Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Singapore Mission - Special Announcement

Dear Friends and Supporters,

Grace and peace to you in Jesus Christ,

The first purpose of this letter is to thank you for your support of our Singapore mission this past year. We appreciate each and every one of you, your prayers, your kindness, and your gifts. It is through you and your generosity that the Lord makes this kind of work possible. “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers” 1 Thessalonians 1:2

As you know, it's been quite some time that we have experienced tremendous difficulty obtaining a visa that would permit our family to move to Singapore as originally planned. While we have tried several paths toward this goal, it doesn't look like any one is a viable option for some time. Many of you have wondered, as we have, “what's next for our work in Singapore and for our family?”

So the second purpose of this letter is to share that plans for LCMS mission work in Singapore are shifting. For now, Word and Sacrament ministry to the emerging congregation there will be handled by LCMS missionary Pastor Charles Ferry. Pastor Ferry is based in Jakarta, Indonesia, only a short 1.5 hour plane flight away. It simply makes far more sense for him to make frequent visits than for me to go back and forth from the United States. The LCMS will not abandon Singapore, but for now, this alternate arrangement makes the most sense given the challenges to obtaining the appropriate visas to live in Singapore. I am confident the congregation and its members will be well served in Pastor Ferry's faithful care.

I am reminded of 1 Corinthians 3:6 “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth”. St. Paul explains the work of the Gospel is far greater than one person, and the Holy Spirit often works through a succession of individuals to accomplish His purposes. But it is, ultimately, His work.

As for myself, I am transitioning to a new and exciting mission role. Currently the LCMS Office of National Mission is exploring the potential of supporting new mission starts here in the United States, the third largest mission field in the world. These new starts will be in places that desperately need pastors but cannot afford them on their own. These ministries will be in places the LCMS must be in the future although their financial potential to be independently sustainable will always be a challenge.

The plan is for me to use my church-planting experience in a new context, our larger cities. Working with Rev. Steve Schave, director of LCMS Urban and Inner City Mission, we have identified a number of possible locations for a strategic church-plant in or near major metropolitan areas. Likely, our first new urban/inner city church plant will focus especially on college students at a major university. Because many campus ministries have the opportunity to connect with international students, my experience overseas will also come in handy. All of this we will do in an authentically Lutheran way, with Word and Sacraments at the forefront, preaching Christ crucified at every opportunity.

As I transition to this exciting new national mission field, many questions still remain, for which we don't yet have answers. I boldly ask that you keep my family and me in your prayers as God moves to open the required doors. I'll certainly let you know more as I do, and continue communicating the progress of His mission in which we are privileged to serve.

I also pray you would consider supporting me in this work financially, just as I know you would if I went overseas, and that you would share my story with those who care deeply about reaching people here in the U.S. This new domestic work in urban/inner-city or campus settings will require designated financial support from God’s baptized people.

Over the last decade the LCMS, like other large church bodies, has lost ground in our cities and on college campuses. Our Christ-focused witness and mercy ‘footprint’ has shrunk. This cannot continue. We must go back into these ripe harvest fields with the Gospel! This will be a network-supported position, and we will continue to rely on a group of faithful financial partners to supply what is required to sustain us in our work. As I visit congregations, I am often asked, “what about missions here in the United States?” This new position is a purposeful, intentional response to this very question. Christ has commissioned us to make disciples of ALL nations, and the nations are literally coming to us. The mission is here. The mission is now.

If you prefer to continue supporting the work in Singapore, or would like to explore another opportunity to partner with an international missionary, please contact Deb Feenstra or Michelle Beckmann the Mission Advancement office in St. Louis (1-888-930-4438) to make arrangements.

Through all of this, our God has been faithful to us. To Him belongs the glory and praise.

In Christ our Advent Lord,

Rev. Thomas Chryst
Strategic Mission Developer

The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod

"Where the paschal blood is poured, death's dread angel sheathes the sword"

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 19 - Matthew 22:15-22

Matthew 22:15-22

You and I, fellow sinners, do not do as we ought. Any time the law is brought to bear and focus on us, it shows every little fault and failing. So too with Jesus' words today. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's”.

We might think in terms of the Catechism. The Fourth Commandment, “You shall honor your father and mother” also entails the command to obey all rightful earthly authorities. But also to honor, serve, love and cherish them. The law here is that sinners like you and me, we don't really like authority much. We generally despise being told what to do.

