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.

17 May 2016

My Open Break-Up Letter to Target

Dear Target,

In case you haven’t noticed, I have not stopped by for one of our formerly frequent and regular shopping dates in quite a while now. Since I want to be responsible and mature, I want to let you know why. Believe me, it’s not me; it’s ALL YOU!

Your two-timing dalliances with radical left-wing causes have revealed the real you. It is painfully obvious that you want to flirt with the popular, cause celeb, agenda du jour crowd rather than simply, faithfully commit to a steady relationship of selling merchandise that many people want.

First, there was the ad featuring gay dads and the same-sex wedding registry, when you cozied up to a mere 3.8% of the U.S. population. Suddenly and inexplicably the other 96.2% of us who (used to) frequent your stores for simple shopping needs were branded as “haters”?

Then, there was the whole phasing out of “gender-based signage” thing. Somehow, far beyond reason and common sense, we are supposed to ignore the objective, biological reality that the whole human race is nicely and evenly comprised of both males and females? While blue for boys and pink for girls may certainly be an arbitrary social construct, and a recent one at that, boys and girls of all ages do generally have different interests, tastes, and even needs regarding clothing, linens, and hygiene products. And they want to find those products with ease and efficiency. Does that natural diversity suddenly mean nothing to you?

The final nail in the coffin of our former relationship came when you decided to woo the very tiny “transgender” population. (Is it a whopping 0.3% of the population, or a mere 0.03%?). You actually said, “[W]e welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity. ...Everyone deserves to feel like they belong.”

If “everyone deserves to feel like they belong,” what about the innocent, unsuspecting grandmothers, mothers, wives, single ladies, teen juniors, and little girls who will now be easy prey for sexual predators merely posing as “transgenders”? Your indiscretion now exposes them to harm and tells them that their own privacy needs no longer “belong.”

So, madam Target, you and I must part ways. I can easily find the toiletries, greeting cards, and other merchandise I want at more faithful places, such as CVS, Walgreens and Walmart, not to mention locally-owned businesses. I have urged and will continue to urge people I know—especially the women in my life—to take their shopping elsewhere, where they can truly “belong” and be safe.

Yes, I have signed the pledge to boycott you for your most recent dalliance with the “party crowd,” and I will keep urging others to do the same. I wonder, is your flirtation with only 1 out of 2,400 people in the U.S. actually worth the loss of millions of shoppers and billions of dollars?

Formerly yours and good riddance!

16 May 2016

Homily for the Day of Pentecost

"What Does This Mean?"
Genesis. 11:1-9; Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

Listen here.

“‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’ And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’” It’s that famous question we Lutherans have learned to love so well, especially as we’ve learned the Catechism. “What does this mean?” It’s an excellent question. It’s what the Christian faith is all about. You see, faith in Christ is not a matter of knowing about Jesus. No, faith is a matter of receiving what Jesus says and does for you. It’s one thing to know about medication. It’s quite another to receive the dose of medicine that the doctor gives.

And that’s what Pentecost Day is all about too. It’s one thing to know the story of and about Jesus and His dying and rising. It’s quite another thing to have that good news given to you so that you trust it and cling to it. That’s the Holy Spirit’s job. He teaches you to say, “What does this mean?” to the wonders of God’s salvation in Jesus.

The Tower of Babel: What Does This Mean?
If we want to get a handle on Pentecost and the coming of the Holy Spirit, we need to go back in time. It happened about 100 years after Noah navigated the Flood, after the water had receded and the dry land appeared once again. Off in a plain called Shinar, a region called Babylon—today we call it Iraq—they built a tower. Who is “they”? Ambitious people; people trying to find purpose and meaning in life; people just like us. They had great technology; they had great man-power; they had great ingenuity. They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens.” A skyscraper into the heavens. A temple shrine for a top floor suite. An architect’s dream. A contractor’s masterpiece.

