28 October 2019

Homily for Reformation Day (Observed) - 2019

"Pressing Forward Forcefully"
Matthew 11:12-19

When God sent His only-begotten Son into the world, it was like a commander-in-chief ordering the Navy Seals to make a first strike. When that first strike comes, you can be sure of two things. First, the battle is engaged. Second, the enemy will fight back.

Perhaps this mental picture can help us grasp Jesus’ perplexing words in our Gospel: “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”

Jesus has just selected His twelve apostles. He has given them “authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every affliction” (Mt. 10:1). Then Jesus sent those twelve apostles out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Their mission? “Proclaim…, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand. Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons’” (Mt. 10:7-8). Their promise from the Lord? “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven” (Mt. 10:32). Jesus even tied their mission to His divine incursion: “Whoever receives you receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent me” (Mt. 10:40). Now, you know the enemy—Satan and his minions—doesn’t much like such incursions into its tyrannical domain.

After instructing His twelve disciples, Jesus Himself went on preaching and teaching. He was continuing His divine first strike of invading enemy-held territory. After all, He came to rescue and restore it. Then comes the question from John the Baptist. It’s the story we hear in Advent. As John sits in prison and awaits his execution, he wonders if Jesus is in fact the Coming One—the Divine Invader—who comes to rescue all humanity, or if we should look for another. Keep your ears, your heart, and your mind focused on Jesus’ answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt. 11:4-6). And you know the enemy doesn’t much like that!

Jesus then asks the crowds about John. What did they go out to see? Someone who swayed with the shifting winds of public opinion? Nope. Some softie dressed in nice clothes walking the halls of power? Nope. Instead, when John came, they saw none other than God’s own messenger sent to prepare the way for the Lord—for the Divine First-Strike Team in the flesh. “Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than [John]” (Mt. 11:11).

This is what leads us to Jesus’ perplexing words about the kingdom “suffering violence.” What in the world is He talking about?!

When Jesus comes into the world, the world, the devil, and even our sinful flesh don’t like it much. Yet He still comes. And when He comes, the kingdom comes. Jesus, the kingdom of heaven incarnate, presses forward forcefully into this world—a world enslaved by sin, death, and devil. When He does, you know the battle is engaged…and you know the enemy fights back.

John the Baptist experienced violence for preparing the way of the Lord. Arrest. Prison. Even execution by losing his head. Jesus Himself experienced violent opposition. Repeated challenges to His preaching, teaching, and healing. False accusations. Kangaroo courts. Beatings and flogging. Betrayals by friends. Even the worst kind of capital punishment—being nailed to a tree and suffocating to death. And Jesus’ disciples could also expect violent opposition. How many of them later faced prisons and beatings and various forms of execution simply for preaching salvation by Christ alone?

But God’s kingdom—enfleshed in Jesus the Christ—keeps pressing forward forcefully. You see, Jesus Himself not only suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried, but He also descended into hell in victory. Then the third day He rose again from the dead. Then He ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. He came to redeem us lost and condemned persons, purchased and won us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with silver and gold, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death. To what end? That you and I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

Mission accomplished! First strike successful!

Ever since the New Testament and through all these centuries, the kingdom continues pressing forward forcefully. And the enemy keeps on fighting against it. Now we come to the part about the violent taking it by force. Those violently opposed to Jesus and His saving, forgiving ways do indeed attack the Church. But this line can also be translated, “and forceful people snatch it.” (cf. Lenski)

It’s why the Church must always be reformed. She must always be called back to the saving work of Jesus. You see, the Church is really a heavenly city invading the earthly city. Conflict is inevitable. The earthly city always seeks to re-make the Church in its own image. “Don’t call out sin. Don’t judge. Don’t live by God’s Word. Instead, seek power. Instead, go along to get along.” It’s what Luther faced in his day. A Church that needed to be brought back to the saving work of Jesus. It’s what we face in our day. It’s what the Church faces in every age.

Here’s what we joyfully celebrate this Reformation Day. Jesus rescues us from sin and death by His grace alone. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn. 8:36). We receive this forgiveness of sins and new life through faith alone. “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). The source of this emancipation proclamation is Scripture alone. “If you abide in My word,” Jesus said, “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (Jn. 8:31-32).

