27 March 2017

Homily for Lent 4 - Laetare - 2017

"God's Food"
John 6:1-15

Listen here.

From a mere five loaves of barley bread and two small fish Jesus feeds 5000 men plus women and children. And each person in this multitude received more than just a little crumb or two. They ate “as much as they wanted.” And the disciples gathered 12 baskets of left overs. After all, waste not, want not. From empty, grumbling bellies to full, contented tummies.

But what on earth are we doing with this great story of Jesus feeding the multitude in the middle of Lent? Isn’t Lent a time when we learn to fast, to discipline ourselves and our appetites, to prepare for Easter by restraining ourselves now so that we can feast later? Lent is not over yet, but today we get this story of God’s food?

On Ash Wednesday we began the stark season of Lent with our Lord Jesus talking about doing works of charity, praying, and fasting. On the First Sunday in Lent we heard how Adam and Eve chose not to fast but rather to indulge their appetite for the forbidden fruit. Because of their ravenous sin, we all suffer the disease of death. We also heard how Jesus defeated Satan’s temptations not by indulging His desire for food, but by fasting from it and relying on the “food” of God’s Word. Lent is a time to separate ourselves from relying on food, a time to reign in our appetites, a time to tell the body, “Body, you’re not my master; God is my loving Master.”

But now we get to rejoice in food, glorious food? With half of Lent still ahead of us?

The Latin name for today is Laetare—meaning “Rejoice!” It could be that in the early days of the Christian calendar this day was the final day of regular eating before the fasting time of Lent—something like “Mardi Gras” is today. Then the season of Lent developed into the “forty days of purple” we know and love so well. This Sunday called Laetare, or “Rejoice!”, has become a sort of Rest Area along the freeway. We get to pull off the long highway of Lent for just a brief pause—take a stretch, get some refreshment, and get ready for the final leg of the journey as we approach Passiontide, Holy Week and then arrive at Easter.

Yet even as we take our pit stop and look down the road where we are about to go—to the Cross and the Empty Tomb—we still get to live in repentance. Notice how the disciples worried and fretted over their food. Jesus asked them, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” You can almost see the anxiety on their faces. Philip said, “Uh, Lord, 200 days’ wages worth of bread would not be sufficient.” In the currency of our day, that’s at least $12,000 worth of food. Andrew spotted a boy with five barley loaves and two fish, or perhaps fish cakes, in his lunch basket. “But what are they for so many?” he asked with worry and doubt dripping from his words. Poor Philip and Andrew! Their eyes of faith just did not see Jesus, the Bread of Life, “God’s Food” in the flesh, standing there in front of them. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they thought that they had only themselves to trust.

And we, you and I, are just like them. Sometimes we worry about our food. Will we have enough, or will we run out? Will it taste good? Will it be prepared just right? Other times our worries turn us to our food. My, how that glass of wine or that box of chocolates or that slice of pizza makes all of the day’s worries fade away! Another problem is how we use our food. Instead of simply eating to live, we turn it on its head: we think we must live to eat. That’s when you eat just because the food is there, or you “hear it calling your name” as you pass by the cupboard or the refrigerator. Oh, the power that food has over us! Food itself is not the problem; letting it and our appetite control us, though, is.

Our chief problem is that we do not look to Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, for our food. No, we look to ourselves and to Schnucks or Dierbergs or Shop N’ Save. We expect our paycheck to be there so that we can go grocery shopping. We can’t imagine not having a grocery store or a fast food place nearby. Since the disease of death infects us, we sin by looking to ourselves as the source of our daily bread. The power of food makes us think, as Adam and Eve did, that we can be “like God” by trusting ourselves, by indulging our own appetites.

When Jesus feeds the great multitude, He shows us the better way, the way He created us to live. Instead of pining for food, we may rely on our God and Savior. As Psalm 145 teaches us to pray, “The eyes of all look to you, [O Lord,] and you give them their food at the proper time. You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”  God certainly gave the Israelites their food at the proper time. Every day He sent manna from heaven, and every day just enough for that day. Except on Fridays. Then He would give enough for that day and the Sabbath Day. But it was a miracle of God’s food. A miracle that God provided it, a miracle that through that food, God sustained His people in their journey through the wilderness.

Our Lord Jesus performed just such a miracle of food for the multitude gathered on the mountain. It’s quite a miracle to feed over 5,000 people from a mere five loaves of bread and two fish. But remember the other part of the miracle. Through that physical food He sustained them for their journey with Him or their trip home. Yes, our Lord uses food, ordinary food, to show us that He is the Lord of life, that He is the antidote to our disease of death. And that’s true all the time, not just when you’re starving on a mountainside with Jesus. As Luther put it, “What he did here he demonstrates year in, year out, and day for day, with the trees, fields, meadows, bodies of water, and all creatures, so that apples, pears, wheat, barley, grass, fish, and all other things necessary to sustain life are produced. He does it that we might believe that he will sustain us” (Church Postils, I:348).

And let’s not forget the other miracle of God’s food before us today. We’d be remiss if we didn’t also think of the Lord feeding us in His holy Supper. After all, Jesus Himself connects His physical feeding of the crowd with the spiritual feeding He gives in His Body and Blood. Some may argue that this chapter, John 6, has nothing to do with the Eucharist. But listen carefully to the words of Jesus, listen to this miracle of food that Jesus gives us: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:51). Not only does ordinary, everyday food sustain our physical life, but the food of Christ’s very Body and Blood, under the bread and wine, sustains our eternal life. Yes, the very Body pierced and broken on the Cross for you, the very Blood poured out from His sacred veins and side for you—they cure you of your disease of death. They heal you of your sins of worrying about food and over-indulging in it.

So, what we turn upside down and inside out, Jesus comes to set right. He says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood—eating and drinking in faith, of course—has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” And when we think that we just cannot fast, we just cannot do without our physical foods, Jesus gives us Himself, the Bread of Life, God’s food. He provides the food we need and when we need it, and with it He gives us His life. Amen.

23 March 2017

Homily for Lent 3 Evening Prayer

"Redemption--Second Article"
Apostles' Creed, Second Article
(fourth in a catechetical series)

Here we are. The Second Article of the Creed. The heart of the Christian faith. Jesus’ work of redemption for us. Why must Jesus redeem us? Our human sin. Here we deal with human sinners and God the justifier. But notice this: the problem is not that we are creatures. The problem is not that this world is a material world. As we heard last week, these are God’s good works and gifts. In addition, animals did not sin; the physical world did not sin. In a way, they are “innocent” even as they have suffered because of human sin.

No, the problem is us. The problem is that we, God’s prized human creatures, have misused and abused His world. Martin Luther made a very insightful statement in his theses for debate at the town of Heidelberg. He said that “we use the best things in the worst way.” We don’t use bad things in the worst way; we use the best things in the worst way. What do we mean by best things? God’s great gifts to us: our bodies, our lives, our family, our work, our income, and so on. What does it mean to use these things in the worst way? It means we idolize them. We force them to do things for us that they were not created to do. We try to get our security and happiness from them. And when we do that, we further misuse them by keeping them for ourselves rather than for serving our neighbor.

So we become enslaved to and trapped by these best things. Or, better, our desires for them entrap us. Then we become disappointed. You see, these best things cannot give us what we seek from them. Satan has lured us, God’s beloved human creatures, into captivity. We have become POWs behind enemy lines.

