31 December 2018

Homily for the First Sunday after Christmas (2018)

"Holding Life"
Luke 2:22-40

The world has put away the trees and decorations, but the Church still gets to celebrate Christmas. The world has entered the time of returning and exchanging gifts, but the Church still gets to ponder and treasure the gift of all gifts—God’s beloved Son become flesh. The world packs up and moves on to the next thing in its death-avoiding, stuff-centered life, but the Church still gets to meditate on and receive Life Himself as He comes to us in His Body and Blood.

Please, do not grow weary of the Church’s extended Christmas celebration! Let’s not strip the Christmas things away too soon! The world may see December 25th as the end of its rush-rush, get-more season, but the Church sees the 25th as just the beginning—the beginning of celebrating Life itself, Life-in-the-flesh for us.

But there’s a tension. That line between Church and world does not divide as neatly as we would like. It’s not us versus them. You and I live with feet firmly planted in both places. We are in the world, but not of it. Your birthday makes you a citizen of the world. Holy Baptism makes you a citizen of God’s Church and Kingdom. So that dividing line between Church and world cuts right through each of us, right through our very hearts.

Because of your birthday, you live from birth to death. That specter of death governs much of how you live your life—why you succumb to fear, why you are so harried and stressed, why you are so insistent on not missing out or even asserting your rights. No one wants to think about it, but the end of your birth lurks just around the corner; and it can snatch you at any moment. So you live your whole life trying to ignore death’s control over you and, at the same time, trying to run from it. You and I live as if this life and this world are all that matter.

But because of Baptism, you have a different calling. Your Baptism calls you to live as if God actually matters. It allows you to live from birth to life. Sure, each of us must still undergo that death we fear. But the waters of Baptism promise you that this death has already been dealt with. You have been drowned in the waters of Baptism, and so death no longer has a hold on you. Now Life Himself holds you and even lives within you. Now you need not fear death or anything else.

You see, when our Lord who is Life is given to you—washed over you, spoken into your ears, placed into your mouth—when you have this Life who destroyed death, when you have this Life who promises to be with you and see you safely through this world and into the next, then why be afraid of anyone or anything? Why let anyone or anything else control you? Why live your life in any way that goes against Life Himself? Why let anyone or anything else keep you from receiving this Life regularly?

Why? Because the fear of death and the world’s enticements are often strong and successful. They routinely succeed at pushing Life Himself out of your mind, out of your heart, and out of your daily living. No, Lord of Life Jesus does not loosen His hold on you. And, no, death and the world cannot loosen or pry His hold from you. Rather, you and I hold on more firmly to the world’s “life-to-death” vision, and we end up losing sight of the Lord’s “death-to-life” truth. But the Lord’s “death-to-life” way is what’s real. It’s what we have received.

Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth—that’s what distinguishes the church from the world. Our Lord’s “death-to-life” truth gives you the courage to live against the world, against your sinful inclinations, and against your fear of death. In this “death-to-life” reality, our Lord plants Himself in you, so that you no longer live for yourself. Now He lives in you and with you and through you.

What does this look like? Look at old Simeon. Simeon lives for only one purpose—to embrace and hold on to Life. But Simeon does not embrace the world’s life, that “life-to-death” vision. Nor does he embrace his own concept of life or someone else’s. Instead, Simeon embraces Life Himself—Life in the flesh.

Now even as Simeon cradles Life in his arms and looks Life in the eye, he does see death—along with persecution, temptation, heartache, turmoil, evil, suffering, and cross. But Simeon will not be scared by these things. He will not let the world and the world’s devil take away the Life he holds. And Simeon will not let the horror he sees tear his heart away from the Life he holds and relies on. Instead, aged Simeon holds Life up and speaks a blessing.

“Behold, this Child—this Life in the flesh—is born to give life by being put to death. This Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel. He will clearly draw the line between Church and world, between life and death. He will make it plain that you cannot live the world’s life and still live after death. And He will call everyone from death to life, but few will hear, few will care to follow. Therefore, this Child will be a sign that will be opposed and spoken against. That opposition will be a sword piercing through your own soul because you embrace Him as I do. But don’t be afraid! Even as the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed, this Child is the Sun of Righteousness who brings healing in His wings.”

So do you see how old Simeon embraces Life? He blesses what others may curse. He blesses the suffering, the cross, and the death of the Christ Child. Simeon knows why our Lord Jesus “came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.” It was not simply so that our God and Lord may have a taste of what it’s like to be human. It was not so that we may feel better about God, about our relationship with Him, or even about life in general. This Child whom Simeon holds and embraces is Life Himself. He is born to sustain and deliver those who are tempted, those who suffer, those who will die. He is born not to live a life we could never live, but to give us a life we could never have. He is born not to make our suffering go away, but to usher us safely through this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven.

Christmas really does mean so much more than “Happy Birthday, Jesus.” Christmas means that Life Himself has come into our flesh to bear our sin and be our Savior. Amen.

27 December 2018

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Day (2018)

"Our Divine Dwelling Place"
John 1:1-18

Christmas and home just go together. Bing Crosby made the words famous in 1943, and Michael BublĂ© still croons them: “I’ll be home for Christmas / You can count on me.” Other well known pop singers title their holiday album “Home for Christmas” or sing songs such as “Christmas Is Coming Home.”

Home is a treasured thing, to be sure. We pray that our homes may be “a shelter for the defenseless, a fortress for the tempted, a resting place for the weary, and a foretaste of our eternal home” with God Himself (LSB Agenda, 70). Home is not just a physical space; it gives us roots, identity, security, a sense of belonging, and a place of emotional wellbeing. At home we can laugh without being shy, and our tears can dry at their own pace. Our feet may leave our homes, but not our hearts. As someone once quipped, “Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

Treasuring home and longing for home, though, are much more than sentimentality. They go to the very core of our being as God’s created people. We are created to be at home with the living God. He is our truest and best home. But we come from a long line of people looking to leave home, strike out on their own, and even run away from home. Sure, Adam and Eve were given their eviction notice from the Garden of Eden and compelled to leave, but truthfully they had already run away from their true home—from God Himself—by eating that piece of fruit. Thus “The world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.” Even when “He came to his own,…his own people did not receive Him.”

So the real reason for this season, and this day especially, is us homeless waifs. We wander through life searching for meaning and purpose on our own. We look for some place…any place…and some way…any way…to belong, to be accepted, to feel at home in this fallen world. But since we have left our true home, who is God Himself, our searching is vain and our wandering is aimless. We pile all of our worldly goods of self-sufficiency and self-determination into our rusty, beat up shopping carts with squeaky wheels as we wander through this fallen world. The homelessness of our human fallenness actually leads us to view our cardboard shanty town dwellings as though they were fabulous mansions. But we know they’re not. And we cannot escape the isolating illness of our sin, nor can we avoid the biting cold of death.

So the Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, left His eternal home to bring us in out of the cold. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” He was in a face-to-face relationship with God the Father from eternity. ”And the Word was God.” The Word Himself was and is the same divine essence as the Father. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He took on our very skin and bones, our body and soul, eyes, ears, and all our members. “Dwelt among us” can also be translated “tented among us” or “tabernacled among us.” But this was no temporary “tenting” or “dwelling.” The Son of God did not become flesh only to disrobe Himself of our humanity when He was done with it. Nor did He cease dwelling among us when He ascended to the Father’s right hand.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” in order to bring us in out of the cold of our sinful rebellion. He became flesh to bring us home to God for all eternity—home where we receive His healing for our disease of sin; home where we may bask in His life-giving warmth, shielded and delivered from the coldness of death.

Moses proclaimed this homecoming long before Christmas: “The eternal God is your dwelling place, and underneath are the everlasting arms” (Dt. 33:27). He also teaches us to pray, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations” (Ps. 90:1). We even get to see what God’s dwelling place—our true home—looked like in Moses’ day. It included bases and frames, poles and pillars, and skins and cloth placed over them. In its central room was the beautiful golden ark with the mercy seat on top. Here’s where “the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.” Here’s where and how the LORD would be with His people throughout their journey in the wilderness and into the Promised Land. Though they were wandering, they were still at home, because God was their divine dwelling place.

Even when God’s people became homeless in Babylonian exile, God still wanted to bring them home to Him. Ezekiel proclaimed God’s promise of homecoming: “My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore” (Ezek. 37:27-28). That promise came somewhat true when the people returned to their own land. But it became completely fulfilled when the Word became flesh.

You see, when the Word became flesh to dwell among us—to bring us home—He came to bring us the fullness of His grace and truth. “And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Gifts abounding more than under any Christmas tree and more enduring than any we can unwrap last night or today. Forgiveness for our many doubts and misplaced priorities. Life to combat the coldness of death. And salvation as the best gift of all from the Word become flesh who came to die on a cross. To all who believe in His name, He gives the right to become children of God—children in God’s home, both now and for eternity.

