28 March 2016

Homily for The Resurrection of our Lord

Are You Sure?
Job 19:23-27; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8; Mark 16:1-8 

Listen here.

Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Are you sure about that? Are you absolutely certain that Jesus is raised from the dead? That He has conquered death? That He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel? I mean, when was the last time you actually saw someone come back to life after their funeral? Dead people just don’t come out of their graves! This world of death just keeps plodding along through the valley of the shadow of death.

Just this past week, the people of Brussels in Belgium were served a heaping portion of death on a platter of terror. Before that San Bernardino, and before that Paris. And who can count the countless stories of shootings and knife attacks and beatings that leave bodies behind? And we haven’t even touched on the so-called “normal death” that takes its toll on the famous as well as the nameless. Alzheimer’s, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, heart attacks, strokes, various cancers and all the rest take one and all, regardless of class or caste, regardless of fame or infamy.

Are you really sure that Christ is risen? Are you certain that this Easter message, this Easter celebration, this Easter fanfare really makes a difference in life…for you?…for others around you?

You do know, don’t you, that there are various objections to Jesus’ Resurrection out there? Some say that the first disciples really just hallucinated that Jesus had risen. After all, they say, we know how some people in their severe grief can sense or imagine their lost loved one in the home even after the funeral. Some say that Jesus really did not die on that cross, and therefore He could not have been raised on the third day. It’s actually in the Koran. Some say that our enlightened, modern, scientific knowledge rules out any miracles such as the resurrection of Jesus. After all, the thinking goes, the laws of nature cannot be violated by miracles that we enlightened modern people never see anyway. So, how sure are you that you can shout out with confidence, “He is risen indeed! Alleluia!”?

Let’s take up those objections one-by-one. First, some say the grieving disciples only hallucinated, or imagined, seeing Jesus risen from the dead. Yes, it is true that some people can be so grief-stricken that they think they hear or even see their deceased loved one after the funeral. However, psychologists say that only 7% of those who grieve have such a false sensory experience. That’s certainly a far cry from claiming that 100% of Jesus’ disciples merely imagined or sensed that Jesus had risen. After all, He appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve, and then to more than 500 brothers at one time (1 Cor. 15:5-6). And how could more than 500 people all have the same hallucination, all at the same time? And don’t forget St. Paul himself. He did not grieve the death of Jesus. In fact, he tried to snuff out the message of Christ crucified and risen. And yet, by God’s grace, St. Paul, the former persecutor of Christians, could later boldly proclaim: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:17, 20).

What about the second objection to the resurrection—that Jesus did not really die on the cross, and therefore He couldn’t possibly rise from the dead? Yes, the Muslims claim this from the Koran, and other skeptics pick it up too. There’s just one problem with it. The Koran also calls Jesus a “great prophet,” trying to give Him some respect. But ponder this. The prophet Jesus did predict and proclaim His horrific death, and He did so very close in time to His death. So, if He did not actually die as He Himself predicted and right after He predicted it, then what does that make Jesus? Not a “great prophet,” but a false prophet! Koran mistaken. And on the other hand, if Jesus did die, as He actually proclaimed and predicted, then once again the Koran is mistaken. In this case, strike two; you’re out!

Thirdly, what about the scientific objection? As they say, we 21st century people now know the laws of nature and how things naturally, normally work. We do not observe miracles happening, therefore they cannot happen. Those 1st century people just didn’t know the laws of nature; therefore they believed in miracles, such as Jesus’ resurrection. But consider this. Laws of nature simply describe how things normally work. They cannot make anything work. Laws of nature can describe how a billiard ball rolls and how it bounces off the bumper at certain angles. But those laws of nature cannot make the billiard ball start rolling. An outside force must do that with a cue stick. Or consider this. Let’s say one day you put $100 into your dresser drawer. Then, the next day, you put another $100 into your dresser drawer. The laws of arithmetic say that equals $200. Then, on the third day, you open your dresser drawer and find only $50! Which laws were broken: the laws of arithmetic, or the laws of the state? Obviously, the laws of the state that say, “Don’t steal.” Again, some outside force had to act. Laws of arithmetic did not change over night. (And laws of nature stayed in tact too; after all, dollar bills cannot sprout legs and walk away! :-)

And this brings us to the whole point of this festive time: Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia! Are you sure? I hope so! You see, God does not break the laws of nature; after all, He created them. God simply steps in and exerts His life-giving power from outside the normal system, which He also created in the first place. God simply exerts His power—like a billiard player—to get the “billiard ball” of new life rolling. The Son of God Himself has stepped into this dying world of ours, taken our flesh on Himself, suffered death in our place, and has now risen from the grave. The only laws broken are the law of sin and the law of death. And God did not create those.

Can you be absolutely certain that Jesus IS raised from the dead in His body? That He has conquered death? That He has brought life and immortality to light through the Gospel? Yes, you can be! Why else would you be here today? What other message would you expect to hear? What else could give you peace, hope, and confidence in this world of death that just keeps plodding along through the valley of the shadow of death? What else could comfort your troubled heart and steel your resolve as you face the loss of a loved one or even your own mortality? And what else could give you the joy and exuberance to laugh in the face of death with St. Paul, saying, “O death, where your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55).

You see, the women who went to the tomb that first Easter morning were not so sure, even after they heard the angel say, “He has risen; He is not here.” But they did end up telling the disciples. And the disciples were not so sure. But then they did see the risen Lord Jesus—not just an hallucination, but a real body raised from the dead, a real body with wounds that could be poked and examined, a real Man who ate fish and bread, a real Man who breathed on them to give them His Spirit.

You can be as sure as Job—even more sure. Job lived somewhere around 2,000 years before Jesus came and died and rose again. You live about 2,000 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Job trusted and proclaimed God’s promise yet to come. You get to trust and proclaim God’s salvation accomplished as a real historical fact. You can say with absolute confidence: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth” (Job 19:25). You can also say with absolute confidence: “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” (Job 19:26-27).

St. Paul reminds you: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:1-4).

Before we leave this festive gathering today, we will sing our absolute confidence this way:

Jesus lives! The vict’ry’s won!
Death no longer can appall me;
Jesus lives! Death’s reign is done!
From the grave will Christ recall me.
Brighter scenes will then commence;
This shall be my confidence. (LSB 490:1)

Christ is risen! R: He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

26 March 2016

Homily for Easter Vigil

"How to Say 'CHRISTIAN'"

Surely, you remember the Hobbits from Lord of the Rings—Frodo, Sam-Wise, Merry, and Pippin. Frodo and Sam-Wise had gone off to return “the Ring” to Mt. Doom—save the world or some such thing. Merry and Pippin, though, had been captured by the Uruhkai. Then they escaped and were wandering through Fangorn Forest. That’s where they met the “Ents”—the tree creatures that  walk and talk. The first “Ent” they met was Treebeard—an wise, old Ent. At first Treebeard wasn’t sure he had ever heard of little creatures called Hobbits. Treebeard went through his whole list of creatures—elves, dwarfs, ents, and humans; beavers, bears, hounds, and eagles; swans and serpents. Nope, no Hobbits. But he was pleased to meet Merry and Pippin.

