Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Sermon - Christmas Day - John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh. 

Just let that sink in for a moment. 

The Word. The living Word of God. The eternal Word of God. The Word of creation, by whom all things were made. The Word that called light out of darkness, and ordered all things. The everlasting, all-transcendent, mysterious and holy Word of God... became flesh. And that word made flesh dwelled among us. We know him as Jesus Christ.

A merry and blessed Christmas to you all. It's a special joy for me to be home for the holidays. After my fall tour of duty in Singapore, laying the groundwork for our permanent move, it is good to dwell among you once again here at Grace. I want to thank you for your support so far in my mission work. It's been a joy and a challenge to build my support network and begin to get things going with our new congregation. I appreciate all your prayers and encouragement, and even as I'm mostly gone, Brenda and the girls keep me feeling connected here, and I still consider Grace my home.

I've preached on this text from John here before. I even recall one year having lost my voice, and whispering the entire sermon one Christmas day. And while the reading from Luke 2 is what we mostly associate with Christmas – the story of the angels and shepherds, the birth of the Christ in Bethlehem, this reading from John is really a more “theological” approach to the Christmas story. What does it mean that Christ was born? Mary treasured the events of the nativity in her heart. But John draws us to meditate on Christmas also with our head. The Word became flesh and dwelled among us. The light has dawned in the darkness. We have seen his glory. And in him, and only in him, we see God.

It's profound. Simple, in a way. These first words of John's gospel are the passage most new students of Biblical Greek learn to translate – en archa en ho logos, en ho logos ein theos. But in these simple words, so much depth, so much mystery. John begins his Gospel the same way Genesis begins the Bible - “In the beginning”. And he connects the Word of creation with the Word of redemption – the word that was and is God. The word that is Christ.

The Word of God. We say that phrase, and we usually mean a book – the Bible. 66 books, an Old and New Testament. The authoritative source and norm of all our doctrine and life. But the Bible itself is nothing without Christ. In fact it is Jesus that teaches us of the Scriptures, “These are they that testify to me”. So from the first “in the beginning” to the promise of one to crush the serpent's head. To the promise of blessing to Abraham and the patriarchs, to the Exodus from Egypt. The sacrificial system, the commandments, the ark, the manna in the wilderness. The conquest of the promised land, the rise and fall of Davidic kinds. The words of the prophets, and the expectations of the Messiah – all of it points us forward, drives us toward the one born in Bethlehem, the Savior, Christ the Lord.

And the Apostles and Evangelists, the Epistles and the Revelation also shine the light on the light of the world. They proclaim the good news of his kingdom, and unveil his salvation. They bring us to the cross, where the lamb of God shed his blood for the sins of the world. They direct us to his sacraments – where his word of promise also meets a physical form – water, bread, wine – and forgiveness of sins is realized and applied. The Word of God, the written word, is inseparable from the Living Word of God in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word made Flesh.

That word is also two-fold. And Christ himself speaks a two-fold word to us. First, a word of law: repent. Be perfect. Love your neighbor. Love God with your whole heart, mind, soul. Lust and anger are adultery and murder. Take the log out of your own eye, sinner. It's a word that stings and cuts, a word that even kills. The letter kills, but the spirit gives life. The law shows our sin. But the Gospel shows our savior. The law comes through Moses, but grace and truth come through Christ.
The Gospel, that other word. The good word, the great good news. That in Jesus Christ, the word made flesh, our sins are forgiven. That his blood shed on the cross has paid the price, bridged the gulf, healed the gaping wound of gangrenous sin and festering death. Now, in Christ, there is only newness of life. A flesh that is healed and resurrected. As good as new, even better. A new life – better even that the newness of a newborn babe.

And as we celebrate the birth of a child, we give thanks for our becoming God's children. In Christ we become children of God, for he is the eternal Son of God. In him we are born anew, not by blood, but in his blood. Not by emerging from the womb again, but being brought forth from the waters of baptism. Born, not by the will of man, but by the will of God – his work, his doing, his grace upon grace poured out on is in Christ.

The word of God, the communication of God to man – is Christ. He is the form and fulness of God's grace to you, the sinner. And this is what Christmas is all about. It's far more than a silent night with cattle lowing, a poor humble baby laid in a manger. It's far more than joyous shepherds and heavenly choirs of angels. It's even more than peace on earth and good will toward man. Christmas is the Word of God becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. Christmas is the beginning of the fulfillment of all the ancient promises of God.

And it is a miracle of pure grace. God, holy God, comes completely of his own accord, from outside of us and far beyond us. He breaks in to our world as an uninvited guest, who is really the owner of the place. No choice or decision or act of man brought him here. He was even born of a virgin, after all. None of us can take any credit for his appearance, any more than we can claim we had a hand in the sun coming up this morning. But quite apart from us, and even in spite of our sins, the light of the world has dawned in Jesus Christ.

Word and light of creation that he is, yet his own creation didn't know him. Corrupt as we were and are, we can't even see the light – apart from his grace. So not only does he break into our darkness, but he gives us eyes to see him. He opens our ears to hear his word, and by his Spirit, faith to believe it. We could no more choose him than we could choose to be born – but this too, he brings and gives and delivers by his grace upon grace. Light to those who sit in darkness and sin. Faith to those who would receive him not. Forgiveness to us, who can only do evil apart from him. And a word to rely on, to believe in, to find hope.

Baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem. Born for you. Born to live for you, born to die for you, born to be resurrected for you, and to reign eternally for you. Even now, he remains the Word of God made flesh – divine, but also human, now glorified, and yet to come in glory.

Jesus is not only the reason for the season, he is the fulness of all seasons, the reason for all rejoicing. He is the content and source of our life, the author and perfecter of our faith. He is the agent of creation, and the one for redeems it and makes all things new. He is the crux of history, and his cross the cross-roads of all existence. And Bethlehem is the first step on the way to Calvary.

The word became flesh and dwelled among us. Thanks be to God - for grace upon grace received, and God the Father made the incarnation of Christ. For the light that has dawned upon us who sat in darkness, that even we should be called children of God. In Christ our Lord, Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all understanding, but is revealed in the incarnation of Christ our Lord, guard and keep your hearts and minds in Christ – now and always. Amen.  

Monday, December 16, 2013

Lutheran Antinomian Debate - Taking Our Cues from the Text

I don't get as bent out of shape about the vigorous debates amongst some in our circles, but actual enjoy following from the sidelines.  I particularly appreciated Pastor Paul Beisel's recent summary piece here.

But I thought I'd throw my own two cents into the mix, too, finally.  One aspect of this question I haven't often seen emphasized is how we take our cues from the text in question:

I believe this has been mostly a debate about preaching.  How does a preacher best set forth God's Law and Gospel in the course of his sermon, and over the course of many sermons?  Is the old "three point" model still the standard, or should it be used at all?  Can you end a sermon on a "law" note?  And which use of the law and how, or do we "preach a use of the law at all"? I don't have comprehensive answers to these sticky questions, but I do think it helpful to take some cues from the text when considering it all.

For instance, this past Sunday's Gospel reading ended on a "Gospel" note.  There wasn't a lot of (or any, really) paranaesis.  The whole reading was about John's seeming doubts and Christ's merciful action, culminating in the preaching of the good news.  Jesus says, "He who has ears, let him hear".  This is faith talk.  So with a text like this, is it wrong to let the text "lead the way", and if there isn't an emphasis on sanctified living, why shoe-horn it into your sermon?

Likewise, when preaching texts that do emphasize what the Christian life looks like, don't we do better to address those texts fully?  In a careful, Lutheran, Gospel-motivated way, of course.  I suppose those who preach on the Epistles more often would get more practice at this sort of thing.  But even some Gospel readings beg us to address the question, "how then shall we live?"

I suppose it does happen from time to time that the "Gospel" in a text is scant, and the preacher must mine for it or even "import" it.  I appreciate the "Gospel Handles" approach of Rossow on this.  But I don't think we are as compelled to "import" paranaesis into a text.  I'm thinking this has to do with Walther's "letting the Gospel predominate".

Preaching is hard.  I claim no expertise.  In fact I am amazed that God does anything good through me at all.  I appreciate the careful study and intensive discussion of these issues, as I continually seek to get a better "handle" on the task before me each week.

