20 January 2020

Homily for Epiphany 2 (2020)

"Restoring Joy and Gladness"
John 2:1-11

Another Sunday after Epiphany, another piece of our new liturgical art to behold. Take a look, either on the wall—the first one on the lectern side—or on your bulletin. Six stone water jars sit on the ground. A servant kneels, holding another water jar. As the servant pours from his jar into one of the six, you can see ordinary, clear water turning into joyous red wine. Liturgical art may not paint the whole picture with every detail of the story, but it does evoke the story and its meaning for us to ponder.

Today we hear Jesus bringing joy back to the wedding at Cana. When they ran out of wine, the bride and groom almost committed social suicide. After all, once the wine runs out, the party’s over. The bride and groom would be the laughingstock of the town for years to come. Not even the joy of being happily married could save them from the ongoing disgrace.

Jesus’ Mother takes the first step to help this young couple in need. She approaches her Son and tells Him the need. While she doesn’t really ask anything, she does intercede to her Savior Son on behalf of the couple in dire straits. “They have no wine,” she simply states. Nothing in the story suggests Mary doubted or had little faith. Quite the opposite! She certainly trusted her Son and asked Him, the only true Savior, to rescue the couple and restore their gladness and joy.

Then Jesus gives what sounds like a brusque response. In most of our English translations, it sounds like a rebuke. How many sons who honor their mothers can actually get away with calling their mothers, “Woman”? But let’s not impose our cultural sensitivities on Jesus and this story. When Jesus answers His Mother’s request, He literally says, “What is it to Me and to you?” Jesus is still showing the greatest respect to His Mother; He’s including her with Him when He talks about His “hour.” What is His “hour”? It’s His time of dying and rising to bring the greatest joy and gladness to the whole world. And the term, “Woman”? It’s actually a term of great respect in Jesus’ day. When Jesus responds to His Mother, He’s saying, “What is it to me and to you, Mother, that they have no wine?” We could loosely translate: “Eh, no big deal, Mom!” Their lack of wine will not deter Jesus from bringing true joy and gladness.

Jesus does not reject His Mother’s request. No, He’s about to grant it so that He can reveal Himself. His “hour” of suffering, dying and rising for the world has not yet come, but He will use this wedding crisis to give a foretaste of what His “hour” will do in greater measure. His “hour” will bring great gladness and joy, just as weddings and wine do. And notice how Mary tells the servants to do what the Lord says. It sounds like the Church, doesn’t it: telling the servants—all followers of Jesus—to pay attention to and “do whatever He tells you.” You see, Jesus brings great gladness and joy in what He says and does. Weddings and wine are but a foretaste.

Jesus tells the banquet servants to fill the six stone jars to the brim with water. After they filled the pots with water, somehow the water turned into wine. And not just any wine; the best wine! The head caterer—who did not know where the wine came from—told the bridegroom: “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” No cheap wine for Jesus! He gives only the best. And notice how He used an element of His own creation—ordinary water—to deliver this best wine and all the gladness it would bring. And how about that amount? Anywhere from 120 to 180 gallons of heavenly wine and its earthly gladness! Jesus is not stingy with His gifts; He’s not cheap with His gladness and joy.

Now for those Jews who paid attention in synagogue school, they would have realized what just happened. In Jeremiah 31 God had promised to save His people from exile in a foreign land. The day would come when they would leave their exile and return to their homeland. And they would rejoice greatly. As Jeremiah proclaimed: “They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.” (31:12). The prophet Amos said something similar. When God rescues His people, Amos said, “the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it.” God’s rescued people would return to their cities, they would “plant vineyards and drink their wine” (Amos 9:13-14). The abundance of wine would send a message: God had rescued His people.

So, when Jesus blesses the wedding at Cana with an abundance of wine, He is manifesting His glory. He is announcing that He has come to rescue us, His people, from our exile in sin and death.

It’s no coincidence that wine shows up only twice in John’s Gospel—here at Cana and then at the end of the Gospel, at the cross. Here Jesus gives the sweet wine of joy and gladness, but on the cross He consumes the bitter wine of our sin, suffering and death. Same thing with Jesus’ Mother, Mary. She shows up here at the wedding, and then at the end of the story at the foot of the cross. Here she gladly intercedes for the couple in distress and instructs the servants to follow her Son’s bidding. At the cross, her tears flow and her own heart is pierced with grief. Yet there Mother Mary receives the tender care of her crucified Son as He gives her into the care and keeping of the Apostle John.