So, Merry quickly introduces himself by name. And Treebeard says, “Hoom, hmm! Come now! Not so hasty.” He wants to ponder why they call themselves “hobbits.” Pippin quickly introduces himself by name. And Treebeard responds, “Hm, but you are hasty folk, I see.” Then Treebeard slowly declares, “I am not going to tell you my name, not yet at any rate.” Why not? He says, “For one thing it would take a very long while: my name is growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story.” In Treebeard’s story-language, Entish, things take a long time to say. Then Treebeard says, “It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

Tonight we are being good little Ents! What does all of this have to do with Jesus, Easter, resurrection, and new life? Don’t get hasty now; just wait. It’s truly amazing how hasty we get in our world of 24/7 news, and Facebook status updates throughout the day, and email correspondence where we feel insulted if we don’t get a response in under three minutes. Yes, we’re suffering from a plague of hastiness. Yes, the symptoms of that plague are not saying much that’s worthwhile and not hearing much that’s worthwhile. Certainly, our hasty speaking, our hasty listening, and even our hasty living, all tend to crowd out our God who loves us for the long-term of eternity.

According to Treebeard, anything worth saying is worth taking some time to say it. Think about this evening. We actually gather here with the express purpose of taking longer than normal to worship ... waiting and watching in vigil … of hearing lots of God’s Word … of remembering our Baptism … of confirming two young men … of praying … and of receiving His gifts. We began with preparing and lighting the Paschal candle. Yes, Jesus Christ is the light of the world. Oops. I’m getting too hasty here. We processed in and that light of life spread through the congregation. One candle after another, Jesus the resurrected light spread for each person here. Just think how gloriously long it would take to spread through the country or around the world.

Then we heard the Word of God. If there’s anything worth saying and listening to, here it is. Story after story of how God loves us to redeem us, of how God steps into our story to rescue us, rescue us from sin … and from death … and from the devil. First, came Creation. Yes, He loved us so much He wanted to give us His whole perfect world. Then came the Flood. Yes, our rebellion against Him is judged. And yet He delivers us through the water, safe and secure in the ark—the ark of His holy Church, that is. I hope I’m not going too hastily here! Then came the Exodus. Our gracious God delivers us from our slavery to sin, just has He delivered His ancient people from slavery in Egypt. And finally Daniel and his friends. Notice we did not speed through that story! Daniel and his friends would not bow down to the human king, regardless of his unjust legislation and mandate, regardless of how the governing authorities sought to curtail their religious freedom. And the consequences for their civil disobedience? A fiery furnace. But there was a Helper in the midst of that blazing oven—the Son of God Himself. Yes, we’ve taken a long time to rehearse these stories. If there’s anything worth saying, it’s worth taking time to say it. You see, these are our stories. They teach us how to say, “CHRISTIAN.”

And this evening we’ve had the privilege of remembering our Baptism and new life with God in Jesus' death and resurrection. And, yes, it happened far more hastily than the story deserves. You see, we get to spend our whole lifetimes learning this new life in Jesus, life that lasts into eternity. Yes, for years to come, we get to learn how to say “CHRISTIAN” … and how to live as “CHRISTIAN” … and how to serve as “CHRISTIAN” … and how to love as “CHRISTIAN.” It’s what we all get to do when we are baptized.

After that story we witnessed the story of two young men confessing the one, true faith and being confirmed in that faith. If there’s anything worthy saying—especially in those confirmation vows—it’s worthy saying slowly, over a long period of time, even over the long period of your lifetimes. Yes, you did confess faith in the true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Yes, you did promise to remain true to Him for the rest of your lives. Yes, you did promise to live the rest of your lives in His Church—hearing God’s Word, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood faithfully and regularly. It’s how you say, “CHRISTIAN.” You live it. You don’t make a promise, and then hastily rush off to other pursuits. No, you live the story. You live life within God’s family, the Church. We all do. How do you say “CHRISTIAN”? By coming to Jesus’ house, by hearing and learning His words, by eating and drinking His Body and Blood—week in and week out, month in and month out, year in and year out. If there’s anything worth saying—and living—it’s worth taking time to say it and live it. So, Blake and Evan, welcome to the family.

What does all of this have to do with Jesus, Easter, resurrection, and new life? Don’t be so hasty. It’s what we’ve been hearing all evening. New life from God and His rescue of sinners. New life in Jesus Christ, crucified and now risen. New life in Baptism. New life in practice, lived out in His family, the Church. New life that is worth taking time—our whole lifetime—to say, to live, to shout, to sing.

When we shout out and sing out that “Christ is risen,” we mean all of this. When we shout out and sing out that “He is risen indeed,” we mean His story is our story, His life is our life. When we shout out and sing out, “Alleluia!”, we shout out and sing out a word that is worth saying over and over and for a long time to come. Praise the Lord that He has sent His Son! Praise the Lord that He is risen from the dead! Praise the Lord that He has raised us to live with Him! Praise the Lord that He teaches us how to say, “CHRISTIAN”! Praise our risen Savior that He has given us something to say, and a whole lifetime to say it!

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

25 March 2016

Homily for Good Friday

"Sacrifice in the Flesh"
John 18:1-19:42 & Luke 1:26-38

Listen here.

This single service called the “Holy Three Days”--Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter—is the most sacred time of our Christian year. This year Good Friday also falls on March 25, the day the Church also sets aside for the Annunciation of our Lord—the time when the angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced that she would become pregnant with and give birth to the Son of God.

What a marvelous intersection of Jesus’ Birth and Death, of His taking on flesh and His offering the ultimate sacrifice! The very flesh and blood Savior conceived and born of Mary would reveal Himself as God’s great sacrifice in the flesh for you. The Son of God stooped down to take on our human flesh and blood for the express purpose of sacrificing Himself on the cross for you. Without His flesh and blood, He could not have suffered and died for you. And when He suffers and dies in His flesh given by Mary, He restores you, in your flesh, to life with God.

In the ancient world, people thought that a person died on the same day that he was first conceived. Instead of celebrating birthdays, as we do, they would mark the day that a person died and then say, “That’s the day, all those years ago, when Uncle Barnabas was conceived in his mother’s womb.” So the early church marked the day of Jesus’ death as the same day, 33 years earlier, when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Virgin Mary. So, today we get to mark the day when He first took on flesh and blood along with the day on which He sacrificed Himself in the flesh.

On Annunciation Day we fix our eyes on the Virgin who conceived and bore a Son, and we call Him “Immanuel.” On Good Friday we fix our eyes on the suffering, suffocating, dying Son of God who is with us in our place on the bloody cross. Annunciation draws us to the fullness of time when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman. Good Friday shows us how He redeems us who are born under the law and how God adopts us as His heirs of His heavenly gifts.

God showed His favor to Mary as He prepared for His Son to be born. He shows you His favor through His Son crucified, dead, and buried. Mary was to name Him “Jesus” because, as He shows on the Cross, He saves you, His people, from your sins. Mary was promised that her Son would reign over the house of Jacob forever. You see that promise fulfilled as Jesus hangs lifeless on His cross-shaped throne, crowned with thorns, with the charge “King of the Jews” hanging above His head.

