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)

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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.