But here’s the wonderful and remarkable thing about this Second Article. Since God has created this world, He refuses to let go of His creation. He made it good. He loves it. The world is not the problem. So God does not scrap His creation and start over. No, He sets out to reclaim and restore His creation—beginning with us, because the problem began with us. Just as God made room in His creation for us creatures, now He makes room for us sinful creatures who rebelled against Him. He who created us is He who redeems us—true God and true Man.

How does God redeem us? First, God dives down into the depths of His creation, to take up residence in it and fix it for good. But He does this in a completely unexpected way. Ponder this: God has always been present and active in His creation. The universe cannot contain Him, but, as Luther noted, God is still present and active in the smallest flower petal. It’s how He keeps His creation going. Also ponder this: God revealed Himself in many ways in the Old Testament—the angel to Abraham, the burning bush to Moses, the pillar of cloud and fire to the Israelites.

But now in Jesus Christ, God reveals Himself and intervenes in His creation in a most personal and intimate way. He takes a created body into Himself and He lives a creaturely life. He makes room in His life to take on a human body and all that entails—a human mind, a human history, and human DNA that goes all the way back to Adam and Eve. He is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary”; Creator of the universe and a creature within that creation, all at the same time. Who would have imagined this?

Jesus’ incarnation affirms the goodness of creation like nothing else. God is saying His creation is good and important to Him. And Jesus does more than just take on a human body to live in the midst of sin and evil. He becomes human in order to do away with, to destroy, and to overcome sin and evil and everything that pollutes and disfigures His beautiful world.

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? First, it means that we cannot and should not look for God anywhere else than in this Man, Jesus Christ. Faith does not look to some spiritual, ethereal realm. It does not look to some impersonal “force” on the outer fringes of the galaxy. No, faith looks to this one Man, our brother, as God Himself. Where Jesus is, there is God. This Man is God; God is this Man. As Jesus said, “Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father” (Jn. 14:9). So, whoever rejects Jesus also rejects their Creator God. It’s personal—a personal rejection.

Second, Jesus’ incarnation also means that God’s work of redemption does not devalue the physical creation nor our physical bodies. They are just as important as our souls. They are so important that God Himself has embraced them by becoming part of His own creation. He comes to redeem both body and soul.

Not only does God redeem us by taking on a physical, creaturely, human body, but He also works through that creaturely body to accomplish our redemption. You see, our sin and rebellion were deeply personal. They offended God because they showed our rejection of Him and His good purposes for us. They showed our betrayal of God. And yet God in the most personal way enters His creation, personally takes our sin and rebellion upon Himself, personally does away with it, and personally conquers it.

Our loving God works through His creation—His human body—to accomplish the redemption of all human bodies and all of creation itself. How so? As Luther wrote, “not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.” The Creed itself hammers it home. In His very body Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” And He rose again in that same body.

C. S. Lewis spoke of Jesus as a pearl diver who strips himself, then dives into the murky depths in order to reclaim a priceless pearl, and then bursts back up through the surface with that pearl firmly in his grasp. The entire Christian story turns on this point. As Lewis said: “God really has dived down into the bottom of creation, and has come up bringing the whole redeemed nature on His shoulders [emphasis added]. The miracles that have already happened are, of course…the first fruits of that cosmic summer which is presently coming on. Christ has risen, and so we shall rise.”

In the First Article, we cannot deal with God apart from His creation. Now in the Second Article, we cannot deal with God’s graciousness in redeeming us from sin apart from the creaturely human body of Jesus. Through this physical human body of a Jewish man we encounter our Redeemer and Lord!

What does this mean for the art of living by faith? It means that we seek God’s gifts only in Jesus Christ, only because of Jesus Christ. Only in the body of Christ does God reveal His attitude and His intentions toward us. Like a devoted parent, God will stop at nothing to reclaim and restore His creation. That includes taking upon Himself a frail human body—a body that He keeps into all eternity. It also includes suffering and dying in that human body at the hands of His rebellious, lost human creatures. All this He does for us—creatures made in His image, creatures made to manage all creation, creatures who rejected Him and tried to usurp His glory. All this He does to restore us and adopt us as His children and heirs of His kingdom.

This changes everything for us. It means that when things happen—things we cannot understand, tragic things that defy explanation, things we cannot make sense of—faith turns to the person and the work of Jesus Christ.

This is what Luther gets at when he speaks of the “hidden God” and the “proclaimed God.” When we look for answers in places other than Jesus, we often get lost, frustrated, and angry. When we look elsewhere, we encounter the silence of God. He doesn’t always give us the answers we want, because, after all, He is not answerable or accountable to us. But in the flesh and blood of Jesus, in His life, and especially in His death and resurrection, we encounter God speaking to us. And what does He say? He speaks His word of love. As Paul said in Romans 5[:8], “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So, when I cannot answer a question, when I have no explanations, I can say, “I don’t know why this happened. I don’t know what this means. But I do know this: nothing can separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord.”

C. S. Lewis once said that Jesus is the missing chapter to our lives, the missing chapter that makes sense of our lives. In Jesus, our stories now make sense. You see, in Jesus, we see our true story, the entire story of our lives. We see in Him our past and our present—He created us and He preserves us. We see in Him our present and our future—He redeems  us and will raise us from the dead. Since He is our Creator and Redeemer, our past, present, and future are all found and united in Him. Amen.

20 March 2017

Homily for Lent 3 - Oculi - 2017

"Casting Out Demons"
Luke 11:14-28

Listen here.

Today we again hear our Lord Jesus fighting Satan—this time by driving out a demon and battling against slander and blasphemy. Jesus performs a great healing by casting out a mute demon. But His detractors arrogantly claim that He must be working in league with the “prince of demons.” Now that makes a lot of sense! The prince of demons casting out other demons? Not likely. What do we learn from our Lord today? Our Lord Jesus Christ comes to drive out the devil from us and to fill us with Himself.

In our day of technology, science, and modern medicine we tend to think little of Satan or of things demonic. Our supposedly “enlightened” American minds lead us to assume that devils and demons are things of the past, things from less advanced times, things for thriller stories and movies with cool CGI effects. In our everyday routines, though, we really don’t think much about Satan and his minions. And that’s exactly what the prince of demons wants. He wants us to ignore him and his wily ways. After all, if you’re not aware of his presence and his plots, how can you resist his faith-numbing, soul-binding schemes?

Perhaps you've read The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. In this fictional series of letters, senior devil Screwtape tries to advise his young nephew, Wormwood, a devil in training, on how to tempt a Christian so as to steer him away from “the Enemy,” who is God. Screwtape writes about keeping humans “ignorant” of devils:

My dear Wormwood, I wonder you should ask me whether it is essential to keep the patient in ignorance of your own existence. That question, at least for the present phase of the struggle, has been answered for us by the High Command. Our policy, for the moment, is to conceal ourselves. Of course this has not always been so. We are really faced with a cruel dilemma. When the humans disbelieve in our existence we lose all the pleasing results of direct terrorism and we make no magicians. On the other hand, when they believe in us, we cannot make them materialists and skeptics. At least, not yet. I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise and mythologise their science to such an extent that what is, in effect, a belief in us (though not under that name) will creep in while the human mind remains closed to belief in the Enemy [God]. The “Life Force”, the worship of sex, and some aspects of Psychoanalysis may here prove useful. If once we can produce our perfect work—the Materialist Magician, the man, not using, but veritably worshipping, what he vaguely calls “Forces” while denying the existence of “spirits”—then the end of the war will be in sight (Letter VII, p. 39-40).

