15 October 2017

Homily for Trinity 18 - 2017

"Do You LOVE God?"
Matthew 22:34-46

Listen here.

Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” … Do you love God? I don’t expect anyone here actually to say, “No, I rather hate God.” Who in their right mind would say that? But do you really LOVE God? Are you completely devoted to Him? Is He the One you think and daydream about all the time? Is there no one else on earth with whom you would rather spend your time than with God? Is there nothing that you’d rather do than be with God, talk with Him, enjoy His stories, and just revel in His company?

Or is God just Someone we learn about in Catechism class or Bible class or sermons? Learn about Him, but keep Him at a distance. Stick Him under the microscope of our quest for religious knowledge or in the petri dish of our fascination with things spiritual. Is God little more than an intellectual pursuit, once a week or whenever we happen to think of Him? Do we merely learn to say the right words about Him, such as He’s all-present, or all-powerful, or all-knowing? Is God simply Someone we talk about when we want to sound religious? Or do you truly LOVE God?

The Pharisees certainly claimed to love God. But when He came to them in the flesh, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they put Him to the test. You see, they did not want this God, the One who took on our human frame to free us from sin and death, to get too close to them! They did not want God to get too personal or too intimate. So they tested Jesus: “Which is the great commandment in the [Torah]?” They wanted to reduce all five books of Moses to the bare minimum. They wanted a bumper-sticker slogan that would fully capture the law of God.

We fallen creatures like to do that. We like to defang God’s law—render the Doberman harmless. One speaker called it the “religion of St. Minimum.” What’s the least that I have to do to get by? How often do I really have to go to church? How often do I really need to pray? How much money do I really have to give? How much do I really have to know? What’s the bottom line? What's the bare minimum? The religion of St. Minimum tries to keep things practical, painless, and puny. It delights in loopholes. It bargains with God to be “fair.” “So, Jesus, what’s the one commandment that we really need to keep?” But that’s not love. What boyfriend, fiancĂ©, or husband could get away with telling his sweetheart, “I only want to spend the minimum amount of time with you”?

Jesus sensed the trap. He knows what’s in our hearts. He knows how we like to twist and turn, and wiggle out from under God’s commands. So He gives not one, but two greatest commands. The first one: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” That’s the Hebrew way of saying, “Love God with every last fiber in your being; hold nothing back.” Then Jesus said, “And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The two go together. You cannot claim to love God if you don’t love your neighbor. When you do love God, you will naturally also love your neighbor whom God gives you. So Jesus does boil God’s law down to a minimum in these two simple commandments. But they are far from minimal in shaping our life. Love God with your whole being; and love whomever God puts next to you.

If you’re still looking for a bumper-sticker slogan, you can distill God’s law down to one four-letter word: L-O-V-E. As St. Paul said, “love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10). But we even have troubles with this word “love,” don’t we? For one thing, we think love is a feeling, a warm-fuzzy on our insides. But love is not a feeling. Love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. When we love God or our neighbor, it does not mean that we have certain feelings about God or our neighbor. Sure, feelings are there with us, but love is not essentially a feeling.

Another trouble we have with “love” is that we think it’s something that we “fall” into. We fall into ditches and holes filled with mud, but we don’t fall into love. Besides, falling means losing your balance, losing your control. Love is not an out of control, loss of balance experience; love is a deliberate action of our will toward another person. To love means deliberately to turn ourselves toward another person. One commentator explained it this way: “[Jesus] opens the hearts of believers, like flowers to the sun, to their living posture. We were made for love…. [Jesus] does not so much give an activity that can be calculably done as he gives a direction to face” (F. D. Bruner, Churchbook, 794). The Bible describes love in self-sacrificing terms: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:4-7).

How do we love God and neighbor? Let’s count the ways. We love God by having no other gods in our hearts, by giving God our whole-hearted fear, love, and trust. We love God by using His Name in worship and prayer, and by giving glad attention to His Word. We love God by honoring the authorities He has placed over us, starting with our parents; by caring for the health and well-being of our neighbor’s body; by upholding marriage in the way we conduct our sexual lives; by helping our neighbor improve and protect his possessions and income; by upholding our neighbor’s reputation and not participating in gossip or slander; by being content with what we have rather than continually wanting what we don’t have. These are just some of the ways that we love God and our neighbor.

And so we reflect God’s love toward us—the way the moon reflects the light of the sun, or the way a polished mirror reflects the light that strikes it. When God first made Adam and Eve, they perfectly reflected His love. They were created in the “image of God.” God is love, and Adam and Eve were perfect reflectors of God’s love. But their rebellion ruined the mirror. Our self-centeredness and inborn desire to be little gods in place of God has distorted the reflection of God’s love. Just as fingerprints and gunk smudge the reflection in a mirror, so our sinfulness has destroyed our reflection of God’s love.

Do you LOVE God? Do you have wholehearted love for God, sacrificing your all for Him? Do you love your neighbor as yourself? You know you don’t love like that. Not even Mother Teresa loved like that. And here’s why we need the question that Jesus used to test the Pharisees. “What do you think about the Christ? Whose Son is He?” The Pharisees knew that the Messiah, the Christ, would be a blood descendent of King David. But there’s more to the Messiah than a royal bloodline. He is also David’s “lord.” As David said in Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at My right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The Messiah is David’s son, a human being, but He is also David’s “Lord.” He is both God and Man, begotten of His Father from all eternity and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus is talking about the mystery of His Incarnation. In Him God has become man. And in Him humanity is recreated and renewed. In Him people are restored to be what God intended them to be. He came to restore the image of God to our fallen race. He loves God with His whole heart, with His entire being, with His whole mind. He loves His neighbor as Himself.

St. John said it well: “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation—the means of forgiveness—for our sins” (1 Jn. 4:9-10). Jesus loved us to death on the Cross. It was the deliberate action of His divine-human will toward us loveless, unlovely sinners. In Baptism we receive God’s great love in Christ’s death and resurrection. In Holy Absolution, our Lord keeps telling us, “I love you by forgiving you.” And consider the great feast we’re about to enjoy. Here Jesus puts His own Body and Blood into our mouths so that we can love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as ourselves. After the Meal, we’ll even pray that God would “strengthen us…in faith toward [Him] and in fervent love toward one another.”

“We love—both God and neighbor—because He first loved us” (1 Jn. 4:19). Jesus’ death and resurrection free you to love God and one another. You no longer have to love; you get to love. We don’t love God in order to obtain His love; we already have His love in David’s Son, Jesus. Now we get to love God with every fiber of our being and we get to love our neighbor as ourselves, reflecting the love that our Lord has given to us. Amen.

08 October 2017

Homily for Anniversary of a Congregation - 2017

"Hope for Years to Come"
1 Kings 8:22-30; Revelation 21:1-5; Luke 19:1-10

Listen here.

Last year, President Matthew Harrison preached from this pulpit, leading up to our 100th Anniversary festivities. He said, “Happy Birthday. You don’t look bad for a hundred.” Now here we are a year later. Let me say, “You don’t look bad for boldly entering your second century.” And what a time to turn 101 as a congregation and be gaining steam as God’s dearly loved children who bear witness to Him and His works of salvation!
It was on this date, October 8, in 1916 that Hope Lutheran Church was founded—smack dab in the middle of World War I, the “war to end all wars.” Well, we know that did not happen. Human hopes of creating a perfect world, however grandiose or modest, just cannot change our fallen human nature or a world ravaged by human sin and ego.

Then, in a most counter-cultural move, our forebears actually spent good money to build this beautiful building just as the Great Depression was bearing down on the land. Receiving God’s gifts and singing His praises always takes precedence over what’s happening in this worrisome world.

And then there was the post-World War II era. War had struck again; austerity measures were fresh in mind; the fog and chaos of war had impacted many. Hope congregation, though, served as a place of solace for a growing number. I still remember a letter from a former choir director of Hope at that time. Several years later, he wrote back saying how the Gospel in sermon and song gave order and solace, even hope and healing, to many in those years.

And so it goes. God graciously gathers a people. He binds them together into His body, the Church, and in local congregations thereof. He continually comes to visit and restore, to forgive and give hope. How does He do that? Through the message and the means that He puts in those congregations—through the message of Christ crucified for sinners and raised for our justification, the message of a new Jerusalem awaiting all who come to faith through that Word, and through the Sacraments that actually deliver His eternal mercy. This is how our gracious God brings hope in a world given to despair.

