Sermo Dei: Gaudete 2014

Posted on December 14th, 2014

The call of John the Baptist reverberates across the centuries, and still applies to us today: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Today’s Gospel reading has John in prison. Nevertheless, he is the only free man, while his disciples are the true captives.

The disciples of John the Baptist, though walking freely, are bound in a prison of doubt and fear. They had once answered the summons of the Baptist, been washed with a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins — but they had not heeded their teacher when he pointed them to JESUS as the One who fulfills all righteousness. Thus they remained in a prison worse than the one holding their teacher.

The Baptist’s call also comes to you in your prison. To you, imprisoned by lust, a mind chained to past sorrows, a heart sputtering with rage and grief, enslaved to your own desires, warped by perverse egotism – to you comes the cry: Repent.

Repentance is not contrition (sorrow for sin—or perhaps just that you got caught). John the Baptist says that the one who repents, turns and changes his mind and life. “Bring forth fruits of repentance,” he says. He says it to you: “Bring forth fruits of repentance.”

What would these fruits of repentance look like in your life? It begins with displeasure over your sin, despising how your heart is captive to the things displeasing to God. Yet from there it moves to a departure from sin and a new life striving after righteousness. Our fathers in the faith had a saying, “The highest form of repentance is not doing it again” (via Spangenberg).

In talking about this life of repentance, St. Paul said, “Whoever has stolen, let him steal no more, but work” (Eph. 4.28). St. Peter looks at Jesus on the cross and sees both the payment for our sins and the death of our sins in the death of Jesus: “[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 NKJV)

John the Baptist proclaimed this need for repentance, for a changed life, and this landed him in Herod’s dungeon, for Herod had taken his brother’s wife, and John was bold to say that this was against the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

But this was not the biggest scandal. John had also pointed his own disciples to Jesus. “Follow Him. He must increase, and I must decrease. This man Jesus is God’s own Son, sent to be the Lamb for sacrifice, to take away the world’s sin.” This offended John’s disciples, for they saw Jesus as a friend of sinners. Their Messiah would be a king, and Jesus did not seem very regal. If Jesus were so great, Herod would be dethroned; and certainly John the Baptist, their teacher, would not remain in prison.

Jesus continues to not meet our expectations. Why does violence remain in the world? Why do the corrupt maintain power, while the weak are abused? Why does sickness infect our bodies, sorrow infect our hearts, brokenness infect our families? Jesus is called Savior, but He doesn’t seem to do a very good job of it.

Like us, John the Baptist’s disciples are riddled with doubt. So John, like other great men, does some of his best work while in prison. Behind bars, John preaches his final sermon, a short one: “Go, take your questions to Jesus.”

Jesus, in response, does many works that fulfill the office of the Messiah from Isaiah 35: the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the paralyzed walk, and lepers are cleansed. These signs point ahead to the coming work of the new creation. When we pray later today in the liturgy, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are not praying for Him to come to a stable in Bethlehem. We are praying for the end of this broken world and the remaking of creation. “Come, Lord Jesus, and repair all that is broken.”

But the greatest brokenness is found in hearts weighed down with sorrow, minds twisted by the memory of evil words, souls gripped with anxiety and resentment, greed and rebellion. So more joyful still is this: “the poor have the gospel preached to them.” What is this poverty? Not merely lack of money, but the lack of help and comfort. When you lose all hope in institutions and people, when you realize that there is no help to be found in your efforts or ethics, that no doctor or therapist can fix your deepest problems – into this impoverishment steps Jesus, who gives you the greatest good news: “In Me you have a gracious and merciful God; I am making all things new; by My cross you will have healing.”

Jesus then praises John for not being a reed shaken by the wind. Soon our newest brothers and sisters will make promises that many of you have made: will you suffer all rather than abandon your confession of the faith? The road to hell, it is said, is paved with the skulls of priests; and surely Christian history is littered with broken promises, vows abandoned for a momentary romp or to be spared from death. Is it a smaller thing, or a greater one, if you hide your Christianity merely to save yourself from a bit of embarrassment? Someone might call you a bigot or a fool; it is so much easier to sway with the winds of the Zeitgeist as a reed shaken by a slight breeze. Ease up on the commandments, and Herod sets John free.

But John remains steadfast, and Jesus praises him. Yet Jesus does not open the prison for John. He doesn’t need it. John will soon lose his head, but he has already found life, in Jesus.

