The Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Posted on August 29th, 2014

Matins, Immanuel Lutheran School Teacher Work Week

Friday, August 29, 10:00 a.m.

The Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist

Mk. 6.14-29

Beheading of St. John the Baptist

Preparing to begin a new academic year, we would like an inspiring message, climbing mountaintops, slaying giants, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”! But that’s not what we get. We get John the Baptist, decapitated.


The world’s heart has not improved, but love has grown still colder, and our brethren across the globe are facing beheading.


In such a world, what are we to do? What is our mission, here in this Alexandrian outpost of the Lord’s Church? First, we learn from St. John to hold fast to the commandments of God. “John had been saying to Herod, ‘It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.’” (Mark 6:18 ESV) The first thing we do every year is review the Decalog, instructing our students to fear, love, and trust in God above all things, to honor father and mother, to not kill, and to not commit adultery. That was the one that got John in trouble.


For us to teach the Word, we first must submit ourselves to it, and that begins with repentance. While John was bold in confessing the truth of God’s Word, his personal confession was this: I am not worthy to loose the sandal strap of Jesus. He must increase, I must decrease. As the world, so it seemed, flocked to hear him speak; as his popularity went viral, he instead proclaimed the virus that is in the human heart, the contagion of concupiscence, and pointed everyone to Jesus. Follow Him!


But “Herodias had a grudge against him” (Mark 6:19 ESV) Setting aside the reason for a moment, is there anything of Herodias in you? Do you bear grudges against anyone? Do you remember how others have treated you, and keep it in a bitter place? God’s Word should have driven Herodias to repentance, but instead it drove her to greater sin.


Meanwhile, King Herod was eager to listen to John, but “When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed” (Mark 6:20 ESV). We will encounter parents and students and a culture that is greatly perplexed by what we teach. St. Irenaeus, in speaking about false teachers, likens them to a person who reassembles a beautiful mosaic that depicts a king so that the tiles now form an image of a fox. Our task in this new year is to put the pieces into place, the passages of Holy Scripture but also the glory and beauty of God inscribed in trees and flowers, the laws of science and the harmony of music, showing how all these tiles, assembled and viewed properly, show us the King of the Universe, who made heaven and earth and proclaimed it good.


Not everyone will view that image of the King. Some prefer the fox: the distorted, the corrupt, the perverted, the pornographic. Still others, like Herod, are caught between the Word and the world. For some time, Herod sought to have it both ways. Imprison John, but keep him safe and listen to him. That’s what we would like to do with the Word. Keep it in a safe place, where it cannot do too much damage. It is tempting to hold the Word captive, imprison it so that we can visit it from time to time, let it out of its cage for awhile, but not giving it free course.


Like Herod, we are eventually compelled to choose, for no man can serve two masters. Eventually, a pseudo-princess will force our hand: go the easy road that allows us to save face, or travel the hard road that leads to life. St. Mark describes the inner conflict of Herod: “The king was exceedingly sorry, but because of his oaths and his guests he did not want to break his word to her.” (Mark 6:26 ESV)


And so John the Baptist was beheaded. Yet he did not lose his life. He had it already in the One of whom he testified, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”


This day of John the Baptist’s beheading is thus the perfect day to finish our preparations for the new year. For we are not only preparing our students to make a living, but to make a dying. And in Jesus, “dying, we live.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: St. Bartholomew 2014

Posted on August 24th, 2014

What is a life worth?

For weeks, the airwaves and internet have been saturated with killing. Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. The decapitation of journalist James Foley by the Islamic State. What should be done? What can be done? What is a life worth?

The world ignores many other lives snuffed out. The Islamic State has been systematically slaughtering Christians in Iraq. These holy martyrs join St. Bartholomew, whose feast day is today, in counting their lives worth losing.

What are their lives worth? What is your life worth? What is your life for?

Because we are selfish, “What is my life for?” is not our usual question. We ask questions like, “Am I getting enough out of life? Am I paid what I am worth? Am I treated like I think I should be? I want my life to be different. How can I get what I want?”