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? But let’s also remember St. Paul’s words. They give us a much needed wake up call: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

St. Peter also wants to sober us up: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8). So if we are not wrestling, if the roaring does not disturb us, perhaps we are too numbed in heart and mind. And that’s exactly what our Lord wants to remedy here today.

Jesus uses the imagery of a house to describe us and our faith. As we are born of nature, we are born in the bondage of Satan. He is the strong man who inhabits every human being born in the line of Adam and Eve. That includes all of us. But the Lord Jesus is the stronger man who enters this world and conquers Satan through His Incarnation, His Life, His Crucifixion, and His Resurrection. Our Lord Jesus comes to you and evicts Satan through the washing of Holy Baptism, the preaching of the Gospel, the hearing of Absolution, and the eating and drinking of the Supper. The Lord Jesus cleans you, the house, and restores you. So the question for you is this: Does the Lord Jesus dwell in you, or does the house of faith remain empty, thus allowing the demon and his seven evil friends to move back in? You see, there’s no middle ground; there’s no neutral position. Either the Triune God and His loving mercies fill you, or Satan and his deceiving ways fill you.

How might the prince of demons influence and inhabit you? One way is through the religion of science-ism. It’s a religion preached in textbooks, magazines, movies and TV shows. It says that the world and all of life came about from nothing, from non-life, all by pure chance, without God. It says that science can solve all of our human problems, solely through human intelligence, apart from God. It says that science and faith just cannot coexist or work together. If that isn’t Satan’s influence, I don’t know what is! What’s worse is that we swallow this lie hook, line, and sinker, without questioning the theory, without seeing how it contradicts God and His Word.

The prince of demons also influences and inhabits us with the religion of individualism. This religion says, “Every person does what is right in his/her own eyes.” The more I can rely on myself, the less I need God. The more I can make myself religious, with my kind of religion, the less I need to rely on Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. By making each of us think that we can rely on ourselves, individualism blinds us to the great love of God which prompted Him to give “His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16).

A third way that the prince of demons influences and inhabits us is the religion of feel-good-ism. As long as we like, or feel good about, what we do, what we believe, or how we live, then we’re happy. This is really the “religion” that St. Paul addresses in our Second Reading when he mentions sexual immorality, all impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking. And with this religion of feel-good-ism, Satan and his minions might also dig their claws into us with illnesses such as depression and despondency. When they get us worrying so much about ourselves and how we are not happy, how we do not feel good about ourselves, then they get us to take our eyes off of Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith.

In all of these ways, and many more, the prince of demons tries to control us, inhabit us, and even devour us. With the houses of our souls cleansed and restored in Baptism and by the Gospel of God’s forgiveness and mercy in Jesus, we sadly assume that that’s all we need—only an initial housecleaning. But Jesus must continue to inhabit us, cleanse us and influence us with His words and ways of forgiveness, mercy, and life. Our Lord Jesus continues to “clean house” of the demonic ways that influence us.

Yes, we need the Savior who casts out the demon. We need the Savior who says, “Blessed…are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” You see, casting out demons and hearing the Word of God are the same thing. When you hear God’s Word-made-Flesh proclaimed and when you believe Him, Satan and his demons are cast out. Christ takes up residence in the heart through faith in Him. Baptism is our initial “house cleaning.” And for all who hear and keep the Word made Flesh, He continues to clean and tidy up through the preaching of His Gospel, through His Absolution, and through His Holy Supper.

Martin Luther made this bold claim about driving out the devil: “God has vested us with the power here upon earth to continue to drive out the devil also now—indeed it is our duty!—both spiritually and physically.” How can we who fall to the devil’s schemes drive him out? After all, we need a stronger Man! Luther explains: “When Christ came into the flesh he set this work going, and it continues in Christendom day for day till the world’s end. For this task Christ left us designated instruments: holy baptism, the blessed Sacrament, the Word and absolution, and whatever else belongs to the ministry of preaching, in order to enable us to destroy the devil’s kingdom, to take from him his captives and cast him out of people.” (HP 1:330)

So we stay vigilant. We keep each other vigilant. The Word-Made-Flesh, He alone drives out the devil and cleanses the house of our heart and soul. As St. Paul says in Colossians (3:2-3), “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Amen.

16 March 2017

Homily for Lent 2 Evening Prayer

"Creation--First Article"
Apostles' Creed, First Article
(third in a catechetical series)

We Christians are all about Jesus, right? After all, when we call ourselves “Christians,” we do bear the name of Christ. And every Sunday school child knows that the answer to every question is “Jesus.” There’s a lot of truth there. But sometimes how we speak about Christ and His redemption can also give the impression that this world really does not matter much. After all, we’re all about getting our souls off this earth and into an immaterial heaven where we walk on clouds, right? Isn’t that what salvation is all about?

But what perception does that create? Someone once said that the difference between atheists and Christians is that atheists are concerned about this world, but Christians are only concerned with the world to come. This may be a common perception in the general public, perhaps even among Christians as well. Atheists may have a myopic view that this life is all there is; Christians may have a myopic view that the spiritual, or immaterial, life is all there is. When this is the case, we end up diminishing Jesus’ redemption for us, and we deprive ourselves of the richness of that redemption.

So tonight, let's explore the very foundation of our faith and life, a foundation that shapes the whole story of Christ and His redeeming work. That foundation is the First Article of the Creed: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Or, as Luther said, “I believe that God has made me and all creatures.” Two things stand out in this First Article foundation. First, God made everything in the distant past and now it all simply unfolds. But that does not exhaust God’s creative work. Second, it also means that God is active in our world today, active in my life today. God gave me life and continues to give me life every day.

Let’s ponder the first point. God—the maker of heaven and earth—has created everything that exists. He did this ex nihilo, “out of nothing.” God created because He chose to create. He created as an act of love. From eternity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit lived in mutual love with each other. At some point they made the mutual decision to share that love. So they created a universe. And God makes room in His life for that creation and all of its creatures—a beautiful world of sun and moon, planets and stars, mountains and oceans, hummingbirds and whales. This is the foundation of everything we believe, teach, and confess. Without creation, we would not be here talking and hearing about Jesus; there would be no sin; there would be no redemption; there would be no us.

What does it mean, then, to live by faith? It means that God has given us eyes to see. It means learning to see the world as God sees it—through His works of creation and redemption.

It means we must learn to distinguish between God’s good work and sin’s corruption of that work. This physical world, our bodies, and all other creatures come out of God’s outpouring love. Creation is very good—just as God designed it to be. It was beautiful. Everything functioned just as God intended. Everything functioned harmoniously.

But this is hard to see. Sadly, we no longer see this perfect creation. When we look out in the world, it looks more like the world is going down the drain into the sewer. It seems easier to say that the world out there is bad. Doesn’t the Bible talk that way? Absolutely! Creation groans. We are in the world but not of it. And Luther warns us against the dangers of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh.

Let’s remember, though: we’re not talking about the physical world—the stars or trees or animals or mountains or oceans. We’re talking about the human misuse of creation. We’re talking about human sin, human evil. It’s also how we treat people. We look at people and attach labels—they’re Democrats, they’re Republicans, they’re acceptable, they’re deplorable, and so on. But they are also God’s creatures. Even though we are sinners, we are still God’s creatures, God’s handiwork—creatures whom God loves and redeems.