His tiny infant hands grew to bless and heal, to cleanse the temple and comfort the downtrodden. But then they received the piercing nails pinning Him to the cross in your place. His adorable baby feet grew to walk the dusty roads as He proclaimed God’s kingdom, to walk miraculously on the water as He rescued Peter from drowning, and, finally, to stomp on the serpent’s head by being nailed to a tree. His vibrant infant eyes once looked to His Virgin Mother in dependence and adoration, but from the cross He could only see the mocking gestures, the angry faces, and His God who had forsaken Him instead of you. At first, His mouth could only coo and gurgle, but then it would speak the great wisdom of the Triune God and His loving mercy, especially as it uttered those immortal and life-giving words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

The security of swaddling cloths had to give way to the shameful nakedness of the cross, because our sin made us naked in shame before God. But wrapped in Christ’s blood, you have security in His forgiveness. The friendly wood of the manger had to give way to the hard, rough wood of the cross. It might seem like “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). The sweet milk from Mary’s breast had to give way to the bitter, vinegar-filled cup of God’s wrath. It was the only way that you and I could taste and see that the Lord is good.

Mother Mary made sure to clothe Him as He grew up, but the soldiers made sure to strip Him bare as they lifted Him from the earth. But never fear: in your Baptism you are clothed with the robe of Christ’s perfect life. When Jesus was an infant small, His Virgin Mother held Him and tended His every need. But as He hung from the Cross, He tended to her need as He gave her to the Apostle John and gave John to her as a new son. Not only does this crucified Son of the Highest reconcile you to God, but He also reconciles you to each other and teaches you to sacrifice yourselves for one another.

When Mary took Jesus to the temple to be circumcised, she was told, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Lk. 2:35). But the piercing that saves you and heals you came when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side “and at once there came out blood and water” (Jn. 19:34). Yes, He, not His Mother, was “wounded for [your] transgressions” and “crushed for [your] iniquities…and with His stripes [you] are healed” (Is. 53:5). And long after Jesus last rested in the warm, tender embrace of His Mother, He finally rested in the cold, hard tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Jesus’ rest in the tomb shows you that you now have rest with God.

When we celebrate the Annunciation, we hear Mary respond to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk. 1:38). When we celebrate Good Friday, we ponder the cruel blows, the mock trials, the contrived death sentence, the scourging that shreds His flesh. We hear the echoes of the nails being pounded into His wrists and feet. We hear the words spoken from the cross. We visualize the blood flowing mingled down, and we recall Him giving up His own breath of life. As we ponder these sacred events, let us also speak Mary’s words: “Let it be to me according to your word.”

And what does that Word say about a crucified and dead Son of God? It says: “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17). It says, “For our sake [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). May God grant you the same faith that the Virgin Mary confessed. Like her, may you ponder and adore the Son of the Highest, especially for His sacrifice in the flesh for you.

St. Ephraem (306-373) teaches us how to pray, ponder, and adore on this Good Friday:
You love humankind, O Christ, and I glorify You for that. You are the only Son, the Lord of all things. You alone are without sin. You gave Yourself up to death for me, an unworthy sinner, the death of the cross. Through this suffering, You have delivered all human beings from the snares of evil. What shall I render to you, Lord, for such goodness?

Glory to You, friend of all!
Glory to You, O merciful Lord!
Glory to You, longsuffering God!
Glory to You, who takes away all sins!
Glory to You, who came to save us!
Glory to You, who became flesh in the womb of the virgin!
Glory to You, bound in cords!
Glory to You, whipped and scourged!
Glory to You, mocked and derided!
Glory to You, nailed to the cross!
Glory to You, buried and risen!
Glory to You, proclaimed to all humankind, who believe in You!
Glory to You, ascended to heaven! Amen.

24 March 2016

Homily for Holy Thursday

"Life in the Blood"
Exodus 12:1-14; 1 Corinthians 11:23-32; John 13:1-15, 34-35

There is a crimson, scarlet thread woven through all of Scripture. God told Moses, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Lev. 17:11). The writer to the Hebrews tells all of us: “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). In the shed blood of Jesus we have forgiveness. There’s life in that blood.

When a human being leaves a trail of blood, it usually leads back to him and pronounces him guilty of causing death. But when God Himself leaves a trail of blood through His Scriptures, it leads back to Him and proclaims Him our Giver of life.

Go back to the Garden of Eden. When Lent began, we remembered Adam and Eve and the fall into sin. Adam and Eve seek independence from God, but receive death instead. Remember: “you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). But right on the heels of that pronouncement of death, God promises life. He will send a Savior who will crush the serpent’s head. Not only that, but God Himself sheds blood to proclaim His gift of life: “The LORD God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them” (Gen. 3:21). The first Gospel promise, then the first shedding of blood. Life in the blood.

Fast forward to about 1450 B.C. God’s chosen people are oppressed slaves in Egypt. God steps in to rescue and liberate them from their cruel bondage. God institutes a meal to go with the rescue. Kill a lamb. Roast it and eat it, along with the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the fruit puree. Take the blood of the lamb and paint it on the door frames. When God goes through the land to kill the first-born of all Egypt, He will pass over the houses painted with blood. There’s life and deliverance for those covered with the blood.

Nine months after the children of Israel come out of Egypt, God makes a covenant with His people. God chooses His people, and He promises to be their God. They respond by promising to be faithful to Him alone. Moses presides at the Covenant Liturgy. He builds an altar. He sets up pillars representing the people. He takes blood from the offerings. He pours half of it on the altar—that’s the SACRIFICE. He pours the other half on the people—that’s the COVERING. Then Moses and other elders of Israel go up onto Mt. Sinai. They actually see the God of Israel, and He is gracious to let them remain in His presence. “They beheld God, and ate and drank” (Ex. 24:11). There really is life—and love—in that blood.

All of that Old Testament blood sets us up for the New Testament blood. Now it’s the Feast of the Passover. Jesus knows that His “hour” has come; it’s time for Him to complete His mission and return to His Father. He shows His deep love for His disciples by washing their feet. He also loves them—and us—by fulfilling and transforming the Passover meal. He says, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer” (Lk. 22:15). This would be the last Passover meal of the old testament; it would also be the first Passover meal of the new testament. That first blood in the Garden, that first Passover in Egypt, that first Covenant at Mt. Sinai—they all point us to Jesus. Now Jesus will be the ultimate, once-for-all sacrifice. Now Jesus will shed the final blood. Now Jesus Himself will be the highest and best Passover Lamb. Now Jesus gives the New Covenant. The life is in His blood.

1450 years before Jesus, the Israelites slew the lambs. Those covered with the lambs’ blood would be rescued. Those who ate the lamb would be sustained and nourished for their journey out of slavery. In A.D. 30, Jesus reveals Himself to be “the Lamb of  God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29). You who are covered with the blood of Jesus are rescued from your oppressive slavery in sin and death. You who eat Jesus, the Lamb roasted on the cross, are sustained and nourished for your journey through the wilderness of this world. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). St. John proclaims God’s life and love in the blood this way: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the [atoning sacrifice] for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:10).

So Jesus gives bread and says, “Take, eat; this is My Body which is given for you.” Then Jesus gives a common cup of wine and says, “Drink of it all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Now this is NOT the language of cardboard cut-out representations. Nor is it the language of squishy symbolism. No, this is language of a last will and testament. And, as we know, a last will and testament goes into effect after the person who makes it has died. And once a last will and testament has been put into effect, cannot be changed. Its provisions continue.

