26 December 2016

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day

"The LOGOS Became Flesh"
John 1:1-18

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John begins his gospel with a most unique take on the Christmas story. John uses a very high-octane, supercharged term. “In the beginning was the LOGOS, and the LOGOS was with God, and the LOGOS was God.” LOGOS. It’s where we get words such as “logic” and “logical.” It also gets added to all those words that end in L-O-G-Y—“biology,” “psychology,” and “theology.”

What is this LOGOS that was in the beginning and that is God? The term can suggest something like “reason”—hence “logic” and “logical.” It can also suggest “a means of communication,” or an “expression of what is on one’s mind.” Greek philosophy used LOGOS to describe what gives order to the universe—something like “natural law”—and even what constitutes the rational soul in humans.

Such is this supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. But John is not shaped by Greek philosophy. Instead John is shaped by his Hebrew roots. For John, the LOGOS is the “Word of God” from the Old Testament. Through those books and those centuries, the Word of God is God in action—God in action creating the world, God in action revealing Himself, God in action delivering His people.

At creation, God spoke. He uttered what was on His mind and it happened. “By the word of the LORD the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (Ps. 33:6). At Mt. Sinai, God spoke. He communicated His will and revealed Himself to Moses in order to deliver His enslaved people. “I AM who I AM…. The LORD, the God of your fathers…. I will send you to Pharaoh that you may bring my people, the children of Israel, out of Egypt.” (Ex. 3:14, 16, 10). And here’s a delightful image. The apocryphal book of Wisdom speaks of all things lying peaceful and silent at midnight, and then, all of a sudden, the almighty LOGOS leaps from the royal, heavenly throne to conquer and slay the enemies of God and His people (18:14-15).

Such is this supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. God in action. God inserting Himself, even leaping, into human history to rescue and redeem and deliver. This LOGOS “was with God.” This Word of God is distinguished from God, yet He also exists in a very, very close personal relation with God the Father. But John does not leave it there. This LOGOS “was God.” He shares the same nature and being with God the Father. Perhaps we can say He is an extension of the personality of God. Perhaps we can say, “What God was and is, the LOGOS was and is.” Certainly we can and do say: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father” (Nicene Creed).

Now, if all of that makes your heads hurt or spin on this Christmas morn, good! That’s exactly John’s point. Christmas is about much more than a mommy, a foster daddy, a baby lying on some hay, and some animals standing around, chewing their cud. It is that, but it’s, oh, so much more. Now John uses another high-octane, supercharged term in his Christmas story. It’s a term that’s sure to raise eyebrows, challenge sensibilities, and send elitist Greek philosophers, and their modern heirs, running to their “safe spaces.” “And the LOGOS became FLESH and dwelt among us.” The term for “flesh” is sarx. It’s not the skin that you and I can see on the outside; it’s the layer of muscle—the meat—that lies beneath the skin and covers the bones. Thus, we get those terms beginning with “sarco-,” such as “sarcoplasm” or “sarcoma” or “sarcophagus.”

Such is this other supercharged term John uses in his Christmas story. John’s unique take on the Christmas story gives us a perfect marriage and melding of the exalted and the base, of the heavenly and the mundane, of God and Man—that is, the Son of God who takes on our full humanity, with all of its “flesh-and-bone-ness,” with all of its heart-pumping, lung-breathing, organ-secreting realness, and, yes, even with all of its bed-head and morning-breath qualities.

“The LOGOS was God…and the LOGOS became [meat].” Just like us, in every way…except the sin that infects us. That He did not take on! You see, sin is not part and parcel of human nature, but it does infect all of us and each of us.  It is our congenital birth defect received from Adam and Eve. Sin is the reason the LOGOS assumed and took on our full-fledged, meaty, down-to-earth humanity. God took on our meat and flesh to have it pierced and torn with thorns and spikes. God leaped down from His royal throne to leap up onto a cross. “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man” (Nicene Creed).

When John marries these two supercharged terms together in his Christmas story, they also become fighting words. John is actually poking a finger of truth into the eye of false teaching, performing some doctrinal surgery with a chainsaw. Through the ages, some have objected to the LOGOS—the divine Son of God—taking on flesh and bone and blood in this material world, this “meat-space.” They view this material world as inherently evil. For them salvation is getting away from—escaping, really—the prison cell of flesh, bone and blood, of rocks, trees, and rivers. What counts is what you feel. What counts is your supernatural knowledge of non-material matters. (Trust your feelings, Luke! Use the force, Luke!) Think of Greek philosopher Plato and his famous image. He said life in this material world is merely looking at shadows on the cave wall; the reality is something different and out of sight. And this view of life—that material, fleshly, meaty things are bad, and only the unseen, spiritual forces are good—leads some to view Jesus as only appearing to be human, only seeming to be flesh and blood.

So, along comes John in his supercharged Christmas story. He marries and melds the LOGOS with the sarx, the divine with the human. The eternal Son of God becomes a Man with real flesh, bones, blood, muscles, lungs, and kidneys--all to suffer, bleed, and die on a real tree. And we need John’s supercharged Christmas story in our day too. You see, we live in a time when the same false teachings confront us. A baby in mommy’s womb is not considered a full-fledged human being. Snuffing out the baby’s life is not considered killing, but rather some sick, social virtue. Whether a person is male or female, some claim, is not a matter of biological fact, but rather a matter of how one feels or dresses. What’s true for you may not be true for me. The worship that matters for many is the worship of the god within, the inner light, the special feeling. And we, dear Christian friends, are not immune to these false thoughts and views and feelings. After all, we live and move and have our being in the same communities; we converse with people who believe these ways; and we steep in these cultural juices. We even have these thoughts and views and feelings within ourselves.

This is why we need John’s Christmas story, supercharged with LOGOS and sarx intimately married and melded together. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

“Of the Father’s love begotten
Ere the worlds began to be” (LSB 384:1). 

The truth is that God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—loves you too much to let you wallow in the mess of this fallen material world, a mess that you and I continually add to with our own sins of mistrust and lack of love. God loves you too much to let you dream of escaping this material world by some “spiritual” quest based on your feelings of the moment or the age.

“Oh, that birth forever bless-ed,
When the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving,
Bore the Savior of our race,
And the babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face” (LSB 384:2).

You see, when the LOGOS takes on flesh, He takes on your “meat”—your flesh, your blood, your humanity—to restore you to real life, body and soul, with God Himself.  God is placed in a manger. God ends up on a cross for you and in your place. No need to spurn the flesh or the material world. No need to seek the abstract god within. God comes to you and to me. Just as He once came and dwelt in the tabernacle built by Moses, He also comes to dwell in flesh and bone and blood for you in Jesus Christ, “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary.” And He still comes to dwell with us, in His Body and His Blood on the Altar. “Christ alone our souls will feed; He is our meat and drink indeed; Faith lives upon no other!” (LSB 458:7).

Since Jesus took on your flesh and mine, since Jesus assumed your sin and mine, since Jesus bled and died for you and for me, you and I can receive and rejoice in the flesh and blood life in this material world that He Himself gives. You and I can rejoice that He has given us our bodies and souls, our eyes, ears, and all our members, our reason and all our senses, and that He Himself makes us males and females.

John’s Christmas story actually adds eternal meat and weight to the other accounts of Jesus’ Birth. It’s much more than a cute story; it’s much more than a picture on a Christmas card. Jesus’ Birth is your new birth. The LOGOS taking on flesh is God’s very own means of communicating and expressing what is on His mind for you. “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us…by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-7). Amen.

19 December 2016

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli

"Mercy Magnified"
Luke 1:39-56

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She is “blessed among women” because she carried the very Son of God in her womb. This morning we focus on the song that Mary sang. It’s one of the song staples that the Church has sung for centuries. In this song—“the Magnificat”—we get to see how God’s mercy is magnified, not only for us and to us, but also in us and through us. In this song we get to see how God answers the prayer we prayed in our Collect—that He would help us by His might and use His grace and mercy to lift from us the sins that weigh us down.

The world could sure use mercy. The oil of mercy would certainly make the engine of life run more smoothly for every person on the planet. When a dictator rises to power and then subjects his people to his will by harsh means, there’s certainly a lack of mercy. When you’re driving west on Interstate 64 and you come to that ever-present bottle neck of cars between Hanley and I-170, you can see a certain lack of mercy. Everyone races to where they’re going, and get there the fastest, and so one driver hits the gas pedal to prevent that other driver from getting in front of him and slowing everyone down. But God’s ways are different.