The Word of God says all those questions are the wrong questions. The beginning of today’s Epistle reading (2 Cor. 4:7) calls our bodies “jars of clay.” “We have this treasure in jars of clay.” What treasure? Just before this, St. Pauls tells the Corinthians about the mercy of God; because of God’s mercy, “we do not lose heart.” Why? Because we have the gospel, which means “good news.” What good news? The stuff we said in the Creed: the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That is good news. And it’s all grounded in creation. In the verse immediately preceding today’s Epistle, Paul says, “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Light is not a metaphor, a symbol of happiness or clarity. God said, “Let there be light,” even before He created the sun or the other stars. He made the scientific laws that govern our universe, and He made matter, the carbon, the clay, the dust from which He formed us.

The glory of God, Paul says, you see in the face of Jesus. Meaning what? Jesus the perfect man, crucified, is risen from the dead. In His body. Meaning that where God is, matter, material, life is not snuffed out. Life cannot be taken. Life wins. The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s answer to the question, “What is a life worth?”

Expressing this idea, St. Irenaeus said, “The glory of God is a living man.” God makes life. The devil makes nothing. Evil makes nothing. The power of evil only corrupts, distorts, perverts, attempts to destroy. But if Jesus is risen from the dead, then there is no place for despair, no place for sorrow. That’s why Paul and his companions could go from city to city, being beaten, robbed, laughed at, and nearly killed, finally staring martyrdom in the face, and say, “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8–9 ESV).

Nothing the world does can reverse the outcome, for Jesus is risen from the dead. We have this treasure, Paul says, in jars of clay. The NKJ says “We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” He means our bodies, which God made from the earth.


Our bodies are powerful and resilient, yet fragile. Bones break. Cancer corrupts. Teeth rot. Bowels convulse. Eyesight blurs. Hearing fades. “What at last does this world leave us, but a hand filled with sand, or some loss to grieve us?”

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels.” Jars of clay are easily smashed. Who will pick up the pieces? The pot cannot reassemble itself. But the Potter became the pot, the Creator entered His creation.

Psalm 139 is often referenced with regards to abortion. And rightly so, but there’s even more going on there.

Psa. 139:13   For you formed my inward parts;

you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Wonderful are your works;

my soul knows it very well.

15 My frame was not hidden from you,

when I was being made in secret,

intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

in your book were written, every one of them,

the days that were formed for me,

when as yet there was none of them.

God formed our inward parts, He fashioned us in the wombs of our mothers, and so abortion is an unequivocal evil, because it is smashing a jar of clay that God has made. But then David says, “I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Who is the speaker here? It cannot be you or me, or even David. We were all formed in our mother’s womb. Only Adam was “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.” Adam is the speaker, the first-formed man.


From Adam came his wife, and from them came all of us. When God was forming Adam, He already saw all of us in that first man. When God sees us, He doesn’t see black or white, He sees children of Adam: humans. He sees jars of clay that He fashioned, beginning with that first earthen vessel, our first father.

What else does He see? He sees hideous deformities. Not just misshapen noses, but misshapen minds: souls that desire all the wrong things, hearts that lust after what is not good, mouths that mutter grievances and complaints and twist every story.

And as we see everything falling apart, from Ferguson to Washington, from Iraq to Israel to our own little plans for our own little lives, it is easy to despair, to say, “What is my life for? I am just another broken pot, a jar of clay ugly and misshapen, and soon the garbage truck will come and haul my broken vessel to the landfill, where I take my place with billions of shattered hopes and dreams. What good is any of it?”

And God says to you, “O little jar of clay, who are you to lose heart about what I have made? I made you, and I have a purpose for you. And what is more, I have a plan.”

That’s how Bartholomew could go to his martyrdom. His symbol is a knife, for he was flayed alive in Armenia. He lived out the conclusion to our Epistle, “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:10 ESV)


Have you ever smelled the stench of death? Trembled over an incessantly crying baby? Had yet another argument with your spouse? Laid aside an unopened bill you knew you could not pay? Stared into another lonely evening? And said, “This is not how I thought things would be”?