So how will you embrace—how will you snatch up—this Good News of your liberation from sin, death, and devil? Will it be with apathy and indifference? Or will it be with zest and eagerness? You see, Jesus—kingdom in the flesh—presses forward forcefully for and in you. He confronts you with your sin so that He may liberate you with His forgiveness. When you think you are the one who matters most, He disabuses you of that notion through repentance. When you are dead in your trespasses and sins, He gives you rebirth and new life in your Baptism. When you sin in thought, word, and deed, He powerfully grants you His cross-won Absolution through humble words. When you are weak and faint, He strengthens you with His very Body and Blood actually, truly and really present under bread and wine, actually, truly and really delivering His forgiveness and life to you.

That’s how forcefully your Lord presses forward to claim you and keep you as His own. He overcomes whatever doubts you may have. He liberates you from whatever mental, rational reservations you may have about His washing, His absolving, and His Meal. His kingdom with all its gifts, all its blessings and all its treasures gives you power and courage to snatch it, grab it, and cling to it all—to all the forgiveness, life, and salvation that He has achieved for you. You may zealously hold on for dear life. You may powerfully bear witness to this same Jesus who has freed you from sin, death and devil.

In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated for holding onto the powerful Gospel of Jesus Christ, rather than submitting to the violent opposition against it. Later that same year he appeared before the Diet of Worms and refused to recant his position of standing on Scripture alone. Then he was whisked away into hiding at the Wartburg Castle. When troubles arose in Wittenberg in early 1522, Luther came out of hiding to preach a series of sermons at the beginning of Lent. They’re called the “Invocavit Sermons.” In the second of these sermons Luther spoke of the power of God’s Word. What he said illustrates how the kingdom of Jesus powerfully presses forward:

“In short, I will preach it, teach it, write it, but I will constrain no man by force, for faith must come freely without compulsion. Take myself as an example. I opposed indulgences and all the papists, but never with force. I simply taught, preached, and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything. (Second Invocavit Sermon, 1522; AE 51:77)

The kingdom of heaven presses forward forcefully, and those liberated and enlivened by Him eagerly snatch up His treasures. Amen.

07 October 2019

Homily for Anniversary of a Congregation - 2019

"Faithful God: Past & Future"
1 Kings 8:22-30; Revelation 21:1-5; Luke 19:1-10

Listen here.

When we celebrate our congregation’s anniversary, we look not only to the past. We also look to the future. For us at Hope, today is a bit like January 1st, New Year’s Day. The month of January is named after the Roman god Janus. In Roman mythology, he was literally a two-faced god. One face looked back to the past; the other face looked forward to the future. Thus Janus was the god of beginnings, transitions and doorways. So on January 1st each year, we non-Romans still look back to the past year and forward to the coming year. (Of course, Janus was a false god, really a non-god. The myth just happens to be a fitting illustration.)

Today we celebrate 103 years of God’s faithfulness to Hope congregation. And we also look to the future. How did we celebrate the big one just three short years ago? “Our Hope for Years to Come” was our theme. The true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—has now blessed our beloved congregation for 103 years. He has shown steadfast love to His servants. He has indeed dwelt on earth by means of His Word and Sacraments. He has indeed come to this house to be the guest of us sinners. He has most certainly come to seek and save the lost—many who went before us and us too. For 103 years God has dwelt with us and we have been His people. He has sustained us with His promise to wipe every tear from our eyes and the sure and certain pledge that death shall be no more. And He still promises to keep doing all of that for years to come.

King Solomon celebrated this very thing when he dedicated the temple. There is no God like our Lord, in heaven above or on earth beneath. He is faithful in keeping His gracious covenant and showing steadfast love. Then Solomon looked to the past. God had kept His promise to David, Solomon’s father. David first wanted to build a temple, but God told David, “You don’t need to do that for Me. In fact, here’s what I will do for you, David. I will make your name great. I will give you rest from your enemies. And “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12-13).

After thanking and praising God for His faithfulness in the past, Solomon then began looking to the future. “Now therefore, O God of Israel, let Your word be confirmed, which You have spoken to Your servant David my father.” Keep Your promises going, Lord! Then Solomon prays for God to keep His eyes “open night and day toward this house” going forward. Solomon asks God to listen to the prayers of His people in days, weeks, months, and years to come. Solomon pleads for God’s ongoing forgiveness, grace and mercy well into the future.

