Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sermon - Christmas 1 - Luke 2:22-38

Sermon – Christmas 1 – Luke 2:22-38
Trinity Lutheran, Sheboygan, WI
“Depart in Peace”

The family is all gathered around. The doctors have given the grave news. “Time is short. Say your goodbyes.” The pastor is called, and he comes to the hospital. He, too, knew this might be coming. This faithful child of God, who had so often heard the word and received the gifts in the local communion of saints... was now going to join the communion of saints that rest in Christ. God's name is invoked. Scriptures are read. Prayers are said. Then the pastor sings a familiar little song,

Lord now lettest thou thy servant, depart in peace, according to Thy word. For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning is now and ever shall be, world without end, amen.”

That child of God, that saint of God, departs in peace. That loved one leaves the family, and enters into a blessed rest, today with Christ, in paradise. Because of the promises of God in Jesus Christ, it is a departure in peace. It is sorrow, but sweet sorrow, grief, but not without hope.

We don't know much about Simeon. He was righteous, which meant he had faith in God's word. Perhaps he was a priest in the temple, or maybe just a regular fellow. We get the impression he was old, but it doesn't say exactly how old. But we know he'd been waiting. It was revealed to him by the Spirit that he would not die until he met the Messiah. Quite an unusual promise. And so those days, perhaps years of waiting made it all the more joyful when he saw the infant Lord, and he couldn't help but take the baby up in his arms. And he prayed, he sang in joy, that now he could die in peace. For I have seen your salvation, Lord, with my own eyes. And your salvation is here in this child.

God keeps his promises. He kept his promise to Simeon, and to all the people of Israel.

To get a better sense of this event, we should also understand what happened in Ezekiel 8 to 11. God's presence had been with his people – his glory – manifest among them for many years. He appeared to Moses in the burning bush. He went before them in the wilderness – a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. And when the temple was built by Solomon, God's presence, his glory, shrouded in a cloud came to dwell in that temple. It was an ongoing miracle and blessing that God would dwell among his people, in his temple.

But the time came when God withdrew that presence, that glory, and Ezekiel saw the cloud depart from the temple. An ominous day, for God departing was a sign of his wrath and judgment. The Abominations they were doing in his presence “drove him” away, and he showed Ezekiel, in a vision, how he was leaving the temple and saying to the people, “you're on your own”. Without God's protection, calamity would be just around the corner.

What sins of yours are an abomination before God? Oh, is that too strong a word for you? Would you prefer “character flaw” or “foible” or “peccadillo”? Perhaps a milk-toast admission that nobody is perfect and oh, gosh golly, we're all sinners so move on to the Gospel, pastor. But think for a moment of the gravity of your sin – each and every sin – which sends a message to God, “I don't want you. I don't need you. Go away. I'll make my own rules. I'll decide what's best, and it's some other god over here, thank you.”

Each and every sin is worthy of God withdrawing his presence from you. From our first parents who ate a forbidden fruit and were cast out of God's paradise, to you and I who drag his commandments through the mud on a daily basis. We don't deserve God in our life, in our world, in our presence. Our thoughts, words, and deeds tell him “Get out. Go away. Drop dead.”

And so God forsakes us, like he withdrew his presence from the temple long ago... or does he? No, instead he has forsaken Christ. He has left his own son alone to suffer the punishments of the cross. To take once for all the forsaking of God that all deserve. In the great mystery of Christ on the cross, God turned his back on his own Son, giving him over to a punishment that you and I deserve. To forgive all sins, little and big, peccadillo and abomination. And to bring us eternally to his presence through the blood of Christ.

Even after the exile ended and the temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt, God's glory, the cloud of his presence, didn't return. Yet his promise remained that one day his glory would return to the temple. And Simeon, in particular, was promised he would see it. What a surprise then, that God did return to his temple – not in a pillar of fire or cloud, not in a blazing chariot or bolt of lightning, but in a little baby, 40 days old. In the humility of a lowly infant, the Lord of Glory returns to his temple, to dwell with his people. “My eyes have seen your salvation” Simeon says, yes, and my hands have held him. “The Light to the Nations” Jesus, the Light of the World, and the “Glory of Israel” - the glory of God now returns.

But even more. For not only did he dwell in the building for a short time, a building which is now destroyed.... but He himself becomes the true temple, the true dwelling of God with man. In the flesh of the man, Jesus Christ, God dwells with his people forever. His permanent residence is as a human being, one of us, standing in the place of all of us. Fulfilling the law for us. Dying as a sacrifice for us. But as that temple of his body was destroyed, yes, in three days it was restored, and a new aspect of God's glory was revealed. For now not even death can contain his glory, nor can it contain the life of those who live and die in him. Jesus lives forever. We will live forever, in him.

Now that all the wrapping paper is put away and the decorations are coming down, now that all the shopping malls are putting up hearts for valentines day, and radio stations are back to their purely secular format, now that the world outside the walls of the church has moved on from Christmas – perhaps we can focus with even clearer vision. Let our eyes see, along with Simeon's, the salvation that God reveals to us in Jesus Christ.

For like Simeon, we get to see him, hold him, touch him. Not as a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes presented at the temple. But as a crucified and risen and ascended Lord, who still comes under the humble forms of bread and wine. When you receive the sacrament this day, you can sing with Simeon, “Lord, you now let your servant depart in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation”. Yes, in the bread and wine that are Christ's body and blood, we have the salvation he promises and accomplishes. In this simple receiving of his gifts in faith, He gives Light and Glory to all. Forgiveness, life, salvation – blessings too great to fathom, to deep to ponder.

And having been so blessed, we can, and we do, depart in peace. We depart in peace from this altar – strengthened for service in our daily vocations. We depart in peace from each other and God, knowing all is forgiven in Christ. And we are even prepared to depart from this world, like Simeon, we can die in peace, knowing our sins are forgiven and our debt is paid. Yes, even if I die today, I know my salvation is sure in Jesus Christ.

Depart in peace. Depart in peace and faith and hope and joy, Christians. For you have seen his glory, the light of the world, the salvation of our God in Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Sermon - Advent 4 - Luke 1:39-45

Sermon – Advent 4 – Luke 1:39-45
Grace Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
“The Visitation”

Dear friends in Christ, it's good to be here this morning with my favorite congregation. Since I ended my service as pastor here in August, I've been busy visiting lots of LCMS congregations, building a network of support for my upcoming work as missionary to Singapore. It's been a lot of fun, actually, to see with each visit, a different congregation with a different personality and different circumstances, yet all of us united in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and our desire to share that Gospel with the world. Visits, visits, visits, and so today it's good to be here, which I consider less a visit and more a chance to “stay home”.

Today, as we stand on the brink of Christmas, the Gospel reading is from Luke 1, an episode called “The Visitation”. Mary, the mother of our Lord, visits her cousin Elizabeth. And miraculous words and actions take place. Elizabeth confesses her faith, by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”. But the unborn John who can't speak also confesses his faith, and “leaps for joy” in the womb. The Greek word actually means he “skipped”. In word and deed, they welcome the Christ, who is about to appear in the flesh.

But not all visits go so well. In this holiday season, we probably have more visits than any other time of year. As family and friends stop by, or else we go to visit them – a short visit can be a good time, or it can be another stressful obligation in a busy season. Maybe your in-laws seem more like outlaws. Maybe you're on the opposite side of politics with that certain someone. Or maybe it's just an overbearing personality or two that gets under your skin. Sinners get on each others nerves, but after all, it's just a short visit. What's the big deal?

If a visit is a temporary thing, then couldn't we say we're all visitors here on earth? None of us will be here forever. We're all short-timers. We weep with those whose lives are cut short, like the children in Connecticut. But really, death could come and visit any of us on any day, even at Christmas. Our problems as sinners in the world go far beyond not getting along with visiting relatives. We are at odds with creation, with each other, with ourselves, and our God.

Sinful man doesn't want a visit from God, either. God's holy presence terrifies our old Adam. The original Adam and Eve hid in the garden when they had sinned, and God came to visit. Peter fell on his face before Jesus after the miraculous catch of fish. Isaiah saw God in the temple and cried out, “I am ruined!”. Even today, some people don't or won't come to church out of a sense of unworthiness. They joke, “Lightning would probably strike me if I set foot in there”. But there's a seriousness behind it, an admission of sin, a wariness of the holy.