So Jesus doesn’t open the prison for John. He opens it for you. The seeming prison of your circumstances remains – for now. But while nothing seems to have changed, everything has changed. You have the Gospel, that Jesus is risen from the dead and you shall rise too. So no matter what prisons you seem to be bound up in, the Spirit says to you, yes you: Rejoice! For your Jesus has accomplished everything already.

Sermo Dei: 125th Anniversary of St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Baltimore, MD

Posted on December 14th, 2014

I’ve lost it now, but I had an incredible picture that I took from the upstairs back window at 2010 Christian St., where I lived in the summer of 1994 while serving as vicar here at St. Thomas. It remains etched in my memory because it captured the ruined state of the neighborhood, with overgrown weeds, and boarded-up windows. Rising up out of the chaos was the beautiful spire of St. Thomas, where a pastor and people remained to preach the good news of Jesus when most people run for the suburbs.

And out of that experience, Pastor Wildner and St. Thomas became my conscience. Here is a pastor and people who love the church, love this neighborhood, and continue on when most anyone else would give up.

So the theme and hymn chosen for your anniversary is perfect: Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. It’s a hymn for battle. And the battle can be terrifying. “Stand forth in mighty conflict … Against unnumbered foes; Let courage rise with danger And strength to strength oppose.”

I don’t always feel like I have much strength left. The world is a brutal place. Some of that brutality I experienced here. My first funeral as an officiant was just down the road, a sixteen-year old boy shot on the streets. While Pastor Wildner was away, I would come over and feed his dog Oliver. One day, I realized there was an intruder in the house; I cowered in fear, then ran out to call the police from a corner bar. I sometimes regretted my first instinct, which was to turn around and drive back to Minnesota the moment I arrived here.

That’s where our sins leave us, too. Cowering in fear, wanting to run, wanting to turn back. And it gets worse, for soon we discover that also in the church, people are sinners, and deeply flawed. Pastors let their people down, people let their pastors down. And death keeps creeping closer. Stand up for Jesus? Sometimes we feel much more like moaning Psalm 69: “I sink in deep mire, Where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me.” (Psa 69:2 NKJV)

And then, when things go well, we begin to think, “I made it; I did it.” You could think that about this church. “We made it to 125 years.”

The truth is, God doesn’t need our efforts. He uses our gifts, our strengths, even our weaknesses and mistakes, for His glory and for the good of the church. But He who made heaven and earth from nothing, by the power of His Word, doesn’t need us. If we don’t praise Him, He will raise up disciples from the stones.

I often think about my own congregation that God surely loves her, God surely wants His Church there, because by objective measures it should have failed. Financial problems, facility problems, school problems, pastor problems, people problems – the rational response to it would be, “Close up shop and quit. We’re doomed.”

Have you ever felt that way about St. Thomas? I bet you have. Who knows whether this congregation has another 125 years, or 125 hours? But it is not in your hands. It’s the Lord’s Church, and He is the One who has led and guided His Church through good and bad, prosperity and adversity. If it were up to you, everything would have gone to ruin long ago. But Christ’s Church stands by His will and command.

What’s interesting about this hymn, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus is the lack of motion on our part. Jesus leads, He moves, but we stand. So there is no marching, walking, or running in the hymn. Just stand.

And even that, just standing, we cannot do on our own. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord,” begins Psalm 130; “Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one stands before the Lord, if He keeps track of our sins. Who could stand? No one. “But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope.” (Psa 130:1–5 NKJV)

So when we stand up for Jesus, we are standing up because of Jesus. Without Him, you cannot stand. Without Him, Pastor Wildner cannot stand. Without Him, St. Thomas Lutheran Church cannot stand. Without Him, the world cannot stand, and the gates of hell would surely prevail.

But with Him, we have forgiveness and help in the day of trouble. With Him, we do not crawl, we do not walk, we do not run, we do not fight, but we stand, and the LORD fights for us.

When the Israelites departed from Egypt, everything appeared lost. The waters of the Red Sea blocked the way before them, and the armies of Pharaoh were closing in behind them. Who can stand against such power? But “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever.’” (Ex 14:13 NKJV)

Stand still. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD. He will do it.

A man once suffered great ruin. Raiders came and slaughtered his children, stole his cattle, and he lost all his property. He got sick, and his wife got mean. He was depressed, and sat on a pile of manure, scratching his skin with a broken pot. Bleeding, and tear-filled, his life seemed no longer worth living. He wanted to die.