From the day we learn the word, NO, and shout it at our loving parents, to the grumbling about this silly law or that, or having to pay this tax or that,
or my boss is a jerk
and the pastor is boring
and my husband doesn't deserve my respect
and the teacher at school is so clueless...

Find an earthly authority in your life and you will not have far to look, to see your Old Adam hating that authority, chaffing at it, shaking his fist in rebellion.

And all these authorities God places in our lives, are ways that he rules his creation for our good. So when you despise God-given authority, you despise the ultimate authority of God. And God works through these authorities, even tainted and corrupted by sin that they are – just as he worked through Cyrus his “chosen instrument” to accomplish his purposes. But we despise the good gifts of God, the authorities he gives us.

Render unto Caesar, Jesus says. Easier said than done, when you're a sinner.

Or render to God what is God's. Not there's something. For what isn't God's? Our whole life, our everything, for starters. And yet we want it for ourselves. This is a basic First Commandment issue. When we put anything in the place of God, we trample on Jesus' words here, “Render to God what is God's”.

Here I suppose some would criticize Christians for not giving enough money to church. But perhaps some give money even to let themselves off the hook a little for not giving something else they should. Well, we should give unto God from the bounty he gives us, but even that's not what is at the bottom of all this.

But what especially would God have of us? Repentance. He would have us come in humble confession of our sins. He would have a broken and contrite heart. He doesn't want your good works, as if you even have any to offer. He does want a change of your heart, a turning from sin, a genuine sorrow that you have grieved God by your actions and inactions, your thoughts and words, too.

And just as they couldn't fool Jesus with tricky questions about taxes, you can't fool the Lord God when it comes to your own sins. Though you try to rationalize or excuse why you haven't rendered properly to God or Caesar, he won't simply let you off the hook, without the cost which must be paid.

But what about Jesus? Did he practice what he preached? Does he “render unto Caesar?” And what if anything, did he “render unto God?”

With Jesus, there's always a twist.

He rendered unto Caesar, through Pontius Pilate, what didn't belong to Caesar. Just listen to this conversation with Pilate when Jesus was “on trial” (from John's Gospel):

33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

Jesus, it seemed to Pilate, was “rendered unto Caesar” by his own people. But Jesus knew better, that only he could give up his freedom, his life, his kingdom. Pilate and the Jews weren't forcing anything here. Jesus, the King far above and beyond this world, meant it to be this way. It was his plan, his purpose. To render himself to Caesar, and more importantly, to God, as a sacrifice for the sins of the world. Anyone who was listening to Jesus would know this truth. Jesus came to bring us freedom, his life, his kingdom – by rendering up himself, on the cross.

By rendering his own life to God, he paid a price he didn't owe. But far more than covering your tab at the restaurant, or you tax bill with the government, Jesus pays, offers, renders the price for sin. He pays what we couldn't, even if we tried. He gives what we don't have to give – the holy and precious blood of the spotless Lamb of God.

Oh and there's another way to look at this phrase, “Render unto God what is God's”. Look again to how Luther treats the First Commandment, that we “should fear, love and trust in God above all things”. Now there's some law there, no doubt, but did you hear the Gospel side of it? The good news not that not only should we, but we can “trust” God? That we can trust him “above all things”? If he were only an angry judge, why would we trust him? But if he is the God who has, in Jesus Christ, wiped the slate clean – then who better to trust? Certainly not ourselves. Certainly not fellow sinners, even the princes of this world. They have no ultimate answer to our problems. Only God, through Jesus Christ, deserves our trust. And what a blessing that he calls us to do just that. That's faith. And that's what God wants us to render to him more than anything.

So, repentance and faith, all for the sake of Christ. Render unto him what is his. For he rendered his all for you.

When Jesus passed the test with his answer about taxes, the Pharisee and Herodian inquisitors marveled. But we can marvel all the more at all that Christ has done for us. Marvel in faith, that he renders himself, that our confession is met with forgiveness, and that by His Spirit we render true faith in God. Marvel at it all, for the sake of Christ, Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Sermon - St. Michael and All Angels - Revelation 12:7-12

And war broke out in heaven....

We know of war. We hear of wars and rumors of wars. We see our nation and others fighting over things that matter and things that don't. Some of you have even fought in wars, in foreign lands. Maybe you're against war in general or against a particular war. Maybe you wonder, war, what is it good for?