When we listen to and sing the words of Mary’s song, we hear how God’s mercy was magnified for her and in her. Young Virgin Mary had just heard the words of the angel that she would bear and give birth to the Son of God Most High. She had traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth sang to her, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Then came Mary’s turn to sing. And notice, she does not sing of herself. She does not sing of her feelings about these magnificent words and events that have just taken place. No, the young Virgin sings of God. “My soul magnifies the Lord…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Not only does Mary sing of her God and Savior, but she also sings of His goodness. She sings of what God has done for her: “He has looked on the humble estate of His servant.” God loves to look upon the lowly, not just those in lowly circumstances, but especially those who humbly confess their sins, those who see their need for God’s mercy and compassion, those who are weighed down by their sins.

Martin Luther said that the Virgin Mary teaches us a twofold lesson. “First,” he said, “every one of us should pay attention to what God does for him rather than to all the works He does for others.” My, how we love to compare ourselves to other people! We do notice the great things God is doing for other people. Then we think that God is somehow cheating us, or not giving us our due. After all, friends at work always seem to have nicer clothes. The neighbor across the street always seems to  have a nicer car. Or a fellow Christian always seems to have a stronger, more vibrant faith—a faith that can endure trials and move mountains. But Mary teaches each of us to focus, not on ourselves, but on God and what He does for each of us. After all, He gives us Himself in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, on the paths of Galilee, on the streets of Jerusalem, on the cross, and out of the empty tomb. Yes, your Lord and Savior gives Himself to you in your Baptism and in the Holy Supper. Your God is certainly merciful to you, just as He was for Mary.

And look how merciful our God is to little Elijah Mark. Here this little guy is brought forth in iniquity, in sin did his mother conceive him (Psalm 51:5), and yet the Lord swoops down and washes him clean. In this little washing the heavens open and rain down the mercy of God-in-the-Flesh, without any merit or worthiness in little Elijah, and certainly not by his own reason or senses.

Here’s the second lesson that Luther sees in Mary’s song: “In the second place, she teaches us that everyone should strive to be foremost in praising God by showing forth the works He has done to him, and then by praising Him for the works He has done to others.” Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a little friendly competition to outdo each other in thanking and praising God for what He has done for each of us? Wouldn’t it be great if in every little detail of life each one of us would pause and say, “Wow! Thank you, God, for…!” Wouldn’t it be great if you could praise God for those nicer clothes that He gave to your co-workers, or for that nicer car that He gave to your neighbor? Wouldn’t it be great to see God working in every little circumstance of life—even the less fortunate ones—and especially in the Gospel proclaimed and the Sacraments given out? It would be great. And that’s exactly how God works. When we celebrate the Incarnation and Birth of our Lord Jesus, we are celebrating this: God has shown His mercy and continues to show His mercy. When the Son of God takes on our human flesh, He is making all things whole and holy once again. “He who is mighty has done great things for me, holy is His name.”

So Mary teaches us to sing, “His mercy is for those who fear Him from generation to generation.” Here’s the heart of Mary’s song, as well as the heart of every Christian’s faith and life: God’s mercy is on you who fear Him. The Blessed Virgin knew that she could live and have life with God only by His great mercy. The ten lepers, infected with that skin-ravaging disease, knew that Jesus, Mary’s Son, could and would show divine mercy. So they cried out to Him for help and healing (Lk. 17:13). When the blind man sitting outside Jericho heard Jesus coming down the road, he cried out for the Son of David to have mercy on him (Lk. 18:38). Yes, God loves to have mercy on us sinners, on us who are infected with the leprosy of sin, on us who are blinded by our sinful desires.

Yes, God loves to show mercy. And He magnifies His mercy by focusing it and revealing it in His incarnate Son. In Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection we get to see that God is not a terrible Judge. Instead, He’s a loving Father who loves all of us weighed down by our sins. In the Word-made-Flesh we are freed from the burden of our self-centered, self-controlling desires. And just as Mary sang of God’s mercy while she was carrying the Son of God in her womb, we get to sing of God’s great mercy because the Son of God lives among us in His Church. Where else can you hear and sing of God’s mercy but in His one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church?

So, don’t try to be proud. After all, God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Proud, selfish desires are not becoming for you, people of God’s mercy. And don’t try to be high and mighty, because in Christ’s life, death and resurrection, God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones.” Even as a pre-born infant Jesus the Christ is the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He does not come to hob-nob with the powerful and the rich. Instead, He comes to exalt you who are lowly in your sins. He comes to fill you who hunger for His righteousness, His justice, His vindication. And while He may send the rich away empty, He fills you with the treasures of His goodness and mercy. Come to His Table and be filled!

As Mary teaches us by her example, let’s learn to live by and sing of God’s great mercy. Yes, each of us needs His mercy magnified on us. No doubt nerves get frayed from the shopping, from battling the traffic, from the winter weather, and from putting up with the selfish desires from other people as well as from within ourselves. We’re all tempted to resort to judgment. But remember the words of James (2:13): “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” Yes, God shows you mercy so that you will also show mercy to people around you. Just as Mary proclaimed the greatness of God and His mercy, He wants you to do the same, especially as we celebrate His coming in the flesh. Amen.

15 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 3

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God's Promised Land

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10 and James 5:7-11

This Advent we’re learning to wait with Isaiah. The Prophet Isaiah spoke some pretty amazing promises about the coming Messiah—and all about 700 years before the Messiah would finally come. God’s people would have to wait to receive and rejoice in God’s promised Savior. Just as God’s people waited, lo, those 700 years, we’ve been learning to wait with Isaiah, and just a few weeks to celebrate the Savior’s Birth. So, how well have we been doing?

Two weeks ago we heard about “God’s Promised Justice.” Since our coming King promises and gives His cross-won justice—His victory over our enemies of sin, death, and Satan—we can learn to wait for God to give us His final victory, His final vindication, for all eternity. As we wait for that day, we strive to put off the works of darkness. Last week we heard about “God’s Promised Peace.” When our King came in the flesh, He inaugurated lasting peace between us sinners and our loving God. That peace, which passes all understanding, fills us with encouragement, hope, and harmony as we wait for His full, final, and eternal peace. So, how well are we doing in our waiting?

Let me ask that question another way. Are you just plain tired and worn out—tired of the rat race called “the holiday season”? Are you already stuffed to the gills from the Christmas goodies and the Christmas luncheons, dinners, and parties? Do you feel absolutely under the gun to get everything done, frantic that it won’t get done, and stretched too thin in too many directions all at once? Are you looking forward to December 25 so that you can just crash and burn and say, “Whew, glad that ‘merry chaos’ is over”? If so, perhaps the waiting has not been going too well.

Yes, waiting is pretty difficult for us Americans. Being patient is just not in our cultural DNA. Like children waiting for Grandma and Grandpa to arrive so that we can begin opening presents, we get antsy and fussy if it takes too long at all.

Perhaps it’s hard for us Christians to wait for God’s promised justice and His promised peace because, well, they don’t seem real enough. “Hey, we gotta live in the here and now, Pastor. We gotta be practical and down to earth, you know.” That justice stuff, especially from things like sin, death, and the devil, may seem more like a dream than real life. That peace stuff, especially if we can’t see it, may seem more like a Christmas card wish than something real to experience and enjoy.

Isaiah’s words tonight give the soothing, healing medicine we need. Isaiah promises: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.” Now that’s more real—a barren, dry land blossoming with vibrant life. Sounds like a real promised land. The prophet continues: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.” More joyous, real-life stuff—blind people able to see again; deaf people able to hear; limping people able to walk and leap without hindrance; and tongues loosed to sing for joy. It’s a new creation, folks. It’s a creation that bubbles forth with good life—life without the problems we face day to day and at different stages of life. Truly a promised land. And, yes, Isaiah promises; it will happen.

And between these great, real-life promises, Isaiah says: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.” My, how we need those words as our weariness leads us to stumble through the “merry chaos” season! “Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not!’” Great words for us who are so anxious about getting everything done and just enduring until December 25! “‘Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.’” Normally, vengeance is a bad thing, but when it’s God’s vengeance on behalf of His redeemed people, then we welcome it with open arms. You see, God is our mighty King who comes to rescue us from our prisoner of war camp in Satan’s domain.