Sermon - Matthew 11:2-15 - Advent 3

Matthew 11:2-15
Advent 3
LCMS Singapore Mission
December 15th, 2013

Theologians have debated just what is going on with John the Baptist in this passage. On the one hand, here is a great prophet, the last of the prophets, and more than a prophet as Jesus himself testifies. John is the voice crying in the wilderness, the Elijah who was to come, the herald of the Messiah – sent ahead to prepare the way for Christ. John preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, baptized many, and pointed to Christ, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (which we sing to this day in our liturgy, when we are about to “behold the lamb of God” in the Sacrament of the Altar). Jesus heaps high praise on John as one of the greatest men ever born. John is surely important, and we naturally remember him during Advent, as we prepare the way for the celebration of Jesus' birth.

But on the other hand, it seems here that John was having a bit of a crisis of faith. And who wouldn't, in his shoes? John sat, rotting in the dungeon of a Herod, locked up for an ancient version of “hate speech” which was really just pointing out the sins of powerful people. In earthly terms, John had little hope, and of course we know how the story goes – John would soon lose his head to the wickedness of spiteful Herodias and cowardly Herod. Evil would seem to triumph. And what was Jesus going to do about it?

Did John waver in his faith? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. So often the Bible doesn't let us in to the inner thoughts of a person's heart, we read only the words and actions. Here John's actions, whatever their motivation, fit well with his whole persona. Whether purposely or in spite of himself, he points people to Christ. He sends his disciples to Christ. He directs them again to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

But is he the one? Or should we look for another? You and I are tempted to look for another Christ, too. And we certainly waver in our faith. We know who the true Christ is, but the sinful nature within us would have us running after other christs – other saviors. A religious leader? A wise mentor? Perhaps.

Or perhaps your Christ is less a person, and more a thing. Do you falsely seek your salvation in the pleasures and distractions of life? Do you deaden the accusation of the law with the club of a twisted rationalization, explaining away your sins to utter irrelevance? Or do you salve your throbbing conscience with the balm of good works, and a full dose of works-righteousness?

All of these false Christs fail us in the end, for they do not solve our problems, for they do not solve our problem... of sin. They are false Christs with a false Gospel. Only the true Christ brings good news to the poor. All those other things- the healings and wonders- are signs, calling cards the Messiah would drop. But the true mark of the true Christ is he brings good news. He is the good news.

True, some are offended because of him. But those who are not, those who have ears to hear this good news – are blessed. For the good news is that he was offended on account of our offenses. He faced death for our murderous lies. He was shamed for our scandalous adulteries. He was crucified by wicked men for our evil ways and humiliated on account of our selfishness and prideful puffery. He is the Christ – seek no other – he brings good news to the poor sinner like you.

Yes, John was quite a spectacle. Funny clothes, a diet that would make for a good cable tv show. An odd fellow living out in the wilderness all alone. But what did all the people go out to see in John? A prophet. What did they go out to hear from John? A message – message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. A message that would find its fulfillment in the one John wasn't even worthy to untie his sandals.

Like the prophets before him, and like so many witnesses to the Gospel after – John faced foes. The world hates the Christ. They reject his message and kill his messengers. They persecute his church. But do not despair. If you feel trapped in a dungeon of your sins, and know that death is looming, let John point you again to Christ. If you are blind or lame or leprous or deaf, look to Christ for healing more profound than an earthly miracle. If you face death, take courage, for in Christ there is life stronger than death. And if you are poor, a beggar, bringing nothing of value to the king – come and hear the good news from the only one who has it, but gives it freely to the likes of even you and me. 

Christ has come. Christ has died. Christ lives, and Christ will come again! What good news! Believe it for Jesus' sake, amen.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Sermon - Advent 2 - Isaiah 11:1-11

Isaiah 11:1-11
Advent 2
LCMS Singapore Mission

Once there was a tree, a mighty tree. It grew and thrived in the land. The tree was known amongst all the nations for its glory and majesty. The tree stood for its nation, and the people thrived in its shadow. It bore the fruit of peace, and they had rest from their enemies. And it was a godly tree, a tree after God's own heart. A tree that held so much promise. Indeed, the Lord promised that the house of this tree would be established forever.

But there was a rot in the tree. There was a sickness within that would bring death to the tree. Then the tree was cut down. Peace failed. The fruits and leaves withered. And all that was left was a stump. It seemed that all hope was dashed. It seemed that nothing was left but death. A lifeless, worthless stump.

The tree is the house and lineage of King David, the son of Jesse. David ruled around 1000 years before Christ's birth, and oversaw a time of peace and prosperity unparalleled for the Israelite people. Through David, God brought victory over the Philistines, Israel's old enemy. Through David, the borders of the land were expanded and Israel enjoyed national prominence like never before. And through David's son, Solomon, the world saw human wisdom like it had never seen, and the borders extended and the prosperity grew. Solomon even built a mighty temple, a house, for the Lord. The ark of the covenant would have a permanent home among God's people.

But there was trouble in David's house. Conflict among David's children. Solomon's heirs would divide the kingdom in two. Successive kings would follow, alternating in various degrees of faithfulness and unfaithfulness until finally each kingdom fell to an outside enemy. Assyrians. Babylonians. It all came crashing down. And when the remnant of the Jews finally returned to their land, they had no king. Their position was precarious, and more invaders, foreigners would come. The people languished in expectation that one day, David's throne would be restored. One day, a savior would come. One day, as Isaiah had prophesied, a shoot would come forth from the stump of Jesse.

And then this stump the Lord brought forth a shoot. A small green sprig, appearing at just the right time. A tender young growth, of the same nature as the stump but also somehow, something more. As the shoot from the stump of Jesse grew in knowledge and fear of the Lord, the crowds began to gather around in hopeful expectation that the tree had once been lost would stand tall in the land again. Peace, prosperity, hope – could it be that this new growth was the reversal of fortunes we have waited for?

It is Advent. We wait for Christ, much like the people standing at the stump of that ancient tree. Perhaps we, too, had our hopes up for something great, something wonderful, something God had promised... and it seems to have all come crashing down. Perhaps we are even the ones holding the axe, with a guilty look on our faces and a heavy heart weighed down by the rot within us. Things haven't turned out the way we planned, or hoped, or wanted. And truth be told, we bear the blame for what goes awry in our lives as much as anyone.

We are children of Adam and Eve, who stood at another tree and saw everything come crashing down. It was their prideful sin that did it. They lost their home in paradise. The saw death and suffering come into the world. Joyful things like work and childbirth became a burden. Their tree from here would show its rotten roots, as each generation was brought forth in Adam's image, fruit of the poisoned tree of his sin. And bearing sinful fruit of our own.

But then one came who was somehow unspoiled, untainted by this disease. He came from heaven above, though born one of us. The Son of God and Son of Man. He came to fulfill all hopes. To restore what was lost. To bring life to the lifeless, hope to the hopeless. He is the new shoot from the stump of the dead tree whose roots go far deeper than Jesse.

And Christ does all of this by another tree. A gnarled and grizzled old cross-bar to which his hands and feet were nailed. An instrument of death for the worst of the worst, thieves, murderers, rebels. And it probably seemed on that day that once again the hopes for salvation were being cut down once again, that another lifeless stump would be all that remained of Jesus the great teacher and miracle worker.

But it was not so. For on the third day far more than a stump remained, and far greater than just a mere shoot. A glorious resurrection followed that brought life and immortality to light for you and me. Christ by his tree of cursed suffering and his resurrection in glory – he becomes for us the tree of life. He restores what was lost in Eden and so much more. Peace, prosperity, honor, righteousness, even eternal life.

In him we have the Spirit of the Lord, the wisdom and counsel and knowledge and fear of the Lord.

He is our righteous judge who has rendered our verdict – not guilty, by his blood.

His word strikes the earth in judgment for the wicked and in eternal glory for the righteous. And though now we see in part, by faith, then we will see fully the restoration of paradise – as even the animals who were at odds are brought to terms of peace again in the new creation.

We wait for his coming. We wait in faith, in hope, with peace. We wait, knowing he who planted the garden of paradise is he who promises paradise to the thief on the cross, and to all of us thieves and murderers and tree choppers. His cross stands as signal to the nations – salvation is ours in Christ. So come, Lord Jesus, Amen.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sermon - Last Sunday of the Church Year - Luke 23:27-43

November 24th, 2013
Last Sunday of the Church Year
Luke 23:27-43
Last Words”

It is the last Sunday in the church year, and as such the “last things” take center stage. Today, especially, the Gospel reading sets before us some “last words”.

