27 February 2017

Homily for Quinquagesima - 2017

"Jesus Cures Your Blindness"
Luke 18:31-43

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It’s the simplest prayer you can pray or sing. We pray it all the time in church. I hope you pray it all the time each and every day. What prayer is that? Lord, have mercy. In these three simple English words you get to see how Jesus cures your blindness.

Lord, have mercy. We pray this prayer at least twice in our liturgy every week. We pray it at the beginning of the Divine Service, just before we hear our Lord’s healing words. Then, later in the service, we pray this prayer right before we receive Christ’s Body and Blood. “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us.” Lord, have mercy. And often we pray this prayer in the Prayer of the Church. The words roll off our tongues like we’ve been saying them our whole life. But what do they mean? What does this prayer tell us about who we are as a sinners and who Jesus is as Savior?

Today Jesus takes His disciples aside to tell them that He will be handed over to the Gentiles. He will be spat upon and mocked. He will suffer as a common sinner. And He will die the death of a criminal. This is His immediate future. However, the disciples didn’t “get it.” They had been with Jesus for about three years, but they still couldn’t hear what He had to say. They couldn’t understand that Jesus’ death was the very purpose of His life. It was hidden from them. They were blind. But the faith of a blind man sitting alongside the road would help them see.

Let’s pause here for a moment. How often do people come to church, attend Sunday School or Bible class their whole lives, and yet never get the point? Perhaps we think that going through the motions of church is enough. But going through the motions is not the same as faith. Remember, Jesus’ disciples had been with Him every step of the way. Three of them had even seen Jesus transfigured before their eyes; they had a glimpse of God’s glory. Time and time again Jesus had predicted His death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. This was the point! Yet the disciples didn’t get it. They couldn’t believe that Jesus would eat and drink with sinners. They couldn’t believe that He was going to die. They couldn’t see it, even though it was right in front of their faces.

This is true for us as well. Perhaps we have children or grandchildren or parents or siblings or cousins or friends who grew up in the Church, or came into the Church at our invitation. They came to God’s house. They heard the Gospel. But they didn’t “get it.” They have fallen away from the faith. Like the seed that fell upon the rock or among the thorns from last week, many come week after week, but it’s like they are sitting in a different pew. They don’t hear the simple truth of God’s Law & Gospel. Yes, we’re sinners, and Jesus comes to save sinners just like us. Pretty straightforward, right? Not too complicated. Jesus wants us to be in His house so that He can forgive our sins and give us His life. This was the message the disciples couldn’t see. This is the message that we as sinners often miss, sometimes week after week after week. This is our blindness.

Let’s move on. Jesus travels on the road to Jericho. While He’s on the road, a crowd of onlookers follows Him. As they walk along, a blind man alongside the road hears the commotion and asks what’s going on. Mark’s Gospel tells us that the man’s name is Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus hears from the crowd that Jesus is passing by. When he hears this, Bartimaeus cries out, saying, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Lord, have mercy! It’s the cry of every sinner blinded by his own sin. It’s the cry of everyone who needs Jesus. It’s the cry of every soul weighed down by the cares and trials that we all face as children of Adam. It’s the cry that doesn’t try to manipulate God or make demands on Him. It’s the cry of faith. Lord, have mercy!

And notice that the blind man’s cry continues, even after the crowds try to shut him up. Bartimaeus cries out because he knows the Son of God will give him mercy. He trusts that the Son of God loves him with an everlasting love. He believes that the Son of God will hold him in the palm of His hand and keep him forever. Pressure from the crowds to shut him up? Doesn’t matter. Scrutiny from curious onlookers? Doesn’t mean a thing. Socially popular and politically correct pleas to be quiet? Meaningless. He knows Jesus can cure his blindness. He knows Jesus will help him see. That means more than fitting in with the crowd.

Lord, have mercy. What does it mean? It means that blind Bartimaeus already sees the Lord with the eyes of faith. This Man walking by is God; He has power over life and death. Because of this, Bartimaeus can cry out to this Lord for mercy. He is asking God not to give him what he deserves. You see, Bartimaeus knows he deserves the blindness of his eyes, just as we deserve the blindness that our sin brings. But Bartimaeus prays God to open his eyes in physical sight. And we pray God to open our eyes of faith to see His mercy. Lord, have mercy. That’s how Jesus cures blindness—for Bartimaeus and for you.