Jesus gives us His last will and testament of forgiveness and life in His blood. When He dies it goes into effect. After He dies, the provisions of His will—His forgiveness, His life, and His salvation—continue. In the Old Testament, God promised life and forgiveness in the shed blood of animals. In the New Testament, Jesus wins life and forgiveness by shedding His own blood in death. In the Old Testament, God’s people looked ahead to the final sacrifice that would give perfect forgiveness for all time. In the New Testament, Jesus’ Church receives all the benefits of His sacrifice. Here is Jesus’ last will and testament for you: “Find your forgiveness and your life in My shed blood; focus your life and faith on the common cup of My blood. When you are covered in this blood, you have life.”

We live in a time when people are looking for some kind of spirituality. Many think “spiritual” means the opposite of “material.” Eastern religions such as Hinduism view the “spiritual world” as pure, while the “material world” is evil. We also see this Gnostic heresy alive and well in our Western culture. However, in God’s view—and according to the Bible, the spiritual world and the material world are linked and joined together—like body and soul in a person, or like flame and heat in a bonfire. God actually gives spiritual life through material things. He gives forgiveness and strengthens faith by using bread and wine, body and blood. Every time you eat Christ’s Body and drink Christ’s Blood, you receive rich, eternal, spiritual benefits—God’s rescue from sin; Jesus’ life to sustain yours.

“The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Cor. 10:16). When you eat Christ’s Body and drink His Blood, you share in life with Christ. You also share in life with each other. Yes, we are in the Body of Christ. Together we are the Body of Christ. We need each other. “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself” (Rom. 14:7). This is the precious proclamation of the common cup. We, you and I, are united and unified in faith and life in Christ. This also explains why, sometimes, we must have someone wait before they commune with us. If a person or a church body does not agree in the teachings of Jesus, we love them enough to say, “Let’s not commune until we share a common faith, a common public confession, in Christ’s forgiveness, life and salvation. Thus we show love for Christ and for one another by respecting His blood. After all, there’s life and love in His blood.

Now that you are cleansed and made whole by Christ’s blood—now that you receive life by His love—you get to live in thanksgiving. How so? “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Ps. 116:12-13). The best thing you can do to thank Jesus for His agonizing death and His eternal love is partake of His Body and Blood—keep His last will and testament. What better way to proclaim Christ and His loving life than to gather in His house for His Supper on His day?

The writer to the Hebrews says, “Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). And Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54). Amen.

21 March 2016

Homily for Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion

"For You!"

Listen here.

Following the reading of Matthew 26:1-27:66:

In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

For you! All for you!


17 March 2016

God's Design for Life--Life with Gifts

The final installment of this year's Lenten catechetical series, "God's Design for Life." Here we focus on Commandments 7-10 under the theme "Life with Gifts."

God’s design for life begins with perfect fear, love and trust in Him. That’s the foundation for the building. Then comes properly using God’s name. Then comes gladly hearing and learning God’s Word. The Second and Third Commandments serve as the structure of the building, what gives the building its shape and character. Then the building needs walls, windows, doors, and interior decorating. This is where the other commandments come in. Last week, we looked at honoring parents and other authorities, helping and supporting physical life, and respecting the estate of marriage. Tonight we look at the rest of the commandments. These show us some of God’s most precious gifts.

7th Commandment - God’s Gift of Possessions
Let’s say you want to find out how well a child knows the Commandments. You ask the young boy or girl to tell you the Ten Commandments. They pause and think. Then they proudly say, “You shall not steal.” Funny how the first commandment they think of is #7—as if the Ten Commandments didn’t begin until #7! Yet somewhere, somehow they learned that particular commandment.

I would guess that we always need to learn and relearn this commandment. You see, this commandment has to do with taking advantage of your neighbor in any way that makes him lose something. Yes, once again, God is protecting your neighbor from you. You are tempted to look at your neighbor’s possessions and take them. Perhaps you wouldn’t do so outright, as a burglar or pickpocket. This commandment also catches you red-handed permitting damage to your neighbor’s possessions or property, wasting things, or neglecting your neighbor’s goods. It applies to being careless or lazy on the job or at school. It applies to stealing the boss’s or the teacher’s time or materials. It certainly applies to any kind of business transaction that overcharges or is underhanded or passes off bad merchandise as top-shelf stuff. And, yes, it even applies to stealing from God by withholding tithes and offerings. We have to agree with what the Large Catechism says about thievery: “this is the most common trade and the largest union on earth” (LC I:228).

Instead of stealing and conniving, God’s design for you is to help your neighbor to improve and protect his possessions and income. (Yes, this does fly in the face of “Occupy Wall Street” movements and making “the rich” pay “their fair share”!) Love looks out for your neighbor’s benefit, not your own. God is gracious enough to give every person the possessions he or she needs—the possessions and wealth He wants them to manage. Whether the possessions are many or few, God gives each of you exactly what you need and what He wants you to manage. This, then, frees you up to help and serve your neighbor as you are able. God always gives you the money and possessions you need. So you don’t have to worry about seizing and taking from your neighbor. In fact, the money and possessions that God gives you are a rich supply for you to use, not only for your own needs, but also to help and share with those in need. On top of all this, you have a precious promise. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” You have a very rich Lord Jesus. He is certainly sufficient for your needs, and He will not let you lack anything you need.

8th Commandment - God’s Gift of a Good Reputation
This commandment deals with how you use your tongue regarding your neighbor. No one can live peacefully without a good reputation. So God wants you to preserve your neighbor’s good reputation. But that’s also precisely where you and I fail and fall. Often your neighbor’s reputation is the last thing you think about. The tongue gets going a mile a minute, and, before you know it, you’ve injured your neighbor—either to his face or behind his back—and often without realizing it. Something about your neighbor disagrees with you, and the tongue goes to work gossiping and slandering. You do it at home, at work, at church, at school, over the phone, even—and especially!—on social media. St. James knew what he was talking about: “no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so” (James 3:8-10).

Protecting someone else’s reputation is one of the smallest yet most important good works. And it’s God’s design for life. As St. Paul says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor” (Rom. 13:10). Here are some tips, from Luther in his Large Catechism, for protecting God’s gift of a good reputation. First, if a neighbor sins against you, don’t talk to others. Instead, go talk to your neighbor. God wants you to win your brother back from his sin. Second, when you hear gossip, no matter how true it may be, defend your neighbor, no matter what his faults are. Third, if you cannot make official charges before the proper authorities, then make your ears a tomb and bury your neighbor’s sin. Now, you and I are going to stumble in keeping this commandment. And when you do, run to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. He is your Neighbor who  was spoken against and slandered. He was the victim of false testimony. And because of that, He won your forgiveness. And His forgiveness for you means that God does not speak against you, but for you. In fact, because of Jesus crucified and risen, God your Father puts the best construction on you and your life—and on your neighbor.

9th & 10th Commandments - God’s Gift of Contentment
Now we come to the real snare. These two commandments on coveting will catch you every time. You see, these commandments are directed against the most upright, good, religious people—you and me. Just when you think you’ve kept the other commandments, along comes this command: “Don’t covet!” In the other commandments, God deals with our actions. Now, in these last two commandments, He zeroes in on our hearts and desires. And again, God is protecting your neighbor from you. Coveting is looking to get what God did not give you. Several years ago, the title of one Lutheran Witness article described coveting in a very picturesque way. It said, “Thou shalt not suffer thine eyes to sprout hands.” An odd picture if you’re a literalist! Hands growing out of your eye sockets? But that’s what you do when you covet. You are not content with what God gives you, so you look to your neighbor’s things, or status, or reputation. “If only I could get my hands on that,” our heart and mind tell us.