You see, dear friends, our worries, our weariness, our impatience with crazy drivers, with shopping mall clerks, and with each other show that we are not waiting so well. In fact, they show that, spiritually speaking, we still live in Satan’s prisoner of war camp called this fallen world. If we are stressed out and anxious, it’s because we are diverting our eyes from our Coming King. If we are impatient with fellow Christians, loved ones, and friends, it’s because we falsely think that all of our efforts at creating that “perfect Christmas” (again, this year) just may create heaven on earth, at least for a day or two.

But, dear friends, Isaiah promises our real heaven on earth, our real new creation, our real promised land. It all comes when our Lord God comes as the Infant in the manger to save us. It all comes when the Son of God takes on our flesh and blood and bones to restore us to life in His kingdom. It all comes when Jesus Christ spills that innocent blood and has His perfect body broken on a cross to rescue us from being prisoners in Satan’s war against the Triune God. Our Lord Jesus comes to inaugurate His eternal “promised land,” a land where we need not worry over or succumb to crowded malls, forgotten gifts, hectic schedules, or overindulging. You see, God’s promised land is where Jesus gives His forgiveness, His life, and His rescue from our self-centered concerns. God’s promised land is not in the shopping mall or around the Christmas tree (as fine as these things may be); God’s promised land is in His Church. It’s where the Son of God stretches out His arms, even as they are nailed to a tree, and says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

It’s the promise that Isaiah gave some 2700 years ago, and it’s still true: “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Did you hear that? In God’s promised land of Jesus and His  Church, our sorrow and sighing shall flee away. What replaces our anxieties and our stresses? The singing, the everlasting joy, the gladness that our God, that Infant small, has conquered our sins, our death, and the devil himself.

And so, dear friends, we once again hear very timely and wise words to help us wait, this time from James, the brother of our Lord: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord.” We can be patient, because our God has come in the flesh. As a farmer plants his crop and waits for rain and soil to work together to bear the fruits of the crop, we can wait for our God to deliver us from our self-inflicted “merry chaos.” James continues: “You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Yes, when you keep the eyes of your faith on your Coming King, the anxieties of “merry chaos” fade away.

And James even gives an additional bit of sage, sanctified advice: “Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door.” Yes, the King is coming. He has come in flesh and blood. He continues to come in the preaching of His forgiveness and life. He continues to come in the very Body and Blood on the Altar. And He will come again to rescue us from this fallen land and bring us to our eternal promised land. With such great promises already given and yet to come, why grumble against one another? We get to spend eternity together, with our God who is Love and with each other. We get to celebrate His mercy and compassion now and into eternity. There’s no need to let the world’s chaos get the better of us. As James also says: “you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” Amen.  

12 December 2016

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete

"What Did You Go Out to See?"
Matthew 11:2-11

Listen here.

Today we see the third candle on the Advent wreath lit; only one more Sunday to go before Christmas. And today’s candle is a different color. Purple is the traditional color of Advent, for the repentance and the traditional fasting, praying and almsgiving as we prepare for our coming King. Blue, which we see before us, is the newer color of Advent, the color for hope in our coming Messiah. Just as the sky is dark blue just before the dawn, so we wait in hope for the dawn of our Savior, the Light of the world. But what’s the rose color for? It marks a little reprieve in the repentance and preparation. The Latin name for today is “Gaudete!” which means “Rejoice!” Today we get a little taste of joy as we get a little break from the traditional fasting, praying, and almsgiving of Advent, a little rejoicing-break to tide us over until Christmas Eve.

Now you may enjoy a little reprieve of rejoicing, but I’m not sure that I can rejoice too much. You see, this Friday I will observe my 26th anniversary of ordination into the Office of the Holy Ministry. God has blessed me with 26 years of preparing the way of the Lord, of preaching His Gospel of mercy and grace in Christ, of shepherding a part of the flock that belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But now I look at today’s Gospel reading. The preacher is about to get his head lopped off! Nope, I’m not so sure how much I can rejoice! Faithful preachers getting their heads lopped off?!

It would seem that John wasn’t sure how much he could rejoice either. After all, he was in prison. As he looked out from his prison cell, it would seem that he was wondering if Jesus really was the Coming One promised long ago, the Messiah for whom he had been preparing the way. You see, John preached repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and look where it got him! Some say John began doubting if Jesus really was the Messiah. Others say that John did not waver in his faith, but rather wanted to direct his own disciples to follow their true Lord and Master. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Perhaps we’ll never know until the Last Day.

So John sends his disciples to ask Jesus if He is the Coming One. Instead of giving a simple “yes” or “no” answer, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Sounds like a pretty resounding “yes” to me! Giving sight to the blind, healing the lame, cleansing lepers, enabling the deaf to hear, and raising up the dead are all sure and certain signs of the Messiah. After all, Isaiah had promised that in the day of the Messiah “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped…” and “then shall the lame man leap like a deer” (Is. 35:5-6). Isaiah also said that the Lord’s Anointed would “bring good news to the poor…bind up the brokenhearted… and proclaim liberty to the captives” (Is. 61:1). Whoever can do these miraculous healings can only be sent from God. And preaching the Good News? Who better to do that than the Son of God who is Good News in the flesh!

Then Jesus gives us a little lesson about John. Three times our Lord asks, “What did you do out to see?” Did the people going out to see John go out to see a reed swayed by the wind of popular, public opinion? Did they go out to see a man in fancy, soft, luxurious clothing? Or did they go out to see a prophet sent from God? Well, let’s take Jesus’ question and apply it to ourselves. What do we go out to see when we leave our comfy homes for any Sunday Divine Service or any Evening Prayer Office? What do we go out to see when we venture to church during Advent or even on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day? What do we go out to see when we sit in the pews and open our hymnbooks and listen to a man ramble on from the pulpit and the altar?

Do you go out to church to see a reed shaken by the wind? One Bible commentator says that a reed shaken by the wind “is symbolic of a man who yields to popular opinion, veers with it, and has no solid convictions of his own” (Lenski, 430). Is your pastor supposed to gauge popular opinion and preach, teach, and minister accordingly, perhaps as the majority wants? Should he try appealing to the most people possible so that we can have fuller pews and more offering money? Should your pastor fret and worry about needed changes for fear that some people may get upset and leave? Is it your pastor’s task when he steps into the pulpit simply to tell you things that you want to hear, or like to hear, or things that simply make you feel good? When it comes to the liturgy and hymns we sing, is it your pastor’s job simply to choose the dearly loved favorites so as to please the most people possible? Should your pastor moisten his finger and stick it in the air to see which way the winds of popular opinion go for life in God’s Church? Would you really want a pastor who veers with public opinion and has no convictions of his own?

Do you go out to church to see a man dressed in soft clothing? The same Bible commentator says this about the soft clothing: “A man who yields to popular opinion, who bends to the will and the word of the influential and the mighty, will be rewarded by them, will be given a high place and the finest kind of garments” (Lenski, 432). I know one pastor who was tempted by the soft clothing of success. One well-to-do lady in his congregation really wanted this pastor to “succeed” in his preaching and teaching. One day this lady invited the pastor over to her home for coffee. After the pastor arrived, the lady talked about how she would really like to see him “succeed.” As the two sipped their coffee, the lady turned on a video tape of Dr. D. James Kennedy. He was preaching to a full auditorium of interested and happy people. “Pastor, I really want you to be like that, preaching to a whole auditorium full of people,” she said. “Perhaps you could even have your own show,” she added. Well, the pastor knew the unspoken message. You see, this lady did not like his preaching of repentance and forgiveness; she did not care much that he was teaching on every-Sunday Communion or on the practice of individual Confession & Absolution. But she did want her pastor to enjoy the “soft clothing” of her approval.

What do you go out to see? Do you go out to church to see a prophet? Again, our Bible commentator has an insight on seeing a prophet: “Jesus does not mean ‘merely to look at a prophet’ but ‘to see him so as to get into personal touch with him,’ [that is], to hear him and his proclamation with their own ears, to let him move them to repentance and to the baptism for the remission of sins” (Lenski, 433). Those who went out to see John saw more than a prophet alright; they saw the one man whom God sent as a messenger to prepare the way for His only-begotten Son. And isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John came baptizing and preaching the message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet in our day is supposed to do? John pointed people to Jesus, “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). Isn’t that what any faithful pastor-prophet is supposed to do in the Church today? When the crowds asked John about this Jesus who seemed to be gaining more disciples than John did, John simply said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). Isn’t that what any faithful steward of God’s mysteries is supposed to do—draw people’s attention more to the Savior and less to himself?