I wonder if Bartholomew—or the many modern martyrs in Iraq and Syria—had similar thoughts. That’s the story of humanity, of a fallen world: none of this is how it was supposed to be.

But you have been put into your place to reflect the light that God made. You are not the light, but you reflect the light, the treasure in jars of clay. The glory of God shines whenever you change another diaper, make another meal. When you love your wife, when you submit to your husband, when you care for your child, when you honor your parents, when you help your neighbor, when you do honest work, when you smile, and especially—especially!—when you forgive sins. Then you are doing the best work, for it is the work God has made for you to do right where you are.

We probably won’t be martyrs like Bartholomew. But we bear witness, martyria, to Jesus by forgiveness and faithful work.

Your body is breaking. You are a jar of clay. But you are a jar of clay made by the master Potter. He will reassemble your earthen vessel more glorious than you can imagine. That good news is the treasure you carry around in you even now. +INJ+

Living documents

Posted on August 16th, 2014

The Lutheran Confessions, John Pless writes, are “not relics of church history confined to their historical context, but living documents which call for either confession or denial.”

In Herman Sasse,  Letters to Lutheran Pastors – Volume 1 (Kindle Locations 576-577)

Adapting the local lifestyle

Posted on August 14th, 2014

In a recent interview on Issues, Etc., LCMS President Matthew Harrison encouraged pastors to get to know their people, spend time in their homes, hospital rooms, lives. Only through this will the preacher be able to truly preach to his people. It reminded me of this quotation from Eric Metaxas’s biography of Bonhoeffer about his time spent in Barcelona:

The intellectual dullness and the overwhelmingly languorous atmosphere of Barcelona pushed hard against Bonhoeffer’s hyperactive mind and personality. He was amazed at how people of all ages seemed to while away the hours sitting at cafés in the middle of the day, chattering about little of any real substance. He observed that besides coffee, vermouth-and-sodas were particularly popular, usually served with half a dozen oysters. Though Bonhoeffer was taken aback at what he now experienced, he may be given credit for not merely kicking against the goads: he adapted to the local lifestyle. He might have complained privately to those nearest and dearest to him, but he didn’t let himself become gloomy or stymied by any of it. He wanted to be effective in his role as pastor, and he knew he must enter the lives and, to some extent, the lifestyles of the people he was charged with serving.

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (p. 73)

A pastor is often put among people he doesn’t understand, and whose lifestyles (not in terms of morality, but interests and temperament) he may not like. One of the many mistakes I made the first few years out of the seminary was not doing what Bonhoeffer did: “enter the lives and … lifestyles of the people he was charged with serving.”

Meditation on Psalm 85

Posted on August 13th, 2014

As we cast our eyes forward, to both death and resurrection, the Scriptures—and especially the Psalms—summon us to look back, to the mighty acts and deeds of God already accomplished. The accomplished things, the finished works, are the ground and basis for our future hope.


Thus tonight’s Psalm, 85, has an appeal: “Show us your steadfast love, O LORD, and grant us your salvation.” But that appeal is based on the completed works, what God has already accomplished: “Lord, you were favorable to your land, you restored the fortunes of Jacob.”


Liberal Christians and our friends in the modern Eastern churches reject the biblical teaching that there is any wrath or anger to God. But that is the concern of the Psalmist: “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?”


That is our experience of this life. The body dies. People suffer. Children are abandoned, while rulers entertain themselves and heal the affliction of the people slightly.


But in this Psalm is the mystery of our true healing: the union of what is above with that which is below. “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” From below, from the earth, is the Child born to Mary; from above, from the heavens, is the eternal Logos come down to dwell with us. “Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.” Faithfulness from below—the human nature of Christ, the only faithful man—is joined to righteousness from above—in the divine nature of Christ, who alone is righteous. These two natures, God and man, are joined together in the one person of our Lord Jesus. In Him, “righteousness and peace kiss each other,” “steadfast love and faithfulness meet.”