But the Holy Spirit gave this man a vision of the future, and this man, whose body was ruined, saw the body of another Man, God in the flesh. And so this sick and sorrowful man sang a song that still inspires our music today, thousands of years later: “I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26 NKJV)

When I can no longer stand, Job says, He shall stand, my Redeemer, and He will make me stand. We stand up for Jesus, we stand up with Jesus, we stand up because Jesus is the One who stands.

So that’s where we stay. St. Thomas church survives, and continues to care for those who most need it, by the strength of Jesus, “through whom also,” St. Paul says, “we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2 NKJV);

We stand by grace, we stand in grace, and you stand to keep on telling Baltimore His grace. When St. Peter was lying chained in prison, an angel set him free, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.” (Acts 5:20 NKJV) These words are also for you: Go, stand, speak to the people all the words of this life. Not your life, your works, your community, but this life, the life that is found only in Jesus.

This Jesus gives you everything you need to stand in the Word and Sacraments dished out for you here at St. Thomas. That’s where you are fitted with the armor you need. “Put on the whole armor of God,” the Apostle says, “that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph 6:11, 13 NKJV). “That you may be able to stand,” “to withstand in the evil day,” and “having done all, to stand.” Why? How? Because the Lord fights for you. You stay close to the Word and Sacraments, and everything is done for you to stand.

And then, when we come to the end of all things, and nothing in this world remains standing, we will see what St. John already saw, recorded in the closing chapters of Holy Scripture:

“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Rev 20:12 NKJV)

There is a day of Judgment coming. If what is recorded in the books were counted against us, who could stand? But with the Lord there is forgiveness. Place all your trust, dear people of God, in the Jesus who writes your name in the Book of Life. He stands, risen from the dead. He stands with you, through every trouble. By Him, in Him, because of Him, you stand. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Populus Zion (Advent II) 2014

Posted on December 9th, 2014

“The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time. Nevertheless there are learned, educated men, occupying high positions in public life, who cling to it with the faith of a child. It is simply incomprehensible how anybody can consider the Christian doctrine of redemption as a guide for the difficult life of today.”

Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of Propaganda in the Nazi era, wrote those words, outlining Adolf Hitler’s thoughts on the clergy and his plans to eliminate from the German heart the worship of a humble Christ who sacrifices Himself in favor of the Nietzchean ideal of strength, the “will to power.”

True, mentions of “Nazis” or “Hitler” are generally signs that an argument has deteriorated beyond hope of redemption—but this topic of redemption remains an object of scorn and derision in our own troubled times. Sincere belief in God is deemed incompatible with “learned, educated men,” and belief in the Christian doctrine of redemption will get you labeled as a child or insane.

Yet this is what Jesus points us toward, in the Gospel reading for this Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25-36). “There will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

“Your redemption draws near.” Redemption is popularly thought of as a comeback, like in sports or politics, often involving a rehabilitation of reputation. The other popular idea of redemption is performing an act of heroism or going on a quest to atone for your past. Think Darth Vader throwing the emperor to his death, and reconciling with his son; despite his evil, he’s redeemed by his heroic death. One of my favorite movies, The Mission, features a warrior who kidnaps natives in South America and sells them as slaves. After he kills his own brother, he ends up seeking redemption by going with a Jesuit priest back to the natives he once enslaved, dragging his armor and sword in a bag that becomes increasingly heavy. When the armor and sword is eventually cut, it tumbles down a hill. He’s done his penance, he’s redeemed.

It’s a beautiful story, but not the Christian meaning of redemption. The redemption that God offers you is not done by your heroic act. It is not done by your penance. You don’t accomplish your redemption. “Your redemption draws near,” Jesus says, meaning, it draws near to you, from the outside. Someone else is doing it. “The only thing that a man can contribute to his own redemption,” said William Temple, “is the sin from which he needs to be redeemed.”

Redemption in the ancient world meant being bought out of slavery. Or to be released from death in exchange for renouncing your faith. You can see this at work in the shocking news from the pastor dubbed the Vicar of Baghdad, Andrew White. In a recent message he described soldiers of the Islamic State capturing a group of Christian children. They would be spared if they converted to Islam. “No,” they said. “We love Yeshua.” And so they were executed.