Why is it important to distinguish between God’s good creation and the corruption of it? Not only because God created it, but also because this creation becomes the stuff of God’s redemption. God created it all, and He called it “very good.” It’s valuable to Him, so He chooses to redeem it, cleanse it, and restore it. Even more, Jesus took on a human body—without sin. When Jesus becomes a man—a human creature—He affirms the goodness of creation. God did not destroy His material creation. Instead, He took it upon Himself.

And this leads us to the second point for living by faith: Jesus’ resurrection points the way. Ponder this: We marvel at this beautiful, wondrous creation—a gorgeous golden sunset or magnificent mountain vista. But we marvel at a creation marred by human sin. So what will it be like when Jesus makes all things new again (Rev. 21:5)? After all, He is the One through whom all things were made. Now He takes on the task of renewing and re-creating His world! The beauty of what we see in creation is but a sneak preview, a small glimpse, dim reflection of the world to come.

Again, this is hard to see. Sin and corruption are so intertwined with our world that we cannot imagine escaping one without escaping the other. My physical body is aging. It may be sick and frail. We think it’s the physical that causes our pain and suffering. “Free me from this body!” we cry. “Free me from this physical world! Take me to a spiritual, pain-free world!” However, our prayer should not be “Deliver me from this body.” Instead, it should be, “Deliver my body from the sin that ravages and destroys it.”

The resurrection of Jesus opens the door to thinking and believing this way. What we see happen in Jesus’ body, we will see happen with our bodies and with all of creation. Did Jesus rise with the same body He had before? Yes—but now glorified. Will we rise on the Last Day with these same bodies? Yes. But they will be transformed, glorified, renewed, made better. What happened with Jesus will happen with us, and with all of creation. The Bible speaks not only of the “new heavens,” but also of a “new earth” (2 Pet. 3:13).

This is why prophets like Isaiah describe the coming age in terms that remind us of the Garden of Eden. When you wonder what eternal life will be like, look around! The beauty that you see? It will be even better! The problems you see? The sadnesses? The conflicts? They will all be gone. Here’s Isaiah:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea (Is. 11:6-9).

In the meantime, we live between God’s first creation and His new creation. And God does not stop creating. He did not stop creating after the sixth day. God keeps on creating to this very day. Living by faith begins by grasping God’s ongoing work in, with, and under His creation. No, let’s not identify God with creation or creation with God! And let’s not view God as some aloof absentee landlord. He does not leave His creation to a management company. No, God is a “hands-on” God, deeply involved in His creation.

What does this mean? Now He no longer creates out of nothing; now He creates through His creatures. Not only has God made room in His life for us and His creation, but He also makes room in His creation for our activity and contributions to His creation. So as we deal with God in, with, and under His creation, we also deal with His creatures. And He gives His creatures some freedom. And with that freedom comes risk—the risk that God’s creatures might not carry out His will. They might not be good instruments in His hand.

Ever since Genesis 1, God invites His creatures to be His partners and helpers. He tells the earth to sprout forth vegetation—even as dandelion seeds are blown this way and that in the summer breeze. He blesses the animals to be fruitful and multiply. And He gives us humans the special task of looking after His creation so that all of life can flourish. Luther called all of these “God’s masks.” We can also call them gloves on God’s hands. Let the earth sprout forth…Be fruitful and multiply—this is more than mere preservation; this is God continuing to create.

And God does all of this—partnering with His creation, working through His creatures—in spite of all the sin and death around us. Yes, death reigns, but we see life come forth every day. Babies are born. Plants sprout in the spring. The sun continues to shine and give light and energy. Why? For what purpose does God continue to create every day? For the sake of redemption. Even now that Jesus has accomplished our redemption, God keeps the world going for the sake of the Gospel and the restoration of all things.

In the 1530s, Luther recommended a way to cultivate the eyes of faith. He said that when you see a cow in the field, imagine that cow saying, “Rejoice and be glad. I bring you milk and butter from God.” And when you see chickens in the henhouse, imagine them saying, “Rejoice and be glad, we bring you eggs from God.” And when you see pigs in the pigsty, imagine them saying, “Rejoice, we bring you brats and bacon from God!”

So what do we owe God for all this? Thanks and praise. No, not to feed God’s ego, but to acknowledge our dependence on Him. When we go about without thanksgiving, we end up boasting as though we have all these things by our own hands, smarts, or abilities. But when we give thanks and praise to God, we remind ourselves how we live on the receiving end of His gifts. Amen.

13 March 2017

Homily for Lent 2 - Reminiscere - 2017

"Wrestling with God"
Matthew 15:21-28

Listen here.

Last week we heard Jesus fighting the temptations fired at Him by the devil. In His victorious fight against temptation, He reversed Adam and Eve’s fall to temptation. Today, the fighting imagery continues. We hear of our Lord God wrestling with His people—namely, the Patriarch Jacob and the Canaanite woman. Or is it the other way around? Perhaps it’s Jacob who must wrestle with God. It’s certainly the Canaanite woman who wrestles with God.

Either way, today our Lord shows us that He is pleased when we wrestle with Him in faith for His mercy.

On this Second Sunday in Lent we call upon God to remember us in His tender mercies. We beg God not to remember the sins of our youth. We have prayed that He will keep and defend us in both body and soul. We have heard the story of the wrestling match between Jacob and a mysterious Man identified as God. We have heard St. Paul’s call to walk in faith as we rejoice in our sufferings.

Yet we still wrestle—just like the Canaanite woman. As Jesus traveled through “paganland,” the land of unbelieving Gentiles, a foreign woman came to beg from Him. By all human standards she was outside the Church. But she cried out for Jesus, the Lord, the Son of David, to have mercy. Some might say that she was only pretending to be a good Jew. But actually, she gave a great cry of faith. It was no generic cry for some general mercy. No, she specifically cried for mercy to heal her demon-possessed daughter.

In the same way, our cries for God’s mercy are to be more than general, generic pleas for the Lord’s help. The Canaanite woman teaches us to plead for mercy in the specific, nitty-gritty details of life—for healing from the cancer, for strength in the family struggle, for money to pay the bills, for wisdom to manage the money that God does give, for forgiveness for those specific sins. It’s like going to the doctor. You can’t just go to the doctor and say, “I’m sick.” The doctor needs to know specifics. And the doctor will address the specific illness. After all, the healing will come only when the proper disease is addressed.

“But He did not answer her a word.” Silence. Divine silence. Would He answer her cry? Would He heal her daughter or not? Who knows? What do you do when God remains silent…when He seems not to answer your prayers…when He seems to ignore your cries?

The disciples dove head first into the silence. Nobody likes a pregnant pause. Silence is so uncomfortable, especially when it comes from God. So the disciples in their zeal want to fix the problem: “Lord, please just grant her request so that she’ll go away. Her crying out is making a scene and distracting us from our business.” They probably thought they had more important things to do than to help this beggarly woman. They probably thought that Jesus was too busy to be distracted by faith crying out to Him. I’m sure they thought that they were doing important work for the Lord, but they were ignoring the need of the woman who so needed Jesus.

Then Jesus spoke. But to whom? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Huh? What does that have to do with the woman’s prayer?