But there was one problem. Why did they build it? They said with their own lips: “let us make a name for ourselves.” Just like you and I, they wanted to protect their reputations. Just like you and I, they wanted to be known for their accomplishments. Just like you and I, they thought they knew best how to be their own gods or how best to get to God. But, you see, they could never get to God. No tower can go high enough. No person can get religious enough. But God came down to them! “Look what they can do,” God said. “They can use all their technology, all of their modern ways, to make a name for themselves. They like to rely on themselves. They like to crowd Me out of their lives and their daily activities.” Just like you and I! So, God confused their language and scattered them. For the people of Babel, talking turned to babble. They went their different ways. They talked their different tongues.

What does this mean? Their self-seeking sin separated them from God and from each other. They refused to trust God. Now how would He talk to them? What language would He use? Now they couldn’t even talk to—let alone trust—each other. Just like you and I!

Jesus’ Words on the Spirit: What Does This Mean?
Many centuries later, God would come down yet again to deal with the people of planet earth. This time He would come for a different purpose: to rescue them from their self-seeking sin, to bring them back to Himself, to reunite them with each other. God came down in Jesus, first a baby, then a toddler, then a teenager, then an adult—just like you and me. The night before He would die on the bloody cross, Jesus consoled His grieving disciples: “The Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

What does this mean? Jesus was about to leave. Someone else would come. That Someone Else would be the Holy Spirit. What would He do? He would comfort Jesus’ disciples by reminding them of everything Jesus said and did. Jesus also said, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give you.” Jesus gives and delivers His cross-won peace through the work of the Holy Spirit.

Martin Luther proclaimed it this way in 1532: “This is surely a most excellent comfort, so that no Christian need ever wonder—whether he’s from Jerusalem, Rome, or wherever on earth, outside in the field or in the house—how he will ascend into heaven, for it will be so. God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit desires to be with him and make their abode with him. This promise we have here on earth in the Word and experience it in our hearts through faith; but in the life to come it will also finally be fulfilled.” (II:38-39) And what does this mean for your day-to-day life now? Luther continues: “Now, to have God dwelling with us here on earth means nothing else than that all we do, speak, think, and endure will be God pleasing, whether we eat, drink, work, rise up, go to bed, or pray, study, sing, or read; it will all be pleasing to him…. When God dwells with a person, that individual becomes mightier than death, devil, hell, thunder and lightning, and all evil. That is not only a precious comfort but also a wondrous delight and glory” (House Postils, 2:180-81).

Pentecost Day: What Does This Mean?
Now, all this leads up to Pentecost Day. The Lord Jesus had left His Eleven apostles 10 days earlier. In those ten days they had chosen a replacement for Judas. Matthias got their number back to Twelve. Then came the big day: Pentecost—the Fiftieth Day. A loud wind sounded. In the Scriptures “wind” and “Spirit” are the same word. And then came the tongues, tongues of fire. But tongues don’t belong on top of the head. Tongues belong in the mouth. Tongues are for speaking. “And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Many nationalities and many languages were there. But “each one was hearing them speak in his own language.” Holy Spirit and speaking and hearing—they all go hand in hand.

What does this mean? Blessed Pentecost reverses the curse of Babel. They exclaimed, “‘We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.’” No matter what tongue they spoke, they heard the universal language. What universal language is that? The wonders of God, the Gospel message of Jesus Christ. The languages coming from the Babel curse would now be used for Gospel blessings! Blessed Pentecost also fulfills the promise of the coming Holy Spirit. God promised it centuries earlier through the prophet Joel (2:28): “I will pour out My Spirit on all flesh; your sons and daughters shall prophesy.” Jesus promised the Spirit to His disciples before He went to the cross: “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about Me” (Jn. 15:26).

What does this mean? The Holy Spirit has come and still comes for you. Don’t look for the spectacular, spooky “Holy Ghost” that the Charismatics and Pentecostals portray. And don’t look for the speaking in strange-sounding tongues that the Charismatics and Pentecostals preach so loudly. If anything, that sounds more like Babel that disunites, rather than Pentecost that unites. No, look for the testimony of Jesus. That’s what unites us. He’s your Savior. The wonders of God are Jesus’ perfect life, His innocent suffering, His cruel death, His glorious resurrection and His victorious ascension. God’s wonders in Jesus are your wonderful confidence.

