27 February 2008

"The A-B-Cs of Lent - Absolution"

“The A-B-Cs of Lent” - Absolution
1 John 1:5-10; Matthew 9:1-8;
Small Catechism, Confession

We continue looking at “The A-B-Cs of Lent.” For the first two weeks we looked at the “B” – Baptism. Tonight we look at the “A” – Absolution.

Last week we heard what Baptism means for daily life. Baptism is not just a one-time bath; it’s a daily, ongoing dying and rising of the Christian. We sinners die daily in the death of Jesus, and daily we rise in the life of Jesus. This dying and rising continues until our own death and then our resurrection on the Last Day at Jesus’ appearing.

This daily dying and rising brings us to what we rightly call the “Third Sacrament” – Holy Absolution. And what a poor, neglected Sacrament it is! This really should not be, especially in church that pledges herself to the Lutheran Confessions. Those Confessions do call Absolution a “Sacrament.” They also call it the “living voice” of the Gospel. They even say, “it would be wicked to remove personal absolution” from our churches. But tell a fellow Lutheran that your pastor actually offers Private Confession and Absolution, or even sets and publishes certain times for it, and I guarantee you that jaws will drop and eyebrows will rise. However, restoring the Sacrament of Holy Absolution is like rediscovering a priceless family treasure that’s been lost for years. Instead of putting it back in the musty basement, let’s bring it out to enjoy. After all, if it was wicked to remove private/personal Absolution back in 1530, it would be doubly wicked not to restore it now that we are rediscovering it—unless something has changed about our sin and Jesus’ forgiveness!

Confession and Absolution is our constant return to our Baptism. It’s our ongoing return to the waters that first brought us life and cleansing from God. Confession is so basic to the Christian life that Luther could say this in the Large Catechism: “When I urge you to go to confession, I am simply urging you to be a Christian.” Unbelievers deny their sins, gloss over them, cover them up, and have no use for forgiveness. Christians, though, confess their sins and are forgiven.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls Absolution without personal confession a form of “cheap grace,” a cross-less Christianity. It’s trying to have repentance without shame, contrition without guilt. It’s like an out of court settlement—just pay the money and admit no specific wrongdoing. God, however, does not work that way—no back room bargaining with Him. Face the truth of our sin and the death of Christ for our sin.

As we said with the Catechism, Holy Absolution has two parts. The first is that we confess our sins. To “confess” means to “say the same thing,” to say back what we’ve heard, just like a little child learning to talk by repeating what she’s heard. We might feel bad about ourselves; we might have low self-esteem; we might feel guilty or depressed. But those are not the main problems. God tells us: “You are sinners.” That’s the main problem—not what we do or feel, but who we are. So we confess, “Yes, Lord, I am a sinner.” And what is a sinner? A sinner is an enemy of God; one who tries to dethrone God and put himself/herself on that throne; one who fears, loves, and trusts himself/herself above God. That’s the truth. And in Confession, we speak the truth about ourselves.

The opposite of confession is denial. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” When we deny our sickness of sin and its symptoms of sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, we are only fooling ourselves. Just think of how irate we might get if someone called us a “sinner” or caught us in something and said, “You are sinning.” But it’s the truth; it’s what we are! “If we say that we have not sinned, we make [God] a liar, and his word is not in us.” Our past and our present testify against us. We are sick with sin, and we have sinned.

Confession puts the past and the present into concrete words. Sure, we can confess generally, as we do on Sunday mornings: “We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.” But we also need to confess specifically, “those sins which we know and feel in our hearts.” And feeling in our hearts need not be only the ton-of-bricks sins; it also includes the sins that feel more like little pin pricks, because they are still sins. And yet we need not worry about the mathematics of “how many” sins to confess. “Who can discern his errors?” the Psalmist cries. “Declare me innocent from hidden faults” (Ps. 19:12). There’s no end to the lists that each of us could make. And at the same time we don’t want to be satisfied with a generic, all-purpose confession, the kind that you, I, and 6 ½ billion other people in the world could all say together. “I, a poor, miserable sinner.” True enough, yes, but what makes you say that?

General confession without specific confession runs the risk of merely bad-mouthing ourselves. That’s not telling the truth. That’s using a surface truth to cover over the deeper truth, so that we don’t have to face it. And specific confession run amok can lead us into a perverse kind of pride, bragging about our weaknesses and airing our dirty laundry for everyone to see—as happens in the so-called “online confessionals.” Speaking the truth of our sin means neither kicking the corpse of our body of death, nor putting it on display.

We make our confession in three directions—to God, to the neighbor, and to our pastor. First, a Christian always confesses to God, and can always confess to God directly, as we do in the Lord’s Prayer and in our personal prayers. It’s your privilege as baptized children of God. However, too often we use this privilege as an artful dodge and easy excuse: “I can confess directly to God; therefore, I don’t need to confess to another person.” That’s not humility; it’s pride. How odd that we are ashamed to admit our sinful words and deeds to fellow sinners, but we can be so proud to admit them before the Lord of heaven and earth, who treats sin as fire treats gasoline!

While we certainly may confess directly to God, He always deals with us through the external Word—through Baptism, through the Supper, through the Gospel proclaimed. The person who says, “I can confess directly to God, therefore, I don’t need the Church,” misses the point. It’s not our confession that matters; it’s God’s spoken forgiveness. Just as God deals with us in the incarnate Lord Jesus, He also deals with us through the earthly, creaturely means of water, words, and bread and wine. For Absolution, God uses the earthly, creaturely sound waves that emanate from mouths and go into earholes.

Second, a Christian also confesses to the neighbor, especially when he/she has sinned against the neighbor. Whenever we hurt or harm another person, we need to confess it to that person, and then forgive one another as God has forgiven us. We need to let Jesus get between us, or else our sins will push us apart. That’s how we pray in the Lord’s Prayer—a double absolution, if you will—that our Father in heaven would forgive us as we forgive others. But we are so out of practice! Our tongues are tied in knots. The language of confession sounds so foreign to our ears because we don’t use it. Instead, we harbor grudges and resentments. We nurse quarrels for years. We isolate and alienate each other. Dear friends, this should not be—especially in the Christian congregation that God institutes to be a place overflowing with forgiveness. Just like Nathan went to David, every Christian has God’s call and command to go to the brother or sister, rebuke the sin, and restore the sinner in forgiveness. Of all places and institutions in the world, the Church is God’s very own “laboratory” where the conversation of confession is practiced and the healing of forgiveness is applied among His baptized children.

The third direction of our confession is to our pastor. Now, there are several good reasons for doing this. First, your pastor is ordained to hear confessions. That’s what we put him here for. Hearing confessions is one of the jobs given in his ordination vow. Second, he is equipped by training and practice to help others sharpen and deepen their confession. He can focus them on the Word of God. Third, he is bound by a solemn vow to secrecy, something to which a close friend is not bound. If a pastor breaks the seal of confession, he should be dismissed, no questions asked.

Fourth, the pastor is a public, corporate person; he holds an office. The pastor does not speak for himself; he only speaks for Christ and for the whole Church. The pastor is a “minister,” a servant of Jesus Christ, a steward of God’s mysteries revealed in Christ. He’s not a superior, but a servant. He serves not “from above,” but “from below.” He is not there to condemn, but to forgive. In fact, that’s what the Lord put him here to do. He is under holy orders to forgive sins. A friend may forgive you simply to keep your friendship. A family member may forgive you just to have peace in the family. We have plenty of family and friends. But pastors? We have precious few of them. A pastor forgives by the divine order of the crucified, risen, and reigning Son of God. He speaks, not for his own person, but for the person of Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like the pastor, or if he doesn’t like you. His forgiveness is Christ’s forgiveness. It is sure and certain. And it is addressed specifically to you, specifically for your particular sins. That’s really all that matters.

And now we come to the second main part, the more important part of Confession: the Absolution. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Absolution is spoken forgiveness, release, and freedom from sin. God releases the sinner from his/her sin. He puts our sin “as far as the east is from the west” (Ps. 103:12). He buries it in the death of Jesus. He cleanses us with His holy, precious blood.

God says, “I absolve you. I forgive you.” This is no cheap, idle talk. It’s no sappy, saccharine sentimentality that says, “Smile, be happy, God loves you.” No, this is a very costly word from God to you. It cost the Son of God His very life. He sweated and suffered, bled and died so that this forgiveness talk might be spoken. It’s a word anchored in the past, nailed to the bloody cross of Calvary. It’s a word that reaches through time into the here and now, into our very lives. It reaches into our ears and minds and hearts and says, “Christ died for you.” It’s a word authorized and approved by the crucified and risen Son of God Himself, freshly risen from the dead with the wounds to prove it. He breathed His Spirit and His words into His disciples and said, “If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld” (Jn 20:23).

Sometimes people are offended by the Absolution. “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” The unbelieving Pharisees asked that of Jesus. “How dare that guy speak as though he were God!” Well, people should be offended. The Absolution is as offensive as the Incarnation of the Son of God. It’s as offensive as the God who wears diapers and sleeps in a manger, or the God who hangs naked and bleeding on a cross. Only God can forgive. That’s true. And God only forgives through His Son, who became Man, who speaks through His Church and the Holy Ministry that He ordained to speak. In the Absolution we hear the living voice of God. “So if there is a heart that feels its sin and desires consolation, it has here a sure refuge when it hears in God’s Word that through a man God looses and absolves him from his sins” (Large Catechism, V.14).