I sometimes wonder what my last words will be. You know, will they be a fond farewell with my family gathered around my bedside, before I peacefully drift off in the sleep of death. Or will it be something far more mundane, like, “what's for dinner?” or “good night, love you too”?

People are often remembered for their last words – especially when they know they are going to be their last words. It's a last chance to say what is really, really important. Some words of wisdom. Some well-wish for those you care about.

I remember being at the deathbed of one of our elders, who was dying of cancer. He was fairly lucid up until the end. The doctors told him, “say your goodbyes. You have hours left, maybe a day.” Amazing. And I watched as his family came to say their goodbyes, and he gave his final words to them – words that encouraged them to remain in the faith. I thought to myself, that's how I'd like to go.

Last words. Moses speaks some last words in Deuteronomy. He had traveled with the Israelites for 40 years, and he knew the farewell was hastening. As he would not join them in Canaan. But he spoke last words to them, words to remember, before they parted. In fact the whole book of Deuteronomy is just that – Moses' farewell sermon. We might sum it up, “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” In other words – Moses' last words were a reminder to the keep hold of the Word of the Lord. We usually hear this reading on Thanksgiving Day, by the way.

Moses would direct us to follow the law. After all, it was Moses who received the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai – and wrote them in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5. And these ten commandments leave us with no word of answer regarding our sin. They always have the last word. Do you think you don't covet? Do you think you haven't stolen? Do you really, really have no other gods?

We have no words of excuse. We have no words to free ourselves. We have nothing to say in the face of God's law, except to confess that what it says of us is true. Like David, we could say, “I have sinned against God and man.” No lie will stand, no mitigating circumstances will help our case. The soul that sins shall perish. The wages of sin – death.

But the law of God, while an important word, is not the last word. Even for Moses, he directed the people also to the works and promises of God. Remembering, in word, what he has done throughout their history to bring about their salvation. And looking forward, trusting in the promises, of the even greater salvation that was one day to come.

Then there's Jesus. His last words – well, his last words before death – are often a focus of Christian meditation. 7 Words from the cross, two of them in our reading from Luke today - “Father forgive them...” and “Today you'll be with me in paradise”. Whole sermons have been and should be preached on these last words of our Lord. But not just because they are some of his last – but because they are his words. And man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Speaking of bread, that might take us to some other last words of Jesus – the words of his last will and testament. The words of the Lord's Supper. Take, eat, this is my body... Take drink, this is my blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. Do this as often as you drink of it in remembrance of me. Here, the last words of Jesus are established as an ongoing testament and a mysterious application of the forgiveness he won at the cross. These words, they continue to be spoken, in his stead and by his command – when his servants continue to administer his gifts to his people.

For Jesus, his word of forgiveness is the last word on our sin. There are no contingencies. There is no small print. And there's no taking back that word. There's no chance in hell or in heaven that he will ever throw your past sins in your face. For those sins are gone, and they have been, when he spoke the last word on them: “It is finished”. It is the end. Of sin, of guilt, of death.

Oh, no, death doesn't have the last word on Jesus either. In his resurrection he destroys the power death holds over us, too. He is the firstborn of the dead, as Colossians says, in whom we too are delivered from darkness.

And yet in another way, even that isn't the last word he has for us. For on this last Sunday of the church year we are reminded once again to look to the future. To look forward to a day when he comes again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. To look forward, trusting in his word, that he will come back to take us to be with him forever. Looking forward, to a resurrection like his, when we will see him as he is, yes in our flesh, with our own eyes, see God, our Redeemer.

How about that for having the last word.
I'm not one to usually quote John Lennon, but he once said, “Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end.”

Well them man who imagined a world without religion got many things wrong. But here he was on to something, in spite of himself. Still he forgot the last words - “in Christ.”

In Christ, everything will be okay in the end. Some of the last words of the bible paint the picture beautifully. No more pain, no more suffering, God himself wiping every tear from our eyes. I'll take those last words. And know that no matter what the law says about my sins. And no matter what death does to me. And no matter what other words are spoken by or to or about me – Jesus Christ has the last word. A word of forgiveness, life and salvation. A word of peace and comfort. A word of hope. A word.. for you.

Believe it for Jesus' sake. Amen.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sermon - Reformation Day (Observed) - Revelation 14:6-7

Reformation Day (Observed)
October 27th, 2013
Revelation 14:6-7

Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the old joke about the man who goes to heaven, and sees all the different doors, with each denomination of Christian worshipping in their own way.  But the door marked, “Lutheran” also bears a sign, “quiet please”.  And when the man asks why, St. Peter explains, “Shh.  They think they’re the only ones here!”

I can take a joke as well as anyone, but it’s just not true.  We recognize the universal church far transcends those of us who call ourselves “Lutheran”.  I fully expect to see Baptists and Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Methodists in Heaven.  All who call on the name of Jesus Christ, have true faith in him, will be saved.  We Lutherans are not the only Christians.  And we are certainly not the only ones who will go to heaven.  Lutherans have never taught this.

However, that’s not to say that the differences don’t matter.  It’s not to say that we should sweep disagreements aside, and act as if we are all united.  We live in a fallen world, where knowingly or unknowingly, God’s holy Word is twisted and worked over, even by those who profess to be Christians.  The Old Evil Foe has been doing it from the beginning, when he led men astray with his question, “did God really say...?”  And he continues to cast doubt wherever he can today.  It is a grievous situation that the church on earth is not united in the truth, as Jesus prayed in John 17.  Sin corrupts.  It even corrupts doctrine.

And yet despite all of this, the word of the Lord stands forever.  There is a universal and timeless truth to it.  Or as John puts it in our reading from Revelation, an “eternal gospel”.  

And this eternal gospel is a gospel to be proclaimed, “to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.”  Friends, we are all living proof of this, even today.  

The Gospel is timeless and eternal, but it is also concrete and time-bound.  It is universal - that is, it is for people of all places and tribes and nationalities.  But it is also particular, that is, it is for you.  You have come to faith by the proclamation of the eternal Gospel.  You are baptized into the eternal, triune name of God.  And you continue to live by that same eternal gospel which you hear again and again, and which continues to give life.

Just what is this eternal gospel?

It is the whole and sum of God’s word to you, the sinner.  It is the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.  

It is the incarnation, the perfect law-keeping, the suffering, the death and the resurrection of Christ, for you.  

It is the fact of his promise that your sins are forgiven, that you belong to him, for you were bought with a price.  

It is the seal and certainty of our baptism, it is the eating and drinking of Christ’s body and blood for our forgiveness.  

It is justification, by grace, through faith, in Christ alone.  

It is the confession of Christ before the church and the world, before governors and kings.  The confession of the old and the young, even from the mouths of babes.

It is the work of Christ, and Christ alone - for you, on you, in you and given to you.  

The eternal gospel is Jesus, and all that is wrapped up in him; Christ, crucified for sinners, alive for sinners, who will come again to judge the living and the dead and make all things new.

To say we are “Lutheran”, is to say that we confess the eternal Gospel.  To say we are Lutheran means that we believe what God’s word teaches, and has always taught.  That sinners are saved by grace through faith in Christ.  That when God makes a promise, he keeps it, even when it doesn’t make sense to us.  That the heart and soul of our faith is not about what we do or don’t do, or should or shouldn’t do, but about what our Lord Jesus Christ objectively has done, and continues to do for us.

I believe, and I confess that the Evangelical Lutheran Church - the church which confesses the writings of the Book of Concord - confesses the eternal gospel with truth and purity.  And I hope you can say the same.

There was nothing special about the reformers, really.  There was nothing exceptional about Martin Luther.  What makes this confession worthy of our attention, is its crystal clear presentation of the eternal gospel.  No cooperation with God, no act of human will or reason.  No experience or heartfelt yearning is necessary, or even relevant.  Jesus Christ comes to save sinners, to heal the broken, and raise the dead.  Which we all were in our sins, completely beyond hope.  Lost eternally.

But the eternal gospel gives hope to the hopeless, righteousness to sinners, and breathes life into the walking dead.

