17 May 2017

Homily for Burial of a Stillborn

"The Lord Will Not Cast Off"
Lamentations 3:22-33; 1 John 3:1-3; Mark 10:13-16

Delivered at Chapel of St. Timothy and St. Titus
Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, MO
May 17, 2017

Henry Niels Peter Adelsen. A mere 23 weeks old, as counted in utero—still in mommy’s tummy. How we wish we could have met him, and held him, and seen a smile on his face, and heard a giggle of delight burst forth. How we wish we could have gotten to know him.

But our gracious God knew him…and still knows him. Henry’s frame was not hidden from our Lord when he was being made in secret, intricately woven in the deep darkness of mommy’s tummy. The eyes of our living Lord saw Henry’s unformed substance, the days formed for him, few though they may be this side of eternity.

So we gather here today with hearts aching, minds numbed, eyes filled with tears…and yet still hopeful in the midst of loss, actually daring to rejoice in the midst of sorrow. As we prayed just minutes ago: “How precious to me are Your thoughts, O God! If I would count them, they are more than the sand. I awake, and I am still with you” (Psalm 139:17-18).

Even in the midst of things we cannot understand, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases.” Even when we ache and cry and feel numb, “His mercies never come to an end.” Great is Jesus’ faithfulness to you, Peter, to you, Melissa, and, yes, also to Henry.

The American Pregnancy Association gives some advice about how to grieve after going through a stillbirth—things such as talking to people about how you feel, joining a support group with others who have experienced this, and writing about your feelings in a journal or in a letter to your baby. Such things can indeed help as we process our thoughts and feelings as we walk through this valley of the shadow of death. But in Christ Jesus and in His Church, we have the ultimate medicine that brings true healing to our broken hearts, genuine salve for our numbness, and the ultimate wiping away of our tears. It’s called Easter—the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

When St. Paul proclaimed the truth and the joys of Jesus’ victory over the grave, he also counted up those who actually saw the risen Lord. First, Cephas—that’s Peter. Then the Twelve. Then 500 other brothers at one time. Then James and all the sent out ones. Jesus loves to make His resurrection known to as many as possible. Then St. Paul says of himself, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Corinthians 15:8). Even though Paul had not followed Jesus before His crucifixion, even though Paul tried to snuff out the Christians after Jesus’ resurrection, the Lord Jesus still appeared to…and saved…and enlivened…the Apostle Paul.

And that Greek word for “untimely born” is quite fascinating. It literally means “miscarried” or even “still born.” It’s Paul’s way of saying that he did not at all deserve to be reborn by the risen Lord. Well, the same goes for all of us who are conceived in sin and brought forth in iniquity (Psalm 51:5). The new birth of our Lord’s resurrection, the new birth of our Baptism, takes all of us who are “untimely born” and graciously makes us children of God, heirs of His eternity of life. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are.” And, trusting God’s rich and bountiful mercy, so is Henry. “We are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when He appears we shall be like Him.” And how is that? Resurrected. Living. No more tears. No more heartache. No more death.

King David also confesses Jesus’ resurrection for a time such as this. Remember how he had been absolved of his sins in “Bathsheba-gate.” And right on the heels of that affair, David’s son by Bathsheba became sick and died. David had fasted and prayed, hoping the Lord would spare the child. But, alas, no. Sometimes God just wants to call an innocent child home to Himself, you know. Then David’s advisors became alarmed. “Oh, no! He fasted and wept while the child was alive. What will he do now that the child is dead? The king may just go off the deep end.” But upon hearing that his son had died, David—liberated by God’s lovingkindness and absolution—got up, cleaned up, and ate a full meal. The advisors were flummoxed. “What in the world is going on, your Majesty?”

So David confesses the resurrection of Jesus: “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Samuel 12:23-34). Such is the comfort, such is the confidence, and such is the joy that Jesus’ resurrection works in all of God’s people. We cannot bring little Henry back. Peter and Melissa, little Henry may not return to you, but in Christ Jesus you shall go to him on that great Day of the Resurrection.

You see, this Jesus who has conquered the grave in all of its manifestations is the Son of David par excellence. He is the One who has suffered, bled, and died. He is the One who triumphantly stormed the gates of hell to release us who are held captive by the power of death. He is the One who did return to us, the One who rose victorious on the third day. He is the One to whom we go in the sleep of our death. He is the one who has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel—life and immortality for all of us, including little Henry.

So, yes, our Lord Jesus, our resurrected Savior, knows little Henry. And He holds Him in His arms until the Day of Resurrection. After all, this is the same loving Lord who said, “Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Now, Peter and Melissa, your mere 23-week old son becomes your role model for all of life. How so? Henry did nothing, but he received everything. He received life from His Creator who knew him even in the womb. Now he receives life from his Savior to carry him into eternity.

It’s how we all live—on the receiving end of God’s life-giving ways—no matter how many weeks, months, or years we are given. We receive everything from our Father’s hands, through His Son and in His Spirit. New life given in our Baptism. Life-giving healing in words of Absolution heard week in and week out. And forgiveness, life, and salvation put in our mouths with the living Body and Blood of Jesus every time we kneel at the Lord’s Table. God gives; we receive. Just like St. Paul. Just like King David. Just like little Henry.

So while the tears will flow for a time, and while the heartache and numbness may dissipate over time—though perhaps never completely this side of the Resurrection—we can actually find comfort and rejoice in the midst of sorrow. God knows you and what you now go through. Precious are His thoughts. And when you and I, and all of God’s baptized people, awake, we will see Him. After all, “The Lord will not cast off forever,” and “He will have compassion according to the abundance of His steadfast love.” Amen.

15 May 2017

Homily for Easter 5 (Cantate) - 2017

"The Next Big Thing"
John 16:5-15

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In 2007, Apple came out with a really big thing—the iPhone. People stood in line—camped in line—for hours just to buy the very first smart phone. The first iPhone was so big that Apple sold 270,000 iPhones in the first 30 hours of sales. Four years later, came “the next big thing”—Samsung’s marketing campaign for its smart phones. And so big are all of these “next big things” that smart phones are, well, almost omni-present in our lives and culture today.

Today on the church’s calendar, we turn our attention to a “next big thing” of a completely different sort—a much more meaningful “next big thing,” a truly eternal “next big thing.” Back on the Third Sunday of Advent we had the joyous anticipation of Christmas—God the Father sending His only-begotten Son into the world. Back on the Fourth Sunday in Lent we had the joyous anticipation of Easter—the Son of God sacrificing Himself for us in His crucifixion and bringing life and immortality to light through His resurrection. Today, on this Fifth Sunday of Easter, we get the joyous anticipation of “the next big thing”—the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Teller and Teacher of Truth. In fact, He is the best and most perfect “next big thing,” the best and most perfect gift that comes from above, “coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17).

This is what Jesus is telling His disciples in our Gospel reading. These words are part of His last conversation with them before the final ordeal of His suffering and death for the sins of the world. Before those dark hours of His departure, Jesus promised them that the Helper would come. The Helper, the Holy Spirit, would come only after Jesus completed His work of saving the world from sin, death, and the devil. Once Jesus removed the curse on the world, once He forgave the sins of all, then “the next big thing”—the Holy Spirit—would come. He would come to help Jesus’ followers and to provide the answer to the world’s greatest need.