But the war that broke out in heaven – is like no other war that would ever be. Michael the archangel and his angels fought with the dragon, that great serpent of old, and all his evil angels.

We don't know how long this war lasted, or if, even, that's a question that makes sense. Revelation uses pictures and symbols to express heavenly and spiritual realities, that are in many cases, timeless, eternal. But though they are spiritual, they are just as real.

So in this war of the heavens, we don't know what tactics and strategies were used, or many other things. But we know what's most important: who wins. The good guys. Michael and the angels. They cast the Dragon – aka the Devil, Satan, the Ancient Serpent – they cast him and his fallen angels out of heaven – there is no place for them in God's presence any longer – and they fell.
In rage, smoldering at their defeat and humiliation, the Devil seeks to do what damage he can in what little time he has left. If he can't get to the Lord of Heaven himself, he will set his sights on those created in God's image. And so he roars and prowls and looks to devour even you, and you, and me. The Devil is real, and he is dangerous. He is our most powerful enemy. He is far smarter than you. He knows God's Word far better... Luther even called the Devil a Doctor of Theology. But his wicked knowledge is all geared toward one purpose – to do you harm. To destroy your life, to see you suffer and die. And ultimately, if it were possible, to steal you away, to lead you astray, even gently if he has to, from the Christian faith and from your Lord.

This is the most insidious way that he devours. His slithering question, “Did God really say...?” continues to be asked today. It is asked in the public square when Christian teaching is ridiculed and marginalized. It is asked in church bodies that dance to the Devil's pied-piper tune and plot a course away from God's word and into heresy and damnation. And the Devil's question is asked and answered when you reach for whatever forbidden fruit hangs in front of you – and you decide you know better and want to be like God. Oh Lord, deliver us from this evil, we pray!

But just as our foe was cast out of Heaven, so will he one day be cast into the lake of fire. Just as he fell like lightning from heaven, so does he fall in defeat to the same weapons of warfare used by Michael and the angels. “they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony”. It seems the angels, too, use the same weapons given to us, Christians. The blood of the Lamb and the testimony, the word of God.

The word. It's the way Jesus himself defeated the tempter in the wilderness. It is written. It is written. It is written. The word that created and recreates. The same word which bespeaks us righteous. The same word cried out, “Father forgive them” and which forgives you, even today. The same word that will be spoken over your grave, “Death, where is thy victory, Death where is thy sting?”. The same word which will be spoken at the trumpet call of God when Christ returns with all his angels and brings all things to fulfillment. The word of God. That word of God made flesh in Christ.

And the other “weapon” by which they overcame - The blood of the Lamb. It's the way Jesus himself defeated the Foe on our behalf, at the cross. There and then the Accuser lost any sins to accuse, because Jesus took them all away. The blood of the Lamb. “His blood be on us and on our children” the murderous crowd seethed. And bitter and blessed irony, His blood is upon us, to save us. The blood of the Lamb, by the water of baptism, douses the doorposts of your heart - to mark you – so that the destroyer would passover this one. Jesus was destroyed in your place. His blood shed in exchange for yours. His defeat – your victory.

But the blood of Jesus doesn't just stop at the cross. The blood of Jesus by which we overcome the Dragon and all his forces of evil is also for us today. The blood once shed, the body once broken – dead, but now alive forever – that same body and blood are here for you in on the altar, in the bread and wine, by the promise of the Lamb himself. Here, he breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, and saves us by his grace, delivering us from evil. Here in this holy meal you receive the victorious Christ, and are united with him and with his victory.

Likewise the testimony by which they overcame – the same word of God, the Gospel of Jesus Christ in particular, is preached from this pulpit, read at that lectern, sung in this sanctuary, prayed at this altar. This word, this sharp, two-edged sword, not only kills our old Adam and revives our own Spirit, but the same proclamation of Christ disarms and destroys the foe and his accusations. It is the one little word that can fell him.

So God sends his holy angels, who once cast Satan from heaven, to watch over us even here and now. In a sense the war still continues, as we struggle not against flesh and blood but against the spiritual forces of evil. Thanks be to God for our allies in this fight, those messengers from on high who watch over and defend the children of God at his command. Why shouldn't the Lord God, who spared not even his own Son for our salvation, not also give us even more? Why shouldn't he who feeds us and quenches us with Christ's body and blood, and speaks to us his word of promise, not also keep us by his firstborn sons of light?