Oh, we do not have that right by our own birth, but we do have it in the rebirth Jesus gives by water and the Spirit. We do not have that right by our own bloodline, but we do have it through the blood of Jesus, both on the cross and at the altar. We do not have the right to be in God’s home as His children by the will of our flesh or any other human plan or design. No, we only have this right because “of God.” The Word of God. The Word who became flesh and remains flesh. The Word who dwelt and still dwells with us. “In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph. 2:22).

On this Christmas 2018, we find ourselves a bit homeless in our own building—gathering in a basement auditorium doubling as a sacred sanctuary. Despite appearances, though, we are still at home in our divine dwelling place—not the brick and mortar, but in our flesh and blood Savior. And even as we eagerly await returning to the sanctuary, we are even more eager in anticipating our eternal home. It’s the home the Apostle John heard promised for all of us: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘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’” (Rev. 21:3).

Today as we celebrate our Savior’s Incarnation, and as we enjoy our various family traditions, we rejoice in our divine dwelling place. We are home for Christmas. We can count on Jesus. Amen.

Homily for the Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Eve (2018)

"Pondering the Mystery"
Luke 2:1-7

The Angel of the Lord appeared to Moses in a bush that burned with fiery flame, but was not consumed (Ex. 3). That Angel of the Lord was the Son of God, before He took on human flesh. In that burning bush we get a preview of our Lord’s Incarnation. The Lord was about to rescue Israel from slavery in Egypt. When He takes on our humanity, He comes to rescue us from slavery to sin and death. The bush was not consumed by the fire; our Lord’s human nature is not consumed by His divine nature. The Lord God is “a consuming fire” and He “dwells in unapproachable light,” but His human nature is not harmed by His divine nature. “In Him the whole fullness of the deity dwells bodily.” This Child is true God and true man.

Tonight we celebrate the mystery of God the Son taking on our human nature. Let’s imitate Moses as he approached the burning bush to see why it was not consumed. Let’s ponder this mystery and miracle of Christ being both God and Man. As Moses took off his shoes on that holy ground, let’s take off the shoes of our sin-stained thoughts and come near with the bare feet of humility and faith given by God. Let’s ponder the time of Jesus’ Birth, then the place, then His mother, and finally the manner of His Birth.

Let’s ponder THE TIME. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Caesar Augustus was perhaps the most powerful emperor of Rome. He united the Romans and reigned at a time of peace and prosperity. So Augustus decreed a registration—a census—for taxing his united empire. It’s into this world the Son of Almighty God comes—the universal King, who alone holds all power and peace. But He comes to bring His eternal kingdom. He comes during a time of Roman peace to bring the  peace that surpasses all understanding. He is the “Prince of Peace.” He’s born into this world of sin and death to set the human race at peace with God once again. He wants to give the true, inner peace of faith in Him and His salvation. “For where there is faith, there is Christ; where there is Christ, there is God’s grace; where there is grace, there is peace and joy of the heart” (Gerhard, Postilla I:48). “Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1).

We also note that our Lord was born at a time of census and taxation. But He does not come to tax us. No, He comes to keep the taxing Law of God Himself. “God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). He comes to free us from the curse—the taxation—of God’s Law. In fact, our New-born King registers our names in His Book of Life. “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk. 10:20). More than that, because our Lord has taken on our human nature, you can rejoice when He tells you, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:16). “Yes, He loved His people, all His holy ones [are] in his hand” (Dt. 33:3).

Infant King Jesus does not burden us with taxation, as do Caesar or Uncle Sam. Instead, He rescues us from the debt and taxation of sin and death. “To us a Child is born, to us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder” (Is. 9:6). Earthly governments may govern on the shoulders of their subjects or citizens, but King Jesus carries the load of His eternal kingdom on His own shoulders; He willingly takes the burden of sin and death upon Himself.

Let’s ponder THE PLACE of our Lord’s Birth. “Joseph went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David.” Joseph and Mary resided in the backwater town of Nazareth. But that’s not where the Christ was to be born. Micah had prophesied: “You, O Bethlehem…, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for Me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days” (Mic. 5:2). God knew how to fulfill His promise through Caesar’s decree. That’s how God works for us too. We all suffer worldly troubles, personal mishaps, interpersonal strife, individual illnesses and limitations. And yet God works through these things to achieve His purpose. What purpose? To turn our hearts away from other helpers so that we may cling solely to Jesus for help and comfort. Not only is Christ born in Bethlehem, but He is also born in us. And He gives peace. He said, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). It all starts in Bethlehem.

And speaking of Bethlehem, there’s great comfort and joy in that name. It means “house of bread.” This Babe born in “House of Bread” is the true food for our hungry souls. He says, “I am the Bread of Life…. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever.  And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn. 6:48, 51). We get to leave the insignificant, little villages of our self-serving hearts and minds, and we get to receive the Food of the Christ, the food that fills and satisfies our souls—our lives—with His grace, with His mercy, with His life.

Let’s ponder our Lord’s VIRGIN MOTHER. Why be born of a young virgin girl? Isaiah had foretold it: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Is. 7:14). Mary fulfills that promise. But how can a child be born of a virgin? God has a unique way of bringing something out of nothing. In the Old Testament Aaron’s staff “sprouted and put forth buds and produced blossoms, and it bore ripe almonds” (Num. 17:8). On one day Gideon’s fleece (a lamb skin, not a sweatshirt) was filled with dew water, but the ground was completely dry. Then the next day the ground was covered with dew, but Gideon’s fleece was dry as a bone (Judg. 6:36-40). In the same way, God works supernaturally through Mary. By the Holy Spirit, Mary, a natural virgin, produces the supernatural fruit of the Christ Child. Through the Holy Spirit’s work, Mary was filled with the heavenly dew of Christ the Savior. As Isaiah foretold: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the clouds rain down righteousness” (Is. 45:8). When Jesus is born, the dew of His righteousness, salvation, and forgiveness is spread over all the earth. And Mary remained pure virgin after the birth just as before the birth.

Why was the Christ Child born of a Virgin? So that He might be born without sin. You see, if He were born in the normal, natural way, the infection of sin would have been passed on to Him too. But Jesus wanted to take on pure, holy, untainted flesh, in order to heal our sinful, tainted human nature.

And the mystery of Jesus’ Virgin Mother applies to us in another way. Just as Mary was at the same time a virgin and a mother, the Christian Church is also both virgin and mother. As a virgin, the Church lives in complete fidelity to her coming Bridegroom, Jesus. And the consummation of that relationship will come at the eternal wedding feast. And as a mother, the Church daily conceives and bears and nurtures us, the children of God, children “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (Jn. 1:13).

Finally, let’s ponder THE MANNER of our Lord’s Birth. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the [guest room].” In the home where Joseph and Mary most likely stayed that night, the guest room was already taken. So after Mary gave birth, she placed her Child in a manger at the back of the main family living room. This Little Child came into the world to rescue us and all sinners. We humans have been driven out of Paradise because of our own sin and rebellion. So, this Little Child comes to bring us back to our heavenly home. He comes to where we are in order to find us and lead us home. Psalm 49 says, “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (49:12). How fitting, then, that the King of the Universe should be born and placed in a feeding trough. It’s where He would find us in order to lead us back home to His heavenly Paradise.

So, He humbles Himself to exalt us. By His poverty we become rich. He becomes weak to make us strong once again. He takes our debt of sin and pays it in full, and He frees us to enjoy the wealth of His eternal mercy. As Johann Gerhard proclaimed on this day some 400 years ago: “If a rich brother can bequeath the inheritance of the father’s treasures to his brothers and sisters, how much more will not this our wealthy Brother, who is Lord of heaven and earth, be able to give us the kingdom of His treasures which He has won for us through His birth in poverty, through His holy life and through His bitter death! By grace He wants to do this. Amen.” (Postilla, I:54)

24 December 2018

Homily for Advent 4 - Rorate Coeli (2018)

Who Are You?
John 1:19-29

Who are you, John? This is now the second week we’ve pondered the identity of John the Baptizer. Last week we heard John asking if Jesus was the “Coming One.” Jesus answered, “Yes, just look at the words that I speak and the works that I do.” Jesus was rolling back sin and death. The blind could see. The deaf could hear. The Gospel was preached to the poor. And then Jesus drew our attention to who John really was—a prophet, yes, but more than a prophet. “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matt. 11:11).

Today we hear the question again: “Who are you, John?” This time we receive a different kind of answer—not one telling us who John is, but telling us who John is not. “No,” John says, “I am not the Christ.” On this Sunday before Christmas, John the Baptist shows us how to deflect attention away from ourselves and instead focus ourselves, and others, on the true Christ.

“John, who are you, anyway?” John was at the highpoint of his preaching career. He was proclaiming repentance and baptizing for forgiveness, and crowds were going out in droves to see him. John was successful! So the priests and the Levites came to John, asking, “Who are you?”