Why would they turn down this redemption? Because they looked for a better one, the redemption of Yeshua, Jesus, who would save them not for a time but for eternity. The writer to the Hebrews says, “[Some] were tortured, not accepting deliverance (redemption), that they might obtain a better resurrection” (11:35).

I don’t think we can understand our Lord’s deliverance until we come to grips with our own death, as well as the darkness of our own intentions and motives. C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Who does God judge, according to our first reading today? The arrogant.

That’s dealing with the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” Idolatry is not only found among the worshippers of fraudulent religions. Arrogance is to set yourself not only above other people but above God Himself. In Ps. 19, the word “arrogant” is translated “presumptuous”: “Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me.” What sins have dominion over you, rule you? What are you presuming by your choice to sin?

Are you not saying, “God will forgive me”? Would you commit adultery by saying, “My wife will forgive me”? Would you neglect to feed your children, saying, “I will ask forgiveness later”? Why then do you presume upon God’s forgiveness? Beware, lest what you call repentance is actually an excuse to keep on serving yourself above all.

“Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day”—the Day of Judgment—“come on you unexpectedly.” This is complacent living, “as if the Last Day were still a thousand years away” (Spangenberg). The Word of God is clear: we are to live not for the cares and concerns of this life—that is, occupied with how much we can get—but we are to live in light of that Day.

St. Paul in today’s Epistle describes this new life of the Christian as living in harmony with each other – a musical term. The notes sometimes move in different directions, but all serving the greater purpose of the song. What brings discord, dissonance? Arrogance, pride. Without getting too technical, the beauty of music is resolved tension, as discord is released. Christ redeems us freely, without any merit or worthiness in us, and this we also do, living in harmony, resolving tension—discord—with others by forgiveness.

The atheist philosophy is right: “The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time.” For our time is given over to greed and selfishness, a world where erotic liberty trumps religious liberty, where some police, and our government, show disdain for human life, and the love of many grows cold. In this world, power and privilege rule, and the Christian doctrine of redemption is no path to worldly success.

But you, dear Baptized child, are loved by God. You don’t live for power or pride, for you have been redeemed, and that outside of yourself, not with gold or silver, but with the holy and precious blood of Jesus, as of a lamb without spot. The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time, but it is the only solution for our time, and for the remaining time of your life.

So rejoice and be glad, daughter of Zion, child of God, for your redemption draws near, outside of you. Love your neighbors, live in harmony with others, and wait quietly for Christ your redeemer. Rejoice and be glad, for your redemption does not depend on you but Jesus, who has done everything already.

Advent Meditation: Waiting

Posted on December 4th, 2014

Advent I Midweek Evening Prayer

Isaiah 64:1-9: Waiting

December 3, 2014

“The Advent season is a season of waiting. But our whole life is a season of Advent” (Bonhoeffer).

“God … acts for those who wait for him.” (Is. 64:6)

But God does not act as or when we would wish. The human being struggling in this life wants action: “Help us, for the world is filled with injustice! Help my family, for my brother, my sister is in trouble. Help my marriage, for I have failed yet again. Help my body, for it is coming undone. Help my parents, for they grow old. Help the church, divided and corrupt. Help our world, for it seems the gates of hell shall prevail.”

Isaiah cries out to God to bend the skies, tear apart the separation between God and man. If the mountains would quake, if fire were kindled, then the evildoers would turn back, and things would be set right.

But there may be an accusation in these words. Some read the Hebrew as referring to the past: “Oh that you had rent the heavens and come down!” It is like Martha, the brother of Lazarus, gushing tears all over again four days later: “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Isaiah, Martha, and you and I want to say to God, “Why didn’t you act?” The way God manages the world makes no sense to us. It seems so simple that He could do things differently. Why didn’t He intervene? Why do things run their course in this way?

God acts for those who wait for Him.

Then you can hear Isaiah reminding himself: “God … acts for those who wait for him.” (64.4) What is this waiting?

So much of our life is spent waiting. Not simply waiting in line, waiting in a doctor’s office or waiting to have your car inspected. There is the impatient waiting, imagining that something new is just a click away. Hitting refresh repeatedly, we wait for something new to come by email, Twitter, or a web page. Have you ever stared at the dots on your iPhone, indicating someone is reading your text, perhaps typing a reply? Hurry up!

Worse is waiting for something better; which is to say, I don’t want—I reject—my current life. The life I want is ahead. I am waiting to finish school; get married; have children; get a new house, a new job. Then I will be happy, and life will be better.