Maybe you and I should have a little more of that wariness. A little more sense of fear and awe that we, sinners, also approach Holy God. Perhaps we take our confession a bit for granted, that we are deserving of temporal and eternal punishment. Let's not just mouth the words, but let's mean them. We, too, deserve the lightning strike, and much worse.

But there's a difference when God visits people who have faith. Like Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit. Like you and me, as we gather in God's presence each week. He comes to us, he visits us, not in judgment but in mercy. Not in wrath, but in kindness. Not with punishment, but with the forgiveness of sins won by Christ at the cross.

Because Jesus has visited our earth, visited his people, and not just for a pleasant hello and goodbye. His temporary time on earth was purposeful and meaningful. He had a job to do, and he did it. He had a life to give, and he gave it. His visit ended in his death, and his resurrection to glory. And those 33 years bring eternal blessings to all who trust in him. For he now prepares for us mansions in heaven, a permanent place for each of us.

But back to Elizabeth and Mary. This short visit before each woman gives birth reminds us that even a brief visit with Jesus is cause to leap for joy. Just the sound of Mary's greeting was enough for unborn baby John to react. What about the sound of our Lord's greeting, through the ones who bear him today? When the pastor invokes God's name, and Christ is present according to his promise? What a cause for joy! When the sins we confess are forgiven and absolved, by the pastor, as if by Christ himself in the flesh, we could leap for joy. When we hear God's voice in his holy word, equipping us with righteousness and showing us Christ, we rejoice all the more. And when we receive the very body and blood of Christ – when we taste and see and touch, if only for that brief moment, our soul could and should skip for joy within us. But not of our own reason or strength, but only through his Holy Spirit at work in us.

What blessings should come to me, poor, sinful, little old me, that God himself comes to visit me, and give his own body and blood for me, and give to me, yes, even me, his grace and mercy and love! So confess your faith in Christ by word and action. And may your frequent visits to his house make this place seem more like your home, and remind you of the eternal home he is preparing for you.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sermon - Jeremiah 33:14-16

Zion Lutheran Church, Marengo, IL
December 16th, 2012
Jer. 33:14-16
“A Very Jeremiah Advent”
Perhaps you remember an annual television special that hopefully isn't on much anymore, “A Very Brady Christmas”. Well it wasn't my idea of an enduring Christmas tradition, as I don't really associate the Brady Bunch with the holidays. But whatever.

I suppose you might say something similar about the prophet Jeremiah and the season of Advent. Sure, John the Baptist – he prepared the way for Jesus. He's a sensible figure to appear in this season of preparation for Christmas. Shepherds, Angels, these are the sorts of characters we expect. But Jeremiah? The one called the “weeping prophet”? The one who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, the sacking and demolishing of the temple? Who saw the people of God carried off into exile by the waters of the Euphrates, presumably never to be seen in the promised land again? That Jeremiah?

But listen to his words. For after all the smoke and dust of the Babylonian conquest settles, and after all of the weeping tears have been cried out, Jeremiah offers precious promises, and a joyful hope that very much fits in with Advent, and finds ultimate fulfillment in Christ.

Have you ever had your world come crashing down? It's bound to happen sooner or later in this sinful world. Either by our own sins, ths sins of others, or the brokenness of creation itself – tragedies are bound to come. The new from Connecticut this week was a shock to all of us, and a stark reminder that our world, and the human heart, is darkened by sin. Sometimes, with or without warning, death breaks through our day to day existence, and your world comes crashing down.

That's what happened to the Jews about 587 years before Jesus' birth. They had survived the threat of the Assyrians some 150 years earlier, who had wiped out the northern 10 tribes of Israel. And as empires rise and fall, now the Babylonians were in power, and the Jewish leaders felt fairly safe. They rested on their laurels, and corruption and false worship began to creep in and eventually flourish. Even when the clouds of danger arose, and wiser men would have seen the impending doom, the Jews enjoyed a false sense of security. They reasoned, “No one can touch us, because we have the temple. God will protect us. We're safe and sound.”

Jeremiah warned them. Jeremiah chapter 13 is his great temple sermon, in which he warns them not to trust the popular slogan, “This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord!” It's a classic call to repentance.

Advent is a season of waiting and preparation, but it also has a penitential character. Some churches use the same purple paraments of Lent during Advent to highlight this. There is a sense of joy and eagerness of Christ's coming, but also a keen awareness that we don't deserve such gifts. We are unworthy sinners, who should shudder at the thought of God himself coming near us. If not for his grace and mercy in Christ, we would be ruined! We should never rest on a false sense of security in our own works of righteousness. We should never think that we are just fine or anywhere near ok without the constant grace of God. We should grieve our sins, each and every day, and pray that God would save us from the devil, this wicked world, and even our own sinful selves. That he would bring all enemies under his feet at last, as he promised us he will.

So turn from your sin, and look to Christ in faith. Be sorry for all the sins of this past year, and bring them not only to the manger, but the cross. Repent, believe and be saved. Trust in the one who died the most earthshaking death of all to save all of us from this world that is groaning, suffering, broken, and will pass away.

The Jews of Jeremiah's day would not repent, and the destruction did fall on them, temple and all. They were marched off to Babylon, and even the ark of the covenant was evidently captured and destroyed (sorry, Indiana Jones). But still, Jeremiah was not just a prophet of the law. He held out hope for a time to come, in which even though these people were unfaithful, God would be faithful and keep his covenant. He would remember his promise to David. To Abraham, and Adam and Eve, and for that matter, to you.

A leader was coming, he promised, would execute justice in the land. But not the way they thought. A leader was coming, to bring righteousness, but different than many expected. A branch, a descendant of David... a shoot from the stump of Jesse (David's father), a Davidic king would come and rule and reign and everything would be ok again.

Which happened. Sort of. And sort of not. There really was no descendant of David on a earthly throne in Jerusalem ever again. And while the people returned from exile and rebuilt the city and the temple, could you really say they dwelt securely? For Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, and the Roman general Pompey all conquered Jerusalem in turn. Eventually, in 70 AD, Roman general Titus destroyed Jerusalem and its temple once and for all. And even now with the modern nation state of Israel, what security is there for the Jews? Certainly there is no Davidic king, and the temple is replaced by a Muslim shrine.

So did God break his eternal covenant? Where is this king? Where is this peace and security for his people? Where is God's righteousness to be found? I think you know... it is all fulfilled in Christ. For David, for the Jews who believe in him, and for you and me.

All of these prophecies, and all of this history... it all leads up to Jesus, which is why it matters for you and me.

Jesus is the Son of David, who came to his holy city riding on a donkey. But not a conquering king, instead a dying savior, a lamb of sacrifice for the sins of the world. “My kingdom is not of this world” he told Pilate, the nearest thing they had to an earthly king.

Jesus is the Son of Man, the stand in for all men, who took on flesh to redeem all flesh, shed his blood to cover your sins in it.

Jesus is the Son of God, the king of kings, who will come again to judge the living and the dead and put all his enemies under his feet, and bring you to reign with him forever.

Jeremiah is a very Advent kind of guy, as he tells of the coming salvation, the coming king, the coming righteousness – that is fulfilled not in earthly terms of thrones and power, but in the throne of the cross, and in the glory that is yet to be revealed. Jeremiah's king is Jesus, who fulfills God's promises of old, and God's promises to you.

As you observe this Advent, repent and rejoice, and trust in God's promises, which he always keeps. Look to David's Son and David's Lord for your salvation. Celebrate his first coming. Look forward to his second coming. And have a very Jeremiah Advent. In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.  

Friday, December 07, 2012

Sermon - Advent 2 - Malachi 4:1-6

Advent 2
Malachi 4:1-6

Today we turn our attention to the Old Testament Reading from Malachi 4. Some of the last words of the Old Testament, in fact, the words that are in a sense “hanging in the air” as the people of God waited some 400 more years for the Messiah to arrive. But it's not like nothing happened until then. It was an action-packed time for Israel.