Bartimaeus is not afraid to ask God for what he needs. Are you? Are you afraid to ask God for forgiveness? Are you afraid to ask God to be with you in times of trouble? Are you afraid that God will abandon you when you need Him most? Are you afraid that God’s ways and teachings will make you unpopular or disliked by people around you? Don’t be afraid. Jesus cures your blindness.

Our Epistle reading is the “great love chapter” of 1 Corinthians 13. What we often miss about this chapter is that Paul is describing God’s love. This is the depth of God’s love. His love is so deep and so wide that it will engulf you, the sinner, in a flood of forgiveness. This love of God will put you back together when you are beaten and broken by sin and conflict and doubt and despair. This love of God does not look for the easy way out. No, God’s love travels the very hard road, the road to Calvary and death on a cross. That’s God’s love. That’s how far His love will go to save you, to cure your blindness of sin.

Psalm 77 joyously proclaims, “You are the God who works wonders; you have made known your might among the peoples.” What a great wonder and mighty work that Jesus healed Bartimaeus’ blindness. But there’s an even greater wonder and a mightier work. Our Lord Jesus Christ gives you faith. Yes, that’s the greatest miracle of all. Jesus gives you the eyes of faith to journey with Him to Calvary and death, so that you may also journey with Him to resurrection and life eternal.

The faith of Bartimaeus serves as a great example for us to hear and follow. Bartimaeus didn’t try to make sense of things. He didn’t complain to God that his life was so miserable, or that so-and-so had it so much better than he did. Blind Bartimaeus looked at Jesus and cried with the only words that make any sense at all: Lord, have mercy.

This week we begin our Lenten journey to the cross. It’s a time of deep reflection for us Christians. It’s time to look at our sin with the eyes of the Law and see the depth of our sinful blindness. But it’s also the time when we get to look to Jesus Christ, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame. It’s the time when we all learn to cry out with Christians of all ages: Lord, have mercy. It’s the time to receive the real cure, the only cure, that Jesus gives for your blindness.

So you pray these words right before you receive Christ’s Body and Blood in the Supper. Here at Jesus’ Altar you receive God’s healing medicine of mercy. Here God’s mercy is poured out for you in the cup of His salvation. Come, taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed are you who trust in Him. Come, because Jesus cures your blindness. Amen.

15 February 2017

Homily for Septuagesima - 2017

"Reversal of Grace"
Matthew 20:1-16

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Jesus sure loves turning things topsy-turvy. He seems to relish turning things on their head and making us squirm. Just consider this parable. A landowner goes out at 6:00 a.m. to hire workers for the day. He contracts with them, and they sign on the dotted line—a full day’s pay for an honest day’s work. Then, at 9:00 a.m., the landowner hires more workers. After all, it’s not good that men should sit idle all day. He promises to pay them “whatever is right.” The landowner goes back to the employment agency again at 12:00 noon, and then again at 3:00 p.m. The grape harvest is going so well, and the landowner is so elated with such a bountiful harvest. He wants it all finished in one day. He goes out again at 5:00 p.m.—one hour before quitting time—to hire yet more workers. So far so good.

Then comes 6:00 p.m.—paycheck time. The landowner instructs his foreman: “Pay them their wages, beginning with the last up to the first,” he says. First, pay those hired last, go in reverse order, and then, at the last, pay those hired first. Okay, not so bad. Everyone still gets their paycheck, whatever the pecking order. But the landowner does not stop there. Now comes the bombshell. Now comes the slight, the offense, the topsy-turvy. He pays all of them the exact same amount! Equal pay for different amounts of work? Now if you were hired at 5:00 p.m., you really like this generous boss, even if he does seem, well, rather reckless with his profits. But! if you were hired first, at 6:00 a.m., and worked all twelve long hours in the scorching sun, you are not happy at all.