All this is the wrong kind of waiting. “God … acts for those who wait for Him.” To wait for God is having confidence that He will perform His Word. And that there is nothing else really worth waiting for.

This is incredibly liberating. I can live my life in the moment; not as a cliche, a hedonism without planning or responsibility. No, this Christian waiting for God to act means I wait for nothing else; this moment I am in, this situation, this spouse, this mess, this work, these people, this church, this city – that’s the work and the joy that God has given to me right now. Drink it in, roll up the sleeves, and do this work. I wait on God alone, for He will act in His best time.

I wait on God alone, for He will act in His best time.

This waiting on God isn’t expecting God to reward us for our efforts. Isaiah famously confesses, “All our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” Other translations give it as “filthy rags.” They are all terribly polite; the term refers to a soiled undergarment unique to a woman – a thing rendering her ritually unclean. Isaiah isn’t going for shock value alone; he is saying, human righteousness isn’t even allowed in the temple before God; we will need mercy, not better behavior.

After a litany of his exceptional qualifications as a Jewish rabbi, St. Paul says, ‘I count it all, along with all my possessions, as human excrement.’ For Jesus Christ “I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith.” (Philippians 3:4–9 NKJV)

Everything else we count as valuable, including our own lives, are like the foliage. Beautiful in springtime, glorious as fall begins, everything is coming down. “We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.” All we are is dust in the wind.

Or so it seems. From that dust God made us.

So Isaiah appeals to God on that basis. I don’t know why, but the LXX omits the line “You are our potter” from the second-last sentence in tonight’s lesson, so that it reads “And now, Kyrie (Lord), our Father are You, and we all the mud worked with Your hands.” The pottery image remains, but calls to mind creation.

This is the prodigal son coming home. Father, I am yours. Save me! You made us from the dust, we are Your people.

Father, I am yours. Save me!

God doesn’t act the way we expect. When once He came down, He rent the heavens, but He did not bring fire. He came gently, and what is more, He who created the mud became one of us mud-men, the Creator becoming a created man, taking on our flesh and bone.

For Him we still wait. And in the meantime, live the life He gives us, doing the vocation to which He call us. There’s nothing else to wait for, but the last Advent, when He repairs our shattered vessels in the Day of Resurrection.

Sermo Dei: Last Sunday of the Church Year 2014

Posted on November 29th, 2014

When you were baptized, the ceremony announced that you were in the company of the Ten Virgins from today’s gospel (Mt. 25:1-13):  “Receive this burning torch and keep your Baptism blameless, so that when the Lord comes to the wedding you may go forth to meet Him and enter with the saints into the heavenly mansion and receive eternal life.”

The five wise virgins, the liturgy is saying, are those who kept their baptism blameless. That’s not something we can easily see. In the parable, they all look the same.  They are all called “virgins,” they are all waiting for the bridegroom together, they are all carrying lamps, they all fall asleep.  Yet five are wise, and five foolish.  Which are you among – the wise, or the foolish?

What is wisdom?  The Lord Jesus says, “Everyone … who hears these words of Mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock.”  The foolish man is the one who hears the words but pays no attention to them, that is, does not take them to heart and hear them as being spoken to him“Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it” [Mt. 7].

The wise man, the wise virgin, the one who keeps his baptism is the one who keeps on hearing the Word of God. The Bible begins and ends with a marriage; in the beginning, our first parents are united in holy matrimony, and at the end, God in Christ unites Himself to His people, as a Bridegroom to the bride.  The horror of this story is that there are some who are absent and unready at the Bridegroom’s arrival, at the Lord’s return.

And when will He come?  “The Bridegroom was delayed,” the Gospel says.  We do not know the hour of His coming.  Why?  Why has He not come yet?  Because He wants to fill up the number in His kingdom!  God loves the birth of children, He wants more to be baptized, more to return to their Baptism, more to hear His Word of Absolution, more to be rescued from bondage to empty things!

St. Peter puts it this way:

The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. [2 Pt. 3.9f]

And so we wait, knowing that He will keep His Word, that He will come again to judge the living and the dead.  We wait as the company of the Ten Virgins waited in the parable.  “But while the Bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.”  That is, none of them knew the day or the hour.  It’s not that five of them were trading on insider information, and so they were stocked up on oil.

What is the oil? There seems no end to the opinions about what the oil is: good works, the law, the Word of God, steadfastness (as opposed to temporary enthusiasm), faith. One thoughtful Christian mentioned to me the other day that the oil could be repentance.