Now, you would think that the people of the world would be glad to receive the offered help and deliverance. But, alas, not so! As Jesus told His disciples and still tells us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated Me before it hated you…. If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you…. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God” (John 15:18, 20; 16:2).

And how did the disciples react when Jesus warned them of these things? They were disappointed. They were sad. They were despondent. They wanted to retreat. They were no longer concerned about Jesus’ future. So Jesus said, “Now I am going to Him who sent me, and none of you asks Me, ‘Where are You going?’” (John 16:5). The disciples were concerned only about themselves. And so sorrow filled their hearts.

It’s not so different with us, is it? As Jesus’ followers today, we’ve been given a work that goes beyond just our everyday lives, a work that goes beyond just our service to other people. We actually have the privilege of helping other people become followers of Jesus too. But we often lose interest in that task. Often we are not concerned about it. We often lack the courage to speak up. We often find it much easier to talk about anything else—the weather, the flooding, the news, the Blues, the Cardinals—rather than talk about the hope and faith that fills us. So we need Someone to inspire us, Someone to help us, Someone to speak for us.

You see, going against the opposition of the world and the powers of darkness is a lot like soldiers equipped with bows and arrows marching against an army that has jets, tanks, and machine guns. It seems like such an impossible task. But Jesus says we have Someone to help us. That Someone is the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, the Helper. He is the One who counsels and assists us. He is the One who intervenes and supports us. He is the One who is able to overcome the world.

This is why Jesus says, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). You see, once Jesus finished His work of suffering and dying for the world’s sins, He had to rise from the dead to bring life. He also had to return to His heavenly glory in order to share and distribute the gifts of His work with all people. It would be the work of the Holy Spirit to carry out the sharing and distribution of the Jesus gifts. That’s the real, life-changing, always-meaningful “next big thing.”

And yet, the devil would be allowed to continue his work of promoting unbelief and persuading people to do and live in all sorts of evil and wickedness—for that “little while” that we heard about last week. But the Helper, the Spirit, would be sent forth to work faith and the fruit of faith—things like “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). This is what Jesus promised His disciples. This is still Jesus’ promise to all His followers, including you and me, today.

So Jesus also tells us what to expect from this best and perfect gift—this “next big thing”—of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says, “when [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). The Spirit’s first work is to “convict the world…concerning sin, because they do not believe in Me.” Why is that? Because the world thinks lightly of sin…if they think about it at all. What else do you call killing unborn babies, or committing acts of terrorism, or turning blind eyes to criminal activity, or—most of all—thinking and acting and living like there’s no God, or if there is, like He’s an absentee landlord? But through God’s Word the Holy Spirit shows what sin really is: rebellion against God, not believing in Him. And He shows what lies at the bottom of all sins: unbelief, that is, rejection of what Jesus has done to save us, and that continuing in unbelief eventually leads to eternal doom.

The Spirit’s second work, Jesus says, is to “convict the world…concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer.” This work is most necessary. You see, the world’s idea of “righteousness” is a false one. The world sees people who appear good and charitable and respectable, and says, “That’s righteousness!” But that’s not all that God wants of people. In fact, because of sin, any and all of these outward achievements falls far short of what God seeks. God wants righteousness before Him. And righteousness before Him is possibly only through Jesus, who suffered and died to take away our sin and make us right before God once again. That right relationship—that righteousness—is a gift from God when the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith in Jesus.

The third work of the Holy Spirit is to “convict the world…concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” It really is most distressing to see so much of the devil’s work in the world—the murders, the immorality, the conflicts, and many other evils. But “the ruler of this world is judged.” Our Lord Jesus conquered him when He died on the cross. Our Lord Jesus conquered him and the power of death when He rose from the grave.  The devil may try his hardest to rant and rave and sow his chaos. But he is like a mean Rottweiler on a chain. He and his evil minions are restricted until the Day of Judgment. At that time Satan and all who belong to him will be rejected forever from God’s presence.

This is the work of the Spirit of Truth—to convict and convince the world and bring the message of Truth to all people. It’s a message of sin and judgment. But it’s also the answer to sin and judgment. It’s the Good News of forgiveness and life through faith in Jesus Christ.

And the Spirit doesn’t just bring the message of Truth to us. He also strengthens us in the Truth. He also nurtures us in the life of love. He gives us the new birth in the waters of Baptism. He comforts, sustains, and strengthens us by feeding us the nourishing food of Jesus’ Body and Blood.

Our Father in heaven has indeed given us every good and perfect gift for body and soul, for faith and life. But the best “next big thing” and the most perfect gift of all is the Holy Spirit. He comforts us by bringing us to Jesus, by filling us with His Truth and Life, by inspiring us to share that Truth and Life with others until the Last Day. “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and He has become my salvation.” Amen.

18 April 2017

Homily for The Resurrection of Our Lord - 2017

"Dawn of New Life and New Creation"
Job 19:23-27 and Mark 16:1-8

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Talk about turning the tables! Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat! On Good Friday it all looked hopeless and lost. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God—through whom the universe was created—fought Satan in a duel to the death. It was the culmination of a cosmic battle that began in the Garden of Eden and has raged through the centuries.

It was also the culmination of a thirty years’ war that began way back at Christmas. Accompanied by angel armies, Jesus entered time and space to reclaim and retake His world from Satan and death. Then Jesus went underground, appearing as a helpless baby born to obscure parents. But Satan saw the plan unfolding and strove to extinguish the threat. The battle was joined when Mary and Joseph had to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s attempted assassination of their newborn baby. The fog of war openly intensified when Satan confronted grown-up Jesus in the wilderness, trying to bring Jesus over to his side just as he did with Adam and Eve. And the battles flared every time Jesus expelled an evil spirit, healed a broken body, and raised someone from the dead.

The D-Day of this ages-long war took place on a hill called “Skull Place.” Jesus was crucified and put to death. The Son of God died. Then He was buried in a borrowed tomb. To the naked eye, Satan had won the war. Sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther describes it as Satan dragging the Son of God off His throne, killing Him, and then burying Him under his feet. Nineteenth century pastor C. F. W. Walther expressed it vividly in his Easter hymn, “He’s Risen, He’s Risen.” Describing Jesus’ death, Walther sings:

“The foe was triumphant when on Calvary
The Lord of creation was nailed to the tree.
In Satan’s domain did the hosts shout and jeer,
For Jesus was slain, whom the evil ones fear.”
(LSB 480:2)

But it turns out to be a short-lived victory. As it happens, Jesus turned the tables on Satan. Walther then sings:

“But short was their triumph; the Savior arose,
And death, hell, and Satan He vanquished His foes.”
(LSB 480:3)

What does this mean for us? Everything! All of our life and all of our hope hinges on this one event that changed the course of history forever. A few years ago, the well-known church historian Jaroslav Pelikan died. It’s been reported that he said these last words: “If Jesus has not risen from the dead, nothing else matters; if Jesus has risen from the dead, nothing else matters!” Let me repeat that: “If Jesus has not risen from the dead, nothing else matters; if Jesus has risen from the dead, nothing else matters!” It’s why we call ourselves Christians. It’s why we call out to God in confidence. It’s why we eagerly anticipate eternal life in the age to come!