Alexander the Great came and conquered, bringing with him the Greek language and culture. And after his death, when rulership passed to his generals and their dynasties, the Jews experienced bitter persecutions. Antiochus Ephiphanes, one of the Greek rulers during that time, was a particularly nasty fellow. He went to war and almost defeated the Egyptians, and was the first king to put his own face on coinage (along with the words, “Manifest God”). But he is most notorious for his sack of Jerusalem and desecration of the temple.

We read from the inter-testamental literature of the time, that when Antiochus was defeated in Egypt, he returned to Jerusalem in rage:

When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out f rom Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.

We learn that he then desecrated the temple, by setting up an altar to Zeus there and sacrificing a pig on the altar. This grievous offense became know as the “Abomination of desolation”.

I tell you all this, not just as a history lesson, but to give an idea of what kinds of wickedness the people of God had to endure in the times leading up to Christ's birth. These were days of great wickedness and evil men doing terrible things. They are days in which it must have seemed like all hope was lost, and that God had forgotten and forsaken his people.

But God would soon act. He promised, through the prophet Malachi, that the day was coming. “The day in which I act”, says the Lord.

And like so many Old Testament passages, we find the principle of “Bad news for my enemy is good news for me”. God will destroy the wicked, setting them ablaze. Like a tree that is not just singed on the leaves, but burned to a crisp all the way down to its roots. Total destruction of the wicked. But this terrible purging fire will be ONLY for the wicked, and not for God's own. His people will survive, on that day when he acts. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And they'll jump for joy like calves leaping from the stall – overjoyed to be set free from captivity, free and at peace.

It is Advent, the season of hope and expectation, when we remember the first coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the long-promised Savior. His forerunner Elijah did come, in the form of John the Baptist. And in Jesus Christ, God himself had come to act. But perhaps not how you might expect.

For he destroys his enemies, by being destroyed. Sin, death, and the power of the devil are destroyed when the Son of Man and Son of God meets his own death on the cross. And this bad news for our old enemies is good news for us. At the cross, Jesus crushes the head of the serpent so that we can trample on the ashes of our sins. He is judged who had no sins so you are not judged for your sins.

He sanctifies the world by being desecrated. The Holy One of God is spit on, stripped, struck, and condemned... publicly slaughtered on the cross. He, Jesus, is the true temple, the ultimate dwelling of God with man, in the flesh of his body – which was treated shamefully in the greatest abomination of desolation imaginable. But God's great and wonderful and surprising action is that through such horror as the cross, he brings his righteousness and salvation. As Jesus is lifted up on that tree, the sun of righteousness dawns on us, and with his stripes, we are healed.
At this we leap for joy. All the more that he himself conquered death and rose to life again. And even more that his promise of life beyond the grave is also for us. For the Lord of Hosts will come again, once more to act, once more for us.

Advent points us to Christ's first coming, and to his Second Coming. It reminds us that the one who came in humility will also come again in glory. It promises us that he who came to accomplish our salvation at the cross will come again in the clouds to bring an end to all wickedness, brokenness, and sorrow. And we will live and reign with him forever. On that day when he acts, all will be finally fulfilled.

But until then, it's not as if he is far off. He's with you always, even to the end of the age. Even in the wickedness of this world. Even in the abominations and desolations of your day to day struggles with sin and death. He's with you, so he promises. And he acts.

He acts to forgive your sins, through the daily renewal of your baptism, and the word of absolution you hear and believe. He acts, to strengthen your faith, reminding you of his promises, and feeding you with his own body and blood. He acts. Today, even here and now, our Advent Lord comes – through the means of grace, to deliver you the fruits of his cross.

Though your sins are an abomination to God, through Christ's desecration you are made holy. Rejoice, and leap for joy, you his people, as you celebrate his coming and look forward to his return. In Jesus Christ, Amen.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Sermon - Matthew 6:25-34 - Advent Midweek

Trinity Lutheran Church, Beloit, WI
December 5th, 2012
Midweek Advent Divine Service
Matthew 6:25-34

“The future in faith”
Introductions, etc...

Today's Gospel reading includes Jesus' familiar words about worry. Look at the birds of the air and lilies of the field, and don't worry. You're worth more to God than they are. Each day has enough trouble of its own. The Gentiles run after all these things, but you, Christians, seek the kingdom of God and all these things will be added to you. Familiar words. Words which, I have to admit, hit home for me.

We all worry, don't we? The future is uncertain. Cloudy. What will tomorrow bring? And we have enough experience in this sinful, broken, world, to know that things don't always turn out the way we want. Disasters strike without warning. Frustrations arise. Our best laid plans... well, you know how it goes. Disappointment after disappointment teaches us that tomorrow is a thing to be feared. That heartache and trouble lurk just around the corner. And so we worry.

What will we eat? What will we wear? Where will we live? Will we have enough money to pay the bills? Will I have a job? Will my retirement funds hold up? What if I get sick? What if I am sick, can the doctors help me? What about my children? Will they be ok? Will they grow up to be responsible, respectable, and live a good life? Or will they make mistakes, get in trouble, or turn away from my values? There are worries about the world at large – wars and rumors of wars. There are worries about the economy. And if that's not enough you can worry about a silly ancient calendar that ends on December 21st this year.

I have to admit, being a missionary doesn't make you immune to worry. We can worry about where we'll be living, what we'll be eating, how we'll adjust to a new country. We can worry about what we'll eat, and can we afford it, and how will our children fare? When will we leave, when will we return, what does the future hold for us? And what about this new congregation – will it grow? Will people respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Or will it be a long, hard slog with little to show for our time and energy?

I don't know what your worries are, but I certainly know mine. I don't know what your worries are, but I know the human condition. Jesus tells us not to worry for a reason. He knows our weakness.

Jesus tells us not to worry. He calls us to repent of serving that other master – the mammon, the material, the things of the world. Turn away from the false gods of money and food and house and home, even friends and family. Nothing should come before the true God. Nothing should concern us as much as his will for our lives. And no one should worry about these earthly things, when the heavenly things are what truly matter.

But even in this call to repentance is a gentleness, a kindness, for his little ones of little faith. These words of Jesus don't come across as an angry diatribe against you tedious little sinners who will never get it through your thick skulls..... instead, he speaks tenderly, about the Father's love for us – far more than the birds or the flowers, and of our great value to him. He knows our needs, better than we do. And if he cares for them, won't he care for us?

Jesus knows well to what lengths the Father would go to care for our needs. And our greatest need, all the more. We need to be redeemed, saved, snatched from the jaws of sin and death. We need a savior. And our God provides, richly. He sends his own Son.

To Adam and Eve who worried about their frightful life in the newly fallen world, God promised a savior who would crush the serpent's head. To Abraham, who worried that he would see no heir, and would have to leave everything to his servants, God promised descendants more numerous than the stars, and one descendent through whom all nations would be blessed. The Old Testament believers, though they worried about their tomorrows, also looked in faith and hope, trusting the promises of God, that he would provide, that he would save.

The long awaited Advent of the Christ was fulfilled in the little town of Bethlehem. The king then came to his holy city, riding on a donkey. And his work reached its climax when he came to the place of the skull and was crucified. He came, he accomplished salvation, he provided for our need.

For our part, we have a future that is secure in him. A future that leaves us no need to worry. We have the promise of his return. We have the promise of our own resurrection. And we have the promise of a forever home in his presence, where God himself will wipe every tear from our eyes. Don't worry about tomorrow, because God holds your future in his hands. Don't worry about the things of this world, but trust him who created it all for your good, and will one day restore to you all things. In this world, troubles will come, but this world is not where our future lies. We who live in Christ, die in Christ, and rest from our labors, only to live in Christ forever.

As you prepare for the celebration of his birth, don't worry about the little things or the big things. As you look forward to his second Advent, the advice and encouragement is the same. Don't be anxious about tomorrow. For the same God who provided even his only Son to die for you – is the God who will care for you tomorrow and always. In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Sermon - Advent 1 - Luke 21:25-36

Advent 1, December 2nd, 2012
Bethel Lutheran Church, Gurnee, IL
Luke 21:25-36
“Advent Q&A”

Introductions, etc...

