet is that forgiveness, life, and salvation with God! All of this helps you defy sour-puss Satan. As we sang in the hymn earlier:

Satan, hear this proclamation:
I am baptized into Christ!
Drop your ugly accusation,
I am not no soon enticed.
Now that to the font I’ve traveled,
All your might has come unraveled,
And, against your tyranny,
God, my Lord, unites with me!” (LSB 594:3). Amen.

02 March 2015

Homily for Lent 2 - Reminiscere

"Eyes Fixed on Jesus"
Matthew 15:21-28

Listen here.

It’s a hard thing when God turns against you—when He ignores your prayer with the silent treatment; when He does not come to your aid right away; when He seems to work against you and for the good of others; when He seems to lash out at you; when He afflicts your spirit and troubles your mind; when He causes you sleepless nights; when He allows you to endure various physical and bodily afflictions.

It’s a hard thing when God turns against you. If God turns against you, who else is there to help you? Really, there’s no where else you can turn.

Scripture says our God is compassionate and gracious. It says He does not willingly grieve His beloved children. It even says that He promises to hear and respond to our prayers. So if all of that is true, then why does He turn against us? Why does He test us? Why does He let evil happen to us? Why does He say to Abraham, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and sacrifice him”? Why does He touch Jacob’s hip and dislocate it so that Jacob must limp through the rest of his life? And why does He give the devil permission to destroy Job’s family, and afflict Job with horrible sores and sickness? And why does He treat the woman in today’s Gospel with such disdain and harshness?

The Catechism gives the answer: “God’s will is done when he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come.” God’s will is also done “when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.”

So our Lord turns against us, or is slow to help us, or allows evil to happen to us for two reasons. First, so that He might break our stubborn, unbelieving will. And second, so that He might lead us to rely solely and completely on Him and His Word. You see, our Lord’s desire is not to torment us. No, He wants us to confess our inability to help ourselves and trust His ready and constant help. Our Lord’s will is not to give us the fleeting happiness we so often look for, but to give us the true joy of salvation, firmly rooted in the Gospel that the Spirit delivers to us. Our Lord sees the big picture. He has the long view of our salvation. And so He does whatever He must in order to turn our eyes, our hearts, and our hopes away from ourselves and toward Him and His unwavering mercy—toward His dedicated, persistent and resolute compassion.

The woman in today’s Gospel is our role model. Jesus tells her, “Woman, great is your faith.” Her faith is not great in and of itself. No, her faith is great only because of Jesus. She believes that Jesus will help her in spite of His harsh treatment. Her faith is great only because she believes God’s promises over against God’s threat. Her faith is great only because she relies and depends so persistently on our Lord’s mercy. She believes that His mercy is so great that even He will not be able to turn her away from her hope and her heart’s desire.

So let’s always keep in mind what this woman does not do. She does not point to her faith. She does not say, “Lord, you must help me because I believe in you.” Also, she does not point to her rights. She does not say, “But Lord, I have a right to your help because I have lived a good life.” Instead, the woman fixes her eyes solely on Jesus as the embodiment of the Father’s compassion, as mercy in the flesh. That’s why she says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” That’s why she cries out with persistence, “Lord, help me!” And then the most daring and marvelous statement of all: “Yes, Lord, I believe what you say about me. I am exactly what you say—a dog not worthy of your goodness. But even little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. And so, I will be satisfied with even the smallest amount of Your kindness, even the tiniest portion of Your forgiveness, even the faintest hint of Your smile, even the most grudgingly spoken forgiveness. I know that will be more than enough.”

Do you see where the woman fixes her hope? In nothing but the Lord Jesus. You see, she knows that the only thing that stands between her and the death of her little girl, the only thing that stands between her and God’s fullest anger, is our Lord Jesus and the mercy that only He can give. In fact, her eyes are so fixed on God’s compassion in Christ that she will let nothing—not even Jesus Himself—dissuade or discourage her. She is like a pit bull—her teeth are clenched for dear life to the promised help that our Lord gives in His body—the body that would later be nailed to a cross. And nothing will make her let go.

So, if you’re looking for an example of faith, then look no farther. But if you’re looking for faith itself and the help and compassion that this woman received, don’t look at her. After all, she’s ignoring you. She doesn’t care what you or anyone else thinks about her beggarly persistence. She is intent on hearing and receiving the help that only the Lord can give. Instead, let your heart and mind turn to the same Lord who helps this woman. Fix your eyes on the same Lord to whom the Holy Spirit even now directs you. Fix your eyes on the same Jesus “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Remember, He also received the Father’s “silent treatment” and cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt. 27:46). Remember the physical and bodily afflictions He endured to heal you and bring you back to God. Focus your gaze on the same Lord who speaks and gives you His mercy and compassion and help even now in His Word, in His Baptism, and in His Supper.