When He rises from the dead, Jesus opens up the future. From the earliest days of the Church, this day has been known as the eighth day of creation, also called the first day of the new creation. That’s why our baptismal font, and many others, have eight sides to them. It’s in our Baptism where we are born anew and given life in the new creation. Jesus’ resurrection is the vanguard of the new creation.

And because Jesus rose from the dead, so shall we. That’s the joy of Easter. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20). When we see the first flower bloom in spring, we know that all the rest are soon to follow. So it is with Jesus. Just as He has risen bodily from the dead, so shall we. And God will complete what He first began in the Garden of Eden. There He raised a human being from dust of the ground. Adam and Eve had access to the Tree of Life. But then they sinned. And God had to expel them from the garden…and from access to the Tree of Life. They were doomed to die, as are we. But now we will be raised again from the ground in the resurrection. “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:23). We were deprived access to the Tree of Life, but now we have access to the Tree of Life forever. That tree looks like the cross and all that Jesus achieved for us there.

And because we will rise, the earth will also be renewed and restored. We become the first fruits of God’s entire creation. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). You see, when we are raised from the dead, creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption. It will live under the gracious and benevolent rule of God’s children—us—along with Jesus. So it goes from Jesus to us to all of creation.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? Does it mean life will be easy for us from now on? Does it mean the prospect of dying one day is easy and no longer fearful? Not necessarily. In fact, the resurrection may even make things more difficult. It might just destroy our illusions and our attempts to avoid, evade, or even sugarcoat what death is.

Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse once pointed out that the message of Easter is not, “Jesus lives,” but rather, “Jesus has risen!” What’s the difference? In our culture, we have become comfortable talking about departed loved ones this way: “So-and-so lives on in our hearts and memories.” Or we say, “They will always be with us.” Huh? What does this even mean? The hard, cold fact is, they died. They’re dead. They’re buried in the earth. Do we mean some kind of disembodied consciousness, floating around somewhere, finally free from the physical world? Do we mean some sort of immortal soul, once entrapped in a body but now freed from that cage?

The resurrection does not necessarily make our dying easier, as if we are moving to some higher form of being with death as a natural portal. No, the resurrection actually makes dying hard. The resurrection clearly shows that death is not a friend at all. It’s not natural at all. It’s an enemy. “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). Why else do we constantly try to avoid thinking about death, try to cheat death, or try to stem the tide of death? We instinctively know that death is the enemy to life.

That’s why the message of Jesus risen is the message of bodily resurrection. It’s not natural for the body to die and go to the grave. It’s not right for death to rip our body and soul apart. The resurrection is a celebration of bodily life! It’s the celebration of a body given new life, a body enlivened with breath once again, a body that walks on the earth—a body that will live forever. And remember Jesus’ Ascension. When He ascends into heaven, He does not leave His body behind. He ascends bodily!

So Jesus’ resurrection, just like His incarnation, is a wonderful and unqualified affirmation of bodily life. And this is great Good News when we now go through all the pains and sufferings, the aches and pains in our own bodies. The problem is not our bodies; they don’t cause the suffering. The problem is the sin and death that causes the aches and pains to our bodies.

And to what shall we rise? What is this future that Christ has opened for us? What kind of world will we find ourselves in? A feast prepared for us by God Himself! Let’s think of it as a grand welcome-home party. (Remember the parable of the prodigal son?) A feast that we will see, and hear, and feel, and taste.

Perhaps we can think of it as a winery. You’ve heard of Robert Mondavi, the famous California winemaker. It’s been said that whenever he came out with a new wine, he would throw a fabulous party and feast at his winery. He would invite the who’s who of the wine world, the tasters and reviewers. He would invite the rich and the famous, the celebrities and movie stars.

Well, let’s think of Jesus as the One who plants a vineyard, carefully tends it, prunes the branches, manages the canopy cover, tastes the grapes, harvests the grapes, presses them, ferments them, and makes the wine. When all is ready, He sends out the invitations to join Him at His eternal party of food, music, and wine. But these invitations go out not just to the rich and famous; they go out to sinners and rebels, that is, you and me. He has prepared this rich, fabulous feast for you and me in fellowship with Him. This is what awaits us!

Until that day, let’s celebrate Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and the devil with the Lord’s Supper! That’s why we worship on Sundays. Here we get to celebrate our Lord’s victory—the first day of the new creation, the first day of the rest of our lives! Amen.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Homily for Easter Vigil - 2017

"This Is OUR Night"
 (Easter Vigil Readings)

Listen here.

“This is the night.” This is OUR night. This is our night to hold vigil with our brothers and sisters all around the planet. This is our night when everything changes. This is our night when all of God’s plans, purposes, and promises for us come to fruition and fulfillment.

People hold vigils on notable nights for many and various reasons. A wife may await her husband’s return from an overseas battle field. The night before he returns she spends in anxious prayer and eager anticipation. A son or daughter may hold vigil at the bedside of their dying parent. After all, that loved one’s departure should not go unnoticed by those who are living. A parent may keep vigil at the bedside of a feverish and restless child. As that parent soothes the hot brow of her child with a cold compress, she also prays to God for health. Such needs just demand that we keep watch.

So tonight, our Lord calls us to watch with Him just one little hour. You see, this is our night to watch and wait with quiet yet excited anticipation. That eternal day of resurrection light is coming! Our deliverance from death’s darkness is fast approaching. Just as our eyes rejoice at the splendor of the lighted candles, so our hearts and minds rejoice at the new light of the life to come. And the vigil this night gives new meaning to all those other vigils of many and various times. Nothing else can compare to this vigil on this our night.

This is our night of creation. “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). The burning flame outside pierces yesterday's darkness and takes us back to that first day when God said, “Let there be light” (Gen. 1:3). Just as He then ordered all things—sky, sea, and dry land—He now orders our lives to look to Him for all good things. We get to receive, appreciate and benefit from sun, moon, and stars, fruit trees and veggie gardens, birds and fish, critters and beasts. And, most of all, we rejoice in being restored to His image, the image of God Himself, especially rejoicing in our maleness or femaleness, whichever our Creator God has given each of us for our joy.

This is our night of coming out of the great flood. God once judged humanity’s wickedness by a deluge of water, but now He has fully and finally judged our sin and conquered our death through the death of His Son Jesus on a tree. And those eight persons who “were brought safely through water” show us God’s way of life. “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 3:20-21).

This is our night of coming out of bondage in the Egypt of our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The blood of Jesus, the sinless Lamb of God, covers the lintels of our hearts, minds, and consciences, and eternal death now passes over us. We have been brought through the sea of Baptism and are delivered from the pursuing armies of the evil one. So we sing to the LORD, “for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea” (Ex. 15:1).