Do we have to go to Confession? Does a thirsty deer question if it has to drink from a cold mountain stream? Does a hungry person ask if he has to eat a free meal offered to him? Does one who hungers and thirsts for righteousness ask if he has to hear a word of forgiveness from Christ? Does a Christian ever ask if he/she has to be forgiven? Do we have to go to Confession? You already know the answer. Of course, you don’t have to go. God never forces anyone to be forgiven. Instead, you get to be forgiven. And that’s always a free gift! Amen.

25 February 2008

Pastor, Why? - Baptizing Before or After Teaching

Why do we baptize infants before instructing them in the faith, but baptize adults after they are instructed?

Let’s begin with our Lord’s “words of institution” for Baptism: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20). From this we see that baptizing and teaching go hand in hand; disciples (Christians) are made by both. In the case of unbaptized adults, we first teach and then baptize. In the case of infants, first we baptize, and then the teaching follows. In both cases, disciples are made by baptizing and teaching.

We have Scriptural examples of adults first hearing the Gospel (teaching) before they were baptized. The Ethiopian eunuch first studied the Scriptures and heard “the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Then he saw water and desired to be baptized. See Acts 8:26-38. The jailer in Acts 16:25-34 asked what he must do to be saved. Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house” (Acts 16:32). First, the jailer and his family heard the Gospel (teaching), and then “he was baptized at once, he and his family” (Acts 16:33).

Why, then, do we baptize infants before teaching the faith to them? We baptize infants with the understanding that they will be taught the faith, primarily by their parents, and live in the life of the Church in the years to come. We baptize infants because they are certainly included in the “all nations” of which Jesus spoke (Matt. 28:19). We recall Jesus’ words: “Let the little children come to Me” (Mark 10:14). We also baptize infants based on Peter’s words: “For the promise is for you and for your children….” (Acts 2:39).

Remember, baptizing and teaching go together. The Lord Jesus did not prescribe a particular order. Instead, He uses both orders—baptizing then teaching or teaching then baptizing—to make disciples.

24 February 2008

Homily - Lent 3 - Oculi

Out of the Strong Something Sweet
Luke 11:14-28

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

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

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

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

C. S. Lewis illustrated this quite beautifully in his book The Screwtape Letters. In these fictional letters from the underworld, senior tempter Screwtape instructs his young nephew, Wormwood, on the art of tempting a Christian “patient.” Like salt and pepper throughout the letters, Screwtape sprinkles little hints about the demonic urge to sink teeth into and devour the souls who belong to “the Enemy,” who is God. C. S. Lewis capped off these delightfully wicked letters with a juicy sequel. It’s called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” Screwtape is the guest of honor and main speaker at a banquet of young devils who have just completed their training at tempter’s school. As Screwtape begins his toast, he comments on the low quality of the souls on which they were feasting. Screwtape says:
It would be vain to deny that the human souls on whose anguish we have been feasting tonight were of pretty poor quality…. Oh, to get one’s teeth again into a Farinata, a Henry VIII or even a Hitler! There was real crackling there; something to crunch; a rage, an egotism, a cruelty only just less robust than our own…. Instead of this, what have we had tonight? There was a municipal authority with Graft sauce. But personally I could not detect in him the flavour of a really passionate and brutal avarice such as delighted one in the great tycoons of the last century…. Then there was the lukewarm Casserole of Adulterers. Could you find in it any trace of a fully inflamed, defiant, rebellious, insatiable lust? I couldn’t…. The Trade Unionist stuffed with sedition was perhaps a shade better. He had done some real harm. He had, not quite unknowingly, worked for bloodshed, famine, and the extinction of liberty (The Screwtape Letters, pp. 154-155).
Screwtape goes on to say, however, that the quality of the souls is not as important as the quantity, the numbers. Even though it means less “quality,” Screwtape rejoices in the greater numbers as he says, “The sort of souls on whose despair and ruin we have—well, I won’t say feasted, but at any rate subsisted—tonight are increasing in numbers and will continue to increase” (p. 157). What’s the point? Satan and his minions love to devour Christians. And by ourselves, we Christians are powerless to prevent it—as powerless as juicy, red slabs of meat tossed to a hungry lion.

And just how do Satan and his army of tempters try to consume and devour us? You see, they are constantly trying to stew us an marinate us. Remember what St. Paul tells us today. He reminds and warns us of things like sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness, filthiness, foolish talk, crude joking, and deceiving with empty words. These are just some of the ways that the devil prowls around looking for tasty little Christians to devour. While we’re at it, we might as well remember St. Paul’s list of works of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Gal. 5:19-21). When you find yourself participating in things like this, Satan is sinking his claws into you, basting you for his consumption, and just waiting until you finally end up on his dining room table.

Not a pretty thought, I know! And that’s why we need Someone stronger than strongman Satan. We need Someone to come into Satan’s domain – this fallen world – and attack him, overcome him, take away his armor, and divide his spoil. That Someone is the Son of God, the Word made flesh. Just as Samson fought against the lion at Timnah, our Lord Jesus came into our fallen world to fight against the old satanic foe, the lion who prowls around looking for souls like ours to devour. Every time Jesus healed someone from a disease, and especially from demon-possession, He showed that He is the Stronger Man who came to defeat strongman Satan. But never forget the way that Jesus ultimately defeated the devil! The ultimate disarming of the devil came in the death of the Son of God. No doubt, the devil though that he had his greatest feast of all eternity – conquering and consuming the Son of God! – but death cannot swallow the Lord of Life! Even in death, our Lord Jesus is like a poison pill, a good dose of arsenic, to Satan and his minions. On the cross, in the tomb, and then on Easter Sunday, our Lord Jesus conquered our hellish foe.

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

So, when you sense Satan prowling and growling, eager to sink his teeth into you, remember, you have a Savior who is stronger. By His cross, He has overcome Satan. In your Baptism you have been joined to Christ for His sweet life and love. In the Eucharist, we get to taste and see that out of the strong one has come something sweet indeed: forgiveness, life, and salvation with God. All of this helps us defy Satan, as we will soon sing: “Satan, hear this proclamation: / I am baptized into Christ! / Drop your ugly accusation, / I am not so soon enticed. / Now that to the font I’ve traveled, / All your might has come unraveled, And, against your tyranny, / God, my Lord, unites with me!” (LSB 594:3). Amen.

22 February 2008

Comfort from Anonymous Confession?

In response to my homily posted for the midweek Evening Prayer service of Lent 2, someone named "Anonymous" commented that a person can relieve the stress of their sins by confessing anonymously and online. As soon as I posted my response, I figured that it might be worthy of a full-fledged post.

Recently, I had the opportunity to deal with the phenomenon of online confessions in Bible class, a couple of different times even. I had come across stories heralding the comeback of the confessional, that is, confessing one's sins (not the booth! :-), and in each story the phenomena of online confessionals and shopping mall confessionals (with an on-duty priest, as I recall) were mentioned.

While I certainly applaud the comeback and ascent of confessing sins--after all, the whole life of a Christian is one of repentance!--I also puzzle over the misguided notion that merely confessing sins--whether online behind the anonymity of a user name and password, or writing them on a piece of paper and throwing it into the fire, etc., etc.--is enough. That seems too much like feeling sick, having the symptoms of the flu, and merely saying to myself, "I have the flu." Merely getting to that point still hasn't given me the true healing and restored health that I need!

Only the Absolution can do that, where sins are concerned. Absolution is the real medicine, the real "stress reliever." Here's how the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says it: "We also keep confession, especially because of absolution, which is the Word of God that the power of the keys proclaims to individuals by divine authority" (Apology XII:99, emphasis added).

At any rate, here is my response to the comment left on that earlier post. The anonymous commenter mentioned the relief of stress that comes with confessing one's sins and then gave an (unsolicited) advertisement for a blog site (not recommended here) designed for anonymously confessing sins online. Here's my response to the notion of online confessions:

There are three major problems with confessing sins "anonymously" and online:

1. The sins are far from anonymous - God already knows them, and He knows that *you* committed them. They are already very personal by nature.

2. When one confesses one's sins online, one may hide one's own identity behind the mask of an electronic device, namely the name of "Anonymous," however, the whole world can see what you did (and *you* will still know that *you* did it, despite the electronic mask of anonymity).

BTW, isn't there a disconnect between boldly putting one's sins out in the open, online, for the whole world to see, and the supposed fear of trusting one's own pastor/priest, whom God has graciously given, to care for one's soul?

And 3) confessing one's sins "anonymously" and online avoids the real treasure of Confession and Absolution: the Absolution! Yes, the mere act of confessing may be somewhat therapeutic (getting things off one's chest, and all that), but it cannot remove the sin; it cannot console and comfort the conscience. It does not automatically grant the comfort of the Absolution, that is, forgiveness, given by God in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen, and spoken by the lips of your pastor/priest.