It’s what King Solomon prayed for as he dedicated the temple that he built over 900 years before Jesus. Solomon confessed that the highest heavens cannot contain God. Then he asked if God would actually dwell on earth. The answer, of course, was—and still is—“Yes!” And God puts His name in and on the place where He dwells, so that His people have a place to pray and a place to listen to Him. As Solomon prayed, so God always promises: “And when You hear, forgive.” That’s what God does in the specific places of congregations. You see, we need specific places where God’s forgiveness reigns supreme. It’s that very forgiveness in Christ crucified and risen that brings healing and hope in our worrisome, fallen world.

It’s what happened to Zacchaeus when the Lord of the universe just had to stay at his house that day. It’s a divine “must” that Jesus had to carry out. You see, that is God’s nature, God’s character, God’s “M.O.”—His way of operating. When Jesus stepped into that house, salvation entered and reigned supreme. And Zacchaeus was a changed man. Changed by Jesus from a greedy, self-serving tax collector into a charitable soul who would serve others and even make reparations to those whom he had cheated. Jesus changed Zacchaeus and made him a man of hope, a child who could look forward to the age to come. That’s also what Jesus does when He enters specific places such as this. When He comes to visit with His grace and forgiveness, salvation enters this house. And we are changed—forgiven, given hope. And people we bring with us are changed. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He gives the hope. He IS our hope, even in this world of despair. “Our hope is in the Lord.”

This is no mere hope for a better life now, in this world broken in despair and reeling with evil. We hope for much more than an end to hurricanes, earthquakes and tornadoes. We long for much more than simply no more mass shootings or disruptive demonstrations or painful racial tensions. We eagerly await much more than a medication or a therapy that can take away whatever disease or injury we may suffer, be it arthritis or cancer or paralysis or chronic pain. Yes, we certainly hope for a time when all of these maladies, and many more, will be a distant memory. But we also have to admit and confess that we human beings are not—and cannot be—the ones to make that happen. Sure, we can help others, we can give aid, we can improve, in some modest ways. We can even lessen and alleviate some of the symptoms of the things we suffer in this worrisome, fallen world. But we mere mortals cannot overcome the evil. We are powerless to fix the real brokenness.

So let’s be cautious—let’s be discerning—when we listen to the politicians, the talking heads, and the experts in various fields, especially when they talk about bringing about a more perfect world, a less evil place to live and move and have our being.

Our hope is not in ourselves, because we mere mortals are the fallen creatures. We are the lost ones whom Jesus comes to seek and to save. And He comes to seek and save us from ourselves. You see, each one of us has the very same darkness and evil in the heart as did the Las Vegas shooter, as do the political opportunists, as do the terrorists around the globe, as does every tyrant through history, as does every human being on the face of the planet.

We cannot hope in ourselves, but we can and do hope in Jesus Himself. You see, since He does indeed dwell on earth in His Church, He is also with us in the times of darkness. That’s when He gives us the greatest hope. He is there with us in the midst of the darkness and despair.

So cling to His promise in our second reading. Do you want a world without mass shootings and wars and terrorism and natural disasters? Look to the one Man who promises to deliver—and actually can deliver—“a new heaven and a new earth.” He who wept tears of sorrow for us who are so misguided, so enslaved to sin and death—“He will wipe away every tear from [our] eyes.” He who promises “neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore” actually went through all the pain that we endure—the pain of loss, the pain of grief, the pain of whips on His torso, the pain of thorns in His scalp, the pain of spikes in His wrists and feet, the pain of abandonment, the pain of suffocating to death. Then this one Man who suffered your death, my death, and the death of every mere mortal actually burst the bonds of death. This one Man—the salvation who comes into our house—actually rose from the grave. Only this one Man can say, “Death shall be no more.”

Only this one Man can give hope for a better life, hope for a new world free from evil and tragedy. In this one Man—Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Son of Man—God’s eternal promise is fulfilled and made real: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God Himself will be with them as their God.” That promise is very real now, as we walk by faith. One day it will be even more real, when we get to live it by sight.

So, dear people of Hope, you have hope in this world of darkness, despair, evil, and death. Jesus says, “Behold, I am making all things new.” He creates in you a clean heart; He renews a right spirit within you (Ps. 51:10). He restores to you the joy of His salvation, and He upholds you with a willing spirit (Ps. 51:12). And you have the privilege—the high calling—of living, speaking, and showing this hope for all to hear and see. He is making you new, and through you He is giving hope for years to come—hope for a whole eternity yet to come.

If it’s worth hearing once, it’s worth hearing for the one-hundred first time: “Happy Birthday!” Amen.

01 October 2017

Homily for Trinity 16 - 2017

"Innards of Mercy"
Luke 7:11-17

Listen here.

We get a little Easter at the beginning of October. It really shouldn’t surprise us. After all, every Sunday is a little Easter. In this story of Jesus raising the widow’s son, we have a miracle that shows just who Jesus is. He is the great prophet whom God had promised for centuries. He is the fulfillment of their centuries-long hope for rescue from death. When Jesus comes, the age of Messiah—the new creation—has dawned. “The Creator Himself has come in the flesh to re-create His fallen creatures” (Just, 307).

Jesus, His disciples, and a great crowd—probably filled with joy that they were with Jesus—approach the little town of Nain. As they draw near to the town’s gate, they are met by a somber, tear-filled procession of death. A man had died. And not just any man. “The only son of his mother, and she was a widow.” What torture for her! Not only had she buried her husband however long before this, but now she was burying her son, her only-begotten son. Talk about ripping her heart asunder! Now she had absolutely no security in Israelite society. She would have no means of support. Everyone would ignore her. Everyone except Jesus, that is—that other only-begotten Son in our Gospel.

When Jesus sees her completely heartbroken, uncontrollably weeping, utterly despairing, He has compassion on her. This is key. It’s much more than feeling sorry or uttering, “Poor thing.” No, Jesus pours out His inward parts in mercy for her. It’s the same “tender mercy of our God” that Zechariah sang about at the birth of his son, John the Baptizer (Lk. 1:78). It’s the same outpouring of inward parts of mercy shown by the Good Samaritan to the beaten, bloodied man in the ditch (Lk. 10:33). It’s the same outpouring of the bowels of compassion that the prodigal father showed to his prodigal son when that son returned home in repentance (Lk. 15:20). So Jesus pours out His guts of mercy for this poor woman. God’s reign of grace and life is breaking into our world of misery and death.

Then Jesus tells her, “Do not weep.” Can you imagine? If I’m in this woman’s shoes, I’d be bristling at such an outlandish command at such a time as this. “Do not weep?! Sir, how can you even? I’ve lost my only-begotten son, my pride, my joy, my only means of support. Surely you can’t expect me to do a happy dance? Surely you can’t expect me to feel nothing, to be stoic? Of course I’m gonna weep! Of course I’m gonna cry out with the agony that overflows inside!” Now if any of us would say such a thing at a funeral, it would be quite insensitive. But Jesus can say it, and only Jesus can say it. You see, only Jesus can say it because only Jesus can do something about it.

Then Jesus does something verboten—forbidden: He actually touches the coffin-cot. Gasps all around! According to Jewish law, that would make one ritually unclean. But not Jesus! He is the very source of ritual cleanness, the true fount of genuine healing. He may very well take this young man’s death and uncleanness into Himself—soaking it up as a sponge, so to speak. But He also transmits His cleanness and His healing—and His life—into the lifeless man on the coffin-cot.

And Jesus’ words to the young man—“I say to you, arise”—say what they do and actually do what they say. By the way, the original Greek is different from the English. The English makes it sound as though the young man could muster up the energy and willpower to “arise” of his own accord. Not so in the Greek. It’s a passive verb. Jesus actually says, “Young man, I say to you, BE RAISED.” Not “raise yourself,” but “be raised”…that is, by Someone else. And who is that Someone else? Jesus, of course. And how does He raise this dead young man? By His Word, of course. His Word says what it does and does what it says, making alive, forgiving sins, and delivering salvation. As Jesus said elsewhere: “Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (Jn. 5:24).

So when Jesus comes on the scene—whether in the flesh at Bethlehem or at Nain or on the cross, or even in our midst in His Word—He comes to pour out His guts to give His mercy. He comes to fulfill and complete all those other resurrections in the Bible. The prophet Elijah raised the widow’s son, to be sure (1 Kgs. 17). Then the prophet Elisha raised the Shunammite woman’s son (2 Kgs. 4).  Actually, God raised those two boys through His prophets. Jesus Himself would raise Jairus’ daughter (Lk. 8) and His friend Lazarus (Jn. 11). However, all those resurrections were only the “teaser trailers” or “promo videos.” Jesus comes to show that He is “the resurrection and the life” (Jn. 11:25). He alone has the power, the only power, over death.