In a way, all those who confess this gospel confess the same.  And all those who believe and teach it, could in a sense be called, “Lutheran”.  I’ll often make a joke of my own, about how Lutheran Abraham was, who believed in God and was credited as righteous.  Or how Lutheran David was, who when confronted by Nathan about his adultery and murder confessed, “I have sinned”.  Or how Lutheran were the prophets and patriarchs, and all the believers of old - who Hebrews says looked forward by faith to the salvation God would accomplish in Christ alone.  They were believers in the eternal Gospel.  They were Lutherans.  They just didn’t know it.

And that is why, also, there will only be Lutherans in heaven.  For when the dust settles, and we see all things clearly, and all falsehood and misunderstanding melts away - we will see Christ and his word clearly.  His eternal gospel will stand.  And we will all of us, together, believe and know that salvation is by Christ alone, for us, forever.

Being Lutheran, you see, isn’t about Luther at all.  It’s about Christ.  It’s not about me or you, and what we can bring to the table.  We have only wretched sin.  Instead, it’s about Christ, and what he brought to the cross - himself, and gave his body and blood there, for you.  Receive that same body and blood today, for the forgiveness of your sins, according to the promise of his eternal gospel.

And have a blessed Reformation day.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Sermon - Pentecost 20 - Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

Text:  Habbakuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4
Theme:  “Waiting... in Faith”
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
LWML Sunday; St. John’s Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
October 6th, 2013

One of our common “first world problems” is having to wait.  Waiting for the green light at the intersection.  Waiting for the slow computer to load the web page.  Waiting for your toddler to get dressed so you can get to church on time.  And if you’re a naturally impatient person, the DMV can seem like your own special little purgatory.  Or maybe you are a missionary family waiting to get your visas and to move overseas...  Yes, I’ve been thinking about waiting a lot lately.  And our reading today reminds us there is a spiritual struggle for us when it comes to waiting... waiting on the promises of God.

Habbakuk knew something about this.  He was a sort of a missionary - not to Singapore, but to his own people, the people of Judah.  A prophet charged with calling out their sin, calling for their repentance, a mending of their ways.  He spoke, not his own word, but God’s holy Word.  And yet, he was frustrated.  He wasn’t seeing the results he wanted.  The people weren’t listening, and it seemed as if God was just letting them get away with it.  Wouldn’t he act?  Wouldn’t his judgment come?  How much longer do I have to wait, oh Lord?  The poor are victimized and the rich get richer by taking advantage.  It’s not fair.  When will God make things right?

Likewise, my own expectations for Singapore must be tempered.  A preacher bringing the Word of God to any place must know that not all have ears to hear.  That some will reject, even hate the message and the messenger.  And that success and growth and full pews and overflowing offering plates and shiny happy parishioners might not come so soon, or ever.  But God’s word never returns void.  It always accomplishes its purpose.  Though sometimes that purpose is so that those who reject it will be without excuse.  Nevertheless, we pray that God will bring good fruit from this message, and seeds sown will be watered, grow, and a harvest will multiply for Christ’s kingdom.  May God grant us the patience to see it.

And here at St. John’s, there is a new prophetic voice among you.  Pastor Gilbert is called to preach and proclaim the word to you, the people in his own (new) backyard.  And there may be times he will be frustrated, as will you, with the lack of outward results.  Or maybe it’s still the honeymoon period, and everyone’s still in awe of his vibrant preaching and poignant messages.  I don’t know.  I haven’t heard him preach.  But sooner or later, a time will come, when pastor or people, or both - will grow frustrated, and maybe a bit jaded.  Things might seem to stagnate.  It will become business as usual.  Patience in the promises of God, Pastor Gilbert.  Be faithful in your proclamation of law and gospel, and of Christ crucified for sinners.  And don’t force it, wait for the Lord to bring the results in his good time.  You may never even see the results.  No matter.  Be faithful.  Wait for the Lord.

And the people who hear such messages must also be patient.  Patient that God will bring good things to them in his good time.  The fervent prayers of the faithful are never ignored, but answered by our loving and gracious God.  But his ways are not our ways, his answer is not our answer, and his timing is not our timing.

Sometimes it seems like he never delivers.  That he’s forgotten us entirely.  Then faith steps in and points us back to the promises.  

The Lord who promised Adam and Eve and offspring that would crush the serpent’s head... remembered his promise and delivered, at the cross.  The Lord who promised old Abraham many descendants and even more blessings, is still fulfilling that promise when new Christians are born at the font.  And the Christ who promises forgiveness of sins in this bread and wine that is his body and blood - remembers his promise and delivers the goods, even as we do this in remembrance of him.

The same patient Lord who never forgets a promise answers the prophet Habbakuk:

“Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so he may run who reads it.
For still the vision awaits its appointed time;
it hastens to the end—it will not lie.
If it seems slow, wait for it;
it will surely come; it will not delay."

“Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him,
but the righteous shall live by his faith."

Friends, this is faith.  That we cling to the promises.  That we trust that the promise-maker is a promise-keeper even when our eyes and ears say otherwise.  

When life dumps troubles and worries and problems galore, and it seems that if there is a God, he has forsaken you... have faith.  Wait for the Lord.  

When your sins seem so great and burdensome that you can almost feel their weight on your shoulders, have faith in the one who carried them all to the cross.  Wait for the Lord.  

When it seems like your prayers are falling on deaf ears, and you want to scream “is anyone listening?” then you are in the good company of Habbakuk, and the apostles and saints, and all we of little faith.  The sinful nature of man is impatient.  But the Lord is patient, merciful, and kind.  And he who knows and sees and hears all things certainly hears you, and he does not despise the cries of his own people.  Like a father that knows best, as indeed he is, he will bring his justice and mercy at the proper time.  Have faith.  Wait for the Lord.

Where better do we see God’s justice AND mercy, than at the cross?  Where better do we see God’s answer to prayer?  Where can you look and know for certain that God will go to any lengths, ANY lengths for you... even to the death of his own Son... And Christ, even to the shedding of his own blood.  For you.  It is done, and it is finished.  God keeps his promises.  His justice is satisfied.  Sin is paid for.  And you, the sinner, go free.

There is another appointed time, my friends, for which we wait.  Another hour in which God will act, once and for all.  Call it the last day, the judgment day, the consummation of all things.  Christ will come with all his angels, judge the living and the dead.  And all his enemies and ours will be no more.  Even death itself will be done for, and we will rise and live forever.  No more suffering, no more pain, God himself wiping every tear from our eyes.  It is this final promised land in which we hope.  It is Christ’s promise that he is preparing a place for us, and will come to take us there.  It is this sure and certain hope that gives us courage even in the face of our own death.  We can rest in peace, because we wait for the Lord.

And even in death, the righteous lives... by faith.  What a wonderful promise, “the righteous shall live by faith”.  It doesn’t say the righteous will live by our impressive resume of good deeds.  The righteous don’t live by making a commitment to Jesus, or by asking him into our hearts.  The righteous don’t live by lily white reputations and a spotless record of church attendance.  The righteous don’t live by anything other than faith - faith in Christ, faith in his promises, faith in his plan and purpose to prosper you now and always.  Even when it looks otherwise, faith sees it.  And faith knows it’s worth waiting for.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Sermon - St. Michael - Rev. 12:7-12

St. Michael and All Angels - Matins
Trinity Lutheran Church, New Haven, MO
September 29th, 2013
Revelation 12:7-12

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

Today we observe an unusual day in the church calendar, St. Michael and All Angels day. We are in some ways, perhaps well acquainted with angels. At least culturally speaking:

We have “Touched by an Angel” and “It's a wonderful life”, books and movies, and a song by Aerosmith. We have angelic precious moments figures, and a guardian angel motorist club. Angels are all around us, but just how biblical are these cultural images and uses?

Scripturally speaking, an angel is a heavenly being which speaks and acts as an agent of God. The good angels are numerous and powerful, and they are ministering servants sent to help God's people in various ways. They are not to be worshiped, nor do we become angels when we die.

In our reading from Revelation, there is pictured in John’s vision, the war in heaven... Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon, that is Satan, and his angels.  The good angels of God are victorious, and win the day.  The enemy is strong, but the enemy is defeated.  Thanks be to God!  And though the devil still inhabits the earth, we know his time is short.