This was no question of basic identity, such as “What’s your name?” or “Where do you work?” No, this was a question with another question—even a hope and a dream—hiding behind it. You see, these Jewish leaders respected John. He was from a priestly family. They liked his way of life, complete with camel’s hair wardrobe and that austere diet of locusts and wild honey. They liked his preaching of repentance. After all, fire and brimstone always appeals to the good and the religious.

Contrast all of that with what the Jews knew about Jesus. As far as they knew, He was the son of a lowly carpenter. And He came from that wretched little village called Nazareth. Can anything good come from there?

But John, John, he’s our man, they thought. If only they could get him—lure him, convince him—to confess that he was the anointed one, then they would love for him to be the long-promised Messiah. You see, these good, religious folks wanted a Savior of their own choosing.

But John burst their bubble! “He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.” Then he just had to add, “And no, I’m not Elijah either. And no, I’m not  ‘the Prophet’ either.” “Well, then, who are you?” they persisted. So John said he’s “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” John’s vocation—his whole purpose in life—was to speak of Someone Else, point to Someone Else.

So these priests and Levites asked a different question. “Well, if you’re not the Christ or the Elijah or the Prophet, then why are you baptizing?” And John answered that he was baptizing simply to prepare for the true Christ. After all, John knew he was not worthy to untie the sandal of the true Savior. All of John’s actions and explanations bring to mind a quote by someone called “Anonymous”: “Humility is the acceptance of the place appointed by God, whether it be in the front or in the rear.” John knew and accepted his place appointed by God. And John’s place was not in the front as the Messiah, but in the rear, pointing to the Savior.

Let’s ask the question of ourselves. “Christian, who are you, anyway?” Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, or wife? Are you a worn-out worker or a stressed-out student? Are you a frantic, frazzled shopper, decorator, baker, or party-goer? How about that identity we like to keep secret: “sinner”? Or do you look in the mirror and see your very own self-made savior?

You see, who you are comes out in what you do. If only you can find that perfect gift for that someone special, then you will really make their Christmas. If only you can receive just the right gift, then you can proclaim this a wonderful Christmas. If only you can get the clerk at the store to say “Merry Christmas,” not just “Happy Holidays,” then all will be merry. If only you can get that overgrown To-Do list done, bake all the goodies, run all the errands, sing all the right songs, then you will make it a “good Christmas.”

Now, there’s nothing wrong with these activities. Not at all. But God wants to shine the light of His Truth on you and what lurks within you—that identity we’d all rather keep secret, that identity of “sinner.” You see, the real reason for the season is, yes,…our sin. We—yes, we Christians—are sinners who need the real Savior. What really matters is that you and I are not the Christ. You and I really don’t make the season any “more Christmas” or any “less Christmas.” We are the ones who need the Christ. We are the ones who need to keep Christ in Christmas—for others and for our own sake.

So as we prepare to celebrate the joys of Jesus’ Birth, let’s learn to imitate John. That’s why we heard that extra verse at the end of the Gospel reading. “The next day [John] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’” (Jn. 1:29). Now there’s the Messiah—the Christ! There’s the Savior for you, for me, for everyone around us. I’m not the Christ. You’re not the Christ. But Jesus? He is the Christ! He’s the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in a grungy feeding trough. He’s the Coming One anointed by the Holy Spirit in the humble water of the Jordan River. He’s the One who endured the shame of betrayal by His friends, felt the sting of Pilate’s lash, bore the crown of thorns, and heard the jeers and taunts of unbelief. He’s the One who felt the metal spikes piercing His flesh and crunching His bones. He’s the One who endured forsakenness from His Father. He’s the One who slept in the breathless silence and darkness of death. And—are you ready?—He’s the One who received the sudden resuscitation of resurrection life! Who is that? The real Christ! Your true Savior! Jesus Himself!

That’s why we learn to imitate John and say, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). You see, when you and I decrease, and when Jesus increases as the real reason for this joyous season, we find that He increases us in Himself. How does St. Paul say it today? “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand.” Christmas is coming soon. Immanuel is God with us and among us. And He comes to change who YOU are.

The prophet Isaiah said: “And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the LORD; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken” (Is. 62:12). The apostle Peter echoed that. Who are you in Christ, the real Savior? “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

Who are YOU, people of Hope? You are a people confessing the true Christ, both individually and together. What does that look like? It looks a lot like John that day beside the Jordan River. It looks like people looking beyond themselves. It looks like people fixing their eyes on Jesus and pointing others to Jesus. It looks like each of us building one another up by pointing to Christ, the Lamb of God. It looks like each of us inviting others to come and celebrate Christ and His coming, the Word becoming flesh and dwelling among us. It looks like people at peace, because the real Savior, the Lamb of God, is near.

Who are you, people of God? You are people who live in the comfort, joy and confidence of St. Paul’s words: “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). Amen.

17 December 2018

Homily for Advent 3 - Gaudete (2018)

"Less Than a Failure" 
Matthew 11:2-11

Jesus says there’s no one greater in the human race than John the Baptist. Then He seems to contradict Himself. He also says, “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” How can he be the greatest and then someone lesser than he becomes greater than he? Does that make John’s greatness a failure? Actually, John’s greatness is that he was a failure—by worldly standards, that is. And if you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven, you need to be less than John, less than a failure.

If you want to talk greatness and success, John the Baptist does not seem to qualify. In today’s reading, he’s in prison and about to lose his head, quite literally. But let’s push the rewind button on John’s life. He was miraculously born, yes, but he was an only child of older parents, and he did not have a family of his own. After his circumcision and naming ceremony, John “grew and became strong in spirit,” but he “was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel” (Lk. 1:80). John probably grew up and learned God’s Word at Qumran, an isolated, monastic-like community in the desert. Nothing too great about that!

And consider when John did appear to Israel. He came looking rugged and ragged, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt. He fasted from wine and strong drink, and he ate, of all things, locusts and wild honey. So much for greatness there! In addition to his wild look and his wilderness food, John no doubt came across as a wild-eyed preacher of repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt. 3:2). He told the crowds to “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt. 3:8) and not rest on the laurels of their ancestry. He told tax collectors to be fair. He told soldiers not to shake people down, but be content with their wages. He told people with extra clothing to give it away to the poor. John even called on the governing official to repent of his sins. That’s what landed him in prison to await execution. By worldly standards, John was an abject failure.

Still Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist.” You see, John had the great distinction of preparing the way for God’s promised Messiah. John was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was no reed shaken by the winds of cultural trends and faddish teaching for itching ears. No, John was a mighty oak planted by the rivers of God’s unchanging Truth. He did not come in the soft clothing of pampered royalty, but in the rough garments of a prophet proclaiming the coming of God in the flesh. That’s what makes John great—a failure in the eyes of the world, but great in God’s plan of restoring us to life with Him.

This really is an odd message for this Third Sunday in Advent. The Latin name for today is Gaudete!—“Rejoice!” Notice the rose colored candle on the Advent wreath is lit. For two weeks the Church has turned her attention to repenting, fasting, praying, giving to the poor, cleaning the house of the soul, and preparing for the Savior to come. Today, though, we get a little joy thrown in to lighten the mood of preparation. But it’s a restrained joy. It’s not yet time for the exuberant celebration. That will come, but for now, this little bit of joy sustains us in our preparing, our repenting, our praying, our fasting and our giving for a couple more weeks.

To the world such habits seem like failure. Once Thanksgiving is finished and the left-over turkey and cranberry sauce are tucked away in the fridge, the world thinks the unrestrained celebrating must begin. People must eagerly rush off to places of “worship” such as Best Buy or Walmart. They must give their offerings at those little altars with cash registers and scanners built into them. Songs of joy, of trees, of snow and mistletoe, and even of an overweight elf dressed in red are piped through omnipresent speakers. These are the things that make for a great Christmas. Who has time for prayer and repentance when there’s so much to do? How can you fast when there are so many delightful treats to be had? And giving to the poor? Perhaps those spare coins in the Salvation Army bucket will suffice.

Perhaps the greatness is yet to come, in all those favorite goodies with chocolate, powdered sugar, cinnamon, and peppermint. It just wouldn’t be a great Christmas without them. And don’t forget the gifts. Oh, the gifts! None of us wants a tacky, thoughtless little something under the tree. No, we want that brand new game, that awesome tool, that outfit that fits just right, or that shimmering bit of bling. These are a few of the season’s great things.

But what if none of these great things were to happen? What if you cannot get done everything you want to get done? What if the shopping does not get finished? What if the decorations do not all get up? Would Christmas be a failure?

Let’s learn to rejoice in being less than a failure. Let’s learn to be least in the kingdom of heaven. As Jesus says, “The one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John].” And who is “least in the kingdom of heaven”? You are. I am. And, yes, you and I are greater than John—not in our persons, but in the gifts that God gives us.