According to Martin Luther, the first and main thing to take away from this account of Jesus raising the widow’s son is FAITH—that we recognize our Lord Jesus from His works and believe in Him. Luther makes this application: “This and similar works of Christ should remind us that we must be very courageous and unafraid in times of sickness, pestilence, and life-threatening danger. At moments when the world says, All is lost, the Christian always responds, Not so, God still lives, and Christ rules at the right hand of God” (HP 3:25). The widow at Nain learned that she had a helper and Savior in Jesus. Her son who was resurrected learned that he had a Savior who overcomes death itself.

You and I get to learn and believe the same things, whatever our distress, whatever our lament or grief, whatever comes our way in our lifelong battle against the grave. And we have the benefit of having the rest of the story of Jesus. He showed how much He is our helper and Savior, how completely He has overcome death and the grave by going to a cross, by suffering death itself, and by rising on the third day. Even now in the Gospel and Sacraments—in words, and water, and bread and wine—our Lord spills out His mercy to comfort us, tells us not to weep, and raises us from our sin and death. What a great prophet and Savior we have! God has visited and still visits His people!

Then, according to Luther, there’s a second thing we can take away from this marvelous miracle. That is HOW TO BE MERCIFUL. Just as Jesus poured out His innards of mercy for the widow, and just as He touched the coffin-cot of the dead young man, we also learn to identify with those who suffer and spill out our innards of mercy for them. St. Paul put it this way: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15). Luther drives the point home this way: “When my poor neighbor is sick it doesn’t only mean that I should gladly help him, but his suffering must become mine in such a way that I feel it as my own, as we see here with our Lord” (HP 3:26).

Now this being merciful actually goes in two directions. One is the physical, to be sure. The other is the spiritual. Showing mercy when physical tragedy and suffering strike is easy enough to see. Our neighbor may need clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, and so on. So we spill out the innards of mercy to help them.

But mercy is also needed in spiritual matters. What are we to do when young people are not being nurtured and raised to believe in Christ? What are we to do when grown people disregard Jesus coming in His Word and Sacraments? What are we to do with our multitude of neighbors who know nothing of Jesus and His pouring out of His innards of mercy on the cross and through the empty tomb? We weep with those who weep. We identify with them by getting to know them. We speak of Jesus and His works for them. Now and then that may involve confronting our neighbor with his/her sins. And, yes, that is merciful. After all, we don’t want our neighbor to end up separated from God for all eternity. Most of all, we want to carry them on their own coffin-cot of spiritual death to the one Man who can help, the one Man who can say, “Be raised.”

So the greatest lesson from today’s Gospel is this: not to despair when things go badly, especially when we face the grave. We have the greatest Prophet—the Savior Himself—who comes to help us and raise us. And the second is like it: that we, like Jesus, identify ourselves with our neighbor in his grief, whether physical or spiritual. May God lead us in pouring out our innards of mercy, just has He has done for us. Amen.

24 September 2017

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels (Obs.) - 2017

"God's 'Army Rangers'"
Matthew 18:1-11 & Revelation 12:7-12

Listen here.

“Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.” That’s how we end our morning and evening prayers in the Catechism. So how do you envision God’s holy angels?

Our standard image of angels includes wings, of course, bright halos, flowing white robes, beautiful long hair, and even kind, effeminate features. But that’s not entirely Biblical. It would be far better to picture God’s holy angels as battle-hardened soldiers with gear such as breastplates, shields, spears and swords. Or, in 21st century parlance, let’s picture them with helmets and night-vision goggles, flak jackets and fully automatic machine guns.

Today we are talking about God’s “heavenly hosts,” the ranks of angel armies. Let’s call them “St. Michael and his Army Rangers” or “St. Michael and his Navy Seals.”

How do we benefit from picturing Michael and the angels as heavenly Army Rangers or spiritual Navy Seals? Hebrews 1:14 says, “Are they not all ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?” God’s angels are spirit beings—not flesh and blood—created sometime in those first six days of time. God sends them out to serve. Whom do they serve? You, of course! You who are to inherit salvation. Just as a nation sends its soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines to protect and defend its land and way of life, God also sends His angel armies to protect and defend you, His loved and redeemed children.

Why do we need God’s “heavenly Army Rangers” and “spiritual Navy Seals”? You and I are caught in the middle of a cosmic battle, a heavenly war, that makes World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and the War on Terrorism combined look like a game of Tiddly-Winks. It’s the war of “Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels [fighting] back.” It’s the war that started with the serpent’s temptation of Eve and Adam in the Garden. It’s the war that causes you and me to doubt God’s goodness, to turn away from Him, to choose our own path, and to make ourselves “like God.” It’s the war that prompts each of us to live all of life trusting and bowing down to “me-myself-and-I” rather than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

As St. Paul says: “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). St. Peter gives a different image: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

It’s the cosmic battle that prompts you and I to think and act like the disciples—to worry about who’s the greatest in the kingdom. It’s the heavenly, spiritual war that leads you and I to look down our noses at becoming like children and humbling ourselves like a child. And don’t think we are passive victims in this battle! No, you and I actively, even ambitiously, take up arms and fight against God’s ways. You and I actively wring our hands and twist ourselves in knots as we worry, fret, and complain. We do it when we fret more over graying hair and varicose veins than we do over the demons lurking to sink their claws into us. We do it when we get more worked up over our AC quitting in the middle of July (or even this past week) than we do over the unquenchable fire that we truly deserve because of our doubts and despair of God’s goodness in all things. We do it plenty in the times of hurricanes, earthquakes, and racially charged protests in our city.

So God’s angels—His “heavenly Army Rangers,” His “spiritual Navy Seals”—are His guardian gifts to you. They help you and defend you on earth as they muzzle Satan and his demonic horde. But God’s angels really do not wield swords and spears, or even sniper rifles and Beretta pistols. Rather, they carry a concealed weapon. It’s in their mouths and on their tongues. Their angelic weapon of choice? The Word of God. As St. John says, the angels “have conquered [the dragon] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony.”

The angels’ concealed weapon—the Word of the living God—is a bloody weapon indeed. It’s covered with and soaked in the blood of the Lamb—the Son of God who laid down His life, sacrificed Himself, and paid the ultimate price to conquer the dragon and his lying horde once and for all. And the angelic words shield you from the fiery lies of the dragon. They’re not trivial words. They’re very weighty and mighty words. They’re words that say, “Your sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” So you really don’t need wing-ed angels; you need “word-ed angels.” Thus the psalmist teaches us to sing: “Bless the LORD, O you His angels, you mighty ones who do His word, obeying the voice of His word!” (103:20).

The same goes for those other “angels,” as Scripture calls them, those other messengers sent from God to serve for the sake of you who inherit salvation. Those other “angels,” those other messengers, happen to have flesh and blood. They are the pastors of the Church. They are the men whom God has called and placed among you. They live and work in the stead and by the command of your Lord Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. And they also carry the same concealed weapon as Michael and his heavenly host: the blood-soaked Word of God.

When God sends these flesh and blood “angels” to you, He arms those little messengers with only a word—the Word of the Lamb. In fact, you can proudly say that your pastor is supposed to give you only the Word, only the message of Christ slain for sinners and raised to give life.

You see, it’s this Word that became flesh, dwelt among us, bled out on the cross, and rose again to bring life and immortality to light. It’s this Word that converts you into little children so that you can enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s this Word breathed into the water that gives you new birth from above. It’s this Word that cuts off the hands and feet that are your sins, that cuts to the heart and leads you to confess your sins and receive the Absolution. It’s this Word that comes to you in the Body and Blood of the Supper and makes you a partaker of His never-ending life. It’s this Word that makes each of you truly the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

That’s the concealed weapon of Michael, all the heavenly hosts, and even flesh and blood messengers standing in pulpits. And what a glorious and weighty Word it is! You deserve hell, but He—the Word made flesh, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—gives you heaven. He defends and protects you from the dragon and his evil horde. Every time you hear Jesus Christ proclaimed and given out for you, “the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down.”

Now you get to sing:

Christ, the Lord of hosts, unshaken
By the devil’s seething rage,
Thwarts the plan of Satan’s minions;
Wins the strife from age to age;
Conquers sin and death forever;
Slams them in their steely cage. (LSB 521:1)


17 September 2017

Homily for Trinity 14 - 2017

"Cleansed to Praise"
Luke 17:11-19

Listen here.

When you hear and ponder these ten lepers, you want to think of yourself—suffering the ravages of the leprosy of sin. When you hear and ponder Jesus’ healing of these lepers, you want to remember your Baptism—where Jesus cleanses you of what ails you most. And when you ponder the one cleansed leper, the Samaritan, who returned to Jesus—you want to put yourself in his shoes and take your cue from him on how to live all of your life in your Baptism.