Not only does this happen for you personally; it’s also common in the church and in society. In the church, we might hear, think and say things such as: “If only we could get more money” or “If only we could be more like that church over there.” In society, we might hear, think and say things such as: “No one should have that much wealth, or that much stuff” or “The rich really need to pay their ‘fair share’.” No matter where it happens or when it happens or who says it, the sin is still the same. You and I have a problem being content with what God gives us—whether it’s house or spouse, goods or kids, members or monies. These two commandments shine the light of truth on us good, religious people. They show us for the discontents we really are under the religious exterior. And it all goes back to the First Commandment: we really don’t trust God and how He chooses to take care of us.

So, the only way out of the coveting trap is by God’s giving and forgiving. Because of Jesus crucified and risen, you have a gracious God. Because of Jesus’ dying and rising, you have God’s good favor. God is content with you because of His Son. That’s God’s forgiving. And God’s giving also helps you. You have God’s promise that He knows what you need. You have God’s promise that He will always see to your needs. So you have what you need, and your neighbor has what he or she needs. God recreates your heart so that you do not need to covet anything that belongs to your neighbor. So why covet? You have a gracious God in Christ Jesus.

Conclusion to the Ten Commandments
We’ve spent these past five weeks rehearsing and relearning God’s design for life in His Ten Commandments. It may not have been flashy or entertaining; it wasn’t supposed to be. It’s been something like planting a garden. Every year it’s the same old thing—break up the soil, pull the weeds, plant the seeds, and water the ground. No flash—just dirt and seeds. No quick fix—just patient, steady growth. You are the garden plot. God is the gardner. And His Word in the Commandments is the seed. In the Commandments, you have the most precious teaching. Since it comes from God Himself, no one can improve upon it. We’ll also have our hands quite full just trying to keep these commandments. No, they’re not glamorous or showy. In fact, they keep us rooted in very simple, common, everyday actions of faith in God and love toward neighbor. But they are the very things God considers good works and good lives.

When we look at the Ten Commandments as God’s design for life, we also discover how we fail and mess up His design. Too often we even despise God for His design for life. That’s why we need our crucified and risen Lord Jesus. Only one Person has ever kept the Commandments perfectly. And they nailed Him to a cross for it. But that cross is also God’s design for life. There the design was completed and fulfilled for you. All of your commandment-breaking is laid on broken, bloody Jesus. And all of His commandment-keeping is now given to you through faith. Now you no longer live, but Christ lives in you. That’s God’s design for life, now and forever. Amen.

14 March 2016

Homily for Lent 5 - Judica

"Before Abraham Was, I AM"
John 8:42-59

Listen here.

The time of Jesus’ Passion and Death draws closer. Today is traditionally called “Passion Sunday.” On this day we hear of the people’s rejection of Jesus as the only Messiah and how they sought to kill Him. Some churches drape their crosses as a reminder that the price for our Lord’s passion is great. When they remove the veil, they view the cross with new eyes. We happen to mark this time of "Passion-tide" with the scarlet paraments and vestments--the color of blood.

Jesus tells the Jews that, if they truly were from God, they would love Him. After all, He comes from the Father and goes back to the Father. He then proclaims that they, the people, are of their father—the devil, the father of lies. He and his lies are at the root of all sin and evil in the world.

This is how our Lutheran Confessions explain this text about the devil. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says: “the cause of sin is the will of the devil and people turning away from God, according to the saying of Christ about the devil, 'When he lies, he speaks out of his own character' (John 8:44)” (Apology XIX:77).

In times of great evil and distress in the world, it’s quite common to ask the question, “Why?” Why is there so much evil in the world? Why is there so much hatred and violence and war? Why are innocent people slain and Christians hunted down and persecuted? And, if you dig even deeper, you may even ask this question of yourself. Why do I do these sins? Why am I so torn and possessed and infected by sin?

St. Paul himself struggled with this very question. In Romans 7(:18-20), he says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”

This is our slavery to sin. Each of us is bound under it and infected by it. Each of us struggles with it each and every day. And if you do not struggle with and fight against sins, that’s not a sign that you have no sin and do not sin. It’s just a sign that you are blind and numb to your sin. You don’t realize its stranglehold on you. You don’t feel its infecting grip on you.

This is the message that so incensed and infuriated the Jews in Jesus’ day. He had the audacity—the sheer, unmitigated gall—to suggest that they were not going to be saved automatically merely because they were descendants of Abraham. But even more, Jesus knows and understands the connection between sin and the devil. The two always go together.

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is not talking only about the Jews of His day; He’s also talking about us, you and me. He’s talking about our desire to cling to our pet sins. He’s talking about how we too always want to hold back on God. You know what I mean. “I’ll go to church and be a Christian and all, but there are just some things that are too much a part of me to give up. There are certain sins which are mine. I’m not going to let anything or anyone get in the way of what I want to do. I’ll go to church, but I won’t let the message I hear at church change or shape the way I live or the way I think.” We may not say it so boldly, but we do live it.

This is the trial that Abraham faced in the almost-sacrifice of his son. God had given him a son in his old age. Now God was asking him to go and sacrifice his son, his only son whom he loved. Why? To prove his great love for the Lord. It did not make any sense. I imagine Abraham was sorely tempted simply to refuse. After all, this was his son; no one would take him away. And yet it’s precisely that love for his son that God was testing. “What are you willing to give up for Me,” the Lord was asking. “Your livelihood, your friends, your life, even your son’s life?”

Yet we see that Abraham walked by faith, not by sight. He passed the test, but only because God gave him the faith to pass the test. And Abraham is not the only one God ever tested.

Every day your faith and life are tried and tested in the furnace of the cross. There are constant temptations for you to overcome, trials to face, and crosses to bear. And you know the dilemma: you fail at these every day. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, you just cannot see past your own selfish nature. You cannot overcome your own self-righteous judgment on the rest of the world.

So, where’s the Gospel—the sweet, comforting, healing good news of Jesus? Where does your hope lie? Your hope and healing lie in these great words of Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Such easy words to say, and they are words of sweet, soothing comfort for you, the hurting sinner. These words draw you outside of yourself, outside of your own failures and shortcomings. They draw you into Jesus’ loving embrace and His everlasting comfort.

You see, as long as you look at sin as something you can conquer—as if sin were merely a bad habit—you will fail. We have a hard enough time conquering bad habits. But sin goes much, much deeper. Being a Christian is not like a diet program to get rid of sin. Nor is like going to the gym to work out and get stronger. Ever since Adam and Eve fell from God’s good graces, sin infects your very nature as a human being. You cannot simply reform your way of life. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Instead, you must be healed. You must be reborn. You must be made anew. No set of laws or regulations or steps for living will cure this disease. The cure must come from outside of you. Being a Christian means you get to come to the hospital of Jesus’ Church to receive the healing medicine of His cross-won forgiveness.