Facing the destruction of our bodies, our lives, our loved ones, everything we hold dear, the temptation is to sound the mournful cry of dereliction: “Will you be angry with us forever?” But in the God-man Jesus, we confidently close our eyes in the night, saying, “Yes, the LORD will give what is good, and our land will yield its increase,” as the earth brings forth resurrected bodies at the end of days. +INJ+

Meditation on Psalm 84

Posted on August 12th, 2014

The nighttime prayers of the church persistently pray for rest. A long day, a long year, a long life leads to weariness. Adam is put to sleep by God when the man’s side is opened for the fashioning of the woman. This leads to the speculation that Adam did not sleep before the fall. Man in the state of righteousness had no need of sleep; he rested in God, but did not need to take rest, for weariness was unknown to him.


We, his sons and daughters, have known weariness, and will know it more before this brief life is concluded. “There is no rest for the wicked,” says the proverb; our whole fallen race seeks rest, but like the demons going through dry and waterless places, we find none, nothing solid, lasting, and reliable. Morning comes too soon, and just when you are finding some solace your vacation is over.


In tonight’s Psalm (Ps. 84), the psalmist expresses his longing to be in the temple, which had also become a nesting place for sparrows and swallows. Many birds migrate, and we also are migrants, immigrants, vagabonds and wanderers on this earth. If we take up residence and trust in our own palaces, we have forgotten the truth that this night, this hour, may be your last. The entire message of the Scriptures is that we have been exiled from our true home, and we will not be home again until Christ ushers us into the New Jerusalem.


The Temple, the House of God, was a depiction of the eternal house, the dwelling place of God. As such, it was a place of rest, not in the sense of a hotel or resort, but the place where the things that make us weary—the strife and chaos and work of the world—are not important. Here in God’s house, the Lord does His work, feeding and blessing His people, giving them His peace.


So St. Jerome could rejoice in the temple being depicted as a nesting place for birds in this way:  “I long, O Lord, for your eternal dwelling places; my soul yearns and pines for the courts of the Lord; I long for some place to dwell, a nest for my soul and my body.”


There are many places in this world that offer us joy, happiness, satisfaction and rest. Some of them are evil, some of them are not. Sporting stadia, amusement parks, shopping malls, and vacation places offer us the hope of rest for our bodies and minds, a place to forget the troubles. But for the Psalmist, where he wants to be is the Temple: “A day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” The places of wickedness offer power and pleasure not found in the church. But it is better to be an usher in church than a star on stage. For the lights illuminating that stage will fade, but the Light of the world will give everlasting joy: “For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor.” Here in the church we find sabbath rest in God’s forgiveness; and at the last, He will give to us the rest nowhere to be found in this busy world, so full of sound and fury signifying nothing. For “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly.”

Meditation on Psalm 83

Posted on August 11th, 2014

In our occasional series on the Psalms, tonight we continue with Psalm 83. It is a decidedly difficult Psalm. How can we pray about our enemies, “O my God, make them like whirling dust, like chaff before the wind”? Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, but this Psalm puts into our mouths a prayer for fire, tempest, and hurricane to pursue and terrify our enemies. “Let them perish in disgrace”!

How are we to reconcile these things? There is constant exhortation in Holy Scripture to seek peace, and then there are these prayers for the destruction of enemies. We don’t have firsthand experience with war, the devastation of our homes and the slaughter of peoples.

What we see first of all in this Psalm is a confederacy of nations aligned against Israel. Such a confederacy of all these nations never came about at one time; it is, rather, a lament that Israel faces constant hostility, with nations perpetually rising against them. Facing destruction, the Jews cry out to God to protect them, to strike down their enemies bent on their destruction.

It is tempting to apply this to our own situation. There is a long history of religio-political rhetoric that sees America as God’s chosen nation, and applies the words and promises to Israel to the United States. But this is a great error. The Church transcends all national boundaries, and the fundamental call of discipleship is to all nations.

So while we pray for our president and governor, and always strive to be obedient citizens, we dare not equate the United States with Old Testament Israel.