This is our night when salvation is offered freely to all. With God’s people of all times and all places we get to delight in the rich food of God’s resurrection life—the life-giving Body and Blood of our risen Lord Jesus. “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). Our God has compassion and abundantly pardons. His Word refreshes and waters and brings forth joy at this Easter feast.

This is our night when our risen Lord cleanses us, gives us a new heart beating with His life, and puts a new spirit of faith, hope, and love in us. He has put us back together, bone to bone. He has restored our sinews and covered us with new skin and breathed new life into us who were dead in trespasses and sins. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” (Gal. 3:27). And now, when He raises you from your graves, He will put His Holy Spirit within you, and you will live…with Him…with your brothers and sisters in Christ…for all eternity.

This is our night of dancing in the fiery furnace. We still live in a fallen, broken world—where Christians are edged out of the public square and religious liberty is under assault, where Christians are slaughtered while celebrating these holy days. But while we do still live here, the One Man who has the appearance “like a son of the gods” (Dan. 3:25)—the One Man who truly is the Son of God—joins us in the midst of the fire. And we are not hurt, we are not singed, no matter what the powers and principalities may say or do to us. “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” Absolutely nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:37, 39).

So, dear catechumens newly confirmed, this is your night. Don’t wander from it, and certainly don’t ever fall away from your risen Lord. And that means faithfully hearing His Word and receiving His Body and Blood in His house. That means making Jesus and His gifts more than just a priority; it means making Him, His Word, His Sacraments, being at His house THE priority for all your life. And for the rest of us, let’s all help them do that, for the rest of their lives. And let's do that ourselves, for the rest of our lives.

This is OUR night—“the night when all who believe in Christ are delivered from bondage to sin and are restored to life and immortality.” Amen.

Homily for Good Friday - 2017

"The Day Creation Fell Apart"
John 18-19 with Romans 5:8

If you lived in St. Louis back in 1993, you no doubt remember the great “500-year flood.” If you lived elsewhere, you probably heard about it in the news. The Mississippi and Missouri Rivers both rose to heights not seen in many generations. This flooding happened about a year after the state of Missouri legalized riverboat gambling. So some preachers at the time connected the dots and declared that the flood was God’s judgment on the riverboat gambling. Just one problem: the riverboats survived. After all, they do float! If this were God’s judgment, perhaps lightning would have been more effective.

Viewing God’s judgment in such a way sounds, well, a bit humorous, as though God merely sits on a cloud and shoots down His lightning bolt judgments on various human behaviors, even somewhat arbitrarily. And in our day, many believe that God certainly cannot get angry. After all, He’s a loving God, you know.

So, does God get angry? If so, why? And how does He express that anger or judgment? And upon whom? That’s what Good Friday is all about. The death of Jesus around AD 30 forces us to confront how seriously God takes human sin…and, more importantly, what He does about it.

Through Lent we have explored how God works in and through creation to carry out His purposes. When God blesses, creation flourishes and life abounds. When He curses or judges, creation falls apart and life ceases to exist. The Bible gives many examples of God’s blessing and God’s cursing.

When God created the earth, He blessed it. Life sprouted and blossomed, animals and humans became fruitful and multiplied in number. But also, when Adam and Eve sinned, God cursed the ground. Now that very earth that gave us life would grind us back into dust. And what happened in the flood of Noah’s day? Man’s great evil was judged, the earth and the skies opened with water, creation fell apart.

We can see similar things in our day. But without a clear word of revelation from God, let’s not declare a particular tragedy as God’s judgment on a particular action. But we can speak in a more general way. You see, God’s blessing and curse are embedded in creation. We realize this especially when we remember that everyone dies—sometimes subtly and slowly, other times suddenly and tragically.

We see this in our own bodies. Our own bodies carry God’s creative blessing as well as His judgment. God gives us life through our parents, and He sustains and nourishes that life as we grow into adulthood. But as we grow and age, we also see our bodies slowly fall apart, no matter how healthy we may be.

And because of us, the creation suffers as well. By God’s blessing, planet earth has a stable orbit, babies are born, vineyards grow, and life springs forth, despite sin and evil in the world. At the same time, the curse embedded in the earth fills our lives with toils and worries and tragedies and widespread death. Again, not necessarily specific punishments for specific sins, but certainly times for us to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

We especially see God’s blessing and God’s curse on Good Friday. God pours out His wrath upon His only-begotten Son. Jesus dies in His created body, the body He took from His mother, Mary. And so Jesus “bowed His head and gave up His spirit/breath.” His body falls apart. It stops functioning. It stops moving. And creation suffers too. The sky darkened and the earth quaked. Creation fell apart—ripped apart at the seams. Jesus’ body grew limp. He was taken down from the cross, wrapped, and placed into a stone tomb.

But as we ponder the death of Jesus, let’s do more than merely dwell on His physical agony—the nails through His hands and feet, the dehydration, the asphyxiation. After all, many others suffered the very same agonies and even for much longer than six hours. And their suffering is not nearly as significant for us or for others. Now, we do not take Jesus’ physical agony lightly, but we do focus on what made His suffering unique. What made Jesus’ agony and bitter pains unique in human history? In that one created human body, Jesus experienced the full outpouring and venting of God’s wrath upon the entire human race from Adam and Eve to the present day. Jesus experienced all of the wrath that God could use to annihilate the world and everything in it. Remember Jesus’ words: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” God’s wrath is being abandoned by God, rather than embraced by Him. And when God abandons us or His creation, everything falls apart.

God does withdraw His support. He does turn His back on the human race and His creation. But He does so to Jesus in our place. St. Paul writes: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Died for us? What does this mean? Jesus died in our place. He died so that we may not have to endure God’s eternal displeasure and disappointment.

The Bible calls this an “atoning sacrifice,” or “propitiation.” This Jesus turns aside God’s wrath. He deflects God’s anger off us and onto Himself. Just as a lightning rod attracts a bolt of lightning, absorbs it, and dissipates it into nothing, that’s what Christ does for us. He attracts the wrath of God to Himself so it will not strike us. He absorbs it and He dissipates it until it is no more. This is no mere man who dies, but the very Son of God in the flesh. He absorbs all of God’s wrath against all of humanity. And He does so in His creaturely body.

So as God turns His back on Jesus, He turns His loving face toward us!

That means we can be certain of God’s love for us. Look how He showed and acted upon that love: He sacrificed His own Son. That’s how much He wanted—and still wants—you and me. That’s how much He wanted—and still wants—us to enjoy the benefits of His love and His gift of life. Let’s never take it for granted, because, “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him” (1 John 4:9). Amen.

Homily for Holy Thursday - 2017

"Meal of Faith and Life—Sacrament of the Altar"
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 34-35

In his Small Catechism, Martin Luther says the words of Christ are the main thing in the Sacrament of the Altar: “These words, along with the bodily eating and drinking, are the main thing in the Sacrament.” These words deliver “exactly what they say: ‘forgiveness of sins.’” The words are the main thing. The words of Christ deliver the gifts of Christ.

