26 June 2015

"Through Persecution Christendom Grows"

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

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

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

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

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

28 May 2015

Same-Sex Behaviors & Desires: God Speaks to Both

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

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

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

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

What is “sin”?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Same-sex behavior is, clearly, sinful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But what about same-sex desires?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does God have anything else to say?

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

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

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

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

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

25 May 2015

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

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

Listen here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

18 May 2015

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

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

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11 May 2015

Homily for Easter 6 - Rogate

"Praying in Jesus' Name"
John 16:23-33

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ name”? From childhood we have learned that when we add those little words to the end of a prayer, that makes it a “Christian prayer.” Perhaps you add that little phrase to all of your prayers. But how do we keep that little phrase—“in Jesus’ name”—from becoming merely a talisman or a magic formula to get what we want when we pray? When Jesus bids us to pray in His name, He invites us to draw on and depend on the boundless treasure of His rich mercy.

Today we observe Rogate—“Pray! Sunday.” For the third week in a row we’ve heard from Jesus as He tried to comfort and console His disciples. On the night when He was betrayed, He promised them that He was going back to the Father. That journey would lead Jesus to death on the cross, to rest in the tomb, and then back to life on the third day. But His work of saving us sinners did not stop there. He would ascend to God’s right hand, and, as He promised, He would send the Holy Spirit. Two weeks ago these promises led us to rejoice. Last week they led us to sing. Today, these promises from Jesus lead us to pray.

Jesus says, “Whatever you ask of the Father in My name, He will give it you.” Then He says, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” Here’s the first thing that Jesus means by praying in His name: Jesus invites and commands you to pray. So how’s your prayer life? Are you praying? When do you pray—when you get up in the morning, when you go to bed at night, when you eat meals? How often do you pray? Do you pray silently, orally, or both? Do you pray only when the inspiration to pray strikes you, or do you set aside regular times for prayer? Do you pray together as a family, or do you just assume everyone in the family is praying? Parents, do you teach your children how to pray by praying with them and for them? Children, do you pay attention when your parents pray and teach you to pray? Do you pray only when times get tough, or do you pray regularly, day in and day out, no matter what the circumstances of life?

You see, prayer is as natural to a Christian as breathing is to your lungs. First, your lungs inhale, then your lungs exhale. First, you receive air in, and then you breathe air out. That’s the way prayer works too. First, you receive and hear God’s Word, and then you breathe out in your prayers. First, you breathe in the sweet, fresh air of Jesus’ cross-won love and forgiveness for you, and then you breathe out in “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” to Him and out of love for people around you. So, praying in Jesus’ name means actually doing what He invites and commands you to do.

And if there is ever a time when we Christians need to pray, and pray always, now is the time. Governing leaders seem intent on squashing our religious liberties and keep trampling on our consciences informed by Christ and His Word. Tawdry messages of “eat, drink, and be merry” in media and culture hold more sway than God’s life-giving Good News. God’s institutions of marriage and family are falling on very hard times. Respect for human life keeps diminishing before our very eyes. Property and possessions of others are seen as “fair game” for those who feel discontent and decide simply to take. Reputations are routinely slashed and burned, especially in the anti-social behavior that infects social media. To borrow words from the prophet Isaiah, we live in a time when so many want to “call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter” (Is. 5:20).

Yes, we Christians need to pray! As St. Paul urged young Pastor Timothy, he also urges us “that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Praying in Jesus’ name means actually doing what Jesus invites and commands us to do.

Here’s the second thing that praying in Jesus’ name means. Jesus says, “In that day you will ask in My name, and I do not say to you that I will ask the Father on your behalf; for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” Praying “in Jesus’ name” means much more than just adding a few little words to the end of our prayers! It’s no mere magic formula to get the goodies from God, as if He were merely a cosmic vending machine. Instead, it means that we have a new identity: we are children of the heavenly Father and our Lord Jesus Christ is our “big Brother.” “For He who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Heb. 2:11).

With this new identity—as Christians, as children of God—we have access to the Father. And God only hears the prayers of His children, that is, His Christians. The Mormon, the Muslim, or even the false-Christian can pray, and their prayers may even be “beautiful” in words and thoughts, but God won’t hear them. Why not? Because they are not His dear children; they do not love and trust His Son who died and rose again to save them. But to us who do love and trust Jesus the Son of God for forgiveness, life, and salvation, God gives us a precious and comforting promise: “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.”

Many people view praying to God something like being a young child going to sit on Santa’s lap at the shopping mall. “What do you want for Christmas, Susie? What do you want, Johnny?” shopping mall Santa asks. And out comes the list. But there’s no relationship there. Shopping mall Santa does not know one Susie or one Johnny from another. But when there’s an identity and a relationship there—parent and child, father and son, mother and daughter—then things are different. Little Johnny or Susie can sit on Mommy or Daddy’s lap and talk and make requests…and be heard…and be answered.