John may have said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29), but he never got to witness the fulfillment of that on the cross or in the Supper. John shooed his disciples away from himself so they could follow the Christ, the Giver of forgiveness and life. And John spoke those immortal words: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn. 3:30). John did not get to receive the gifts of the promise, but you do!

You who are blind to God’s ways, get to see. God shows you your sin so that you can cry out to Him for mercy. And He gives you His mercy so that you can see how He loves you from eternity and for eternity. You who are lame in your sins—unable to walk through this world without giving in to the worldly notions of greatness—you get to walk. You get to walk in the forgiveness of the Son of God who shed His blood on the cross for you. You who are unclean and infected by the leprosy of self-serving—the disease of thinking that the world must focus on you and your desires—you are cleansed. In the waters of Baptism, Jesus joins you to Himself, to His perfect flesh and His life of giving and serving. In the Supper, Jesus puts His own flesh and blood into you, so that you will be cleansed from all self-serving, so that you will love and enjoy God and love and serve your neighbor. You who are deaf from the din of worldly greatness, you get to hear the sweet words of Absolution and the Gospel proclaimed. You have the joy of sins forgiven. You get to rejoice in being less than John, because you have the true greatness of life with God. And you who are dead in trespasses and sins get to be made alive in the Coming One whom John proclaimed.

These are the things that make for true joy—being least in the kingdom of heaven, repenting of our sins, and rejoicing in the life and forgiveness of Jesus, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. As we’re about to sing:
“See the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heav’n.
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all, to be forgiv’n;

So, when next he comes in glory
And the world is wrapped in fear,
He will shield us with his mercy
And with words of love draw near” (LSB 345:3-4).

10 December 2018

Homily for Advent 2 - Populus Zion (2018)

Coming Redemption
Luke 21:25-36

Our Coming King has three advents—first, His past coming in the flesh, into time and space; second, His ongoing coming in grace by means of word, water, and bread and wine; and third, His future coming in glory for judgment on the Last Day. In all three advents—past, ongoing, and future—our Lord makes His redemption draw near. Our task, then, is to straighten up and raise our heads. Our task is to stay awake and watch. So says our Lord in today’s Gospel.

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves.” Catastrophic changes showing the world coming unglued. God’s good and orderly creation will become unstable and revert to chaos. It’s what happens when God withdraws His loving, creating hand. It’s also what happens when God steps into His creation to bring His redemption.

“People fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” Jesus’ future coming will be alarming and cataclysmic for every person, all peoples, every nation, all round the globe. Those who do not hear His Word will have nothing but fainting, fear, and foreboding. But those who do “hear the Word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:28) will receive the ungluing of creation and the alarming cataclysm with comfort and hope. You see, the coming universal cataclysm points to the coming of our Savior, the Son of God, bringing His redemption near. “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”

So when you see these things taking place, stand up, raise your head, and rejoice. Your redemption, your rescue, is coming!

Now this Day of Judgment stuff can get quite confusing and misleading because of false teachings that run rampant. One of those false teachings is “Millennialism.” Millennialism teaches a literal one thousand-year visible reign of Jesus on earth before His final judgment. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, some believe such a visible reign of the Messiah would bring a whole millennium of earthly peace and prosperity, with believers serving as Jesus’ cabinet members, so to speak.

This false view comes from a literalistic reading of Revelation 20—where those who did not worship the beast “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4). What Millennialism misses is that the Bible often uses numbers symbolically. Taken with all of Scripture, the thousand years refers to the fully complete time of Jesus’ reign over His Church from His ascension until the Last Day.

A second false teaching about the end of time and Jesus’ return is “the Rapture.” Rapture teaching says that Jesus’ followers will be “caught up…in the air” and removed from the earth. And this will be a secret snatching by Jesus. Think the Left Behind books and movies popular several years ago. One person—the believer—will be taken, and the other person—the unbeliever—will be left, this teaching claims. And Rapture teachers even debate and dispute among themselves. Will this secret taking be “pre-“ or “post-“? Pre-millennium—before the thousand years—or Post-millennium—after the thousand years? Just when will Jesus secretly snatch His followers so they can avoid enduring the time of tribulation?

The problem with Rapture teaching is that it turns the simple, comforting hope of Jesus’ return into complicated stages of uncertainties. It also denies that Christians do indeed suffer before the Last Day, and it claims, against the Bible, that those who reject Jesus will have a second chance to believe in Him and receive salvation during His earthly reign.

And a third false teaching about the end of time is “Reincarnation.” Simply put, Reincarnation believes that when people die, they are reborn in other earth-bound bodies or a series of other bodies. Think chiefly of Hinduism or Buddhism. As a kissing cousin belief, we might also think of that often-heard saying at funerals, that when a loved one dies, he or she “becomes an angel.”

Whether it’s Reincarnation or human beings transmuting into angelic beings, such teachings deny our Lord’s promise of the resurrection of the body at His return. Jesus did say, “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (Jn. 5:28-29). Hebrews also says, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

So when you see these things taking place…and when you hear such false teachings running rampant…stand up, raise your head, and rejoice. Your redemption, your rescue, is coming!

What will happen on that great and glorious Day when our Lord Jesus returns? Scripture keeps it clear and simple and comforting.
  • Jesus will visibly appear in glory with His angels (Matt. 25:31), and everyone will see Him. No secrets.
  • The many vying, conflicting kingdoms of this world will give way to the one eternal reign of Jesus, and “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (Rev. 21:24).
  • The dead will be raised bodily. The bodies of all believers—both those still alive and those raised from the grave—will be glorified (1 Cor. 15:51-52).
  • King Jesus will judge all people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (Matt. 25:31-46).
  • Satan will be vanquished and banished forever (Rev. 20:10).
  • The current fallen creation will be cleansed and purified by fire, and we will get to see, hear, touch, taste, and smell the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:7-13).
  • We will be reunited with all who have died in the faith (Rev. 7:9)—our Christian loved ones, friends, mentors, and so on.
  • We will rejoice and exult at the great marriage feast of the Lamb and His Bride made ready, clothed with fine linen, bright and pure (Rev. 19:6-9).
  • And, finally, we will see God face to face, and He will dwell with us forever (Rev. 21:3; 22:4), just as He intended in the beginning.

So, whether you see the whole universe coming unglued as Jesus says, or whether your own personal universe comes unglued in smaller ways, “straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” Raise your heads because your redemption began drawing near when the sun hid its light and the earth quaked on Good Friday as Jesus hung lifeless on a tree for you. Raise your heads because your redemption drew nearer when the Sun of righteousness—the Word made flesh—rose bodily on the third day with healing in His wings for you. Raise your heads because your true and only King has ascended to the right hand of the Father where all things are under His feet, where He rules over all authority and power and dominion, and where even now He blesses you with “every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3).

Your coming redemption is also already here. It draws near in the washing of regeneration and renewal. It draws near in Jesus’ words that will not pass away. It draws near when you feed on Jesus’ flesh and drink His blood. “Whoever feeds on [His] flesh and drinks [His] blood has eternal life, and [Jesus] will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:54).

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). Amen.

01 April 2018

Homily for the Resurrection of Our Lord - 2018

"He Is Risen! The Wound of Death Is Vanquished!"
John 20:1-18

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Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

It does not matter how many times you encounter it, it never feels natural; it never feels right. Death always feels wrong. Something inside does not accept that we will not hear that voice, see that face, touch that hand, experience that laughter ever again. The grief counselors can talk till they are blue in the face about how death is simply a part of life; how we must accept it as inevitable and “natural.” But death is never natural. We never accept it. We never will.

Mary did not accept death. Oh, she had no doubt that her Lord, her Teacher, was dead. She had witnessed the horror of it. Standing beside His mother, she had seen the light die in His eyes as He hung gruesomely upon the cross. She had seen them take His limp body from the wood, heard the horrid sound as they pulled nails. He was dead. She had no doubt of that.

But it was not right. She knew it was not right. And she simply had to touch Him again. She just knew that she had to see that body again. But the body was gone. She had run to tell Peter and John. They checked it out and told her she was right: yep, the body was gone. Big help they were! Then they left her, but she remained. She did not know what to do, where to go, to whom to turn. So she just stood there and started to cry.

Not the easy, gentle tears of the merely sad. No, Mary wept the gut-wrenching, full-voiced sobs of the grieving. Death. It wounds not only those it takes from us; it also wounds those who are left. And sometimes it wounds us so badly we think it will kill us right then and there. Mary knew something of that as she sobbed and looked into the tomb.

But something was different now. The tomb was not empty after all. There were angels there, clothed in white. One was sitting where the Lord’s head had been, one where His feet had been. Even though Mary’s sorrow could never shake or destroy their joy, they are concerned for her. “Woman,” they ask, “why are you weeping?”