What would you do with such a response from God? First, He is silent to you. Next His followers are rude and obnoxious to you. And then He gives you a confusing answer. What’s going on? The woman is wrestling with God. Our Lord encourages such wrestling! The woman is not an Israelite; she is a Canaanite, and ancient foe of the Israelites, an archenemy to God’s purposes in the Promised Land. But Jesus was not dismissing her. He was egging her on. He also eggs you on, not to walk by sight, not to live by your feelings or experiences, but to wrestle with Him by faith in Him.

So the woman worshiped. Yes, even in the midst of her struggle, she worshiped. Even in the midst of your struggles, the best thing you can do is come to worship. Don’t stay away from God and His Word made flesh. And as the woman worshiped, she said, “Lord, help me.” Such simple words. Such simple faith! She thinks highly of Jesus; so she calls Him “Lord.” She  has a problem that only He can fix; so she cries out, “Help me!” Even without answers, the woman continues to pray. And in her praying she displays great faith. We can learn much from her.

You see, faith believes that Jesus is good when reason is not so sure. Faith trusts Jesus no matter what our experiences may be. To our reason, to our sense of fairness, Jesus may seem to be cold and insensitive to the woman. We may even think at times that He is being insensitive to us, even ignoring us. We want the quick fix to our dilemmas and problems. We want the easy answers to our questions about God and life. Want a life with no troubles, no injuries, no traumas, and no insecurities. Too often Jesus seems to fail in delivering such things. But in reality, He eggs us on to wrestle with Him in faith.

He certainly egged Jacob on. When Jacob was all alone, “a Man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day.” Jacob had the upper hand; had the Man in a “full-nelson.” Then the Man touched Jacob’s hip and it went out of joint. But Jacob still would not let go. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he told the Man. And the Man blessed Jacob with a new name: “Israel.” It means “he wrestles with God.” Even in the midst of the wrestling Jacob held on for God’s blessing. Even with an injured hip and a life-long limp Jacob lived in the merciful blessing of God.

Not only did God egg Jacob on, but He also egged on the Canaanite woman. And in the spirit of faithful “Israel” (Jacob), the woman pins God to the mat for His blessing and mercy. Jesus told the woman, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the [little] dogs.” Did you hear that? What an insult! Jesus called the woman a little-house dog. Perhaps He had a twinkle in His eye and a sly grin forming on His face, but still, it sounds like an insult.

How would you react if your Lord and Savior called you a little house-dog or half-breed? How would you act if your God seemed to ignore your prayers and insult your integrity? Would you turn and run off in a huff? Or would you “hang in there”? Would you do a quick reversal and pin Jesus to the mat? Would you question the kind of Savior you have, or would you trust Him all the more?

The Canaanite woman pinned the Lord to the mat for His blessing and mercy. “Yes, Lord, yet even the [little] dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Luther has some great comments on this verse. First, he expresses the woman’s response: “You say…that I am a dog. Let it be, I will gladly be a dog; now give me the consideration that you give a dog.” Then Luther drives home the point: “She catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught…. She catches Christ, the Lord, in his own words and with that wins not only the right of a dog, but also that of the children” (HP I:325).

You see, little house-dogs are more than happy to get the crumbs that fall from the master’s table. So they faithfully and patiently wait. They wait for whatever crumbs still come from the master. So it is for you, you little canines of Christ’s Church. Just like the Canaanite woman, you wrestle with God. Does He hear my prayers? Does He know my needs? Does He know our congregation’s needs? Does He forgive my particular sins? Does He accept me despite my past and my failures? And the answer to all of these questions is: “Yes!”

As the Canaanite woman wrestled with Jesus, she heard only, “No.” But she did not give up. She was persistent in faith. And in the end, when she pinned Jesus to the mat for His mercy, He said, “Yes, you have My mercy.” After all, this same Lord Jesus would be pinned to the cross, nailed there to die. And as He hung there, He pleaded for God’s mercy—not for Himself, but for you! “Father, forgive them!” And Jesus, the Man of God, the Man who is God, shows you that the Father does forgive you. In Him you are blessed. In Him you have mercy. In Him you are healed.

So, go ahead, wrestle with God. That’s called faith, clinging to Him and holding Him to His mercy. If you walk away with a limp, if you get called a little house-dog, so what? You have His cross-won mercy. In fact, you are about to dine on the “little crumbs” of His Body and Blood under the bread and wine. These crumbs that come from the Master’s eternal table give you a rich feast of Jesus’ mercy. Amen.

10 March 2017

Homily at Concordia Seminary Chapel

"Real Sin"
John 7:53-8:11
(Delivered on Thursday of Lent 1 - March 9, 2017)

Jesus has a nasty habit of hanging out with real sinners!  And defending them! And letting them off the hook! What in the world is He thinking? How can there be any good order in society? And what of God’s Law?

I thought that would get your attention. I also thought about telling that classic joke on this text. You know the one. Jesus says, “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.” Then silence. All of a sudden, Jesus feels the whoosh of a stone whizzing past Him, from behind Him, and, smack, it hits the woman right between the eyes. Jesus turns to see who threw the stone…and says, “Aw, Mom!”

What do we do with actual, real sin? The scribes and Pharisees surely did not know. They thought it was a trivial matter to be used to entrap Jesus, not a matter of eternal life and death for this woman. Or for the man involved. Have you ever wondered how they caught her in the act? I mean, which of them…was…with her? Or which of them was the peeping Tom? So often we play fast and loose with the seriousness of sin.

But Jesus senses the coming trap. Would He be the fulfiller of the Law or the forgiver of sins? If He said, “Yes, stone her,” they could counter punch with, “But what about that forgiveness You keep preaching? Hmm?” And if He said, “No, don’t stone her,” then they could push back with, “Aha, so You did not come to fulfill the Law after all, but rather destroy it.”

Without saying a word, Jesus bends down. He writes in the dirt. What He wrote, we don’t know. Was it the applicable statute from the Levitical law code? Was it the woman’s crime against God and humanity? Who knows? But it is a good rabbinic tactic to imitate at a contentious voters or elders meeting. A little purposeful pause—always lessens the tension.

Then Jesus says the famous words: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Sounds a bit like, “Judge not, lest you be judged.” Perhaps it’s closer to: “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matt. 7:3). Then bending down again and more writing in the dirt. Would-be accusers end up leaving. They too are real sinners with real sins after all.

What do we do with actual, real sin? It’s one thing to confess our sins in a general way at the beginning of the Divine Service. It’s quite another thing to go to the pastor, kneel at the rail, bare your soul, and admit the very real details of those specific sins that you have done. It’s one thing to talk and sing about Jesus’ wonderful forgiveness of sins won on the cross—especially during Lent—in a general, I-have-my-theological-terms-down-pat sort of way. It’s quite another thing to have that healing forgiveness spoken and applied directly to you. “Yes, that very real sin that you did, that you just confessed—that horrible thought, that mean-spirited word, that hurtful deed—that has been forgiven, put away from you as far as the east is from the west.” Sometimes we’re not so sure God could forgive that real sin.

But He can, and He does! Just ask the adulterous woman. Oh, she knew she had sinned. We all do, really. She knew she deserved the stones hurled at her. We all do. But notice her faith and her confession. Jesus speaks to her in a one-on-one pastoral care session: “Has no one condemned you?” She does not excuse herself. She simply confesses: “No one, Lord.” It’s a confession of sins and a confession of faith wrapped up in three little words—or two in the Greek.