When your eyes are fixed on the Lord Jesus, when your ears are tuned to His cross-won forgiveness, and when your teeth are clenched to His Body and Blood, then you don’t have to worry about what others think or say; you’re not ashamed of your tears or your kneeling or your humility. And above all, when you fix your eyes on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of your faith, then you let nothing—not your pride, not your sinful desires, not your fear, not the enticements of the world, not all those daily chores—you let none of those things stand between you and the comfort your Father gives by His Spirit in His Son’s Absolution and Supper.

You see, the will of God is not only that He makes you His holy child—just like His only-begotten Son in His sight. The will of God is also that you remain holy, that you continually have the heart and mind of Jesus, that you constantly live the holy life that He has given you right here and now. Our Lord does whatever it takes to keep the eyes of your faith fixed on Him—even things like the silent treatment when you pray, or the responses that make you wonder if He really does hear you or love you. Just remember: our God is compassionate and loving. And He continually presents, offers and gives to you that mercy located nowhere else but in the flesh and blood of His own beloved Son. Amen.

23 February 2015

Homily for Quinquagesima

"Seeing with Faith"
Luke 18:31-43

Two Sundays ago we heard about living by grace—the “sola gratia” or “grace alone” on the banner. Last week we heard about God planting the Seed of His Word made flesh—referring to the “sola Scriptura” on the banner. Today is our final Sunday of preparation before we begin the journey called “Lent.” Today we focus on the “sola fide”—by “faith alone”—on the banner. As we journey through Lent, it takes faith—not plain ol’ physical eyesight—to see what our Lord does and achieves for us. And that seeing with faith ushers us into a whole new life as well. St. Paul said it this way: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

In today’s second reading we hear what the life of faith is all about. God placed us into that new life when He poured the water over us in the font. And that life is all about love. With St. Paul we learn to say, “If I … have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” THAT is the life to which God calls us to return. After all, He who calls us to this life is Love-in-the-Flesh.

In today’s Gospel reading our eyes are opened to see this One who is Love and who loves us. We see that our Lord Jesus Christ is both true Man and true God. If we don’t see that, then we’ll never get Lent right; we’ll never rejoice in His Passion. But when we do see our Lord as both true Man and true God, as Love in the Flesh—and hold on to Him, never letting go of Him—then we can hold on and endure the wild, wooly ride that’s about to take place.

In today’s Gospel our Lord shows us both of His natures. First, He shows us His humanity when He predicts His Passion: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day he will rise.” He foretells the horrible, agonizing suffering that awaits Him. But He suffers such things only as a human being can suffer. Only as Man can He suffer these things. Only as Man can He die and be raised to life again. All of these things—His Passion, the extreme trauma to His body, His life bleeding out—they all show His true human nature in the most profound way.

But then look at the second half of the Gospel. And ask yourself this: Who could hear the blind man’s cry for mercy? Who could give sight to this man, except God Himself? Only God can do that! And this is the One whom Isaiah proclaimed: “Behold, your God … will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped.” When’s that? When your God comes to you!

We now come to the starting gate of Lent. Our journey begins in three short days. Today carries the name “Quinquagesima”—50 days before Easter. We are about to embark on a journey traditionally marked by fasting, praying, and giving alms. So today the Church calls us to see with the eyes of faith WHO Jesus is and WHAT He goes to Jerusalem to do. He is at the same time true Man and true God. He is true Man so that He might suffer and die in our place. He is true God so that His suffering, death, and resurrection might forgive the sins of the whole world, crush death itself to death, and give us His life of love.

And let’s keep this in mind. Lent is not a 40-day period for us to feel sorry for Jesus. No need to pity Jesus for all that He suffered. After all, it was “for the joy that was set before him” that He “endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Our Lord does not suffer and die to win our pity. No, He does it to give us His love. And His love gives us life. When we follow Him through His Passion, let’s not be like the disciples who “understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.” They did not get WHAT He would do because they could not quite see WHO was about to suffer, die, and rise again. They did not yet see that this Man before them was also fully and completely God.

When we see the WHO, then we follow our Lord—not merely on the path to Golgotha, but all the way to the joys of Easter morning. When we see the WHO, then we can marvel at the wisdom of God. What wisdom is that? “The word of the Cross,” as St. Paul says. “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” St. Paul goes on: “He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23, 30)

When we see that it’s the Lord of Glory who stands there, not answering a word, being beaten and slapped, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we remember that with a single word—or even just a single thought—He could have struck down His abusers but did not, we fall down and give praise to God. When we see that the One nailed to the cross, the One praying for pardon for His persecutors, the One lifted up on the pole of the cross, is the very same God who fixed the world in place, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we see that the One whose blood stains the wood and the earth is the same God who stoops so low to raise up all the fallen children of Adam, then we fall down and give praise to God.