Jesus’ death was such a given that she did not say, “Because my Lord is dead.” Instead, her answer was, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid Him.” Not knowing where the body was, was tearing her up. Death was horrible enough, but not being able to find the body? Not being able to tend it and give it proper care for burial? She had to know where Jesus was, to see Him once more, to touch His body once more. How else could she face tomorrow? How else could she face the rest of her life?

The magnitude of Mary’s grief shows itself when a conversation with angels does not even faze her. So she straightens up and turns and almost runs into the One who had never been far from her, the One who stood right beside her in her grief—even though she did not realize it. He gently asks, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?”

Hope rises in Mary’s heart. Is it the gardener? Perhaps he is the one who moved her Master’s body. “Sir,” she cries, “if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.”

Was it her tears that blinded Mary’s eyes that morning? Was it the grief of her heart that made all the world seem to move in slow motion—unreal and phantom-like? Then it all changed when He said one word. He called her name: “Mary.”

“My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (John 10:27), Jesus had said. Although she had not recognized Him before, at the sound of her name, Mary’s heart pounded, she caught her breath, and she moved the hair from her face and stared in awe, in terror, and in joy rising like a flood.

“Rabboni!” she cried. “My teacher!” And she lunged for Jesus and held His feet. Beyond hope, beyond her wildest dreams, there He stood. Not a ghost. Not a spirit. Not an illusion or merely some wishful thinking. Her Jesus—flesh and blood, the wounds still visible, but transfigured, shining in glory. Her Jesus!

And the tears came again, but this time a different kind of tears. These were not the sobs of despair; these were the tears that flow from a cup that runs over with joy. It was a tender moment, but the joys were only beginning. Jesus had work for Mary to do, a mission for her to carry out. He sent her first to His apostles to give them the message that He lives and that He is preparing to ascend to His Father and their Father, to His God and their God. Death was not the end of Him, and so it will not be the end of Mary or of the disciples.

Nor will death be the end of you. Nor will it be the end of those you love who have died in the faith. Jesus has changed forever how we live, how we grieve, and how we die. Oh, we still feel in our bones how wrong death is, how unnatural it is, and we hate it with a passion. But Jesus has transformed it into something we never have to fear—never again. By His death and resurrection, Jesus has wounded death itself. He has dealt it a mortal blow from which it will never recover. He came out of its stinking gullet alive again, never to die again. And His promise to Mary, to His apostles, and to all of His baptized children is that He will bring each and every one of us through the hole that He punched in death’s gullet. He will bring us into the home that He has prepared for us with His Father.

And so, to strengthen your faith in His resurrection victory, Jesus continues to put into your dying bodies His Body that was on the tree, atoning for all your sin; His Body that was in the tomb, sanctifying your grave; and His Body that Mary held in the garden that first Easter Day. He pours down your throat the very Blood that He shed to wipe out the sin of the world; the very Blood that is and gives eternal life even now. And He reminds you that it is all for you. And He whispers to each of you, “Just as death could not hold Me, so it will not hold you, My child. You have been baptized into My undying life. I will bring you out of death just as I came out of it—alive, never to die again. And then the celebration will really begin!”

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

31 March 2018

Homily for Easter Vigil - 2018

"This Is Our God"
Easter Vigil Readings

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In the early 5th century, Augustine, the head pastor at Hippo, proclaimed the mystery of this night in a short, poetic homily:
Brothers and sisters, we know and we hold with firm faith that Christ died for us but once:

the just for sinners,
the master for slaves,
the free for captives,
the physician for the sick,
the happy for the wretched,
the rich for the needy,
the seeker for the lost,
the redeemer for the sold,
the shepherd for the sheep,
and—what is the most awe-inspiring of all—
the creator for the creature;
keeping to what he always is,
handing over what he became;
hiding as God,
appearing as human;
life-instilling by his power,
dying by his weakness;
unchanging in divinity,
pained in the flesh.
What Augustine proclaimed in the 5th century, we still celebrate in the 21st.

The God who said, “Let there be light” has now brought the light of His Son into our lives so darkened by sin and death. The God who created all things has now recreated us and now prepares us for His new creation.

The God who judged the wicked world with a flood and safely brought eight people through water has now drowned the Old Adam in us and brought us safely through the waters of Baptism, joining us to the death and resurrection of Jesus our Lord.

The God who led His people out of Egyptian slavery and rescued them from Pharaoh’s pursuing army has now brought us through the Red Sea of our Baptism, is now leading us through the wilderness of this fallen world, and will one day lead us into His eternal Promised Land flowing with the milk and honey of His beloved Son’s life and salvation.

The God who sent His only Son into the world to die but once and rise again from the dead as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20) now invites us to “come, buy and eat!” He bids us to delight ourselves in the rich food of His forgiveness and life and salvation. As we hear the proclamation of Christ being raised from the dead, our souls may live once again, even when we mourn the loss of loved ones, even when we face our own falling asleep. “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22).

The God who sprinkles us clean in the pure waters of Jesus’ death and resurrection now cleanses us from our all our idols and misplaced devotions. He now gives us a new heart and a new spirit, a heart of flesh that beats with His Spirit, “the Lord and giver of life” (Nicene Creed). As He joins us to Himself, He also joins us to one another to dwell together as His redeemed, enlivened people.

The God who caused breath to enter and enliven the dry, dead bones of His exiled people, giving them new sinews, new flesh, and covering them with new skin, now renews us. In the middle of this valley of the shadow of death, we too are dried up by the effects of sin and death; we too lose our hope when illness, injury, and death strike us or the ones we love. Apart from Jesus we too are clean cut off from the God who loves us. But now that Christ has died and is risen, God puts His Spirit within us and we shall live. He places us in the land He has given, and we know that He is our Lord of life.

The God who allowed Job to be afflicted with loss of property, loss of family, and loss of sound health now gives us the same firm faith and confident confession of that ancient one: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth.” And even though our flesh, or the flesh of our loved ones, may be thus destroyed by death, that last enemy, yet in our flesh we shall see God. It’s not enough to say when we die that our body goes into the ground and our spirit goes to be with Jesus. The story of God’s salvation does not end there! With ancient Job we confess “the resurrection of the body” (Apostles’ Creed). Just as Jesus rose in the body, we too will rise in the body. “Christ the firstfruits, then at His coming those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23).

And the God who protected and sustained the three young men even in the midst of the blazing, fiery furnace—by being with them in the midst of the flames—now protects and sustains us in the midst of this world so hostile to the Gospel. Whether the blazing flames are individual temptations, trials or losses, government sponsored attacks on Christians, or a culture careening out of control toward the cliff and speeding to its own fiery demise on the rocks below, our risen Savior is still with us in the midst of the flames. In the end, because all things are subject to our risen Jesus, the fire has no power over our bodies. The hair of our restored heads will not be singed. Our white cloaks of Christ’s righteousness will not be harmed. No smokey smell of sin or death will follow us into the age to come.

This is our God—our risen Lord Jesus—who brings life and immortality to light through the Gospel.

The two Marys and Salome thought they still had to anoint Jesus’ dead body for burial. They fretted over the stone covering the tomb’s entrance. And were they surprised to see that entrance wide open! Then they saw that young man—full of life and vigor, supremely fit and healthy, an image of the new creation! What he told them, he also tells you: “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.” Yes, that happened; Christ died for us but once. But “He has risen; He is not here”…in the tomb, that is. He died but once, but now He lives! And so will we. So will all we love who have departed in the faith. No longer in the tomb, our risen Lord is with us, giving us His life, leading us to His new creation.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

30 March 2018

Homily for Good Friday - 2018

"The Wounds that Heal"
Isaiah 53:1-6

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We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, for by Your holy cross, You have redeemed the world. Amen.

Crucifixes make us uncomfortable—and well they should. We squirm before them, and it has nothing to do with any anti-Catholic bias. It is simply painful to gaze upon our Lord’s extreme suffering. And we know the reason for His suffering. We shudder before it. We sing:

Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain. (LSB 450:3)

In the darkness of that Good Friday, the totality of human sin—from the first sin of our first parents to the last sin of the last human being alive—all of it was gathered up, pressed together, and then off-loaded onto this one Man. He bore the whole weight of it. He owned it all as His very own. Thus He also bore its penalty—both temporal death and eternal death.

Look upon the cross of Christ. See His wounds, the nails pinning His hands and feet to the beams. See the blood running down His face from the thorns. Behold the quivering mass of His mutilated back as He is forced to rub it against the tree, pulling up on the nails through His wrists and pushing up against the nails through His feet to gasp for just a small breath of air. Look, seek, realize: this wounded Man, dying in utter agony, is not suffering for a single wrong that He has done. As we have seen, His whole life was only love. He was the only human being who ever completely loved the Father with His all and His neighbor as Himself. Yet it is because Jesus is love that He now takes His place upon the tree. Love will not leave the sinner in his sin. Love takes that sin upon Himself. Love is wounded to grant us healing. He is offering atonement for all the wrongs that we have done.