Therefore rejoice, oh heavens, and you who dwell in them! And can't we count ourselves among the inhabitants of heaven? Certainly our citizenship is there. Surely our destination is with the Lord. Even now, we are strangers and sojourners on this earth. We are in it, but not of it.

For salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of His Christ have come.. to us. Like the angels, we too overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the testimony. And we too see the accusations of Satan fall to nothing, for in Christ, your sins are no more. Battle over. Victory won. Eternity secure. In Jesus' Name. Amen.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 12 - Matthew 16:21-26

Christian teaching is full of paradox. God is three, yet he is one. Jesus is human, yet divine. This is bread and wine, but also Christ's body and blood. And you, Christian, are sinner yet also saint, wicked and righteous, dead in sin, yet alive in Christ.

Today Jesus says, “whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever would lose his life for my sake will find it”. Friends these sorts of mysterious sayings can only be rightly understood through the cross.

Last week, we hear Peter's great confession, his bright shining moment. “You are the Christ!” he declares. And Jesus blesses him for it. He's on top of the mountain, spiritually speaking. It all comes together with this wonderful insight, given by the Father. Everyone's been asking and wondering who Jesus is, and Peter, just a regular guy, a fisherman, is given the answer from heaven above. Wow. What a glorious moment.

And then it all comes crashing down. Because with what seems like the very next breath Jesus is calling Peter the devil. “Get behind me, Satan! For you do not have in mind the things of God but the things of man!” Wha – what?

Friends, have you had this sort of experience in life? You think everything is fine. You've got it all figured out. Life is running on all cylinders. Your health is good, the job pays well, your marriage is solid and your kids behave themselves. You go to church, you pray, you give your offering. Maybe it goes so well that you even take all this for granted. But God blesses you, smiles on you, and life is good. And then, ka-blammy. It all comes crashing down. Maybe it's you that messes up. Maybe it's some senseless tragedy that strikes out of the blue. Your wife leaves you. Your son gets a girl pregnant. You get laid off. The doctor says, “cancer”. And now the God who you thought was your friend, whose lifted up his countenance upon you – seems to be giving anything but peace. Instead he seems like your enemy. God must hate me. How do we make sense of this? Only through the cross.

For Peter, it wasn't enough to know that Jesus was the Christ. Well enough. They had all been wondering. But with that great confession hanging in the air, Jesus tells him just what kind of Christ he means to be. He “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised”. And that is NOT what Peter and the disciples wanted to hear. That's not the kind of Christ they were looking for. They wanted a Jesus without the cross.

They liked all the glorious miracles and crowds following Jesus. They marveled that even the demons submitted to them in Jesus' name. Surely they had plans for what lay ahead – like James and John who wanted thrones on Jesus' left and right in this Kingdom he was preaching about. Peter, too, probably had his own plans laid out for the future – plans which must have given him a cushy job and high honors. Jesus would come into his glory, restore the kingdom to Israel, make everything hunky dory once again on earth. Victory, triumph, glory, finally, was within their grasp. With the Christ here on our side, nothing can go wrong. So they must have thought.

But that all came crashing down. Peter couldn't bask in the glory of his confession for long. Jesus was talking crazy talk about suffering, betrayal and death! And when he tried to quietly set Jesus straight, Jesus loudly and clearly calls him out. “Get behind me Satan.”

You see, a Christ without the cross is a satanic version of Christ. And it is a Christ that is all too common, even among “Christians”.

A Christ of victory apart from defeat, rather than he who defeats death by his death. A Christ of glory apart from humiliation, and not the one whose power is made perfect in weakness. A Jesus who smiles and laughs but never sheds bloody tears, or drinks a cup of wrath, or cries out in forsakenness. A Jesus who you'd never know suffered and died for sins, because, well, let's not talk about sin it's too much of a downer.

If this is your kind of Jesus, I challenge you today to repent, and see Jesus only through the cross. If your Jesus is only smiles and sunshine, then you better get Satan behind you and see Christ as he is – crucified for us sinners. For this is the only Christ that matters, the only Christ he wants to be, the only Christ who can save us from sin and death and the devil. A Jesus who knocks us off our high-horse of self-righteousness and says “I will be your righteousness, and I alone.”