How then can we sing this Psalm as part of our own prayers, and not just as a relic of history? We do so by recognizing that while the people of God no longer have a border around a geographic property, with a capital and Temple in Jerusalem, the words of Jesus have begun to be enacted: the disciples of Jesus come from all nations: from every tribe and people and tongue are those who are baptized into Christ Jesus.

And this holy people, like our ancient fathers in the faith, are under constant threat of extinction. Whether it is American citizen Saeed Abedini, suffering in an Iranian prison, or the Christians in Iraq fleeing their ancient land, and likewise in Syria and Egypt and other places where Christians have had homes for millennia, the church is under constant threat.

The church in America is not yet suffering the kinds of persecution our brethren suffer in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, but there is an ideological persecution that is devastating the church. Immanuel is something of an outlier. Churches are swiftly compromising the most basic teachings of the faith in a desperate attempt to attract or retain people. A conference I attended earlier this week sounded something of a note of panic; reading between the lines, our leaders anticipate in the coming decade or two widespread closing of churches, with far fewer full-time pastors, and an increasing number of church leaders with very little education. Already in the last few years the cultural shift against Christianity has moved more rapidly than many would have thought possible. “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

What then are to do? Pray. Pray against this onslaught from our enemies. Such a prayer must recognize that the source of this hostility is not found in the tents of Edom and the Ishaelites, nor in the White House or the department of Health and Human Services. Our enemy is the one who would destroy the Church, which is to say, the devil himself. All the others are just pawns. But they are pawns that we hope will join us. That is the ultimate hope of Psalm 83: “Fill their faces with shame, that they may seek your name, O LORD…. Let them be put to shame … that they may know that you alone, whose name is the LORD, are the Most High over all the earth.” That is our desire. Not to win a political victory or a military victory. The victory already has been won. Or have you forgotten Easter already? Jesus Lives, the Victory’s Won. Our task is to call our neighbors and the nations to gather around the victor.

When I look at the state of the world, and the state of the church, I am terrified for the future. But the student of history recognizes that it has ever been so. And such terror is ultimately an act of unbelief. Psalm 83 reminds us that, even when we are surrounded by enemies, the LORD is still the LORD, Most High over all the earth. We simply pray, and wait for Him to act. He will, and it will be at the best and right time.

Sermo Dei: Matins, LCMS Institute 2014

Posted on July 29th, 2014

Tuesday Matins, Saint John’s Lutheran Church, Seward, Nebraska

July 29, 2014: “Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People”—LCMS Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music

Psalm 3; Ephesians 5:14-21


“The days are evil.” St. Paul’s words could have been written yesterday. Churches are burned in Mosul, Christians driven from their ancient home: these days are evil. In the land of the free, religious freedom is threatened, the slaughter of children glorified and publicly funded: these days are evil. The devil got his renunciation removed from the Anglican baptismal liturgy: these days are evil.

Recognizing this, the temptation can be to despair, as the Psalmist seems to despair:

O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; many are saying of my soul, there is no salvation for him in God. (Ps. 3.1f)

“How many are my foes!” Such disillusionment among Christians quickly turns to disillusionment with Christians, with the Church. Things are not as we would like them to be, how we think they ought to be. We can resemble the apostles more in their contention for power than their witness to Jesus. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that if we are fortunate, our disillusionment with other Christians will turn into disillusionment with ourselves (Life Together). We must say, “I have seen the problem in these evil days, and it is me.” I must repent. Then we are prepared to receive the promises of Jesus in faith – not a faith in our abilities to improve the state of the world or church, but a faith that abandons every pretension of superiority or intelligence or piety, every false gospel that says we will fix the church through our labor and skill.

The days are evil, but the Psalms comfort us by giving us words for every condition, words belonging to Jesus our true liturgist. It is Jesus who is confessing, “I cried aloud to the LORD, and he answered me from his holy hill.” The greatest comfort is in Jesus who on the hill made holy by His cross cried aloud, “Father, forgive them.”