Yes, it is hard to look a crucifix in the face. It’s hard because it is so hard to accept the truth we sing:

Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
’Tis I deserve Thy place. (LSB 450:3)

Still, it is most salutary to look—most salutary to fall on our knees before His bleeding image and ponder it. It is good even to beg Him to imprint this image on our hearts and minds, so that we may carry it with us wherever we go, so that it will also be before our eyes in the moment of our death.

You see, when the moment of your death comes to you, Satan will press hard. In that moment most of all, he will seize his last chance to snatch you away from God forever, and he has a powerful weapon to use. The cunning serpent minimizes sin when he tries to lure you into it with temptations, but then he maximizes your sins in your memory in the hours of despair. When death is coming for you, he will happily set up the DVD player in your mind and replay for you the many sins you have forgotten all about. He will taunt you, then, that you are no Christian. He will declare you unfit for the kingdom of God. He will tell you that you are his and that you actually wanted to be his with every sin you committed along the way. And all the while all those sins will be playing in vivid, high-definition detail and color before your eyes as you are struggling in death.

That is why it is vital to train yourself throughout your life to look upon the crucifix, to behold your Savior’s wounds, and to hold them close to your heart, counting them as your most precious treasure. In the hour of your death, they will be your only weapon against the despair of the enemy. When the accuser brings all those sins before your eyes, you will be able to look at all of them, and you will be able to acknowledge their ugly, hideous nature as an irrefutable testimony to your countless failures. But over against all those sins you will set another image—the image Isaiah puts before us today; the image of the Crucified One. It is this image that will shatter the devil’s attempts to draw you into despair before your death. And so we sing:

Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee.
Who dieth thus dies well. (LSB 450:7)

The image you want before your eyes as they are closing in death is the image of the Son of God in His last agonies, the image of the Son of God fully owning and answering for your every sin, the image of the Son of God pouring out His blood to blot out the accusations of the Law that Satan hurls against you. You see, as awful as your sins are, each one has been accounted for, each one has been covered over in innocent blood, the blood of your Lamb, your Jesus. “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Revelation 12:11). In that hour, you will be able to say with boldness: “Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, just as I am your sin. You have taken upon yourself what is mine and have given to me what is yours. You have taken upon yourself what you were not and have given to me what I was not” (AE 48:12).

In this way you will most certainly be prepared for death—when the image of the Crucified One hangs before your eyes and you know that His life is now your righteousness; His death is your forgiveness; His wounds are your healing; His sufferings are your crown and glory. Dear people of God, you have been loved by God. God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, has certainly proved to be your dearest Friend. He makes you His forever. Gaze upon Him on His cross boldly, confidently, continually, and you will see.

We adore You, O Christ, and we bless You, for by Your holy cross You have redeemed the world. Amen.

29 March 2018

Homily for Holy Thursday - 2018

"A Meal for the Wounded"
Exodus 24:3-11

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Did they realize what they promised? Did the Hebrews in the wilderness have the first clue what they were agreeing to? “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” We don’t need to think about everything the Lord had commanded to realize the hopelessness of their response. We can think merely of the two chief commandments—the ones our Lord uses to sum up the whole Law: love the Lord your God with all of your all, and love your neighbor as yourself. “We will do that, and we will be obedient.” Really? With all of your all? From the very depths of your being?

Have you ever tried it? To love God with all of your all, I mean. Your heart undivided by competing loyalties, but given to God and to Him alone. Your only desire to enjoy His presence and to do His bidding. Your only fear that you will cause Him some displeasure. You go, give it a whirl, and let me know how it goes! And then there is your neighbor, the one made in God’s own image. Love this one as yourself. Or, again, as our Lord paraphrased, do to others as you want others to do to you. Have you given it a yeoman’s try? You most certainly should!

But I’m afraid you and I would end up about as successful as the people of Israel who offered up their big promise, but then promptly fell flat on their faces. Their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land was hardly a display of loving God above all and loving neighbor as self. Instead, there was grumbling against God and the way He led them; distrust that He would provide them with water, with food; neighbor squabbling with neighbor and wearing Moses out as he sat on the judgment bench from dawn til dusk trying to settle their petty squabbles. “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” Eh, not so much.

Yet despite their words, despite their foolish trust in themselves and in what they could muster, the covenant was sealed with blood. Part of the blood went on the altar; part, on the people. And with the blood came forgiveness. For “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb. 9:22). And right on the heels of the blood sprinkling the people, Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel climbed the mountain to behold the wonder of God’s glory. They saw Him, and the beauty wounded their hearts. There He was upon His throne. At His feet a pavement as of sapphire, blue and crystal clear as the sky above. Now in God’s presence, covered in the shed blood, they were able to sit down and to eat, and they did not die, but they lived—though they knew they had no right to see such holiness and continue breathing.

They lived despite the fact that they did not keep their end of the covenant. They lived despite the fact that they had not loved God with all of their all. They lived despite the fact that they did not love their neighbor as themselves. They lived because they were under the blood, and under that blood the presence of God came to them as an experience of life, not death.

Today is Holy (Maundy) Thursday. We are well aware that we have failed to keep this covenant of the Lord. The Ten Commandments, which spell out the shape of love in our lives, accuse us without end: No, we do not love the Lord with anything close to our all. No, we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Like Israel of old, we have not kept the words of the Lord to do them, no matter how many times we have promised to do better, to change our ways. Yet Jesus still comes to us this night and prepares a gift for His people—a gift that has been on God’s heart from before time began; a gift that will go on sustaining His people until the day of His glorious appearing. He provides a meal for His wounded people, for His broken people who do not live up to His covenant of love. He feeds them with His own Body and Blood so that they might live, so that they might be forgiven, healed, and restored.

Do you realize why there is life in that Body and Blood? Because it is the very Body and Blood of the One in whom there is nothing but love—love for His Father with all His heart, mind, soul, and strength; love with all of His all. And not only that, there was love for the neighbor, for you and me and for every member of our fallen race. Jesus loved us as Himself, indeed more than Himself. For us He will allow that body to be nailed to the tree and that blood to stain the earth, wiping out the curse of the Law that is against us. You see, the Law can never condemn Him. After all, His whole being—His every word and thought and action—always was and always is only love. And He calls us to live under that blood.

Now, to live under that blood means we get to taste something greater and better than the food that Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the other seventy elders of Israel ever knew. We not only eat and drink in the presence of the All-Holy One, but also through our faithful eating and drinking, He—the God of Israel, who appeared in glory to the ancients, who is now made flesh—He comes to us. He enters us with His forgiveness. He plants within us wounded people a life that death cannot overcome. We live because of what He gives us to eat and to drink: the Body and the Blood of Him who is Love—Love incarnate, Love crucified, Love risen, Love triumphant and coming in glory. “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8).

Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). And Jesus gives you the strength to do just that. With this gift of His Body and Blood, this gift of His love for you, Jesus Himself pours into you the strength of your love for Him and for one another. His gift in the Supper guarantees that what you now enjoy in a hidden and mystical way will be your eternal joy in the life to come. His gift gives you the courage and strength to sing and pray, even as death comes to you:

Be Thou my consolation,
My shield, when I must die;
Remind me of Thy passion
When my last hour draws nigh.
Mine eyes shall then behold Thee,
Upon Thy cross shall dwell,
My heart by faith enfold Thee,
Who dieth thus dies well. (LSB 450:7)

Wrapped in His cross, marked with His blood of the covenant, fed with the Body and Blood of Him who is Love incarnate and immortal, you will be prepared for your passion, your suffering, and your death whenever it comes. You will be held by a love that is stronger than death. You will be held by a forgiveness that is greater than all your sin. To Him alone be glory forever—our Lord Jesus, who gives us this meal to heal the wounded with His love. Amen.

25 March 2018

Homily for Palm Sunday - 2018

"We Wish to See Jesus"
John 12:20-36 (alternate Gospel)

Listen here.

The Greeks said to Philip: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” What did they expect to see? A philosopher whose teachings would transform the world? A worldly king who would establish a peaceful, prosperous nation? What did they expect to see?

We still say the same thing: “We wish to see Jesus.” What do you expect to see? Do you expect a Jesus who can give you a trouble-free life of smooth-sailing? Do you expect a Jesus who can make you healthy, wealthy, and wise? Do you expect to “see Jesus” only when things go well? Or when you “strike out” at the curve balls life throws at you, do you think Jesus has somehow left you?

Jesus processed into Jerusalem. Shouts of “Hosanna!” filled the air. People sang and waved palm branches to welcome their King. But He was riding on a donkey! He looked so humble. Things just didn’t fit. Many watched the victory parade. If Jesus is a King, He sure does not look the part! Where’s His royal robe? Where’s His scepter? Where’s His mighty, white victory horse? Where’s His victorious army behind Him? And yet they still called Him their King.

After this Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, Jesus was teaching the crowds. Some Greeks came to see this Jesus. First, they found Philip and implored him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” That was not just their request and need; it’s also our request and our need. We need to see Jesus!