I wonder if it isn’t all of this put together. The Word of God preaches to us the law, it drives us to repentance, the Word preaches to us the Gospel, producing faith, which is never without good works. In other words, what we have are those who stay in Baptism, the baptism which drowns us in repentance and lifts us up from the water to walk before God in a new life. The wise virgins know they need a continual supply of the gifts of God, while the foolish virgins have a dead faith.

In the end, they try to buy what cannot be purchased. “Go to the sellers,” the foolish virgins are told. We don’t know what happens to them, other then they end up lost, out in the dark, and locked out of the wedding. It’s already started, but it will only increase in the coming weeks, this message that you must spend money to make the holy days “meaningful.” The American Christmas is not itself the problem; all year long, we are tempted to think that life is about what we purchase, and that happiness is simply a transaction away.  Placing our trust in what is temporary, we will lose what is eternal. Lasting joy will not come through what you can purchase, but through being in the company of the faithful when Christ the heavenly bridegroom announces the beginning of the wedding.

So what will it mean to keep watch? St. Peter says it is to be watchful for the assaults of the devil: “Be sober, be vigilant, for your enemy, the devil, prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  Resist him!  Stand firm in the Faith!”  The war is long and hard.  He tempts you to sin—to cast away your chastity, to go against your marriage vows, to act unethically, to be proud and judgmental, to be lazy in prayer and meditation on God’s Word.  Arm yourself with the LORD’s Word – fill up your lamp with it, lest through your neglect the flame of faith be extinguished.

Stay awake.  Be ready.  For the door, once closed, cannot be reopened.  The foolish virgins cried out, “Lord, Lord, open to us!” but not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter the kingdom of heaven.  Watch therefore, and pray always.

To miss the Bridegroom is to miss out on everything, to miss the whole point of our existence.  The Lord is coming to “make all things new.”  With repentance and eagerness, let us watch for Him at the end of this Church Year, at the end of our lives, and at the end of the world.

Our great hymn today has a beautiful sacramental rhyme in German that the Lutheran Service Book captures brilliantly. Now come, Thou Blessed One, Lord Jesus, God’s own Son, Hail! Hosanna! We enter all the wedding hall to eat the Supper at Thy call. The Lord’s Supper is the pledge and beginning of the heavenly wedding feast. Stay close to this Supper, repent of your many sins, and believe what Jesus says here to you.

Christ in us by nature and substance

Posted on November 21st, 2014

In his great work That These Words of Christ, “This Is My Body,” etc., Still Stand Firm Against the Fanatics, the mature Luther speaks beautifully about the sacramental union effecting a real union (and not merely a metaphorical union or forensic identification) between Christ and the believer. In the section beginning on page 120 (AE 37), he focuses on St. Hilary of Poitiers, whom Luther calls one “of the ancient doctors and an excellent interpreter of Scripture.” Hilary writes,

If the Word has truly become flesh, and we truly receive the Word which became flesh in the Lord’s food, how are we to believe that he does not dwell in us by his nature, he who, when he became man, has assumed the nature of our flesh, nevermore to lay it aside, and has mingled the nature of his flesh with his eternal nature in the sacrament of the flesh, of which we become partakers in common?

This Luther quotes approvingly. Rejection of the mystical union is of a piece with the sacramentarians who reject the sacramental union (that the bread in the Supper is the true body of Christ, likewise the wine His true blood). Luther:

In the food of the Lord, i.e. in the sacrament, we truly take the Word who became flesh, or as we might say more directly, the enfleshed Word; and for that reason Christ remains in us naturally, or with his nature and substance, not only spiritually as the fanatics dream.

The confession of the sacramental union, the unity between the Father and the Son, and the unity in essence of Christ and the believer – these three hang together.

It is St. Hilary’s whole concern in this same passage to maintain that just as Christ according to his divinity is by nature in the Father and is in essence one with him, so Christ through the sacrament which we eat and drink is by nature and essence in us and we in him. Moreover, he uses the word “naturally” everywhere in this passage in order to demonstrate a natural union of the body of Christ with us, and not only a spiritual one existing in the will and mind.

Thus Hilary says, “That which we eat and drink effects these things in us”; he does not say, “That which we believe and know spiritually.”