But perhaps the most important thing to know about angels, is simply what the word angel means – literally, “messenger”. It's the same word which makes up the ev-angel of evangelism – the good-message or good news. Angels are messengers. And as such, it's not so important who and what they are as it is what they do and especially what they say.

Especially in the New Testament, when God's plan of salvation in Christ takes a major step forward, angels make an appearance, as if by their very presence to highlight the importance of the message: “Glory to God in the highest, for born this day to you in the city of David is the savior, Christ the Lord.” Angels minister to Jesus in the toughest moments of his work for us, in wilderness and garden. Angels bookend the empty tomb and proclaim the Easter message, “He is not here. He is risen, as he said!” And the voice of the archangel and the trumpet call of God will announce Christ's second coming, when all his angels accompany him, and the final victory celebration is announced.

To be sure, there are false angels, with false messages. Satan himself, a fallen angel, is the father of lies. He wants nothing more than to distort and pervert the true word of God, and turn the good news into bad news. He would tell you that your salvation isn't sure. That it depends on your own good works. And that your sins are too terrible even for God to forgive. He would pollute the Christian message with all sorts of mixed messages to unfix our eyes from Jesus. And his goal is ultimately to drive you to despair and unbelief. Preserve us from the evil foe, oh Lord! Send your angels to strengthen us, and keep us steadfast in your word.

If an angel is a messenger, and what's important is not so much the messenger, but the message, then there's another way to think of angels.

Pastors, are God's angels – his messengers, to you, his people. In fact there is some good reason to think that when John writes, in the book of Revelation, to the angels of the seven churches – he is really addressing their pastors. Now, I've known Pastor Erhard long enough to tell you that he is certainly no angel, but I also know the message he preaches is Christ crucified for sinners like you and me. I know you will hear that message week in and week out, a message of Law and Gospel, sin and Grace. A message which keeps Christ always before you, and which points you to Christ's means of grace: word, baptism, supper. He is your minister, your servant, in this place, to bring you a crystal clear, life-saving, life-changing message of salvation in Christ alone.

But others need to hear this message, too. Some who live in far away places, other continents, even in Singapore. There God also sends messengers so that Christ's message can be proclaimed. The same message to people who have the same problem of sin and death. The same savior crucified and risen for all.

And you people of Trinity, like all of God's people, also bear the message. You do it in a different way than a pastor or missionary or heavenly angel – but you witness and give answer for the hope that is within you. You speak a message when you confess your faith with other Christians, kneel to receive Christ's body and blood (you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes). And your actions of Christian love and service speak sometimes louder than words about the love that you have first known in Jesus. God has called you to various stations and roles in life – parent, friend, worker, citizen, spouse. In all these callings you are God's agents and messengers to bring his message and his gifts to your neighbor. In this sense, you are angelic. Thanks be to God.

But there would be no angels were it not for Christ, the chief messenger of God. The agent of creation, the living word of God, the original (though uncreated) angel. He appears in the Old Testament as the “Angel of the Lord”, and accomplishes God's purposes. In Jesus Christ, the word, the message, is made flesh and dwells among us. Thus he is both the messenger and the message, the author and fulfiller of our faith, the content and the conveyer of our salvation. It's all about Jesus. And Jesus is all about procuring and proclaiming our salvation.

And both for angels, and for us, we can do nothing apart from Christ.  We can win no victory apart from him and his message.  Read again from Revelation 12, verse 11...  concerning that great war in heaven, “they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony”.  

They conquer Satan and his evil forces.  They conquer sin and death itself.  As do we... Not by strength of arms.  Not by cleverness.  Not by novel approaches and fancy programs.  Not by excusing sin or rationalizing it.  Not by living in denial.  Not by trusting in the princes of this world.  Not by intellectualism, nor by emotional experience.  Not by the will of man or by any decision we make.  Not by my own reason or strength in any possible way.

But only, and always, by the blood of the lamb.  Only, and always by the word of testimony - to what Jesus has done for us, in his death, in his resurrection, and what he will do when he comes again in glory, all his angels with him.  We are more than conquerors, as are the holy angels, always, and only, through Christ.

What a joy to share this message with you today. What a blessing to know we believe and proclaim the same message. That together with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven... with pastors and missionaries and all the people of God on earth.... and through the blood of the one who is both messenger and message, even Jesus Christ himself, we have heard, and we believe, and we will live and praise him forever. In Jesus Christ our Lord, amen.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sermon - Pentecost 18 - Luke 16:1-15

St. Matthew’s Lutheran Church, Lexington, MI
September 22nd, 2013
18th Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 16:1-15

Grace mercy and peace....

Today we come to a difficult Gospel reading.  I have to tell you that I have talked with at least 6 other pastors about this reading from Luke 16, the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, and it was unanimous that no one was looking forward to it.

And it’s not just because this is a passage about money.  Which is bad enough, by the way, for most faithful pastors.  Of course, it’s easy to go wrong when we touch on the topic of Christian stewardship.  But even worse, it’s not something most church people like to hear about either.  And why is that?

It could be, quite frankly, because the truth hurts.  It could be that we are more materialistic than we’d like to admit.  It could be that when Jesus tells the pharisees that no one can serve two masters - you cannot serve God and money - it could be that he’s hitting a little too close to home.

Just as it was in Jesus day, so it is with us today.  And so it is, by the way with many people where I am going, to Singapore.  There, the love of money is expressed in an handy little way - that every Singaporean is intent of acquiring the “5 C’s”.  Cash, Credit, Condo, Car and Country Club.  Of course, that’s a softball if a preacher ever heard one - there’s one more “C” that everyone needs, one that is our true need - Christ.

But to the extent that Jesus’ hard words about money apply to each of us this morning, and I suggest that is to a great extent - let us repent.  Repent of our idolatry of the dollar.  Repent of our putting things before God and our neighbor.  Repent of our unrighteous use of wealth, our poor stewardship of his riches, and of exalting in our lives what is an abomination to God.
And find in Christ our true riches.  There’s plenty of that in this parable, too, though it’s harder to see.

I think the other reason this text is so difficult a passage (aside from the fact that it talks about money), is that it may seem on its surface that Jesus is commending dishonesty.  Of course, he isn’t.  We don’t read scripture in a vacuum, and we know from other places that thou shalt not steal.  His point about the use of money is to use it shrewdly, yes, but is there something more here?

Take a close look at the master in the story - the rich man.  There are some clues here that something just isn’t right with this master.  Sure, he’s about to fire the dishonest steward for his wasteful management.  But even in doing so, he is merciful.  He asks for an account, but he gives the man time - time the steward uses to set himself up for the future.  The master asks for an account, but he never ends up demanding repayment (even from those who the steward gave a discount on their bill).  And strangest of all, the master commends the dishonest steward at the end of the story - even though he’s been dishonest and wasted and given away the wealth of the master!

Who would act like such a master?  Who would show such mercy, and forgive such malfeasance?  Who would show such patience, and commend even the dishonest, the wicked, the one who had stolen from him?  Our God and Father, that’s who.  On account of his Son, Jesus Christ.

For in Jesus Christ, God does things even more outrageous and surprising and nonsensical - at least to the judgment of this world.  The Father sends the Son, not to demand an accounting from us, who idolize things and money and fail to worship the true God as we should.  The Father sends the Son, not to collect on our debt of sin which we surely owe, a debt deeper than we could hope to repay.  The Father sends the Son, not to threaten us to shape up or else.  No.  He sends his own son that whoever believes in him would not perish, but have eternal life.

And Jesus, for his part, is just as surprising.  He does the work that we don’t do, and can’t do - the fulfilling of the law. The righteousness of Christ is accounted to you.  All the good he did and does - you get the credit.

 And he dies the death we deserve, in our place, for our sake. He accomplishes his mission by paying the debts we owe - not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death. He takes what you have - only debt - and writes you far more than a 10% discount.  He gives you freely of his grace, all the riches of heaven.  And a promise of eternity in his presence, in the bejeweled heavenly Jerusalem, with gates of pearl and streets of gold.

Does that sound like a lot to promise?  Of course it is, but he who is faithful with little is faithful with much.  And he who did not spare his own Son, but gave him for us all - how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?

So maybe this parable isn’t so bad after all.  Maybe a periodic reminder to repent of our love of money is in order.  And certainly we can give thanks for the mercy of the master, shown to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  To him be the glory forever, amen.