“Before Abraham was, I AM,” Jesus said. What God asked Abraham to do, He did Himself--sacrificing His only Son, the Son whom He loves. What does this mean? This Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has had your salvation planned from before the foundation of the world. Yes, God knew you would falter and fail. Yet His love for you is so great, so strong, so powerful, that He ordained His only-begotten Son to come into your flesh, live your kind of life, walk in your shoes, and die your death. That way the price of your failure would be paid in full.

Hebrews says it this way: “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Jesus entered that most holy place and paid the price—the ultimate price—of His very life for you. And that, dear saints, is the very Body and Blood that you get to eat and drink here today. Jesus’ own true Body and Blood cleanses you, heals you, and remakes you once again into the image of God.

Now, this message is offensive, to be sure. It compels you to put aside all of your silly and pathetic self-made notions about yourself, your worth, and your status. It strips away all the layers of sin and death that infect each and every one of us. And in their place Jesus the Christ gives you the very image of God, the image put upon you with water and His Word.

So it’s in this message of life through death, and salvation through suffering, that you have hope and healing and peace this day. Abraham rejoiced to see this day. “He saw it and was glad.” As Jesus said, all of heaven rejoices when one sinner comes to realize his or her own sinfulness and turns in faith to the only One who can save (Luke 15). And that one Savior is Jesus Christ, our Lord.

As we turn our attention to our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection once again, may this be your constant song:
The cross! It takes our guilt away;
It holds the fainting spirit up;
It cheers with hope the gloomy day
And sweetens ev’ry bitter cup.

The balm of life, the cure of woe,
The measure and the pledge of love,
The sinner’s refuge here below,
The angels’ theme in heav’n above.

To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore. (Lutheran Service Book, 429:3, 5, 6)

10 March 2016

God's Design for Life--Life with Protection

In this week's installment of our Lenten catechetical series, we focus on the Fourth through Sixth Commandments under the theme, "Life with Protection." 

The first week we heard God’s most important design for life: You shall have no other gods. The second week we heard how faith in the heart also means confessing with the lips: You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God. And last week we heard that God’s design for life is life with His Word: Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy. God’s design for life begins with Him and focuses first and foremost on Him.

God’s design for life also includes the neighbor—the person or persons God puts in our path in daily life. This week and next we look at God’s design for life with our neighbor. And, since we have seven commandments to cover in only two weeks, we can only briefly touch on each one. So we group them together by a common thread, or theme. Tonight, we see how God wants us to live life with protection.

Fourth Commandment—God’s Protecting Representatives
In the Fourth Commandment God gives us a very unique word. He says, “Honor your father and your mother.” Now, “honor” is greater than “love.” God wants you to love all other people—brothers, sisters, next door neighbors, classmates in school, people at work. But when it comes to parents and other authorities, God wants you to honor them. He wants you to give them great respect, address them with humility, and give them the highest place next to God. Why? Because God gives parents and other authorities a certain majesty, a hidden majesty. You see, parents and other authorities are God’s representatives on earth, God’s representatives for your protection.

So, children—and, yes, this includes us “adult children”— God wants you to prize your parents as the most precious treasure on earth. Even if parents seem “odd” or “old-fashioned” or so stuck in last century. God commands you to honor your parents. God also wants you to honor teachers, police officers, and any other authorities—yes, even bumbling or brash politicians. For children, God gives a great, good, and holy work. Honoring your parents and other authorities means more to God than any other good work. That’s why it comes first in this second table of God’s Law.

Yes, all of us can learn this commandment better. Even as adults, we despise and anger our parents and other authorities. When I tell you to honor the mayor or the county executive, chances are good that you scoff and say, “Ha! Those buffoons?” God says, “Yes, honor them.” You see, when you despise any authority that God has given you, you are also despising God Himself. Not only did God give you the authorities you have, but every authority stands as God’s representative. This applies for parents. This applies for civil authorities. This applies for bosses and supervisors. And this also applies for spiritual fathers, those who govern and guide you by God’s Word.

One area where this commandment deserves special attention is the parent-child relationship. Not only are children to honor and treasure their parents, but parents are to take responsibility for their children. Being a parent is an office given by God. And God also wants you parents faithfully to carry out the duties of that office. That means providing for your children, putting your children’s physical needs before your own desires. It also means training your children in God’s Word, to the praise and honor of God. We see it a lot these days: too often in churches, parents don’t want to take responsibility for their own children. They want to pass off instruction in the Scriptures and the Catechism onto someone else. And when children are disobedient or rude, parents want to blame someone else. Actually, parents, all you have to do is look in the mirror, and then you’ll see the greatest influence on your children. And, on the Last Day, God will not ask about how fun the school dance was, or how busy you were shuttling your children to different events. He will ask every parent: “How did you bring up your own children to fear, love, and trust in Me?”

Just so you don’t despair, God also gives a gracious promise. He promises happiness and good days to all who keep this commandment. When you honor parents and other authorities, you are living under God’s protection. And when you break the commandment, when you do despise any authorities, when you do fail in your tasks as parents, run to Jesus crucified and risen. His suffering and death honored His heavenly Father. Because of His Son hanging on the cross and risen on the third day, God promises to honor you with forgiveness. His forgiveness really is the only way to learn and keep this commandment.

Fifth Commandment—Protecting Life.
In the Fifth Commandment God is protecting life. It is a most precious gift from God, one that our culture values less and less as time marches on. God wants life protected in every way possible. That’s God’s design for life.

The first way to talk about this is protection for your neighbor. Remember, the commandments of the Second Table teach you how to live for your neighbor. “You shall not murder” your neighbor, whoever that person is. Yes, your neighbor needs protection from you. For out of your “heart come evil thoughts, murder, etc.” (Matt. 15:19). God is putting a protective fence around your neighbor’s body and life. You see, God knows how you can and do get angry and upset at other people. Jesus Himself talked about this commandment. He put on the pressure when He said, “I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment” (Matt. 5:22). God not only forbids harming your neighbor in his body; He also forbids the thoughts and passions and angry words that would lead you to murder. And remember, it’s all God’s design to protect your neighbor.

God’s design is that you help and support your neighbor in every physical need. Yes, this sounds simple, and it is. When we face big, ethical, hotly-debated dilemmas such as abortion, or embryonic stem cell research, or euthanasia, God cuts through all the tangled webs of our human rationalizations. God’s simplicity is great help and comfort. He says, “You simply worry about helping your neighbor in his body. I will worry about the decisions of life and death.”

Now, there’s also protection for you. God also gives you the gift of life. He wants you to be protected from the anger and revenge of other people. God’s design is that we allow no one to suffer harm. So let this encourage you to gentleness and patience yourself. Remember, in the First Commandment, God says, “I am your God.” God wants to help and protect you and your neighbor. So, when you get angry, Jesus says, “I will protect you.” When you are harmed by another person, Jesus says, “I will take care of you; trust Me. You don’t need to get even or get revenge.” What a precious promise! It’s a promise made by the same Lord who was Himself counted a murderer. Your forgiveness and protection come from the crucified Christ, who was killed in your place and gives you His life.

Sixth Commandment—Protecting Marriage
In the Sixth Commandment, God protects marriage. Marriage is a precious gift from God. Each person’s spouse is a great gift from God. So God’s design for life is that you live chastely—that is, purely, with discipline, and with restraint. God’s design for life is that you also help your neighbor live chastely. Again, the first point of this commandment is protection for your neighbor. Yes, again, God is protecting your neighbor from you. For out of your “heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality,” etc. (Matt. 15:19). Jesus also addressed adultery. He said, “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Talk about “if looks could kill”! Even your lustful looks can kill you. Here God is putting up a protective fence around your neighbor’s spouse. God is also putting up a protective fence around anyone who is simply an object of your sexual desire outside of marriage. Here God says, “Hands off…until you’re married.”