First, let’s consider the ten lepers. Johann Gerhard said, “In these ten lepers is given to us a picture of the human race, which has been infected with the leprosy of sin; for sin is in many respects comparable to leprosy.” (Postilla 2:151). The Bible’s term “leprosy” no doubt refers to something like Hansen’s Disease—a bacterial infection that can affect nerves, skin, and eyes and lead to loss of feeling and even paralysis. Biblical “Leprosy” may also refer to something like eczema—more of a skin rash, or dermatitis, with scaly, flaking skin and itchiness. The real point is that leprosy is a most accurate picture for what ails us most: the infection and disease of sin.

To borrow more from Gerhard, our sin is like leprosy in several respects:
  • Leprosy affects and destroys the whole body. Sin also totally infects, affects and destroys our strength in both body and soul—nothing sound from head to toe.
  • Leprosy is a disease that spreads. So does sin, coming into the world through one man and spreading to us all. St. Paul calls it “the works of the flesh”—you know, all those nasty things of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger” and so on—all those symptoms that even present themselves in us, at least from time to time.
  • Leprosy, at least in Gerhard’s day, could not be healed by man’s efforts. Today, treatments may prevent the disease from getting worse, but they cannot reverse the  damage. And remember the story of Naaman. He sought healing from the King of Israel, but the King of Israel cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (2 Kgs. 5:7). Sin, though, absolutely cannot be healed by human means—not by doctors, paramedics, or politicians. After all, those “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.”
  • Leprosy, according to Gerhard, is a “herpetic contagion”—a viral disease—that spreads to others who are healthy. Modern medicine may quibble with just how it spreads. However, sin itself does spread its contamination. Just think of the many ways our fallen world infects us all in thought, word and deed to think, speak and act in ways that go against God’s Word in mistrusting God and not loving our neighbor—“rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”
  • And leprosy, once it takes hold, eats its way more and more through the body. Likewise, sin. One sin leads to another, and that one easily to yet another. First, the misdeed; then the excuse; then the cover-up; then the lie; and so on.

If it weren't for our leprosy of sin, we would not need police officers and rulings of law courts. If it weren't for our leprosy of sin, we would not have protests, whether peaceful, disruptive, or destructive.

So, let’s imitate the ten lepers as Jesus comes passing along between the Samaria and Galilee of our lives. Let’s lift up our voices and cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And let’s listen and heed Him when He bids us to show ourselves to the priest—no, not those priests at the Jerusalem temple, but a different priest. Which priest? Jesus, our great High Priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 2:14). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 2:15). As Gerhard asked: “How can one be quit of his spiritual leprosy?…One must find his way to Christ, the sole physician for one’s soul” (Postilla, 2:152). “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 2:16). “Offered was He for greatest and for least, / Himself the victim and Himself the priest” (LSB 637:1).

Actually, we don’t have to find our way to Him. He has found His way to us! Just as the ten lepers were cleansed before they found their way to the priests—and not by their own reason or strength, nor by their decision or will—we are cleansed in the bath of our Baptism—not by our own reason or strength or decision or will. Our baptismal bath sprinkles us with the very blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ crucified. After all, He is the One who comes by water and blood; not by the water only but by the water and the blood (1 Jn. 5:6).

In Leviticus 14, cleansing of lepers happened, first, by killing a bird in an earthen vessel over fresh, living water. Then, a live bird, a piece of cedarwood, and a scarlet yarn were dipped in that blood and fresh water. And then, the priest, using the live bird wet with blood and water, would “sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease” (Lev. 14:7). Not only is Jesus both victim and priest for you, He is also the dead bird and the living bird for you. He is the One who cleanses you “by the washing of water with [His] word, so that He might present [you] to Himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:26-27), cleansed of your leprosy of sin.

So now we want to put ourselves in the shoes of the one cleansed leper who returned to Jesus. Now we want to take our cue from him on how to live all of life in our Baptism. I’m sure the other nine former lepers were generically thankful as civic courtesy and politeness would dictate. But they went on to live their lives apart from Jesus. However, the one cleansed leper—the Samaritan—“turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” He actually did more than just giving thanks. He gave Him praise, as Jesus said. He returned to the Giver of the gift of cleansing. He was not merely content to enjoy the gift; he wanted to enjoy and be with the Giver.

That’s living your baptismal life. Not just a generic thankfulness for a quick healing. Not just a slight nod and a mental note that something special happened some time along time ago, but then getting back to “real life” or “your life,” however you might define that for yourself. No, the baptismal life is about living all of life in Jesus, with Jesus, and in the presence of Jesus. Daily contrition and repentance. Drowning that Old Adam in you. Making him die with all sins and evil desires. And then—thank the Lord and sing His praise!—emerging and arising every day to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Your one-time baptismal cleansing becomes your daily routine—not a slogging-through-it routine, but a joyful living in the blood and water that continually heals and cleanses.

We all know how we wrestle with sin every day. That leprous disease keeps flaring up even in us who are cleansed by Jesus’ blood and water. We will keep wrestling with our leprous sin until Jesus returns on the Last Day. It’s not a matter of Jesus’ healing not fully doing its job. It has! But it is a matter of living in faith, continually receiving His cleansing, and thus praising Him as did the Samaritan.

Martin Luther confessed this in the face of those who deny that sin remains after Baptism. The fact that sin remains after Baptism quickly smacks down any perfectionism—that is, thinking you can be free of all sin or attain a sin-free life this side of heaven. It also topples any notion of “once-saved-always-saved.” While the healing for that Samaritan former leper, and the other nine, was instantaneous, Jesus chooses to heal us over the long-haul. The sin is forgiven, to be sure; Jesus’ healing, though, is ongoing. Here’s how Luther expressed it:

“This life…is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (“A Defense and Explanation of All Articles” [AE 32:24]).

And so we return to Jesus yet again, around His Table. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, / And drink the holy blood for you outpoured” (LSB 637:1). We return to receive the healing He gives. We return to give praise to Him. “Let us praise the Word Incarnate, / Christ, who suffered in our place. / Jesus died and rose victorious / That we may know God by grace. / Let us sing for joy and gladness, / Seeing what our God has done; / Let us praise the true Redeemer, / Praise the One who makes us one” (LSB 849:3). Amen.

10 September 2017

Homily for Trinity 13 - 2017

"Christ, Our Samaritan"
Luke 10:23-37

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On January 17, 1546, Dr. Martin Luther preached what would be his last sermon in Wittenberg. He would preach five more sermons after that in other places before his death on February 18, 1546. In his final Wittenberg sermon, Luther focused on the text of Romans 12:3, where St. Pauls says, “By the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Luther began his sermon by highlighting two main points that are to be taught and preached in Christian pulpits. First, we ensure that “faith in Christ is rightly preached.” Second, we preach that “the fruits and good works are rightly taught and practiced” (AE 51:372). First, we preach the “good tree,” to use the picture Jesus gives; then, we preach the fruits of faith that grow from that tree. Then Luther appeals to and explains the parable of the Good Samaritan, our Gospel for today. Notice who the Good Samaritan is:

After baptism there still remains much of the old Adam. For, as we have often said, it is tame that sin is forgiven in baptism, but we are not yet altogether clean, as is shown in the parable of the Samaritan, who carried the man wounded by robbers to an inn [Luke 10:30–37]. He did not take care of him in such a way that he healed him at once, but rather bound up his wounds and poured on oil. The man who fell among robbers suffered two injuries. First, everything that he had was taken from him, he was robbed; and second, he was wounded, so that he was half-dead and would have died, if the Samaritan had not come to him. Adam fell among the robbers and implanted sin in us all. If Christ, the Samaritan, had not come, we should all have had to die. He it is who binds our wounds, carries us into the church and is now healing us. So we are now under the Physician’s care. The sin, it is true, is wholly forgiven, but it has not been wholly purged. If the Holy Spirit is not ruling men, they become corrupt again; but the Holy Spirit must cleanse the wounds daily. (AE 51:373).

Now there’s a Gospel-driven, Christ-centered reading of the Good Samaritan! It’s the very thing that many prophets and kings through the Old Testament desired to see, but did not have the opportunity; they just kept looking forward to it in faith. It’s the very thing that the disciples did get to see, even if they did not quite get it until after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It’s the very thing that the lawyer who stood up to test Jesus needed to hear, but he thought too highly of himself.