A happy and blessed Advent to you, and as well a new church year. The season of Advent is a time of expectation and preparation for the celebration of Jesus' birth. It's a nice contrast to the hustle bustle of the secular world preparing for its mostly secular Christmas. Advent calls us to stop and think, meditate, listen, and pray. It is a bit of an alien idea to the world around us whose commercialized festivities seem to be encroaching earlier and earlier. But Advent says, “Wait. Watch. Repent. Pray.”

Even the word “Advent” is one of those church words you don't hear too often outside of the sanctuary. It simply means “coming”. But if you told someone we're observing the season of “Coming”, that might lead to a few questions. Maybe it's good to remind ourselves, too, this morning, of some Advent Q&A, questions and answers....

Who's coming?” Well, maybe that's the first and most obvious question, but then again maybe not. Of course, Jesus is coming. But do people believe it? Do we even believe it? How different would our lives look if we took seriously Jesus' words about his return? What would it look like if we really did “stay awake” as he tells us in our Gospel reading?

This is Jesus, who is coming, not some fat man in a red suit. He is the Lord of all creation, God of God, light of light, very God of very God. He is the Good Shepherd, the True Vine, the Light of the World.

He is the one who once came in lowly fashion, was swaddled up and laid in a manger. But he is coming again in glory, to judge both the living and the dead. He's the judge, you see, and the conqueror who will put all enemies under his feet. He is master and commander of all the angels. He is Yaweh Sabbaoth, Lord of Hosts.

When such an important person is coming, another question becomes very important.

Why is he coming?”
Anytime finite and sinful man encounters infinite and holy God, you get a reaction. Isaiah cried out, “woe is me, I am ruined!”. Peter exclaimed, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”. Sinners cannot bear his holiness any more than his holiness will tolerate sin. So his coming presents a problem for sinners.

If this Jesus really is the judge coming to proclaim a final judgment, must I not be judged for all my sins? Who can stand in the judgment? If he really is God of Gods, and knows all things, then doesn't he know my sins (and yours)? Like the demons who shrieked when Jesus confronted them, our sinful nature might also cry out, “why have you come here Jesus, to destroy me?”

But that's not the answer, at least for us. As Christians we have the blessed assurance of the Gospel, and that makes all the difference in the “why” of his Advent. “Why has he come?” To save us. And “Why is he coming again?” To save us.

He came once to procure salvation. To live a perfect life in our place. To defeat all the temptations of the evil one, a Second Adam, who succeeded where the First Adam failed. He kept God's holy law, which we cannot. He perfectly submitted to his Father's will, in place of us who can only rebel against it. He did all things well, and he did them for us.

And he came to die. To suffer and die, cursed on a cross, becoming sin for the sake of all sinners. He came, the Lamb of God, to take away the sins of the world. He came to shed his holy precious blood, his life for ours. He came to destroy death by his death, to take the curse by being cursed, and to secure us the victory through his most bitter humiliation. That's why he came. That's why Christmas matters. Because of the cross.

When is he coming?” Surely the Old Testament believers waited with eager anticipation for the Messiah. The air was thick with that hope when Jesus came on the scene, even if they got the “why” question wrong. But his second Advent is also to be eagerly anticipated. His disciples wanted to know when all of these things would happen.... and so do many today.

Jesus is coming, but we don't know when. Like a thief, suddenly, at just the right time, in His time, not ours. But we know this. It will be good. It will be good for us, his people. Lift up your heads, your redemption draws near. Wait with bated breath, on the edge of your seat, for it will be... like Christmas. Wait for his coming with all the joy of every child who ever hoped for presents under the tree. Wait for his coming with faith and trust and hope that he who has won your salvation will deliver it in person. Wait for his second Advent, even as you celebrate his first, and rejoice in the surpassing riches of his grace.

But know this – he also comes today. He comes to strengthen and awaken us for that day. He comes to his people, wrapped not in swaddling clothes but by his Spirit in words of law and gospel. He comes, even today, not across the Jordan, but in the waters of holy baptism. He comes, even today, even here to you – under the forms of bread and wine which he promises are his true body and blood... for you.

When is his Advent? Bethlehem, long ago? Yes. In glory, someday to come? Yes. But also here, now, today – the day of salvation.

He comes to all who hear his word and receive his gifts, in Gurnee, in Illinois, and across the world – even in Singapore. God grant a continual Advent of Christ to sinners in need of saving, that we may all come with him to glory on that day when he returns.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Sermon - Last Sunday after Pentecost - Mark 13:24-37

Last Sunday After Pentecost, November 25th 2012
Christ Lutheran, St. Paul, NE and St. John's Lutheran, Palmer, NE
Mark 13:24-37
“Temporary and Forever”
Introductions, etc...

These few weeks of the church calendar we're focusing especially on the end times. The last couple of Sundays in the church year seem a fitting time to do so. And the Season of Advent, just around the corner, is a time not only to remember Christ's first coming, but also to anticipate his second coming.

There are many things we can say about the end times. That the Lord will return suddenly, like a thief in the night. That he will judge the living and the dead. That God's people, forgiven and righteous, sealed in our baptism – should look forward to, and not dread that day. It is our day of final victory in Christ, in which all his promises of eternity come to fruition.

Today, let's focus on an emphasis we see in both our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and in our Gospel reading from Mark. See if you can catch the common idea. Isaiah says:

“the heavens vanish like smoke,
the earth will wear out like a garment,
and they who dwell in it will die in like manner;
but my salvation will be forever,
and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”

And Jesus says in our Gospel reading:

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

There is a contrast, we see, between the temporal and the eternal. Between the earthly and the heavenly. Between the “here and now” and the “then and there”.

We are most familiar with the here and now. The world of our everyday life is the world corrupted by sin, in which things go wrong and chaos eventually wins. The temporal world is dying, just like our flesh is dying. Nothing in this world seems to last forever. It's why we value things like gold that DO seem to last forever, but even these will one day pass away.

But in our experience, what good lasts for very long? The youth and beauty you once enjoyed have now faded. The fresh flowers you buy your wife soon wither and smell. The brand new car you buy gets dinged in the parking lot. Moth and rust are the standard for this world of decay. Corruption. Chaos. Decay.

Who doesn't long for the good old days? Whenever they were, days long ago when things seemed better, simpler, more wholesome? With all these wars and rumors of wars, the world seems more and more dangerous. There's saber rattling in the middle east, threats to our safety from within and without, rising crime rates, news stories that shock more and more. And how many million unborn children are killed by their own mother's “free choice”?

And then there's your own record. Though all of us are conceived and born in sin, we can look back over our lifetime and the sins we've accumulated, too many to count. And the older you are, the longer you've had to go around sinning. Imagine the length of the rap sheet if every wrong you ever committed was read aloud. And it doesn't get better, only worse. For eventually the wages of sin come due, and the grave collects its debt.

Such is life in this world, where things wear out like a garment, and those who dwell here die in like manner. Such is life in this temporal, fading, corrupted world, where heaven and earth will pass away, and sinners like you and me will pass away. But....

Then there is the salvation of God which lasts forever. Then there is the righteousness of God which will never be dismayed. Then there are the words of Christ which will never pass away.

And what a thought – that words, of all things, could last forever. This is outside of our experience, where a word is spoken and quickly forgotten. Where promises are made to be broken. But not with Jesus Christ. His words matter, they have power, and they last forever. His promises endure.

His words stand in contrast to the world of temporal chaos in which we live. For all the death we see, he speaks words of life. For all the decay and decline, he speaks renewal and righteousness. When we look at our own works, our own merit, our own record before God and man, we can only say, “I am finished”. But the Christ who dies on the cross in our place declares once for all time, “It is finished”.

In Christ, your salvation is accomplished. In Christ, your righteousness will never be dismayed. His promises stand forever.