When we realize this is the One who breathes life itself into everyone and everything, and yet He breathes His last and gives up His own life, then we fall down and give praise to God. When we see this One who closes His eyes in death and is laid in the tomb, we fall down and give praise to God. When we see this One who was raised on the third day in a body incorruptible, the One who is the source of everlasting salvation to all who believe in Him, the One who was with the Father from the beginning, the One who is truly and always God, then we fall down and give praise to God.

So, before the great journey of Lent begins, our Lord opens our eyes to see who He truly is. We will travel through several weeks of returning to our Baptism in repentance. Then we will arrive at the holy week of His Passion. We will follow Him up the road to Jerusalem. We will marvel at the love that He reveals to us. After all, this is God’s heart for us. And we will welcome Him as that very gift of love. Everything that He accomplished in His Incarnation, He also accomplishes for us and in us. Yes, we get to bear His body in our bodies. Our lives become living sacrifices. Since we are joined to Him in Baptism, we are united to Him who is Love. That’s what St. Paul described in our second reading. That love—given from the cross and lived out in our lives—is the only true LIFE.

Once again today we gather at our Lord’s Table. He feeds us on the very same Body that was so mistreated, so abused, so dead, but that was also raised in eternal glory and gives everlasting life. He pours into our mouths the very same Blood that ran down the cross, the same Blood that covers all of our sin, the same Blood that answers every accusation the Law has against us. He gives us these gifts so that we may share in His salvation. And that salvation restores us to love. That’s what He created us for: to love—to love Him and to love one another. That’s what Adam and Eve fell from. And that’s why He went to the Cross: to restore us to that life of love. It’s the life He gives each of us in the waters of Baptism. [It’s the life He now gives to little Anders Peter.] It’s the life to which He constantly calls us to return. After all, He is both God and Man. He is Love-in-the-Flesh, in our flesh. And our life is in Him. That’s what we get to see with the eyes of faith.

“And immediately [the blind man] recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” Let’s join the blind man and see Jesus our Lord, true Man and true God. Let’s join all the people and give praise to God as we follow Jesus up the road to Jerusalem and beyond that to our eternal home where Love Incarnate reigns supreme. Amen.

09 February 2015

Homily for Sexagesima

"Divine Seed"
Text: Luke 8:4-15
(with thanks to Johann Gerhard's treatment of this text in his Postilla)

Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a farmer who goes out to sow his seed. Then He tells us about the different kinds of soils which receive that seed. Then He tells us, “The seed is the Word of God.” It’s the Divine Seed, to be sure. But it’s not the only seed.

In the early 1600s, Pastor Johann Gerhard said this, “In His Creation, God the Lord not only made the earth fruitful with various and multitudinous seeds, but He also sowed a noble Seed into the heart of the first two people—it was, of course, the image of God” (Postilla, 199). God’s image—that was the first seed that our gracious Lord sowed in Adam and Eve. Pastor Gerhard continued: “From this Seed within their hearts there was supposed to sprout up and grow forth the noble fruits of divine knowledge, as well as a perfect love for, and heartfelt praise to, God. Indeed, the fruit of eternal life was to grow forth from this Seed in their heart.” (Postilla, 199). Not only were Adam and Eve perfect in that they had no sin or death, but they would also sprout, blossom, and grow to be more perfect in loving and worshiping the God who loved them and created them.

But something insidious happened. The serpent slithered into God’s noble creation and sowed his own seed. Let’s call it the serpent-seed. The serpent seduced Adam and Eve, and they rebelled against their loving God. The serpent-seed of pride and unbelief sprouted and blossomed into the poisonous fruits of rebellion, stubbornness, fear, self-absorption, self-indulgence, hatred, and even death. And each of us is born with this seed. We inherit this serpent-seed from our parents, and they from their parents, all the way back to our first parents. In fact, when each of us is born—when any little baby is born—this harmful serpent-seed lies hidden, just waiting to sprout forth with its prickly, bitter fruits of stubbornness, disobedience, lies, rage, pride, disregard of parents, lewd and crude words and deeds, self-indulgence, and so on. Yes, we inherit this serpent-seed and its fruits from our first parents, and we pass them on to our children, to our seed.

Even we city slickers know that a small seed packs a powerful punch as it grows into, say, a large tree. A little acorn turns into a mighty oak tree complete with limbs, branches, leaves, and, yes, the fruit of more acorns—more of its own kind of fruit. That’s also the way the serpent-seed works. It started out as a small acorn of believing the lie that “you shall be like God” (Gen. 3:5). Now it has become the huge tree of a fallen humanity intent on ignoring God, always trying to refashion God into our image, and every individual thinking, in one way or another, that he or she is equivalent to God.