To seek the comfort of confession based merely on the act of confessing - and merely for the sake of getting things off one's chest - is not enough! Give me the spoken words of Christ's Absolution any day. After all, as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (XII:39) says, "We also include Absolution when we speak of faith, because 'faith comes from hearing,' as St. Paul says in Romans 10:17. When the Gospel is heard and the Absolution is heard, the conscience is encouraged and receives comfort."

Now that truly relieves the stress of our sins!

21 February 2008

A Gerhard Gem for Lent 3-Oculi

"Just as Sampson, who encountered a roaring, threatening lion as he was going up to Timnah, had to first overcome it before he could get his bride, so also it happened to the Lord Christ, as He came to earth to us sinners and enemies of God (Rom. 5:8, 10) in order to gather a spiritual Bride and Church from the human race. He also had to first conquer the hellish lion, the devil (1 Pet. 5:8), because all mankind had fallen under his claws through sin" (Johann Gerhard, Postilla, p. 241).

"The A-B-Cs of Lent - Baptism, Part II"

My homily from last night's Lent Evening Prayer (again, with special thanks to Pr. William Cwirla from some years ago):

“The A-B-Cs of Lent” – Baptism II
Romans 6:1-11; Small Catechism, Baptism, Parts 3-4

We continue our theme of “The A-B-Cs of Lent” as we focus on the sacramental life of the Church. Last week we heard what Baptism is – water combined with God’s Word, His promise to be present in Baptism and save us through it. We also heard what gives Baptism its great power – the Word of God in the flesh as the great “detergent” in Baptism. We also recalled the wonderful blessings of Baptism – that it’s a washing of rebirth, a rescue from sin and death, the gift of eternal life. In short, Baptism actually does something: it saves us. And finally we heard how faith is necessary as it trusts the promises of Christ in the waters of Baptism. To believe in Jesus your Savior is to believe in the Baptism that now saves you in His death and resurrection.

Tonight let’s consider what Baptism means for daily life. What does such baptizing with water indicate for daily life? Now, that thought of Baptism as a daily thing might surprise some people. If we look at Baptism as merely an outward symbol, or as merely a way to identify ourselves as Christians, then we might conclude that Baptism is only a one-time thing. We might think that it was done once, a long time ago, and then we simply remember it with a certificate or a picture in the photo album – just like we do with anniversaries or graduations.

However, many one-time things have lasting effects. Many one-time things shape and govern our lives for days and years to come. Marriage vows are exchanged only once, but they have daily importance for married couples as they live out their marriage day to day. Ordination vows are spoken once, but they set the daily agenda for what a pastor is supposed to do. A contract is signed once, but it stays in effect for the life of that contract.

So, being baptized means that your whole life is one of God speaking to you and acting upon you. Baptism is God’s act of saving you, not only once a long time ago, but each and every day of your life. You might say that you’ve been caught in the cross hairs of His promises. Baptism is not a one-time thing; it’s a daily thing. It’s a daily garment we wear each and every day. In Baptism God has branded us with His seal of ownership, made us sheep of His pasture, covered our sin and its shame with Christ. In Baptism we wear Christ like a coat. The Christian life, then, is a daily life, and Baptism is the daily life of the Christian. It’s a daily dying and rising. Just as we go to sleep each night and wake up each morning, in our Baptism we daily die to sin and daily arise to live in Christ. Daily dying and daily rising—that’s the life of Baptism.

What does this mean, and what does it look like? First, the dying, then, the rising.

Baptism is a daily dying in the death of Jesus. As we heard from St. Paul: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?” The Apostle writes as though everyone would know this and agree wholeheartedly, right down to the smallest child. Baptism unites us with the death of Christ.

You see, death is the necessary lot for a sinner. “The wages of sin is death.” Sin and the sinner must be put to death. No way around it. And we know that intuitively. That’s why we hate death and fear it so much. Deep down we know the consequences and fruit of our rebellion against God. Even the unbelieving person whose life is in shambles from his/her sin might say, “I just want to die.” And God says to that person, “I can arrange that. Repent and be baptized.”

In the death of Jesus on the cross, God has given us and the whole world a death in which we can die now and live forever. There are really only two options: 1) Die now in the death of Jesus and live forever in His life; or 2) live now apart from Jesus and die forever in your own death. Jesus died for sin and rose from the dead. “For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives he lives to God.” Baptism joins us to the death of Jesus. It nails us to His cross. It buries us in His tomb. In it God has put our sin out of sight. He has killed it in the death of His Son, hidden it in His wounds, and buried it in His grave.

And so our baptismal death in the death of Jesus is a death in hope. “For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.” We know how the story ends. We know how the last chapter turns out for those who are in Christ Jesus. Christ has died, and we have died with Him. Christ has risen, and we will rise with Him. So, whatever comes our way in this life—poverty, disease, pain or persecutions—our present sufferings cannot compare with the glory that will be revealed in us. Whatever burden or cross we must endure now, it does not compare with what will be ours in the Resurrection.

As we confessed in the Catechism, Baptism means that by daily contrition and repentance the old Adam in us should be drowned and die together with all sins and evil desires. Baptism engages us in a struggle. Let’s not kid ourselves that the Baptismal life is an easy one. It’s not! We have become the enemy of the devil, the world, and our own sinful natures. The devil roars and fumes against the baptized. He will stop at nothing to turn and keep us away from Christ in our Baptism. The world hated Christ and crucified Him, and it will seek to crucify all who are joined with Christ. And our old, sinful nature? It despises the water combined with God’s words of promise. The old Adam is a very good swimmer. He daily resists Baptism; he refuses to be drowned by it. And St. Paul says that his works are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, lewdness, idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissentions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. But we don’t have to wonder where all the evil in the world comes from. We know. It comes from deep down within each of us. And it needs to be drowned daily in the bath of Baptism.

That’s how Baptism also means freedom. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin. “For the one who has died has been set free from sin.” Sin is no longer our lord and master. Christ is our Lord and Master. And He lords His death and resurrection over us so that sin cannot harm us. Once we were slaves to sin; now, in Baptism, we are slaves to righteousness. Now that’s true freedom! Once we do could nothing but sin. Now we are free to not sin. That’s freedom!

Baptism, then, initiates an ongoing struggle. We are dead to sin, but we still sin. We have been justified, reckoned righteous by Jesus’ death, but we must now continually reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. How do we do this? By confessing our sins—by acknowledging our sinfulness before God, by admitting our sinful thoughts, words, and deeds, by seeking His mercy, by imploring His grace. This is where we Lutherans have stumbled. We have forgotten this fourth part of Baptism. And so we have long neglected the third Sacrament of personal Confession and Absolution. But as Luther said, it is nothing else than a return to and an application of Baptism.

One of the great tragedies of Christianity today, including among Lutherans, is that the baptized do not know how to use their Baptism rightly. We fret and fuss and wring our hands over our sins. We scold ourselves, and one another, over our sins, but we don’t confess them. We seek the help of professional counselors for our shortcomings, but we rarely go to our own pastor to confess our sins, bury them, and be forgiven of them. Let’s call it “cheap grace.” “Cheap grace” is Baptism without repentance. It is Absolution without personal confession. It is Christ without a cross. When dealing with our problems, we would rather seek the over-the-counter, self-help remedies at Borders, but we don’t want the strong—and most effective!—medicines that Christ prescribes for us. We would rather recite slogans like “Just say no” instead of simply saying, “Yes,” to our Baptism. We would rather work on and work out our “problems” and “issues” instead of dealing with the fact that we are the problem, and that we need to die in Jesus every day so that Jesus might live in us.

By confessing our sins, we bury them in Baptism; we drown them in the cleansing flood that flowed from Jesus’ side. This is what St. Paul means, when he says, “Consider yourselves dead to sin.” Confess your sin and your sins. Disown them. Throw them away at the garbage dump called Golgotha. Nail them to Jesus’ cross. Bury them in Jesus’ grave. In Confession, we set Baptism to work for us. We unleash the life-restoring power of Jesus’ death and resurrection in our lives. We cannot conquer sin. Christ alone conquers sin for us and in us. And He does it through the daily application of Baptism. As St. Paul says, “Sin will have no dominion over you.” Once sin did have dominion over you, causing you to distrust God, bringing shame and guilt and doubt and death. But now Christ has claimed dominion over you. He covers you with His blood. He frees you with His forgiveness. He lords His death and resurrection over you. Baptism, then, gives you permission to enter God’s presence and confess your sins to Him, counting on Him to forgive you.

And so, finally, Baptism means life—new life in the life of Jesus. In Baptism we can say with St. Paul: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). His life is now our life, and it’s the resurrected life of Jesus. He works in us and through us. We are “alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Apart from Christ, we die. In Christ Jesus by Baptism, we live.

In John, chapter 15(:5), Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” Branches receive their life from the vine to which they are joined. Sap flows from the vine into the branches, and brings life, leaves, buds, and fruit. In Holy Baptism, the “sap” of the Spirit flows from Christ into us, thus producing in us the Spirit’s fruit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). That’s the sweet harvest of Baptism!