And it is this Christ that we must see in the crosses of our life. For anything a Christian takes up in life, for the sake of Christ, is our cross. Sometimes heavy, sometimes a bit lighter. But always following him who has gone before us, submitting to his Father's will in all things. We don't get to choose our own crosses. Nor do we even always know what they are. But only Christ of the cross is comfort for us in all the twists and turns, ups and downs, crosses large and small of this life.

It is a paradox, isn't it, that when we rest secure – Christ shakes us and cuts us down with his word of rebuking law. And when we are stumbling, fallen, hurting – this is when the Gospel brings hope. We need both. We make the good confession, like Peter, for it is also given to us to say, “You are the Christ”! But we also need that rebuke, that our sinful selves would get behind the child of God, drown under the daily repentance of baptismal renewal, and go the way of Satan – resigned to the irrelevant past.

And this renewal gives us cause once again to confess Christ, and rejoice in his victory. It gives us the faith and strength to carry our daily crosses knowing that his cross is ever before us. His suffering gives our suffering meaning. And his resurrection gives us hope.

Whatever cross you bear this day, know that Christ bore his before you. So take up that cross and follow him – for his cross, his suffering, his death – have already won the victory. So that even in your troubles and sorrows, your faith would look to him – and lay down your life only to find it. That in the Christ of the cross, your soul is not forfeit – but saved – by the one who gave his life for the world. Even Jesus Christ. In his holy name. Amen.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sermon - The Feast of St. Lawrence

At that time, Jesus spoke unto His disciples
saying: “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. Whoever
loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life
in this world will keep it for eternal life. If
anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and
where I am, there will My servant be also. If
anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.”
John 12:24-26

The Feast of St. Lawrence
A river, a gulf, and a seaway are named in his honor. A number of Christian congregations and almost anyone known as "Larry" likewise owe their names to this martyr of the ancient Christian Church.

Early in the third century A.D., Lawrence (also often known as "Lorenz," "Laurence," or "Lorenzo"), who was most likely born in Spain, made his way to Rome. There he was appointed chief of the seven deacons and was given the responsibility to manage church property and finances.

The emperor at the time, thinking that the church had valuable things worth confiscating, ordered Lorenz to produce the "treasures of the church." Saint Lorenz brought before the emperor the poor whose lives had been touched by Christian charity. He was then jailed and eventually executed in the year 258. Most accounts tell of his being roasted on a gridiron until dead.

His martyrdom left a deep impression on the young church. Almost immediately, the date of His death, 10 August, became a permanent fixture on the early commemorative calendar of the Church.
(Thanks to Aardvark Alley for the background info)

So the story goes, after being roasted for a while he said, “I'm well done now. Turn me over!”

“Where I am, there will my servant be also.”

Hard words from Jesus, today, and a challenging example as we commemorate the saint and martyr, Lawrence.

Like Jesus, the martyrs died – and their lives and deaths would bear great fruit. One ancient church father, Tertullian, famously said, “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”. In other words, when nonbelievers would see Christians dying for their faith, this powerful witness was used by the Holy Spirit to open ears and soften hearts to the word of the Gospel. And rather than stamping out the Christian faith, those who persecute Christians only make the church stronger.

If you follow the news, you know that Christians are persecuted today perhaps even more so than they were in the fourth century. We see news reports (though sadly, too few) of the recent purging of Christians in areas of the middle east. Homes are marked with the arabic letter which stands for “Christian”. Some are beheaded, others are crucified. Some are unfairly taxed, much as they were in St. Lawrence's day.

We may have several reactions when confronted with the example of the martyrs, either from antiquity or the modern day. For starters, their faithfulness calls us to account. What a terrible Christian I am, when I am embarrassed to admit that I think homosexuality is a sin. What a weak witness I give when I can't confess to my politically correct friend that Jesus is the only way to heaven. The martyrs shame us by their bold witness when we are so easily intimidated and cowed by the world we live in – a world which doesn't even threaten us with the sword – at least not yet. It's one thing for us to fail when compared to Christ's example of faith. We can easily let ourselves off the hook by saying, “oh, well, he was perfect – he was God, after all”. But when mere humans can confess Christ even in the face of death, we are left without excuse for our failures under far less threatening circumstances.