So, what’s the big deal about whether we actually receive Christ’s Body and Blood? Why bother with the actual, physical eating and drinking? Why focus so much on whether or not Jesus’ Body and Blood are actually, really present in this Meal?

This has been a major issue since the 16th Century Reformation. In fact, it’s on this rock that the unity of Protestant churches has broken apart. Whether Jesus’ Body and Blood are really given and received in the Sacrament is the issue that separates Lutherans from most other Protestant church bodies. But why? What’s the big deal? Why can’t we just come together in unity? After all, don’t they have the words of Jesus? Aren’t these words the main thing in the Sacrament? Don’t the words still deliver the forgiveness of sins?

The bigger question is this: What is really at stake in this centuries-long debate? What’s at stake is the Gospel itself! Yes, Luther says the words are the main thing. But he also says this—going back to the first question: “What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.” Translation: the words of Christ are embedded in the very Body and Blood of Christ. First, the words embrace the bread and wine so that they also become the Body and Blood of Jesus. Second, the Body and Blood of Jesus actually deliver the forgiveness of sins. They actually impart the forgiveness, life, and salvation from Jesus. To say it another way: no Body and Blood, no forgiveness in the Sacrament! Take away the Body and Blood of Jesus—or deny that the Supper really is Christ’s Body and Blood—and you take away the Gospel!

It’s that very Gospel we need, that very Gospel we depend on for life, that very Gospel that strengthens our faith in God’s love.

And now we circle back to creation—or at least elements of creation. After all, it’s in the created order where God works for us and is present with us. From the beginning, God deals with us, communicates with us, is present with us only in and through His creation. From the beginning, we can only deal with God through our bodies—our eyes, ears, mouth, brain, etc.—and elements of the physical world. It’s how God works with us. And it goes to the heart of the Lord’s Supper.

Those who reject the actual presence of Jesus’ Body and Blood do so on two basic assumptions. First, they say, “God is spiritual, immaterial. He does not have a physical body. Nothing in creation can contain God.” So, they claim, we must deal with God through a spiritual/immaterial realm. The second assumption says this: “The physical world, and with it our bodies, is an impediment to a truly spiritual life.” Our spirits—that is, our disembodied consciousness—must transcend, or leave, our bodies and ascend above this world to where God lives. Think of transcendental meditation or contemplative prayer, by which the mind tries to detach itself from the body.

But all of this goes against real life. It also goes against what the Bible teaches. As humans, we are made of both body and soul/spirit. Our bodies connect us to the earth; our “spirits” draw us upward and connect us to God. And the Bible clearly shows us that our bodies and the physical creation are not impediments to life with God. In fact, they are the very vehicles for God’s presence and activity. The universe cannot contain God, and yet He is very much present in the petals of the smallest flower.

What picture does the Bible paint of our God? Scripture portrays our God as a very down-to-earth God, a God who gets His hands dirty in the work of everyday life. How does God do this work? Who comes to whom? It’s God who comes down from the heavens to us. He comes to meet us where we are, so to speak. And where are we? Here on earth! He comes here on earth where we can receive Him in our bodies. After all, we are enlivened bodies, that is, bodies given life by the breath of God.

Consider how God came down to earth to meet Adam and Eve in the garden in “the cool of the day” (Gen. 3:8), perhaps early morning or late afternoon or early evening. That sets the pattern we see throughout the Bible. God comes down to earth and meets with Moses in a burning bush. He comes down to Mt. Sinai. He comes down in a pillar of cloud and fire. And then, most importantly, God comes down and meets us in the real, visible, tangible flesh-and-blood body of Jesus Christ. God is this man Jesus; and this man Jesus is God Himself! And after the Ascension of Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes down upon the disciples and dwells in our hearts by faith. Then, on the Last Day, Jesus will come down to rule the new heavens and new earth forever.

The Christian story is never one of ascending to God, or of rising up above our bodies and this physical world to some spiritual, ethereal plane. Instead, we encounter God right here on earth, with our physical bodies. And now, with our mouths in the Lord’s Supper.

So tonight, we commemorate Jesus’ institution of His holy Supper. It’s the night when He was betrayed, the night before He goes to His death on the cross. He will leave His disciples, but He will not leave them alone. So He institutes and gives this Supper as His last will and testament. And it’s a last will and testament like no other. In this testament—this meal—Jesus bequeaths the entire history of Israel to His disciples and to us. He bequeaths to them and to us a covenant, a promise, sealed by the blood of countless sacrifices that pointed to Jesus. But it’s a new covenant. The old covenant in the Old Testament was sealed by the blood of sacrificial animals; this new covenant is sealed by the blood of the Son of God. The old covenant was constantly renewed with repeated sacrifices; this new covenant is sealed once and for all times with the blood of the sinless Lamb of God.

Just as the old covenant gathered God’s people into a nation, this new covenant unites God’s people in the very body of Jesus. As the Body and Blood of Jesus go into each of us, we share something in common. What’s that? The Body and Blood of Jesus! Not only does this meal unite us to Jesus and all of His blessings; it also binds us together into one body. That’s why we call it Communion—koinonia. This is the real fellowship—the genuine sharing in common of the Body and Blood of Jesus.

And what is the covenant, or promise? The Creator will be our God, our Father. In this covenant, God promises and seals His forgiveness for us. God comes and makes this promise to us. He even puts the promise into our hearts by putting it into our mouths.

It’s interesting that many people have no problem thinking that our spirits can disconnect from our bodies and rise above them to meet God in heaven, but they have a major problem accepting that the Son of God has come to us in a human body and even now comes in His Body and Blood in the Supper. It reveals a lack of confidence in God’s Word, the Word that actually does what God says it will.

Now we circle back to the words of Jesus as the main thing in the Sacrament. Who speaks these words? Jesus Christ Himself—the almighty and powerful Creator and Lord. He uttered a word, and entire galaxies and millions of stars came into being. Well, that same word that created you, me, and everything in this world now brings the Body and Blood of Jesus to us in, with, and under the bread and wine. Yes, God’s Word does what it says! Jesus first spoke these words in the Upper Room, and they still do their thing to this day as Jesus invites us to this feast.

When a person writes their last will and testament, they bequeath their goods and treasures to those they leave behind. Here in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus bequeaths to us all that He has to give us—His Body and His Blood, the very Body and Blood that accomplished our salvation in His death and resurrection. And with this Body and Blood, Jesus guarantees in advance a place for us at His table—the table of His banquet, a banquet to end all banquets in His new creation. And what a feast it will be! A feast of fellowship and joy that even now God is preparing for us. Amen.

Homily for Palm Sunday - 2017

"In Our Place"
Matthew 27:11-54

Listen here.

“Truly this was the Son of God,” said the centurion. We’d better tweak that: “Truly this IS the Son of God.” Not a past tense has been, but a present tense Savior of sinners. Truly this is the Son of God for you—even as He hangs shamed, mocked, beaten, bruised, bloodied, and dead.  Our Lord Jesus, truly the Son of God, puts Himself in our place to rescue us.