Yes, our Lord Jesus sends His prophets and His pastors out ahead of Him. He gives them the task of proclaiming Him, preparing the way for Him to come with salvation and healing in His wings. Our Lord gives His preachers today the same task that He gave to Isaiah or John or St. Paul centuries ago. He gives them a certain message to proclaim—a message of comfort, a message that our warfare against sin and death is ended in Christ Jesus, a message that our iniquity is pardoned and that we receive double the forgiveness in Christ crucified and risen. It’s a message that takes our eyes off of ourselves and puts them on Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. And pay close attention to those words when you sing them today. After you sing them, you will come to the Lord’s Table to eat and drink the Lamb of God and have your sins taken away. That’s how your Savior must increase, but your pastor must decrease! And not only must your pastor be a faithful, trustworthy steward of “the mysteries of God,” as St. Paul says, but he must also echo St. Paul’s other words: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1Cor. 2:2).

What did you come out to see this morning? Hopefully not a preacher who sways like a reed with the ever-changing winds of popular opinion or human emotions! Hopefully not a preacher who strives for the soft clothing of so-called “success”! What did you come out to see? A prophet? Yes, and more than a prophet. I pray that you came out to see the Christ Himself. After all, the pastor-prophet is only good and useful if he draws your attention to the Savior who rescues you from death and sin. And that’s his job not just in the pulpit, but in everything else he does. Amen.

08 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 2

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God’s Promised Peace

Texts: Isaiah 11:1-10 and Romans 15:4-13

This Advent we are learning to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. After all, Advent is a time of waiting, of patiently preparing to receive our Coming King. Even though waiting and being patient do not come easily for us Americans, God does invite us to learn and grow in such virtues. Last week we heard about “Waiting for God’s Promised Justice.” Our normal sense of fairness, and fair play, demands that we get justice as soon as possible. However, God exhorts us to wait for Him to give justice. And justice He gives—in His Son Jesus Christ, in His victory over sin, death, and the devil for us.

Tonight, we focus on “Waiting for God’s Promised Peace.” Isaiah gives us quite the wonderful picture of God’s promised peace: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together.” Wow! What a picture! After all, we know how wolves, leopards, and lions love to prey upon lambs, young goats, and fatted calves. We’ve come to expect such a “natural” food chain in nature. But it’s far from natural, at least as God first designed it. You see, when wolves eat little lambs for breakfast and lions devour fatted calves for supper, we see death—one creature sustaining its life by the death of another. That’s not the way God created His world to work.

And what about that Christmas-sounding line—“and a little child shall lead them”? Oh, we know better, don’t we? Little children cannot lead. Save the leading for older people, more mature people, people who have grown through the school of hard knocks, or experience in life, or politics, people who have gained their wisdom for dealing with the people they must lead. Again, it’s not the way God planned things from creation. You see, most leadership tactics have to stem the tide of the sin, death, and evil that we human creatures have brought into the world and onto ourselves.

But Isaiah’s picture is still God’s picture of promised peace. No more death. No more killing. No more intrigue and shady, back-room deals among authority figures. No, God’s peace brings real peace. It brings a world of creatures living and lying down together without fear of death. It brings the innocence, purity, simplicity, and trust of a little child as the way in which people deal with each other. As Isaiah says, “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” I don’t know about you, but I can hardly wait to see that Day! But wait for it we must, because, obviously, we don’t see such a world of peace and innocence right now.

How does our gracious God accomplish this peace? Isaiah gives us another picture: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Again, we hear a familiar Christmas-sounding picture. Let’s ponder this image. First, Isaiah speaks of a stump—a cut down tree, a lifeless hunk of wood sticking out of the ground, just waiting to trip up folks who walk by and don’t see it. Yes, God had to make this stump. It’s a picture of His Old Testament people. They had strayed from Him by worshiping foreign, false gods. They had ignored His many pleas to return to Him in repentance. So God chopped them down. The grand, glorious tree of God’s people had to be cut down and sawn into firewood. Only a stump remained.

That’s what our sin and death do to us. It may be the sin of getting upset with family members, with each other at church, or even with the tired, cranky store clerk who has dealt with all of those other impatient Christmas shoppers before you. Our sin and death may be our sheer greed in wanting only the best Christmas present for ourselves this Christmas. It may be our tendency to place so much attention on the “spirit of the season” and enjoying that “perfect Christmas” that we forget, or minimize, the God who took on our human flesh to give us His life and His Holy Spirit. So God comes to chop down our sinful pride, our impatience, and our self-reliance. That’s why we wait and prepare during Advent.

But Isaiah does not leave us with only the stump of a sawn down tree. The picture that brings us peace comes in that little “shoot from the stump of Jesse.” That tender little twig speaks loudly and clearly: the tree is not completely dead; the tree of God’s people will come back to life. That tender little shoot is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, He comes as a tender little sapling, born of the pure Virgin. But don’t let His fragility in the manger fool you. This tender Root of Jesse brings God’s eternal peace. He ushers in God’s picture of lions and lambs dwelling together. He inaugurates the reign of innocence and purity among His people. This little shoot named Jesus would hang lifeless from a cross—another piece of lifeless, chopped down wood—but He brings the healing peace of God’s forgiveness for our impatience. His spilled blood brings the pardon for our prideful, self-absorbed ways.  And when He rises from the dead, He shows beyond all doubt that “righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins.” This tender little shoot, whose birth we will celebrate in seventeen short days, brings God’s promised peace. “In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.”

But again, we must wait. We must wait until the celebration of our Lord’s Birth. It’s not Christmas just yet. We must wait until the Last Day to witness and enjoy the picture of peace between lions and lambs, the scene of utter innocence and purity among people.

And what shall we do until that Day? St. Paul says it well:  “Whatever was written in former days”—think of Isaiah, about 700 years before Christ—“was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” We wait, but we wait with hope. And hope is no mere wish, as in, “Gee, I hope we can have a white Christmas.” No, hope is as certain as a young Virgin carrying a Baby in her womb for nine months. All the peace of God is wrapped up in the little Infant inside His mother’s womb. It’s just a matter of time before He bursts forth. It’s just a matter of time before His peace reigns supreme for us to see. And so we wait with hope, with confident expectation, with eager anticipation. God’s promised peace does come and will come. It comes in the lifeblood of Jesus that actually gives forgiveness and life. It will come when He will chop down the ways of this God-ignoring world only to reveal the true life of peace and innocence for all eternity.

What else do we do as we wait for God’s promised peace? Listen to St. Paul again: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Now there’s a breath of invigorating fresh air in this world where we suffocate from living by the creed of “I gotta have it my way.” Our gracious God and Savior gives endurance to wait. He also gives us the ability to live in harmony with each other. In our world sadly divided by our individualism and our personal likes and dislikes, our gracious God says, “Live together in harmony with each other, because you are in one accord with Me.” In other words, God uses our time of waiting to train us in His promised peace. Better yet, when we, His redeemed people, live in harmony, Savior Jesus is showing how His cross-won peace is already breaking into our world, our hearts, our minds, and our lives. Call it a preview of Isaiah’s peace-filled picture. Call it a foretaste of the feast to come—both on Christmas Day and on the Last Day.

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” Amen.

01 December 2016

Homily for Advent Evening Prayer 1

Waiting with Isaiah:
Waiting for God’s Promised Justice

Texts: Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13:8-14

We Americans are an impatient lot, aren’t we? When the speed limit sign says “60,” we insist on pushing “70”…at least. When we go to the store, we just expect our favorite products to be on the shelf; and when they’re not, we insist that we just cannot wait a few days. It gets really bad with things like email. We send an email to a loved one, a friend, or a co-worker, and if they don’t respond, say, within 5 minutes—10 at the outside—then we feel we are being ignored, snubbed. Yes, we are an impatient lot, we Americans. We want what we want, and we want it now…if not sooner.

But Advent is a time of waiting. Advent teaches us to wait, to be patient, to persevere. So, this Advent let’s learn how to wait with the Prophet Isaiah. Tonight and the next two Wednesdays we will focus on readings from Isaiah, readings that promise the Savior and His forgiveness, life, and salvation. These promises will teach us how to wait and what to wait for. We will also look to the New Testament reading each week to teach us how to live as we wait for God’s deliverance. How do we Christians live in this time of waiting until our Lord returns on the Last Day with His full and final salvation? Let’s use this Advent season to learn how to wait with Isaiah.

