12 June 2017

Homily for Holy Trinity Sunday - 2017

"What Is Faith?"
John 3:1-17

Listen here.

Trying to understand the Holy Trinity is a lot like using a fire hose to fill a tea cup and not spilling a drop. It’s a good thing that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit does not call us to understand Him! Rather, He calls us to believe in Him, have faith in Him, and so worship Him. As we will confess shortly, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith”—not understanding. “And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity….”

In John 1:12, the Apostle John writes: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” What is this believing? What does faith involve?

Just before Jesus conversed with Nicodemus, St. John also tells us: “Many believed in his name when they saw the signs that he was doing. But Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn. 2:23-25). This little commentary by John raises the question, “What is faith?” Our Gospel today—Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus—answers that question.

What is faith? First of all, faith is not just seeing miracles and being drawn to the One who performs them. You see, miracles can often be misunderstood. Remember the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:1-15)? The crowd saw and realized the miracle Jesus had done, and so they wanted to make Him king. But they only wanted a “bread king”—a king who would satisfy their earthly wants and desires. So Jesus preached a sermon to them. He told them that He is the true Bread from heaven. He told them that whoever eats His flesh and drinks His blood would live forever. That’s what the miracle pointed to. But they would not believe that. So John tells us that many of them “turned back and no longer walked with him” (Jn. 6:66).

Also, faith is not just an interest in Jesus as a great Teacher. He certainly is a great Teacher, to be sure. That’s how Nicodemus first approached Jesus: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Many others said the same thing. There was the rich man who came to Jesus and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk. 10:17). But then Jesus told him to sell all his possessions, and the man “went away sorrowful” (Mk. 10:22). Even the scribes and Pharisees recognized Jesus as a Teacher. One day one of them came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” (Mt. 22:36). But they were not really interested in His answer; they were just trying to trip Him up and trap Him.

So faith is not merely hanging on to Jesus as a miracle-worker or recognizing Him as a great Teacher. What, then, is faith? In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells Nicodemus that faith is a matter of being reborn. “Unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Nicodemus misunderstands. So Jesus says: “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” In other words, faith is the work of God the Holy Spirit in us. Poor Nicodemus is still confused. So he asks, “How can these things be?” But a how question is not the right question. So Jesus points him—and us—to the what.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Faith is holding on to and trusting in the love of God, the love that gave His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, to the world. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Faith is hanging on to and clinging to that love, no matter how strange or difficult things in our lives may seem.

So Jesus gives Nicodemus an example from their own history: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.” Remember the story? The Israelites were on their way through the wilderness to the Promised Land. As they were accustomed to do, they were rebelling against God and complaining about the bleak wilderness they were in. So God sent poisonous snakes among them. When the snakes bit the people, the people started to die. Then they came to their senses and repented. So God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it up on a pole. That serpent on the pole would be their deliverance and healing. Whoever was bitten and looked at that serpent would live.

Now God could have simply gotten rid of the snakes. But He wanted to save His people through faith. He wanted them to believe Him and take Him at His word that if they looked up to that serpent on the pole, they would live.

Now, of course, that serpent on the pole was a sign that pointed ahead to something much greater. It pointed to the love that God showed to a rebellious world. It pointed to the Son of Man who was lifted up on the Cross. And whoever looks to this Cross will see God’s love wrapped up in flesh and blood—our very deliverance and healing from sin and death. Whoever believes in Him—holding on to Him, clinging to Him—should not perish but have eternal life.

Now God could have simply snapped His fingers and rid the world of sin and death. But He wanted to save us through faith. He wanted—and still wants—us to believe Him and take Him at His word that when we look to His only-begotten Son, we will live.

So, what is faith? Faith is believing the greatest miracle and teaching of all—that God loved the world in such a way that He sent His Son to suffer and die for all, so that we can have life in Him. It’s a life we were given when we were born anew and born from above by water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. It’s a life that He puts into us every time we eat our Lord’s flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Supper. It’s a life that will keep and preserve us, no matter how difficult or trying our lives may be. It’s eternal life even now, life that will continue into the eternal kingdom that He has prepared for us.

Nicodemus may not have received all the answers he was looking for. We may not receive all the answers we look for either. That’s why faith is not chiefly about understanding. So we simply believe, hold on to, and cling to the love of God that He has shown us in Christ Jesus our Lord—a love lifted up on the Cross and raised from the dead. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” That’s why faith simply cries out: “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.”

04 June 2017

Homily for the Day of Pentecost - 2017

"Speaking the Wonderful Works of God"
Acts 2:1-21, with 2:22-39

Listen here.

First, we heard how the Holy Spirit came with the visible signs of a rushing mighty wind and divided tongues as of fire. But these were not the main miracles of Pentecost. Then, we heard about the apostles speaking in other tongues [languages], as the Spirit gave them utterance, and each one was hearing them speak in his own language. What were they speaking and hearing? The amazed congregation gives the answer. They said, “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God.” That's the real miracle of Pentecost.