So, Baptism is a life-giving water. As Jesus says, “The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (Jn. 4:14). Baptism is our daily spring, our daily refreshment. It’s God’s healing, cleansing bath that makes us alive in the life of the Lamb who once was slain but now lives. Yes, Luther was right. He said there’s a whole lifetime of learning in Holy Baptism. Yes, there is! And there’s a whole lifetime of dying and rising in the water with Jesus, each and every day between now and the Last Day, when Jesus will give us yet more life for all eternity. Amen.

A big, hearty "Thank you"...

...to Pr. Rick Stuckwish for his incisive and much-needed comments about the recent language from and direction of the LCMS Commission on Worship and its foray into American Evangelical lingo, practice, and theology! Please read his comments here.

It certainly appears that the current Commission on Worship wants to distance itself from Lutheran Service Book and its growing, salutary concordia (harmony, oneness) in the Church's liturgy as it, the Commission, clamors for the pottage of Methodistic and Revivalistic forms of "soul winning" worship. In fact, I would push the point and say that the current Commission appears to be distancing itself, and the LCMS, from a bona fide Lutheran understanding of the liturgy and God's service to us in His Gospel and Sacraments altogether! Compare the comments given by the Commission (as cited in Pr. Stuckwish's blog post) with what the Apology of the Augsburg Confession says:
We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and peace. We interpret them in a more moderate way and reject the opinion that holds they justify…. Among us many use the Lord’s Supper every Lord’s Day. They do so after they have been first instructed, examined, and absolved. The children sing psalms in order that they may learn. The people also sing so that they may either learn or pray…. Nothing in customary rites should be changed without a reasonable cause. So to nurture unity, old customs that can be kept without sin or great inconvenience should be kept. In this very assembly we have shown well enough that for love’s sake we do not refuse to keep adiaphora with others, even though they may be burdensome. We have judged that such public unity, which could indeed be produced without offending consciences, should be preferred (Apology XV:38-52, emphasis added).
Our Lutheran forebears would certainly strive to win souls, however, they would do so by means of the Gospel and Sacraments of Jesus Christ handed down and practiced via the Church's liturgy through the centuries. In other words, according to our Lutheran forebears, proper worship and true "soul-winning" both occur within the catholicity of the Church and the Church's life in the liturgy, that is, the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out as they have been through the 20 centuries of the Church's life. After all, these same forebears - our sage fathers in the Faith and in proper "worship" - would also trust and confess that the Holy Spirit "works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ's sake" (Augsburg Confession V:2-3).

Pr. Stuckwish is exactly right: the Holy Spirit is the One who "wins souls." Our task is simply and faithfully to hear, learn, and proclaim the love and mercy of God in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. I for one would much rather trust the gracious work of the Holy Trinity, however unpredictable it may be by my finite standards and understanding, than place my confidence in man-made strategies and "methodisms" for ensuring some statistical quota of "souls."

17 February 2008

Homily - Lent 2 - Reminiscere

Catching Christ in His Own Words
Matthew 15:21-28 w/ Genesis 32:22-32

Last week we fought against the devil. This week, we fight against God! Yes, I’m serious!

First today, we heard about Jacob. What else did Jacob do, but wrestle with a man whom he also knew to be God? This Man, the Son of God, even changed Jacob’s name to “Israel,” which means, “wrestles with God.” What did this Man say? “For you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Yes, Jacob fought against God.

Then we heard about the Canaanite woman. She fought and struggled against the God-Man in the flesh. A simple, plaintive prayer request to help her demon-possessed daughter turned into a four-round wrestling match with the Son of God. First, the external dilemma of her demon-possessed daughter. Then, the silent treatment. Then, the shocking words that the Lord did not come for “her kind.” And finally – insult of insults – Jesus called this poor woman a dog! Yes, the poor, little Canaanite woman fought against God.

What do you do when you must fight against God Himself? What do you do when you pray most fervently for God’s promised help, and He answers not a word – just gives you the silent treatment? What do you do when you plaintively cry out to Him, asking Him to remove some heavy burden, some vexing trial, some prickly temptation, and He just leaves it on your shoulders to carry for a while longer, a while that seems like an eternity? What do you do when you receive that diagnosis of cancer, or when you hear news that your job was just taken from you, or when the car breaks down and the kids must go to the doctor and you have no money to pay for either? What do you do when your family, your friends, or your co-workers seem to treat you like dirt – no, worse than dirt; like slime? What do you do when all such things happen and God is most strangely silent, even giving you every indication that He’s not there for you, even treating you like a dog?

I’ll tell you what you do. You follow the example of Jacob and the Canaanite woman. You catch Christ in His own words. You hold Him to His words of promise. You pin His omnipotent shoulders to the mat. And then you hang on for the wildest – and best – ride of your life! That’s what faith is all about: catching Christ in His own words, and then clinging to Him no matter what He does, no matter where He leads, no matter what may happen day by day or hour by hour. You see, when you cling to Christ and His words, you can still receive some pretty potent crumbs of mercy from His Table of forgiveness and life.

When Martin Luther preached on this same Gospel reading in 1534, he applauded the faith of the Canaanite woman. He said this about faith: “What a superb and wonderful object lesson this is, therefore, to teach us what a mighty, powerful, all-availing thing faith is. Faith takes Christ captive in his word….” Then, after pointing out that the Canaanite woman gladly admits she is a dog, Luther also says, “Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught.” (HP I:325).

Yes, sometimes the Christian faith is marked by fighting against God – no, not in the way of rebellion, but rather in the way of not knowing and understanding what He’s up to. And still the Christian says in faith, “Lord, I will catch You in Your words of promise and blessing. I will hold Your feet to the fire of Your forgiveness. I will pin your almighty shoulders to the mat of Your very own mercy.” And the Christian will wage everything in his or her life – no matter how dark the road, no matter how confusing the way, no matter how burdensome and painful the task – that Jesus is happy to be caught in His words of promise and mercy and life and forgiveness.

That’s exactly what Jacob did. Through the hours of the night he wrestled with this Man who is also God. “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, He touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was out of joint as he wrestled with Him.” Jacob, though, did not let a “little thing” like a dislocated hip distract him from catching the Son of God in His words of blessing. “Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’” And we also heard how Jacob received this whole event – the wrestling, the dislocated hip, and the blessing – with great joy. He said, “Jacob called the name of the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered.’”

The Canaanite woman certainly caught Christ in His words. She called Him, “Lord, Son of David.” She knew His divine mercy and goodness could heal her demon-possessed daughter. So, she did not let the silent treatment stop her. She did not let prejudicial words against “her kind” slow her down. “But she came and knelt before him saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” Sounds like your prayers, doesn’t it? And you can almost hear her saying those same three words over and over again – “Lord, help me. Lord, help me! LORD, HELP ME!” – as she perseveres to get His attention. And when she does get His attention, she does not let that “little thing” of being called a dog derail her trust and hope either. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”

Jesus is oh, so happy to be caught in His words! You can almost see a glimmer in His eye, a twinkle of delight at being caught so that He simply must show mercy. And that’s what He does: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. That’s the wildest and best ride for all of us: the Lord showing His mercy. That’s what makes faith great: the Lord giving His blessing and life. Since faith is receiving God’s goodness and mercy, forgiveness and life, then great is the woman’s receiving of God’s goodness, mercy, forgiveness and life.

So, how great is your faith? It’s as great as the Lord Christ whom you catch in His words. After all, before He went to the cross, He also cried a most plaintive prayer to His God and Father: “My Father, if it be possible, let the cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Mt. 26:39). God told Him, “Nope, You can keep the cup of Your suffering for a while.” Then, as our Lord hung on the cross, He persisted in His plaintive prayer: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Mt. 27:46). It was God’s will that His own Son should carry the weight of our sins, our doubts, and our faithless wrestlings with God through the suffering, to the cross, and into death. You see, that’s where God catches Himself in His own words of forgiveness and life. That’s where God, the Holy Trinity, is happy to be caught showing mercy and love for all people: at the cross, in the tomb, and out of the empty grave. In our crucified and risen Lord, you have been freed from Satan’s possession and healed of your faithless doubts. Your faith in the crucified and risen Son of God is great, because His forgiveness and life given to you is great!

And that, dear friends, is what enables you to endure and persevere the times of trial and the testing of temptations. That great news of mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus helps you cling to Him and catch Him in His words. Jacob’s son, Joseph, provides another faith strengthening example. He was sold into slavery at age 17. Falsely accused of sexual harassment and thrown in to prison. No doubt, he prayed fervently and plaintively for the Lord to rescue and deliver him. And after 13 years of such suffering and perseverance, God finally answered his prayers and made him second in command of Egypt under Pharaoh. Yes, Joseph also caught Christ in His words of mercy and blessing.

So, go ahead and catch your merciful Lord Jesus in His words of blessing, forgiveness, and life. And, like the Canaanite woman you have the crumbs that fall from the Master’s Table for strength. And what potent crumbs they are! Crumbs of your Lord’s life-giving, soul-sustaining Body and Blood that freely fall from the Table of His Altar. These little crumbs – little bits of Body under bread and little sips of Blood under wine – they strengthen you to endure the battles with God and faithfully cry out, “Lord, help me!” In fact, they strengthen you to pin Him to the mat for His mercy and blessing. As St. Peter says, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). Amen.