In the same way, praying in Jesus’ name means that each of us has a new identity—and a relationship with God. Each of us is God’s son or daughter because of Jesus and His death and resurrection. Our Baptism into Christ’s death and resurrection gives us a new identity. We belong to Him now, because “[we] have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer [we] who live, but Christ who lives in [us]. And the life [we] now live in the flesh [we] live by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave Himself for [us]” (Gal. 2:20).

And here’s the third thing that praying “in Jesus’ name” means. Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” You can pray in Jesus’ name because He has overcome the world in His dying and rising, because He gives you peace in His broken body and shed blood.

Praying in Jesus’ name is like this: Imagine a treasure chest full of precious, priceless gifts. That treasure chest is Jesus. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we may draw out of that treasure chest anything that Jesus Himself has put in it. Did He put FORGIVENESS of all our sins in that chest? Then, yes, we may draw it out and treasure it. And when we ask for forgiveness, Jesus always answers when we hear the Gospel proclaimed and receive His Sacraments given out. Did Jesus put FAITH in that chest? Yes, His perfect faith in His Father. And He now gives that perfect faith to us so that we will be strengthened in faith. Did He put a new house or a new car or an easy life in that treasure chest? Not necessarily. But He does put in that chest DAILY BREAD—everything we need to support this body and life. So, when we ask not just for what we want, but rather for what we need, our Lord Jesus graciously gives it to us.

Praying “in Jesus’ name” means so much more than just adding a few little words to the end of our prayers. It means that we actually pray as Jesus invites and commands us to pray. It means that we pray with a new identity as God’s dear children through our Baptism. And it means that we can draw out of the treasure chest called Jesus any and all of the gifts that He has put in. When we pray in Jesus’ name, it means that God hears us because of His own Son. No, our prayers are not perfect, but when God hears them through His Son Jesus, He delights in them. And because of Jesus crucified and risen, our heavenly Father will always answer our prayers “that [our] joy may be full.” Amen.

07 May 2015

Homily for Easter 5 - Cantate

"The Truth, the Spirit, and You"
John 16:5-15

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Remember what Jesus says about the Holy Spirit: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, and He will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” (Jn. 16:13-14)

We’re still celebrating the Easter season and our Lord’s Resurrection from the dead. Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. By His own death He has conquered death. He gives life to all in the tomb, and all heading toward the tomb. Our Lord brings forgiveness for sins and life in the face of death. He has defeated our worst enemies—sin, death, and Satan. So how do you live with such good news? How do you live in such glorious comfort and hope? How do you walk through life as God’s holy people? Here’s why Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit teaches you the Truth, who is Christ, to comfort and sustain you.

I. What is Truth?
Just before he sentenced Jesus to be crucified, Pontius Pilate asked the question: “What is truth?” Little did he know that Truth—Truth Incarnate, the Son of God in the flesh—was standing right there in front of him. And we enlightened 21st century Americans are not that much different from Pilate. Our society teaches us to ask “What is truth?”—and in the same skeptical way that Pilate asked. We think that truth is in the eye of the beholder. You have your truth, and I have my truth, as they say. But this is a big lie.

Sadly, we in the Church start believing this lie. We might say it this way: “You believe what you want, and I’ll believe what I want.” Or we might say it this way: “That’s your interpretation of the Bible. My interpretation is this….” Or when the pastor gives us God’s Truth from the pulpit, and we don’t like it, we might say, “Well, that’s just his opinion.” We really should be ashamed of ourselves for believing and promoting lies like this. My, how we love to exchange God’s Truth for society’s lies!

The Truth of God is very simple. The Truth of God says, “All mankind are liars” (Ps. 116:11)--yes, that includes men and women, girls and boys. The Truth of God also says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Yes, that means all of us. The Truth of God also says, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks after God” (Rom. 3:10-11). Yes, that includes you and me. The Truth of God tells us to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness” (Jas. 1:21), because that filthiness and wickedness comes from us…and that’s the truth!

But the Truth of God is very simple in another way too. The Truth of God is Jesus Christ Himself—Truth in the Flesh. What does Jesus, very Truth in the Flesh tell us? He tells us to be comforted. He tells us that we are “justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). The Truth of God tells us that “we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Truth also tells us this: “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. 5:10). What wonderful and glorious Truth we have in our Lord Jesus Christ! That’s what Truth is.

