28 September 2020

Homily for St. Michael and All Angels (Observed) - 2020

"Seeing the Battle"

Luke 10:17-20

Blurry vision is better than no vision at all.

So I discovered this past Friday on my early morning bike ride. As I began my ride in the dark, I could see it was foggy. The further I rode, the soupier the fog became—like pea soup, as we say. The longer I rode, the more the moisture collected on my glasses, blocking my vision. When I stopped at the light at Holly Hills and Morganford, I removed my glasses and used my cycling jersey to wipe off the condensation. Well, that moved the water droplets around a bit. I had to stop again, after another mile and a half; then again after another mile. I even tried using my fingers as “windshield wipers” on my glasses as I rode. Finally, I decided simply to remove my glasses, put them in my jersey pocket, and ride the final five miles with blurry but better vision. It was much safer than riding with vision cut off by countless tiny water droplets and some finger smudges.

In a way, the 72 disciples of Jesus had to learn this lesson too. Jesus had sent them out to “Heal the sick…and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you’” (Lk. 10:9). He had enlisted them in the very same combat mission in which He was engaged. The difference between Jesus and His 72 sent out ones is this: He can clearly see the battle that’s raging. His fallen-but-redeemed human messengers? Not so much.

You see, wherever Jesus goes, whatever He does, He goes marching into battle. Remember when Jesus entered this fallen world. King Herod tried to snuff out the life of Mary and Joseph’s Child. By God’s direction they fled to Egypt for a time. Remember about 30 years later after Jesus was baptized. He was “led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil” (Lk. 4:2). There He battled the arch enemy over some food, some physical protection, and a whole lot of earthly glory.

When He returned to His hometown of Nazareth, He used His synagogue sermon to set out the agenda for His ministry. He would proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives. The blind would receive their sight, and the oppressed would be set free. He would proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk. 4:16-19). At first His hearers marveled at His gracious words. But then He confronted them with their own pride and unbelief. So they drove Him out of the town and tried to throw Him off the cliff. But He passed through the riotous crowd and walked away.

Then came the teachings and healings. Every word He spoke and every person He healed was a frontal assault on the ruler of this world. He spoke of God’s gracious reign entering—that is, invading—this world so darkened by suspicion, hatred, discontent, violence, and death. He spoke of the God who loves and forgives His fallen people, even though those same fallen people are prone to ignore Him. To those who do receive His message of divine grace, mercy, and forgiveness, He also spoke of not being judgmental but rather loving one’s neighbor in many and various ways. And the healings! Folks were liberated from various captivities: demon-possession, leprosy, paralysis, withered hands, sicknesses leading to death, even death itself.

Wherever Jesus goes, whatever He does, He brings the age-old battle to the enemy—the great dragon, that ancient serpent. The 72 were sent out with the same battle plan: to heal the sick and proclaim the coming of God’s gracious kingdom in Christ. When they returned to Jesus, they took pride in what they had done. “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” They were giddy in their apparent victory and success. But their glasses were covered with the pea-soup fog of pride.

Yes, Jesus did see Satan fall like lightning from heaven, both at the beginning of creation and every time His sent ones proclaimed His kingdom of mercy and forgiveness. Yes, Jesus had given them authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and even over all the power of the enemy. He even promised that nothing would hurt them. But they needed to remove their glasses fogged up with pride. “Don’t rejoice that some junior devils are subject to you when you proclaim Me,” Jesus says. “Instead, ‘rejoice that your names are written in heaven.’”

It seems a bit counterintuitive, doesn’t it? Engage in the same war Jesus is engaged in, but do not focus on victories in the minor skirmishes? We do need to remove our glasses fogged up with the pea soup of pride. We do need to see with better clarity even if, to us, it’s still blurry.

You see, we are at war. Not against nations or terrorists. Not a ground war, sea war, air war, nuclear war, or war against a microscopic virus. Not a war against flesh and blood. We are at war “against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). It’s cosmic, spiritual warfare. We can see it only with blurred vision, which is better than not seeing because of pride.

In our Old Testament reading, we see the battle lines drawn. It’s the wise versus the wicked. It’s the kings of the earth lined up against the people of God. But they are not the only ones on the battlefield. There’s also Michael, the prince of God’s people. He and his forces confront and engage the antichrist.

This picture comes into clearer focus in our reading from Revelation. Michael and his ranks of angels do battle against the dragon and his fallen angels. And they defeat the the dragon and his evil minions. The victory comes in a most unexpected, unanticipated way. “They have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (Rev. 12:11). Our Lord Jesus, who had seen Satan fall like lightning from heaven, finally conquered the old evil foe. He who was higher than the angels became a little Child, humble, trusting His heavenly Father, and obedient unto death. By dying on a cross and shedding His innocent blood He conquered the ancient serpent. That with His resurrection on the third day crushed the serpent’s head. That’s the victory we can clearly see.