14 February 2008

Champion Beagle...Finally!

Congratulations to "Uno" - a Beagle - for being the #1 dog at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show! And from nearby Belleville, IL, no less.

How amazing it is that one of the favorite dog breeds - indeed, *my* favorite! - has finally won after 100 years. I'm just glad that a "real dog" won the show. :-) (What are those other critters called, the ones with the foofy masses of cotton stuck on their heads, upper bodies, and tails? Poodles? Are they really "dogs"? :-)

Here's the story (video) from the online version of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

13 February 2008

"The A-B-Cs of Lent - Baptism, Part I"

Here's my homily from tonight's Evening Prayer service for the first week in Lent. In keeping with the catechetical nature of Lent midweek services, I borrow heavily from Pr. Bill Cwirla's sermon series from several years ago, "Five Sermons on the Sacraments" (I printed them off back in 1997, and I assume that he preached them not too long before that.) I am indebted to Pr. Cwirla's wonderful craftsmanship of words and ideas, and I thank and give credit to him for great ways of teaching God's gifts.

“The A-B-Cs of Lent” – Baptism I
Titus 3:3-8; Matthew 28:16-20; Small Catechism, Baptism, Parts 1-2

Tonight we begin a sermon series called, “The A-B-Cs of Lent.” What are the “A-B-Cs of Lent”? They are Absolution, Baptism, and Communion. These Sacraments are quite foundational to our life in Christ and our life in His Church. So, for these Lent Evening Prayer services, we will look at the Sacraments and how they shape our life.

When you examine your Bible, you won’t find the word “sacrament.” We actually borrow it from Latin since it translates the Greek word “mystery.” And what’s a mystery? It’s something that is hidden from our reason and senses, but something that God reveals by His Word. Also, the word “sacrament” can be used in different ways, and has been through the Church’s 2000 years. Early on it simply meant “a sacred rite, or act, of the Church.” Some have counted seven Sacraments, others, nine, and still others, twelve. Seven was the agreed upon number in the West during the Reformation. The seven were: Baptism, Confession, Lord’s Supper, Ordination, Marriage, Confirmation, and Anointing the Sick. Lutherans keep and acknowledge these rites, but we also believe and teach that the first three are different from the others. Baptism, Absolution, and Communion are gifts that deliver God’s salvation, rites that show God is gracious to us through His crucified and risen Son.

Now, as Lutherans, we do not have a box labeled “Sacraments” into which we put whatever fits our definition. We really have not been interested in arguing over how many Sacraments there are. We simply have, trust, use, and enjoy the gifts that Jesus gives in His dying and rising. In fact, you could say that Jesus Christ is our only true Sacrament. He is God’s gift of life and salvation from Whom all other gifts flow.

Now back to our “A-B-Cs.” Baptism, Absolution, and Communion have certain things in common. They are holy. They belong to and come from the Lord. And they deliver everything that Jesus died to give us—forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. They connect us to the cross. No, we weren’t there when they crucified our Lord and nailed Him to the tree 2000 years ago. But He is here for us, even now, in Baptism, Absolution, and Communion. But Christ’s gifts are also unique. Each Sacrament delivers something unique. And as we see what is unique about each gift – each of the “A-B-Cs” – we can extol, thank, and praise the Giver of these precious gifts. That’s our goal for these Wednesday evenings through Lent.

So, tonight we begin with Baptism. (Yes, I know my alphabet just fine, and “B” comes after “A”, but I also know that Baptism is the true beginning! ☺)

What is Baptism? As we said just a few moments ago, “Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.” Depending on how you’re counting them, Baptism is two or three things: water, command, and promise. That’s Baptism.

Baptism is not just plain water. So true! But it is water. Let’s acknowledge that. No water, no Baptism. How much water? God didn’t say. Certainly enough to get you wet. Water is the material means, the creaturely instrument that God uses. Remember how God uses water in the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit hovered over God’s created water at creation; all things were made by water and the Spirit. In the days of Noah God judged the unbelieving world by means of water, and yet saved believing Noah and his family. God led His people Israel through the water, out of slavery and into freedom and life. God cleansed Naaman, the Syrian army general, of his leprosy and restored his skin to that of a young child. Jesus stepped into the water of His Baptism to “fulfill all righteousness.” Jesus turned cleansing water into the best wine at Cana of Galilee. Jesus said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” On the cross blood and water flowed forth from Jesus’ pierced side. Jesus commanded that disciples be made by washing with water in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You see, water is essential for all of life. In a drought, crops fail, lawns and gardens wither, and people and animals suffer for lack of water. Each one of us is born in water, literally. So, it’s no surprise that our second, heavenly birth also comes through water. It’s where we are conceived by the Holy Spirit and born from above by our heavenly mother, the Church. Water sustains our life. Our bodies are over 75% water, and without water we quickly die. One early Christian pastor compared Christians to fish swimming in the water with big Fish Jesus. Take the Christian out of the living water of Baptism, and he/she will surely dry up and die of dehydration. Water also cleanses. We wash our bodies and our clothes with water. Just think of life without baths or showers, and you’ll appreciate the gift of cleansing water.

Tonight we also hear St. Paul call Baptism “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is the washing of regeneration, rebirth, re-creation. Through it we are born anew with a heavenly birth, not of our will, but of God’s will. Just as He did at creation, the Holy Spirit hovers over the waters. Again, God speaks His creative Word. We become new creatures in Baptism. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (And for St. Paul, “in Christ” means baptized.) Some early churches had scenes from the Garden of Eden painted on the walls by the baptismal font. Baptism is Paradise restored through the death and resurrection of Jesus. The old has gone; the new has come. God and man are reconciled, at peace, at one, in harmony.

Baptism is also a washing of renewal—not only a life-giving water, but also a life-sustaining and cleansing water. This water made alive by our living Lord washes us from the leprous filth of our sin. The filth of our lies, our deceits, our adulteries, our lust, our anger, our prejudice, our greed, our complaints, our gossip—all that flows out of our hearts unbuckled from God—it all gets washed away in this flood of God’s grace.

So, we must not despise this water, or treat it lightly. It’s quite common in our day to look down our noses at material things when it comes to religion. We love the materials things that we eat, drink, wear, and buy, but somehow we don’t want our religion to be too material. But what God has joined together, we must not separate. Water, word, Spirit—they’re all together in Baptism. Let’s not despise the setting – water – that holds God’s precious jewel of Baptism.

Baptism is water connected to Christ’s command. He established it; He commanded it. We heard that tonight. It’s His Baptism—not the Church’s, not ours. We also heard how Jesus is always with us in the baptizing and the teaching. So the Church keeps the command of Christ when she baptizes and teaches. That’s how disciples are made. Jesus gave us no other way—no special gimmicks, no slick programs, no number-crunching movements to replace baptizing and catechizing. Everything a Christian congregation does should orbit around these activities of baptizing and teaching. Let’s always ask ourselves, “How does this activity or that plan relate to baptizing and teaching? Are we teaching people into Baptism? Are teaching people out of their Baptism?” If we can’t make that connection, perhaps we’d best not do it.

Jesus’ disciple-making command, though, gives us confidence. Jesus is with us in this activity. He authorizes it. He approves it. He promises to be with us in it. Yes, you see a man’s hand pouring the water, but it’s still God’s hand. Yes, you hear a man’s voice speaking the words, but it’s still God’s Word and work. Some may ask, “Why do you baptize?” We simply say, “The Lord commands it.” Some may ask, “Why do you baptize babies?” We simply answer, “The Lord commands it.” Some may ask, “Why is Baptism necessary for salvation?” We confidently say, “The Lord commands it.” It’s His Baptism; we just work here!

And this water connected with God’s command is also combined with His Word of promise. Not every washing can be a washing of regeneration and renewal. Not every bath is a Baptism. Baptism is God’s washing of water with the Word. And when Christians say the word “Word,” we mean first and foremost Jesus Christ, the Word-made-Flesh. Baptism is the washing of water with Jesus, His perfect life, His suffering, death, and resurrection. Jesus is the fount and source of Baptism. He is the rock from which the refreshing waters flow to quench the hot thirst from our sin.

The Promise of God in Baptism also makes the water bloody—bloody with the blood of God’s Son. The blood of Jesus is the detergent in the water. Our robes are plunged into this bloody water and made white in the blood of the Lamb once slain for us sinners. The Word—Jesus—delivers the blood. He makes the baptismal water “a divine, heavenly, holy, blessed water.” Only with Jesus can something be called holy. Jesus is with us in that water. The Holy Spirit is there with us too, hovering as a dove. And the Father is there with us, saying, “This is My beloved child.”

So, to despise Baptism or treat it lightly is to despise or treat lightly God and His Word, Jesus. This is why Baptism is not just some symbolic ceremony, not just a little religious thing to do when aunts and uncles can come to town, not just a good excuse for a family gathering, not just a “christening” or dedication, not even just a “Get-Out-of-Hell-Free” card to spring on God on the Last Day. All of that diminishes the power of God’s Promise. All of that denies that the Word—Jesus—is living and active in the water of Baptism.