II. What does the Spirit do?
God cares for His Truth very much. He wants you and me to embrace His Truth. You see, people’s lives – your lives and my life – depend on God’s Truth. So God wants us to hear His Truth correctly. He knows that all of the personal, private interpretations so popular today only confuse. That’s why our Lord Jesus sends the Holy Spirit. As Jesus told His disciples, He also tells us: “When the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all the truth….” The Holy Spirit’s “job” is to guide His people, His Church, into God’s Truth. He doesn’t just float around and give some kind of warm-fuzzy, spine-tingling, feel-good experiences. He doesn’t just sit around waiting to zap us with a language that no one else understands. The Spirit’s “job” is this: to direct our minds and hearts to Jesus, the Truth of God. When we focus on Jesus and trust Him, the Spirit is doing His work. And when we have life in the Risen Lord, we get to see that “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (Jas. 1:17). How did Jesus say it? “He [the Spirit] will glorify Me, for He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.”

Jesus tells us how the Spirit guides us into all Truth. He convicts and convinces “the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” First, the Spirit must show us our sin. He must convict us of our own unbelief, our own ways of thumbing our nose at God and living by our own sinful desires. Second, the Spirit convinces us that Jesus died to forgive our sins, and He lives to give us life with God. You don’t need to make God like you. He already loves you, and He sent His Son to show the great depths of His love. Third, the Spirit keeps reminding us that Satan is defeated. He may tempt us; he may trouble us; but our Lord has conquered the old evil foe. The Truth of God always shields us from Satan’s attacks.

III. What does this mean for you?
The most important thing this means for you is that the Holy Spirit is always doing His “job.” He is always leading the Church as a whole and all Christians individually into the Truth, that is, into Christ. Remember how you learn to say it from the Small Catechism: “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, and sanctified me in the true faith.” When someone says, “I gave my heart to Jesus,” or “I let Jesus into my heart,” it’s not really accurate. To tell the truth: the Holy Spirit brings you to faith and enlivens you and keeps you in the faith.

The Small Catechism goes on: “In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth and keeps [her] with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Yes, the Spirit brings you into the Church, and she is your Mother in the Truth. Just as an earthly mother gives birth to her children, the Church gives birth to you and your brothers and sisters in Christ as she proclaims the Truth of Jesus and His mercy and salvation. Just as an earthly mother clothes and feeds her children, your spiritual Mother, the Church, clothes you in the robe of Christ’s righteousness when you are baptized. Then she feeds you on the food of Christ’s Body and Blood to sustain your soul and strengthen your faith. And just as an earthly mother corrects and comforts her children, your spiritual Mother, the Church, the Bride of Christ, corrects you by showing you your sin, and she comforts you by giving you the mercies of God in Christ.

This is why today is called “Cantate,” or “Sing! Sunday.” As we live together in the Truth—the Truth who is Jesus and the life that the Spirit gives—we can’t help but sing. As Colossians 3(:16) says: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” Here’s why the Spirit gathers us together in God’s house. When you sing the liturgy and hymns, you sing not just for yourself, but also for those in the pews with you. So, sing the liturgy and those hymns with joy! Sing them with mouths wide open, with throats full of gratitude and praise! The people around you need to hear the Truth Who is Christ. When you say your “Amen” throughout the service, say it like you mean it! “Amen” is your word, your joyous participation in God’s service. Shout out your “Amens”; God loves to hear them! And your neighbor needs to hear them too.

The Spirit of Truth leads us into all Truth—into the crucified and risen Christ. Amen. This is most certainly true.

27 April 2015

Homily for Easter 4 - Jubilate

"Christian Joy"
John 16:16-22

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Jesus had gathered His disciples together on the night when He was betrayed into the hands of sinners. He knew that in a matter of hours He would be brutally executed on a cross. His disciples were filled with sorrow. So He comforted them. And just as He comforted His disciples in our Gospel reading, He also comforts you now with the very same words: “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (Jn. 16:22).

So, dear Christians, where is your joy? Where is that sheer delight in being raised with Christ, being forgiven in Christ, and living the holy, perfect life that He gives you in His water, His words, and His meal?

Friedrich Nietzsche lived from 1844 to 1900. He was the son of a Lutheran pastor as well as a German philosopher. Nietzsche developed a very bitter, anti-Christian, atheistic philosophy. He viewed Christianity as stain on the history of humankind. Hermann Sasse said this about Nietzsche: “His desperate destitution and loneliness is the loneliness of the modern man” (Sasse, The Lonely Way, I.70).

Yet we Christians can learn something from this bitter, unbelieving philosopher. Here’s one thing Nietzsche said to Christians: “You must sing me a better song so that I learn to believe in your Redeemer; Why are his disciples so joyless in their salvation?” (Sasse, The Lonely Way, I.70). So, dear Christians, where is your joy?