St. Augustine said it this way: “‘No one’—that is confession of sins. ‘Lord’—that is pardon of what she deserved. ‘No one, Lord. I acknowledge both things. I know who you are; I know who I am. It is to you I am confessing. You see, I have heard the words, “Confess to the Lord, for he is good.” I know my confession, I know your mercy.’” (ACCS, IVa, 277).

You see, this Jesus is both just and merciful. He condemns the real sin, though not the sinner. He is “Good and upright” and “therefore he instructs sinners in the way” (Ps. 25:8). He suffers your sins—yes, your very real sins—for you, thus fulfilling God’s Law. He is also “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps. 86:15).

So rejoice—yes, even during Lent. Rejoice that Jesus hangs out with real sinners. Rejoice that He is both the fulfiller of the Law and the forgiver of sins. Rejoice that He tells you what He told the adulteress: “Neither do I condemn you; now go, and sin no more.” Amen.

Homily for Lent 1 Evening Prayer - 2017

"Our Need for Faith--First Commandment"
First Commandment & Close of the Commandments
(second in a catechetical series)

It was a curious thing to observe the reactions to our recent presidential election. On the one hand, many were ecstatic as if Donald Trump’s victory meant that all was going to be right now. On the other hand, many became despondent, grief stricken, and frightened, and some even threatened to leave the country. I wonder: have we turned politics and elections into matters of primary, or ultimate, concern, rather than matters of secondary, or penultimate, concern? In other words, do our well-being and our happiness in life depend that much on who becomes president? And if it does, aren’t we going to be sorely disappointed in the end?

Such reactions to elections go to the heart of what it means to be human beings, that is, we are dependent beings. We are not autonomous, self-sustaining, and self-determining persons. I know, this goes against the grain of our Western civilization and our American ethos. After all, we Americans highly prize being free, being self-sufficient, being independent. The last thing many of us want is to accept charity or to be a burden on others (especially on our children).

But the reality of real life says that we need other people. We need the earth. We need the sun. We need food. We are unable to live by ourselves or from our own resources. We cannot live without looking to someone for our well-being, our security, and our identity. So why do we need to rely on other people—parents, family, friends, and community—for guidance or help? This question goes to the heart of who and what we are.

When we begin with the Bible and a Biblical worldview—that is, how we make sense of the world and how we live our lives in the world—we begin by admitting what we are not. We are not God. This may seem obvious. After all, we at least have an inkling that we are not all-powerful or all-knowing. But there’s more. It means that we are not the Creator. Instead, we are creatures of the Creator. Yes, we are made in the image of God, but that’s not the same as being God. We’re still His creatures. This key fact establishes our relationship with God and with the world.

Let me try a little exercise to illustrate. Consider these eight items: God, frogs, angels, rocks, humans, heaven, earth, and soul. Now in your mind’s eye, organize these eight items into two different circles, or categories. How would you organize them?

Most people would put God, angels, heaven, and soul into one circle, or category, and they would put frogs, rocks, humans, and earth, into the other circle. And what is their organizing principle? They’re thinking of the difference between spiritual and material. And most people would say the spiritual things are more important than the physical. My soul is more important than my body, right? That seems to make sense. Unfortunately, this way of viewing the world—organizing the things in the world—comes from the Greek philosopher Plato, not from God’s Word. Other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, also value the distinction between immaterial and material. They even elevate the immaterial, or spiritual, above the material, or physical. And for some, the material world is the problem and the cause of suffering.

But the Bible works much differently; it teaches a much different view of the world. Here’s how the Bible would organize these eight things: Into one circle, you put God. Then into the second circle, you put everything else! You see, I have more in common angels, frogs and rocks than I have in common with God. What do I have in common with angels, frogs and rocks? We were all created! We are all creatures of God. There was a time when we did not exist. So, in this view of the world, my soul is not more important than my body. Both were created by God. Both were redeemed by Christ. I exist as body and soul together.

So in the Biblical worldview—the way the Bible organizes and makes sense of the world—we distinguish between the Creator and His creatures. God creates; we are created. God gives life to us; we receive life from God. In other words, we are dependent. We are dependent upon God creating us, giving us life, and sustaining our life in this world. We are dependent upon Him for our very identity, security, and meaning in life. This applies to everyone—atheist or believer, non-Christian or Christian. We all need to look somewhere for life.

We can put it another way; we can express it in terms of the First Commandment. No person can live without a god. Everyone has a god, because everyone has to look somewhere for his/her source of life, purpose, security, and meaning. As Martin Luther expressed it, a god is someone or something to whom we look for all good things. A god is someone or something from whom we expect nothing but good things.

Now our gods may be of two sorts. Either we can look outside ourselves, or we can look inside ourselves. First, we may look outside ourselves. We may seek our well-being in the quest for money, fame, or family. Even Luther, in his day, complained that money (mammon) was the most common idol. Nothing new under the sun, right? In our day, though, we might also add politics or even science. In our culture, we see science as the solution to many or most of our problems—everything from extending our lives to taming the climate. Some scientists are even suggesting that someday we’ll be able to download our very consciousness into some kind of computer or machine.

Second, we may put our faith in ourselves. Hasn’t this been our problem since the Garden of Eden? In fact, we can describe all of human history as the quest of human beings to live their lives as anything but creatures who are dependent upon their Creator. That sure explains book titles such as The God Species or The World in Human Hands.

So the question is not whether or not you will have a god. The real question is: What is god? The question is not whether or not you have faith. The real question is this: Is your faith in the one true God or not? If we put our faith in creatures or anything in creation, we will soon be disappointed. You see, creatures—created things—cannot bear the burden of their god-hood. Sooner or later they crumble under the pressure. Stock markets go down as well as up. Spouses can abandon us as well as remain faithful. Children can reject their parents as well as love them. Politicians can falter as well as succeed.

When we expect all good things from anyone or anything other that the Creator, we engage in idolatry. Idolatry confuses them. It thinks that creation or a creature is in fact the Creator. The First Commandment calls us to distinguish between the Creator and His creation.

So the story of Jesus that we follow this Lententide offers something remarkable and unexpected. Human creatures try to become like God; they try to escape the creation or take charge of the creation. And yet the Son of God—the very Son of God “through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Cor. 8:6)—became a creature. He became a human creature with a creaturely body in order to restore us creatures to be fully human once again. And He does even more. He restores us to be human creatures who are now adopted as children of God, human creatures who can run to their Creator, not as a frightful stranger, but as a beloved Father. This is the gift given to us and received by faith. What is faith? It is being restored to that Creator-creature relationship—that relationship in which God gives and we receive, that relationship in which we rest in the boundless, inexhaustible love of God.

This faith is the basis of all the other Commandments—two through ten. One Christian philosopher/theologian (Norman Wirzba, From Nature to Creation) put it this way: To be a creature is to live by receiving and giving. Consider this illustration—our breathing, by inhaling and exhaling. When I inhale, I receive the life-giving oxygen produced by plants and trees. When I exhale, I breathe out carbon dioxide which plants and trees need in order to live. This is our life as God’s creatures and as God’s children in the Body of Christ. We are interdependent. We need the plants and trees. The same applies to our relationships with others. I receive my life and support for my life from God through my parents. As a parent, I also give that same life and support to my children. I need brothers and sisters in Christ for comfort, for strength, for encouragement, for confession.

By contrast, death is taking and keeping. When I take and keep for myself, I isolate myself from others. I cut myself off from them. Thus I cannot receive their help, and I also harm them by depriving them of my giving. When I put my faith in anything or anyone other than Christ the Creator, I must cling to the creature and keep it for myself.