“He who believes and is baptized will be saved”

“I am with you always even to the end of the age”

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

“In my Father's house are many rooms...And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
And all of these words which will never pass away, are not only for some other sinner, who's list of sins is shorter than yours. These words are for you. These promises are for you. For you, dear Christian, are one of his. You who have been baptized have had the name of God, the promise of God, placed upon you by water and the word – and you are sealed for eternity with a blessing that will also never pass away. He will not forsake his own, and you, in baptism are his own. You belong to God, in Christ, forever.

That long list of sins from this temporal age, they are gone forever, dealt with at the cross, forgiven at the font, and at the rail, and in the word which stands forever.

So now, stay awake and watchful for his coming – not in fear, but in hope. See the signs of the times not in despair, but in anticipation, that the one whose word stands forever will bring salvation that lasts just as long. Whenever he comes, today, tomorrow, or in a thousand years – our salvation is sure, and our righteousness secure. In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sermon - Mark 13:1-13 - Pentecost 25

Pentecost 25, November 18th, 2012
St. Peter's Lutheran Church, Waterford, WI
Mark 13-1-13
“It Gets Better...”
Introductions, etc...

Tell me if you've had this experience. Someone tells you a story – maybe a funny story – about what happened to them. They describe in detail how it all unfolds, and how a series of unfortunate events just keep on coming, one thing after another. And just when you think the story is over, they say, “wait... it gets better”. Usually that means, wait, it gets worse. And that may happen several times in the story... “Wait... it gets better”

Today's Gospel reading is kind of like that. Jesus is with his disciples in Jerusalem, and they gawk like tourists at the impressive architecture of the Temple. And surely it was one of the most massive and imposing human achievements they would have encountered. I think of my family's recent trip to the top of the Empire State Building in New York. My children looked down with glee to all the people who looked like little ants down there. It was really worth the trip. These disciples of Jesus are similarly impressed with Herod's renovations of this second temple which were in full swing. But Jesus wasn't so taken in.

“You see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left upon another here, they'll all be thrown down”. What a killjoy Jesus seems to be. But our Lord knew what was coming. For in 70 AD, just a generation or so away, the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed by the Roman armies, who finally had enough of Jewish rebellions. They would destroy the city and bring down that massive temple. And it would never be built again. To this day, it's been everything from a pile of rubble, to a garbage heap, to now – a shrine to a false god. But no temple. And Jesus saw it coming. But it gets better....

His disciples take him aside, wanting to know more – dates and times and when and how all this will happen. Morbid curiosity? Self preservation? Who knows their motivations, but Jesus tells them what they needed to hear, even if it wasn't what they wanted to hear:

It gets better. Not only will the temple go down, but there will be all these false teachers pretending to be the Christ. Watch out! Don't listen to them! Don't fall for it! Thanks for the warning, Jesus. But wait. It gets better....

Then you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. You think there's a time of peace, but no. Fighting will continue, both far and near. But it gets better... earthquakes... famines... but this isn't the end, either. It gets better. It's like a woman going into labor, which, I am told, is quite painful. But each contraction, each step in the process, gets worse and worse...

Be on guard! Watch out... for it gets better.... these things I tell you about aren't just for some other people out there. These things will happen to you, too! They'll drag you before councils, beat you in synagogues, and you'll stand before governors and kings and have to testify. You'll be delivered over to judgment, even to death, he basically tells them. And was it ever true. We know from the church fathers and early Christian history that the apostles were all to meet a martyr's death, with one exception, John. And John was exiled to a prison island. Even families will be torn apart in these troubled times, giving each other over to death. Jesus doesn't sugar coat the future for his disciples. Nor would he for you, either.

You, Christian, will not have an easy row to hoe, either. Jesus promises that followers of his will have crosses to bear. He calls us to repentance. He doesn't preach a prosperity Gospel of wealth and riches to the true believers, but instead says blessed are the meek, the lowly, the poor in spirit. He doesn't promise a rose garden, an easy street, a plush and comfy life free of hassle. The world hates us, because it hated him. Christians, even we, the children of God in Christ, will suffer, get sick, be persecuted, and eventually die. We are sinners, after all, and we've earned our wages of death. And we live in a world that is broken, troubled, laboring. But there is an end. And in the end, it gets better. And now, I mean better, not worse.

Jesus says to his disciples in John 16, “In this world, you will have troubles. But fear not, for I have overcome the world.” And in our reading, he concludes with this promise: “The one who endures to the end will be saved” Elsewhere Jesus promises mansions in heaven. That God will wipe every tear from our eyes. We read old testament promises that the righteous will shine like stars forever. We have hope for that day, that glorious day when he returns. Scripture tells us precious little about the glories our heaven and eternity. But what it tells us is precious. And yet... it gets better.

The comfort of God in Jesus Christ is not only for that future day, it is present, even now.

We have our baptism! We have the sign and seal of God's grace upon us in a washing of rebirth and renewal. We belong to him. Our life as his child has already begun, at the font, and it will last forever. When guilt and shame burden you, remember your baptism. When it feels like God has abandoned you, remember your baptism. When you wonder and doubt if you, such a sinner, can even be saved, remember your baptism. But it gets better...

We have his body and blood! Yes, he does not leave us to starve in this wilderness as we wander, but sustains us with his real presence, continually nourishing us with what we need the most – himself – and the forgiveness, life and salvation he delivers. Here we confess our unity with God and one another. Here we are strengthened in body and soul for days of our journey. But it gets better....

We have his word. A precious gospel, which encourages and equips us in this labored world. A hope and promise which points us forward to better days, because it always brings us back to that dark Friday where our sins were crucified with Christ. The cross, the open tomb of the resurrected Christ, and the promise of his return to judge the living and the dead and bring us to his kingdom which will not end.

This Gospel must be preached to the ends of the earth. It began with the disciples. It continued throughout the ages. Before kings and rulers, in the face of persecution and martyrdom. The Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel, giving men words to speak, words that point to Christ crucified for sinners, words that create faith and bring hope. The same Gospel preached by those apostles is the Gospel that rings out from this pulpit, here in Waterford. It's the same Gospel of Jesus Christ to be preached around the world, and even in Singapore. It is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in whom all things truly get better, for he makes all things new. In him, there is an end... an end to all labors and troubles. In him, there is a hope and promise, even when the foundations of your world are shaken, when the walls come crumbling down. For he is with us now, even to the end of the age, with us through all the troubles, holding out our only hope. And we will be with him forever, for he will come again on that great and glorious day. Remember that day, when your days seem dark. Remember his promise always, and know that in Jesus Christ, it gets better. Amen.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 24 - Mark 12:38-44

Pentecost 24, November 11th, 2012
St. John's Lutheran Church, North Prairie, WI
Mark 12:38-44
“What's With this Widow?”

Introductions, etc...

What's with this widow? Jesus watches the scene unfold, with the various people making their offerings in the temple. Clang, clang, clang, go the coins – no paper money – and when the rich put theirs in the box it probably sounds like a slot machine dumping out a jackpot. Quite a show, perhaps. Really, very impressive. But not to Jesus. He is far more impressed with one poor widow who contributes two small coins – an extremely small sum – but out of her poverty, she gave all she had.

So is the lesson here simply one of proportional giving? That Jesus wants us to give everything we have, too? That the takeaway from today is go home, empty your bank account and put it in next sunday's envelope for St. John's, or better yet, mark it for support of a missionary to Singapore? What's Jesus getting at here?

Take the scribes, about whom Jesus warned his disciples. Oh they're very impressive, those people – they walk around in long robes, with all the pomp and pageantry. They always have the best seat in the house. But there's a dirty secret. Part of their wealth is ill-gotten gain. Maybe technically legal, but at great cost to the poor, the helpless, the widow. And all the while pretending to be faithful and pure, saying long prayers, and donating large sums into the temple treasury. Beware of them. Don't be like them. Don't think they're the example.

There are some warnings for us here, too. Against greed. Against pretense. Against taking advantage of others, and against making a show of our giving. We should not think highly of ourselves for giving 5 or 7 or 10% or more... Nor should we necessarily think more of the big givers in the congregation. Jesus isn't impressed by all that.

For over there is a poor widow, who puts us all to shame. Not with the amount of her offering, or even with its proportion, but that her offering is made in faith. And here is the key.

Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus say something similar to a rich young man who thought he had it all together, well mostly. But Jesus said you lack one thing. Go sell all your stuff, and give it to the poor. And the man went away sad because he had great wealth. He went away, it seems, because his real God was his money, and he wasn't willing to repent and believe. It isn't that Jesus is against people having stuff. But when that stuff gets in the way of them having him – of recognizing sin, of trusting in him for forgiveness, life, and salvation – if it's either stuff or Jesus, then the stuff has to go.

Once again Jesus turns the usual expectations upside down and inside out. You think that when it comes to giving, more is better. But Jesus is about quality, not quantity. You think that wealth is a sign of God's favor, but Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit. You think that lowly widows, poor and sad, are forgettable, but he remembers them, and commends their faith. You think that Jesus wants some, or maybe all of your money – but what he really wants is all of you, your heart, mind, soul.

But who can do it? Who can live up to this high standard of reliance on God? Who can give with pure motives, and not give thought to selfish gain? How many people today give because it feels good to help others – not simply out of love? What good work, of any kind can we do, that is not tainted or sullied by our sin, tinged with pride, or polluted by ulterior motives?

Only Jesus can give perfectly. Only Jesus can give completely. And does he ever. He gives what the world considered worth very little – his life. Our world cheapens life, too, both at beginning and end. But Jesus gives more than just a human life, however precious. He is the Holy One of God. He is without sin. And he is the only-begotten Son of God, by whom all things were made. His blood is worth more, is more precious than all the gold and silver in the world. And yet he gives up all, becomes a worm, dies a pariah, all... for you.

It is this good news that we have heard, this Gospel which calls us to faith. It is knowing him not just as God and Lord but as savior and friend – the one who loved us with the greatest love of all – it is this love that he first showed us, it is the giving he first gave for us, that moves us to love and serve and forgive and to give.

This widow – she wasn't at the Walmart answering the clang of the bell and filling the kettle to assuage her guilt. She wasn't in her comfy chair watching poor starving children on TV, and trying to do her part. She was in the temple – the house of God. And that means she heard God's word. She was where the sacrifices happened. Her faith trusted in God's promises, and her generous giving of all she had was a confession of her faith in the one who sustained her, and sustains you. She came to the temple to receive the true treasures that money can't buy. She came in faith and hope. Little did she know the fulfillment of all sacrifices and all her hopes had also come to the temple that day, that he took notice of her faithful giving, and commended her example to his disciples, and to us.

One wonders whether the poor widow came to know and believe in this Jesus of Nazareth who would soon be crucified, and rise from the dead. One wonders whether she came to see the fulfillment of all she hoped for, and trusted in.

But how blessed are we to have heard, and believed. How blessed are we when the Spirit of God works through his word, to call us to repentance and faith. And as that same Spirit moves us, cheers us on, to love and serve and give for the benefit of our neighbor and toward the expansion of Christ's kingdom. Whatever your gift, large or small, mighty or mite. Give it in faith and joy, knowing and trusting in the one who gave his all for you, and still gives for your blessing. In the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, amen.

Thursday, November 08, 2012

Sermon - All Saints' Day - Revelation 7:2-17

Sermon- All Saints Day (observed), November 4th, 2012
Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Carson City, NV
Revelation 7:2-17
“All Saints: Eschatology and Ecclesiology”

Introductions, etc...

All Saints Day – a favorite of mine – a day rich in theology. Here we find ecclesiology – that is, matters concerning God's church. We find Sacramentality – the oneness we share at the rail and font with all of God's people of all times. We find Christology, of course, Christ in all our doctrines. And we find Eschatology – the matters concerning the end of days. The judgment. The kingdom to come.

Watch and see, Christians, how once again many people will get all fouled up by a false eschatology. Wait for December 21st of this year and the conclusion of the infamous Mayan calendar – to see how our media and culture will bombard us with end times speculation and fear. Why is it, that even those who don't read the Bible, go to church, or even call themselves Christians, seem to know and fear an imminent end? Perhaps it's the hard-wiring of God's law in our hearts, and a sense, however dulled, that all of us have sinned and deserve God's judgment. That when our day comes, or when the end of the world comes for all, either way we will stand before the throne and answer for our sins. Dull it, ignore it, harden your heart – but the law will stand forever and accuse the sinners who break it.

Thanks be to God for the grace and mercy he shows to us in Christ! We, the people of God, the children of God, the saints of God – will stand in the judgment. We will not stand on our own, but only in and through Christ – who has paid our price and forgiven our sins, and promised us mansions in heaven. We need not fear the end, rather, we pray with the saints of all ages, “come quickly, Lord Jesus”. For that final day is our day of victory, our day of triumph, our final hope.

Still, some Christians avoid the book of Revelation like the plague – or one of the plagues therein. Some find it hard, confusing or troubling. Scary images of demons and monsters, natural and supernatural disasters. And great suffering. Some are put off by its seemingly cryptic use of numbers, or strange imagery. And some, on the other hand, are overly fascinated with this last book of Scripture – and find ways to misread it, and misuse it.

But The Revelation of Jesus Christ to St. John is worthy of our study, or attention, and our hearing – in that in brings us some of the most powerful words of comfort – eternal comfort – in all of Holy Scripture. These words at the end of the book give us assurance that God already knows how it all ends – and that he is victorious – and that his people triumph with him. Not through great power and glory, but by the blood of the lamb.

And our reading this All Saints day fits the bill. It is a picture of a great multitude dressed in white robes. who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. This is a picture of the church in final glory. This is a picture of our future. This is the destiny of the church.

Who are these people? That's the question John is asked by the elder. And we can expand on the answer a little.

Who are these people? They are people from every nation and tribe, people and language. They are white and hispanic, they are african and european and asian. They are from all times and places where the Holy Spirit has called sinners to faith by the Gospel. By missionaries and pastors, parents and teachers, friends who confess and witness and bring others to the throne of the Lamb.

Who are these people? They are wearing white robes – robes which have been washed. And boy did they need to be washed. Formerly, those robes were stained and soiled with sin. Robes needed to cover the nakedness and shame that began when their parents first sinned and hid in the garden. But no longer. Now, it's a robe of righteousness. Now it's the robe of baptism, of faith, a very putting on of Christ. They have washed their robes, not with bleach or detergent, but with the holy precious blood of Christ. Yes, Christ's blood is the only basis for our salvation. Though your sins were as scarlet, in Christ, they are white as snow.

Who are these people waving palm branches? They are evoking that first triumphal entry of the Messiah – on Palm Sunday. There the crowds waved their branches and sang, “Hosanna”, that is, “Save us now.” But on that day, the day of his final coming, the day of his ultimate triumphal entry, the Hosannas will come to fruition. He will come with his angels in glory to bring salvation full circle. To bring his people a resurrection like his, to make us like him, risen, glorified, reigning with him forever.

Who are these people singing? They sing in joy – like the saints of all ages. They sing to the Lamb who brings them salvation. They are all the company of heaven, in chorus of praise to our God. They are all the saints, and we join their song even today as we gather around God's word and receive Christ's body and blood.

  • They are people of promises fulfilled, and just look at these promises:
  • They are before the throne of God. They are not cast away from God's presence, but stand in his very throne room. They are not sent away in punishment, but enjoy the honor of his Holy presence.
  • The serve day and night in his temple - They, all of them, serve as priests, for they have been made holy.
  • God shelters them with his presence - nothing can harm them under his watchful care.
  • They neither hunger nor thirst – the want for nothing, they lack nothing.
  • The sun doesn't scorch them with heat – for here there is only comfort.
  • The Lamb is their shepherd. The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. He guides them, he guides us, to springs of living water – the same water of grace and mercy that quenches the parched soul. The water that flows from his throne, from him...
  • And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, yes, from our eyes. What an image. That God himself would wipe the tears from your eyes. Even today, he does so, then and there, he will do so fully.

One final thought for this all saints day – in a few moments we will observe a tradition that many others do on All Saints day – the tolling of bells or chimes for the departed Christians from our midst during the past year. As each name is read, we give thanks for the life of this child of God, this saint, lived among us. And as each name is read, we might picture them, decked in the white robe of righteousness, waving a palm branch of their own, and joining the great multitude of saints. For those loved ones of ours, who die in the faith, and for us, there is precious promise in Christ. Their future – our future is sure.