Today we have a good, God-given answer to Nietzsche. As Psalm 66(:1) says, “Shout for joy to God, all the earth.” That’s where today gets it’s name: Jubilate - “Rejoice! Sunday.” Why make a joyful shout to God? Why rejoice? Because of God’s great Easter victory! In Jesus Christ, God has conquered death. He has restored all of His creation. He has given new life and new meaning in life. It’s something to shout about. It gives great joy, great delight. And, as lonely, bitter Nietzsche reminds us, it’s what the world needs to hear: CHRISTIAN JOY.

So, dear Christians, where’s your joy? Where is that sheer delight in being raised with Christ, being forgiven in Christ, and living the holy, perfect life that He gives you in His water, His words, and His meal?

Perhaps it’s hiding. Perhaps your joy is hiding under the sheer burdensome weight of worldly sorrow. The disciples were weighed down with sorrow. Their Lord was leaving them. What would they do? How would they survive life in a hostile world? You see, they’re not that different from us. Nor are we that different from them.

Each of us has personal sorrows, to be sure. Perhaps it’s family turmoil, a son or daughter who just won’t listen and obey, or a parent who just doesn’t seem to understand. Perhaps it’s stress at work; the boss never seems satisfied; you feel like you can never do your job well enough. Perhaps it’s illness—physical illness, such as cancer or arthritis, or mental illness, such as depression. Perhaps it’s the loss of a loved one—and that sorrow never seems to go away completely. Perhaps it’s trouble paying the bills, or losing those few extra pounds. We have our sorrows.

And nature around us brings many sorrows too. Thunderstorms, tornadoes, and earthquakes remind us how small we really are. We’d love to be in control of life and nature, even figure out the path of the tornado or hurricane, or when an earthquake will hit, so that we can avoid the damage and loss of life. But when the natural disasters strike, we get a wake up call. We are pretty small compared to the ominous, dark, green clouds, the high-voltage lightning strikes, and the powerful, rumbling earth. Yes, we have our sorrows.

But the greater sorrow comes in how the unbelieving world treats Christ and His Christians. Christ was crucified because people did not like it that they were wrong and He was right—about God, about death and life, about sin and forgiveness. They did not like it that God would come into the world in the flesh and teach us to repent of our sin. They did not like it that Jesus—not they—would restore the world. And Jesus restores not by demanding better lives, but by defeating death and giving grace and life.

So, to use Jesus’ words, we weep and lament, but the world rejoices. You see, the world did not like Jesus and His followers. It still doesn’t. Christians and Christian preachers are told, “Don’t mention Jesus,” in their prayers and messages. More Christians in Africa have just been martyred by ISIS, complete with videos of the barbaric brutality for all to see. Closer to home, Christians are fair game for lawsuits and government action and conviction by media firestorms and even death threats just because they choose not to participate in so-called “same-sex marriage” ceremonies. We can even hear and read editorials claiming that it’s high time for someone to force—compel—Christians to accept the LGBT lifestyle. Yes, we have our sorrows!

So, where’s the comfort? Where’s the joy? It’s in the words of our Lord Jesus. He tells you what He told His disciples: “a little while.” The sorrow, the pain, the burdens of life in this sin-infected world last only a little while. The disciples would be separated from Jesus only a little while. He would go to the cross, but He would rise again and return. He would go away from them, but He would come back after a little while. And He did, and that’s a good thing. You see, when Jesus went away, leaving His disciples in sorrow, He trampled down sin and death, He reunited all people with God, and He brought life and immortality to light. He did that for His disciples then, for you now, and for all people. In His bitter death and sweet, delightful resurrection, He wins life and wholeness for you. Now that gives great joy!

And think about the joy that you receive every time you come into this place. Church is like no other place on earth. It’s heaven on earth. You see, here Jesus Christ comes into our midst. He comes in His message of mercy read, proclaimed and sung. He comes in His holy, precious Body and Blood. Here’s God, in the flesh, showering you with His grace and mercy, giving you His life. That’s Christian joy! A little while, and you will see Me, Jesus says. Here you get to “see” Jesus with the eyes of faith. You get to hear Him and taste Him. Here’s Christian joy!

So, what helps you endure the sorrows and burdens of life in this broken world? The joy of life in Jesus. What helps you make a difference in the world, in the very lives of people around you? The joy of Christ’s victory over death. What is the only thing that spurs on the Church to carry out her mission in the world? The sheer delight and joy that in Christ you are forgiven, in Christ you have life, in Christ you have perfect peace with God. It’s a reality, and it gives great joy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer proclaimed this great line in a sermon in 1933: “Without the church, the whole world is joyless and miserable, and there is no end to hunger and thirst” (Ascension Day Sermon, 1933; cited in Little Book on Joy, p. 169). Do you want to see Christian joy? Look at how we rejoice even in the face of sorrow and death! Look at how we delight in Christ and His victory over death! That’s Christian joy. And it’s a joy that we can gladly show to the world. Amen.