However, our gracious and merciful God did not want His human creatures to perish. He never has and never will. So He planted a second Seed, the Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in order to overcome the poisonous serpent-seed. Right after the fall into sin, He sowed the seed of His Gospel promise. The Seed of the woman would conquer the seed of the serpent. That Divine Seed born of the woman would stomp on and crush the serpent’s head. And like a seed planted in cold winter soil, the seed of God’s Gospel promise lay dormant for many centuries, waiting for the warmth and moisture of spring to begin sprouting, growing, and coming to fruition. Through all those centuries, God made sure that His Divine Seed would come to fruition. God’s saving Seed would come from the offspring, the seed, of Abraham, and God would bless all peoples through Him. God would raise up for King David an offspring, a Seed, Who would establish an eternal kingdom with an eternal place of worship.

Then, finally, the warm, fruitful spring of God’s saving plan came. He sowed His Divine Seed—His beloved Son—in the world as He was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Our Lord Jesus recklessly scattered the seeds of His teaching, His grace, and His mercy as He walked and talked among us, as He healed many, and as He endured the scrutiny of all who were poisoned by the serpent-seed. But most of all, our Lord Jesus, the Divine Seed, was planted into the ground of this world in His suffering and death on a cross. As Jesus said just days before He went to the cross: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (Jn. 12:24). And just look at the fruit! Look at the great, mighty tree of life that sprouted and blossomed and now bears fruit in His Resurrection! It’s better and stronger than an oak tree!

And God’s Divine Seed of a Savior brings forth fruit of His own kind in us. Yes, the Seed of the Word made flesh is planted in us and makes us “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). That is, the Son of God is planted in us and makes us children of God. “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 Jn. 3:2). Yes, God has re-sowed and re-planted the Seed of His image in us. From this Seed come the fruits of hungering and thirsting for God, of perfect fear, love, and trust in Him, and of heartfelt praise to Him. From this Seed come the fruits of confessing our sins and receiving His full, free, cross-won forgiveness.

Now the question is: How do you receive this Divine Seed that your Savior plants in you? It’s a good question to ponder just ten short days before Lent begins. On our Reformation banner that also gives us the themes of Pre-Lent, we see the theme "sola Scriptura"--Scripture alone. It might be more accurate to call today's theme "Word alone" since Jesus--the Word made flesh--is also God's Seed.

Will you receive the Divine Seed of your Savior as the first soil—the hard footpath soil—just letting it bounce off of your ears, just letting Satan gobble it up before it can work in you to change you and bear fruit in you? Watch out that you don’t merely hear the Message of Christ outwardly, but inwardly that Seed bounces off due to a hardened heart. That’s what the serpent-seed wants!

Or will you hear the Divine Seed as the second kind of soil—the shallow, rocky soil—letting the Seed penetrate and take root, but then letting it wither and die when the heat of trials comes your way? Remember this, though. Just as seeds in the ground need the sun’s warmth to grow, so also God makes His Divine Seed grow and bear fruit with the heat of temptations and trials. St. Peter said: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13).

Or will you hear and receive the Divine Seed as the third soil—the one with thorn-bushes in it—receiving it with joy, but then letting worldly cares and pleasures and the anxieties of our hectic lives choke out the life that God gives in His Seed? Watch out for those prickly thorns of worldly success and wealth, and all of the ways that the world makes you anxious by compelling you to consume your time. Watch out that those many cares—those giant cares of the economy, the brutality of ISIS, unemployment, illness, or personal tragedy, or those puny cares of the coolest cell phones or the latest winners on The Voice—watch out that those many cares don’t choke out the life that our Divine Seed sows in you. Yes, our hearts need to be rescued from such prickly thorns.

Our gracious God and Father is the Divine Sower who plants the Divine Seed of His Son. And that means He plants the seed of His image and life. He plows up the hardened soil of our hearts. He breaks up the rocky soil so that His love and life can penetrate more deeply. He rescues us from the prickly, choking thorns, so that His life can grow in us. That’s why Lent draws our attention away from ourselves and places it squarely on things like Baptism and Confession, hearing the Divine Seed and praying to our God. That's why the Church gives us the Divine Service every week. And that's why we schedule times for hearing and learning the Divine Seed in Sunday School, Bible class, and Catechism class.

You see, your Lord Jesus wants to make you the good soil, so that you can receive His life and forgiveness with joy. He also wants you to sprout and grow, endure and persevere, and blossom and bear fruit, now and into eternity. So, come to the Table. Here your Lord Jesus plants Himself into you yet again. Come, receive the Divine Seed that He gives in His Body and Blood. And let it bear abundant fruit in you in faith toward Him and fervent love toward one another. Come, receive Him who overcame the serpent-seed. Come, receive the seed of His forgiveness and life, and let Him bring forth His fruit of love, mercy, and life in you. Amen.