In our Lenten journey, we encounter a Creator who has not given up on His creation. Rather, He has come to restore us as His creatures. Thus we say that we are saved by faith alone. That means we trust God. It means we have confidence that He will keep us close to Himself both now and into eternity. It means that we rest upon Him whose love is boundless, Him whose life is inexhaustible—the very life He now gives each of us and all of us. It’s good to be a creature. It’s good to need God. It’s good to rest in His hands, the very hands that bear the nail imprints. Amen.


06 March 2017

Homily for Lent 1 - Invocabit - 2017

"To the Throne of Grace"
Matthew 4:1-11

Listen here.

We have an enemy who loves to parade around as our friend. He’s very slick, even quite appealing. But he is absolutely dangerous. He doesn’t just wish you pain; he wants you to have pain that never ends, suffering untold, agony unquenched. He wants to devour you, inside and out. And he’s not some fictitious monster dreamed up by a Hollywood film-maker. You can take all the fantasy monsters, roll them into one, and you still won’t even begin to touch the evil of this enemy, our old evil foe.

He first appeared to Eve as a serpent, and as her buddy. He asked, “Did God really say?” He appeared completely on her side when he said, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” Very slick! He never told her to eat it. He never handed it to her or coaxed her. He just planted that insidious seed of doubt. “Did God really say?” And he did something even more dangerous. He gave that oh-so-subtle suggestion that God may not be entirely honest with you. He suggested without saying it that God is holding something back from you, and holding you back yourself. And with the hook firmly set, he just waited for the play on the line, and then he had them. Not just Eve, but Adam with her.

And not just them. He also had US! You see, we are in them, in our first parents. Their disease of doubt and their infection of faithless distrust are also ours. The contagion of death that they embraced has also been passed on to us like a congenital birth defect.

They were riddled with conflict between themselves—blaming each other, blaming God, blaming the serpent. Blaming anyone else would do! They were expelled from the Garden, and they would struggle through all the days of their life knowing where they would end up. How terrifying it sounds: “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And, if you want the real terror of those words, remember what God had said to the serpent: “on your belly you shall go, and DUST you shall eat all the days of your life.” The serpent would eat dust. Adam and Eve would be that dust! Yes, they would be serpent food. And, again, we are with them. We too are headed for the dust from which we came…and we too are serpent food. St. Peter tells us the same thing, but he refers to the enemy as a lion: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 3:8).

Then comes today’s Gospel reading. Imagine what it was like for our ancient foe when he first met flesh and blood that would not cave into his deadly insinuations. Again the insidious seed of doubt: “IF you are the son of God….” Again, he did not outright say it; he merely suggested it. “Come on! You can’t really be God’s beloved Son, can You? Look where you are: wandering out here, all alone, in the wilderness, hungry and starving, parched and famished.” Three times the tempter assaults Him—once with hunger, once with pride, and once with riches. And three times the tempter is rebuffed. Three times he is silenced by the bold, confident words of the Word made Flesh. Three times “It is written” rings from the mouth of Him who is the Word of God made dust for us. And stung by this defeat, the devil withdraws from Jesus, but only for a time.

Yes, the enemy will be back. The enemy will again invite Him to distrust the Father. This time it will be as He hangs on the tree. Jesus will hear the words “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Mt. 26:40). A different voice, but the same mind, the same insidious suggestion. The evil foe says, “You cannot trust Your Father or His goodness. He has forsaken You! You cannot trust His promises to You. See where they land you? Give up! Despair! ‘Curse God and die!’ (Job 2:9). You will be my food too!”

But Jesus does not despair, not in the wilderness, and certainly not from the cross. Instead, He trusts with absolute trust. He believes with absolute confidence that the Father’s will is good, that He is the Father’s beloved Son, and that His Father will not abandon Him even in death. He trusts that through His death the Father will bring the children of dust back to the immortality that He had planned for them from the beginning. David’s prayer centuries earlier was also His prayer: “You will not abandon my soul to Sheol” (Ps. 16:10). And His Father did not abandon Him there!

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and ahead of today’s Gospel. Even though Jesus was tempted, He did not give in. Oh, He was truly tempted to be sure. He certainly felt the pangs hunger, the allurement of pride, the glitter of the world. But He was also armed with the Word, unlike Adam and Eve and all of their children, including us. He stood firm and endured the test to its very end. This One who does not give in to temptation at all now feels the full, cumulative weight of all temptations pressing down on Him. We usually cave long before we feel even a smidgeon of it; but He knew and felt it all.

And that brings us to the soothing sweetness of our second reading. “We have a great High Priest…Jesus, the Son of God”—true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary. He “has passed through the heavens” and now He stands before the Father as our Righteousness. Look to Him, for He knows and feels everything you go through. He knows and feels all the temptations you experience—all those temptations by which Satan would lead you away from Him, promising all kinds of fun and good times and then laughing in your face as he devours you for eternity. Look to Jesus, because He has known those same temptations through to the bitter end for you. Look to Him, “because He Himself has suffered when tempted,” and “He is able to help [you] who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Look to Him, because He has said “No!” to all of them for you. Look to Him, because He can sympathize with your every weakness, your every impulse to distrust God and to rely on yourself. Not only does He understand; He also reveals that temptation is a dead-end road and the enemy only wants to seduce you to destroy you.

Instead, your Lord and Savior calls you to come to Him, to His “throne of grace,” where you will find “mercy and grace to help in time of need.” And where is this “throne of grace”? Look right up here at His holy Altar! Here your great High Priest reaches out to you and gives you the sacrifice which He offered once for all to His Father, the sacrifice that is the ransom price of your soul and body. He gives you the Body and Blood of His sacrifice so that you may have forgiveness, so that He may enter you and fill you. Flee to Him, and you flee to the One Man who could not and did not fall to Satan’s temptations.

Think of that! In this One Man, this New Adam, and only in Him, is there full and free forgiveness for every time you have yielded to the tempter and fallen. In Him and only in Him do you have strength for the ongoing battle. And, yes, in Him and only in Him do you have full, final, and lasting victory.

Let’s not forget perhaps the most important expression of all: “Let us then with confidence draw near.” With confidence? Yes, with strong faith. He does not call you to Himself as slaves who cringe and cower. No, He calls you to be His beloved sisters and brothers who receive His heavenly inheritance. It’s the inheritance He has obtained by sharing our flesh and blood and going to a cross, and He gives it to you in His Body and Blood.

Yes, you DO have an enemy. You DO have a malevolent spirit intent on destroying and devouring you. He is mightier than you, and full of wickedness. Never underestimate him! But your Savior Jesus Christ is stronger than your enemy. Your Savior Jesus Christ knows you inside and out, and He sympathizes with you in your weaknesses. He calls you to His “throne of grace” to receive the only help that dwarfs the power of your enemy. Your Savior’s help is like the ocean, and the devil’s temptations are like little sparks. Those sparks fall on the ocean of Jesus’ help and they are extinguished. By yourself and in yourself, you don’t stand a chance against your enemy. But in and by Christ Jesus, united to Him as you trust the promises of your Father, you are “able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Eph. 6:13). Here’s the throne of grace. What are we waiting for? Amen.