From this Sixth Commandment we can see how highly God honors marriage. And we can see how much we fallen creatures despise it. Pre-marital sex and divorce may be very widespread, but that does not make them God-pleasing or right. This commandment hits us between the eyes even if we have never participated in such things. God wants husband and wife to love and honor each other. Yet it’s often the person you love most who receives your harshest words. The person you are most committed to has to put up with your disrespect. Adds new meaning to Jesus’ words about loving your enemy!

This commandment is so vital and crucial in our culture where adultery is assumed, same-sex so-called “marriage” is viewed as a “right,” and matters of gender confusion and gender identity are welling up like a giant tidal wave. In the face of the deadly rot called “sex education” and the feverish infection of the “sexual revolution,” we Christians actually have something to say. God has a design for life different from recreational sex that leaves souls hurting in its wake. We can actually help our neighbor—either face-to-face with hurting individuals or as a community voice in the culture. We do not speak against sex outside of marriage, or against so-called “same-sex marriage,” or against the many other sexual sins because we are mean or being “kill joys.” No, we know, from God’s design for life, that the many and varied sexual sins actually do harm to our neighbor. Based on God’s design, we have something better. It’s called marriage, between a man and a woman—a loving, committed, trusting relationship that reflects His relationship with us.

God’s commandment about adultery is also protection for you. God Himself highly honors marriage. He gives you marriage to protect you from your own sinful desires. The proper place for passions and sex is in the trusting bond of marriage. When husband and wife love and honor each other, it is the best holy work that spouses can do. And when you fail in such love and honor, when you let your desires and lusts control you, again run to Jesus crucified and risen. He welcomes the adulterers to receive His forgiveness. And His forgiveness heals and changes the lives of all of us adulterers. Remember what He told one woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). And when one forgiven adulteress anointed Jesus’ feet, Jesus actually rejoiced in it (Luke 7:47-48).

Whether it’s God’s gift of parents and other authorities, or God’s gift of physical life, or God’s gift of marriage, God gives these blessings for our good. His design for life is that we also protect these precious and bountiful gifts. Amen.

07 March 2016

Homily for Lent 4 - Laetare

"He Multiplies and Provides"
Exodus 16:2-21; Acts 2:42-47; John 6:1-15

Listen here.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Devoted themselves is pretty strong language. To devote yourself means that you make a firm commitment to something—not out of some sense of dreary duty that has to be done, but rather out of love. Think of a man who is a “devoted husband and father,” or a woman who is a “devoted wife and mother,” for example. So those first Christians first received Baptism on that joyous day of Pentecost. Then they devoted themselves—they made a firm joyous commitment—to the things of the Church. What are those things? The Apostles’ teaching, sharing in the Communion, that is, the breaking of the bread, and joining together in the prayers, the liturgy, the worship life. They committed themselves to living at the receiving end of God’s good gifts. Their lives began to shine with the love of Christ Himself. As a result they provided for the poor in need, and they did so out of new hearts that were both glad and generous. To put it simply: if they had Jesus in His Divine Service, they had enough; they had more than enough.

But then we might notice how they gave away all their stuff. We might shake our heads, and sigh, and think to ourselves: “Live like that? Sell our possessions and belongings? Give it all away? Just try it and see what happens to you!” Such is our American consumer mentality. Such is our unbelief! You see, those first Christians knew WHO they were living with. They knew WHO came to meet them in the Apostles’ words, in the Communion, and in the Prayers. They knew it was none other than Jesus. They knew that He knows how to multiply small loaves and little fishies. They knew that He knows how to provide His people with all that they need, and even more than they dream possible.

So in our Gospel reading our Lord tossed a hot potato to Philip to see if he’s learned anything yet. But instead of tossing it right back as he should have, he tried to hold on to it and handle it himself. And it burned his hands. Jesus asked Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” Philip began looking at the crowd, turned on the calculator in his brain, did the mental math, and came up with the answer: “Two hundred [days’ wages] would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” Then Andrew joined the game, as if he wanted to take the hot potato from Philip’s hands and ease his discomfort: “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”

Picture the three of them: Our Lord looking at the two disciples; Philip staring into the huge crowd, mouth gaping open; Andrew shaking his head over pitiful amount of food. Neither disciple passed the test.

You see, our Lord does not send us tests to find out how bright and ingenious we are. He does not give us pop quizzes to test our willpower. No, He sends us tests so that we will toss them right back at Him, so that we will look to Him and expect from Him what is impossible for us.

Hard to believe? Look at what Jesus does next with the disciples. “Have the people sit down,” He said. Then HE took the meager portions of food, He gave big thanks over it, and then He handed the food to the Apostles to dish out.

Can’t you just see Andrew looking dumbfounded as he stares at the small piece of bread in his hand? And then Jesus says, “Go, give it away”? Can’t you just see Philip looking at the vast crowd and shaking his head? I wonder: how long was it before they realized what was happening? How long before they discovered that no matter how much they gave away, the Lord kept multiplying the food in their hands? I’m pretty sure they saw and felt only that little bit that the Lord first gave them. But by His blessing, they somehow found that little bit to be an inexhaustible supply. Even twelve baskets of leftovers! One for each Apostle. Twelve basketfuls out of the little amount they held in their hands.

Ah, but what if they had held on to it? What if they had not given it away? What then? They would not have had a basket full for each of them, but only a little piece in their grubby hands.

Do you see what’s happening? They saw. And that’s why those who devoted themselves to the Divine Service, in our second reading, took their stuff and handed it over to those in need. They learned that they were not impoverishing themselves. They learned from the Apostles’ teaching that you cannot “out-give” the Lord Jesus. He gives, and you simply pass it on to others. He multiplies and provides.

This miraculous feeding of the 5000 is a replay of sorts of how God fed His people in the wilderness, in our first reading. Each day He provided the fine, flake-like bread called “manna.” A mere two-quart jar full would feed the whole family for the whole day. And God promised to multiply their food for all 40 years of their wilderness wandering. One problem came when some thought that they had to hold back a portion of their daily manna for the next day. They just weren’t sure that God would provide for the next day without their own savings plan. But somehow their planning and saving bred only worms and the smell of rot. Another problem came when they chose not to trust God to provide for the Sabbath Day. Instead of gathering a double portion on Friday, they stayed away from the Divine Service on the Sabbath Day. They thought they had to work harder to get ahead with God’s things. But still God kept multiplying and providing. You cannot “out-give” the Lord!

The Prophet Isaiah also talks about the Lord multiplying and providing. Isaiah’s words certainly look forward in time to the miraculous feeding of the 5000: “They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for He who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them” (Is. 49:9-10).

In the eyes of the world, it makes no sense that you have more than enough even as you give it away. But remember WHO teaches this. It’s not an Edward Jones agent or a certified public accountant. It’s the Lord of Life. And He’s not giving some proven method to better financial stability. No, He is providing LIFE itself. Remember how He gave Himself away, not in portions and percentages, but in whole. He poured Himself out for you and for me and for all people. He emptied His life on the Cross so that He might forgive you and fill you with life. His blood blots out your sins; His death destroys your death. He gave Himself entirely and completely. And now you might think, “But if I do that, then there’s nothing left. I’d better hold on to what I’ve got.”