What’s the point of all this, as we continue celebrating Epiphany? When God reveals Himself in His incarnate Son, we see the source of true joy and gladness—our Lord Jesus Christ. Weddings may give joy, but Jesus gives even greater joy in rescuing you from sin and death. Wine may gladden the heart for a time, but the wine that Jesus gives—His blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins—provides eternal gladness.

Everyone loves the joy and festivities of a good wedding. So let this story of Jesus at the wedding at Cana give you the joy and festivity of enjoying life with God and with one another, now and forever. As Isaiah said, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (62:5). The Lord of weddings has made you His bride. In fact, every time we gather here in this place, we enjoy the eternal nuptials that come only from Christ crucified and risen. You see, King Jesus loves you, His Church, and has given Himself for you. He sanctifies and cleanses you with the washing of water by the word, so that He might have a glorious Church, without spot or wrinkle or blemish. That’s your true joy and gladness.

Wine at the dinner table gladdens the heart. How about the wine that Jesus gives at His Supper table? With the eternal wine and the eternal gladness of His holy Meal,  His very Body and Blood actually present here, Jesus nourishes you and cherishes you from now into eternity. A foretaste of the feast now; the full feast to come when Jesus returns. Now you may also ponder another piece of our liturgical art—the one closest to the altar on the lectern side. Now you may anticipate the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb and His Bride, the Church. Amen.

13 January 2020

Homily for The Baptism of Our Lord (2020)

"Standing in the Water"
Joshua 3:1-3, 7-8, 13-17; Matthew 3:13-17

One purpose of liturgical art is to give us a glimpse of God’s truth and beauty. God has created and placed us in a beautiful world and He does have something to say about what’s good and true. Liturgical art also gives us a glimpse of where and how we fit into God’s truth and beauty. Not only does He give us a beautiful creation; He also makes us beautiful. Now that’s an amazing truth, especially after our fall into sin and death. Beginning with Adam and Eve and ever since, we humans have taken God’s truth and beauty and trashed it, spit on it, rejected it. Very ugly! Somehow, we thought we could come up with something better—something more true and more beautiful than God Himself did. But God still “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). God still wants to tell you: “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD” (Is. 62:3).

This is the message that flows out of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River. When King Jesus is baptized in the Jordan, He also purifies you, His bride, the Church.

Take a look at our liturgical art that evokes our first reading—the Crossing of the Jordan. (If you can’t see it on the wall, it’s also on your bulletin.) Put yourself in the scene, standing in the bottom corner, watching the event first-hand. It’s forty years after leaving slavery in Egypt and marching into freedom. It’s forty years after crossing the Red Sea on dry ground. It’s also been forty years full of ugliness—full of fear, of whining and complaining, of doubting God’s goodness.

"Crossing the Jordan" in the sanctuary of Hope Ev. Lutheran Church, St. Louis, Missouri, USA, by Max Autenrieb Church Interior Decorating, Inc.
Now, as you stand in your little place in the picture, God has brought His people to the edge of the Promised Land. When you see the Ark of the Covenant being carried by the priests, you know that is God present with His people. He is the one stepping into the water first so that the waters upstream stand in a heap. He is the one leading them through the Jordan River on dry ground. He is the one ushering them into the land of milk and honey that is completely His gift and always will be.

You can do more than merely imagine yourself standing on the dry river bed of the Jordan. The artwork does proclaim what actually happens in your Baptism. So put yourself at the font. That’s your reality. There your God brings you out of the slavery of your sin into the freedom of life with Him. There He washes you clean even as you wander in the filthy wilderness of this world. And there you stand, eager and ready for the eternal Promised Land—that land of milk and honey that always was, always is, and ever shall be His gift to you.

The problem is, you’re not in that Promised Land just yet. You still walk and live in the wilderness of this filthy, fallen world. And the temptations abound to wallow in the muck of sin. Actually, that muck infects and flows out of your heart and mine. Like our Israelite forebears, we too give in to the filth of fear, of whining and complaining, and of doubting God’s goodness. We need a good cleansing. We need a purification that comes from outside of us.

That’s why our God steps into the Jordan a second time. This time He is not merely represented by a golden box being carried by priests. This time He’s in the flesh. If Christmas proclaims that God, the Son of God, became a man, Epiphany proclaims that this man is God—true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary. He’s the One who steps into the water to purify you.