Only the Decalogue is eternal

Posted on November 20th, 2014

Luther's Study at his home in Wittenberg (Photo: Christopher Esget, November 2012)

Luther’s Study at his home in Wittenberg (Photo: Christopher Esget, November 2012)

In the First Disputation Against the Antinomians, Luther addresses the antinomian argument that the Ten Commandments are abrogated with the coming of Christ in the same way that circumcision (as a ceremonial requirement) has been abrogated.

The Decalogue, however, is greater and better because it is written in the hearts and minds of all and will remain with us even in the coming life. Yet not so circumcision, as baptism also will not remain, but only the Decalogue is eternal—as such, that is, not as law—because in the coming life things will be like what the Decalogue has been demanding here.

Only the Decalogue Is Eternal, p75

Prepare for the storm

Posted on November 19th, 2014

Luther comments on Peter’s sinking into the water because he lost the Word of Christ’s promise. The life of faith is nothing other than clinging to Christ’s Word.

This is how it is when Christ comes into your ship. It will not stay calm for long. A storm will come. If you want to be a Christian then you should prepare for this storm and this discord…. Whoever wants to live blessed by God in Christ must suffer persecution, as Saint Paul says.

Luther Brevier, p340

Sermo Dei: Trinity 22, 2014

Posted on November 16th, 2014

The heart of Christianity is in forgiveness. This runs from God to us, and from us to our neighbor. But forgiveness is hard, even seeming impossible, so we want to set boundaries on our forgiveness that will give us license to turn to judgment.

Today’s Gospel (Mt. 18:21-25) has St. Peter asking a question about forgiveness. “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”

Remember the man who, upon hearing the Law, “Love your neighbor,” asks the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Why did he ask that question? St. Luke tells us that he wanted to justify himself. It’s impossible to love everyone, so it is necessary to limit the scope of “neighbor.”

Likewise here, Peter wants to set a limit to forgiveness. Isn’t this what we all do? We will forgive … up to a point. We will be merciful … up to a point. How many people have you written off? How many times have you said, “I want nothing to do with that person any more?”

So Peter offers a number. It’s actually a generous number. The Jewish teaching was to forgive a person three times in a day. See how magnanimous Peter is? He more than doubles that amount: 7 times!

But the kingdom of heaven uses different math. Jesus replies not with a bigger number, but with a number to make us stop counting. Listen to St. Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:4–5 NIV11)  Love doesn’t count to seven. Love doesn’t count to seventy-seven. Love “keeps no record of wrongs.” To count seventy times seven, 490 times a day, is a number no one could track in personal interactions. So love doesn’t count. Love forgives.

If we are counting, our anger is growing. But if we cease to count and just forgive, by the seventh, or seventy-seventh, or 490th time, forgiveness will be second nature – or better, forgiveness will be our new nature, for in Baptism the Lord has begun in us the renewal of our nature. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. He acts and works in us by forgiveness. If we harbor resentment in our heart, we serve notice on the Spirit and begin the process of eviction. In the Holy Eucharist the Son of God comes to take up residence in us, His body and blood entering our body, not for us to digest but for Him to digest and transform us. Jesus forgives, so Jesus in us forgives those who trespass against us. How then could we set a limit, we who have been forgiven limitlessly?

The parable Jesus tells is a fearful one. Be not deceived: the day is coming when you will be called to account for how you treated others.

What can we say before God’s throne of judgment? “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” So it is with the king’s servant called to the reckoning: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And … one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”

His debt is an impossibly high number. Ten thousand talents is nearly impossible to quantify. It works out to around sixty million days of work. Working every day, the debt amounts to over 165,000 years of work.

The enormity of the amount — thousands upon thousands of lifetimes —makes the simple description of the debtor’s position a joke: “He was not able to pay.”

Now he will lose everything. His wife will become a slave. His daughters degraded. His sons sent to hard labor. The family will be broken up, house and property auctioned off: he loses everything, and himself becomes a slave. Ruin, devastation – words cannot describe his plight.

Isn’t his plea then laughable? “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” How? When? The king’s patience will have to extend far beyond the scope of this man’s lifetime.

Now see what sort of king this is. He does not give the servant what he asks. He doesn’t give him patience, he doesn’t give him more time. He forgives the debt, the impossible debt, and wipes the slate completely clean.

The economics of the kingdom of God are preposterous. Coins come from the mouths of fish, a poor woman’s two pennies are worth more than your $10,000 offering because she gives from her lack, while you have more to spare. Men who work a single hour get a whole day’s pay. And now this man, who owes a sum of money beyond calculation, gets debt forgiveness. There is no bargain, there is no refinancing, there is only complete, clear, and full cancellation of the debt.