An unknown African preacher in the 6th century gives us a good way to receive the “speaking in tongues”:
Now the love of God was to gather together the Church all over the world. Consequently, while a single man, if he received the Holy Spirit, could speak in every tongue, now the one Church in its unity, which is established by the Holy Spirit, speaks in every tongue.

And so if anyone says to one of us: “You have received the Holy Spirit; why do you not speak in tongues?” he should reply: “I do speak in every tongue. For I am in the body of Christ, the Church, which speaks in every tongue. For what did God signify by the presence of the Holy Spirit if it was not that his Church would speak in every tongue?” (For All the Saints, vol. II, p. 187)
The Holy Spirit has a simple and singular job: He delivers Christ Jesus to you. When Christ is preached for your forgiveness, the Holy Spirit is doing His job. When you are baptized, the Holy Spirit washes you into Christ’s death and resurrection. When you confess your sins and hear spoken forgiveness, the Holy Spirit enlivens you with the Word. When you eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood, the Holy Spirit sanctifies your mouth and body with Jesus’ perfect life and soothing forgiveness. When the Holy Spirit is doing His work, you won’t focus on Him, but on Savior Jesus.

What does all of this mean? “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Amen.

09 May 2016

Homily for Easter 7 - Exaudi

"Comfort in Persecution"
John 15:26-16:4

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

And He is ascended—“gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet” (Ps. 47:5). And now He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). And God the Father “put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23).

But we find ourselves in the same spot as the disciples. No more seeing Jesus—instead, walking by faith that He keeps His promise to be with us always; instead, living behind enemy lines in a fallen world hostile to Jesus, hostile to His followers, hostile to His Gospel. Jesus warned His disciples and us: “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.” (Jn. 15:18-20).

That’s how Jesus Himself leads us into our Gospel reading. Today, in our Gospel reading, Jesus gives us two themes: first, about the Holy Spirit, and second, about the persecution we may expect with 100% certainty.

Who is this Holy Spirit? Jesus says He “proceeds from the Father.” He’s no mere energizing lightning bolt from heaven. Nor is He some cosmic force that, properly felt and channeled, aides a Jedi-in-training in conquering the “dark side” and blowing up the latest version of a death star. The Holy Spirit is a Person—a Person of the Godhead. Since He proceeds from the Father, He is God, just as the Father and just as the Son. The Son is begotten of the Father; the Spirit proceeds from the Father. And all of this from eternity—never a time when the Father did not exist, never a time the Son did not exist, and never a time the Spirit did not exist.

The Greek word for “proceeds” gives the picture of a soldier marching out on a mission. The Holy Spirit certainly marches out to carry out the mission of God to bring Jesus to you and you to Jesus. That word for “proceeds” can also give the image of a “flowing forth”—like a little stream that flows from a spring of water. As Jesus said, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’ Now this he said about the Spirit” (Jn. 7:37-39). It’s what we confess when we say, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son” (Nicene Creed).

Jesus says three things about the Holy Spirit to give us the ultimate in consolation as we walk by faith while we live behind enemy lines. First, Jesus calls the Holy Spirit the “Paraklete,” “the Helper,” the “Comforter.” Don’t think of a fluffy comforter keeping you cozy warm on a chilly night. Instead, think of a comforter—an advocate—who comes along side you and comforts you before a judge when you stand accused. The devil accuses you before God’s throne of judgment day and night (Rev. 12:10). But that’s where the Holy Spirit performs His best work on your behalf as He intercedes for you. Your own conscience accuses you, because you know you do not and cannot keep God’s Law. You falter and stumble at loving God with every fiber of your being. You struggle with loving the neighbors whom God has given you. But, again, the Holy Spirit comforts and intercedes for you. He holds before you the comforting promises of God, His grace, His forgiveness, His gift of eternal life—all through Jesus Christ crucified and risen.