Now John objects. “That’s not right,” he claims. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” The One who comes to purify does not need to be purified! After all, He’s like us in every respect, yet without sin. And John was right. We should say the same thing. “Jesus, we need to be baptized by You, and do You step into the water for us?” Listen again to Jesus’ reply: “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” No, the all-righteous One did not need to be made righteous; the all-pure One did not need to be purified. But He still stands in the water for you and for your salvation.

How does that work? Consider what you hear every time someone is baptized. When your Lord stepped into the Jordan’s water, He “sanctified and instituted all waters to be a blessed flood and a lavish washing away of sin.” (LSB, 269). We might even say that when Jesus steps into the water, He, the pure One, soaks up all of the impurities—all of your impurities and all impurities of every human being—like a sponge. He will carry all those impurities all the way to the cross. There He will nail all that filth—including your filth—to the wood with Himself. There your sin—your fears, your doubts, your whining and complaining—will die with Him. This is how Jesus’ Baptism fulfills all righteousness. God “made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21).

What does it mean for you that your Lord stands in the water in your place? Jesus’ Baptism expresses itself in your life at three big events: your Baptism, your communing, and your death.

In your Baptism, you were immersed with Christ. With Him, you died and were buried; and with Him, you were raised. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Heaven has opened up for you. The Holy Spirit has come upon you. Now the Father says, “You are My beloved child.”

So why do you fear? Why do you doubt? Why do you whine and complain? Why do you fear such things as supposed climate change or recent news of international hostilities? Why do you doubt that your Father is still in charge in His beautiful world? You have been through “the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Tit. 3:5). By Jesus’ washing of death and resurrection you have become “heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Tit. 3:7). You may leave behind the ugliness of your sin and stand with your Lord in His purifying water.

Jesus’ Baptism also works for you when you commune at His Table. In His Body and Blood truly present under bread and wine you receive all the benefits of His sacrificial death. Heaven opens. The Holy Spirit descends. And the Father renews and enriches you as His own beloved children. So why fear? Why doubt? Why whine and complain? When you eat and drink at this Table, you are filled with Him in whom “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). After all, you have also been “buried with Him in baptism, in which you were raised with Him through faith in the powerful working of God” (Col. 2:12).

Finally, Jesus’ Baptism takes place in you at your death. When your heart stops beating and your brain activity ceases, you plunge into the darkest depths. But in Christ you will arise from those depths. Your Baptism has already taken care of the big death—the separation from God for all eternity that you deserve. So when you arise from bodily death, you will be on the other side of the Jordan, in our Lord’s pure gift of the eternal Promised Land. “Death’s flood has lost its chill / Since Jesus crossed the river” (LSB 482:2). You will get to see the Blessed Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—no longer in a mirror dimly, but finally and clearly face-to-face.

So ponder all these things in your heart as you put yourself in the Jordan River in that picture. Rejoice in them every time you pass the font into Your Lord’s presence. Jesus stands in the water for you, and you stand there with Him for life. That’s God’s truth and beauty—for you, for your family, for your friends, and for every neighbor He puts in your path. Amen.

07 January 2020

Homily for Second Sunday after Christmas (2020)

"Freedom Fulfilled"
Matthew 2:13-23

Today our Infant Lord shows us how He fulfills our freedom. In His flight to Egypt our Lord Jesus reenacts and fulfills God’s exodus salvation for us sinners.

First, we see Joseph, Mary, and our Infant Savior fleeing to Egypt as a safe haven. This happened repeatedly in the Old Testament. In Genesis 12, Abram fled to Egypt during a time of famine. That was also when Abram tried to pass his wife Sarai off as his sister. It seems even faithful Abram had some difficulties trusting in God’s protection. But God still took care of His servant Abram by sending him to Egypt.

In Genesis 37, one of Abram’s great-grandsons, Joseph, son of Jacob, was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt. Later he was imprisoned on a trumped up charge of sexual misconduct. As God’s providence would have it, Joseph was later released from prison and became second in command of all Egypt. That’s when he prepared the land for a severe famine and managed the resources through the famine. All of it revealed how God was with him.

Then, in Genesis 46—our first reading—God tells Jacob, “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt.” Now this was a big deal! About 30 years earlier, God had told Isaac, Jacob’s father, “Don’t go to Egypt; don’t leave the land I’m giving you” (Genesis 26). But now it’s another time of famine. And here in Genesis 46, God wants to protect and provide for Jacob and his family by sending them to Egypt. God also wants to reunite Jacob with his long-lost son, Joseph. So He gives Jacob a mighty promise: “there I will make you into a great nation.” For our Old Testament fathers in the faith, fleeing to Egypt often meant going to a safe haven.