We heard the Triumphal Entry a mere four months ago when Advent began. Then it was a story of welcome with eager rejoicing—Christ coming into our human flesh and our fallen world. Now we hear the story as we say farewell with somber thanks. Now Jesus marches on to His ultimate mission: to suffer, die, and rise again…for us.

A mere five weeks ago and through the weeks since, Jesus has been engaging in battles and winning victories against Satan and his temptations. Now, we hear the account of the ultimate battle. And it looks like anything but a victory! But Christ was putting Himself in our place. That should have been you and I on that cross!

He is called “king,” and so He is. We should be the kings and the queens, but we fell from our appointed thrones. So Jesus lowers Himself to take the title in mockery and disgrace.

He was falsely accused. We are rightly accused in our transgressions against God and against our various neighbors. But "We have rights!” we insist. Jesus, though, waives His divine rights and privileges and silently endures the shame.

Barabbas was released instead of Jesus. His name means “son of the father.” From the beginning, we should have been the sons and daughters of the heavenly Father. Instead, we were found guilty of rebellion against God and imprisoned in sin. Jesus, the true Son of God, is the innocent One, the One taken into custody so that we guilty ones may go free.

“His blood be on us,” cried the ginned up crowd. A little thing it was, or so they mused. But it was bearing the blame. Do we treat His blood too lightly, as a little thing? Ah, but Jesus’ spilled blood cleanses us from our sinful state and our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. Pray “His blood be on us” with weighty joy and gratitude when you come to the Table.

He endures the spitting and the mocking. We were the ones who mocked the genuine royalty of being “like God.” We thought it better to rely on ourselves instead of the God who made us in His image. But Jesus endures the spitting and mocking to rescue the likes of us. Jesus was stripped naked to clothe us with His rightness, His image. Truly, this Son of God strips us of the tattered rags of our sin and the false robes of our self-rule.

And the pain on the cross. Excruciating! We think pain is so unfair, something to flee at all costs. Even though we truly deserve it. We would love to drink the drugged wine to ease the pain. Jesus, though, does not deserve the pain; but He takes it, He suffers it, He drinks it down, refusing any pain-killer.

He cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” We are the ones who should have been and should be forsaken by God, all for turning against Him. But Jesus still trusts His Father in the very midst of being utterly forsaken by Him.

Jesus “yielded up His spirit.” We rail against death at every turn, with every fiber of our being, even though we brought it into God’s good creation. Jesus, though, willingly goes into death, utterly and finally to defeat it.

All of this Jesus did, endured, and suffered in our place.

We call it the “Great Exchange,” the great trading places. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4-5).

We also call it “Atonement.” The blood is for cleansing and making us holy. Jesus took our place to make us “at-one” with God once again. “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14).

We also call it “Justification.” Though we are sinful and guilty beyond all reasonable doubt, He makes us righteous and innocent through His work on the cross. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We also call it “Redemption.” Because of Jesus paying the price, making the ultimate sacrifice, paying the ransom, we are bought back and brought back for life in His kingdom. “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Peter 1:18).

We also call it “Reconciliation.” Warring factions are brought back together. Hostile enemies are brought to peaceful life together. Now “We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Amen.

06 April 2017

Homily for Lent 5 Evening Prayer

"Battle Cry of Faith--The Lord's Prayer"
Small Catechism, The Lord's Prayer
(sixth in a catechetical series)

When a father has to travel for his work, it’s quite common that he will bring home gifts for his children. It might be a pin from a town or country. It could be a toy or stuffed animal, or even some special chocolate or candy. Over time the children come to expect such gifts from daddy. When daddy comes home from a trip and enters the door, the children come running to him, hug him, welcome him home, and then ask, “What did you bring us?” I know it’s happened in my home; perhaps it’s happened in your home.

It’s not so bad that children ask, “What did you bring us?”, is it? It’s not purely out of selfishness or entitlement, I think. You see, we fathers actually teach our children to expect something when we bring gifts home from our trips. They learn that this is what dad does. And dad does this because he loves his children.

That’s how it is with our heavenly Father. It’s what our spiritual father, Martin Luther, has pointed out out in the Catechism, especially in the Creed. God has withheld nothing from us. He has given us Himself and His entire creation. He then gave us His only-begotten Son. Then He gave us His Holy Spirit and the age to come. So no wonder He exhorts us to run to Him and ask for His blessings “with all boldness and confidence” as “dear children ask their dear father.” God has tenderly invited us to do so!

What does it mean to pray? Quite simply, to pray is to ask. This is the heart and core of prayer. Now this may sound a bit odd to our ears. In fact, it may sound like “gimme, gimme, gimme.” And isn’t that rather self-centered and selfish? Well, in our human relationships, it can certainly reveal a sense of entitlement. “We deserve it! We ought to have it!” But when it comes to our relationship with God, it actually reveals something of our standing before God. We never don’t need everything from God; we are never independent from Him.

We’ve seen this in previous weeks. Everything we are and have comes from God Himself. As St. Paul asked, “What do you have that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7). You and I did not deserve to be born. We did not earn or merit it. We did not deserve this life. God did not owe it to us. Instead, we receive all of life as a gift. We, you and I, exist solely as gifts of God. And so our life and our lives are completely dependent upon God. We live from the gifts of God. That’s what it means to be creatures and not the Creator. You and I will never not need food and drink, family and friends, good weather, health for our bodies. And so God tenderly invites us to ask, and to receive all these gifts, and many more, with thanksgiving.

But at the same time, we are fallen creatures, sinful creatures. You and I stand before God always needing to be cleansed from sin, constantly restored to God’s favor and grace. It may seem anything but natural to go before God and ask for forgiveness and a new lease on life. Some may call that the height of chutzpah. And yet, right here, right at this point, is where God approaches us and tenderly invites us to call Him “Father.” He does this so that He might not frighten us or chase us off. Instead, He extends His hand so that we may take it. And because of Jesus, we have been adopted as His children. Because of the Holy Spirit of His Son who comes into our hearts, we can cry out, “Abba, Father.” As long as we live in this current age, there’s not a moment when we do not need to ask for God’s forgiveness and favor. And we are bold to do so because of Jesus Christ.

So what does Jesus give us in the prayer that He has taught us? Seven petitions. Seven requests. Our Lord wants us to open our arms wide—much like a child on Halloween opening a pillowcase wide to receive as much candy as possible.

Yet prayer is no easy task…at least not in this life. And that’s not just because we may have our doubts or questions. It’s because when we pray, we actually place ourselves on the front line in the battle between God and Satan. You see, the moment the Spirit enters our hearts and kindles faith in God, at that very moment we then turn to God crying, “Abba, Father.” At that moment, we also turn our back on Satan. And Satan considers that a declaration of war. Nothing infuriates him more than to have someone liberated from his prison and returned home as a child and heir of God. So Satan, with every fiber of his being, sets out to deprive us of faith, to destroy our faith, and to turn us against our Lord who has created and redeemed us. So it’s in prayer that we especially encounter the struggles of faith. After all, the struggle of the Christian faith does not happen before faith. The struggle begins with the birth of faith!