Solomon finished his prayer of dedication and then gave the benediction: “Blessed be the Lord who has given rest to his people Israel, according to all that he promised. Not one word has failed of all his good promise, which he spoke by Moses his servant. The Lord our God be with us, as he was with our fathers. May he not leave us or forsake us, that he may incline our hearts to him, to walk in all his ways and to keep his commandments, his statutes, and his rules, which he commanded our fathers” (1 Kgs. 8:56-58). Thanking God for the past and relying on Him for the future—that is Solomon’s example for us.

We find ourselves in the same position today—thanking our Lord Jesus for the past and relying on Him for the future. We can remember our own stories of the past. Reverend Martin Engel serving as our first pastor. Pastor Roschke following him and starting a Lutheran day school. Pastor Bohnert coming along to serve with Pastor Roshcke. Then Pastors Richter and Lucero rounding out the 20th century. We can thank God for Mr. George Stohlmann, the first principal, and all of the other principals and teachers through the years of Hope Lutheran School. We can rejoice in all of the people who have been blessed by hearing the Gospel and receiving Jesus’ Body and Blood in this very sanctuary since 1930. We can thank our Lord for all of the students who were blessed with a Christian education to shape them for all of life. God has been faithful to His promises. He has forgiven sinners throughout the past 103 years.

And He still comes to dwell among us in His Word and Sacraments. He still comes to hear our prayers and forgive our sins because of Christ crucified and risen. Even as times have changed, even as we as a congregation have changed, God remains faithful. When we doubt about going forward, when we mentally and verbally wring our hands, when we look to anything and everything except God Himself for our identity and security, God remains faithful.

Beryl Markham was a British-born Kenyan. She was also an aviator, a racehorse trainer and an author. She was the first to fly solo, non-stop across the Atlantic Ocean from east to west. (Charles Lindbergh, of course, was the first to fly across the Atlantic, going from west to east.) Here’s something Beryl Markham wrote about the past and the future: “Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lies in a cloud, formidable from a distance. The cloud clears as you enter it.”

It’s safe and easy to look to our past. Those years have happened; they’re set in stone. Ponder the sacrifices our forebears made to start this congregation and keep it going. When it came time to construct this building, the church sold bonds, members bought them and thus contributed to this structure. Ponder the blessings they all received from our faithful God as well. A congregation that grew through the early decades and blossomed after World War II. Passed years are safe ones. We know what happened.

The future, though, seems to lie in a cloud. We do not know what the future will bring. But we do know we have God’s faithfulness, forgiveness, love and mercy along the way. And this brings us to our second theme of the day: Consecration Sunday. It’s our chance as individuals, as families, and as the whole congregation to look to the future. It’s an opportunity to grow in the grace of generous giving. After all, that’s what our forebears did when they started this congregation. It’s also how we end up in a newly renovated sanctuary with a newly restored organ. Generous giving by two sisters made all this possible. (Okay, we chipped in just a little for the porcelain tile flooring. Still generous giving.)

What can we make possible? What can we, by God’s grace, endeavor to achieve as we proclaim His Gospel? How can we as individuals, families and a church family grow in being generous so that others may hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and have “hope for years to come”?

Our forebears went before us only because of our faithful Lord and Savior. We are here today only because of our gracious giver God. Now we get to strive forward into the cloudy future only because of our Savior who gave Himself, His very all, for us. You see, God delights in pouring out His mercies in abundance. He loves exceeding our expectations. He has proven His love for us on the cross—the greatest act of giving ever. How can we not trust Him? How can we not respond to His love—each of us and all of us—with generosity toward His mission in the Church? How can we not seek to imitate Him in blessing others as we have already been blessed?

“O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like You, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to your servants.” We thank You for coming to seek and save us who were lost. We thank You for bringing Your salvation to this house through Christ crucified and risen. Give us joy in Your salvation. Give us joy that You dwell among us in Your Word and Sacraments. Lead us to be generous givers that others may also rejoice in Your steadfast love. Amen.