So Infant Jesus also flees to Egypt as a safe haven—for refuge from wicked King Herod. Jesus is born, but even for Him life is no bed of roses. He quickly becomes a refugee. He is hated and hunted down. The Magi had come to visit and worship the new-born King Jesus. Then they left by another route and did not go back to Herod. Herod was furious! You see, Herod had a history of brutally eliminating any and all perceived threats to his throne. So he especially wanted to destroy this Newborn King. And God instructs Joseph—Jesus’ guardian—to take Mary and the Child and flee to Egypt. They would find refuge there, but it would not be their home.

What can we take away from all of this? We Christians are in the world, but not of it. Outside of the Divine Service, there’s no such thing as heaven on earth. Remember what Jesus said before Pontius Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (Jn. 18:36). And St. Paul insisted on boasting “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). Let’s remember this in the “culture battles” we face year in and year out. It’s what we face in keeping Christ in Christmas. It’s what we face when many voices reject our Christ-confessing Christmas hymns and decorations. It’s what we face in speaking up for and defending the unborn. It’s what Christians face on university campuses. It’s what Christian business owners face as the culture tries to “redefine marriage” and penalize them for standing on God’s Word and will. The Egypt of this world is not so welcoming of us Christians!

St. Paul would remind us to rely on our Savior, not the state of our culture: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Phil. 3:20-21).

For the Old Testament saints and for our Infant Savior, fleeing to Egypt did mean going to a safe haven. But Egypt was also a place to flee from. And fleeing from Egypt means freedom from slavery.

In Exodus, Moses led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. Israel had been there for over 400 years and enslaved for much of that time. We even read of baby boys being slaughtered in Egypt to keep the Hebrews from becoming too strong. So God raised up Moses and protected him from the widespread slaughter of innocent baby boys. Moses grew up as an Egyptian in the household of Pharaoh’s daughter. Then he fled from Egypt. Then he returned to lead God’s people out of slavery and oppression. Of course, Moses delivered God’s Ten Commandments, and then he led the children of Israel through the wilderness for 40 years.

So when Infant Jesus returns out of Egypt, He is reenacting everything the children of Israel went through. The prophet Hosea had proclaimed, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hos. 11:1). Jesus doesn’t just reenact the exodus from Egypt, though; He fulfills it. In fact, He gives it a whole new meaning. Coming out of Egypt means freedom from slavery—especially freedom from slavery to sin.

You and I may not be freed from our Egypt of this world until the Last Day, but we are freed from our slavery to sin even as we journey through this wilderness. We Christians get to flee the Egypt of our sin and death. We are freed to live all of life with our Suffering Savior. How so?

When the children of Israel were delivered from Egypt,  they were set free by the death of the first-born of all of Egypt. They were baptized as they crossed through the Red Sea on dry ground. They were freed to live with God. As they wandered through the wilderness, God fed and sustained them with the food called “manna.” We Christians are set free from sin and death by the death of Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. In that Baptism, we are freed to live with God—with our Suffering Savior—for all of life. This Little Savior who fled to and from Egypt makes us His people. We confess our sins, and He forgives us. He also feeds and sustains us with the food of His very Body and Blood right here on earth under the bread and wine.

You see, from His earliest days as God in man made manifest, our Lord Jesus was the Suffering Savior who comes for us suffering people. We need Him to fulfill the freedom first revealed in the Old Testament.

Have you ever noticed that the Apostles’ Creed does not say much about the earthly life of our Lord Jesus? Only one verb is used between His Birth and His Crucifixion—the verb “suffered.” He was “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.” Our Lord Jesus came to live our life, the way we live it—in suffering. And He came to rescue us from it. And He has freed you from it.

But, pastor, we still suffer! We suffer from illnesses of various kinds. We suffer from economic uncertainties, family discord, violence in the streets, even shootings in churches. We suffer scorn just for being Christians. How can you say that Jesus has freed us from our suffering?

St. Peter is most helpful for us this morning: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…. If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name [of Christ]…. Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.” (1 Pet. 4:12-19).

When Jesus flees to and returns from Egypt, He is showing you that He is your true Deliverer. He comes to fulfill your freedom—freedom from sin and death, even if and when you do suffer. “Because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Heb. 2:18). Our Savior came to take the place of Israel, and now He still comes to take our place and walk with us. That’s how He fulfills our freedom from sin and death. Amen.