What blessing and benefits are given with this water combined with God’s command and promise? “It works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare.” St. Peter sums it up in one word, when he says, “Baptism…now saves you.” Then he says, “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.”

“Salvation” means “release, rescue.” It means to be brought out of a narrow prison cell into a wide-open place filled with light and air. Baptism gives us room to breathe, to work, to pray, to praise and give thanks, to serve others. As Luther said, “To be saved is nothing else than to be delivered from sin, death, and the devil, and to enter the kingdom of Christ and live with Him forever.” We are born in bondage to sin and death and cannot set ourselves free, no matter how hard we try or how much money we spend. But in Baptism Jesus sets us free from our captivity by applying His death and resurrection to us.

When were you saved? St. Paul and St. Peter teach us to say, “When I was baptized, washed with the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.” You could say you were saved from the foundations of the world. But you weren’t there. You could also say you were saved when Jesus died on the cross. But you weren’t there either. You were there at your Baptism, though. And God was there for you to save you and wash you. There, in that washing, Jesus applied Himself and His name to you, personally. There His death became your death; His life became your life.

So Baptism requires all hearts to believe. It’s not enough merely to have water poured over us. We must believe the words of God’s Promise attached to Baptism. Yes, receiving the blessings and benefits requires faith. And it also gives the faith. Sometimes God creates faith first, by means of His Gospel words, and then He bestows Baptism, as with an adult or older child. Sometimes God gives Baptism first, and then creates faith, as with babies and younger children. The order is God’s business. He alone raises the dead, and He does it when and where it pleases Him in those who hear the Gospel.

So, to believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior is the same thing as to believe in the Baptism that He gives to save you. “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved.” May God grant this to us all. Amen.

12 February 2008

The cry of Lent: "Fix your eyes on Jesus!"

During the season of Lent, the Church calls us to fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. Here's another gem from Ephraim the Syrian (A Spiritual Psalter #26):

All our hope is Christ. Cry unto Him.

Thou, O Lord of all, according to Thy mercy, be for me a harbor of salvation, a refuge of charity, and save me.

I beseech Thy kindness, O my Savior. From henceforth pour out upon me Thy mercies at that hour and set me far away from those who are to be tormented.

O Christ, Who didst will to become a sacrifice for us, destroy the sin which has stricken all my members. Descend and dwell in my members.

When he hears of this, the teeth of the evil one will be broken and the fire of Gehenna will be extinguished by Thy radiance.

Evil Satan has spewed out his venom on me, he has corrupted me and debased me with sin. But because I follow Thy way, and Thou art omnipotent, in my infirmity I nurture hope that Thou wilt scorn him and help me by pardoning sins—and then will my corrupter be ashamed.

The princes of evil have blinded me with their passions, and by their cunning have they robbed me of the beauty of my youth. What can I do, now that I have lost my purity? I will cry out to Christ, that He might return my beauty to me—and then will the evil ones be ashamed.

My Savior cries out to me, to His disciple: do not despair of thy salvation; I will restore thee and forgive thy sins. I have found thee and I will not leave thee; for I have redeemed thee with My very own Blood.

Cry out, O sinner, with all your might, and spare not your throat; for your Lord is merciful and love those who repent. As soon as you return, your Father will come out aforehand to meet you. He will slaughter the fatted calf, clothe you in a fine robe and rejoice in you.

11 February 2008

Music to our ears!

A *very big Thank You!* to Pr. Tim Landskroener and his wife Kathy for inviting my wife and me to the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra on Friday evening. The tickets were gifts to the Landskroeners, and the Landskroeners were quite generous to share them with us too. Thank you!

Usually, Friday evenings are set aside for crashing and burning after a long week. In fact, it's often difficult to get me to want to do anything that's extra-curricular. However, I'm sure glad that we went to the Philharmonic this past Friday. What a delightful gift that God has given in music that has endured the test of time! What wonderful gifts He gives to those who can play the instruments that all blend together to sound forth such beauty!

Friday's concert by the St. Louis Philharmonic Orchestra was conducted by Robert Hart Baker. We were privileged to hear Felix Mendelssohn's Overture to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27. That was every enjoyable to picture a ship and mariner at sea as we listened to the music.

Next we heard Hamlet Fantasy Overture, Op. 67 by Tchaikovsky. Wow! Talk about rich music with so many "layers" in that Russian style! (No, that's not an official review; just the reaction of this music novice.)

The real treat came with Robert Schumann's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 97, "Rhenish". What a great combination of majesty, evidently inspired by a visit to the Cologne Cathedral and the installation of the Archbishop there in the early 1850s, and of peaceful joy, inspired by Schumann's arrival in the Rhineland.

So, thank you Tim and Kathy, for inviting us to tag along, and THANK YOU! Lord for the gift of beautiful, stirring, and majestic music!

10 February 2008

Homily - Lent 1 - Invocabit

Necessary Fights
Matthew 4:1-11

I don’t know about you, but Mom and Dad taught me not to fight. They raised me to think that fighting is not necessary, except, of course, when I must defend myself. Even the law of the land agrees with this. You can be arrested for assault and battery or brawling, but you can also be exonerated when you act in self-defense. Mom, Dad and society want to make fighting as rare as possible. Today’s message, though, would seem to contradict that. Today the Church tells her spiritual children that fights are necessary. In fact, she says, you can expect many fights against sin, death, and the devil. On this First Sunday in Lent our Lord Jesus shows us and teaches us that when we become Christians, we will have necessary fights.

Now I know what you’re thinking: “That can’t be right! Jesus is the Prince of Peace; Christians are supposed to be gentle peace makers, right?” But there’s a reason the Church begins the season of Lent with Jesus fighting against the devil in the wilderness. Through the centuries, Lent has been the time when the Church enrolls catechumens—learners of the faith—for their final and more intense round of instruction in the Faith. These new Christians need to know that coming into the Church does not mean that life will be a bed of roses. Contrary to what the feel-good, positive-thinking preachers in our day say, becoming a Christian means that the fights—against the sinful flesh, against our sickness of death, and against the devil—have only just begun. And today we (will see) we’ve seen Lily Alethea be baptized. She also now enters the necessary fights against the sinful flesh, our sickness of death, and the devil.

So whether you are a new Christian in your Baptism, or a Christian soon to finish instruction and be confirmed, or even a more mature Christian, accustomed fighting against sin, death, and Satan, Jesus’ necessary fight against the devil is for you.

In Round One of Jesus’ necessary fight against Satan, the old evil foe tries to appeal to bodily cravings, to needs of the belly. Remember how Satan deceived Adam and Eve in the Garden? He appealed to their hunger for food. They gave in by taking and eating the fruit that God told them not to eat. By their eating, by submitting to their bodily cravings, Adam and Eve brought the disease of death into God’s good world. So when Jesus, the Perfect Man, the Second Adam, comes on the scene, He begins to reverse the curse of death by not eating, by fasting for 40 days. The first Adam began in Paradise, ate the food offered by Satan, and then ended up in the wilderness of a world infected by death. But Jesus, the Second Adam, began in the wilderness, fasted from food offered by Satan, and thus restores us to Paradise with God. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word—especially the Word Who is Christ—that comes from the mouth of God.”

In Round Two of Jesus’ necessary fight with the devil, the satanic foe appeals to vain ambition. Let’s call it “ego” or “self-promotion.” Will Jesus, the Second Adam, humbly submit to the Father’s will, or will He demand and depend on a spectacular sign, a leap of faith? We know that Adam and Eve wanted to “be like God,” and so they ate, and their self-promotion, their desire to exalt themselves, was exposed. Satan even tried to quote Scripture to lure Jesus into showing off His Godhood, but again Jesus resisted the temptation. He fought off the devil. He did not need to put the Lord [His] God to the test, because He trusted that His Father would protect Him.

In Round Three of Jesus’ necessary fight against Satan, the fallen angel tries to sucker the Lord of Creation into bowing down and worshiping him. For what? For all of the kingdoms of the world that already belonged to Him. Adam and Eve thought that the forbidden fruit would make them wise and thus open up the world to their domination. Yes, they got greedy. They wanted the world to work on their terms and be at their beck and call. But Jesus knows better. Wisdom comes only from God. The world already belongs to Him, and He does not need to flaunt it. Instead, as the Perfect Man, He bows down and worships His Father. “You shall worship the LORD your God, and Him only shall you serve.”

Now it so happens that Satan attacks us in the same three ways that he first attacked Adam and Eve and later attacked our Lord Jesus. The old evil foe comes at us through bodily cravings. He tries to appeal to our vain ambition. And he loves to see our avarice and greed get the best of us. Believe me, dear saints, the devil is having a heyday in our American culture, because we all love to satisfy out bodily cravings, especially when the fast food chain says, “Have it your way.” We all love to improve our self-esteem and feel good about ourselves, but we usually do so by making God and other people bow down to us. And we like to think that the world could be ours, or at least the parts of it that we want, if only we will work hard enough or pay enough money. After all, you have to spend money to get more money, right?