20 April 2015

Homily for Easter 3 - Misericordias Domini

"The Shepherd Knows His Sheep"
John 10:11-16

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’ This is why children pray in this way, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’” (SA, III:12). So said Martin Luther in the Smalcald Articles. They are most fitting words to hear on this “Good Shepherd Sunday.” Not only do we get to receive the comfort of the Good Shepherd, but we also get to rejoice in being His flock, that is, His Church. As Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” Good Shepherd Jesus knows His little sheep, and His little sheep love to hear His voice.

We city-slickers may not know all of the intimate details of tending sheep, but somehow the picture of a shepherd still brings comfort and speaks of protection. But why? I mean a shepherd does not strike you as some kind of super-hero, does he? We can have Superman or Batman or Spiderman, but somehow “Sheepman” just doesn’t cut it. Even Mighty Mouse seems more “superhero-ish” than “Sheepman”! So, what makes Shepherd Jesus so “good”?

Listen to Jesus: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” Now, a first century Palestinian shepherd would rarely die defending his sheep. Oh, he might try to act like Superman, Batman, or Spiderman, and risk his life, or put his life on the line. But actually “lay down his life” and sacrifice himself? No way. After all, who would take care of the sheep if he should die? But Good Shepherd Jesus does give His life for His sheep. That’s what makes Him “good” and noble. Jesus also says, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (Jn. 10:18). Remember, no super-hero can lay down his life and take it up again. But Jesus can. He’s no wimpy super-hero. He’s true God and true Man, begotten of the Father from eternity, conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary.

But that’s not all that makes Him “good.” Good Shepherd Jesus does not just lay down His life for giggles or to show off. No, He “lays down his life for the sheep.” You see, He knows His sheep. He knows you; He knows me. He knows that “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way” (Is. 53:6). He knows that we tend to wander off from His tender care and keeping. He knows that we easily get spooked at the least little noise or trouble around us. He knows that we get absolutely terrified, if and when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

So, Good Shepherd Jesus laid down His own life for you, His sheep. And not only did He lay down His life on a blood-soaked cross, but He also took it up again in His glorious resurrection. Not only was He sacrificed as a Passover lamb, but He is also risen to give you His new, divine, and eternal life.

If you’re not sure of that, just ponder what Good Shepherd Jesus gives you on the altar today—His very own Body and Blood, pulsating with His glorious, eternal, resurrection life, given and shed for you. So think of Good Shepherd Jesus also as your Passover Lamb. He was slaughtered and roasted on the cross, but He is also risen to give you His life.

Look above the altar, in the middle of the reredos. You see the victorious Lamb of God, complete with His banner of victory and His glorious sunburst of a new dawn. Remember that He rose to give you life with Him. But also look at the front of the altar. There you see another animal—a pelican feeding her pious brood. Notice that she feeds them by plucking her own flesh and blood and giving it to them. That’s how Good Shepherd Jesus gives His life for you, His sheep. He feeds you on His own life-giving Body and Blood.

We’ve heard about the Good Shepherd; let’s hear about His sheep. A shepherd is not a shepherd without his flock of sheep. And a flock of sheep must rely on its shepherd for everything, from food and drink to healing and protection. And how does this happen?

I used to think that sheep are nothing but smelly, stupid animals. Well, they are smelly, but a friend who used to be a shepherd once taught me, a shepherd of souls, the truth about sheep. Several years ago, I preached on Good Shepherd Sunday about smelly, stupid sheep. Then a couple of days later I had to get a haircut. Little did I know that my barber had formerly done some sheep-hearding. So, I sat down in the barber’s chair. We began discussing John chapter 10, sheep and shepherds. Then my barber said, “Pastor, sheep aren’t stupid; they just can’t see well. They have to listen for their shepherd.” He then went on to tell me that sheep have such keen hearing that several different voices can call out to them, but they will know the voice of their own shepherd.

That’s what Jesus says about His flock: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 10:27). Jesus’ sheep don’t just follow any voice that’s popular or that draws massive crowds or that sells lots of books. Jesus’ sheep, His believers, can discern His voice. They can discern His voice even amidst the din and racket of the shopping mall of modern American Evangelical religion. Jesus’ faithful sheep can discern His soothing voice, even though the noise of things contemporary and theatrical seems to drown it out.

Yes, it does matter what church you belong to, because you will not hear Jesus’ voice at every church. Just because a church has a religious bookstore or a fashionable coffee stand or a rocking praise band on a Sunday morning, that does not guarantee you’ll hear the voice of Jesus. Beware of the religious hirelings—that is, pastors—who merely seek to line their pockets or have good looking numbers on their statistical reports. Chances are, you won’t hear the voice of Jesus from them, because they are puppets of that old satanic wolf who loves to hunt down and eat Jesus’ little sheep.