Earlier in Luke chapter 10, Jesus sent out the seventy-two, instructing and authorizing them to preach His peace and heal in His name. When they returned, they were exuberant that even the demons were subject to them in Jesus’ name (Lk. 10:17). But Jesus had to temper their enthusiasm, lest they think more highly of themselves than they ought. “Do not rejoice in this,” Jesus said, “that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:2). Then Jesus the Son rejoiced in the Holy Spirit that God the Father actually hides these things from the worldly wise and understanding folks, and instead reveals them to little children—that is, to those who receive Him by faith.

So the lawyer stands up to test Jesus. “What shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Wrong question, Mr. Lawyer! Not only do you not do anything to receive an inheritance—after all, an inheritance is pure gift—but you’re also thinking more highly of yourself than you ought. But Jesus plays along. Mr. Lawyer asks a what-shall-I-do question, so Jesus gives a here’s-what-to-do answer. He points the lawyer to the Law—love God with every ounce and fiber of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. “Do this, and you will live.” Oops! The lawyer knows he’s been caught. Can he truly keep all that law? What about those less-than-desirable neighbors? “There must be an exception, an escape clause, for who really counts as my neighbor,” he thinks. Then comes Jesus’ famous story of the Good Samaritan.

You see, the lawyer thought more highly of himself than he ought, and even that height of self-esteem was not high enough. He did not realize that, actually, he was the man who had been robbed and beaten and was lying half-dead in the ditch. He did not realize that he was in need of a Good Samaritan to rescue him and bind up his wounds. After all, the priest and the Levite—symbols of the old law itself—could not and did not help. “For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” Only the Good Samaritan could help.

Only the Good Samaritan can help you and me. We too are that man who has been robbed and beaten by sin, death, and the devil. We are the ones lying half-dead in the ditch along the road. As Luther proclaimed, “Adam fell among the robbers and implanted sin in us all.” If we want to be like the lawyer—thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought—then we only “annul the covenant previously ratified by God” and make void God’s promise of rescue and healing in Jesus. If we want to think and believe and live as though our eternal inheritance “comes by the law”—asking the what-shall-I-do questions in our life with God—then we miss the point that Jesus makes in telling this parable about Himself.

You see, Jesus does it all. He is the Samaritan who comes to your rescue. When He was accused of being a Samaritan and having a demon, Jesus only objected to having a demon (Jn. 8:48-49). He never objected to being a Samaritan, because, after all, He is the Good Samaritan par excellence. Again, as Luther proclaimed, “He it is who binds our wounds, carries us into the church and is now healing us. So we are now under the Physician’s care.” Here we have the cleansing bath of His Baptism, the healing therapy of His words of forgiveness, the sustaining, life-giving medicine of His Supper.

This is the sober judgment of faith that St. Paul urges us to take on—the sober judgment of receiving Christ, our Samaritan and His healing care.

To our friends from Emmaus, this healing is especially for you this day. You have labored long and hard and faithfully to keep the Jefferson Avenue branch of the Good Samaritan’s hospital open and functioning. You have labored long and hard and faithfully to offer other people, robbed and beaten by sin, death, and Satan, the very healing of Jesus and His forgiveness. But this chapter of the Emmaus hospital had to come to a close. And now you no doubt feel much like the man lying half-dead in the ditch. But please do not beat yourselves up. Please do not rob yourselves of the forgiveness and peace that Jesus has given and still gives to you. “He it is who binds [your] wounds, carries [you] into the church and is now healing [you].” Good Samaritan Jesus binds up your wounds so that you may find healing in His wounds. He places you on His beast of burden as He bears your burdens. He still brings you into His inn—His Church, still takes care of you, and still pays for all of your care until He returns.

And I know I can speak for your brothers and sisters here at Hope. With sober judgment we say, “Welcome! We welcome you as fellow sinners being healed by Christ, our Samaritan. Please join us as we all convalesce together under Jesus’ compassion.”

The healing of Christ, our Samaritan, is also for all of us who are concerned over the recent hurricanes—first Harvey, now Irma, and possibly Jose yet to come. Some people are making news by pronouncing these hurricanes as God’s judgment—for our current president, for our decaying Western values, for whatever. Perhaps…but perhaps not. There’s just one problem with pronouncing these hurricanes as God’s specific judgment for some specific problem: God Himself has not clearly told us in His Word. What He has told us is that when tragedies like this happen, we do not point out other peoples’ sins. No, Jesus says, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Lk. 13:3, 5). Translation: do not think more highly of yourself than you ought in pronouncing such judgments on God’s behalf. Added translation: Don’t miss the healing of Good Samaritan Jesus. We all are that man lying half dead in the ditch, even as hurricanes roar. Jesus comes to rescue and heal us all. And, yes, as we convalesce, we get to be neighbors to those who fall prey to such disasters. We get to show the fruits of faith by showing charity and giving relief aid.

This is the Good News of our Good Samaritan, Jesus Himself. Amen.

03 September 2017

Homily for Trinity 12 - 2017

"First, the Hearing, Then the Speaking"
Mark 7:31-37

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You may be familiar with the “telephone game.” Perhaps you’ve played it a time or two. It starts with a simple sentence whispered into one person’s ear. Then, one-by-one, that person whispers the sentence to the next person, and that person to the next, and so on. The fun of the game is in hearing the giggles when the sentence suddenly becomes funny, or seeing the puzzled looks when the whispered sentence sounds odd. Then, by the time the sentence reaches the last person in the group, the sentence is completely different than the first sentence uttered.

Usually the “telephone game” is used to teach that gossip is bad, because details get twisted and lost in transmission. True enough! But it also reveals something else. Our ears and our mouths are not so reliable after all. You and I may not be completely deaf or have a speech impediment as the man in our Gospel, but we still need Jesus’ healing in our ears and our mouths.

The first thing we learn of the man in today’s Gospel is that he was deaf. He could not hear. And if you know anyone with a hearing problem, especially from early on in life, you’ve probably noticed a correlation. If that person cannot hear well, he/she cannot speak well either. The two go together: First, the hearing; then the speaking.

So, the deaf and mute man has two problems—a hearing problem and a speaking problem. The same is true for you and me. If you are not clearly speaking Christ and His forgiveness to people around you, chances are you are not hearing it all that well either. First comes the hearing; then comes the speaking.

You would think that speaking of Christ and His forgiveness would be easy for us Christians—second nature, in fact. After all, isn’t that what we hear and treasure week after week in the Divine Service? First, we confess our sins, and Jesus is gracious to forgive all our sins through the spoken Absolution: “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” We hear from each other when we sing these words: “O Lord, the only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ; O Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” We hear the goodness of Jesus in the sermon. We confess—speak together—the Creed to each other. We even get to hear these words as we sing them to each other: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people….”

So, if you and I have an impediment in speaking Christ to other people, it’s not because the words are absent or in short supply. It’s because we’re not hearing Him that well. You and I are intent on hearing other things, other news, other messages. Your ears and mine get filled with the sounds of the culture and the things we like to hear, rather than the things we need to hear. We so like the sounds of the radio or iTunes, so we can talk about the latest hit release or download. We like to hear the latest buzz, the celebrity gossip, the depressing news story, the latest gaffe from a politician, the Midwest Sports Report, the weather report, or the big rumor about someone we know. And then, quite naturally, we talk about these things. First comes the hearing; then comes the speaking.

And just how do you and I use our mouths? We complain. We moan and we groan. We put other people down—even for the slightest of slights. Perhaps some of those “colorful metaphors” of a four-letter variety come slipping or spewing out. Perhaps we love to tell the stories—whether true or false—about other people. Whatever the case, we are revealing the impediment in our speech. Our tongues are weighed down by the ball and chain of our sin.

So, Jesus must come and heal us in our ears and our mouths, just as He healed the deaf and mute man. Remember how Jesus healed the man. The details are crucial. First, Jesus takes the man away from the crowd. No distractions here! Jesus wanted the deaf and mute man to focus only on Him. Then, Jesus put His fingers in the man’s ears. Not only would Jesus get that infamous ear wax on His fingers, but by touching the man, Jesus was identifying with him. He was taking the man’s hearing problem on Himself. He was also communicating to the man what He was about to do. Then Jesus spat and touched the man’s tongue. Excellent communication skills! How else do you tell a man who can’t hear that you’re about to unshackle his tongue as well? And finally, with a look up to heaven, and a sigh at how creation is broken by sin, Jesus said, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

And the man was healed—restored in body and soul. “And his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.” The man got his ears and his mouth back—rescued from the bondage of sin and Satan, restored to the way that God had intended from creation, ready to use in hearing and confessing Christ.