But notice how our Lord Jesus conquers the old satanic foe for us. When He is hungry and tempted by needs of the belly, Jesus relies on God’s words to feed Him. When He is tempted to exalt Himself and prove His faith in God, Jesus humbles Himself to His Father. And when He is tempted to greedily grab the kingdoms of the world, the Son worships the Father instead. The fourth century pastor Gregory the Great said, “He overcame his enemy not by destroying him but by suffering him for a while” (ACCS, 63). And our Lord Jesus finally and ultimately suffered His enemy, the devil, on the bloody cross. He was tempted to avoid the pain and hardship. He was tempted to come down from the cross, so that people would supposedly believe Him. But remember this: your Lord Jesus Christ, the Second Adam, did not give in to such temptations. No, He loved you and went to the cross and grave for you. He loved you and wanted to rescue you from the evil foe. He loved you and wanted to restore you to life with God—life of living on His words, life of being humble before Him, life of bowing down and worshiping Him—because He is gracious and merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. It’s the same Love that (will wash) has washed Lily Alethea free from sin. The same Love that keeps her and us joined to Christ and His dying and rising.

So now what? Now that Christ, the Second Adam, has conquered the devil and brought life back to us, how do we engage in the necessary fights? This, dear friends, is why the Church gives us the three disciplines of Lent: fasting, giving to the needy, and prayer. Now that we are forgiven and enlivened by God’s grace, we can engage the enemy. We get to practice fasting during Lent, not to earn God’s grace, but because we already live in it. As one pastor friend of mine once said, “Fasting is saying to your body: ‘You’re not the boss!’” Fasting helps us control our bodily cravings. We get to practice giving to the needy, that is, giving money, food, clothing, and shelter to the poor. Giving to the needy tells your ego, “You’re not in charge.” We get to practice prayer as we reorganize our hectic schedules in order to take part in the services in God’s house and keep times of prayer at home. Prayer is saying to the world, “You don’t control me; God does; and I’ll worship Him, thank you very much.”

Yes, these fights against our sinful flesh, our disease of death, and the old satanic foe are necessary fights. These fights against our bodily cravings, our vain ambition, and our greed are necessary fights. But also remember this: “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). Dear friends, you are about to come to the Lord’s throne of grace and receive His Body and Blood. Let this true, heavenly food of Christ strengthen you and give you the divine mercy and grace, strength and energy that you need to engage in the necessary fights. Amen.

08 February 2008

Now That's Repentance!

Among the many Lenten devotional tools - many very good and some not so good - I have come to appreciate one source, and I keep returning to it year after year. A Spiritual Psalter or Reflections on God by Ephraim the Syrian is a great Lenten prayer book, especially for teaching one how to repent. Here's one example, which I classify as "Now that's repentance!"

Spiritual Psalter #8
The one hope for fallen sinners is the Crucified Lord

Mourn over my nakedness, O my beloved brothers! I have angered Christ with my wanton life. For the Good One created me and gave me freedom, but I have abused it and repaid Him with evil, with my lawless deeds.

The Lord of all made me perfect and established me as an instrument of His glory, that I might serve Him and glorify His name; but I, wretch that I am, have made my members into instruments of sin and have used them to work all manner of deceit. Woe is me, for He will judge me justly.

My shameless deeds presage my fate at the judgement, for they will indict my poor soul. Unrelentingly I beg Thee, O my Savior: shelter me under Thy wings and do not expose my defilement at Thy great judgement, that I might glorify Thy kindness.

All manner of evil deeds which I have done before the Lord of all exclude me from communion with the saints. And become I have not served God with my life as they have, I have no share in their good deeds. Alas, I have perished!

Now the grief that I deserve overtakes me. For if I had struggled along with them, then, like they, I would be glorified. But because I was negligent and served the passions, I do not belong to the hosts of victors, but have become an heir of gehenna.

To Thee, O Victor pierced by nails on the cross Who calleth out to sinners saying: come, receive forgiveness freely—to Thee I unrelentingly pray, O my Savior: turn Thine eyes away from my lawlessness, and by Thy sufferings heal my sores that I may glorify Thy kindness.

O All-good One, Whose kindness is immeasurably greater than the deceit of the world, strengthen my miserable soul with hope in Thy kindness, for it has been weakened and become exhausted to the extreme by the crushing infirmities of deceit and sin, and it holds on only by relying on Thee, for it hopes to find comfort in Thee!

06 February 2008

Pastor Why...? - Saying Goodbye to "Alleluia"

Why do we “say goodbye” to the word “Alleluia” during the season of Lent?

In order to answer this question, let’s remember what “Alleluia” means and why we sing and say it so often in the liturgy.

“Alleluia” comes from two Hebrew words joined together to say “Praise Yahweh,” or “Praise the LORD.” We can see this in the other spelling of the word: “Hallelujah” (hallelu = praise; jah = Yahweh, or the LORD). Quite simply, “Alleluia” means “Praise the Lord!”

We use this ancient word to express great joy in praising God for His wonderful works of salvation. While we certainly praise and thank the Lord in many ways and for many things, we usually sing and say “Alleluia” with the spirit of great joy and elation.

So, when we come to the Season of Lent, we omit the word “Alleluia” from the liturgy and hymns. Why? Because Lent brings with it a spirit of somber reflection on our great need for salvation. Lent is a penitential season – a time of repentance for our many sins – and so we forego the spirit of joy that comes with “Alleluia.” For the six-week period of Lent and Holy Week, we fast from singing the word “Alleluia,” because we realize that we have strayed from our God and must return to the Lord our God.

When we fast from the word “Alleluia,” we do not sing the “Alleluia and Verse” (LSB, 156 & 173), and we forego singing canticles that contain the word, canticles such as “This is the Feast” (LSB, 155 & 171) and “Thank the Lord” (LSB, 164 & 181). We also fast from singing hymns with “Alleluia” in them.

But let not your heart be troubled! “Alleluia” will return on Easter Sunday. Then we will sing it with great gusto, because we will rejoice once again in the great things God does for us in raising His Son and giving us His victory over death!

Ash Wednesday Prayers

In keeping with Lent being a time given to more prayer, here are some good prayers for this Ash Wednesday:

The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth,
and formed me into a living being,
breathing into me the breath of life.
God honored me,
setting me up as ruler upon earth over all things visible,
and made me companion of the angels.
But Satan the deceiver,
using the serpent as instrument,
enticed me by food--
parted me from the glory of God,
and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of the earth.
But in compassion, O Savior, call me back again! (Byzantine Vespers, cited in For All the Saints, III:818)

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth; grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, so we may remember that only by your gracious gift are we given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen. (Anonymous; cited in For All the Saints, III:818)

The second prayer nicely coincides with Pr. Weedon's thoughts about ashes *not* being done to show off one's fasting!

Homily - Ash Wednesday

From Play-Acting to Children
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

So…what kind of people are you? The answer will color how you think of God.

What kind of people are you when you do your deeds of charity, that is, give to the needy? What kind of people are you when you pray? What kind of people are you when you fast? You will show who you are and whom you think God is when you do these things.

When you do your deeds of charity and mercifully give to the needy, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not sound the trumpets in church or on the street corners, but you still like to be noticed. Let’s say you help out at a charity fundraiser. If the organizers publicly thank those who helped, and if they leave out your name, you do feel slighted. Let’s say you give money to someone who is hungry and needs some food. You do expect a “thank you.” And if you don’t get it, you think the person you helped is a bit rude. You do like to be noticed.

When you pray, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not stand on the street corners and shout your prayers to the top of your lungs, but you still like to be noticed. You like it when other people find out how devout you are. You like it when you are commended for simply going to church. You like it when people marvel at things you do in your prayer life. You might even enjoy telling someone else, “I’m praying for you” for that little sense of accomplishment and appreciation. You do like to be noticed.

When it comes to fasting, you do like to be noticed. No, you may not walk around sad or smear dust on your face, but you still like to be noticed. Actually, you might be proud of the fact that you don’t fast. It’s a lost art of devotion in our world of fast food, hectic schedules and instant, Internet gratification. After all, if you fast, you might be considered a “religious fanatic” or one of those “other Christians” that none of us wants to be like. You just don’t want to be noticed the wrong way.

Jesus uses one word to sum it all up: hypocrites. What’s a hypocrite? In ancient Greece a “hypocrite” was a stage actor. One actor would often perform two or more roles in a play. To do this the actor would have different masks. He would hold the right mask in front of him at the right times for the different characters he would play. When he played King Oedipus, he would hold up the King Oedipus mask; when he played daughter Antigone, he would hold up the Antigone mask. So, a hypocrite would be a play actor, one who wears a mask and even changes masks.

So how can Jesus call you hypocrites when you do your deeds of charity? How can Jesus call you hypocrites when you pray? How can He call you hypocrites when you fast? Simple! Because it’s who you are; it’s the kind of people you are deep down. You want to be noticed for the kind deeds you do for the needy, for the prayers you offer, or for the way you treat fasting. But it’s all a cover up—one big mask. You’re using your acts of devotion to please God, to make Him smile on you. You think God is your audience and you must do whatever it takes to make Him laugh and enjoy you. But you’re using your good deeds to mask one simple fact: by nature you and I are actually, truly, absolutely sinners before God—filthy rotten to the core.