On the other hand, the witness of the martyrs can embolden us. We can look to their strong faith as examples to follow. So the government wants to shut down your churches and make your life difficult? Look to St. Lawrence, who stood firm against the heavy Roman hand and would not sacrifice the poor for the sake of peace with the pagan. He loved God and his neighbor more than even his own life, and remained steadfast even in a torturous death. So too, Christian, stand up for your Lord and your neighbor in the face of the enemy. Fight the good fight of faith!

And on yet another hand, we must acknowledge that whatever heroics of faith the martyrs exhibited, whatever bold and brave testimony they gave, whatever courage of conviction they showed even unto death – it is not to their own credit, but to Christ's. Faith itself is a gift. And the one who gives us faith also sustains it, sends his Spirit to strengthen us especially in times of trial. That the martyrs like Lawrence could stand up to violent persecution is a credit to the Lord, not the martyrs themselves. Thanks be to God for their faithful witness. Thanks be to him for all good things.

And finally, we can pray that God strengthen them and grant us this same faith – in the face of death, persecution, trouble, nakedness, danger, or sword. Whatever challenges to our faith may come, from the devil, the sinful world, or our own sinful selves, we pray for the strength to bear up and remain faithful, as were the martyrs, as was Jesus Christ.

When we fail, and we will fail, we rely on the blood of Christ to cover our guilt and shame. When we do stand – we give all honor and glory to Christ for giving us the strength of faith to do so. For without him we are nothing. But with him, we are promised all good things. So that even out of death, comes life, for those who are in Christ.

For Christ's own part, some would say he was the greatest of the martyrs. But I would argue with that. His death was not simply a “witness”, but a once-and-for-all sacrifice for sin It was the basis for all the martyrs who would come. Their death hearkens back to his saving, atoning, world-saving sacrifice. Their blood is precious to him, who shed his precious blood for all. Their deaths are precious to him, who died that they would live eternally.

“Where I am, there will my servant be also” These words go not only for persecution and suffering and death. They go also for what lies beyond. For where Jesus went – to resurrection, we too will go. Where Jesus went – to heaven and glory, we will also go. And where Jesus is, even today, present in his word and in his body and blood at this altar – here we come also, in faith and in witness. To proclaim his death until he comes, and to receive the fruits of his cross, which guarantee us eternal life.

Thanks be to God for St. Lawrence, and all the Christian martyrs. Thanks be to God that each hated his own life, but keeps it for eternal life. And thanks be to God for Christ our grain of wheat, who died and was buried, but who rose again on the third day and ascended into heaven, and who will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end. May the fruits of his work be multiplied here, in your lives, in your church, and in his holy church throughout the world.

In Jesus' Name, Amen.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 8 - Matthew 14:13-21

We, in modern America, if anything have too much food. You learn this in a new way when you go to places like Singapore where the portions are smaller – you know, normal sized. But in super-sized America it is hard for us to relate to people who truly live in hunger. We might be tempted to immediately jump to a spiritual application of this miracle – but let's not be so hasty.

The catechism teaches us in the First Article of the Creed, and in the Lord's Prayer petition, “give us this day our daily bread”: we acknowledge that each day, our food comes not from the fridge or the grocery store, but from the giver of all good things. This is one reason we pray before and even after meals – to acknowledge and give thanks for such blessings.

And sin is always there – crouching at our door – tempting us to make the lesser gifts into the greater gifts. To turn wants into needs. To prioritize poorly. To love the treasures of this world over the treasures of the world to come. To love ourselves and despise our neighbor. To make the created, the phyiscal things into gods, and fail to fear, love and trust the Creator.

The people who ate the miraculous fish and loaves that day were no different. If we were to read the parallel account of John 6, we'd see the people chasing Jesus around, trying to make him king by force – a “bread-king” who kept their bellies always filled. But they miss the point. Do we?

Jesus Christ himself is the bread of life. He himself is the only true sustenance for the soul. His bodily death on the cross, his shedding of blood, his atonement for our sins – this alone satisfies the deepest hunger of the human soul. Without such food, there is no life in us anyway. Without the cross you have, ultimately, no need of bread.

But just as there were more leftovers in the baskets than the food they started with, his provision is over-abundant. He gives all that we need and more. He provides for the salvation of our souls, as well as the resurrection of our bodies. And he sustains us with blessings too many for us to gather up in baskets. Blessings physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal. All from Christ, crucified for sinners.