Dear saints, Jesus heals you of your deaf ears and of your speech impediments too. He takes you away from the multitude of the world and brings you to this very place—a place that’s supposed to be different from the hustle and bustle of the work-a-day, shop-till-you-drop world, a place that’s supposed to sound different from the clamoring, pulsating din of everyday news and commentary, hits and downloads and text messages. Jesus wants you to focus on Him. You see, in this place He heals you. Every time you hear God’s Word read, proclaimed, sung, or even see it poured over someone with water, think of it as Jesus putting His fingers into your ears to open them. Jesus also touches your tongue with His very Body and Blood to communicate with you. Here’s what He says: “Be opened!” That is, “Ears, be opened to hear the goodness of My salvation for you. Tongue, be released to speak the forgiveness of Christ to other people.”

Not only does Jesus touch your ears with His words and your tongue with His Body and Blood, but He also took your flesh and blood on Himself. He identified so fully with you that He even took all of your sin, all of your doubts, and all of your fears on Himself. And He died on the cross and shed His innocent blood to restore you to life with God. Now that’s good news! Not only are your ears opened up to hear Jesus, but heaven is opened up to receive you. Not only is your mouth unshackled to speak Jesus, but the ball and chain of your sin is loosed and you are free from sin.

So how can you not speak Christ to people around you? How can you hold back on speaking the Good News of life and forgiveness in Jesus? Remember how the deaf and mute man came into contact with Jesus in the first place: “And they brought to Him….” Some friends brought the man to Jesus. They themselves had heard Jesus’ life-giving words, and they wanted their deaf and mute friend to enjoy Jesus’ healing also. Evangelism is just that simple. In John chapter 1 we see another simple evangelism story. Philip is talking to Nathanael. He says, “We’ve seen the Messiah, the Savior!” Nathanael questions him. But Philip simply says, “Come and see.”

That, dear saints, is what Jesus also calls you to do: bring your loved ones and your dear friends here to meet Jesus. Here, in the Divine Service, Jesus Himself takes you and other people away from the world. He puts His Word into your ears and theirs. He touches your tongues and theirs with His very Body and Blood—the same Body and Blood broken and shed on the Cross. Also remember this helpful little pearl of wisdom from The Lutheran Study Bible: “One of the greatest joys in life is that someone comes to faith in Jesus because they heard the Gospel from you” (On 1 Cor. 1:14, emph. added).

So, what did the man do after Jesus healed him? No doubt he enjoyed his new-found hearing. No doubt he enjoyed speaking plainly and clearly, especially of the One who healed him. No doubt, he spoke of Jesus the healer to all who would listen. Sure, some didn’t want to hear him. Some may have thought he was, well, wacko. But I doubt the formerly deaf and mute man would let that bother him. He was probably much like a young bride-to-be with her new engagement ring, or like a young man with his new car. He just couldn’t wait to let people know. He just couldn’t wait to bring other people to be healed by Jesus. That’s what happens when Jesus opens your ears to hear His Word proclaimed and releases your tongue with His Body and Blood. Amen.

27 August 2017

Homily for Trinity 11 - 2017

"Lifetime Lesson for Living by Grace"
Luke 18:9-14

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Two men walk into the temple to pray. No, it’s not the set up line for a joke. It’s Jesus’ way of teaching just how we live all of life as His justified and forgiven people.

First, let me give a rather literal rendition of today’s Gospel, and let’s see what pops out for us to behold:

“He [Jesus] spoke this parable to some who have convinced themselves that they are righteous and [thus] look down on the rest of people: ‘Two men went up into the temple to pray, the one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. Upon standing up the Pharisee prayed these things with reference to himself: “God, I thank You that I am not just like the rest of the human race—those who are greedy, those who do wrong, those who commit adultery, or even like this tax collector [here]. I fast the two required days of the week, I give the exact tithe of everything that I acquire.” But the tax collector, standing far off, was not even willing to lift up his eyes to heaven, but he kept beating his chest saying, “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” I tell you, this one went down to his house having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state, rather than that one—because everyone who raises himself up will be humbled [by God], but the one who humbles himself will be raised up [by God].”

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has been sparring with the Pharisees quite a bit. First, they criticized Him for healing a man on the Sabbath Day. Then they grumbled about Him receiving sinners, and that led to the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost sons. Then Jesus had to confront them with their love of money, and He rebuffed their request for signs of the coming kingdom. After all, Jesus Himself is the kingdom and they should have recognized Him when He came. Now, in our Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees with the very disease that infects us all: convincing ourselves that we—in our own efforts, in our own endeavors, in our own egos—are righteous and thus elevating ourselves above the rest of the hoi polloi around us.

It’s really a simple lesson to discern mentally from this parable, but it takes all of our lifetimes to learn it and live it in everyday experience. “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Easy to read; easy to say the words; but very difficult to live.

Notice how the Pharisee exalted himself above the rest of the human race—all other people. Notice how he proudly prayed to God, trying to offer his religious resumĂ©. Notice how he looked down his nose at anyone and everyone who did not measure up to his high standards.

That same urge dwells within our breasts. We can see it on the small scale of the individual. We may not be as bold or brazen as that Pharisee; usually we try to be more subtle about it. We may simply be thankful that we do not suffer as much or as badly as others around us. We may try to comfort ourselves with how long we’ve been blessed to be in Jesus’ Church more than with Jesus’ cross-won grace and mercy in and of itself. We may cling to our own virtue, more than to Jesus, in the face of a world careening off the road of respect and morality. We may even hope that God smiles on us just a bit more for our faithful attendance at church or our faithful giving in the offering. Yes, the same urge of self-exaltation dwells within our individual breasts.

We can also see this on the larger scale of groups or even mobs. One group thinks it is superior to the other, and so the other must assert its own superiority in counter protest. One group with one color of skin views itself as supreme; the other group with a different skin color wants to assert its rights instead. Is not our ongoing problem of racism in our land a sore and sensitive symptom of what infected the Pharisee’s heart…and what infects our hearts? “God, I thank You that I am not like those other people.” That urge dwells within the breast of every human being descended from Adam.

But notice what the tax collector does and prays instead. Let him—yes, the conniving, despised tax collector—be your role model for Christian faith and life. He knows he does not deserve to come into God’s presence. So he stands far off. He knows the urges that dwell within his breast. So he can’t even dare look up to heaven, and he keeps beating his breast repeatedly. With these two actions of humility he recognizes his ego and his sin.

Even more striking is his prayer. He doesn’t just pray the “Kyrie eleison”—Lord, have mercy—as we do in the Divine Service. No, his prayer is much stronger, much more vivid. First of all, he does not merely call himself “a sinner”—as in one among many, in a misery-loves-company sort of way. No, he calls himself “the sinner.” When he compares himself to others, he realizes that he himself is “chief of sinners”; he is the guilty one; he is the worst of them all. And he is the one Jesus commends for telling the truth! May it be so for each of us as well.

The second more vivid thing of the tax collector’s prayer is this: he does not merely pray for a generic sort of mercy; he pleads for God Himself to make and to be the atoning sacrifice for him. “God, let Yourself bring about forgiveness for me, the sinner.” He prays for the very thing that Jesus came to be and to do on the cross. As Hebrews 2:17 says, “Therefore he [Jesus] had to be made like His brothers in every respect, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation—to be the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for the sins of the people.” This Jesus “is the propitiation—the sacrifice and means of forgiveness—for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). This is how Jesus Himself declares sinners righteous and keeps them in an ongoing state of being right and righteous before God. May it be so for each of us as well.

The two men in our Gospel teach us the lifetime lesson of living by God’s grace. One prays and lives in prideful non-repentance. That's not the way to live in Jesus’ kingdom. The other man prays and lives by telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth…and by throwing himself on the mercy of the heavenly court. These two men also show us the two people who live within each one of us—the “old Adam” and the “new man” of faith. One wants to exert his superiority; the other strives to confess the truth and receive the atoning sacrifice of Jesus.

And the Catechism reminds us how we get to spend our whole lifetimes learning to live on the receiving end of God’s grace in Jesus. Remember what your baptism with water indicates: “It indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC IV).

Because of Jesus, because of His atoning sacrifice, and in your Baptism, you get to go down to your house and live all of your life “having been declared righteous [by God] and in an ongoing righteous state.” Amen.

20 August 2017

Homily for Trinity 10 - 2017

"Why Jesus Weeps"
Luke 19:41-48

Listen here.

Jesus weeps. Almighty God in the flesh cries and sheds tears. A strange combination! “Almighty power” sounds so strong and assertive, even forceful. But “showing mercy and pity” sounds, well, weak and pathetic. Yet Jesus weeps. He weeps with great strength. In fact, His weeping shows the great, almighty power of His loving mercy and pity.