Isaiah lived and proclaimed God’s message about 700 years before Christ. It was a time of prominence for Judah and its capitol city Jerusalem, but the kingdom would soon decline in decades to follow. It was a time of international treaties and alliances as the king of Judah sought to protect his land from invading attackers. God’s people tended to trust those political alliances and solutions for their safety and security more than they trusted God and His promises. It was a time of prosperity as the people of Judah enjoyed their splendid homes, abundant possessions, and nice clothes. Does this sound at all familiar? It’s very much like our day, isn’t it?

So, God sent Isaiah to proclaim His words of judgment and promise to His people in this prosperous, prominent land, safe in its own “homeland security.” And Isaiah had some pretty stern things to say to this people redeemed by God. “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand’” (Is. 1:2-3). God’s own people were laden with iniquity and dealt with each other corruptly. Isaiah even compared them to Sodom and Gomorrah! God used Isaiah to warn His people that He would have to remove all of their “nice things,” because they did not trust and cling to Him. He would take away “the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the handbags; the mirrors, the linen garments” (Is. 3:18-23) and so on. Well, there went that shopping list! All those treasured possessions from the 8th century B.C. version of the shopping mall and Best Buy would be gone!

But right in the middle of these two sermons of judgment, in the passage we hear tonight, Isaiah gives a sweet promise, a promise of the Lord’s holy mountain. The Lord’s mountain will be “lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it.” Yes, God would have to humble Jerusalem, but He promised to lift it up again. And what would happen on God’s holy mountain? People would invite one another to go up to it “that [God] may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” Instead of being consumed by and worried over the things of international politics and how to have lots of stuff in nice big houses, God’s people would much rather have His teachings and His paths. Isaiah also says, “[God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples.” God would work His pure, fair, and loving justice. And here’s what it would look like: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” There would be actual, real-life, world peace—not just a dream, but a reality.

Great picture, isn’t it? I’m sure that people who first heard Isaiah’s words would say, “Please, show us this mountain!” Even now, 2700 years later, we want to say, “Please, show us this mountain!” But the people would have to wait for this promised paradise. They would have to wait about 700 years. You see, “the mountain of the house of the LORD” would be built from the wood of a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. The Lord Himself would come and build it, but He would build it by dying on that cross. Yes, God would work His justice, but He would do so through the weakness of His Son being born of a virgin, living a humble, penniless life, suffering rejection and crucifixion, and then rising again on the third day. The mountain of the Lord is Mt. Calvary. His cross shows His ways of mercy, forgiveness, and true life. His path leads us to trust and enjoy Him much more than the national security or seasonal goodies of our day. The Lord would work His justice by conquering our real enemies: sin, death, and the devil.

Now, at first, we may say, “Well, they had to wait for the Lord’s promised justice, but we know it’s already come.” Yes, people had to wait 700 years to see how God would give justice by forgiving sins in Christ Jesus. So, why do we need to learn to wait? Don’t we already have God’s justice? Yes, we do. His justice, His righteousness, His forgiveness, comes in Christ Jesus, wrapped in human flesh and bone, hung on a cross, and risen again. But we still wait. We wait for that final grand display of God’s justice when Christ shall return on the Last Day.

But it’s so hard to wait, isn’t it? We are an impatient lot, even though we know the promise fulfilled on Calvary. It’s hard enough to wait until December 25th each year before we start celebrating Christmas. We want the celebration right now, on our terms, with all of the material trappings of the season. We want the picture-perfect Christmas with all the sugary joy and smiling cheer, hot cider and Christmas sweaters, and everyone else doing things our way.

But have you ever noticed how tired, tense, and irritable we can become this time of year? Focusing on ourselves does that! When things don’t go our way, what do we do? Complain. Complain about the driver who cut you off on the way to the mall. Complain about not finding the right gift for that certain someone. Complain if things don’t look, sound, or go as you want in church, at work, or at home. Complain…. Well, you can fill in the blank. We want the perfect celebration of Christmas now, and if we don’t get it, well….

We really need to hear St. Paul’s words in our second reading: “Owe no one anything, except to love each other…. Love does no wrong to a neighbor.” That’s God’s promised justice! Now that He has conquered our sin and death, we are free to love one another. We are free to take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on our neighbor. We are free to wait for God to deliver the perfect Christmas. We are free because “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.” We are free to “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” We are free to put off the drunkenness and sensuality and indulgence of this time of year. We are free to put off the quarreling and jealousy that happens at home, at work, and at church.

And how are we free from all that? God has worked His promised justice already in His Son Jesus. God promises something far, far better than the “perfect Christmas.” He promises real, eternal peace that comes only by feasting our eyes, our ears, and our hearts on the Son of God made flesh. Whatever happens to us in the meantime, whatever disappointments we endure, we can persevere. We can wait. You see, when we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” we can resist gratifying our selfish desires. His mercy helps us wait. So, “house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” Amen.

28 November 2016

Homily for Advent 1 - Ad Te Levavi

"Earth and Heaven Joined Together"
Matthew 21:1-9 

Listen here. 

“Savior of the nations, come, / Virgin’s Son, make here Your home! / Marvel now, O heav’n and earth, / That the Lord chose such a birth” (LSB 332:1). Why should heaven and earth marvel? Because their King is coming! Last week we heard the promise of Bridegroom Jesus returning on the Last Day in glory. This week, the First Sunday in Advent, we still live in that same hope. The blue on the altar symbolizes the Church’s expectant hope for her coming King. The candles on the Advent wreath count down the time till His coming. Just because we’ve done these things in years past, don’t fall into a sleepy security. No matter how many times we journey through Advent, it always means the same marvelous thing: King Jesus is coming to join earth and heaven together.

In Advent we share the same eager expectation that Jeremiah shows us: “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and He shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer. 23:5). What promise was that? That God would send a “righteous Branch,” a little Sprout, to give new life to sinners.

In Advent we pray the same fervent prayer that David prays in today’s Psalm: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And lift them up, O ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in” (24:9).

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we are not especially up to these Advent tasks. Our expectation is not so eager. Our prayer is not so fervent. We yawn with a familiarity that breeds contempt. “Yeah, been there, done that”—last year, and the year before that. You see, we are focused more on our own ways of the season than on God’s ways. If past years are any indication, we’ll be ready to beat the street to the malls and the stores. But the Lord’s paths of repentance and prayer-filled hope, of Gospel and Sacraments, will be the road less travelled. We’re more ready to fill our ears with shopping mall musak and advertising jingles than we are to feast them on forgiveness proclaimed and Advent hymns sung. We’re more eager to savor the seasonal delicacies than we are to feast on our Lord’s rich meal of forgiveness and life. Why be concerned with all this? Because it shows that even for us, God’s redeemed people, there’s still a rift between earth and heaven.

This is the very rift that Jesus came to heal. He was walking the Lord’s given path. This path led Him to journey down from heaven to walk among us here on earth. While on earth, Jesus had to journey to Jerusalem. As He journeyed, He taught and He healed. And today we join Jesus on the last leg of His journey. We begin Advent by getting a glimpse of the end of His journey.

As Jesus draws near to Jerusalem, He prepares for His grand entrance. He sends two disciples and gives specific instructions. “Go into the village in front of you, and immediately you will find a donkey tied, and a colt with her. Untie them and bring them to me.” The sent disciples go out, and everything happens just as Jesus told them. Jesus knows what He’s doing all along. He’s coming to die, to loose sinners from their bondage to sin, to join earth and heaven back together.

This preparation also gets us ready for another preparation. Just four days later, the night before He would die, Jesus will again send some disciples, this time to prepare an upper room for the Passover feast. At that feast our Lord will give His Supper of Body and Blood. Talk about earth and heaven joined together! Jesus’ divine Body joined with physical bread; Jesus’ heavenly Blood joined with earthly wine. That’s the way of Advent preparation.

And here’s another detail of the preparation. How did the disciples find the donkey and her colt? Tied up. Bound. The sent disciples must loose them and bring them to Jesus. When we listen to God’s Word, we just might hear a connection between those sent disciples and the ones Jesus sends to His Church today. Jesus loves to release people bound by sin. He even uses His sent ministers to loose sinners bound by sin. Ah, the joys of Advent! Jesus releases earthly, human sinners so they can rejoice in the His heavenly forgiveness. Earth and heaven joined together!