And yet there are still more lessons to draw from this miraculous feeding long ago... Let's consider four:

We are dependent upon him.
Without Christ, we have nothing; we are nothing. We must look to him for all good things. This goes for the mundane food and clothing as well as the salvation itself. It's not as if Jesus gets us started and then it's up to us. We are and we ought to depend on him for daily bread, the air we breathe and the lungs to breathe it in. We have no more reason to expect any of this than the people he fed would expect a full and free meal – except that we know the giver gives abundantly, and loves to provide for our needs.

And it goes for the spiritual, as well. We cannot come to faith without His Spirit who calls us. We cannot make a decision to follow Christ that is of any value, but instead he chooses us. We cannot bring any good works that will wipe out our bad works and tip the balance in our favor – but only Christ's righteousness can suffice. And we cannot pay enough to cover our debt – only the blood of Christ has such value. We depend on him entirely.

And here we have even more reason to depend on him – for we have strong promises of forgiveness, salvation and eternal life with our God. Life in this world may bring trouble and hardship and nakedness and danger or sword, but no one can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ!

He has compassion.
Christ always has compassion on those in need. He never turns a cold shoulder to one who has faith and seeks his aid. This doesn't mean you will always have plenty and will never be in want of bread, or health, or that no sorrow will ever come your way. It doesn't mean the Christians will never suffer. But it does tell us where to go with our suffering, and who has the only and final answer to it, and the inclination to do us good. He knows our suffering, for he suffered it himself – he took it all to the cross . And so he sympathizes with us in our weakness, in all things.

Working through means.
Jesus very well could have hand-fed each of those 5000 plus all on his own, but he appointed the disciples to do it. He made them the go-betweens to distribute, to minister if you will, to the people. So today does he charge pastors, “you give them something to eat”. So do we often feel ill-equipped to do it, but so must we rely on the word and promise of Christ that in him there will always be plenty. As we distribute to you the blessings of salvation in word and sacrament, even greater miracles ensue – Christ's abundance is given freely, sinners are forgiven, and faith is strengthened. We can give only what we receive from Christ.

He taught them first, then fed. Today he teaches, then feeds.
First Jesus preached, taught – proclaimed the kingdom to these thousands. It must have been quite a day, as he had much to say and they stuck around to hear it all. Then he fed them as only he could. And we follow the same pattern today – we gather to Christ – around his word, to hear it, receive it. The word is read and proclaimed, sung and prayed. And then he feeds. We come to the table to feast on the word made flesh – and his body and blood are multiplied to far more than 5000, and stomachs and souls are sustained.

Whatever pangs of suffering you feel in your stomach or pangs of sin in your soul, turn again to the one who provides bread – daily bread for our bodies, and the bread of life for our bodies and souls. He himself is that bread – and he gives himself freely, on the cross, in the word, the water, and the meal of his altar. Come, eat and drink and live. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Sermon - Pentecost 7 - Matthew 13:44-52

Grace, mercy and peace....

Dear friends in Christ, do you love the parables of Jesus like I do? Who can resist these stories which illustrate great truths about the kingdom of God? Some of them are longer – like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. And others are quite short – in fact today our Gospel reading groups four together. The “Hidden Treasure” and “Pearl of Great Value” - these two make the same point. Similar is the “Parable of the Net”, which extends the same point. Then there's the “Parable of New and Old Treasures” takes it in a different direction. Let's briefly examine these this morning.

For the parables of the treasure and pearl, let's first set aside a wrong interpretation. The point of the parable is NOT simply the First Commandment – love God above all things. Nor is it that you have found God and you should therefore put him first in your life. You're not the man who finds God and gives up everything to follow him. You don't sell all your possessions to posses Christ or his kingdom.

Sure, salvation is beyond value. Sure, we SHOULD value our faith and our Lord as more precious than all our worldly wealth. But the problem is, that's not how it works. We are sinful and selfish and dead in our sins. We are unable to come to Christ on our own, of ourselves. We confess in the Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength, believe in my Lord Jesus Christ, or come to him... but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel....”