Saturday, September 21, 2013


Total hat tip to Rob Olson (there are some who call him, "Tim") for this:

What are the oaths/vows you have taken in your life, and do you still consider them binding?
A short list of mine:

Baptismal (by proxy- sponsors and parents)

For me, the above, all completely binding and still in force.  I hold these to a higher standard than the rest, promises of a solemn and lifelong import.

And then there are pledges:
The American Flag
The Christian Flag
Boy Scouts?
Cub Scouts?
other societies/organizations?

I can't remember or think of all of these, though I am sure there have been more.   Rob, I would like to hear more about your thoughts on the history of the "pledge of allegiance" and the book you mentioned.  In any case, this whole exercise was good food for thought, and I would encourage others to think it through as well.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Sermon - Mission Festival - Luke 24:44-53

Mission Festival
Grace Lutheran Church, Strasburg, IL
Luke 24:44-53
September 8th, 2013
“Another Missions Sermon”

Grace and peace to you...  an honor to share the Word of God with you on this Sunday, your “Mission Festival”.

There’s a lot of talk about missions and being missional in the church today.  Everyone seems to agree that missions are good.  And everywhere I go people love to hear from a missionary, and learn about missions.  It seems appropriate to have a missionary as a guest preacher on a Sunday highlighting missions, and so here we are, and here I am.

But I have to be honest with you.  I don’t preach a lot of “missions” sermons.  I don’t have one canned sermon that I repeat everywhere I go, using the same Scriptures, telling the same stories.  I know some people told me that’s the way it should be done.  But I don’t.

And I also have to admit that I don’t have any special expertise on “doing missions” that I can impart to you today.  I don’t expect my visit will drastically change your congregation, what it does, or even how you all feel about “missions”.

What I will do, however, is proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And with the Gospel reading appointed for a “mission festival”, we can together give attention to Jesus’ teaching about missions.  His mission.  And the mission that he carries on through his apostles, and through his church.  The mission that he continues even today, even here, through you.

A missionary is one who is “sent”, especially having to do with the activity of the church in the world.  Or as Jesus puts it, “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed... to all nations” And while usually we think of pastors, there are others who are sent in many capacities, all in support of this central goal.  Usually we think of missionaries going to foreign countries, though some are sent right to our own back yard.

All pastors are missionaries, in a sense, sent to a particular corner of the world.  Sent, or called (really two sides of the same coin), to a local congregation or context, and given the authority to preach and teach in that place.  Sent and called to administer the sacraments and proclaim publicly the forgiveness of sins, exercising the keys of the kingdom on behalf of the congregation, in the stead and by the command of Christ.   So may I introduce you to the missionary to Strasburg, Pastor Michael Mohr.

Perhaps the important part is not so much the people who are sent, or to which location they are sent.  But why are they sent?  In the case of Christian missionaries, it is the message that is most important - and that message is always the message of Christ.

The words of Christ - the whole counsel of God, that is.  For we believe that the entirety of Holy Scripture is a testimony to Christ.  These things written about him “in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms” which were fulfilled when he appeared in the flesh.  The same things that are written of him in the Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament.  All Scripture which is profitable and trustworthy for the man of God to read, and learn, and understand.

There is a proclamation aspect, then, but also a teaching aspect of the message.  There is the public, formal, announcement of the Gospel, but also the patient teaching, and the individualized instruction of those who would learn of Christ.  As Christ opened the minds of his apostles, so do servants of the Gospel open the scriptures to his people today.

And these words, this message of Christ, is two-fold.  There is a polarity.  There is the preaching of repentance, but also the forgiveness of sins.  There is law, and there is Gospel.  We proclaim and teach both, for the scriptures do;  for Christ does.

The law has been preached to you, that you are a sinner.  Your faithful pastor reminds you regularly of your failure to fulfill God’s law.  The liturgy of the church helps us all to frame our confession in scriptural and comprehensive terms:  We have not loved God with our whole heart, nor our neighbor as ourselves.  We sin in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and left undone.  And therefore we deserve temporal and eternal punishment.

If the message of Christ was only about what we should do or must do, though we fail to do it - we would be in a sorry state, indeed.  If all we heard from those who are sent to preach is the harangues and how to’s and the “practical” an moral encouragement, it would lead us either to false pride or despair.  We’d either convince ourselves we are good enough for God, or we’d see clearly that we never can be.

But Christ’s word doesn’t stop with the law.  The Gospel, the good news, is really the point.  The message of forgiveness and salvation in Christ.  The proclamation that your sins are not counted against you.  They are washed away in the flood of your baptism.  They are paid off by the blood of Christ shed at the cross, and his body there broken - and distributed to you from His altar.

This is what was written, “that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise again”, and this is what Jesus fulfilled.

He came not just to talk about salvation, nor even to simply promise it, but to accomplish it.  This was his mission.

And so Christ himself is the greatest of all missionaries.  Sent on a mission from God, to save the world.  To live and die and rise for all the sinners that ever sinned, to pay for each and every one.  His mission was and is for you.  You are why he came, and did everything that he did.

And the Christ who was sent, also sends.  “As the Father has sent me, so also I send you” he said to his apostles.  The mission is his, the work is his, the praise and honor for anything good that he does through us - belongs only to him.

And one last major point - not all are sent, or called.  At least not all are called or sent the same.  Yes, all Christians are called to repentance and faith in Christ.  But not all are missionaries - in the sense of public proclamation.  Not all are prophets, apostles, evangelists or pastors.  We understand that God gives us all various vocations, godly callings, in which we daily serve him.  Some are parents, some are children.  Some are workers, some employees.  Some citizens, friends, teachers, students -  some pastors, some hearers.

All are witnesses.  All can give answer when asked for the hope within us, when opportunity arises.  But not all are called to preach.  Most of us probably wouldn’t want to anyway.  But we thank God for the faithful proclamation of Christ we have heard, and we want all nations to share this treasure with us.

And this, friends, is why we do missions, and why we support missions, and why we host missionary visits and have mission festivals.  This is why Lutheran congregations do Lutheran missions, and why Lutheran missions lead to Lutheran congregations.  That we may honor the mission of Christ, beginning where we are called, and even to all nations, to the ends of the earth.
Notice throughout this passage, Christ is driving the verbs.  He speaks his words to them.  He opens their minds.  He suffers.  He dies.  He is proclaimed.  He leads.  He blesses.

And in joyful response, what do his disciples do?  They worship him continually.  They gather in his house.  And the bless God, who has blessed them in Christ.

So when you hear the sermon next week, or next month, you are really hearing another mission sermon.  When repentance of sins and forgiveness are preached here, week in and week out, his mission is advanced.  Thus receiving the blessings of Christ, in the word and in his sacraments, there is great joy for all his disciples, and for you.  In joyful response to his mission for us, and his message to us, we love God and serve our neighbor.

A blessed mission festival Sunday to you, and continual blessings in Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Sermon - Pentecost 15 - Luke 14:1-14

Luke 14:1-14
Pentecost 15
September 1st, 2013
Christ the King and Redeemer Lutheran Churches, Racine, WI

Sinful pride.  Selfish, sinful pride.  This is one way of describing what Jesus observed as he was invited to the pharisee’s dinner party.  Who knows what kind of subtle and not so subtle jockeying for position occurred as each pharisee sought the best seat in the house, the place of honor.  Because surely, each one thought, he deserved it.  I imagine Jesus shaking his head in disappointment as he watched this all play out.  How prideful, how arrogant, how full of themselves those pharisees must have been. 

“Oh Lord, I’m so glad I’m not like those pharisees” we might say to ourselves.  Just like the pharisee who prayed, “Oh Lord, I’m so glad I’m not like that tax collector, that sinner, over there”.

The truth is, we are no better.  The truth is, we are just as sinful.  The truth is, there is a prideful little pharisee inside of each of us, an Old Adam, a sinful nature, that really really thinks highly of himself.  But he’s a hypocrite and a liar.

Let’s put it this way.  Do you think you’re a good person?  Maybe you’ve been Lutheran long enough that you know better than to say yes.  But somewhere in your heart, you think you are, don’t you?  You’re a good citizen.  You pay your taxes, you mow your lawn.  You try not to treat people poorly - or at least you mind your own business.  And you come to church, which most people don’t even bother to do anymore.  Maybe you’re here every Sunday.  Maybe you give generously and serve willingly.  Maybe you’re even the pastor. Or even a missionary.  And I suppose each of us could pretty easily tally up all the reasons that we are pretty good.  