And when those sent disciples loosed the donkey and her colt, the owners of the colt would ask, “Why are you untying them?” Jesus planned for that too. “You shall say, ‘The Lord needs them.’” The Lord needed the donkey indeed! Prophet Zechariah had foretold this need. “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is He, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). Jesus needed this donkey to show His royalty. But He also needed it to show His humility. You see, Jesus did not come to be a sovereign with the prestige or glory or fame that we might expect, or want. No, He came to be a king in humility, a king for us humble sinners. He comes as King to die. His throne is a cross. His crown is made of thorns. His subjects are those who humbly confess their sins and are taught by Him. This is how earth and heaven are joined together.

Then Jesus rides into Jerusalem to shouts of joyful praise. The crowd of followers lays down a carpet of their cloaks for the coming King. Then they sing the Psalm verse: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (118:26). Luke’s gospel adds another little detail. In Luke’s version, the crowd also sings: “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” (Lk. 19:38).

Now this song should strike a familiar chord with us. We often sing it in the Divine Service: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to His people on earth.” It’s the same song the angels sang when Jesus was born: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (Lk. 2:14). When Jesus is born, the heavenly angels sing of peace on earth. When He enters Jerusalem, the earthly crowd sings of peace in heaven. Heaven and earth are joined together in Jesus, true God and true Man. He is born to bring peace; He dies to bring peace. He comes down to earth to bring earth back to heaven. The Son of God becomes Man to bring all humankind back to God. That’s called “atonement.” King Jesus, humble and sitting on a donkey, makes us sinners at one, at peace, with God.

So, how can we not sing? How can we not wait in eager expectation? How can we not slow down and pray this season of Advent? How can we not rejoice in the Gospel proclaimed? How can we not find our peace in the waters of Baptism? How can we refuse the comfort of confessing our sins and being joined to God in words of forgiveness spoken into our ears? How can we not find our real feasting at the Table with the Lord’s Body and Blood? These are the ways of Advent preparation. These are the ways God keeps us joined with Him. These are the channels of God’s peace coming to us.

Here’s your comfort and Advent preparation. King Jesus comes to join earth with heaven, you with God, sinners with salvation. In our Advent preparations, we may find that we are not so good at expecting the coming Christ. But “Good and upright is the LORD; therefore He instructs sinners in the way” (Ps. 25:8). That’s not just teaching about God’s way; that’s delivering God’s way.

Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord. His ways are higher than our ways. His ways bring us peace with God. Blessed is the King who comes in the message of forgiveness that you get to hear and eat and drink. We cannot prepare ourselves, so He comes to prepare us. We cannot reach up to heaven or climb to God, so He joins us on earth with God in heaven. Rejoice and be glad! “May He strengthen your hearts so that you will be blameless and holy in the presence of our God and Father when our Lord Jesus comes with all His holy ones” (1 Thess. 3:13, NKJV). Amen.

15 June 2016

Sacred Meditations: Learning to Pray via Podcast

Our Lord Jesus taught us to pray, that is, actually to engage in praying (see Matthew 6:7-13; 7:7-8; Luke 11:1-13). Jesus reminded us of the importance of prayer when He quoted Isaiah 56:7—“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples”—as He cleansed the temple of its entrepreneurial distractions. He even told the Parable of the Persistent Widow “to the effect that [we] ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

However, Jesus’ exhortations for us Christians actually to engage in praying—along with St. Paul’s “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)—are too often met with laments of “I’m too busy” or “I just don’t know how to pray.” That goes for pastors as well as laypeople.

For such disregard of our Lord’s Second Commandment—to call upon His name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks—and for not trusting His promises to hear and answer us, we do need to repent. We also need to learn to pray…by actually praying.

 Sacred MeditationsEnter a new resource for learning to pray by actually praying: Sacred Meditations - sacredmeditations.org. Utilizing the First Article blessings of modern technology in podcasting and social media, Sacred Meditations is “a short-form podcast (short-cast) for finding peace by meditating on Jesus Christ.”

At Sacred Meditations, you can listen to prayers throughout the Church Year, find prayers to fit various occasions, ponder your deep need for life with the God who loves you, and meditate on the work of His Son Jesus the Christ who bled, died, and rose again to restore you to life–and peace–with God.

What is Sacred Meditations all about?
In our technology-driven Information Age, we have easy access to endless information, news, talk, commentary, and debate about many and various topics, even religious and theological ones. This stirs us up as we wend our way through the many voices and conflicting views, especially when listening to and discussing the hot-button issues of the day.

Sacred Meditations seeks to be different. Here you may find peace by meditating on the person and work of Jesus Christ for you. Here you may find peace by pondering the life that He gives and works in you.

To help you do this, we draw from the the prayers of the Church and classic devotional works of Lutheran piety–works of Johann Gerhard, Johann Arndt, and Johann Starck. Let the devotional insights of these great Christian voices give you the solace you can’t find anywhere else.

We also combine these devotional oases with soothing music to please the ear and calm the soul.
 iTunes Podcast
Why listen to yet another podcast?
Sacred Meditations is no ordinary podcast. It will not take 30 minutes or an hour out of your day. In just 60 seconds (1 minute) you can listen to and pray a prayer of the Church or a prayer for a specific need. Other prayers and meditations run no more than 3 minutes.

We don’t just talk about prayer–we actually pray. We don’t merely talk about Jesus or other matters of faith–we draw you into the joys and the life that God gives you through Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you.

Consider Sacred Meditations your easy access to calm in the frantic busyness of your day!

How can you listen? Visit the Sacred Meditations website and come back often. Subscribe to Sacred Meditations via iTunes. Follow Sacred Meditations on Facebook and Twitter. Here’s the pertinent info.:

    •    Website: http://sacredmeditations.org/
    •    On iTunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/sacred-meditations/id1121860303
    •    On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sacredmeditations/
    •    On Twitter: https://twitter.com/SacMeditations

Feel free to download and keep these prayers and meditations for future use and for our Lord’s peace whenever you need it. Search for prayers and meditations as you need them and want them.

Jesus said, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

06 June 2016

Homily for Trinity 2

"Feasting on Jesus"
Luke 14:15-24

Listen here.

Today we join our Lord Jesus as He dines at the house of a Pharisee. It’s a Sabbath Day, so we also think of remembering the Sabbath Day and gladly hearing and learning God’s Word. Jesus is trying to teach us some table manners in God’s kingdom. When God invites us to His great banquet, He wants us to feast on what He says.

One man tries to impress Jesus and says, “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.” Jesus then answers with a story. A man puts on a great banquet and invites many people. But the invited guests refuse the invitation. It seems they’re just too busy to make it to this feast. So the master invites other guests, people you would never expect to see at a grand social event. And even some of them must be compelled to come to the feast. Even though one man at the banquet table was trying to butter Jesus up, he did catch on. Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God. “Blessed is everyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God.”

As Christians, we are citizens of two kingdoms: the kingdom of the earth and the kingdom of heaven. In the kingdom of the earth people eat and drink, sleep and work, rest and play. Here they take care of all their physical and social needs. Here people are very glad to take part in picnics and barbecues, especially on days such as Memorial Day, Father’s Day, or Fourth of July. Sometimes they don’t even need to be invited in order to receive some food. In the kingdom of heaven the food and life are very different. Here the Lord of the Universe, the Creator of heaven and earth, throws a lavish, sumptuous meal. Here the food is far richer, far more nourishing than in the earthly kingdom. But here the invited guests are reluctant to come. It’s as if they’d rather have watery chicken noodle soup than eat the filet mignon that God carefully prepares and freely gives.

So, the Lord Jesus talks about God’s rich banquet table of heavenly food. God the Father prepares a great, rich, sumptuous banquet. He invites us poor beggars on earth to eat and drink with Him at His heavenly supper table. So the question is: How will we earth-bound beggars respond to His gracious invitation? Will we be rude and spurn His invitation? Or will we gladly feast on His divine delicacies?

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the true, spiritual banquet. Our heavenly Father is the rich man and host. He has prepared the banquet. He sent His Son to be born of the Virgin Mary, to live a perfect life, to suffer a horrible death—thus to be slaughtered and prepared by the divine Chef. And just as a good host puts juicy steaks on the barbecue grill, so did the heavenly Father. He allowed His own Son to be roasted on the cross and offered up in fiery, burning love. Yes, Jesus is our Paschal Lamb sacrificed for the sin of the whole world.