Homily for the Christian Burial of Jeffrey W. Schulte

"Amazed by Grace"
Texts: Isaiah 25:6-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 5:24-30

Hey, can I interest you in a music CD? It’s by a home-grown talent named “Dutch Schulz.” Perhaps you’ve heard of him? Change those words just a bit, and you can almost hear him trying to sell you one of his CDs, right?

When Jeff first put this CD in my hand, the first thing my eye caught was the name “Dutch Schulz”…and my mind wondered, “Who’s that?” Then I saw the picture of Jeff leaning against the street sign. That guy I knew. But “Dutch Schulz”? Who’s that? So Jeff kindly brought me up to speed on his stage name—the stage name that, for many, is more common than his given name.

Then on Monday evening I received a call from Pr. Bill Wilson. He said, “Randy, one of your members—Dutch Schulz—is in the hospital.” Again my mind did a double take. This time, though, there was a little recollection. As Pr. Wilson was explaining more, my mind was having a separate conversation with itself. “Dutch Schulz. Dutch Schulz. Why do I know that name? But member of Hope?” “Not sure about that one,” I told Pr. Wilson, as I searched the church directory in my contacts. Then up came “Schulte” and it clicked: “Yes, ‘Schulz’ equals Schulte, and ‘Dutch’ equals Jeff.”

Leave it to Jeff—I mean “Dutch”—to have the unique name. But it’s fitting for his unique personality. And— wouldn’t you know it?—leave to “Dutch”—or is it Jeff?—to exit this fallen world in such a unique way—not that he chose that way, of course.

The way that Jeff has exited this fallen world, though, reminds me of many a conversation he and I had through the years. I remember the many years that Cheryl, Kristen, Lauren, and Brandon would come to church faithfully, but Jeff would come only occasionally. They were members at Hope, but Jeff resisted the whole religion thing. He had too many questions. But over time, and through the faithful, patient witness of family and many friends, Jeff dared to learn more.

“Ask questions about God and religion? Of course, Jeff!” That’s what we all do, in one way or another, at one time or another. And, boy, were his questions deep and penetrating. No mere idle curiosity for Jeff. He grappled with weighty questions. Questions such as, “If God is so good, then why is there evil in the world?” Questions such as, “I know the things I have done in my life. How can God love someone like me?” “How do I know God can love and forgive someone like me?”

One of the songs on his CD expresses this internal wrestling match quite well. Even at age 16 he was grappling and wrestling with the deep things of God and this fallen world. As he said in his side note: “I wrote ‘Child of Innocence Again’ at U. City H.S. in History class, Sophomore year. Flip the numbers and it’s ironic that I’ve recorded it at the age of 61 how I felt at 16.” The refrain poetically captures the struggles we all have in and with this fallen world so full of sin and evil: “I want to be a child of innocence again. I want to be a child in a world without sin.” Somehow we know there’s gotta be something better, something without the evil in all of its manifestations.

Why do people turn against each other, or try to control one another with the tactics of a tyrant? Why do people cheat on their taxes or get nasty when the repo man comes to collect the car that they bought from Jeff but couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay for it?

As Jeff grappled with such questions—as he knew he wanted to “be a child in a world without sin”—he also discovered that it was not God who brought sin and evil into the world. It was our first parents—Adam and Eve. God created the world perfect, without sin, without evil, and we human beings are the ones who messed it up and who keep reveling in our messes. You know, kind of like a baby sitting in a dirty diaper and not wanting it to be changed.

It’s the death in trespasses and sins that St. Paul mentioned in our second reading. We’re all there—Jeff, you, me. We all live in “the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” Apart from our Lord Jesus Christ, we are all “by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” This was the message that resonated with Jeff like a blues song in his soul.

But it was the flip side of God’s message to him that amazed Jeff. Yes, God could and did love a sinner like him. Yes, God could and would forgive him—and all of us—inside and out. The more Jeff heard that message of God’s amazing grace, the more Jeff was amazed by that grace. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”

“Yes, Jeff,” I would tell him, “that includes you. No matter how bad, no matter how evil, no matter what you’ve done, no matter what you’ve experience from other people, that includes you.” And that is God’s message for you and me here today as well.

This message of God’s forgiveness, love, and eternal life in Christ Jesus so amazed Jeff that he loved to sing it. Yes, you know it—“Amazing Grace.” I will never forget the time he said, “Pastor, next week I want to bring my guitar to Catechism class, and after class can I sing ‘Amazing Grace’ and some other songs?” I said, “Sure.” The next week came. And Jeff brought his guitar. And—fitting for Jeff—it was his unique way of singing “Amazing Grace.”