The issue is not “What do other people think about your acts of kindness, or your prayers, or your fasting?” The issue is “What does God think about them?” Your masks of good deeds and prayers and fasting may please people around you. They might even look very good. They might even help other people out. But they won’t please God. He sees behind the mask. He sees in secret. He sees the truth, not the stage act. God sees that you are dust and to dust you shall return (Gen. 3:19).

Does this mean you should refrain from doing acts of kindness, or from praying, or from fasting? No, not at all. But it does mean that you cannot use such good works as masks to look good before God. Psalm 51 teaches us to pray and tell the truth before God: “Behold, You delight in truth in the inward being…. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:6, 17). The prophet Joel says the same thing: “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful…” (Joel 2:12-13).

What kind of people does God want you to be? People who tell the truth about yourselves. It’s what Ash Wednesday is all about; it’s what Lent is all about—telling the truth. “Yes, Lord, I am lifeless dust! Yes, Lord, everything I do is contaminated and polluted with the filth of my sin.” God delights when the masks come down. God sees what is hidden in the secret places of your heart. God loves it when you quit hiding it but rather expose it. “I, a poor miserable sinner, confess to You all my sins and iniquities…. What troubles me in particular is….” That’s what delights God: confessing, telling the truth, about yourself and your sin.

Then God is free to do His acts of mercy. You see, your play-acting masks of good deeds and prayers and fasting only get in the way of God’s acts of mercy. Once the masks come down, you can see God’s genuine acts of mercy. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. That’s the promise for you.

What acts of mercy does God do? For starters, He created you to be His genuine children, not a company of stage actors. But when you started acting like God—not just playing grown-up but trying to be grown-up—then God decided to show His mercy by sending His Son. God made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21). We can call God’s act of mercy “the blessed exchange.” God sent His Son into the world to take up, soak up, and absorb your sins and death into Himself. In return, your Lord Jesus gives you His life, His forgiveness, His rescue from sin and death. This is how your heavenly Father restores you to your place as His children. Everything wrong about you is nailed to Jesus, the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And everything right about Him is now given to you.

So, now, when you do your acts of charity, your praying, and your fasting, you are free to do them honestly, without masks. You are free to admit your sinfulness. You are free to acknowledge your sin, even by going to your pastor for Confession and Absolution. Lent is prime time for going to confession so that you can receive and rejoice in the Absolution. Your acts of charity for the needy, your praying, and your fasting are indeed stained with your sin. But the blood of Jesus cleanses them. The blood of Jesus cleanses you so that you may do your deeds of charity, your praying, and your fasting with a clear conscience.

Jesus and His suffering and death strip away the masks. His acts of mercy reveal who you really are: God’s beloved children. Now you may do your good words of devotion—your acts of charity for the needy, your praying, your fasting—not as play actors, but as blessed, free, genuine children. Amen.

03 February 2008

Homily - Quinquagesima

The Blind Man who Sees
Luke 18:31-43

Did you catch what the blind man cried out when he heard that Jesus was passing by? Perhaps he could see, in a way, after all! He cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” In other words, Kyrie eleison – Lord, have mercy! It’s one of the simplest prayers you can say or sing. But those two Greek words, or three words in English, contain more great stuff about our Lord than we can hardly imagine. We pray them at least twice in our liturgy every week. At the beginning of the Divine Service, we pray the four-fold “Lord, have mercy.” Later in the service, just before we receive Christ’s Body and Blood, we pray: “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us.” Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy. The words may just roll off your tongue like you’ve been saying them your whole live – and many of us have been - but what do they mean? What do they tell us about who we are as sinners and who Jesus is as Savior?

First, we hear Jesus taking His twelve disciples aside to tell them what’s about to happen to him. He says, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.” Yes, His pending Passion and His soon-to-come Crucifixion were prophesied by the Old Testament prophets. All is about to happen as planned by God Himself from eternity. Then, again referring to Himself, Jesus says, “He will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging Him, they will kill Him, and on the third day he will rise.” Yes, our Lord shows His true humanity in His suffering and death. How else would He be able to suffer and die for us, if He weren’t true Man?

But the disciples just don’t get it. They cannot quite grasp that Jesus’ death on the cross is the whole focal point and purpose of His life. The purpose of Jesus’ life was hidden from them. Jesus would have to heal a blind man to reveal the faith that trusts in Him.

But let’s pause here for a moment, before we get to the blind man. How often don’t we follow in the disciples’ shoes? How often don’t people come to church, go to Sunday School or Bible class their whole lives, and still they just don’t get the point? We like to think that just going through the motions of coming to Church, hearing the Gospel, and receiving the Sacrament is enough. But going through the motions is not the same thing as faith! Jesus’ disciples had been with Him for almost three years. Some of them even saw Him transfigured before their very eyes; they saw a glimpse of His glory. He even predicted His Passion and Death several times, basically telling them, “This is the point.” And still they just don’t get it.

Yes, the same thing is true for us. Perhaps you have a relative who grew up in the Church. They came to God’s house. They heard the Gospel. They received the Sacrament. Yet for some reason, they never got it. They have since fallen away from the faith. Like the seed that fell upon the rocky soil or among the thorns from last week, some just don’t get it. They don’t hear God’s summons to confess their sins. They somehow miss the point that Christ came to suffer and die for them. And it’s really not that complicated. Jesus wants us to be in His house so that we can receive His forgiveness and enjoy the life He comes to give. But He does so as our crucified Lord. That’s the message the disciples just didn’t get.

So let’s move on. Jesus travels on the road to Jericho. A crowd of onlookers gathers around Him and follows Him. As they make their way down the road, a blind man alongside the road hears the commotion and asks what’s going on. St. Mark tells us that his name is Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus learns that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. Then he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s the cry of every sinner who needs Jesus. It’s the cry of every soul that is weighed down by all the cares of life, by the trials we all face as children of Adam. It’s the cry that does not try to manipulate God or make demands of Him. It’s the cry of faith. Lord, have mercy on me!

And notice that he keeps crying out, even after the crowd tries to shut him up. Bartimaeus cries out because he knows that God will give mercy. He knows that God loves him with an everlasting love. He knows that God will hold him in the palm of his hand and will keep him forever. The pressure from the crowd to shut him up? Just doesn’t matter. The scrutiny from curious onlookers? Doesn’t mean a thing. All the socially popular and politically correct pleas for this man of faith to be quiet do not deter him. He knows that Jesus can heal him. He knows that he can see new life in Christ. And that means more to him than fitting in with the crowd.

Lord, have mercy. What does it mean? It means first of all that Bartimaeus recognizes that Jesus is Lord. He is the Son of the living God who has power over life and death. That’s why he can cry out to this Lord of life for mercy. Basically, he asks that God will not give him what he truly deserves. Bartimaeus knows that he deserves the blindness of his eyes, just as we all deserve the blindness that our sin brings. However, Bartimaeus prays that God would open his eyes and restore his sight. Let us pray that our gracious Master will open our eyes of faith to see His mercy. Lord, have mercy.

Bartimaeus isn’t afraid to ask God for what he wants and needs. Are you? Are you afraid to ask God for forgiveness? Are you afraid to ask God to be with you in times of trouble? Are you afraid that God will abandon you when you need Him the most? Are you afraid that God’s ways and teachings will make you unpopular and disliked by people around you?

Don’t be afraid. Our second reading today is from the “great love chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13. It’s one of the most loved chapters of the Bible, but too often we miss something about it. St. Paul is describing God’s love. This is the depth of God’s love. His love is so deep and wide that it will engulf the sinner—you—in flood of forgiveness. This love of God will put you back together when you are beaten and broken by sin, oppression and death. This love of God does not look for the easy way out. No, God’s love goes the very hard road, the road to Calvary and death on a cross. That’s God’s love for you. That’s how far His love will go to save you from sin and rescue you from death.

So we hold up the faith of Bartimaeus as a wonderful example for us to hear and follow. Bartimaeus did not try to make sense of things. He did not complain to God that his life was so miserable or that So-and-so had it so much better than he did. Instead, Bartimaeus looked at Jesus with the eyes of faith and cried out with the only words that made any sense: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

This week we begin our Lenten journey to the cross. This is a time of deep reflection for us Christians. This is the time when we need to look in the mirror of God’s message and realize the horrifying depths of our sinfulness and depravity. But this is also time when we get to look to Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame. This is the time when we all learn to cry out with the whole Church of all ages: Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy.

And remember this. It’s no accident that we pray these words just before we receive the Lord’s Body and Blood. After all, it’s right here, at Jesus Holy Altar, more than any other place, that we receive God’s mercy. It’s right here that God’s mercy is poured out for us in the cup of salvation. Oh, taste and see how gracious and merciful the Lord is. Blessed is everyone who trusts in Him and cries out to Him for mercy. Come to the Table, and receive a foretaste of His mercy that knows no bounds. Amen.