Next, Jesus calls Him “the Spirit of Truth.” He guides the apostles and all believers into all truth. Before our text, Jesus said the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Just a few verses after our text Jesus will say, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (Jn. 16:13). When the Holy Spirit guides you and your fellow Christians into all truth, He guides you to Jesus. Jesus Himself is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6) wrapped up in flesh and blood. When you know Jesus, when you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism, you know the truth—the truth of sin, the truth of God’s forgiveness, the truth of Jesus’ victory over sin, death, and devil. As Pastor Johann Gerhard said, the Holy Spirit “thus empowers us inwardly by the Word of Truth. Like unto the finger of God, He inscribes Christ into our hearts and ignites in us true knowledge of God…. He creates and works in our hearts the fact that we are truth” (Postilla, vol. I, p. 444).

Third, Jesus says the Spirit, “the Helper,” “the Spirit of Truth,” will bear witness about Him. The Holy Spirit does not want to draw attention to Himself. (Sorry, Pentecostals and Charismatics!) No, the Holy Spirit wants to draw attention to Jesus. He works in your heart and mine to comfort us with Jesus. He etches the Truth who is Jesus on our hearts and minds. But He does not do this mysteriously or only in the unseen, hidden recesses of our inward selves. The work of Jesus taking on our flesh, restoring our human lives, dying on the cross, and rising again the third day are objective facts. But, as Luther says, “If the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried, but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed. In the Word He has the Holy Spirit bring this treasure home and make it our own” (LC II:38-39). The Holy Spirit comes to you and works in you, bearing witness to Jesus, through the Word and the Sacraments. That’s where and how He works faith, when and where it pleases God. The Holy Spirit gives comfort and gives truth only by the preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection. This alone comforts. This is the heart of all Truth.

The disciples were quite distressed when they could no longer visibly see their resurrected Lord. And we find our selves in the same predicament—not seeing Jesus, walking by faith, and stuck for a time behind enemy lines in this fallen world. Is it any wonder the world looks on Jesus’ followers as hopelessly behind the times, or dusty relics from a bygone era, or sorely out of step with modern progress and enlightenment, or even as annoying bumps in the road on the way to ultimate “freedom” in sexual expression and control by those elites who know what’s best for the rest of us? The Jesus followers have His comforting Spirit, His Spirit of Truth. The world's so-called truth, or truths, simply do not measure up. In fact, the Truth of Jesus exposes the world for the dark, lying place it truly is. The Jesus followers have THE Truth of Jesus, His forgiveness, His life, His way of life, His meaning for all of life, and His freedom to be the children of God.

So Jesus prepares us: “the hour is coming when whoever kills you”—or exiles you from the public square, or levies massive fines when you won’t abide by their agenda du jour, or enacts policies to change your bathroom habits, or judicially tries to change the truth of what marriage really is, or seeks to keep you, your faith, and your ability to express your faith within the confines of your own home—“will think he is offering service to God.” Jesus prepares us to live under such persecution behind enemy lines. He also sends His Holy Spirit to give us His consolation, to strengthen and sustain us.

St. Peter’s words are most fitting and really say all that we need: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:12-14).

This is your comfort in persecution behind the enemy lines of this fallen world. You have the Holy Spirit, sent by Jesus, proceeding from the Father, to give you life and hope and consolation. He gives you a heart of flesh to love Jesus and love your neighbor, even when that neighbor seeks to string you up and run you through. He gives you a heart of flesh to walk by faith and in God’s statutes, whatever the cost. And He gives you this comforting, true, and Spirit-filled promise: “You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezek. 36:28). Amen.

06 May 2016

Homily for the Ascension of Our Lord

"Ascension Blessing"
Luke 24:44-53

Listen here.

For this first half of the Church Year—the festival half—we have followed the life of Jesus. We have followed Him from His silent conception in the womb of His virgin Mother to the red, wrinkled infant lying on straw in a feeding trough. We have followed Him from the young toddler receiving the worship of the Wise Men to the 12-year old lad learning and teaching in the Temple. We have followed Him from John the Baptizer proclaiming Him as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29) to the water pouring over Him, the Spirit descending upon Him, and the Father declaring, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17). Jesus then went into the desert to be tempted by the devil as He firmly held onto God’s saving purpose. Then we journeyed with Him through the fulfillment of that purpose—Lent, Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter.

Good Friday and Easter are certainly the high-point of the story, but they are not the end of the story. So we’ve followed Jesus forty more days. Now we see Him lifting up His hands to give a blessing and then being carried up to heaven.