“So the last will be first, and the first last.” Jesus loves turning things topsy-turvy.

Jesus uttered this saying once before. Right before our parable, a rich young man came to Jesus and asked Him, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16). “Keep the commandments,” Jesus said. Sounded good to this rich young man. “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus said, “Do all those commandments of loving your neighbor.” The rich man said, “Been there, done that. What do I still lack?” Ah, there’s always a catch. If you think you can please God and get to eternal life with your good, upstanding life, there’s bound to be something you’ve overlooked, something you’ve neglected. So Jesus turned things topsy-turvy for this rich young man: “Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow Me. You’ll have plenty of treasure heaven.” The man went away sad and dejected. It was not a matter of his possessions. It was, rather, a matter of his heart, and where he was placing his trust.

The disciples were flummoxed too. You mean, that’s not how we please God and get into heaven? “Nope,” Jesus said. You, a human being, a mere mortal, a person infected by sin and enslaved by death, cannot save yourself. “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). Peter jumped in on behalf of the twelve: “Lord, we’ve left everything to follow You. What will we get in eternal life?” Still thinking in terms of work and fair pay, putting something in and getting something out. So Jesus said, “Oh, Peter, you’ll get plenty in eternal life—a hundredfold even—but not because you earned it or deserved it. You see, Peter, ‘Many who are first will be last, and the last first’” (Matt. 19:30). Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy.

What about you? How do you like it when Jesus turns things topsy-turvy for you? We’re not talking about the topsy-turviness of family strife, or losing a job, or hearing a cancer diagnosis. Sure, those things make us squirm and turn life on its head enough already. We’re not talking about about downturns in the economy or questionable policies by elected leaders that lead to uncertainty or confusion or an erosion of our liberties. Sure, those things make life plenty topsy-turvy. No, what Jesus is focusing on is your life with Him, your life in His kingdom, now and into eternity.

How would you like to be those first workers, hired at 6:00 a.m., having borne the burden and scorching heat of the day, and "merely" get paid what you were promised, what you had agreed to…while all those other lazy bellies got the exact same pay for putting in much less time? How would you like it if Landowner God called you “friend” with that little growl of disapproval and told you just to take your pay and get out? That term for “friend” is not a positive one. In another parable, a king uses it for the guy who snuck into the wedding feast without the proper wedding garment (Matt. 22:12). In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus uses it of Judas, who is about to betray Him (Matt. 26:50). Talk about topsy-turvy!

You and I, if we’re like those workers hired first—and we are—might just turn to grumbling and complaining. “That’s not fair! That’s not right! Why is their hourly wage more than ours?” We might—and do—become just like the Israelites grumbling and quarreling in the wilderness. “Where’s our water? Where’s our food? Where’s what we have a right to have?” You and I—since by nature we are like those first workers and those Israelites—might and do put God Himself into our handy-dandy Excel spreadsheet of spirituality and find Him coming up short. In our spiritual bean-counting, God Himself just doesn’t seem to offer a balanced budget for His eternal kingdom. After all, doesn’t it mean something that we’ve been Christian for however many years? Doesn’t it count that we’re here, in His house, however many Sundays out of the year, or put X amount of dollars in the weekly offering? See how much I’ve been serving you, Lord? See how dedicated I’ve been? See how much I read Your Word and pray and help other people and…?

This is why Jesus loves to turn things topsy-turvy. We need Him to. We need to have our spiritual bean-counting turned on its head and we need to squirm in our self-centered spiritual bookkeeping. We need Jesus’ reversal of grace. You see, God’s kingdom of heaven reaches into our earthly life and works solely by grace, solely by the generosity of Landowner God and His foreman Jesus. It’s Jesus Himself—the eternal Son of God, the eternal foreman of our salvation—who doles out all the gracious rewards that come to us in God’s vineyard. After all, He is “the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2). Topsy-turvy, yes. It’s the reversal of God’s grace.

But do not let this bountiful grace of Landowner God and Foreman Jesus lull you into a false sense of idleness. Life in God’s vineyard—His Church—does involve work. No, not work in order to “get the job,” so to speak. You’re already in God’s vineyard, completely and solely by His gracious work—sola gratia. And, as we see in the parable, our divine Landowner is very generous with His rewards at the end of the day on the Last Day. But now that you’re in, it’s time to get to work.