Why is this important? Not only does Jesus say that His sheep hear His voice and follow Him, but He also says, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand” (Jn. 10:28). Now there’s good reason to listen only to the voice of Jesus, and not to the modern, religious mindset. When you listen to Jesus’ voice, you have eternal life! When you listen to Jesus’ voice, no one can snatch you out of His hand.

Two weeks ago at the Easter Vigil, we got to hear three young people confess faith in this Good Shepherd Jesus. They promised to be faithful to Him until death. After all, He has already promised to be faithful to them. Their voices quivered with nervousness, but Jesus’ voice will always give them life and protection. Their promises may seem like mere words, but we pray that Good Shepherd Jesus will help them to keep their promises and rejoice in life with Him. Actually, all of us who have been confirmed and taken these vows need to perk up our ears. All of us need to pay attention to what we’ve promised. After all, all of us have promised “to continue steadfast” in the Christian confession and Church. All of us have vowed “to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.”

Don’t let anything, no matter how popular or appealing, lure you away from Christ and His Church. After all, here’s where you hear the voice of your Good Shepherd. You also promise “to be faithful in the use of God’s Word and Sacraments.” May God graciously help you keep that promise! You will always be tempted to sleep in after a late Saturday night. You will always be tempted to do something supposedly “more fun” than “go to church”—whether it’s shopping or fishing or a Cardinal’s game or a Blue’s playoff game. But remember, the more you stay away from Jesus and His Church, the more you miss out on hearing the voice of your Good Shepherd, and the more you miss out on receiving His gift of life.

But the more you are here, in this place, to hear Good Shepherd Jesus and receive His Body and Blood from the altar, the more peace and joy you always have. You see, your Good Shepherd tends and feeds you through His Word proclaimed and His Sacraments given out. You do need to be in His green pastures and beside His still waters for Him to restore your soul. He does prepare a table before you so that your cup will always run over with His goodness and mercy.

Now we know how Luther could say it: “God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and ‘the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.’ This is why children pray in this way, ‘I believe in one holy Christian church.’” Here in the one holy Christian Church, your Good Shepherd Jesus knows you, His little sheep, and you get to learn to love His life-giving voice. Amen.

06 April 2015

Homily for the Resurrection of Our Lord

"Speaking of Life"
Mark 16:1-8

Listen here.

P: Christ is risen! C: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Friday left us in the darkness of death, the valley of the shadow of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. Saturday gave us a day of rest, just as Christ rested in the tomb from His labors of recreating the world. And today? Well, today we come to life, the resurrected life, the new life in Christ’s image. Actually, it all began last evening. In the Biblical way of telling time, the day begins at sundown the evening before—evening and morning, Day One, and so on. So, we just couldn’t wait! We sat in vigil last night … waiting … and then feasting on this new life in Christ. If every Sunday is a little Easter, well then, this Easter Day is a BIG Sunday. Oh, and the celebration is not done at sundown today. No, we keep celebrating this life, we keep speaking of this life, for a whole week of Sundays. In fact, that’s what we do for all of our lives—speak of this new life in Christ.

But that’s not at all what was on the minds of the women. No, they were still dwelling in the shadow of death. Their devotion for their Lord Jesus had to be put on hold while they piously observed the Jewish Passover Sabbath. On Friday they saw their Lord die. They watched where He was buried. They vowed to return to anoint Him properly. While their Master rested in the sleep of death, they rested on the Sabbath day. And when the dawn of the first day of the week came, they went to finish the burial. They intended to anoint Jesus with spices so that the stench of death would not overtake Him.

Little did they know that while they were preoccupied with death, their Lord was already alive again. In their great devotion and in their dire grief, they neglected to think of the large stone until it was too late. Who would roll it away? They knew it was too large and too heavy for them to move.

Now their preoccupation with death should not surprise us. We too are preoccupied with death. How so? Well, for one thing, look at all the diet plans, all the health magazines, and all the fitness gurus. They all promise one thing—a better, healthier life, a life that cheats death, or at least puts death on hold for a few more years. For another thing, look at how we react to any event that even remotely reminds us of death—children getting hurt on the school playground; adults turning to alcohol or drugs to ease the pressures of family and work; or American citizens held captive by ISIS. And another way we are preoccupied with death is viewing death as a savior. Some look to suicide as a solution to the stresses of life in a fallen world. Some view death as relief from debilitating illness or injury. Remember 29-year old Brittany Maynard, seeking “death with dignity” from her brain cancer? And our culture promotes the killing of unborn babies merely to preserve the convenience or careers of the parents.