On this All Saints Day, rejoice that in Christ there is forgiveness, life, salvation. In Christ we live, and will live, forever, will all the saints. And that God will wipe every tear from their eyes, and from yours.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Sermon - Reformation Day (observed) - John 8:31-36

Sermon- Reformation Day (observed), October 28th, 2012
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Whitefish Bay, WI
John 8:31-36
“Truth and Freedom and Christ”

Introductions, etc...

A happy and blessed Reformation day to you all. Today, October 31st, marks the beginning of the great Reformation of the western Christian church. On this day, a monk named Martin Luther stirred up quite a debate with his 95 theses, posting them on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He wanted to debate the sale of indulgences – documents the church promised would forgive sins – but he ended up rediscovering the Gospel itself. And in the years that would follow, others who discovered this Good News about Jesus which had been obscured for so long – they would come to be known as Lutherans. There's more history to all this, of course, but those are the main points.

So today, many protestants and all Lutherans around the world mark and remember the Reformation. There's a danger here of course. We don't want to fall into the trap of triumphalism. One pastor puts it this way:

“Reformation Day is not simply a self-congratulatory, back-slapping day. It is not V-R Day. It is not "We got it right and everyone else is dumb" Day.
It is a day where we ought to be focused on one simple truth. Because the Church is full of sinners who will wish to twist and corrupt doctrine, who will want to turn away from the clear and pure Gospel and substitute things of their own devising, the Church is always, always in need of Reform.” (Rev. Eric Brown - “Confessional Gadfly”)

In short, the Reformation was and is still about the truth. Maybe that's why John 8 is our Gospel passage today, in which Jesus talks about the truth that sets us free.

We have sayings about the truth – that truth is stranger than fiction. That the truth hurts. That you can't handle the truth. But like Pilate, we might ask, “what is truth?”. Especially in today's post-modern context, anyone who claims to know the truth or have the truth is immediately suspect. You're narrow minded, or arrogant or uneducated or all of the above. Truth itself is under assault in our modern world of thought.

But our God is a God of truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And Jesus himself teaches that the truth will set you free. That's another common saying, but many forget that it comes from the lips of Christ. But that begs another question. What truth is it, that's so important, that sets us free?

To the Jews who believed in him, Jesus spoke this strange saying about slavery and freedom. He wasn't talking about earthly slavery or temporal freedom. He was talking about slavery to sin.

It's a form of slavery we are all born into. There's nothing you can do to free yourself from it. Like bonds or shackles – sin is fastened tightly to you, corrupting your entire nature. Everything you do and say, even every thought you think is chained to sin. This is a hard truth – and a truth many people don't want to hear. Original sin, and the total depravity of man.

What makes it all the more insidious is that it's hard to see. But Jesus says even if you simply commit ONE sin, you are a slave to sin! Amazing! We like to convince ourselves that we don't sin that much. Ah, maybe a little. Maybe we are “sinning under the influence” but we're not hard-core, full-bore sinners. We just have a little problem, not an addiction. It's like a cold, it'll go away on it's on. But we fail to see the depth and darkness of sin's hold on us. We fail to see the walls of the dungeon that hold us captive here in these corrupted sinful bodies. We are blind to our own blindness.

The Jews Jesus was talking to didn't see it. “We're Abraham's descendants and have never been slaves to anyone”. They didn't see it. They didn't even know they were slaves. They couldn't handle the truth.

Perhaps they were also ignorant of their own history – and a lesson to draw here today is to know our own. For Abraham's descendants certainly were slaves to someone – named Pharaoh. God went to great trouble to bring them out of bondage in Egypt, sending signs and wonders, and working through the great deliverer, Moses. Throughout the Old Testament God continually reminded the people of these events – not to worship Moses, and not to think they were something in themselves – but to remind them of his great mercy and his mighty arm to save.

Do we know our own history? As Lutherans, we can look back to how God worked in mighty ways to deliver us from the bondage of false doctrine – man-made doctrine – under the power of pope instead of pharaoh. We can remember the man God once used to bring about such freedom – a monk named Luther. But we should first and foremost give thanks to God the true deliverer who brings us to the truth, and frees us from error, so that we may see Jesus our Savior clearly.

He is the true deliverer, Jesus Christ. Abiding in his word, his truth, means keeping him central to our lives and our doctrine. Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, perfect and without sin, the Son of God who sets us free from our slavery by ransoming us in his perfect death on Calvary. This is the point of Reformation day – and of every other day we mark and observe. Christ was crucified for you, the slave to sin. Christ died to set you free from sin.

He reforms you by grace through faith, in the work of his Spirit, and not of yourself but this is God's gift. No one can boast of their own works of righteousness – but we do boast all the more about how good God is to all people in his Son.

Abiding in this truth, the truth of Jesus, the church is always being freed - and reformed. Because individual sinners are being reformed. By repentance and forgiveness, God renews and reforms us toward his own image. He makes slaves to sin into sons of righteousness. He makes helpless and hopeless, wretched and wicked men and women into holy and righteous children of God. He does this for you – in Jesus Christ.

So be free – from all the sin that would cling to you. In Jesus, be free from the guilt and shame of your wicked works. He died for those. They're gone. Be free from the devil's lies and man's deceptions – and cling to, hold to, abide in Jesus' word. A word which says, “I've done it all for you – it is finished!” A word of grace and mercy, and word of hope and faith. A word which bespeaks us righteous. A little word that can fell even the devil himself, and has, at cross and tomb, at font and rail, forevermore, in Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 21 - Mark 10:23-31

Pentecost 21
St. John's Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
October 21st, 2012
Mark 10:23-31

Greetings, Introductions, etc...

Today's Gospel reading follows immediately after last week's, when Jesus lovingly tried to call the rich young man to repentance. “Go sell everything you have” if you want to enter the kingdom, and the man went away sad, for he was very rich. And now, Jesus comments on the incident, and on the broader problem of those with great riches entering the kingdom. And his disciples are amazed.

Why were they amazed by this? Perhaps because then, like now, we look at those with wealth and riches in a certain light. We see wealth and riches as a mark of success and perhaps even a sign of God's favor.

We Americans are especially susceptible to this kind of thinking. We are the world's superpower, and even in a down economy, the wealthiest country in the world. Our standard of living is among the highest, and we enjoy many physical blessings just by living here. Even our poor people are quite well off by a worldly standard. So the easy thing to think is, God must favor us. He must be rewarding us, as a nation, for our great values on freedom and equality. We're so wonderful aren't we? God must really love this country the most.

Well maybe you're not so convinced. But what about when we look at worldly success in the church? Look at the churches that are successful, and have it made – in terms of money and people. The happening places, the bigger the better. Yes, they have the nicest buildings, the best parking lots, the newest sound systems. And the people are going there in droves – look they have so many young people and now they need to build and expand again and.... you might think... that God is really blessing that congregation because of its worldly success, its wealth. A sign of God's favor. But be careful. Bigger isn't always better, more isn't always more favored, and these outward trappings of success can easily be as much a sign of problems in the church.

Or even as an individual. Even when we look at ourselves. For many others might consider us to be wealthy. But don't we think we've earned it? Don't we tell ourselves we deserve the nice things we have? We've worked for them. We take care of our things. We give back... somewhat... We know how to handle money. We have lots of handy reasons and rationalizations- but in the end it's the same lie – that God likes me better, that he's giving me all these good things because I deserve them. That whatever success and wealth and “stuff” I have in life is mine and I earned it.

But Jesus throws a monkey wrench in all that. For those rich people, for those successful people, and even for you and me. How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! And if you're rich – well – all the more. It's easier for the largest animal (perhaps they weren't familiar with elephants and dinosaurs) to go through the smallest opening. It's a ridiculous thought. It's physically impossible.

And notice the disciples' reaction. “Then who can be saved?!” See, it's not that they considered themselves rich, but they thought that wealth was a sign of God's favor. And if even the ones God blesses with riches can't enter the kingdom, than what about poor little old me? If those who are successful can't even do it, then what about me – I struggle from day to day. I can't keep my ducks in a row. I can't handle my problems. I can't even control myself. I'm a mess. I'm a sinner.