We can almost see the tears flowing down God’s face in our first reading. As God speaks through the prophet Jeremiah, He truly laments the “perpetual backsliding” of His holy people. “They hold fast to deceit; they refuse to return,” God says. He has paid attention to them, but they returned the favor by ignoring Him. As God says, with tears streaming down His loving face, “Everyone turns to his own course, like a horse plunging headlong into battle. Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the just decrees of the LORD.” And His “just decrees” are not just His holy Commandments, His divine design for all of life. His “just decrees” also include His message of victory over sin, death, and the devil. They include His message of justice in forgiving our sins. But His tears flow because His own people don’t pay attention. They don’t live in repentance and faith!

And our Lord weeps not just for His people in the pew who may pay little attention to His words of justice in forgiveness; He also weeps for those He calls to proclaim His words. “From the least to the greatest everyone is greedy for unjust gain; from prophet to priest, everyone deals falsely.” Yes, our Lord weeps when His pastors and preachers heal “the wound of [His] people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” You see, there is no peace—no true and genuine peace—when sins go unconfessed, when tears of repentance refuse to flow. There is no peace when God’s people, both in the pew and in the pulpit, do not cling to His gracious promises in faith.

In our Gospel reading we most certainly see our almighty, powerful God-in-the-flesh weeping with freely flowing tears. “When [Jesus] drew near and saw the city—that is, Jerusalem, His holy city, His beloved city—he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace!’” Oh, how He wants His people to have Him for their peace! Oh, how He longs to shower them with His mercy and pity! But their rejection of Him, their lack of repentance, and their unbelief—they all forecast certain doom. For Jerusalem that meant an invading Roman army surrounding the city and tearing it down to the ground. Our September 11th was child’s play compared to that. The historian Josephus tells us all about it. He saw the city leveled to the ground. He saw the people who survived the slaughter carried off in chains. Yes, God would orchestrate the destruction of His own “holy city.” Why? “Because [they] did not know the time of [their] visitation.” They did not know that the peace of God—peace almighty and powerful, peace in divine mercy and pity—had come to them all wrapped up in the Person of Jesus of Nazareth.

The people in Jeremiah’s day refused to return to the God who loved them and wept for them. The people in Jesus’ day refused to receive Him, the Son of God, as their peace with God. What about us, the people of God today? Do we turn away from God in a perpetual backsliding? Yep. At least every day, when we think we matter most and God, as well as other people, matter least. Do we not know the time of our gracious visitation? Nope, not all of the time. Think of the times we neglect to thank God for the food on our table, the money in our bank account, the car we drive, the house where we live. Even more, we forget our gracious visitation when our mind wanders during the sermon, or when we come to the Lord’s Table more out of habit than from hungering for our Lord to come and give His peace into our mouths. And what of God’s “just decrees” in teaching us to be content with the spouse, the family, and the goods that we already have? What of God’s “just decrees” that tell us to protect the reputation of others, or to protect their money and possessions? What of His decrees to keep the marriage bed pure, to protect all human life from womb to tomb, and to honor every authority that He has graciously given us? And most importantly, what of His “just decrees” to gladly hear and learn His Word of forgiveness and life, to call upon Him in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks, and to fear, love, and trust in Him above all things?

Yes, our Lord weeps. He weeps because He gives Himself so completely to us in mercy and pity, even as He shows us how life works best according to His design. He weeps and says, “Oh, how I long to enjoy life with you now and into eternity! Oh, how I long to shower you with My peace, My promises and My heavenly treasures!” And you know what? That’s exactly what He does to bring you back to Himself—each and every day, especially each and every Lord’s Day.

Thank God that your Lord weeps over a Jerusalem that had gone astray! His weeping shows His almighty, powerful love and mercy. It’s the same love and mercy that led Him to weep over the grave of Lazarus. “Jesus wept” (Jn. 11:35) because of death’s cruel, suffocating tyranny—not just for Lazarus, but also for us and all people. Oh, how He longed to free Lazarus and all people—including us—from the clutches of sin and death! And Jesus would do just that as He hung nailed to the cross, and as He burst forth from the grave. Perhaps we can picture Jesus on the cross with tears flowing freely as He says, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34).

Yet our Lord of almighty power would transform that cross of bitter rejection into His greatest tool for showing mercy and pity! And what happened when Jesus burst forth victorious from the grave? His tears did not cease. No, they changed. In His almighty, powerful mercy and pity His tears changed from tears of lament to tears of joy, eternal joy, that is. They are the joyful tears of Him who says to you, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5), both now and on the Last Day. In His death and resurrection, our Lord Jesus makes us new, because “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).

So, let the tears of Jesus weeping be your source of comfort, strength, renewal, and hope. He wants you to know the day of your visitation even here today, at His Table. Yes, He comes yet again in His almighty power to visit you and show you His mercy and pity. Just as He entered the Temple to cleanse it of the buyers and sellers, He enters you with His Body and Blood to cleanse you from sin and death. Just as “all the people were hanging on his words,” you can also hang on His words: “Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” It’s how He brings you back from your backsliding. It’s how He shows you the things that make for peace—true peace, peace with Him, the peace of His mercy and pity.

Jesus weeps…for you…showing mercy and pity. As we will soon pray at the Table:

Lord, by love and mercy driven,
You once left Your throne in heaven
On the cross for me to languish
And to die in bitter anguish,
To forego all joy and gladness
And to shed Your blood in sadness.
By this blood redeemed and living,
Lord, I praise You with thanksgiving. (LSB 636:7)


30 July 2017

Homily for Trinity 7 - 2017

"Our Rich and Bountiful Lord"
Mark 8:1-9

Listen here.

What a rich and bountiful Lord we have! The people had been standing and milling around Jesus for three days while He sat and taught them. (That must have been some sermon and Bible class to keep them there for three days!) Jesus knew they had nothing to eat. So He said, “I have compassion on the multitude.” And He did not just speak of compassion; He did not merely say the right words. No, He did something about it! He took the seven loaves of bread and the few small fish, and He made a huge meal out of them. What a rich and bountiful Lord we have! “And they ate and were satisfied. And they took up the broken pieces left over, seven baskets full.” Not only were they filled to the full, but they also had plenty of leftovers to give away. What a rich and bountiful Lord!

Notice how our Lord nicely tangles up the spiritual realm and the physical realm. He was teaching them, and then He fed them. He was nourishing their souls, and then He sustained their bodies. You see, the Lord can tangle up the physical and the spiritual because, well, that’s the way He created His world. We heard from Genesis 2 how God put Adam in the garden to tend and keep it. Adam, Eve and all humanity were originally created to have the most intimate spiritual relationship with the Triune God, and they were also designed to tend and manage God’s physical world. What a rich and bountiful Lord to tangle up the spiritual and physical realms of His creation!

So why do we like to untangle what God has graciously tangled together? Why do we choose, time and time again, at home, at work, and at church, to separate the spiritual from the physical? Why do we insist on keeping a mental brick wall between our spiritual life and our physical life? What do I mean? Consider this example. After a typical Sunday service, when you go down to coffee hour or go home for brunch or dinner, do you talk about the Scripture readings, the sermon, the hymns? Sure, if something goes haywire or something goofy happens, we talk about such things then. But what about rehearsing with friends and family the divine truths we heard in the readings? What about discussing what the sermon was about, or how the hymns fed us on Jesus and His mercy? Or consider another example: When your paycheck comes, do you think first and foremost, “Wow, look how much money God has graciously given me, even though I don’t deserve a dime of it, because the money really belongs to Him”? Or do you keep God in His Sunday morning box and think that the money is actually yours? Do you write the first check for your thank offering to God and His Church, or do you first figure out how to pay the bills, how to fix the car, and how to play, and only then give any checkbook leftovers to God? See how easy it is to untangle the spiritual and physical realms that God has so graciously tangled together?

The disciples were victims of their own untangling of what our bountiful Lord has joined together. They looked at the crowd—4000 people! And they did not see any shops or stores nearby where they could buy even a little food. And the seven loaves and the few small fish? “What are they for so many?” (Jn. 6:9). Like us, they saw the physical things—the great need on the one hand, the meager resources on the other—but they failed to see the spiritual stuff tangled up with those physical things. They failed to see and trust that our rich and bountiful Lord would have compassion on the crowd and feed them. We also fail to see and trust our rich and bountiful Lord.

This is exactly why the disciples needed to see and take part in the breaking of the bread and the distribution of the fish. When we hear that Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, broke them and then gave them to the crowd, we certainly think of how He takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to us at His altar. This physical meal for the 4000 sure opens our eyes to what’s going on in the spiritual meal before us today. Jesus still provides for us sinners. Even though we often fail to see and trust our Lord, He is still rich and bountiful to feed us in body and soul, to feed us on His mercy and life.