But a good host never leaves the filet mignon on the grill permanently. No, when the meat is done, he removes it from the fire and serves it up for his guests to eat and enjoy. It’s in the eating that people are refreshed, nourished, and strengthened. In the same way, our heavenly Father removed Jesus from the fiery grill of the cross, laid Him in the tomb, and raised Him from the dead. Now we and the whole world can feast on this food. Christ Jesus is the world’s true, nourishing Food of Life.

So, wherever Christians gather together, you have God’s banquet table. The preaching of the Gospel is the dish. The servers are the pastors. Jesus is the food. Through the pastor’s mouth the food is laid on the table and served. When the Gospel is preached, this food is served and offered for you. And everyone gets to feast—rich and poor, old and young, learned and unlearned. There are three essential ingredients to God’s feast: first, the dish, that is, the Word of God; second, the waiter, that is, the pastor’s mouth; and third, the guests, those who believe the message of Christ with the heart. When these three things come together, our heart and soul start to eat and say, “Here is a juicy steak. Here Christ is proclaimed. Here the food is the roasted Christ. I get to feast on Jesus. I get to find my strength and joy and comfort in Christ alone.” Whoever believes this with his heart eats and drinks Jesus.

How does this food taste? Well, a good barbecued steak has a delicious flavor. It refreshes body and soul, it satisfies the appetite, and it strengthens the body. In the same way, when you hear and believe the Gospel, you feast on Jesus. This rich, tender filet of Christ nourishes and strengthens your soul. It has the delicious taste of forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and heavenly bliss. This food gives life—life now, life for all eternity, life that only Jesus can give.

Jesus tells us about this food in John 6: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (vv. 53-55) So whoever believes with heart and mind that Jesus Christ has given His body and shed His blood for him or her need not fear death.

So in Jesus you have pure joy, everlasting joy. He is no longer sorrowful or fainthearted. He no longer sweats great drops of blood as He did in Gethsemane. But in Him there is true joy and gladness. And this same Jesus, who is comfort and joy in the flesh, has become your food, served up in the Gospel to be eaten by faith. So when you are forsaken, cast down, oppressed, and assaulted for being Christians, you may run to Jesus. There you revive and strengthen yourselves. Since Jesus, your food, is filled with gladness, joy, and life, you too are filled with gladness, joy, and life. What a glorious banquet it is! And all you have to do is come to the banquet table of Jesus’ pulpit and altar and partake of Christ.

But here is where our Lord laments. He laments over the world’s callousness and indifference. He laments that people—even in His Church—ignore and despise this great, delicious banquet. He laments that so many—even self-proclaimed Christians—have no desire for the preaching of this Gospel, this feast of the roasted Christ. They refuse to come to God’s banquet table. And they excuse themselves with pretty flimsy excuses—real estate to see, animals to take care of or vehicles to test drive, or even family affairs.

Now these things are not evil in themselves. After all, God gives the land, the animals, the vehicles, and especially spouses and children. But Jesus laments when people refuse His banquet of forgiveness and life because they are so attached to enjoying the land, or to using the machines and the technology for work or play, or to arranging so many family activities.

We must learn to put things in proper perspective. We must learn the differences between coming to the banquet of Christ’s kingdom, on the one hand, and enjoying the land, the machines and toys, and the family, on the other. God gives the good things of land, material things, and family to enjoy. He also gives us spouses to avoid immorality. He gives us all family members to love and serve and forgive. But Jesus laments when we put these good gifts from Him over and above coming to His kingdom banquet.

Remember the Lord’s Prayer. First we pray for God’s name to be hallowed, for His kingdom to come, and for His will to be done. Only after these things do we then pray for daily bread—the things of physical and social life. When we put the things of physical and social life before the banquet of the roasted Christ, then our Lord laments. Then we deserve the wrath of God. But as Jesus says in Matthew 6(:33), “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” So our first priority in all of life is to hear and learn the Gospel—to feast on Jesus. Only with that nourishment can we truly enjoy the nourishment for  stomach and social life.

You see, our loving and giving heavenly Father puts on this rich feast by giving His Son, and He truly wants us earthly guests to fill His banquet all. So, let’s not pass up this banquet. Let’s invite and bring our family members, our friends, our fellow Christians, and our neighbors to this banquet. After all, in this banquet Jesus says, “You have My righteousness, My life, My comfort, and My peace.” Amen.

01 June 2016

Homily for Trinity 1

"Created for Your Neighbor"
Luke 16:19-31

Listen here.

We have just finished the festival half of the Church year. In Advent we eagerly awaited the coming Christ. At Christmas we celebrated God taking on our human flesh. Epiphany gave us the God-Man Jesus revealing Himself to the world in word and deed. Then came Lent and preparing to go to the cross with our Lord. In the festive season of Easter we celebrated Jesus’ resurrection and His glorious gift of life. Two weeks ago we celebrated Pentecost and the Holy Spirit working the miracle of preaching and hearing the Gospel. Last week, of course, we celebrated the mystery of the Holy Trinity.

Now we shift gears from focusing on the life of Christ to focusing on the life of the Church. The green on the altar reminds us of life, the holy life, the life that Christ lives out through His holy Church. The life of the Church, and of every Christian, goes in two directions. We often pray it after we receive the Lord’s Supper. We pray that the Lord would use His Body and Blood to strengthen us “in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another.” First, trust in God; second, love toward neighbor. Put them together and we see how we are created for our neighbor.

Jesus tells a story to the Pharisees. They were “lovers of money.” In His story, Jesus says there was a certain rich man. To put him in modern terms, rich man wore $1000 suits with bright, fancy ties. He lived in a luxurious mansion, complete with a big screen TV, Blue-ray DVD player, the newest computers, the latest WiFi-operated appliances, and the best sound system. He ate only the best foods: steak, lobster, caviar, etc. But there was also a beggar named Lazarus. He was homeless, just lived on the streets. He was always looking for a handout. So sad…and so annoying! And his skin! Those rashes! Those sores! He really should see a dermatologist. The rich man knew about Lazarus. He saw him walking past the house everyday. As the rich man sat in the comfort of his leather recliner, he thought, “It really is a shame how some people have such bad luck in life.” And off went Lazarus, walking down the street.

Was it a sin for the rich man to be rich? No. Was it a sin for the rich man to hoard his wealth and ignore the need of Lazarus? Yes. Is it a sin for you to have money and own possessions? No. God is the Giver of those good gifts too. Is it a sin for you to hang on to your money and possessions, guarding them and using them only for yourself? Yes. You see God gives you money and possessions for a purpose: not only to provide for your self, but also to love your neighbor. God gives you money and possessions so that you can turn and use them to help and serve your neighbor.

The real problem is not the money. The real problem is not trusting God. Yes, Jesus must preach this sermon to us—the holy Church, people redeemed by His blood. No, you and I don’t fully trust God to supply our need. No, you and I don’t trust God to take care of us day by day. That’s why we scrimp and hoard. That’s why we rely on ourselves. That’s why we always want more and more and more. We do it in our families; we do it in the church. All the while God is watching and saying, “Hey, I gave you that money and stuff so that you could serve your neighbor, not yourselves!”

Lazarus and the rich man both died, and each of them went to their eternal reward. Beggar Lazarus went to heaven. Nameless rich man, who had the good life, went to hell. And in the midst of his torment, the rich man was still blind to his sin. “Hey, Abraham,” he called, “send Lazarus over here to serve me with a couple drops of cold water.” During earthly life, rich man paid no attention to Lazarus. In everlasting torment, rich man thought Lazarus should serve him as a slave.

Sometimes we talk of needing more giving in the congregation. And it’s true: we all could stand to be more generous in the offering and thus promote the Gospel of our Lord Jesus. But we often think and speak in these terms: “Let’s get those other people giving more.” That’s the same selfish thing the rich man said in his hell. “We seem to have a problem. Let’s get other people to solve it for us.” And do you know what God says to that? “Baloney!” He says, “I always give you what you need--even more than you need. You simply don’t trust Me or look to Me.” Do you want to know how to increase giving? It’s simple: Give! To everyone who says, “We need more giving,” the solution is simple: take out your wallet and give.” Don’t expect other people to do it for you. Set the example. Generosity leads to more generosity. Giving leads to more giving.

That’s the way God works. That’s the way God wants His Church to work. Giving leads to more giving. Generosity leads to more generosity. God gives you money and possessions so that you will turn and use them to help and serve your neighbor. And who is your neighbor? Take a hint from the parable. The rich man’s neighbor was right at his gate—right under his nose. In the same way, your neighbor is right under your nose. Your neighbor eats at the dinner table with you, attends worship with you, and works on the job with you. You don’t have to go searching for a neighbor. God is so good and gracious to you that He has already given you neighbors, the people with whom you live, worship, work, and play. You are created for them, not them for you.