What is that work to which you and I are called? Using himself as our example, St. Paul calls us to exercise self-control like an athlete. He exhorts us not to run aimlessly and not to box as someone merely beating the air. In the spirit of St. Paul, we are to discipline our bodies and keep them under control.

The work we are given to do in the vineyard of Landowner God is the work of confessing our sins and learning to live at the receiving end of His bountiful grace and mercy. It’s the work of rooting out the pride that leads us to cry “Unfair!” or to think we deserve more and better than what our Landowner God already gives. It’s the work of taking our eyes off of ourselves and fixing them squarely on Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, and the eternal reward He has labored to win for us and give to us. It’s the work of learning His Word and learning to rely on His promises. It’s the work of taking the time to pray, gathering around His Word with our fellow workers, and faithfully receiving His Body and His Blood for our refreshment and strength. It’s the work of having our whole life, even our whole self, turned topsy-turvy by Jesus’ reversal of grace.

You see, when Jesus turns you and me topsy-turvy by His bountiful grace and and lavish forgiveness, He actually sets everything right-side-up with Landowner God, both now and into eternity. Amen.

08 February 2017

Homily for the Transfiguration of Our Lord - 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

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This past Tuesday, Treasury of Daily Prayer gave us 2 Timothy 3 for our New Testament reading. If we didn’t know better, we might think that St. Paul, who wrote these words almost 20 centuries ago, was writing about life in today’s world. Paul said: “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Timothy 3:1-5).

Now, how many of you, as you hear these words again, think of things going on in our time—news headlines or recent protests, Facebook or Twitter posts, popular sitcoms or movies, Senate committee hearings or Supreme Court decisions? How many of us honestly admit that even we too have these same disruptive loves, desires, and passions? After all, such things well up and bubble forth from our fallen, sinful hearts. It certainly adds new depth of meaning to the Bible’s words being “the prophetic word” and “a lamp shining in a dark place,” doesn’t it? And, as our Epistle reading exhorts us, we “will do well to pay attention.”

Enter Jesus and His glorious transfiguration in our Gospel reading. To set this brilliant scene in its proper light, let’s back up into Matthew chapter 16. Jesus quizzes His twelve disciples on who He, the Son of Man, is. Some were saying John the Baptist, others, Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or some other prophet. Jesus turns the question on the Twelve. Peter boldly answers: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). “Well done, Peter,” Jesus responds. This confession of faith does not come from flesh and blood, but from God Himself. Jesus promises to build His Church on this very confession. And not even the gates of Hell can prevail against Jesus’ Church as she confesses Him. Then Jesus talks about going to Jerusalem, about suffering many things, about being killed, and about rising on the third day. But Peter cannot stomach that! He tries to save Jesus from Himself. Then Jesus rebukes Peter for setting his mind on the things of man rather than the things of God. Then Jesus speaks of followers following Him by denying self, taking up a cross, and losing life. The dark shadow of the cross suddenly looms large.

Fast forward six days. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on a high mountain, probably Mt. Tabor. Crucial things in God’s saving plan often take place on mountains. Then it happens. Jesus’ appearance suddenly transforms in a bright, radiant, glorious metamorphosis—His face radiating like the sun, His clothing as white as pure light. This was no Hollywood spotlight beaming onto Him; this was pure light coming from Him. He is the source of this light. After all, He is the light of the world, and whoever follows Him will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (cf. John 8:12). Not only that, but in the Kingdom to Come, that eternal city which God will give to His faithful people “has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).

The Greek word for “He was transfigured” is the word from which we get “metamorphosis.” When you look up “metamorphosis” in Merriam-Webster, you get these meanings: first, a “change of physical form, structure, or substance by supernatural means,” and second, “a striking alteration in appearance, character, or circumstances.” That’s most certainly true for Jesus on the mountaintop. The real question is, why? Why does Jesus show this change of His physical form? Why this striking alteration in His appearance?