That’s the work of Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God, who renegotiates the sin of the world? Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

It would be convenient if the parable stopped there. We would like Christianity to stop there. We have Law—an impossible debt; and we have Gospel—complete forgiveness. Now carry on, business as usual.

But Jesus does not stop there. He keeps going, confronting us with the question, “What does it mean to be forgiven?”

For this man, it meant license: he was now free, free to be violent to others. The forgiven servant confronts a man who owes him a small sum. Remarkable is the term used for this new character: he is a fellow servant. They are the same. They are brothers, equals before the king. And he should be happy. When St. Matthew was forgiven by Jesus, he threw a party. When Zacchaeus was visited by Jesus, he gave back all he had stolen, and started giving away his possessions to the poor.

The man in the parable, forgiven so much, how does he act? He grabs his fellow servant by the throat and begins strangling him. He shouts. “Pay me what you owe!” Does he have the right to act this way? Sure.

He wants what is fair. He is in the right. We might not particularly like this man if we met him, but we might side with him in court.

But divine economics is not governed by fair markets or fair trade. Christianity is not about what is fair. Christianity is not about what we think is right. Christianity’s beating heart is mercy, forgiveness in Jesus.

The parable doesn’t stop with our being forgiven, and our life does not stop with our being forgiven. That is its beginning. St. Augustine put it this way: “Every man begins from Baptism; he goes out free, the ‘ten thousand talents’ are forgiven him; and when he goes out, he will soon find some fellow-servant his debtor.” Baptism, in other words, forgives our impossible debt; and immediately after, we are challenged with people racking up debts against us. The whole parable is a commentary on the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

But what do we do? We keep asking Peter’s question, “Surely, Lord, there must be limits to all this? You don’t really expect me to take this lying down! I am done with her.”

Demanding your rights, you declare to God that you want a system of merit, a system where fair judgment is rendered. And then, God gives us what we are asking for. The king recalls the one who does not forgive. You want fairness? Then hear the King say your words back to you: “Pay Me what you owe.”

Jesus calls us to mercy. No limits. No conditions. Total mercy, full stop.

The conclusion of the parable forces us to confront this frightening truth. The God who is love, the God who is merciful and full of compassion, threatens to come upon us with His wrath. “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.”

So what does this mean for us? The lesson is not, behave a little better, be a little more patient. What we need is a complete transformation of our soul. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

That should drive us to our knees in prayer, this time not only for our own forgiveness, but for a new heart that would truly and genuinely forgive others. A devastating effect of the sinful nature is a vicious memory, remembering how we’ve been slighted, ignored, laughed at, excluded, taken advantage of. The sins committed against us damage our souls deeply.

But the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. Apprehending that, we see with Christ’s eyes that the sin is already forgiven. How could we then still want to grab the sinner by the throat and choke him?

Our prayer should be to receive a divine forgetfulness, that cannot recall any injuries or grievances. St. Augustine said on this Gospel, “Forgive the sin, and cast away the remembrance of it from the heart.”

Do you forgive everyone, fully and completely, from your heart? If not, then stand up with the rest of the sinners and sing David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” When the stress and anxiety of the world has you tightening your fingers, ready to choke someone, loosen your death grip on your rights, make the sign of the cross, and say “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Help me forgive my fellow sinner.”

You are in Jesus. Jesus forgives. Therefore you also forgive. No counting.

He abides in us physically

Posted on November 14th, 2014

In his glorious work “This Is My Body,” Luther speaks about the forgiveness of sins being a great benefit of the Supper. In addition to this, there is what he calls the “bodily benefit,” a union with Christ that is both spiritual and physical. Christ “wills to be in us by nature,” says Luther, citing Hilary, “in both our soul and body, according to the word in John 6 [!], ‘He who eats me abides in me and I in him.'”

If we eat him spiritually through the Word, he abides in us spiritually in our soul; if one eats him physically, he abides in us physically and we in him. As we eat him, he abides in us and we in him. For he is not digested or transformed but ceaselessly he transforms us, our soul into righteousness, our body into immortality.

-AE 37:132

Therefore we ought not be afraid of speaking of a union with Christ that is more than a metaphor for absolution. The Scripture is rich in the way it describes our salvation; we dare not truncate its full witness.