But the fighting is not over. Between that victory on Calvary and the Feast of Victory after the Last Day, the devil and his forces are still in the world doing their dirty work. Remember, “your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8). He and his forces will do whatever it takes to further their cause. They’ll use pandemics and responses to pandemics to turn people away from Jesus, prevent them from hearing His Word and receiving His Sacrament, and sow seeds of suspicion and division among people. They’ll use highly charged politics in an election year and violence in the streets to make fears and anxieties grow.

This is why, in our Gospel reading, our Lord warns His disciples not to become pawns of the evil one. How might you and I become pawns of the dragon in his battle against our Lord and His Church? By succumbing to pride. By desiring greatness and acclaim. By forgetting we are the Lord’s “little ones” who can see only with the clarity of faith, even as we have the blurred vision of physical sight.

As the Church engages in the struggle against Satan and his demonic forces, she does so with St. Michael and the holy angels at her side. In Holy Baptism, we become God’s “little children.” Our Father hears our prayers and sends His angels to guard us in all our ways. In Holy Absolution we hear our Father’s word of pardon for our offenses, including our offenses against weaker members of His family. In the Holy Supper we participate in the Feast of Victory and are fed with Life Himself as our living Bread from heaven. And in the liturgy we are brought into the very presence of our Lord Jesus and join the angels and archangels in their unending hymn of praise.

Let this St. Michael and All Angels Day remove your lenses of pride and improve your vision. We may not be able to see the battle against the spiritual forces of evil nor the holy angels themselves. But your Lord, by His blood, has conquered the evil foe. Your Lord sends His angels to serve as your powerful protectors. Rejoice that your names are written heaven. Amen.

21 September 2020

Homily for Trinity 15

"Liberated from Anxious Worry"

Matthew 6:24-34

A Swedish proverb says, “Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.” How true that is! This odd year called 2020 is conditioning us to make and live in lots of big shadows. Remember when the pandemic started and we endured the big shadow of toilet paper and paper towel shortages? I still have no idea what a run on paper goods rolled on cardboard tubes had to do with COVID, but there it was—that big shadow.

One anonymous source tried to calculate just what makes people anxious. According to that source,
40% of the average person’s anxieties focus on things that never happen;
30% of a person’s anxieties focus on things of the past, things that cannot be changed;
12% of one’s anxieties are over criticisms, which are mostly untrue;
10% of a person’s anxieties are over health issues, and those health issues only get worse with stress; and
only 8% of the average person’s anxieties are about real problems.   

We fallen creatures seem to relish giving small things a big shadow. Or, how about this picture for your worries and anxieties: Worry is like a rocking chair. It may give you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.

Our Lord knows this. He also knows how His disciples, both then and now, are so very prone to anxious worry. So He invites us to learn from the little birds and the tiny lily. He woos and invites us to be liberated from our anxious worry.

First, Jesus gives us an “either/or” lesson for looking at the world. Just before our text, He said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21). Then with His first words in our Gospel, He says: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” You cannot divide your loyalties. You cannot simultaneously serve God and money. You cannot simultaneously serve God and anxious worry. There is only room in your heart for one lord and master. Will it be God, or will it be your anxious worry? As Luther said, “The confidence and faith of the heart alone make both God and an idol…. [W]hatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god” (LC I:2-3).

Next, Jesus gives us His wonderfully simple object lessons of the little birds and the tiny lily.

What can we learn from the little birds? One time Martin Luther was overwhelmed by the vast variety of birds in God’s creation. He pondered how much it might cost God to feed them all with so many different kinds of seeds and berries. Wouldn’t a few standard types of birds be more economical?, Luther wondered. There are robins, ravens, jackdaws, crows, canaries, cardinals, wrens, finches, and so many more. Yet God knows each and every one of them. And no petite hummingbird falls to the ground dead without God knowing it. They neither grow nor harvest their own crops, nor store their food in barns. “Yet,” Jesus says, “your heavenly Father feeds them.”

So who among you, people of God—people more valuable than those little birds, people bought back with the blood of Christ—who among you can add a mere 18 inches to your long-distance marathon of life? After all, you live your lives under the Father’s care. You live your lives with the Son’s cross-won forgiveness. Why be anxious? Why worry about a new disease that we now know has a 99% survivability rate? Why worry about destructive riots and devastating wildfires? Oh, I know, many in the media and some of our leaders keep stoking the fires of fear and anxiety. But they cannot overrule your Father’s promises in Jesus.

As Proverbs reminds you: “Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (12:25). That good word is your Father’s love through Christ crucified for anxious sinners. The psalmist also reminds you: “It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Ps. 127:2). You may rest safe and secure in your Father’s care.