03 March 2017

Homily for Ash Wednesday - 2017

"Living by Faith"
 (first in a catechetical series)
with Ash Wednesday texts: Jonah 3:1-10; 2 Peter 1:2-11; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

We all love a good story. Stories make us cry or laugh. Stories can inspire or move us to action. Stories can embody our values and help us make sense of things. As we begin our Lenten journey, we focus on the one story that truly helps us make sense of all of life. This story tells us who and whose we truly are.

It’s the story of Jesus as He fixes His face to go to Jerusalem in order to suffer, die and rise again. It’s interesting what we include in the story and what gets less attention. The gospel writers do not spend much time at all on Jesus as a child, or a teenager, or a young man. Instead, they focus mostly on the last three years of His life. Not only that, but they devote most of their story-telling-space to the last week of Jesus’ life—one-third of Matthew, Mark, and Luke; and one-half of John’s Gospel.

Why so much of the story of Jesus focused on the last week of His life? Because this is the key to understanding Jesus and His life and work for us. In His last three years—and especially His last week—Jesus carries out His mission of restoring His creation. The Father sent Him to reclaim all creation from Satan and those who would destroy it. The Father sent Jesus to restore the creation to  be what they—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—intended it to be. So we follow Jesus in His footsteps as He makes His way to the cross and the empty tomb.

This year the story of Jesus takes on another historical dimension. Here in 2017, we make that journey as we also celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses for academic debate on some major problems in the Church. Now in our culture people are more familiar with Martin Luther King, Jr. than they are with Martin Luther. But Martin Luther’s story is important for Christians everywhere, whether Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, or Lutheran.

You see, Martin Luther posted his statements for debate because he was convinced that the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem had become dimmed, distorted and diluted. No longer was it a gospel story of good news for you and me. Instead, it had been twisted into a moralistic tale—a story in which you had to imitate Jesus if you wanted any hope of being saved. The focus had shifted from what Jesus has done for you to what you must do for yourself. Instead of Jesus being your Savior, He was seen as some kind of “spiritual vitamin” or “spiritual steroid” to help you live a good life now so that you could attain God’s favor in heaven. Jesus’ story was viewed as a story to motivate and inspire you to pursue perfection. What a burden!

Through his reading and study of the Scriptures, Luther discovered that Jesus’ story is much different. It’s a story of “gospel,” a story of good news. So how does His story pertain to you and me?

Jesus’ story is more than just a true story about an historical figure, such as Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, or Mother Theresa. Jesus’ story is more than just a great epic tale, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey or Beowulf. Jesus’ story is gospel—good news—because His story is your story. His story is “your life”—a bit like that popular TV show from years ago, This is Your Life. In that show, the host would surprise guests by reviewing important people and events in their lives. The host would have an important person hide back stage. That person would start telling some part of the guest’s story. The guest, with surprise and tears, would recognize the voice. Then the two would be reunited on stage.

In a very real way, the Gospel—Jesus’ story—surprises us by declaring: “This is your life!” Everything Jesus did in life and death, He did for you and me. Everything He did in life and death benefits you and me. Everything Jesus did in life and death opens up our future with God. His story is your story. His life, death and resurrection are your life, death and resurrection.

This is why Martin Luther began his 95 Theses with these words: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said ‘Repent,’ He willed that the whole life of believers should be one of repentance.” Indeed, Jesus’ story begins with the call to “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2). It’s the same story we hear from the prophet Jonah. God sent him to proclaim repentance—another way of saying “Jesus’ story”—to the city of Nineveh. Nineveh had strayed from the true God, and the true God sought to bring them back. As the king of Nineveh said, “Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from His fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” That’s Jesus’ story in action, bringing repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As another prophet, Joel, said, “Return to the LORD, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13).

Repentance is nothing other than acknowledging that we have strayed from our Creator God. Repentance means ‘fessing up to our own brokenness, our own waywardness, our own self-centeredness. You and I have indeed lived as if God did not matter and as if we mattered most. We have not honored God’s name as we should, and our worship and prayers have faltered. We have not let His love for us have its way with us, and so our love for others has failed. We have hurt some people; we have failed to help others. Our thoughts and desires have been soiled with sin. That’s our story. And so are the ashes: “for you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19).

This is precisely why Jesus’ story is your story. Everything Jesus does, He does for you and me—to make us right with God, to restore to us our humanity as God intended. When Jesus is conceived and born, He takes on flesh and blood for you. When He is baptized, He cleanses you. When He is tempted, when He teaches, when He is transfigured, He does it all for you. When He institutes this Meal we call the Lord’s Supper, He does it for you. When Jesus sweats blood in Gethsemane, when He suffers false accusations and fists to the face, He does it for you. When He dies on the cross, He’s doing it all for you. And when He rises victoriously from the grave, He does it for you.

So Jesus’ story is not just a story. It’s a story with a promise—the promise of new life. That’s why we call it “good news.” In some ways, the word “promise” may be better than the term “good news.” You see, “news” can be impersonal and abstract, or even “fake news.” We can read it in our most trusted papers or news sites, or even on social media. But “news” is aimed at audiences of faceless people. Also, when we think of “news,” we think of stories that happened yesterday—whom to vote for, the recent storm, or how the stock market performed.

God’s promise in Jesus’ story, however, is different than typical news. In His promise, our Lord speaks to us personally, one-on-one. In Baptism, God says, “I claim you—yes, you—as My very own.” In Absolution, He promises that your past will not prevent your future life with Him. In the Supper, He puts into your mouth the very promises of forgiveness, life, and salvation through the Body and Blood of Jesus. It’s very personal!

In addition, the gospel promise of Jesus is not just about the past or even just the present. It’s also about your future. In this promise—this story of Jesus—God gives you a preview of your future life. He declares to you what will happen on the Last Day when Jesus returns. He will say, “Welcome into My kingdom!” You will pass through Judgment Day unscathed.

Why does God make such wonderful promises to us? Because He wants us to live by faith. He created us to live with confidence and trust in Him. Now in Jesus Christ He promises us life eternal so that we may once again live in trust and joy. This was our original relationship with Him—our original story. God gives us life; we receive that life as His gift. That’s the art of living by faith—learning to receive all of life as God’s gift, learning to receive God’s gifts in all of life, learning to depend upon God, His love, and His gifts, learning to give thanks for them and use them as God intends. God gives and we receive.

This living by faith encompasses every nook and cranny of our lives. What does this mean? First, it means that we learn to see all of life and the world we live in as the gift of God. We can expect nothing but good things from God. We can ask Him for all we need and thank Him for all we have received. Second, living by faith means that we seek to have our faith in God’s promises renewed and strengthened by Jesus Himself. We seek that renewal and strength in spoken sermons, Baptism, Absolution, and Lord’s Supper. Our life in the Church is life where faith is born, nourished, and strengthened. Third, living by faith also involves our life in God’s created world. We learn to pray and turn our minds toward God throughout the day—when we get up, when we eat, and when we go to bed. We get to live out and exercise that faith in love toward others in the various walks of life where God has placed us. That includes our workplaces, our community, and especially our homes.

The art of living by faith is an incredible adventure and incredibly freeing. When we live by faith—that is, repentance for forgiveness from Jesus—we live in confidence that God holds us and the whole world in His hands. Sometimes His hands may seem less comfortable than we would like, especially in our various struggles and difficulties. But they remain the hands that bear the imprints of nails. And so they remain the hands of Him who loves you with an everlasting love. Your life is secure, now and into eternity. Amen.