There we see in Jesus the thing we least want to do ourselves. Jesus completely submits to the will of the Father, thereby submitting also to the will of His enemies, allowing Himself to be abused and mocked, all the while petitioning the Father for forgiveness of His enemies.

Therefore, when St. Paul in this morning’s reading calls us to submit one to another, he is not giving us an etiquette lesson, merely calling us to politeness and civility. Submit to one another “out of reverence for Christ,” the One who submitted Himself to the Father’s will, the One who surrendered His life to win us, His holy bride, making us spotless and unblemished.

And yet you say, “I don’t feel spotless and unblemished – just the opposite! I not only look at the world and say, ‘The days are evil,’ I look at my own heart, and find there the worst kind of corruption and impurity. Arrogant and boastful, lustful and lazy; slow to study Scripture, slow to pray, quick to demand my own way. O LORD, how many are my foes! Many are rising against me; indeed, these foes rise up within me, causing me to love what I should hate, and hate the things I should love.”

And then these foes turn on my conscience, saying, “There is no salvation for [you] in God.”

“I lay down and slept,” says the Psalm, signifying the weakness of our flesh. “I lay down and slept,” journeying through darkness and death. “I lay down and slept,” but I did not stay there! “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” That is the answer from the holy hill: Jesus woke again, and I shall awake too. The resurrection of Jesus and the delivery of His victory over sin, death, and hell is the content of every Psalm, Hymn, and Spiritual Ode the Church sings.

The song is one, the song is the same through every generation until the end: Jesus sings to us, “I have conquered all your foes,” and we reply with His own words back to Him: “I will not be afraid! Salvation belongs to the LORD.”

The days are evil – but my Jesus is good, and He prays for us, with us, and in us, “Deliver us from evil.” Therefore we will go to our death in peace, and when the new creation dawns, we shall together repeat this morning’s Psalm with Jesus our High Priest: “I lay down and slept; I woke again, for the LORD sustained me.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Trinity 6, 2014

Posted on July 27th, 2014

“Unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.” The Lord Jesus here tells us the standard by which we will be judged: not what your neighbors think about you, not what your family thinks about you, not what your country thinks about you or even what your church thinks about you. Did you keep the commandments? Then you will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Did you break one commandment, even the littlest, the least of the commandments? Then, when the kingdom of the heavens is ushered in, you will be called the least.

This is very different from what we call civil righteousness. You don’t have to be a Christian to be a good person in the world. Pay your taxes, drive courteously, give money to charity, serve your country, be helpful, don’t tell lies – some people are nicer than others, do more good for society than others. This is the stuff of creation, the First Article of the Creed, and what the catechism calls the first use of the law, the curb.

But that’s not what Jesus is talking about today (Matthew 5:17-26), when He talks about your righteousness. He’s not talking about how well behaved you are in the world. He’s talking about something much deeper: the condition of your heart before God. This is the righteousness that not only does not murder, but never even gets angry. Have you been critical of what other people are doing, saying? Do you see somebody on the news, on Twitter or Facebook, and say, “What a fool!”? The righteousness that God requires is the perfect righteousness of the heart. And that standard declares, “Whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”

And I imagine that your memory is filled with such incidents – both the times that you’ve called someone a fool, and the times that they’ve said it to you. These memories burn through our soul worse than the acid burns in your belly.

Memories of sin haunt us. In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about the spiritual power of memories to accuse us.

If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

The context here is the sacrifices of the Jerusalem Temple under the old covenant. Now a great mistake often made is looking at these sacrifices as a human work to appease God. This is not entirely accurate. God requires the shedding of blood for the payment of sins. But a comprehensive look at God’s Word reveals that God Himself rescued His people from slavery, God Himself brought them into the land of Israel, God Himself gave them the animals for sacrifice. God charged the people “rent,” if you will, on the land, and the people brought this rent to the temple, in addition to other offerings at particular occasions, such as in thanksgiving for recovery from sickness, or at the birth of a child. Now here’s the amazing thing: instead of consuming the offering on the altar, God turns around and gives it back to the people to eat, along with a portion for the priest. In this sacred meal, often of grilled meat, bread, and wine, God declared His peace—that He was reconciled—with His people.