As the women went to anoint Jesus’ dead body with spices to prevent the stench of death, we find ourselves doing whatever we can to avoid the stench of death. Pass more safety standards for playground equipment. Enact stricter pollution controls. Make sure people don’t eat the wrong kinds of foods. We are preoccupied with death—with avoiding it, ignoring it, and even denying it.

But we cannot avoid death. Just look at the cemetery. The death rate is one per person—always has been, always will be this side of eternity. Ignoring it or denying it is simply living a lie. And the death is not just outside of us, in our circumstances. It’s inside us. The stench of death emanates from within, inside the human heart. Yes, the stench of death begins in each of us, with the jealousies, the anger, the suspicions, and the self-serving motives. You see, the stench of death is what leads each of us to focus on ourselves. But as we gaze inward for answers and solutions, we still find nothing but misplaced priorities and dead ends, that is, death, separation from God, absence of loving and trusting Him.

The women were caught in the cycle grief that first Easter morning. You could say our whole lives are trapped in the cycle of death. The spices that the women wanted to put on Jesus’ corpse couldn’t change His death. The “spices” of our man-made prescriptions for death might smell nice for a while, but they still cannot change the simple fact: we’re all bound for the grave.

“And looking up, [the women] saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large.” Their problem with the tomb of Jesus was taken care of for them. Your problem with your own grave is also taken care of for you. Did the women do anything to move the stone? No. Can you do anything to solve your own death problem? No way. But the stone of your death problem is rolled away for you in Christ, the crucified and risen Savior, the Lord of Life.

“And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe.” The devout women had planned on seeing a crucified corpse, not a vibrant young man. The other Gospels say this was an angel, but Mark says, “young man.” It’s no accident, and no contradiction. After all, what picture does a young man bring but youth, vitality, strength, even life itself? And he was dressed in a long white robe—not ordinary clothing, but the heavenly color of God working His life. Something special was happening here. No dead corpse, but rather a vibrant, vigorous message of God’s handiwork.

The sermon preached by this messenger of life that would put the puzzle together. “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here.” It can be alarming to be rescued from your daily dilemma of death. There is a certain familiarity with the dead world and the self-seeking desires that come from our inner death. But God’s messenger seeks to calm our troubled spirits, to put our fears to rest. You see, life with the living Christ is much better than living as selfish corpses in the world any day!

The young man’s proclamation gives comfort to the women and to us. If you seek Jesus, you seek the crucified Christ. The only true Savior is the One who was handed over to death. But in His death He destroyed death. In our culture many look for spirituality, but they only want a generic religion, a self-made substitute for the real God. The true Savior is the Jesus who died. You cannot have a resurrection without a crucifixion. You cannot grasp the fullness of Easter Sunday without going through Good Friday. It’s a package deal. The Crucified Christ is the Living Lord.  The Man of Sorrows and death is the God who brings life and immortality to light.

P: Christ is risen! C: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

On April 1, 2001, 24 U.S. military men and women were detained and interrogated in China for ten days. Due to a mid-air collision, their plane had to make an emergency landing in Hainan. On April 11, those 24 service men and women were finally set free and sent home. It was big news and their homecoming was broadcast on all the news programs. You could see the pride, the joy, even the exuberance. What a blessing and what a celebration it was to have our service men and women home safe and sound. But that pales in comparison to the victory and the homecoming we have because of Jesus’ resurrection! That ceremony at Whidbey Island, in Washington State, has gone into the history books. But the rich, exuberant celebration of Christ’s new life will go on for eternity, and we, with all believers in Christ, will proudly sing and joyously dance and feast together with Christ for all eternity.

But what about here and now? We aren’t quite to the eternal banquet just yet. Notice what else the young angel-man told the women at the tomb: “But go, tell His disciples and Peter….” These first witnesses to the empty tomb were to speak of Christ’s new life for the world. They were to talk it up with the disciples. And even Peter gets singled out. He who denied Christ would be restored.

In the same way, you are witnesses to Christ’s resurrection life. You have been baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection. Your Baptism joins you to Christ’s new life. You are also partakers of His life in the Lord’s Supper. The very Body that hung lifeless from the cross now gives you eternal life. The very Blood that flowed from His sacred veins in death now pulsates in you to make you alive and keep you alive in Christ. Christ’s resurrected life is your life.

So, how can you keep all this Good News to yourself? Why not joyously speak of life—life in Christ—to people you know? Why not go out of your way to invite your family and friends into the Church, this unique place of Christ’s life for the world? What’s more important for real life—life with God—who wins American Idol, or what Christ has done for you and the world?

You have Good News to tell! The world’s death and your inner death are not the last word. Christ’s new life is! Are you afraid of what other people might think of you, if you “talk religion”? We see what happens to pizzeria owners in Indiana who stand for the life and truth of our risen Savior. We see how, more and more, we Christians are becoming fair game to be hated and despised and threatened. But we still have something—or Someone— the world needs. We have the Lord of Life! We have His forgiveness! We have His new life even now!