Let’s be clear on one thing about Jesus’ Ascension. It does NOT mean that He has gone away. Before He ascended, Jesus did promise that He would be with us always and to the end of the age (Mt. 28:20). He did say, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5; Josh. 1:5). What, then, does Jesus’ Ascension mean? It means that Jesus no longer shows Himself visibly to our physical eyes. And that’s a good thing. Imagine if He would still show Himself to our sense of sight, as He did before His resurrection. We would have to wonder where He might be this evening. Would He be here in St. Louis, or half-way around the world in, say, Istanbul? We would have to admit that if He’s there, then He’s not here. But since Jesus has ascended, His people half-way around the world, and here in this room, and in various other places, know that He is with them. He promised it, and He always keeps His promises.

How can Jesus do that—be present where we cannot see Him and in many places at once? Only Jesus knows how He can do that, and it’s silly for us to try and figure it out. The bright cloud that “took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9) tells us that. This was no ordinary cloud. This was the bright cloud that led Israel on their journey through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. This was the cloud that stood above the two angels on the ark of the covenant. This was the bright cloud that appeared on the Mount of Transfiguration. This bright cloud was the guarantee of God’s presence for His people, to lead them and bless them. So this bright cloud marks Jesus’ re-entry to the realm of God. We cannot see that realm; we cannot measure it; we cannot witness what happens there. But it is just as real as anything we can see, measure, or witness.

Jesus did not take a space shuttle ride or travel at warp speed to the other side of the galaxy. He rose up a little way above the earth and “a cloud took Him out of their sight.” Jesus Himself is not gone; just the physical sight of Him is withdrawn. Now Jesus is present and does things in the whole range of God’s way of being present and doing things—and He’s still a man, a man fulfilled and glorified. It’s what we confess when we say that He “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” That right hand is not a specific place. It’s the whole power and authority of God that Jesus, true God and also true Man, gets to exercise—for us and for our blessing.

That is the true joy of Jesus’ Ascension. After He led His disciples “out as far as Bethany,” He lifted “up His hands and blessed them.” He was still blessing them as He was “carried up to heaven” and being taken out of their sight. Luke does not tell us what words Jesus spoke in that blessing, and we really don’t need to know. Instead, let’s look at His hands. In those hands raised in blessing we can read the meaning and blessing of Jesus.

These are the hands that pushed at Mary’s breast in our human littleness and frailty. These are the hands that could learn to hold a pen and write the words of Scripture that Jesus knew so well by age 12. These are the hands that worked with hammer and saw, thus sharing in our work and blessing our labor. These are the hands that touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute to open our eyes of faith and loose our tongues to sing His praise. These are the hands that held the pale cold hand of a little girl and gave her back to her grieving mommy and daddy—giving us the hope of the resurrection of the body and being reunited with those we love who have departed in the faith. We can read just how often Jesus stretched out His hands and touched and grasped with that personal, one-to-one touch of love and healing. He was there, giving His blessing and His healing, for each one that needed Him, using His hands to take hold of each one. And never forget that moving scene when, after a long and busy day, Jesus continued His work of healing and blessing well into the night: “When the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to Him, and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Lk. 4:40).

These are the hands that gathered the little children into His arms to hug them and bless them. These are the hands that grabbed Peter when he looked away from Jesus and began to sink. These are the hands that broke the bread which had been blessed and gave them His body to eat. These are the hands that Thomas held and overcame his doubt.

But here is the biggest thing of all. These hands of Jesus--extended in blessing as He is taken up and hidden from physical sight--these are the hands that show the print of the nails. These are the hands still scarred from the jagged wounds of the cross. These are the hands that speak the greatest blessing, the super-sized blessing, the blessing for each of us now and into all eternity, and how it was won for us on the cross. Wouldn’t it be great to see a painting in which the artist depicts the scars in Jesus’ hands in the shape of a cross?