C. S. Lewis captured this beautifully in his book The Screwtape Letters. In this book, an apprentice devil named Wormwood seeks the advice of his uncle Screwtape, a senior devil and tempter. Wormwood has been assigned the task of overseeing a young man who is not a Christian. Wormwood’s task is to make sure the man does not become a Christian. As long as the man is not a Christian, Wormwood’s job is pretty easy. But one day, the man meets a young Christian woman. Their relationship develops, and the young man becomes intrigued by Christianity. Now Wormwood has to kick it into high gear and find ways to prevent the man from becoming Christian. When the man does become a Christian, Wormwood’s challenge is to bring him back into the clutches of “Our Father Below,” who is Satan. So senior devil Screwtape has to write some letters to Wormwood and advise him in this battle, especially on how to destroy the man’s faith once it is kindled.

So it is with us. In each of the seven petitions, we pray above all for the most precious gift that God can give us—the gift of faith. The gift of faith is the very relationship God wants us to have with Him. So we pray against unbelief. We pray against all of Satan’s attempts to undermine our faith and to tear us from the gifts of God and His love. Satan knows his time is short. So he pulls out all the stops. He holds nothing back. He begins by trying to undermine the name and Word of God. He continues undermining faith in that Word. He even seeks to keep us from receiving our daily bread, the necessities of daily life, in peace and with thanksgiving.

As Peter reminds us, our “adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). But rarely does he make a frontal attack that we can prepare for as we defend ourselves. Instead, temptation most commonly sneaks up and attacks us from behind. To say it another way, temptation ambushes us in ways that we never see coming.

Consider this analogy. Sometimes a husband and wife decide to divorce because their love has simply gone cold. They never intended it to happen. They never wanted it to happen. Instead, it happened without them even realizing it. They got married and things were great. But then life got busy, they pursued their careers, they raised their children, they found less and less time for each other, and they eventually found themselves little more than roommates. They didn’t just wake up one day and decide to stop loving each other. No, it happened without them realizing that it was happening.

That’s often how it happens with Christians who fall away from Christ. They never intend it to happen. They never want it to happen. It just happens. Perhaps they move to a new city for a new job. They find a new doctor, a new dentist, new stores, new friends, and a new church. They attend church a few weeks, then miss a few weeks. They attend one week, then miss five weeks. Before they realize, they are no longer attending at all. God has become distant and drifted off their radar screen. In other words, a Christian doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to renounce the faith. Instead, they drift away without realizing it. Preserve us from this, dear heavenly Father! This is why St. Paul exhorts us, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12).

Through this Lenten season, though, we’ve seen that we do not stand alone in this battle. We do have Someone who goes into the battle ahead of us and fights for us:

“But for us fights the valiant One,
Whom God Himself elected.
Ask ye, Who is this?
Jesus Christ it is,
Of Sabaoth Lord,
And there’s none other God;
He holds the field forever” (LSB 656:2).

He is the One we follow through Lent and soon to Good Friday and Easter. He is the One who fights for us. So His victory is our victory. He has given us His Word that we tightly hold onto. And no one can snatch us out of His hands. He is the same One who has given us the privilege to run to our heavenly Father, the same One who created and rules over every galaxy, every star, every planet, and every living creature. This is why Martin Luther can describe our prayer life as our greatest weapon in the fight against Satan. After all, in our prayers, we enlist the aid, the support, and the power of our heavenly Father. Amen.

03 April 2017

Homily for Lent 5 - Judica - 2017

"Never See Death"
John 8:42-59

Listen here.

They picked up stones to throw at Jesus, but He hid Himself and went out of the temple.

Why did they want to kill Jesus? Because He was telling them things that didn’t fit into what they thought their religion was. Earlier He told them they were from below, but He was from above. He told them they were of this world, but He was not of this world (John 8:23). Earlier He told them, “If you abide in my word, you are truly My disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

They replied by saying that they were descendants of Abraham, that they had never not been free, that they had never been enslaved to anyone. I guess they conveniently forgot the facts of their past and their present—slavery in Egypt, exile in Babylon, and then occupation by Rome. They misunderstood what Jesus was telling them. He meant that they were slaves to sin and death. He meant that He, the Son, had come to set them free. But they would not recognize or admit their slavery. And thus they would not accept Jesus’ Word. So they remained enslaved in their sin.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus tells them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Another word of Jesus that they have difficulty hearing and accepting. Who does this Jesus think He is? Our Father Abraham died. The prophets died. Everyone dies. So Jesus has to tell them yet another word: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.”

Who is this Man? This is the Son of God, the eternal Son of the Father, the One who was with the Father before all things were made. This is the One who became incarnate, who came into our world, who took on our flesh and bone and body. He is the timeless One, the One who existed before Abraham, and yet He also became Abraham’s descendant. He is the One—the only One—who can say, ”If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”

Scripture gives no record of these exact words being spoken to Abraham, but it is the Word that Abraham believed, kept, and held onto. Remember how he saddled his donkey and took his only son, whom he loved, to the mountain as the Lord directed him. Remember how he took the wood and laid it on the back of his beloved son. Remember how he built the altar, most likely with the help of his son, and then tied up his son and laid him on top of the altar. Abraham held onto the Word of the Lord as “he considered that God was able even to raise [Isaac] from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19). Yes, Abraham believed and kept the Word of the Lord, and that day his son Isaac did not see death.

Genesis says that God did this to test Abraham. But it was more than a test; it was also a type, a picture, a forecast of another Son of Abraham, our Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus is the promised Son who carries the wood of His cross upon His back, and He goes back up Calvary’s mountain to make the great sacrifice to save us from our sin. He is the beloved Son who is bound—willingly—and laid upon the altar of the cross to rescue us from death. He is the Lamb whom God provides for Himself for a burnt offering. He is the Lamb who is offered for us, who is willingly caught in the thicket of our sin and wears the crown of thorns upon His head. Yes, on that Mount of the Lord, Jesus provided our deliverance from sin and death.

So, yes, Jesus can say, if anyone keeps His Word, that person will never see death. Because Jesus came to see death for us. He came to drink the cup of suffering in order that we may be released from death’s power. He came to be our High Priest who entered into the Holy Place of Heaven and with His own blood gained everlasting redemption for His people, that we might receive the promised eternal inheritance. He came to offer Himself without blemish to God and spill His innocent blood to purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As we keep and hold onto His Word, we are rescued from death’s sting and its eternal judgment.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You also have His Word. If you keep it and hold onto it, you gain a share in that life which is stronger than death. Martin Luther proclaimed it this way: “Whoever, therefore, heeds God’s Word has both its glory and benefit: glory, in that he is of God and is God’s child; benefit, in that the Word which he believes saves him. And though he will still become ill, be assailed somewhat by the devil, and experience physical death, yet at the moment his soul is released he will, as it were, fall asleep and come into Christ’s bosom, with the angels ministering to him and bearing him up, so that his foot is not dashed against a stone, as promised in Psalm 91:12” (House Postils, 1:364).