And it’s not too hard to look across the pew and think how that person over there is worse than I am.  Sure, nobody’s perfect, but that one’s a gossip.  That person is rude.  Oh her?  Her children are terrible, have you seen how they behave?  And that guy - he’s the laziest person I know.  Who’s this person darkening the door of the church?  Oh, another c&e Christian...  and don’t judge me, but I’m secretly judging you - not so much because I care about you but to reinforce my own notion that I am good and you are bad, and I may not be perfect but at least I’m not you.

The pharisees are alive and well today, and their sinful pride thrives in the sinful heart of all of us.  We must be honest.  The law of God silences us as it does them.  Jesus would kick the pedestal out from under us and have us see our sin.

Humble yourself.  Take the lowest seat.  It’s not Jesus as miss-manners.  This is a spiritual truth we do well to follow.  We need to compare ourselves, our lives, our works - not against others but against the standard of God’s holy law.  Do I love the Lord with all my heart, soul and strength?  Do I love my neighbor as I should?  Do I keep the 10 commandments?  Do I honor God, his name, his word?  Do I care for my neighbor’s possessions and life and good name?  Am I chase in everything I say and do?  If the law of God doesn’t humble you, sinner, you’re not listening too carefully.  If the commandments of God don’t show you your lowly, sorry, state, then your ears are plugged with rationalizations and lies.

The truth is we don’t even deserve the lowest seat at the table in God’s kingdom.  We deserve nothing but temporal and eternal punishment.  We deserve to be cast out of the banquet where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  Christ should say to us, “depart from me, I never knew you!”

But Christ has come to humble proud, but also to elevate the humble.
He is a doctor for the sick, not the healthy.  He is a savior only for those who need saving.  But he is the savior.

And he knows humility.  He’s the only one who really knows what it is to humble himself.  To come down, to be made low.  We’re starting out from a position of already poor, crippled, lame, blind.  Dead, even, in our sins.  But Christ, the Son of God, left the highest seat of his heavenly throne, and humbled himself to be born of a virgin.  He lived a humble life, and died a humble, shameful death.  If you want to talk about the “lowest seat”, look to Christ on the cross.  He humbled himself thus, for you, and for all.

And God exalted him.  He raised him from the tomb, and glorified him in resurrection.  He proved his victory over death for 40 days, and then reclaimed his heavenly throne, ascending to the right hand of the Father, to reign over all things.  His rightful seat, once again.

And this too, for you.  Having paid for your sins, died your death, taken on your burdens and griefs and shame, paid the price for you fully - his resurrection paves the way for yours.  His Ascension leads the way for your own passage to heaven.  And his reign on heaven’s throne is also a foretaste of the glory to come for us.  In heavenly glory, the saints of God participate in his reign, are awarded the crown of righteousness, and yes, even thrones (Rev. 4:4).

So seek not the highest place, the honor and glory that your sinful nature desires.  Think none too highly of yourself, your merits, your works.  Don’t compare yourself to others, but to the standard of God’s holy law.  And repent, dear Christian.  Repent and confess your sins.  Humble yourself before the Lord.  

And he will lift you up.  For the sake of his Son who was lifted up on the cross, you will be lifted into righteousness.  Lifted up from the dust of death.  Lifted up from the grave, in the resurrection of the just, lifted up to heavenly glory forever.

And in Christ, we begin to learn humility.  Seeing our sin and our savior, and by his Spirit, we begin to humble ourselves not only before God, but before our neighbor.  Never perfectly, and never to earn favor or puff up our own pride, but always in joyful response to his humiliation and exaltation for us.

The Christian, for example, is not too proud to be corrected.  The Christian doesn’t say, “I know it all.  I went to Confirmation 50 years ago.  I don’t need to keep growing in the word”.  Rather, the Christian humbly learns from the word taught and preached in truth and purity.

The Christian, for example, is not too proud to serve a neighbor.  Even a neighbor that doesn’t “deserve” it.  For what do we deserve, after all?  And the Christian can, and does, humbly share the hope within him, not because he is so great, but because Christ is.  “Let me tell you why I need Christ, why I need to go to church - because I sin a lot and I need Christ’s forgiveness.”

So we come today, in humility, in confession of our sins, even to kneel... and Christ will lift us up.  As we receive his gifts here in bread and wine, body and blood, we depart in peace from the banquet.  We are lifted up in the forgiveness, life and salvation that we receive.  And we go in the hope of an even greater glory to come.  In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Sermon - Pentecost 13 - Luke 12:49-53

Luke 12:49–53
Pentecost 13
Good Shepherd, Two Rivers, WI

A pastor friend of mine was looking ahead to these upcoming readings from Luke’s Gospel, and jokingly lamented, “oh great, here comes ‘mean Jesus’!

Certainly there is much in today’s reading from Luke that strikes us as odd, at least goes against our typical conception of who Jesus is.  
We often think of Jesus from the paintings - welcoming the little children, lovingly caring for the sheep, maybe even smiling and laughing.  Or we think of Jesus humbly dying on the cross, praying the Father to forgive even his tormentors.  Or maybe Jesus all bright and shiny and seated at the right hand of the Father - watching out for us, hearing our prayers.  And of course, this isn’t all bad.  But there’s more to Jesus than all this.  Especially when we come across a reading like this.

It might even seem hard to find much good news in Jesus’ words this morning.  He’s certainly not sugar-coating the hard truths, or painting a rosy picture of what he is about.  “I come to bring not peace, but division.  Fire!  Family strife!”  This is the gospel of the Lord.  Thanks be to God?

But a closer look reveals that yes, even in what sounds harsh, Jesus is about the business of saving and cleansing and promising good things to those who have ears to hear.  And it’s ok for us to bring in other scriptures, to remind us that He is just but also the one that justifies.  He is holy, but he makes us holy.  He brings a fire that destroys but also purifies, a water that washes away the wicked, and also our wickedness.  And he does divide people, even families.  But promises those who believe in him will never be separated from him, or from the Father.

He begins, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!”

You know, there are different kinds of preachers.  Some tell lots of stories - like from Readers’ Digest.  Some like to share personal anecdotes about their kids.  There are dynamic preachers and expository preachers, and preachers that always seem to be talking right to you.  Some When you hear about someone who is a “fire and brimstone” preacher, it’s usually not a compliment.  It usually means they come off angry, and are harsh and perhaps even cruel, holier than thou - not a real pleasure to listen to. But here comes Jesus, cracking out the fire himself.

Any true student of scripture knows that Jesus is not all pillows and puppies, but that he can make a whip and overturn tables.  He can call out the pharisees just as harshly as John the Baptist.  He can preach the fire and brimstone.  But this is no ordinary fire, and certainly not an uncontrolled blaze.  When Jesus speaks in these harsh terms, he brings the fire of God’s wrath, his righteous wrath over sin.

We may want to believe in a God who is always nice, and never says or does anything unpleasant.  A God who is always, only, love, and never scolds or judges.  But the problem is there is no such God.  God is holy and righteous and hates sin and punishes sin.  And we don’t get to create a God to our liking.  Nor should we ignore what we says of himself and imagine him in a more palatable fashion.

And the thought of the righteous Son of God casting fire on earth should make us quake and tremble, for we are sinners, and deserve to be burnt up like stubble.  We are guilty as sin, and deserve the punishments of sin, death and hell.

But all is not lost.  Yes, our God is a consuming fire, but there is also a baptism.... there is cleansing.... Jesus continues:

“I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

Jesus had already been baptized by John in the Jordan.  So he’s not talking about that here.  But in that baptism by John, Jesus did do something important.  He identified with us sinners.  He who had no sin of his own, took on our sin, became the stand-in for all sinners.  And the baptism he was about to undergo - would be truly distressing.  It is the baptism of the cross.  The baptism of suffering and death.  The baptism of bearing God’s wrath for all sin, being consumed in his body to pay the debt for us all.

The same Jesus who will one day come to judge the living and the dead, who will destroy this corrupt creation in fire, and cast those who reject him into the eternal lake of fire....  is the same Jesus who stands between you and the fire of God’s wrath.  And instead of you, he is consumed.  He takes the heat, for you.