This is how God has worked to save you. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came into the world for one purpose: to save you by dying for you—to lay down His life for you, His neighbor. He gave up the privileges of being God and took on human flesh. He gave up His own precious life to serve you. What marvelous generosity! As St. John says: “By this we know love, that He laid down His life for us” (1 Jn. 3:16). St. Paul says the same thing: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).

St. Paul is not talking about money or economics when He says that Jesus was rich and became poor. Jesus became poor—became a beggar—by taking our sin into His own body. As Jesus hung on the cross, God looked at Him and said, “You are the poorest, most beggarly sinner. You must die.” So, Jesus died and went through the torment and agony of hell to save us. You see, Jesus had to go there, because that’s where we were. And we deserved to be there, in the same place as the rich man in the story. But Jesus bridged the gulf, the grand canyon, between us and God. When Jesus rose from the dead, He brought us with Him from death into life. Now, we belong in Abraham’s bosom—right along side beggar Lazarus.

So, living the Christian life means learning to look at ourselves as beggars. That’s what we are. We have no claim on God, yet He loves to call us His children and His Church. We don’t deserve anything that God gives us, yet He still takes care of our needs. He lets us keep breathing every night while we sleep. He lets the sun come up in the morning to waken us and give us light. He lets us eat food every day. And we don’t deserve any of this. God is truly rich in mercy. Trusting Christ means learning to see ourselves as beggars who rely only on God. We keep sinning, but Jesus keeps forgiving us. We still fall into trusting ourselves rather than God, but Christ overcomes that sin too. He has already suffered torment for it and killed it.

When we come to the Lord’s Table, we come as beggars. Our mouths and our hands are open and empty. But be comforted. Jesus fills our mouths and hands with His own Body and Blood. In this Supper God teaches us to be beggars. He teaches us to trust Him and love our neighbor. When we receive Jesus’ Supper, we trust the forgiveness that He gives us in His Body and Blood. When we receive the Supper, we are also learning to love our fellow beggars as we eat and drink with them. We are beggars, and we need the Lord to feed us with His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

When I say that we are beggars, I am not insulting you. Instead, I’m complimenting you. After all, you and I are free beggars. As we rely on God in Christ for every little thing, we are free to serve our neighbor. You see, beggars have nothing to hold onto, nothing to hoard. And what little they do receive, they always use it to help and serve their fellow beggars. Beggars are created for their neighbor. Amen.

23 May 2016

Homily for the Holy Trinity

"Our Giving God"
John 3:1-17; Isaiah 6:1-7

Listen here.

How often had Isaiah served in the temple?  How often had he participated in its liturgy?  How well he knew it!  But then came that day, that life-changing day, that day when the earthly scene in front of him melted away and he was left trembling and naked, staring open-mouthed into the very heart of heaven. He saw God. And the sight terrified him.

He saw Yahweh – God – sitting on his throne, high above the earth. The train of his robe flowed swirling down and filled the earthly temple.  He saw six-winged seraphim, angels of fire, above Yahweh, flying and calling out. He heard their song:  “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.”

Then Isaiah thought he was in for it, finished. He cried out:  “Woe is me! – I am undone. I am cut off. I am dead meat.” He thought, for sure, that he was about to die.  And so he made confession:  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” Isaiah realized that he was suddenly in the presence of Truth Himself. Every lie he’d ever told seemed to fill his mouth with a foul, disgusting, polluted taste.

But then something happened, something he could never expect or predict. One of the seraphim took tongs to the altar before God and lifted a live, hot, burning coal. He carried it to Isaiah, and with it he seared the mouth of the seer. He purged the mouth of the prophet. He told Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin is atoned for.” The touch of the living fire of God delivered that gift to him. That day Isaiah became a new man, a man with cleansed lips, and a man with a mission. Now his cleansed lips would speak what his ears heard from God.

Now we come to our Gospel reading. And what a contrast it is! But make no mistake about it: we still see the One whose presence caused Isaiah to tremble in fear. Now, though, He sits, not on a high and lofty throne in heaven, but probably on a dining coach in a humble home on earth. Now He does not wear the great train that Isaiah saw; instead He is clothed in our human flesh and blood. No flying seraphim in sight, but in comes Nicodemus at night. And that darkness describes not only the time of day, but also the condition of Nicodemus’ soul. He was as blind as the darkness outside to Who sat before him. He was as blind as Isaiah was all those times he worshiped at the temple without realizing the terror and awe of God’s unseen presence.

Nicodemus comes eager and ready for some theological chit-chat, maybe even some full-fledged debate. But Jesus cuts right to the heart of what’s on Nicodemus’ heart and mind. “You must be born again,” Jesus says. And how does Nicodemus respond to that?  He argues about how that can even be possible:  “Surely, an old man can’t creep back into his mother’s womb and be born again, can he?” But Jesus does not back down.  He cuts to the heart some more. He cuts right to the point of rebirth and new life:  “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.  That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”

And what did you have to do to be born, Nicodemus?  What preparations did you make? What decisions? What efforts? None! Absolutely none. Your first birth—that gift of life—came to you as a free gift—unasked, unsought, unmerited. And so does being born again. You don’t have to creep back into your mother’s womb. You don’t have to do a single, solitary thing. You only have to receive the gift—the gift of entering into God’s Kingdom by the Spirit in the water.

You see, Jesus was inviting Nicodemus to Baptism. When he says, “You must be born again,” He invites everyone to Baptism. Don’t lose the passive. “BE born.” He did not say: “go, rebirth yourself; go, decide to be born again.” Instead, Jesus is telling you that you need the gift that only water and the Spirit can give, a gift from Him to you.  And here’s why you need it: so that you can see and know who the true God is. “And this is eternal life, that they know You the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (Jn. 17:3).

That’s the chief problem of our flesh born of flesh: we are blind to God. Sure, we may know and believe that He’s “out there somewhere,” but we view Him in a very dark light. We see Him as the rule-maker and the joy-squelcher. We see Him as the one Who demands this and that. We see Him as the One determined to make us miserable by not letting us do all the so-called “fun” things we want to do. We view Him as the God who says “No,” the God who is out to get us, the God who makes us pay for all the times we disregarded Him and His rules.

That’s the God Isaiah was afraid he had met in the temple. It’s why he cried out: “Woe is me!”  That’s the God Nicodemus had bargained with his whole life—trying to buy him off, butter him up, or rub him down by frantically keeping all the rules. He came to Jesus to hear if there were any rules he might have missed. After all, he sure didn’t have the peace that he should have had. Most likely, he had that nagging question rattling in his head and haunting his heart: “Have I done enough?” So he wants Jesus to tell him if there’s something more he needs to worry about in order to serve God.

But there’s only one problem. That God does not exist. Isaiah discovered this with the touch of a burning coal and with the words that delivered the gift of forgiveness. Nicodemus discovered it too, when God in our flesh said to him: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” Did you catch that, Nicodemus? Not “does,” but “believes.” That is, whoever believes and receives the Son of Man who is lifted high on a cross, whoever believes and receives the crucified and dead Son of God, the risen and victorious Lord of Life, that person receives the free, undeserved, unasked for gift of eternal life.  “For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.”

The cross, then, shows that our God does not deal with us by means of pay backs or just desserts. Our second reading today asks, “Who has given a gift to Him that he might be repaid?” The answer is, “No one!” God is not a God who is out to take from you. That’s flesh-born-of-flesh thinking!  The Spirit shows that God, the true God, the merciful God sets His heart on giving Himself to you. He is our giving God. And He is the only true God, the blessed Holy Trinity—the Father who gives the Son into our flesh to suffer and die for us; the Son who gives His life into death and resurrection so that we may not die but live; the Spirit who gives us a new birth in Baptism. He brings us to faith in the Son, so that the Son may present us blameless before the Father, clothed in His own holiness, alive with God’s own life.

Today many of you who have been baptized will come to the Table. Today your lips will be touched with the living Body and Blood of the Son of God.  And suddenly you are there with Isaiah:  “Behold, this has touched your lips.  Your guilt has been taken away and your sin atoned for.”  That’s the gift of life from the God who delights in giving, the Most Holy, Most Blessed Trinity in whose presence we are privileged to join with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising Him and singing, now and forever:  “Holy, holy, holy.”  Amen.