Remember, Peter had just made that glorious, brilliant confession of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. Remember, Peter had just rebuked His Savior for merely speaking of suffering and going to a cross. Remember, Jesus had just spoken of self-denial, taking up crosses, and losing one's life as hallmarks of following Him. And remember, just like Peter, we do not like to hear such things either. Even less do we like to experience them, that is, suffer them.

What’s even more radical is that Jesus Himself would actually show the way. He Himself would come down from that glorious mountain of metamorphosis. He would once again hide His glorious appearance. He Himself would walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He would suffer in the garden. He would be arrested. He would be falsely tried and unjustly convicted. He would carry His own cross to Golgotha. He would feel the heavy nails piercing His wrists and feet. He would experience the lifting of the cross into its place in the stone. He would feel the weight of His body against His hands pulling out from the horizontal beam. He would willingly give up His last breath. In fact, all of this is what Jesus and Moses and Elijah were discussing, even in the midst of the glorious metamorphosis. Luke’s account says they “spoke of His departure” (Lk. 9:31)—literally, His “exodus,” His work of leading His people out of slavery, not from Egypt, but from sin, death, and devil, from all the self-centered things that Paul says will come—and do come—in these last days.

Knowing all this lay ahead of Him, our Lord Jesus wanted to give just a glimpse of His glory. Why? In order to sustain and strengthen His world-weary disciples—not only Peter, James, and John, but us too. You see, as glorious as His mountaintop metamorphosis was, Jesus’ real glory is revealed most brilliantly in the shadows of His suffering and the darkness of His death. In His transfiguration, Jesus reveals His true “exodus.” He leads God’s people—you and me included—through the gates of death into His eternal life. Now that’s a genuine metamorphosis!

And so the voice from heaven—God the Father—proclaims the same thing we heard at Jesus’ Baptism: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” But now the Father adds a crucial, life-giving command: “Listen to Him.” You see, Jesus alone has the words of eternal life. So God the Father tell us to listen to His beloved Son alone. Moses and Elijah also direct us to the Savior. As Moses once said, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” (Deut. 18:15).  Not the decaying world, lunging headlong into deep, dark death. Not the sin-tainted voices in our own heads and hearts that lead us to be “ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control” or even “swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God.”

Rather, “Listen to Him.” Listen to this Jesus who transfigures Himself so that He can transfigure you. His metamorphosis is no shallow show or trivial rebranding. His metamorphosis is meant to sustain and strengthen you, because this is what He works in you and me, both now and into eternity.

This Greek word for “metamorphosis” also gets used of Christians—even in this life, in this fallen world. Hear this exhortation from St. Paul in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed—metamorphosed—by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (v. 2). When you listen to your Savior Jesus, the Word of life, you hear His words of life and forgiveness and salvation. And you are transformed—metamorphosed. Because of Jesus and His glorious cross, you get to have a striking alteration in your character and circumstances. The times of difficulty need not perplex you or depress you. Instead of being a lover of self, you become a lover of God in Christ. You become a lover of your neighbor too.

Also, hear this proclamation from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians 3: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed—are being metamorphosed—into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (v. 18). New life in Christ; new character; new circumstances. Whatever your vocations—male or female; mother, father, or child; in the family, in the workplace, or in the Church—you now live as God’s glorious child. However mundane your work, however hectic your home life, you are being transformed into the image of Christ, now and into eternity.

How can you be sure of this, even in these times of difficulty? Ponder what we are about to do yet again, here, this morning, around this altar. Here, even today, Jesus is still transformed. He was transformed—metamorphosed—from humility into glory. Now He comes transformed in the bread and wine of His holy meal. And not only that, but there’s still another transfiguration yet to come. Our God will take our bodies and transform them into bodies just like the body of Jesus. Today, again, in the Sacrament our God begins to transform our bodies to be like the glorious body of His Son Jesus Christ. “And in the twinkling of an eye we shall be changed. The final chapter of the transfiguration has not been written. When it is written, we will be a part of it: a final metamorphosis; a final transformation; a final transfiguration; a final resurrection” (Scaer, In Christ). Amen.