But here’s the important application: you cannot be at peace with God while in a state of hostility with your neighbor. That’s why Jesus says,

If you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

If you aren’t reconciled with your neighbor, there is no reconciliation between you and God. “As far as it depends on you, live at peace” with everyone.

Yet such has not been the case. Sins hang in the memory. Sins that we’ve committed, and also sins that others have committed against us. There’s only one way to deal with them: confession. If possible, confess to the person you’ve wronged. Ask for peace. And if you’re the one who has been wronged, offer peace, sincerely. As long as those sins hang in the memory, they work like a cancer, making you more bitter and less holy. So do it quickly! Jesus says, without delay.

“Agree with your adversary quickly, while you are on the way with him, lest your adversary deliver you to the judge, the judge hand you over to the officer, and you be thrown into prison. Assuredly, I say to you, you will by no means get out of there till you have paid the last penny.”

It’s better to settle out of court than go to trial. That’s good practical advice. But something more is at work here. God is the judge, and you don’t want your case turned over to Him on the merits.

There is no good news in this instruction from Jesus. For our righteousness is never good enough before God. That’s why it’s important to listen to the Sermon on the Mount—the 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters of Matthew—with these introductory words in your ears: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill.” The righteousness that the Father demands, the Son fulfills.

We can even break this down into two forms of righteousness. Jesus has an active righteousness, where He does everything the Law requires: Jesus alone, among men, loves God with all of His heart, soul, strength and mind; and Jesus alone among men loves His neighbor as Himself. That’s His active righteousness. Jesus keeps the commandments; He is the One called “great” in the kingdom of heaven. But in addition to this active righteousness of Jesus, He has a passive righteousness, where He suffers and endures every punishment of the law that you and I deserve. So the demand of the law is settled, and the adversary will not deliver you to the judge, for Jesus has already been delivered to the judge for you.

Now we, who have come here to this Divine Service today, are divinely served – i.e., God serves us. Our righteousness before God is a passive righteousness: we receive God’s mercy freely, without any merit or worthiness in us.

And then, we continue growing in this grace. United with Christ, the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we begin to live as new creatures, with a new kind of righteousness. This new righteousness of the disciple of Jesus is a busy and active thing, rejoicing to be a loving husband, a submissive wife, a dutiful citizen, an obedient child, a caring parent, and on and on according to your vocations. The Christian doesn’t do good things under the threat of the Law, but precisely because the threat of the Law has been removed. The new desire rising up in the Christian says, “I will no more call my neighbor a fool, I will no more look at my neighbor’s wife with longing, I want to be merciful as my Father is merciful.”

Because we always have the Old Adam in us, there will be a great struggle. In that struggle, we return again and again to our neighbor for reconciliation, and to the Lord’s altar for His peace.

I pray that you are filled with the perfect righteousness of Jesus who has “paid the last penny,” and that you are also abundantly filled with the Holy Spirit to live before God in righteousness and purity. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Trinity 5, 2014

Posted on July 20th, 2014

LORD, why have you rejected me?

why have you hidden your face from me?

Ever since my youth, I have been wretched and at the point of death;

I have borne your terrors with a troubled mind.

Your blazing anger has swept over me;

your terrors have destroyed me;

They surround me all day long like a flood;

they encompass me on every side.

My friend and my neighbor you have put away from me,

and darkness is my only companion. (Ps. 88, Book of Common Prayer)

So ends the eighty-eighth Psalm. “Darkness is my only companion.” That’s not the beginning; it’s the ending. So can life be in this world, even for the disciple of Jesus.

For this world is a dark place. The Muslims burned the cathedral in Mosul this past week, and the remaining Christians have fled. Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen, remains imprisoned in Iran for the crime of being a Christian.

In America, we burn with lust and are imprisoned by the passions. The darkness of despair closes in on hearts without hope.