This is what Jesus is looking for. They are starting to realize the problem. They need him. You need him. Despair of your own efforts, your own works, your own value and worth. If even the rich and powerful and successful and glamorous are shut out of the kingdom, if not even those far “better” than you and I can get in... then we are sunk. On our own, we are lost. Without God, it is impossible.

“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”

Once the despair starts to set in, the helplessness and hopelessness of their situation, Jesus starts to open the door for the Gospel. He begins to explain that while yes, it is impossible for you, even for the rich man, to enter the kingdom... with God, it's possible. It's possible, and it's a reality, in Jesus Christ... but first Peter interrupts....

“Lord, we've left everything to follow you...” Maybe this is the trick, Peter reasons. Maybe it's not being rich, but being poor that earns God's favor. Maybe it's leaving everything behind. Maybe it really is selling all your stuff and going into a career in missionary work. Maybe it's moving 9344 miles away (but who's counting) and preaching in a foreign land, to a foreign people.

But it's not that either. It's never been about having the things or not having the things. It's never been about being rich or poor, successful or not. Or about where you live and how big your house or small your checkbook. God desires all men to be saved. God blesses rich and poor alike with the blessings that truly count. It's about the heart, it's about the faith, it's about Jesus.

Jesus, who truly left everything behind, when he left his throne in heaven to be born a lowly human and laid in a lowly manger. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man had no where to rest his head. He had no wealth or beauty that we should regard him, but humiliated himself – stricken, smitten, afflicted, chastised and condemned. Even his garments were stripped from him. A man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. Hardly a worldly success story. He who was first became last of all... at the cross.

This is how God does the impossible. This is how God gets the rich and the poor and even you through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven – through the cross. Through the impossible thought of God becoming Man, and the Creator dying for the creature, the one without sin, taking the sins of all. And through death, bringing forth life. Impossible? Not with God. Not with Jesus Christ. Not with silver or gold, but with his holy precious blood.

And this faith will lead us who believe to fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Above all material wealth and riches. It may mean literally leaving some things behind. Or it may mean simply repenting of putting these idols before the true God. Christ is worth far more to us than “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands”. And Christ promise us far more than any of that in the kingdom to come.

But he also mentions persecution. Before the bright shiny day at the end of the tunnel, there are persecutions. Christians can expect that the life of faith brings trouble, hardship, and persecution. People won't regard us like they regard the rich – with awe and admiration. The world won't roll out the red carpet for the followers of Jesus.

In the kingdom of God things aren't always as they seem. The rich aren't always the ones with God's favor. And the persecuted and troubled aren't always the ones out of favor. The last are sometimes first, and the first are sometimes last. And even the extraordinary, the incredible, the impossible.... is possible, and very real. Even for you the sinner, salvation is sure, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his name, Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Mark 10:17-22

Pentecost 19
St. Paul Lutheran Church, Annapolis, MD
October 14th, 2012
Mark 10:17-22

Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...

Another episode, another conversation, another lesson for us from Jesus. This time it's the rich young man who wants to justify himself. The dialogue is amazing. The man's ears are so stopped up with works righteous pride that he can't hear the law Jesus is blasting at him. But what the man was unwilling to do, and what none of us can do for ourselves, Jesus does for us all. Let's encounter God's law and his gospel today, so that we do not also go away sorrowful...

“What must I do to inherit eternal life??” What a question. It's a big question. An existential question. Like the meaning of life, and why do bad things happen to good people. But there's a difficulty with this question. It betrays a stunning, but very common misunderstanding of how this all works.

Let's start with the idea of inheritance. Of course in our everyday world, an inheritance is one thing. You're not supposed to have to work for it – it's supposed to be yours by rights. Perhaps the firstborn son is the traditional heir, to the farm, the estate, or the kingdom of his father.

But then, there are those strained relationships, where parents disown estranged children from the will. Families squabble over the estate like a pack of hyenas over a fresh kill. Sin turns us into green eyed monsters and things become more important than people. And we assert our rights, this is mine, I've got it coming to me. It's my inheritance.

Not so in the kingdom of God. Here, it is we who long ago disowned ourselves from God, wrote ourselves out of his will for us, rejected him and his blessings. An earthly son or daughter might hope to work their way back into a parent's graces, and maybe a share in the estate. But with God, there is no such hope. “What must I do?” when it's too late? When the judgment is already rendered, “the soul that sins shall die”. The wages if sin is death. The wicked will not stand in the judgment. Uh oh. We've got a problem here. What must I do... when what I really deserve is not to inherit eternal life, but condemnation?

The young man knew it, or so it seemed. He knew he needed something. There is a sense in all of us that we're not quite right. The law of God, written on our hearts, tells us somehow, in some way, we lack something. It's a little voice that can be muffled with enough hardening of heart. But it takes work.

This young man, in his foolishness, felt he was so close. He must have thought there was one finishing touch to be made on his lifetime masterpiece of good works. Funny how, no matter how much we tell ourselves we're righteous, there is always this lingering doubt... At least, when we're looking to ourselves, our own achievements. I may tell myself I am good. But can I convince myself I am good... enough?

“Good Teacher”. He doesn't get Jesus right, either. He doesn't address Jesus as Lord, or Savior, or Christ. Just a “good teacher”. Jesus probes, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” You don't know what good is, my friend. Yes, Jesus is good, in the truest and holiest sense of goodness. And if the man knew it, he would have shuddered in fear. Yes, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is God made flesh. And if the man knew it he would have fallen on his face, like Isaiah, and Peter, and so many other sinners confronted with the presence of Holy God. But not this young man, so sure of himself, so reliant on his own goodness, so in the dark about his sin, and his Savior.

Jesus points him to the commandments. He says he's kept them. And anyone who thinks so has a shallow view of these holy commands. This is where Martin Luther's Small Catechism is so insightful, with all of it's “What does this mean...?” Each of these commandments is just a starting point for us to examine the depth of our sins. Jesus, too, raises the bar – he says “do not murder” includes the hatred of the heart, and “do not commit adultery” includes lustful thoughts. There's no escaping the law. There is no one righteous, not one. Not this young man, not me, not your pastor, not you.

And finally, Jesus hits him where it hurts. Rather than spend all day explaining the many ways this man breaks God's law, he pulls out his scalpel, and strikes where the man's heart truly is. “Sell your stuff”. In effect, saying, “repent”. Turn from your false gods. Turn to me, the true God, the only one who is good. And I will help you.

I don't know where your heart is, but I think you do. I don't know what sins you cling to. Maybe it is greed, like the young man. Maybe it is lust, or anger, or pride. And if I were Jesus, I'd point it out, too. But I can call you to think of it, and repent of it, and turn to the one who is good, who comes to give you an inheritance you don't deserve.

So where does that leave us? We could leave here today like the young man, hanging our head in sorrow. Our we could receive him who comes to us with grace and mercy. We could go and try harder to do that one little thing that we foolishly think will complete our masterpiece of self-righteousness, or we could admit that it's all a sham, that we are poor beggars, and beg for mercy from the merciful one.

Jesus is the good teacher. But he is more than just a teacher. He gives the one thing that we lack – himself. His blood. His cross. His innocent suffering and death in our place, which gives us his own righteousness. He becomes the man of sorrows, to take away the sorrow of our sin. He is bereft of all earthly possessions, even his garments are divided among the soldiers. And finally, he gives even his own life. He gives all the riches of heaven to us, the poor, the needy, the lowly. And he makes us rich- truly rich, but not with silver or gold.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is: nothing. You can't. You won't, without Jesus. But with him, there is nothing you can do, for he has already done it, accomplished it, and sealed you as an heir of heaven. He has already died, that you may live. You can only receive it in faith and rejoice.

So receive him this day, in his word, in his body and blood, for your forgiveness, life and salvation. And go this day, not in the sorrow of your sin, but in the joy of your inheritance in Christ. Go, not in the self-righteousness of a fool, but in the righteousness of Christ that belongs to all the heirs of eternal life.