So don’t be alarmed. The women were afraid too. But the Bible also tells us that they did indeed tell the disciples. And the disciples couldn’t contain themselves. They also spread the life-giving news: Christ is risen. If you want life, real life, here He is. He will give it to you free.

In a world preoccupied with death, we need some Good News, some news of life. People around us need that same Good News, that same life. In our crucified Christ we also have a Living Lord. And He gives His life for the  life of the world. So, as we enjoy the new life given by Christ, let’s also speak of His life for all to enjoy. “Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for He is good! For His steadfast love endures forever” (Ps. 107:1). “For I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:25).

P: Christ is risen! C: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

04 April 2015

Homily for Good Friday

What Great Love!
John 18-19

Listen here.

When we began the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, we prayed: “Almighty and everlasting God, You hate nothing You have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and contrite hearts that, lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, we may receive from You full pardon and forgiveness.” We began our journey through Lent and to the Cross by confessing that God hates nothing and no one He has made, and we pleaded for His lovingkindness and mercy in granting us forgiveness.

Now we’ve arrived at the Cross of Christ. Today we pray that God would “graciously behold this [His] family, for which our Lord Jesus Christ was willing…to suffer death on the cross.” Yes, our whole human family needs the pardon and forgiveness that Jesus accomplishes on the Cross. And, yes, we in the Church, God’s family chosen and set apart in our Baptism, also need the forgiveness and life that Jesus gives today.

So, don’t pity Jesus! Don’t walk away today/tonight thinking, “Poor Jesus.” He does not want or need your pity. But He does want to give you His mercy. Yes, our human family, in its sinful, deadly rebellion against God, put the Lord of Life to death. But He willingly plunges Himself into the depths of our sin and death in order to bring us back to life with Him. He can “sympathize with our weaknesses” because “He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities.” What great love our God has shown in His Son! “With His stripes we are healed.” They were the stripes that we, our sin, and our death inflicted upon Him, but He absorbed them willingly and without complaint. In turn He heals us from the wounds and the sores that the disease of sin and death works in us. What wondrous love!

Right before He went to the Cross, Jesus said: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

So when you ponder the arrest and abuse of the all-powerful Creator of the world, when you ponder Peter’s three-fold denial of his ever faithful Lord, when you ponder the kangaroo court that lied about the Truth-made-flesh, when you see the Innocent One convicted as though guilty, think “What great love God has for me.” When you consider Pontius Pilate trying to get Jesus off the hook, but then caving to the whims of the angry mob, when you consider how Jesus the great Healer suffers the wounds of scourging, think to yourself, “What great love!” When you remember the soldiers stripping bare Him who covers Himself with light and with the deep as with a garment (Ps. 104:2, 6), think, “What great love!” When the angry shouts of “Crucify Him!” echo in your ears, especially knowing that you, a sinner, would have joined in, think, “What great love He has even for me!”

And what great love flows forth when He speaks from the Cross. First, He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). Not only does He forgive those who condemned Him, pounded the nails and jeered at Him, but He also forgives you for all the sins in which you know not what you do.

As Jesus told the thief crucified with Him, “Today you will be with Me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43), you may rest assured that whatever you suffer in this life, your Crucified Lord promises that you will be with Him in paradise, even today. What great love!

What great love He showed to His Mother and the disciple whom He loved. Even in the midst of His excruciating pain and His struggle to breathe, the Lord “said to His mother, ‘Woman, behold your son!’ Then He said to the disciple, ‘Behold your mother!’” (Jn. 19:26-27). In His great love, your Savior makes you part of the same family, His family of faith. May it be to us as the Lord has said.

Then He prayed “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46; Ps. 22:1). Of course, being the Son of God He could not be separated from His Father and the Holy Spirit, but being true Man He certainly did experience the separation from God that we, His creatures, brought on ourselves. So, when we pray in our dark, forsaken loneliness, we can know that our Savior and God is there, in the lonely despair, “that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). What great love!

When Jesus cried, “I thirst” (Jn. 19:28), not only did He fulfill Scripture by consuming the sour vinegar of our sin and death, but He also showed how He hungered and thirsted for our righteousness. And we need not thirst for life, because the water that our crucified Lord gives becomes in us “a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). What great love!

And what great love as our loving Lord of Life handed Himself over--voluntarily, willingly--into death. He said, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Lk. 23:46) and, “It is finished!” (Jn. 19:30). He trusted His Father to bring Him out of death and hell, and when He did arise, He brought us out of death to live with Him. So, it’s all finished—His forgiveness for your sins, His victory over death, His gift of life with God. What great love!

“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:4-7).