But Jesus’ resurrection shows that such thinking is a huge mistake. Jesus says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it” (Mt. 16:25) … that is, for eternal life. The One who did give His all is the One who lives forevermore. His resurrected, incorruptible body is now your very fountain of salvation. And He goes on giving Himself away, feeding you, His people, in the wilderness of this world—not with earthly food alone, but with Himself. He is the very Word of God made flesh to be your Bread of Life. Here at this table He dishes out a food that gives you more than you’ll ever need. So He frees you not to clutch tightly and hold to yourself, but to open your hand and give away. It’s not just what He did when He multiplied the loaves; it’s what He did when He went to Calvary’s tree; it’s what He did when He showed Himself alive to His disciples on the first day of the week; it’s what He calls you and me to join Him in doing now.

Then we will know first hand the joyful hearts of those first Christians on Pentecost. When we are devoted as they were to the Lord’s words, to the Lord’s Meal, and to the Lord’s Prayers, we find that our hearts are set free to give ourselves away entirely. We also find ourselves among that company to which the Lord adds day by day, the company of “those who are being saved.” Amen.

03 March 2016

God's Design for Life--Life with His Word

The third installment of this year's catechetical Lent Evening Prayer series, "God's Design for Life." This time we focus on the Third Commandment and "Life with His Word."

God’s design for life begins with perfect fear, love, and trust in Him. Then God’s design for life moves from the heart to the lips. Fear, love, and trust in God leads quite naturally to using God’s name properly and reverently. Tonight we move from the lips to the ears. God’s design for life means listening to Him, or hearing His Word, as we just confessed from the Small Catechism.

Very often this Third Commandment is misunderstood. We trip ourselves up when we think it is chiefly about a certain day of the week or about not doing any physical work. Now, each of us certainly needs physical rest one day a week. The body certainly needs to be refreshed and restored. But the main focus of God’s Third Commandment is on God’s Word. Now, every day is for God’s Word, and God’s Word makes every day holy. Yet we also set aside certain days—primarily Sundays—for the hearing of God’s Word. Sundays are set aside to give people the time and opportunity to come to public worship. And the Third Commandment teaches us what worship is all about: hearing and learning God’s Word.

And do we need to hear this in our day and age! Too often these days, what passes for “worship” is little more than low-budget entertainment. Much so-called “worship” in our day and our culture only seeks to alter moods or get people fired up for some kind of religious cause or agenda. And this mindset is not just “out there”; it’s also “in here,” in our own heads and hearts. You and I also have these thoughts and desires. We watch and listen to all sorts of entertaining and mood altering things through the week, and so we often want the same worldly things on Sunday mornings. We also put the focus on what we feel instead of what God says. We also want to minimize what God does for us and, instead, spotlight what we can do for God.

In this way, the Third Commandment is most certainly about stopping work. It’s about stopping your work and listening to God’s Word and works. How does Luther teach us to sing the meaning of this Commandment:
“You shall observe the worship day
That peace may fill your home, and pray,
And put aside the work you do,
So that God may work in you.

Have mercy, Lord! (LSB 581:4, emphasis added)
Worship and preaching are the times for you to stop thinking of your works as most important in the universe. Rather, they are times to focus on God’s works in Jesus. You keep the Sabbath Day holy by ceasing your efforts and by receiving God’s efforts as He works on you. The Sabbath Day and God’s Word are not about what you and I can do for Jesus; they’re all about what Jesus has done and still does for you and in you.

This is why God’s wants you to hold preaching and His Word sacred. This is why you gladly hear and learn it. It’s very burdensome just to live life where God has placed you in your vocations. It’s even more burdensome to go around in life thinking, “What must I do for Jesus?” But do you know what? There’s nothing sweeter than hearing what Jesus does for you. There’s nothing more liberating than hearing how, despite your worst sins or your best efforts, Jesus gives you His rest in the forgiveness of sins.

Something else very vital comes from the Third Commandment. God’s design for life is that you hear and listen to His Word. God’s Word is first and foremost a “heard Word.” When God speaks, things happen—and they happen as you listen to what God says.

When you were a child, you learned by listening to Mom and Dad. You learned to talk by first hearing Mom and Dad talk. You learned right from wrong by hearing Mom and Dad praise you or tell you, “No.” God works the same way. His design is for us to listen to Him. And just as you would be polite when first joining a conversation with some friends, it pays to listen before you speak. It’s always good to know what the conversation is about.

So, what is God’s conversation all about? First, God says, “You are dead in your trespasses and sins.” You hear that Word, and then you confess, “You’re right, God. I am a poor, miserable sinner.” Then God says, “Because of My Son Jesus and His death on the cross, I make you alive; I forgive you all your sins and trespasses.” Then you get to say, in child-like simplicity: “Thank you, Lord! Amen!” The conversation really is that simple, even though it takes all of our lifetimes to learn it and live by it. This is the Word, the message, that God loves to keep telling you. It is the message, the Word, that He wants you to keep hearing and telling too.

St. Paul says, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Notice that faith does not come by what you do or how busy you can be. Faith does not come by how-to sermons on religious living. Faith comes only one way: by hearing the preaching of Christ and Him crucified and risen for our forgiveness. Jesus in the flesh is God’s complete and total message for you. Jesus on the cross is God’s complete and total message for you. Jesus risen from the dead is God’s complete and total message for you. The message is this: God Himself comes to you, to rescue you from sin and death, and to make you His own precious people.

So when you hear the message of Jesus working for you—to forgive you, to build you up in His mercy, to give you His life, to heal you in body and soul—not only are you keeping the Third Commandment, but you are also keeping the First Commandment. God wants you to love and trust in Him above all else—even above yourself. And you learn to trust Jesus crucified and risen by listening to Him and His works.

Now, listening to God’s Word is one of the greatest works—a great privilege—for any Christian. I know, there’s not a lot of glitz or flash to it. It may not excite you some of the time. There are no impressive PowerPoint slides or YouTube videos to spruce up the sermon. But it does please God when you simply listen to Him and retain what He says. In fact, that simple act—listening—is your greatest involvement in worship. You get to assemble to hear Jesus Himself speak to you through His Word. What a marvelous, life-changing privilege! You get to hear the Lord of the universe come and speak to you here on earth. And this is for all ages. Let’s not be sucked in by the voices that cry out: “There’s nothing for the kids or the youth.” Jesus crucified and risen speaks to all ages—whether 3, 13, or 30, whether 8, 18, or 80. Jesus aims His Word at everyone present in the service. Listening is a great privilege when you are in the very presence of God Himself.

God’s design for life is a life with His Word. It is a life of listening to Him and what He does in Christ crucified and risen. When we hear His Word, when we seriously ponder it, when we cling to it, and when we use it to soothe our troubled souls, it always bears fruit. Savior Jesus has promised that His Word will not return to Him empty. It will accomplish what He desires. It will achieve the purpose for which He sends it—that is, your forgiveness, your life, your salvation, your comfort, and your edification, that is, building you up as His precious people. Amen.