You see, God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ started to restore Jeff to being “a child of innocence again.” It’s that amazing news that we heard about from Jesus: “Whoever hears My words and believes in Him who sent Me has eternal life.” God the Father sent His Son, Jesus, into this world to conquer our worst enemy: death itself. It’s true for Jeff. It’s just as true for you. Jesus Himself suffered the kinds of evil, the kinds of betrayal, the kinds of liars, cheats, and scoundrels, that Jeff and we endure too. The difference with Jesus is that He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And because of Jesus and His death on a brutal cross, Jeff, and you, and I, and all people get to receive God’s amazing grace. Because of Jesus and His resurrection on the third day, you, and Jeff, and I get to rejoice in the hope of eternal life—in being children of innocence again.

Our first reading captures this so well. God promises to prepare “a feast of rich food” and “aged wine well refined” for the likes of us. And what will God Himself consume? “He will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever.” That’s exactly what Jesus did on the cross—for you, for Jeff, for me, and for all people who hear His voice.

Yes, we have just witnessed a shocking turn of events. A nasty little bacteria—a result of this fallen world—has suddenly snatched a dear husband, father, and grandfather, a loved son and brother, a treasured friend and colleague, a unique personality. But in Jesus, God has swallowed up the effects of that nasty little bacteria. So, when it seems like this thing called death is swallowing us whole—and in a sudden, suffocating way—look to Jesus for your comfort and hope. He has swallowed death forever. Jeff rejoiced in that message, I know. And I’m sure he would want you to rejoice in it too.

Let God’s words through Isaiah give you peace and comfort in the days, weeks, and months ahead: “The Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” He has already done that for Jeff; He promises to do that for you too.

Here’s the amazing thing about God’s grace, the grace that amazed Jeff. God Himself has made Jeff “a child of innocence again.” It happened when Jeff was baptized, and our Lord Jesus brought Jeff to realize it and love it throughout his life. And now God has completed that task. We can actually rejoice that, yes, Jeff is “a child of innocence again.”

I, for one, gladly echo Jeff’s poetry written while he sat in history class at the tender age of 16: “I want to be a child in a world without sin.” I’m sure those words resonate in you as well. Well, Jeff is there now! And, by God’s amazing grace in Jesus, you may look forward to that too. Amen.

Homily for Septuagesima

"Living by Grace--Really!"
Texts: Exodus 17:1-7; 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:15; Matthew 20:1-16

So…what do you think of that so-called “absolution” you received earlier? Did it surprise you? Did it sound familiar? Just in case it didn’t quite do the job, or just in case you missed it, or just in case you tried to block it out, hear it again: “As a called and ordained servant of the Word, I announce to you that God says, ‘That’s okay. No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Go in peace, but don’t come back!” What’s the matter? Isn’t that the way you might respond to someone who apologizes to you? But you don’t want your God to forgive you that way?

Can you imagine if God had said that to the Israelites in the wilderness? They had just been rescued from their slavery in Egypt. They had just experienced the Lord’s grace in delivering them by means of the plague of the first-born of Egypt. They had just witnessed the Lord’s gracious and mighty arm parting the waters of the Red Sea and allowing them to walk through on dry ground, escaping from Pharaoh and his army. And they had just sung His praises for doing that. God also graciously turned bitter water into sweet water for them to drink. God also graciously sent them quail so they could eat meat. And God also graciously rained honey-sweet bread—called “manna”—from heaven to sustain them on their journey.

Still they struggled to live by grace. They came to Rephidim, and “there was no water for the people to drink.” So they “quarreled with Moses and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’” And Moses’ reply goes to the spiritual heart of the matter: “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” Translation: “Why do you insist on living in your sin and not trusting God and His gracious ways? Why do you insist on not living by grace?

Can you imagine what would have happened if God had told them, “Alright, I forgive you. But don’t do it again. I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Don’t come back”? Then they really would have known misery in the wilderness! As it turns out, St. Paul reminds us today, “with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness.” That’s what happens when we don’t live by God’s grace in Jesus. But then, forty years later, God did take the next generation into the Promised Land. God did continue to deal with them by His grace. God still wanted them to live by grace—really.

But living by grace—I mean really living by God’s grace; I mean really and joyously receiving God’s grace in Jesus; I mean really and joyously reflecting God’s grace in Jesus—is quite the struggle, isn’t it? Take, for example, those workers who were hired first thing in the morning, at 6:00 a.m. They agreed to the proper day’s wage that the vineyard owner offered. They “signed on the dotted line” we might say. Then they bore “the burden of the day and the scorching heat”—all twelve hours of it. But when those other workers—those slackers who started their workday at 5:00 p.m. and worked only one hour before quitting time—when they received a full day’s wage,  for only one hour of work, well, the first workers cried foul. “You’re paying them the same as you’re paying us?! That’s outrageous!” They struggled with the master’s graciousness and generosity.