No, to say that the believer is the man who finds the treasure in the field, or the pearl of great value – is to get this parable wrong. Instead, who is the one who gave up everything he had to acquire what he valued the most? Jesus Christ. He gave up his heavenly throne. He gave up his divine power and glory, at least for a time. He gave up being over all things to take the form of a servant, born in humble fashion, submitting to poverty, the derision of man, injustice, suffering and finally death on a cross. He who had no sin became sin for us. He gave up all that he had, why? Again in the words of the Catechism, “that I may be his own...”.

One of my favorite Christian artists, a Lutheran named Ed Riojas has tapped into this understanding of the parable, and painted a scene that expresses it beautifully. I'll show you this more closely on the way out of church. But the picture here is of a cemetery, with a church steeple in the background. And the main figure is Christ, who is doing something amazing. He's pulling a coffin out of a grave with his bare hands. And the banner at the bottom of the scene reads, “For joy he went and sold all that he had and bought that field”. Ed writes about his painting as follows:
The Parable of the Buried Treasure” painting explanation by Ed Riojas

...This small painting is something I started after pondering the parable of the buried treasure in light of Christ’s love for us.

I couldn’t get around the idea of the field being a cemetery, with its scattered stones, and the man -- Christ Jesus -- coming to claim his hidden treasure. “For joy, he sold all he had and bought that field.”

Holy Scripture sometimes contains the most understated truths. “All he had” was his very life, given for us, “Not with gold or silver,” as we are told, “but with His holy, precious blood.” So that man pulls out a treasure with His pierced hands. The wounds are permanent, but His crucifixion and death are not.

The painting points to Holy Scripture with another finger: It illustrates just how much we contribute to salvation -- nothing. We were dead. Not only were we dead, but we were dead in our trespasses. If that were not enough, we were bound in satan’s chains. We were in a box from which we could not escape.

Yet Christ calls us His treasure. The English language helps us in this scenario -- the words “coffin” and “casket” are derived from the same words that are used for containers of wealth. Furthermore, “vaults” are used to inter this wealth.

What points to Christ’s love for us is not only His payment for our sins through His sacrifice, but also the reality of what He considers valuable. He treasures not gold or silver, but the sinful, the lost, the dregs of humanity, the rotting, the forgotten, the discarded for convenience, the destroyed by design, the consumed by disease, the consumed by conflagration, the consumed by woe. This mess of ugliness He treasures. Not only did Christ Jesus give His all for it, but He also enfolds it in His arms and holds it to His breast.

This is what the kingdom of heaven is like.


Dear friends, there once was a man who found a treasure, and you are that treasure. Though you bring no merit or worthiness of your own, the Triune God, in his grace, has valued you. He has esteemed you worthy of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Then we have the parable of the Fish in the Net. Here again, Christ shows that those who belong to him are valued. But it also shows the separation between us and the unbeliever. Like fishermen separate the fish caught in the net – throwing away those not worth keeping, so the angels with separate the believers from the unbelievers on the last day. And what separates us from the unbelievers, but faith alone. Those who believe in Christ as savior and realize we can't win salvation for ourselves but receive it as free gift from him. He saves us from the weeping and gnashing of teeth, from the punishments we deserve, from being lost forever – and he makes us his treasured possessions. Here is hope for us – when it seems that the wicked prosper and the believers only suffer. When you see Christians persecuted here and abroad. When you feel like the liars and cheaters around you enjoy all the good things in life while your honesty and hard work never pay off. Take heart. For the one who assigns true value to men has esteemed you – and has your future secured.

Finally, Jesus commends the teachers who have learned these things well, that is, the truths of the kingdom. Those who have received from him the treasures of his grace. And those, who then, set these treasures before others. Your pastor is privileged to set these treasures before you week in and week out. To proclaim to you the grace and mercy of Christ, crucified for sinners like you. To show you in new and old ways the unchanging truth that the blood of Christ covers all, renews all, revives all. To set before you the precious gifts of Christ's body and blood, given and shed for you, precious treasures which renew and sustain you, his precious treasures.

And having been so treasured, and having received such treasure, each of us daily sets these treasures before the world by our witness and faith. As we fulfill our callings in life, and as we give answer for the hope within us. All in Christ, and Christ in all of us, until the last day when all true treasures are no longer hidden but revealed.

Got grant us faith to believe all these things, and the Spirit to enlighten us to such treasures, and the will to set them before us always, in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

You can view and purchase artwork by Ed Riojas here.  Great gift ideas for your favorite pastor!