But do we know where to look? Through the Prophet Isaiah, God said, “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near” (Is. 55:6). But where? When St. Paul preached to the Greeks in Athens, he said God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel their way toward Him and find Him. Yet He is actually not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27). But how shall we “feel our way” toward Him? Where shall we seek Him?

That’s the problem, isn’t it? We are created to live fearing, loving, and trusting in God, but we don’t. Adam and Eve severed that intimate bond, and we truly are “one man” and “one blood” with them. Their sin brought death into the world. We’ve received that congenital birth infection, and we keep heaping up the sins. And we keep looking for Jesus in all the wrong places. We can look high and low, near and far, but somehow we can’t seem to find Him by our own devices.

We might try to look for Jesus in creation. Stand on a high hill; behold the majestic, colorful sunrise or sunset. Hear the birds singing; enjoy the warm, sunny day; marvel in the colorful blossoms of spring. But you still have not seen Jesus. Sure, He created it all. He delights that you enjoy it all. Sure, you know that some Intelligence must be behind the mystery of the universe. After all, such beauty and synergy in nature cannot come by random chance. But you still haven’t seen Jesus. Besides, the beauty and majesty can quickly turn to chaos and destruction. Tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods. Sicknesses, injuries, illnesses, and deaths. You can look in creation all you want, but you will not find your Savior there. Jesus has not promised to show Himself as your Savior in creation. We still wish to see Jesus.

We might try to look for Jesus in other people. A beloved family member; a faithful friend; a local or world leader. You look to other human beings hoping they will help solve your big problems and needs. You bare your soul and reveal your deep, dark secrets. You want other people to help you keep going, help keep you on track in the rat race of life. Yes, family and friends are great blessings. God gives them to us, and we need them. But they cannot save you. They cannot give you the life with God that you so desperately need. They cannot be there for you all of the time. And, to be honest, other people can disappoint. You won’t always see Jesus in other people. They will say or do something to hurt you or let you down. They will miss an appointment, forget to call, or not notice you at the store. You need other people, but you cannot look to them for every good and blessing. As Psalm 146(:3) says, “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” We still wish to see Jesus.

We might even try to look for Jesus within ourselves. If only you can get the right thoughts, or the right feelings, then you suppose you will see Jesus in yourself. If only you can love other people the right way, then you will know Jesus is there. But that’s the problem. You and I don’t always do the right things, love the right way, or have the right thoughts and feelings. We often do the opposite. We have sinful, wicked thoughts, feelings and actions, and we turn to doing sinful things. As Jeremiah said: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (17:9). Or as Jesus said: “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Mt. 15:19). No, Jesus did not promise to show Himself as your Savior within your human heart and mind. We still wish to see Jesus. So Jesus must reveal Himself to us.

The Greeks said to Philip, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went to Andrew, and both of them went to Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” You can imagine the disciples saying, “Awesome! It’s about time we get this new kingdom under way. Jesus rode into town as a king. The crowds of people are here. Let’s have a coronation! Let’s see some action, Jesus!” But then Jesus explains what He means by “glorified”: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”

If you wish to see Jesus, look where He has promised to be seen. If you want to see Jesus, look to the place where He shed His blood for the forgiveness of your sins, where He trampled down death by dying: look to the bloody cross and the empty grave. If you want to see Jesus, look to the places where He still reveals Himself and gives you forgiveness, life, and salvation. Look to His Word, His Baptism, His Absolution, and His Supper. If you want to see Jesus, look to the place where He puts His Gospel and Sacraments: His “one, holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.” These are the places where you can “see” Jesus with the eyes of faith. These are the places where you can be certain you have the right Jesus.

Isaiah gives us a rather gruesome picture of the Jesus we need to see: “His appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and His form beyond that of the children of mankind…. He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (52:14; 53:2). Why would we want to see a Jesus like that? Why gaze upon a gruesome, bloody, disfigured Man? Because “He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions…. And with His stripes we are healed” (53:4-5). What wondrous love! What boundless mercy! King Jesus, the Son of God, died a horrible, excruciating death so that you might live a blessed, joyous, eternal life.

This Holy Week, we get to see this wounded Jesus and His marvelous mercy. Seek Him where He may be found on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, as well as next Sunday. Yes, it’s a rigorous schedule, but nothing is more life-giving. We will get to see our Lord stooping to love His disciples by washing their feet. We will get to see Him nailed to the cross for the life of the world. And on Saturday after sundown, we will begin the joyous celebration of His glorious victory over the grave.

And so we sing “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” The crowd sang it when they saw Jesus riding on a donkey. You and I, though, sing it as we see Jesus riding into our midst on the altar! Our Lord Jesus “saves us now” as He gives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation in the eating and drinking of His sacred Body and His life-giving Blood. Thus we sing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” Our Lord Jesus actually comes right here to be with us, in His Supper. What a blessing! What a privilege! What a Savior to see!

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Look where He hangs on a cross, bloodied and beaten. Look where He, the Risen One, comes to give His life to you. Amen.

23 January 2018

Exploring the One-Year Lectionary...Again

Nine years ago, I posted my sectional paper, "Exploring the One-Year Lectionary," which I delivered at the 2008 Commission on Worship's Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music, held in Seward, NE.

Evidently, some are still interested in accessing the paper and reading it! Thank you!

I had forgotten, however, that I had stored the paper on Apple's now-defunct "iDisk" storage system with the old "mac.com."

Now that I've again been asked for a copy of this paper, I've stored it over at my podcast site, Sacred Meditations (which Apple will not be able to discontinue. :-).

To access it, just click here: "Exploring the One-Year Lectionary" and the PDF file should open right away.

And, while I'm in this shameless-self-promotion mode, go ahead and check out my "short-cast" for prayers and meditations on God's Word! :-)

21 January 2018

Homily for Transfiguration - 2018

Matthew 17:1-9

Listen here.

Make no mistake about it. When you see Jesus transfigured on the mountaintop, you see your own glorious future. You also will be transformed and transfigured. But also, don’t doubt this: it will be a rough, dark road to get you there.

This glorious sight of Jesus outshining the sun itself is no random event, no mere magic show. Jesus is not just showing off His divine glory. No, this event is intimately connected to what happened six days earlier. Jesus had asked His disciples who they confessed Him to be. Peter spoke up for all of them: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16). “Well done, Peter!” Jesus said. “You’re confessing the faith that My Father has given you. Believe me, I will build My church on that very confession.” Then Jesus spoke of going to Jerusalem, suffering many things, being killed, and then being raised on the third day. We accept the words well enough, but Peter strongly objected: “Never Lord! How can you even think that?” So Jesus countered and corrected Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! … You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matt. 16:23).

We, like Peter, love the picture and promise of radiant glory. We’re not so sure about the harsh reality of gloomy suffering—not for Jesus, and certainly not for ourselves.

So when Jesus is transfigured—revealing Himself as the very source of all light and glory—He seeks to comfort and sustain His distressed disciples. Suffering? Death? Cold, dark grave? The mere thoughts of such things, let alone going through them, lay us flat like a boxer giving a gut punch followed by an undercut. Jesus knows His disciples are laid flat by His prediction of the Passion. He wants to encourage them and sustain them. It’s as if Jesus is telling them, “Yes, it will be dark and deadly. Yes, you too will be shaken to the core, as well as opposed, hunted down, imprisoned, even executed just for confessing Me. But let not your hearts be troubled. Here is what lies on the other side of suffering and death, both Mine and yours.”

You see, this was not the first time that Jesus was transfigured and transformed. He has been the radiant, brilliant source of all light and glory since before the beginning of time—along with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Then, when the time was right, the Son of God actually transformed Himself by taking on our human flesh and blood. In taking our humanity into Himself, He transfigured Himself—He hid Himself—in humility.

So when Jesus predicts His passion and death, He’s simply unveiling what lies further back in the deep dark recesses of His glory—His suffering in the garden, His arrest, His trial, His bearing the cross to Golgotha, the pounding of spikes into His hands and feet, the lifting of the cross into its place, and the weight of His body hanging from wrists nailed into the cross beam. This is the Son of God completely revealing Himself. This is His real glory—suffering so to redeem and forgive us sinners who had fallen from our glory. It’s on the mount called Calvary that you are transfigured.

Peter, James, and John basked in and soaked up the brilliant glory of Jesus transfigured. Peter even wanted to extend his mountaintop experience with a bunch of tents. Moses and Elijah, though, were there for a different purpose. Yes, they are heroes of the faith—Moses the icon of the Law and Elijah the representative of the prophets. Yes, Moses’ skin shone with a most incredible suntan after his time on the mountain with God. Yes, Elijah was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot, and hence did not taste death. But Moses and Elijah were also there as fellow sufferers with Jesus. Consider the many times God’s people rejected Moses with their complaining over things as mundane as food and water. Remember the times that Elijah had to flee for his life from the government out to get him or the time he took on the many prophets of Baal. The same people rejected Jesus. On top of that, Moses and Elijah appeared to speak with Jesus about His “exodus”—His soon-to-come suffering, His pending Passion (Lk. 9:31).