But the disciples also took part in the distribution. Jesus gave the loaves “to his disciples to set before the people.” Instead of letting His disciples wallow in their doubts and unbelief, Jesus made them part of His plan to provide from His bounty. The people were hungry and in need. He, our rich and bountiful Lord, had compassion to take care of their need. And He chose to work through the disciples. When it comes to the Lord’s Supper and Jesus feeding His Church on spiritual food, Jesus still uses weak, sin-laden disciples called pastors. And when it comes to Jesus feeding the multitudes on physical food, He uses all kinds of people, but especially His Church—yes, you and me!

Our rich and bountiful Lord provides for both our spiritual and our physical needs. He feeds us on His message of mercy, that is, the word of His sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection to life for us. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). And as our crucified and risen Lord feeds us on Himself, in Word and Meal, He strengthens us to live and do as the disciples did: to set bread from Jesus before the multitude. As St. Paul reminds us yet again today, we have been set free from sin and now we have become the slaves and servants of our rich and bountiful Lord. What a great honor it is to serve our Lord and bring His food—both spiritual and physical—to people around us.

St. Augustine had a nice way of tangling together the feeding from God’s Word with Christians feeding the multitude, that is, Christian works of mercy. Augustine told his congregation, “In expounding holy Scriptures, I am, so to speak, now breaking bread for you. If you hunger to receive it, your heart will sing out with the fullness of praise. And if you are thus made rich in your banquet, why would you then be niggardly in good works and deeds of mercy?” (Sermons on NT Lessons 45:1). When our Lord Jesus feeds us on His mercy and life in Word and Meal, He frees us from our sin to live with Him. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

And once we have been made “slaves of God,” we are free to serve our neighbor in works of mercy. When our Lord gave the bread to the disciples to set it before the multitude, He gave us a picture of how His Church is to live and serve. Arthur Carl Piepkorn once wrote an essay called “The Life of God in the Life of the Parish.” Here’s how he tangles together the spiritual and physical realms of life: “The life of God in the parish implies an end of commercialism in the financial affairs of the parish. If we cook, it will be for the hungry; if we sew, it will be for the needy; if we collect clothes, it will be for the ill-clad; if we eat, it will be for the joy of being together as children of God and not to raise funds for Him who is the Creator and Owner of the world’s wealth. The kingdom of God is not buying one another’s pies, but in being faithful stewards of the gifts with which God has bountifully endowed even the poorest. The problem of parish finance is not getting into people’s purses, but getting God into people’s hearts” (The Church, 117-118).

Just as He did with the 4000, our rich and bountiful Lord has compassion on us. He so graciously tangles us up in His spiritual and physical life. He so wondrously feeds and sustains us, and we get to serve Him by bringing His food, both spiritual and physical, to people around us. Amen.

23 July 2017

Homily for Trinity 6 - 2017

"Exceeding Righteousness"
Matthew 5:17-26

Jesus says something quite astonishing—quite frightening, really—when you stop and think about it. He says: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

The frightening thing about these words is just how good and upright the scribes and Pharisees really were—at least when you saw their outward lives. They sure appeared to fear, love, and trust in God above all things. They certainly did not utter His name in vain. They very faithfully kept His holy day and even listened to and learned His holy Word. They respected their elders. They did not abuse their bodies by being drunkards or gluttons. They did not live in sexual immorality. They did not steal from God by holding back on their tithes. In fact, they gave even more than what God required in His Law. They fasted regularly—at least twice a week. To all outward appearances, they were very, very good people. They were the sort of people that you would delight to have as fellow church members and neighbors. They did not “play religion” at all; they were very sincere, very zealous, and it showed. Yet the Lord Jesus points to them and says to all who follow Him: “Your righteousness must be better even than that!” What on earth does He mean?

Thankfully, He goes on to tell us what He means. He takes up the Fifth Commandment as His first example: “You shall not murder.” Now, every scribe and Pharisee could pride himself in having kept that commandment. God said, “Don’t go around sticking knives in people,” and the scribes and Pharisees could say, “Thank God, we haven’t done that. We’ve kept that one.” But Jesus raises His eyebrow at such a bold claim and says, “Really? You think you’ve kept the Fifth Commandment?” Then He asks some pointed questions: “Have you ever been angry with your brother in your heart? Have you ever hurt another person with the names you’ve called them? Have you ever insulted or put down another human being with malice in your heart? Oh, you have, have you? Well, then, you have smashed the holy Fifth Commandment to smithereens.”

You see, we look at the outside and judge only by what we can see. There’s just one problem. That’s not how God looks at us. He does not judge by the outside, at least not by the outside alone. He looks at the inside. He looks at the inner life, at the heart. As the LORD told Samuel when he was searching for a king to replace Saul: “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (1 Sam. 16:7). That’s where Jesus’ real concern lies. Jesus even said, “For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mk. 7:21-23).

Now can you see why Jesus rejects all righteousness based on external behavior? We can certainly strive long and hard to do the right things and keep our evil inclinations in check. We can fight valiantly and somewhat successfully to not do what we would very much like to do at times. People around us may even think that we are good, upright, religious, and very pious. But we know the truth. We know what’s inside. We know what we would like to do at times. We know what we would do, if we thought we could get away with it. We know what we could do if the circumstances were just right and painting us into a corner. We just cannot quite control that heart and inner will so tainted by sinful self-serving.

So the real problem is our sinful hearts. We may have some limited control over our sinful actions; but over our hearts? Who can easily stop a fit of anger or jealousy or envy or pride by flexing the muscle of will power? No one! So, what is Jesus really saying? Is He saying that absolutely no one can enter the Kingdom of heaven?

Ah, but there is One Man from whose heart flowed nothing but pure love—pure love toward God above all things; pure love toward His every neighbor as Himself. Yes, there is One Man who has such a pure heart that He perfectly kept the Law without fail, and He lived all of His life in perfect love. There is one such perfect heart! And so there is also a perfect righteousness, a righteousness that did, and does, and always will exceed that of the Pharisees and scribes. That heart belongs to Jesus Christ, and so does the righteousness.

So, if we want to enter the Kingdom of heaven, we absolutely must have the righteousness of Jesus Christ. No, not a righteousness that is merely sort of like His. No, not a righteousness that only weakly imitates His. Not even a righteousness that says, “I tried.” You see, being “sort of like” or being “weak imitations” doesn’t cut it with God. Remember how Jesus summarized God’s will for us: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5:48). If we are to enter the Kingdom of heaven, we need a perfect righteousness. We need the righteousness that belongs to Jesus alone—a righteousness that we can receive only by His grace and only by faith in Him.

St. Paul reminds us today that in Baptism we are joined to Christ Jesus—buried with Him into death and raised with Him to walk in newness of life. You see, Jesus freely gives you His righteousness. He who is totally sinless took upon Himself all of our sin, and the sin of the whole world. As He went to the cross, He owned all sin and every little sin we commit as His very own. He even divests Himself of His righteousness, His holiness, and He places it upon us in the water of Baptism. He clothes us in His very own perfection. What a blessed exchange! And now, because of the miraculous washing of Baptism, God looks upon us and sees not our sinful hearts, but rather the image and reflection of His beloved Son. He sees us clothed in the exceedingly perfect righteousness of His Son Jesus.

“But, Pastor,” you say, “my heart is still sinful. I still have those terrible desires, small and large. Sometimes I even act on those wretched thoughts! Surely, God doesn’t just overlook that, does He?” No, He doesn’t just overlook sin. But what does Scripture say? “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation—the covering, means of forgiveness—for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:1-2). That answers the question, doesn’t it? God wants to free us from our sin, and cleanse our hearts through faith—no two ways about it. And since that cleansing job is never finished this side of heaven, we joyously live under His pardon until the end. And His cleansing work just keeps going and going and going.

“Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Let’s give thanks to our gracious God that our Lord Jesus Christ gives us what we could never come up with or accomplish on our own: an exceeding righteousness freely given to us, an exceeding righteousness placed on us through the washing of water and His Word in Baptism, an exceeding righteousness placed in us again today in the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. As we keep learning to live from this gift of God, our lives will be transformed more and more into His perfect love. And on the Last Day, when our Baptism is fully completed, our lives will be like His—love, pure and simple. As we will soon sing:

We thank You, Christ; new life is ours,
New light, new hope, new strength, new pow’rs.
This grace our ev’ry way attend
Until we reach our journey’s end (LSB 562:6).