What can we learn from the tiny lily? Now this is not the splendid, fragrant Easter lily, tall and proud. No, this is the tiny little flower you see growing in bunches in the grass along the roadside. This tiny lily grows as a creature of God. This miniature flower does not make itself grow, but God makes this lily grow. It is entirely dependent upon His goodness and provision. So it waits on God for its growth and strength. And it accepts God’s good design. It knows it is not a mighty oak tree. The tiny lily is not impatient. It has no hurry or fluster. It has a deep quiet and a strong peace.

We might think also of Mary’s Baby—quiet, hidden in her womb for nine months, and growing as God provided. Then after He was born, He grew into a young boy, He would go to school, play, help around the house, and perhaps play with the tiny lilies, without a care in the world. Remember this when you get flustered, impatient, and overshadowed with anxious worry. Remember the tiny lily. Especially remember the lily of the valleys, your Lord Jesus, who came from Mary, the rose of Sharon (Songs 2:1).

Not only is this tiny lily in Jesus’ object lesson a creature of God; it also lives solely to God. It has no anxious toil for security and safety in life. It does not spin or store up in banks or retirement funds. It does not worry about where to get clothing, food, drink, or toilet paper. It simply finds its fulfillment in living with the design and purpose given by God. Even its appearance and beauty is a gift from God. That’s what makes it more splendid and beautiful than Solomon in his luxurious glory.

But notice what else Jesus says about the tiny lily: today it’s alive and tomorrow it’s thrown into the oven. The lily can die quietly and without complaint. In death as in life, the lily lives only by God’s design and only with God’s purpose.

So too, the lily of the valleys, our Lord Jesus. He came into this sin-cursed world, this creation that groans under the weight of sin and death, to live God’s purpose of rescue and healing. He was crushed by the curse and thrown into the oven of crucifixion. He died without complaint, as He died for you and your salvation. And you know the rest of the story. He also rose again! His resurrection means your resurrection. His life restored means your life restored and creation restored for all eternity.

When it’s your time to die, you may die quietly and without complaint. This is true whether you die from natural causes, from COVID, in the path of a riot, or a wildfire, or a hurricane, or from something else. No need to be anxious, because your Father cares for you.

Jesus is drawing and wooing and inviting you to be free from all anxious worry over all of your needs. How can you do this? “Seek first the [reign] of God and His righteousness.” Receive His blessing and His calling that come only through Jesus. Keep seeking Jesus where He promises to be found. Keep seeking His gracious rule in the forgiveness of sins. You seek His reign when you seek His Gospel in the Scriptures and the Sacraments. You seek His reign with your brothers and sisters in Christ. Together you are joined to Jesus in your Baptism. Together you gather to hear His Word of life that makes anxiety dissipate. Together you receive His Body and Blood for forgiveness, life, and salvation.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:1-3). Amen.

15 September 2020

Homily for Trinity 14

"Lepers Cleansed"

Luke 17:11-19

The ten lepers are us, and we are the ten lepers. They suffered from physical leprosy that ravaged their bodies. We and all people suffer from spiritual leprosy that ravages both body and soul. These ten lepers give us a picture of the human race infected with the leprosy of sin.

When we hear the term “leprosy,” we usually think of Hansen’s disease—a bacterial infection that can affect nerves, skin, and eyes and then lead to a loss of feeling and even paralysis. In the Bible, leprosy certainly included that, but it probably also included illnesses such as eczema—a skin rash—and dermatitis—scaly, flaking skin and itchiness.

Our sin is like leprosy in several respects:

  • Leprosy affects and destroys the whole body. Sin totally infects, affects and destroys our strength in both body and soul—nothing sound from head to toe.
  • Leprosy is a disease that spreads. So does sin, coming into the world through one man and spreading to us all. St. Paul calls it “the works of the flesh”—with all those nasty symptoms of “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger” and so on—all those symptoms that even present themselves in us.
  • Leprosy cannot be healed by man’s efforts. Today, treatments may prevent the disease from getting worse, but they cannot reverse the  damage. And remember the story of Naaman. He sought healing from the King of Israel, but the King of Israel cried out, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive?” (2 Kgs. 5:7). Sin absolutely cannot be healed by human means—not by doctors, paramedics, or politicians. After all, those “desires of the flesh are against the Spirit.”
  • Leprosy is a viral disease that spreads to others who are healthy. Modern medicine may quibble with just how it spreads. Sin itself does spread its contamination. Consider the many ways our fallen world infects us all in thought, word and deed to think, speak and act in ways that go against God’s Word, ways that lead us to distrust God and be unloving to our neighbor—“rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”
  • And leprosy, once it takes hold, eats its way more and more through the body. Likewise, sin. Because of this infection we all have, one sin leads to another, and that one easily to yet another. First, the desire; then the misdeed; then the excuse; then the cover-up; then the lie; and so on.