St. Peter has just spent the night in darkness. (Luke 5:1-11) “Master,” he says to Jesus, “we have toiled all night and caught nothing.” That is the story of all humanity, wrapped up in this one futile effort by St. Peter: “We have toiled all night and caught nothing.” We have built, but the buildings have crumbled. We have established governments, but they have become corrupt. The garment is ripped, the milk has gone sour, the door has splintered and the hinges have rusted. “We have toiled all night and caught nothing.” Even what man does gain, rust ruins, moths destroy, and thieves break in and steal. Everything is dust and ashes.

So Simon Peter is tired. Perhaps you are too. Tired of work. Tired of an ailing body. Tired of a world careening out of control. Tired of a marriage that continues to struggle. Tired from the baby that fills you with joy but gives you no rest.

The day has broken, but Simon remains in darkness. “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing.” Jesus is about to take him out into the deep, where Simon will confront the deeper darkness.

There is an enormous catch of fish, so much that the nets are breaking. They fill one boat, then a second, the ship captained by James and his brother John, the sons of Zebedee and partners with Simon in his commercial fishing operation. Both boats are weighed down, riding low in the water. The fish in the boat will translate into gold in their pockets.

But this does not lighten Simon’s darkness. He now confronts his identity.

Our culture is presenting us with a deep identity crisis. Uprooted from created realities, people are convincing themselves that they are men trapped in women’s bodies, or women trapped in men’s bodies – or perhaps still some other alternative. Actions are disconnected with being, so that people do bad things but say they are good people, that the bad actions are somehow disconnected from the good person. In 1978 Rabbi Kushner published a book asking the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?”, a question that has no adequate answer because it is improperly framed.

It’s a question of identity, and not just your identity or my identity, but a collective identity, a world-identity. We must ask a bigger question, “Who are we as a people? Who are we as a race, the human race?” And the answer is in what Simon says to Jesus after the great catch: “I am a sinful man, O Lord!” Simon is not speaking about a particular thing he has done, nor the particular ways he may be tempted. One person has inclinations to lie or gossip, another to bully and abuse. One person has heterosexual desires, another homosexual desires, but no one, no one lives up to the sexual identity God created us to have. To say, for example, that people with homosexual desires are broken is not to say nearly enough; everyone is broken, and deeply so.

Peter's confession of sin

In today’s Psalm, David is afraid. In the Old Testament lesson, Elijah commits the sin of despair, hiding out and whimpering, “I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life.” The congregation addressed in the epistle is admonished about the things you and I so easily do: repay evil for evil, reviling for reviling.

Simon is a sinful man, I am a sinful man, you are a sinful person. Your corruption runs deeper than you even realize. This is why we bring Brendan David and all our babies to baptism. Born in darkness, we are destined to darkness. We need God’s action from the outside, God’s righteousness from the outside, God’s forgiveness from the outside, not only to redeem us from our acts, but to rescue us from our being, from who we are.

The miraculous catch of fish becomes for Simon an image of Jesus’ work, and the work Simon would undertake as a minister of Jesus. Drawn up out of the deep, drawn up out of the darkness, the nets of baptism save men alive.

Perhaps you have said with the Psalmist that “terrors … surround me … like a flood.” But Jesus comes to those drowning. Jesus comes to those over whom the waves wash. Jesus comes to Brendan. Jesus comes to the baptized.

Perhaps you have known the dark, even said, “Darkness is my only companion.” But Jesus comes in the dark. Jesus comes to those in darkness. In the shadows and gloom, your Lord is with you, He has been there too, terrified of the hell that was coming for Him.

Perhaps you have said with Simon, “I am a sinful man.” This you need to say, every day. The Word of Jesus to Simon is recorded in this Gospel for you: “Do not be afraid.”

Now, the accusation of sin against you has, by the Word of Jesus, been canceled. In the entrance Psalm we cried out to God, “False witnesses have risen against me.” That’s what the accusations of the devil now are: False witnesses. They are false because of Jesus’ word, “Fear not.” Simon is right when he says, “I am a sinful man.” But the Word of Jesus, and the baptism that today came to Brendan, washes it away. +INJ+