With all of this darkness and gloom hanging over the disciples, they desperately needed some encouragement, some hope, some promise. That’s why Jesus shone brighter than the sun—just a small glimpse of what lies ahead. That’s why the Father’s voice boomed from the cloud: “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him.” That voice still bids us to listen to Him, and Him alone. And we find that voice speaking ever so clearly in the Scriptures. After all, here’s “the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

Here’s what awaits all who follow Jesus—first, the suffering and dying of a fallen world; then, the glory and radiance of new life with Jesus. It’s the way it works since we humans first transfigured ourselves from God’s holy people into the devil’s sinful slaves. We should have had the brilliance of a trusting, loving relationship with God all along. Instead, we chose the nakedness of self-centered shame. Instead of being clothed with God’s glory, we had to settle for being covered by garments of animal skins.

But Jesus has come to reverse all that. He’s the new Moses as He leads us out of our slavery to sin and death and into the Promised Land of His mercy, forgiveness, and eternal life. He’s the new Elijah—surpassing all the prophets—because He alone has the words of eternal life. He is transfigured on one mountain, but on a different mountain—the one called Calvary—He accomplishes your transfiguration. He transforms you from sinners to saints, from people suffocating in death to people breathing the very air of life.

Make no mistake about it. The transfiguring and transforming continues. He who was transfigured from humility back into glory now comes transforming Himself in the bread and wine of His holy Supper. And with that Meal, He begins and continues transforming our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body. “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

So we live patiently and trustingly, awaiting that day when our own transformation will burst forth with brilliance. Much like putting up with the inconveniences of renovating an organ or soon a sanctuary, we bear with those things that are not yet set right—the crosses we bear, the sorrows we endure, the losses we suffer. But as we live patiently and trustingly, we draw strength and resolve from our transfigured Lord of glory. He sustains us. He gives the promise, the hope, the courage.

And so we can be people of life in this world of death. By God’s grace in Jesus, we can resist being conformed to this world. Instead, we are transformed by Jesus renewing our minds, by discerning what His good and acceptable and perfect will is. We can rejoice with those who march for life year after year. We can work with those who help mommies and daddies to keep their babies as well as teach them how to be better parents. We can run into the muck and the mess of our culture of death—this culture bent on snuffing out lives in the womb and shortening the lives of those who suffer or become frail with age. You see, our Lord of glory gave those people their very lives. He wants to protect their lives. He wants to transform them to eternal life too.

Our transfigured Lord reveals Himself to be the Lord of life in the face of death. This glorious revelation sustains us and gives us hope and courage as we journey through the valley of the shadow of death. Through Jesus’ transfiguration, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom. 8:16-17). Amen.

14 January 2018

Homily for Epiphany 2 - 2018

"New Wine"
John 2:1-11

Listen here.

Put yourself in the shoes of the master of the feast. You’re putting on the wedding banquet of the year for everyone in Cana of Galilee. The groom, the bride, and all the guests have been counting on you to provide the best food, the best drink, the best celebration—a celebration to give lasting memories for years. Then you notice a major faux pas. It would make you—along with the bride and groom—the laughingstock of the century. Running out of wine? At the wedding of the year? Who could ever live that down?

Then, in the midst of the stress and the shame, your employees bring you a cup. More wine? New wine? Where did this come from? Then you take a sip. NEW WINE! Better wine than what you first served. Better than anything you’ve ever tasted! Where did THAT come from?!

What IS this new wine? Did Adam and Eve have such good wine in the Garden of Eden? If they did, the wine at Cana might just be on par with it, if not better yet. We do know this is NOT the kind of wine that made Noah drunk (Gen. 9:21). It’s not the kind of wine that led Lot’s daughters to make him drunk so they could have children by him (Gen. 19:32). None of that debauchery with Jesus’ new wine.

We might get a hint of this new wine in the sacrifices of the tabernacle and the temple. Take a lamb, add some fine flour, and a bit of beaten oil for the main course, and then some wine for the drink offering (Ex. 29:40). God included wine on the menu for many of the sacrifices in His place of worship. In fact, He even prescribed only the best flour, the best oil, and the best wine—the first fruits (Deut. 18:12).

Then, when God’s people returned from exile and got reacquainted with God’s good Word and teaching, God used Ezra and Nehemiah to remind them of His joy for them. He wanted to turn their 70 years of repentance into lasting and ongoing joy. “Don’t weep and mourn anymore,” God said, “but rather eat the fat, drink the sweet wine, and share with those who aren’t ready.” After all, that day was “holy to our Lord.” And here’s the heart of the message: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).

The psalmist speaks of wine that gladdens the heart of man (Ps. 104:15), but this new wine that Jesus brings goes beyond that First Article gift. This is the wine that made David sing, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8). The wine of God rescuing him; the wine of safety, security, and joy in the joy of the Lord Himself. Truly a gift of the Second and Third Articles.

This new wine of Jesus is the wine spoken of by the prophet Amos—the mountains dripping sweet wine, the hills flowing with it (Amos 9:13). This wine comes from the Divine Vintner who raises up the fallen tent of David, who repairs and rebuilds His people, who makes them His Church that will stand for all eternity. It’s the wine that Isaiah also proclaimed—the Lord making a feast on His mountain, a feast of rich, fatty food and well-aged, well-refined wine (Is. 25:6-8). You see, on that same mountain God Himself would feast on something completely different: He would swallow up death forever.

The new wine that appeared suddenly and miraculously at Cana of Galilee is the wine of new life and resurrection for you and for me.

Ah, but it’s not yet Jesus’ “hour” when He confronts those empty jars and that embarrassing void of wedding wine. Yet Jesus still gives a prelude, a preview, a teaser trailer of what He actually came to do. Those empty wine cups? Those empty water jars? He would fill them. And in filling them, He would fill the people who drank from them. He would fill them not only with savory fruit of the vine, but also and especially with His saving life.

Jesus is no mere bartender rushing in to rescue a wedding party on the brink of collapse. He has a bigger and better purpose. He comes to rescue the whole human race—people like you and me; people including you and me—from their emptiness of God’s goodness. When His “hour” does come—on the cross—He will drink the bitter cup of God’s wrath and judgment. He will be the laughingstock of all around Him, even spurned by His closest friends. He will suffer the shame and humiliation of a cross. He will swallow up death forever. But in drinking that bitter cup, He will ensure that we can taste and see that the Lord is good. He will make death itself void and bare. He will give us the sweet joy of the Lord. That’s the sweet wine delivered at Cana. It’s also the sweet wine delivered here at this altar today.

Your Lord Jesus comes to fill your emptiness. We live in a world that has so much stuff, such overloaded schedules, such a plethora of things and people and activities for filling our lives. And still we are empty on the inside. Some try to fill the emptiness with the old wine, or old booze, of this fallen world. Some try to fill the emptiness with the fruits of the sexual revolution—free sex with whomever you wish, without all the so-called constraints of one man-one woman marriage for life. Some try to fill the emptiness with the meaning of “likes” or “follows” or viral videos on social media. For those who fill themselves with the booze, the numbness eventually wears off and the emptiness remains. For those who fill themselves with the sexual conquests du jour, they still sense the emptiness of commitment and real love. For those who get their meaning from clicks and likes, well, we know how quickly things change in Internet land.

What’s your emptiness? What is it that makes you think and feel that if you could have that one thing, you would finally be complete and whole? Whatever worldly, created thing you think could fill that emptiness, just know that it can’t; it won’t.

Jesus gives the new wine at Cana’s wedding to show you that He fills your emptiness with Himself. Just as He filled the stone water jars with the best wine, and just as He restored the joy of the bride, the groom, and the master of the feast, so also He restores you and your joy by filling you with Himself—with His forgiveness, with His life, with His salvation. You are cleansed by the purifying water of His Baptism. You are filled with the new wine of His Supper.

So your God has joy in you, and He restores that joy in you by revealing His Son—the Bridegroom of the feast. We don’t need to get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery. Instead, let’s be filled with the Spirit. Let’s address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. Let’s sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts (Eph. 5:18-19).

We don’t need to fill ourselves with the ways of the world when it comes to sex and marriage. Instead, let’s remember and extol the profound mystery of Christ and His Church—the profound mystery of the one-flesh union of love, life, and commitment. That profound mystery reveals itself in joyful little glimpses when wives submit to their husbands as to the Lord and when husbands love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.

What IS this new wine? It’s Jesus revealing Himself to you and for you. It’s Jesus bringing you into the joy of His Father and the Holy Spirit. It’s Jesus filling your emptiness with Himself—His life, His resurrection, and His joyous purpose in life. “Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready” (Rev. 19:7). Amen.