And so do we. We struggle with living by God’s grace when we think that God must favor us just a bit more because, after all, we’re the ones in church. We’re the ones who picked up our box of offering envelopes and give in the offering. We’re the ones who help out with our time, our skills, and our work. We’re the ones who have been Christians for blank number of years—fill in the number that fits for you. God’s smile upon us must be, well, just a little bit bigger, right? But that’s turning God’s grace into a punch the time clock and get your paycheck system. That’s not grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we take His free and lavish forgiveness to mean that we can live any old way we want. We go along with the culture and say, “If it feels good, then it must be right. God would want me to be happy, right?” Or, as the Israelites did, we turn to the grumbling and complaining and quarreling. After all, this world is not perfect, things just don’t go as we expect or want, and someone needs to hear our discontent. But that’s turning God’s forgiveness into free-reign with no responsibility or repentance. That’s not grace. It may be cheap grace, but not God’s grace.

We also struggle with living by God’s grace when we “forgive” others in the same way as that so-called “absolution.” No problem. Forget it. You should be sorry. Don’t ever do it again. I forgive you, but I don’t want to have anything to do with you. What? You don’t want your fellow Christian, your family member, your friend, your co-worker, to receive the same “day’s wage” of forgiveness from you that you have already received from God Himself?

Remember when Peter was a bit confused about how many times he should forgive his brother who sinned against him? Should it only be seven times? Jesus then told another parable—about a forgiving master who graciously forgave a billion dollar debt, but an unforgiving servant who could not forgive a debt of only a few hundred bucks. It did not turn out well for that unforgiving servant. You remember. Perhaps you also remember Jesus’ punchline: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matt. 18:35).

We do struggle with living by God’s grace. We love the sweet sound of God’s amazing grace, but living by it? And in real, everyday life? That’s harder. It feels more like St. Paul’s athlete who has to train hard to exercise self-control and not run aimlessly. As we admitted in today’s Collect, or Prayer of the Day: we “justly suffer the consequence of our sin.”

But we also prayed that our gracious God would graciously hear our prayers and deliver us by His goodness. Talk about dripping with the sweetness of God’s grace!

When Jesus tells the parable of the workers in the vineyard—all hired at different times through the day, but all getting the same wages after quitting time—He’s drawing our attention to God’s rich, deep, endless generosity and grace. You keep sinning against Him, and He keeps forgiving you. You keep complaining—like the first workers and the Israelites before them—and He keeps forgiving. You keep treating sin—your sin—as thought it’s “no problem,” “no big deal,” and yet He keeps showering you with His forgiveness in Jesus. In fact, not only is Jesus the vineyard owner who delights in being generous with the things that belong to Him, He is also the real worker who bore the burden of our sins and the scorching heat of the cross—all for you, and all for your neighbor.

Not only do we hear a strange, so-called “absolution” today, but we also see a strange banner for this time of year. No, this is not Reformation Sunday. But these three Sundays of Pre-Lent strike the same three Reformation themes that we know and love. Today, of course, strikes the theme of sola gratia—“by grace alone.” You and I labor and struggle in God’s vineyard to live by His grace and to reflect that grace and forgiveness toward each other. And yet God is amazingly rich in His generosity. He just keeps giving and forgiving. In the waters of your Baptism; in the words you hear proclaimed; in the Body and Blood under bread and wine. And in Confession and Absolution—when you confess your sins, even individually to your pastor, and then hear the forgiveness that God speaks to you. And with that forgiveness you get to forgive your family, friends, co-workers, and others with the same delight as the vineyard owner paying his workers.

Let’s go back to our so-called “absolution.” A certain Pastor Williams once used that very “absolution,” just as I have today. He also used it to introduce a sermon on grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation. He wanted to make the point that living by God’s grace—living in and with forgiveness—happens in real, everyday life. At the end of his sermon, he did give the real Absolution. Several weeks later, a young couple thanked Pastor Williams for his unusual message. They said, “Pastor you’re helping change the culture of our home.” The pastor asked, “What do you mean?” Andy, the husband said, “Last week Janet and I had one of our typical spats in the kitchen. But was we cooled down and regained our senses, we used a different way of speaking. We used words such as I confess and I forgive. You reminded us that as Christians, we have a new language to deal with wrongs. It’s God’s way for us to share the Good News with each other.” (Kober, p. 171)

Ted Kober tells this story in his book Confession and Forgiveness. He also points out how sin is never “okay.” Sin is never “no problem.” There’s only one cure for sin—forgiveness through our Lord Jesus Christ. Living by that forgiveness in the burden and scorching heat of each and every day. How generous our gracious God is! That’s living by grace—really!