If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not need police officers, laws, penalties or rulings of law courts. If it weren’t for our leprosy of sin, we would not have to endure racial tensions, injustices, pandemics or destructive rioting.

In the Old Testament, God instructed His people on how to deal with lepers. Lepers had to separate themselves from everyone else because their diseases of infected, decaying, rotting flesh could infect others. When healthy people walked by, the lepers were supposed to warn them by crying out “Unclean!” When a person was infected with leprosy, he had to show himself to the priest. The priest would pronounce him unclean, and the person would have to quarantine in the leper colony outside the city. Social distancing, Bible-style!

When a leper was healed of his leprosy, he would again show himself to the priest, the priest would offer the appropriate sacrifices, and then pronounce him “clean.” In Leviticus 14, cleansing of lepers happened, first, by killing a bird in an earthen vessel over fresh, living water. Next, a live bird, a piece of cedarwood, and a scarlet yarn were dipped in that water mixed with blood. Then the priest, using the live bird wet with blood and water, would “sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease” (Lev. 14:7). As God said, “Thus the priest shall make atonement for [the leper], and he shall be clean” (Lev. 14:20).

So, let’s imitate the ten lepers as Jesus comes passing along between the Samaria and Galilee of our lives. Let’s lift up our voices and cry out: “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And let’s listen to and heed Him when He bids us to show ourselves to the priest. No, not those priests at the Jerusalem temple, but Jesus, our great High Priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 2:14). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 2:15).

How can we be healed and saved from our spiritual leprosy? Only by finding our way to Jesus, the sole physician for the soul. “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 2:16). “Offered was He for greatest and for least, / Himself the victim and Himself the priest” (LSB 637:1). Not only is Jesus both victim and priest for you, He is also the dead bird and the living bird for you. He is the One who cleanses you “by the washing of water with [His] word, so that He might present [you] to Himself in splendor” (Eph. 5:26-27), cleansed of your leprosy of sin.

Actually, we don’t have to find our way to Him. He has found His way to us! Just as the ten lepers were cleansed before they found their way to the priests—not by their own reason or strength, nor by their decision or will—we are cleansed in the bath of our Baptism—not by our own reason, strength, decision or will. Our baptismal bath sprinkles us with the very blood and water that flowed from the side of Christ crucified. He is the One who was crucified outside the city. He is the One who comes by water and blood; not by the water only but by the water and the blood (1 Jn. 5:6).

Now let’s put ourselves in the shoes of the one cleansed leper who returned to Jesus. Let’s take our cue from him on how to live all of life in our Baptism. I’m sure the other nine former lepers were generically thankful as civic courtesy and politeness would dictate. But they went on to live their lives apart from Jesus. The Samaritan, however, “turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving Him thanks.” He did more than just give thanks. He gave praise to God. He returned to the Giver of the gift of cleansing. He was not merely content to enjoy the gift; he wanted to enjoy and be with the Giver.

That’s living your baptismal life. Not just a generic thankfulness for a quick healing. Not just a slight nod and a mental note that something special happened a long time ago, but then getting back to “real life.” No, the baptismal life is about living all of life in Jesus, with Jesus, and in the presence of Jesus. Daily contrition and repentance. Drowning that Old Adam in you. Making him die with all sins and evil desires every day. And then—thank the Lord and sing His praise!—emerging and arising every day to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Your one-time baptismal cleansing becomes your daily hygiene routine—not a burdensome routine, but a joyful living in the blood and water that continually heals and cleanses.

We all wrestle with sin every day. That leprous disease keeps flaring up even in us who are cleansed by Jesus’ blood and water. We will keep wrestling with our leprous sin until Jesus returns on the Last Day. It’s not a matter of Jesus’ healing not fully doing its job. It has! It’s a matter of living in faith, continually receiving His cleansing, and thus praising Him as did the Samaritan.

Martin Luther confessed this in the face of those who deny that sin remains after Baptism. The fact that sin remains after Baptism undercuts every notion of perfectionism—that is, thinking you can be free of sin or attain a sin-free life this side of heaven. It also topples any notion of “once-saved-always-saved.” While the healing for that Samaritan and the other nine was instantaneous, Jesus chooses to heal us over the long-haul. The sin is forgiven, to be sure; Jesus’ healing, though, is ongoing. Here’s how Luther expressed it:

“This life…is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed.” (“A Defense and Explanation of All Articles” [AE 32:24]).

So we return to Jesus yet again, at His Table. “Draw near and take the body of the Lord, / And drink the holy blood for you outpoured” (LSB 637:1). We return to receive the healing He gives. We return to give praise to Him.

“Let us praise the Word Incarnate,
Christ, who suffered in our place.
Jesus died and rose victorious
That we may know God by grace.
Let us sing for joy and gladness,
Seeing what our God has done;
Let us praise the true Redeemer,
Praise the One who makes us one” (LSB 849:3).