That’s the real blessing of Jesus’ Ascension. Jesus took on Himself all our wrongs, all our sins, and He bore the punishment for them. We deserved to be forsaken by God, but Jesus was forsaken in our place. Instead of being forsaken, now we are forgiven. Because of what Jesus did there on that cross, we are made alive again as God’s children. We are healed from the plague of sin and death. Because Jesus’ hands were stretched out on the cross and pierced with spikes, now, today, they are stretched out in blessing on His disciples, on you and me. Jesus ascends and blesses with the marks of the cross in His hands. No cross, no blessing. That’s why the sign of the blessing is made in the shape of the cross. That’s what Jesus’ Ascension means: life and blessing won and given.

No, the Ascension does not mean that Jesus is gone. Quite the opposite. He is with us now even more powerfully than when He walked the earth visible to people around Him. We live in the presence of our ascended, ever-present Lord and Savior. Because He is with us, His Christians cannot be destroyed. He has overcome the world, and His victory is ours as well. And so He leads us, so He gives us strength, so He gives us courage, and finally He will bring us to that bright cloud of heaven. And so we go on from the Ascension just as the disciples did: “with great joy.” Amen.

03 May 2016

Homily for Easter 6 - Rogate

"The Privilege of Prayer"
John 16:23-33
(With thanks to Dr. Norman Nagel, whose 1957 sermon on this text has here been "creatively appropriated" and reworked a bit.)

Listen here.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It was just a matter of hours before Jesus would leave His disciples. Soon they would not see Him. What sadness and despair they felt, especially after the crucifixion. They had given up their businesses to follow Him. Their lives revolved around Him. Where Jesus went, they followed. But when Jesus was gone, it seemed the bottom had fallen out of their lives. We also know that feeling. We get close to people around us. Our lives get intertwined. When one leaves, we feel the emptiness, the sadness.

Jesus knows this feeling too. He is human, just like you and I. And He knew just how little the disciples could rely on their own strength. So during those forty days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus prepared them for His departure. Before Calvary the disciples had leaned heavily on Him. Like a parent carrying a child, He had carried them. But now He wanted them to stand upright and go into all the world. Now He wanted them to be brave and proclaim the crucified and risen Savior. Soon His visible presence would be withdrawn.  And yet He still promised, “I am with you.” They would have to graduate from the wobbly steps of a toddler to the steady walking of a grown-up. He wanted them to walk by faith, not by sight.

Jesus’ knew the disciples’ weaknesses, and so He promised to send them His comfort—the Comforter called the Holy Spirit. By the Holy Spirit the disciples would be comforted and strengthened. Though they could no longer see or touch Jesus, they would have a deeper, more intimate contact with God. They would have the privilege of prayer. Sure, they had prayed before, but now prayer would become their mighty, strengthening contact with God. Before, they had prayed with sight, but now they would pray with faith alone. Jesus gives this same privilege to all His followers who walk not by sight, but by faith. That includes us.

Many people ridicule prayer. They wonder how you, a tiny speck in the vast universe, can change the laws of the universe. How can you possibly expect to change the course of the world or interrupt the flow of world events? Others scoff and say, “If there is a God, what makes you think He’ll pay any attention to you?” And sometimes, in the face of such scorn, we Christians get weak-kneed and back down. In our little faith, we qualify and weaken the Lord’s promise to hear us and answer us. We do not realize that we do not have, because we do not ask (James 4:2).

We end up standing all alone in our puny weakness. In us, there’s no hope. And if there’s no God in heaven, then there’s no Father, and then we certainly cannot pray. But our Gospel reading speaks not only of God; it also speaks of the Father. And that makes all the difference in the world—all the difference between life and death.

We can pray, because God has come to be our Father. We can pray, because Jesus has taken our sins and our weaknesses on Himself and wiped them out by His victorious death and resurrection. By Jesus’ victory over the world and over our sin and death, we stand before God—forgiven, cleansed, made whole, made His children in Christ. Only when we are bound to Christ can we come before our dear Father as His dear children. He sees us in Christ, wearing the garment of Jesus’ righteousness. That’s why we pray in the name of Jesus. All of our prayer must be in Christ, that is, with faith in Him.