Now please stand for the real Absolution:

“Almighty God in His mercy has given His Son to die for you and for His sake forgives you all your sins. As a called and ordained servant of Christ, and by His authority, I therefore forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

16 December 2014

24 Years Ago Today

Twenty-four years ago today the Church put me "under orders" to serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry of God's Word and Sacraments.

Thank You, Lord, for Your faithfulness to me, a poor, unworthy sinner, in the task of making disciples by baptizing in Your name and teaching everything You give in Your Word (Matthew 28:18-20). Thank You, Lord, for Your faithfulness in making me a steward of Your mysteries (1 Corinthians 4:1-2). Thank You, Lord, for Your promise that "it is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends" (2 Corinthians 10:17-18).

In addition to the joy of rehearsing the ordination vow (Lutheran Service Book: Agenda, pp. 165-166), I continue to find great solace in these words from Eugene Peterson, drawing out the meaning of that ordination vow:
The definition that pastors start out with, given to us in our ordination, is that pastoral work is a ministry of word and sacrament.
But in the wreckage all words sound like “mere words.”
But in the wreckage what difference can a little water, a piece of bread, a sip of wine make?
Yet century after century Christians continue to take certain persons in their communities, set them apart, and say, “We want you to be responsible for saying and acting among us what we believe about God and kingdom and gospel. We believe that the Holy Spirit is among us and within us. We believe that God’s Spirit continues to hover over the chaos of the world’s evil and our sin, shaping a new creation and new creatures. We believe that God is not a spectator in turn amused and alarmed at the wreckage of world history but a participant in it. We believe that everything, especially everything that looks like wreckage, is material that God is using to make a praising life. We believe all this, but we don’t see it. We see, like Ezekiel, dismembered skeletons whitened under a pitiless Babylonian sun. We see a lot of bones that once were laughing and dancing children, of adults who once made love and plans, of believers who once brought their doubts and sang their praises in church – and sinned. We don’t see the dancers or the lovers or the singers – at best we see only fleeting glimpses of them. What we see are bones. Dry bones. We see sin and judgment on the sin. That is what it looks like. It looked that way to Ezekiel; it looks that way to anyone with eyes to see and a brain to think; and it looks that way to us.
“But we believe something else. We believe in the coming together of these bones into connected, sinewed, muscled human beings who speak and sing and laugh and work and believe and bless their God. We believe that it happened the way Ezekiel preached it and we believe that it still happens. We believe it happened in Israel and that it happens in the church. We believe that we are part of the happening as we sing our praises, listen believingly to God’s word, receive the new life of Christ in the sacraments. We believe that the most significant thing that happens or can happen is that we are no longer dismembered but are remembered into the resurrection body of Christ.
“We need help in keeping our beliefs sharp and accurate and intact. We don’t trust ourselves – our emotions seduce us into infidelities. We know that we are launched on a difficult and dangerous act of faith, and that there are strong influences intent on diluting or destroying it. We want you to help us: be our pastor, a minister of word and sacrament, in the middle of this world’s life. Minister with word and sacrament to us in all the different parts and stages of our lives – in our work and play, with our children and our parents, at birth and death, in our celebrations and sorrows, on those days when morning breaks over us in a wash of sunshine, and those other days that are all drizzle. This isn’t the only task in the life of faith, but it is your task. We will find someone else to do the other important and essential tasks. This is yours: word and sacrament.
“One more thing: we are going to ordain you to this ministry and we want your vow that you will stick to it. This is not a temporary job assignment but a way of life that we need lived out in our community. We know that you are launched on the same difficult belief venture in the same dangerous world as we are. We know that your emotions are as fickle as ours, and that your mind can play the same tricks on you as ours. That is why we are going to ordain you and why we are going to exact a vow from you. We know that there are going to be days and months, maybe even years, when we won’t feel like we are believing anything and won’t want to hear it from you. And we know that there will be days and weeks and maybe even years when you won’t feel like saying it. It doesn’t matter. Do it. You are ordained to this ministry, vowed to it. There may be times when we come to you as a committee or delegation and demand that you tell us something else than what we are telling you now. Promise right now that you won’t give in to what we demand of you. You are not the minister of our changing desires, or our time-conditioned understanding of our needs, or our secularized hopes for something better. With these vows of ordination we are lashing you fast to the mast of word and sacrament so that you will be unable to respond to the siren voices. There are a lot of other things to be done in this wrecked world and we are going to be doing at least some of them, but if we don’t know the basic terms with which we are working, the foundational realities with which we are dealing – God, kingdom, gospel – we are going to end up living futile, fantasy lives. Your task is to keep telling the basic story, representing the presence of the Spirit, insisting on the priority of God, speaking the biblical words of command and promise and invitation.”
That, or something very much like that, is what I understand the church to say to the people whom it ordains to be its pastors. (Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, pp. 22-25)