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You have His Word. Keep it and hold onto it for dear life. Jesus is the One who promises: “I AM the Resurrection and the Life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). If you believe in Jesus, you already have eternal life. And nothing can take that away from you.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You have His Word. Keep it and hold onto it for dear life. He is the One who promises: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (John 6:54-55). If you are united to Jesus in His Holy Supper, you already have the victory over death, because His risen and glorified Body and Blood give you His life, now and forever. Amen.

30 March 2017

Homily for Lent 4 Evening Prayer

"Re-creation--Third Article"
Apostles' Creed, Third Article
(fifth in a catechetical series)

The art of living by faith starts to see a certain modus operandi—way of operating—on God’s part. God’s way of operating opens our eyes to see Him at work in our world and within our lives. This art of living by faith then leads us to receive and embrace God’s gifts as our very own.

We’ve seen this over the past couple of weeks. We’ve seen how our God and Creator remains present and active in His creation. Despite our ongoing misuse and abuse of it, He keeps His creation going. We’ve also seen how God comes into the world to be active and present in a very unique way—as an embodied human being. He does this in order to rid His creation of the sin and evil that Satan and we humans brought into it. Now, God comes to be present and active in another way. Now, He brings His creation to fulfillment as the result of Jesus’ saving work. This time, God sends His Holy Spirit into us, into our bodies. He does this to renew and remake us for the new age and the new world to come. It’s the re-creation taught the Third Article.

This week we come to the divine breath that breathes the life of God into His creation. As we saw with our Lord Jesus, this is not the first time that the Spirit has been present and active in the world. The Holy Spirit was there in the beginning, hovering over the waters of creation like the wings of a mother bird spread out over her chicks and gathering them to herself. The Spirit was there piling up the waters of the Red Sea so that the Israelites might pass through. The Spirit was there appointing, guiding, and equipping Israel’s prophets, priests, and kings as God’s plan of redemption unfolded. The Spirit was there at Jesus’ baptism anointing, appointing, and identifying Jesus as God’s prophet, priest, and king for all time—all wrapped up in one person. And now the Spirit of God’s Son (Gal. 4:6) brings God’s gifts to us and gives us life. “For where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation” (SC, Sac. of Altar).

The Old Testament word for Spirit is ruach, which means breath, wind, or spirit. The New Testament word for Spirit is pneuma, which also means breath, wind, or spirit. This Greek word gives us English words such as “pneumatic gun,” which simply means “air gun.” And in Latin the term is spiritus. When medical people say that someone has “expired”—that is, they have died—it simply means that the breath has left them. So, it’s not surprising, then, that God’s Spirit, the Holy Spirit, is identified in the Nicene Creed as “the Lord of Life.”

That’s what breath does. It enlivens. It animates. It creates movement. When God breathed into Adam, he “became a living creature” (Gen. 2:7), a living, moving being. In the Bible, to be living means to be moving. If you are not moving, you are dead. One time, an x-ray technician x-rayed a woman in her nineties who was vibrant and alive. The technician asked, “What is your secret to life?” The woman answered, “Keep moving!” Think about it. If you stop moving, you’re dead. And nothing animates us like our breath.

So how does the Spirit give us new and eternal life? By speaking words carried on the breath of others. When we speak, we breathe, and we utter words within the breath. God is present and active by speaking with us. This is not new; God has been speaking from the beginning. Dr. Robert Kolb even describes the God of the Bible as a “chatterbox.” God begins talking and does not stop talking. And His speaking does what it says. Think about it. God speaks and a blue planet appears. God speaks and trees and flowers appear. God speaks and fish, birds, and animals appear. God speaks and His creation bursts forth with abundant life. God speaks and His Son enters the world as the Word of God made flesh.

And now God speaks yet again—as the Holy Spirit. He speaks life-giving, re-creating words to us. What are these words? They are words that say, “You are forgiven. God has justified you. God has welcomed you home. You are a new creation of God!” These words are promises of God for us now and into eternity. God speaks them. God stands behind them.

These promises seek to engender and strengthen faith. They seek to arouse faith that embraces God’s gifts and does a happy dance for them. Consider this: why do we make promises to other people? What do we hope to accomplish by making a promise or giving our word? I suspect that we are trying to give other people confidence and faith that we will do as we say. Think of the best known example: promises made at the wedding altar. The bride and groom speak their vows, their promises, to each other. They promise to be there for each other “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health.” The purpose of the promise is to give the spouse confidence and joy. So it is with God. He promises to engender faith. Promise and faith go hand in hand. This is the relationship God establishes with us—speaking and hearing, promising and believing.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? It means we get to live by those words of promise that God makes to us. We cling to those words. We cherish them in our hearts. Our faith is not directed inward, toward our feelings or emotions. No, our faith is directed outward, outside of ourselves. It clings to a word that is spoken from outside of us, a word that breaks into our lives. Do you remember the first time a high school or college sweetheart uttered the words, “I love you”? Did you repeat them over and over to yourself? Did it give you a new outlook or new lease on the future? That and so much more is what happens as faith receives and clings to the promises of God. Faith is the new life, the re-creation, that the Spirit breathes into our bodies and into our cold, lifeless hearts.

Where do we find these life-giving words and promises of God? We find them on the lips and tongues of fellow Christians—our parents, our spouses, our pastors, our teachers. Just as God works through His creatures to bestow the gifts of food and water upon us, and just as God worked through the human body of Jesus to accomplish salvation for us, so the Spirit does His speaking through human creatures. Yes, they are the very creatures who once rejected God’s words, but they now become His mouthpieces. We are the people who have heard God’s promises. We have been gathered by those promises. Now we speak those promises to others. Pastors do so as their full-time calling. Others do it as part of their vocation in the world as parents, citizens, employers, or employees. It’s why Luther can speak of the church as both a creature of the Word, gathered by the Word, and as a “mouth-house” where the Word of God is spoken.

But aren’t these plain, ordinary people? How can ordinary people do the extra-ordinary thing of bringing the life-bestowing Word of God to others? This is how God works. Plants are ordinary, but by God’s blessing they convert the sun’s energy through photosynthesis into food that we can eat—an extraordinary process and gift. So also with people.

The art of living by faith sees the pastor speaking words of forgiveness and hope. It perceives the parent speaking words of forgiveness and hope. It hears the Christian friend speaking a word of forgiveness and comfort. All of this as God Himself speaking to us. As Jesus said, “The one who hears you hears Me” (Luke 10:16). In these words faith perceives the voice of the Holy Spirit. Faith perceives the Word of God making the water of Baptism into a life-giving water rich in God’s grace. Faith perceives Jesus’ words bestowing His Body and Blood in, with, and under the bread and wine.

God’s commitment and faithfulness to us, His rebellious people, is truly remarkable. Just as the Spirit hovered over the waters of creation (Genesis 1), He now hovers over the waters of Baptism, creating and gathering a new people to Himself. God breathed the creating breath of life into us when He first created us, making us living creatures (Genesis 2). Now the Holy Spirit has breathed and continues breathing into us not just the breath of life, but also the breath of eternal life. Amen.