Now, to Peter’s sermon. This is the Peter who once acted like a bull in a china shop when he wanted to protect Jesus from suffering and dying. After that Peter acted like a cowardly lion when he denied knowing Jesus not just once, not just twice, but three times. Now, on Pentecost Day, we see him turned into a confident prophet of God, boldly speaking the mighty works of God. What changed him? Jesus’ forgiveness and the Holy Spirit! He tells the congregation that, no, the apostles are not drunk. After all, 9:00 in the morning is a bit too early for “happy hour”! Then he quotes his sermon text from the prophet Joel.

Peter proclaims that Joel’s prophecy is now fulfilled. God promised to pour out His Spirit on all flesh. That He did on Pentecost. What a miracle! Joel said that sons and daughters, young and old, would proclaim God’s Word. Christians have been faithfully proclaiming the Gospel for nearly 2000 years now. What a miracle! Joel said, “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” The Holy Spirit has been working that faith for centuries. That’s the miracle of Pentecost—speaking and hearing the mighty works of God and being saved by them!

But Peter knew it would be a travesty and a tragedy to give a sermon without preaching Jesus. Peter knew that his congregation on that famous Pentecost Day needed to hear the mighty works that God had done through His Son Jesus Christ. You see, Peter paid attention to Jesus. On the night when He was betrayed, Jesus said, “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (Jn. 14:26). Peter knew that a sermon that does not give you Jesus and what He says and does is not a sermon from the Holy Spirit. It’s not a Christian sermon if it does not have Christ at the center for you.

Here’s how Peter preached Jesus, on the first Pentecost Day and for you here today: “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised Him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for Him to be held by it” (Acts 2:22-24). After Peter showed from the Old Testament Psalms how Jesus would rise again from the dead, he boldly proclaimed, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32).

Through Peter’s sermon, God the Holy Spirit performs two great miracles. First, He cuts like a knife as He shows you your sin, and second, He gives you the healing medicine of Jesus and His forgiveness. Peter concluded his Pentecost sermon with these words: “God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).

So, what does all of this mean for you? You might think or say, “We were not there when they crucified the Lord.” Ah, but you were! You may not have been there physically, in space and time, but it was your sins that put Jesus on the cross. Your every ill thought of another person, your every hurtful action, and your every word meant to get even--they all put Jesus on the cross. Your every excuse for missing out on hearing God’s Word in church put Jesus on the bloody tree. Your every neglect of calling on God in time of need, of praying, praising, and giving thanks—they pierced His hands and feet. Your every worry and mistrust of God, even all the times you don’t even think about God--they all led to the perfect Son of God shedding His blood and dying in your place. And yet “God has made Him…this Jesus whom you crucified—yes, you sitting right here today, listening to these words of God in your own language—God has made [this Jesus] both Lord and Christ.”

Here is the miracle of Pentecost. “When they heard this, they were cut to the heart.”  After all, God’s Word is sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12), sharper than a surgeon’s scalpel. They asked Peter and the other apostles, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37) Notice how the Holy Spirit works through the Word of God as it’s proclaimed. Peter preaches, and his hearers come to repentance. The Holy Spirit still works that way. When you hear the Word of God, the Holy Spirit brings you to repentance. The Holy Spirit leads you to say, “Oh, no! Look what I’ve done! I’ve sinned against God Himself! What shall I do?” It’s a wonderful work of God!

Peter does not leave the congregation in the throes of despair. He does not tell them to shape up or ship out. He does not even tell them, “Just try harder.” Listen to what Peter says, and, yes, take comfort from it: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness your of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). This is the mighty work of God! This is the chief miracle of Pentecost! The Holy Spirit comes to you through God’s Word proclaimed to you and through the waters of your Baptism. Yes, your Baptism is your personal Pentecost. In your Baptism, the Holy Spirit gives you a new life. He gives you a new way of thinking about God, about yourself, and about your sin. Because Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose the third day, you are now pure and perfect and holy. Now you are forgiven and free. The Holy Spirit brings you that message. Through that Good News the Holy Spirit makes you alive. That’s the mighty work of God for you!

In his Large Catechism Dr. Martin Luther explained the Holy Spirit’s work this way: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything about Christ, or believe on Him, and have Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel. The work of redemption is done and accomplished. Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by his suffering, death, resurrection, and so on. But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew about it, then it would be useless and lost. So that this treasure might not stay buried, but be received and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed. In the Word He has the Holy Spirit bring this treasure home and make it our own” (II:38; Concordia, 403).

The Holy Spirit enables your pastor to proclaim the life-giving, soul-sustaining Word to you. The Holy Spirit enables you to hear in your own language the wonderful works of God forgiving you in Christ. What a wonderful miracle that you can hear these words from your Lord Jesus: “I forgive you all your sins.”

And the Holy Spirit enables you to speak these same wonderful, mighty works of God to people around you. We have an easy enough time talking about how the Cardinals are doing or the recent rains and flooding or even the latest terror attack in London. Well, what do you say we take just as much pride and ease—perhaps even more—in talking about and remembering the sacrifice our Lord Jesus made for us on the cross? What do you say we remember how easy it is to talk about Christ and His mighty works of saving us from sin and death? After all, you have received the Holy Spirit. Now, you too can speak the mighty works of God in your language and with your very own tongue! Amen.