And so there is peace with God.  For in his resurrection from the dead, he proves stronger than death, and paves the way for your resurrection.  So baptized into his death, we are also raised in our baptism - raised to life in Christ who lives.  So our baptism is only distressing to the Old Adam, who there is drowned, and buried.  The New Man in us, the new creation in Christ, lives in Christ forever.

But that doesn’t mean that everything is all a bed of roses for us yet.
On this earth, in this time in-between, as we wait for the return of Christ, the day of judgment and victory...  in these end times, there will be trouble.  Especially for us who are in Christ.  And even, yes, in the family.

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

For the word of Christ, by which we live, is a dividing word.  It divides truth from falsehood.  And sometimes the truth hurts.  The letter- the law- kills.  But the Spirit gives life.  Those who reject the truth, reject the Spirit, reject the life Christ brings, and are divided from you who receive it in faith.  There are believers, and there are unbelievers.  There are sheep and goats.  Yes, sometimes even in our own family.

That doesn’t mean we don’t love our parents and children (and yes even our in-laws) who are outside the church.  It doesn’t mean we write them off or scream that they are going to hell.  Nor, by the way, does it mean we can adjust the uncomfortable truth of God’s holy word to make us more at peace about the whole situation.

But it does mean we have some praying to do.  That God would call the unbeliever to faith, as he’s called us.  It does mean that we have some loving to do - for if Christ tells us to love even our enemies, then certainly there’s room to love even the unbeliever under our roof, or at our Thanksgiving Day gathering, or 

And it also means we have an opportunity, so share the hope that is within us.  To point to Christ in our actions and words, when the time is right, with great humility. 

Invite ‘em to church.  Pray for them.  Tell them you pray for them.  And be an example of faith yourself.  Maybe even tell them what a big sinner you are, and yet how much bigger is Christ’s forgiveness.

That Christ was baptized into death for you, and raised from death for you, and lives and rules all things for you, and for all.

And he does not promise peace on earth, but does promise peace with God for all who believe.  So trust in him, dear Christians, for that peace is yours.  That peace not as the world gives, he gives to you.  The peace that trusts in him, and in his truth, in spite of all trouble and persecution, in joy and in suffering. A peace that flows only from faith.

And that peace that passes understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, amen.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Sermon - Hebrews 11:1-16 - Pentecost 12

Hebrews 11:1-16
St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Cassopolis, MI
August 11th, 2013
Pentecost 12

“The righteous shall live by faith.”

“We hold that a man is justified by grace through faith.”

“Your faith has saved you, go in peace.”

Holy Scripture has a great deal to say about faith.  In our Old Testament reading we see Abraham, that great man of faith - whose faith has served as an example for some 4000 years.  We are children of Abraham, “by faith”.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus calls his people to trust God’s provision - and chides them for being “you of little faith.”

And here, Hebrews 11, sometimes called “The Great By Faith Chapter” of the bible.  We see this parade of Old Testament figures who lived by faith.  We hear this refrain about all their good deeds done “by faith”, and how they trusted in God despite what could be seen with worldly human eyes.

Perhaps here also the clearest scriptural definition of faith:  “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

The problem with believing in things we don’t see is that, well, we don’t see them.  And our Old Adam, our sinful nature, likes his eyeballs a little too much.

Of course I don’t mean just our sense of sight.  I mean our eyes and ears and all our senses, and our human reason, too.  When you have every earthly reason to believe something is one way, but someone points your nose to a passage of scripture that says just the opposite - here’s the rub.  Here’s where the devil works, to create doubt and despair.
Take creation - Hebrews says, “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.”  Ah, but my eyes say differently.  My ears hear all these smart people saying otherwise.  My textbook at school says it was evolution, and a purposeless big bang, and a godless process of randomness that brought about this creation.  They write books about this and make convincing TV documentaries.  And frankly, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I believe in creation sometimes, and well, maybe I doubt it, myself.

But the word is clear.  Genesis leaves no doubt, “in the beginning, God created...”  And Hebrews agrees.  And so, for that matter, does Jesus Christ.  Sin and Satan would have us doubt, but God calls us to believe what is not seen.

And this just sets the stage.  For there is so much more that is unbelievable about our faith - so much more in which to hope, so much more which is unseen.  The fact that he is creator means he sets the rules.  And where God sets a rule, a sinner will break it.  This too, we need to see:

That there is a God who judges sin.  Hard to believe that sometimes, in a culture that (if it admits there’s a god), believes in a god who doesn’t judge (and you better not, either!).  A smiling, almost senile grandfather in the sky who is either oblivious to our misdeeds, or just laughs them off like the antics of a toddler.  

But the Word of God paints a different picture entirely - one of a righteous judge who is righetous-ly angry over sin, for he is holy - and you are wicked.  He will punish the wicked, and damn the unbeliever.  He will judge the goats and say, “depart from me”.  And there, outside of his presence, will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  

Do we believe in Hell?  Do we believe in punishment for sin?  Do we believe that we are sinners?  What do we see?  Will we believe?  And yet still, believing in God’s wrath and the reality of his punishment - this isn’t really what we mean by “faith”.

But faith is needed for entirely this reason - that it trusts in what is not seen.  For faith lays hold of the promises of God in Jesus Christ.  Faith is  what grabs onto all the good things God has said - and which yet our eyes do not see.  Faith sees beyond what is seen.  Faith, your faith, a gift from God in itself... this faith saves you.   It is by faith  in Christ that we live.

This faith is rooted in Christ and his promises, that when your sin seems oh-so-great, his forgiveness is greater.  It’s faith that when you just can’t shake the guilt, the shame, you are baptized into Christ’s righteousness.  Faith - in his gifts - that you can’t see or hear or taste or smell - that in bread and wine he gives Christ’s body and blood for your forgiveness.  Faith that the blood of Christ is sufficient to cover sin - even your sin - even your deepest, darkest sin.  Washed in the blood of the lamb, even if you can’t see a speck of red on you.

Faith is especially important when life in this sinful world dumps its troubles in your lap.  When you feel so buried with sorrow and worry and calamity and when enemies surround you at every turn.  When it seems to your eyes that if there is a God, he has surely forsaken you - or has a sick sense of humor.  When despair is lurking at your door and satanic doubt twists your self-pity into anger at the Lord himself...

Have faith.  Remember to trust in what is true - even if it is not seen.
God is love.  And his love is for you.  He so loved the world, including you, that he sent Christ.  And Christ has died for you.  And Christ has won for you the victory, even over death itself!  Have faith.  He will not leave you or forsake you.  He will not treat you as you deserve.  He who has spared not his own son, how will he not also, graciously, give us all good things?

In our troubles, it is faith that chomps down on the promises of God in Christ like a bulldog clamps his jaws on a meaty bone.  Never let go of those precious promises.  They will sustain you in the fights of life, through wilderness and calamity, in the solitude of your pain, and in the din of a life with little outward peace.  In all things, God works for the good of those he loves, and who love him, in Jesus Christ.  We see it, by faith.

And for those of you who feel like you don’t have enough faith, pray with the centurion, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief”.  Remember that faith itself is unseen - a gift that is given by the Spirit (also unseen), through the Word and in the sacraments.

Be strengthened in your faith - as you hear his words and promises again and again.  Don’t be a stranger from this, his house.  Don’t ever let that baptismal water dry off for too long, but keep returning to those waters daily - in repentance, by faith.  By faith, gather at the rail, and receive the precious gifts of Christ - given and shed for you - to strengthen you in the true faith to life everlasting.

And stop looking inward to yourself.  For we do not have faith in faith.  But our faith is ultimately, and only, in Christ.  Look to Christ.  See him, by faith, in his word.  Hear him, by faith, in the words of his servant in this place - who stands in his stead and forgives your sins freely.

Those Old Testament heroes of faith - they died in that faith - never seeing the ultimate fulfillment of what was promised.  How great was their faith!  But we, too, though Christ has come, has died, has risen from the dead - we too, still look forward to a future day - a final hope, in faith.  That our Lord will return and grant us the promised homeland, that heavenly country, that city of eternal citizenship.

Live in that same faith, dear Christians.  For the hope of Abraham, and all the other men and women of faith - is the same hope we enjoy, the same one in whom we believe, and in whom we live, by faith.  In Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.