Prayer can only come from faith in Jesus. You cannot have God as your Father without having and trusting Jesus and His saving, atoning work. Those without Jesus do not and cannot call on God as their Father, because those without Jesus are not His children by faith. But those who are with Jesus—that is, Jesus is with them—can and do call on their Father. And calling on our Father, through the Son and in the Spirit, means admitting that we have nothing to offer. “Nothing in my hand I bring; Simply to Thy cross I cling” (LSB 761:3). We come as beggars before God; we have no right to ask anything. “We are neither worthy of the things for which we pray, nor have we deserved them, but we ask that He would give them all by grace, for we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment” (Small Catechism, Fifth Petition).

The tax collector in the temple is our perfect example for humble, selfless prayer. He could not even lift up his eyes, but instead beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Lk. 18:13). His empty heart had plenty of room for God. The Pharisee, on the other hand, had no room for God. He had no lack. He had his life in order and on the right track. His prayer was for God to admire him. But the tax collector—he’s the one who “went down to his house justified” (Lk. 18:14). So Jesus declares. And so Jesus declares to you in the Absolution that you hear from the pastor’s mouth, forgiving your sins in Jesus’ name.

So praying “in Jesus’ name” means praying in the spirit and manner of Jesus—with His voice, we might say. Just as He creates faith in us by His Word and Spirit, our Lord also gives guidance and example for prayer by His Word and Spirit. With the disciples we learn to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk. 11:1), and He gives us the words and the way to pray. As He draws us closer to Himself, our prayers take on more of His way of praying—more of His voice. Praying “in Jesus’ name” means being drawn more and more into His purpose for our life—His saving purpose, that is. We pray for those things that benefit us and are “in sync” with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. Whatever might harm us or draw us away from our Savior: that’s not praying in Jesus’ name.

Do we always know what is good, right and salutary for our salvation and life with God in Christ? Of course not. We do admit that “Father knows best” when it comes to Him answering our prayers. And none of us would ever claim to be wiser than God, I’m sure. And yet, when we pray, we often do speak to God as though we know better than He does. We get impatient. We wonder if He even hears us. We grumble when God does not snap to attention and carry out our feeble orders and wishes. And we object, tossing Jesus’ words back in His face: “Come on, Lord, didn’t you say “whatever you ask of the Father…, He will give you”?

Yes, Jesus did say, “Whatever you ask.” But He also said, “in My name.” And, no, that’s not a “loophole” or a “legal fine print” for God. You see, God loves us too much to give us everything we want. We know that it’s a poor parent who gives his/her children everything they want. God does draw a boundary around the things that He promises to give us when He answers our prayers. That boundary is His love. Because the Father loves us in Christ, He restricts His own promise to those things that are for our good, those things that draw us close to our Savior. So praying “in Jesus’ name” means bringing our wishes, our requests, more and more in line with our Father’s wishes. When we pray in Jesus’ name, we learn to pray, “Not as I will, but as You will” (Mt. 26:39).

Does this mean that we should not ask for particular things? Not at all. We should not be ashamed to bring any and every need, any and every desire, to our Father. He is pleased when His children call upon Him as dear children ask their dear father—even if it’s about new shoes or the tomato plant in the garden. But let’s always pray with this confession: “Lord, You know all too well how foolish I can be, and how I can ask for things that may harm me. This seems good to me and for my neighbor, but I leave it all up to you.” “Not as I will, but as You will” Instead of asking, “Lord, give me more money,” we really do better to ask, “Lord, teach me to serve You with everything You have given me.” It always helps to remember that in the perfect prayer that Jesus taught us, only one petition covers all of our earthly needs. The other six petitions cover our greater needs—those needs of being drawn closer to our Savior and basking in His forgiving love.

Just as our Lord prepared His disciples to walk, not by sight, but by faith, He also prepares us as He gives us the privilege of prayer. In this act of worship called “prayer,” we open ourselves up to God because He has made us His children. We are guided by His Word. We are attentive to His love and His will. First, He loves us in Christ Jesus, and then we reply back to Him, returning our love, our adoration, our praise, our loyalty, and our very lives. We breathe in His Word, His love, His salvation, and we breathe out as we “call upon [Him] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks” (Small Catechism, Second Commandment). Amen.