Best Books of 2017

Posted on January 9th, 2018

Here are the top five books from my 2017 reading:

  1. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Rod Dreher) – started April 11, 2017; finished May 12, 2017
  2. Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (Os Guinness) – started March 17, 2017; finished March 27, 2017
  3. Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries [reread] (Werner Elert) – started December 2016; finished December 26, 2017
  4. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Timothy Keller) – started March 7, 2017; finished March 17, 2017
  5. The Meaning of Marriage (Timothy Keller) – started July 21, 2017; finished August 25, 2017

In 2017, I read 30 books, listed here in reverse chronological order of completion:

  1. Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries [reread] (Werner Elert) – started December 2016; finished December 26, 2017
  2. Honor and Betrayal: The Untold Story of the Navy SEALs Who Captured the “Butcher of Fallujah”—and the Shameful Ordeal They Later Endured (Patrick Robinson) – started November 23, 2017; finished December 25, 2017
  3. Private (James Patterson) – started December 11, 2017; finished December 19, 2017
  4. Artemis (Andy Weir) – started November 30, 2017; finished December 11, 2017
  5. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, #1) (George R.R. Martin) – started January 31, 2017; finished November 30, 2017
  6. You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (James K.A. Smith) – started October 14, 2017; finished November 13, 2017
  7. Back Blast (Mark Greaney) – started July 29, 2016; finished November 2, 2017
  8. A Man of Means (P.G. Wodehouse) – started June 17, 2017; finished November 1, 2017
  9. Outlaw Platoon: Heroes, Renegades, Infidels, and the Brotherhood of War in Afghanistan (Sean Parnell) – started October 5, 2017; finished October 19, 2017
  10. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Roland Bainton) – started June 6, 2017; finished October 14, 2017
  11. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson) – finished October 11, 2017
  12. Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female (Ashley McGuire) – started July 16, 2017; finished October 5, 2017
  13. The Meaning of Marriage (Timothy Keller) – started July 21, 2017; finished August 25, 2017
  14. Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (Os Guinness) – started July 12, 2017; finished August 7, 2017
  15. A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 (G.J. Meyer) – started December 2016; finished July 15, 2017
  16. Simply Christian (N.T. Wright) – started May 12, 2017; finished June 24, 2017
  17. Death at the Excelsior and Other Stories (P.G. Wodehouse) – finished June 17, 2017
  18. The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (Rod Dreher) – started April 11, 2017; finished May 12, 2017
  19. Your Marriage by God’s Design (Scott and Julie Stiegemeyer) – finished April 12, 2017
  20. He Is Not Silent: Preaching in a Postmodern World (R. Albert Mohler) – started March 27, 2017; finished April 11, 2017
  21. Impossible People: Christian Courage and the Struggle for the Soul of Civilization (Os Guinness) – started March 17, 2017; finished March 27, 2017
  22. Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism (Tim Keller) – started March 7, 2017; finished March 17, 2017
  23. How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels (N.T. Wright) – started February 18, 2017; finished March 7, 2017
  24. Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel (Russell Moore) – started January 6, 2017; finished February 17, 2017
  25. The Children of Húrin (J.R.R. Tolkien) – started January 13, 2017; finished January 30, 2017
  26. God’s Song in a New Land (Carl Schalk) – finished January 20, 2017
  27. The Flame Bearer (Bernard Cornwell) – started December 2016; finished January 12, 2017
  28. The Pathway to Awesomeness: How to Get Things Done and Live a Productive Life (Mark Forster) – finished January 8, 2017
  29. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas [reread] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) –  started November 27, 2016; finished January 6, 2017
  30. The City of God (St. Augustine) – started April 20, 2016; finished January 6, 2017

Click here for what I’m currently reading, and to see some topical book lists I’ve made.

Did you read something great in the last year? Leave a recommendation in the comments!

Sermo Dei: Epiphany 1, 2018

Posted on January 7th, 2018

“Look,” says Mary, “Your father and I have sought you anxiously” (Luke 2:41-52, Gospel for Epiphany I). Many of you have experienced anxiety at some time or in some form. That Mary and Joseph knew anxiety is written for our comfort—to know we are not alone—and also for our instruction, to learn how to deal with anxiety.

Anxiety is part of the world’s fallen condition. We experience anguish of spirit, mind, and body for all kinds of reasons. You can imagine the anxiety Mary and Joseph had, for much of parenthood is worrying about your children – and losing your little boy in a crowded city would terrify any parent.

On top of this is the spiritual responsibility that Mary and Joseph have been given. From Gabriel’s announcement of the conception of Jesus in the virgin Mary’s womb, to the visits of shepherds and wise men, to the flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath, everything has pointed to the importance of this Child. And now they’ve lost Him. Mary especially must be experiencing not only the fears of a mother, but a woman standing under God’s judgment. God gave her this Son, and she has lost Him.

Why would God put her through this? Dr. Luther says,

The more highly [God] blesses, honors, and exalts [His saints], the deeper He puts them both into cross and suffering—yes, into dishonor, shame, and abandonment.

The serene paintings of the virgin Mary I think mask the real situation. She is terrified of the angelic appearance. The ordeal of childbirth would leave her exhausted and disheveled. What would the mad midnight race into the desert to escape Herod do?

The mother of Jesus is the most blessed of all women, filled with grace, and the greatest model of a Christian: She hear’s God’s Word and replies simply, “Amen!”

But she is also the woman whom Simeon said would have a sword pierce her heart. Like her Son after her, Mary knows the cross and great suffering.  Like every great saint, she feels and knows anxiety, fear, distress.

And now she has lost Him. As the hours race by, and the second day becomes the third, hope is fading. Did Mary and Joseph argue, and blame each other? Did they blame themselves and become morose?

All of our losses, every time we are confronted with failure, and sin, and death, the temptation is to see God as lost. He has abandoned us, or will not help, or is holding our failure against us.

“The relationship failed because I am a failure.” “The child died because I didn’t pray enough.” “God is dead and so is my hope.”

All the great saints suffered afflictions and anxiety.

Abraham and Sarah are promised a child, but spend years in the sorrow and isolation of barrenness.

Joseph is cast into the pit, sold as slave by his own brothers, and falsely accused.

Moses murders a man and must flee into the wilderness.

Job sits on a pile of dung, cutting his skin with a broken pot and longing for death.

Jonah languishes for three days in the belly of a sea monster.

Elijah despairs that he is the last worshipper of God left alive on the earth.

Throughout Scripture we find the saints tormented and afflicted, and falling into the sin of despair – all to teach us what to do in the hour of temptation, the hour of trial.

First we need to know why the anxiety and trouble come. Our afflictions and temptations come to cut down our arrogance. Pride is what made the devil who he is; so exalted was he in gifts that he came to despise God and rely on himself. So God lets us struggle to see that we cannot secure our own future. We cannot secure our own future; we can only live by grace.

David the great warrior describes his overconfidence in Psalm 30:

I said in my prosperity: ‘I shall never be defeated.’ 

But when You hid Your face, I was terrified.

He was confident in himself, not realizing that everything he had was from God. Once God withdrew His blessing, terror came.

God has allowed the greatest saints to feel the greatest anxiety. So we should not feel alone when anxiety comes to us. “Be still, and know that I am God.” What does that mean? All your efforts, your searching, must stop. God acts in the silent places. He raises dead bodies. He parts the sea, but not until the Egyptian army is about to attack.

He teaches us to pray not, “Give me a year of success,” or, “I claim a life of prosperity,” but instead, “Give us this day our daily bread.” “Give us day by day our bread for today.” You work for today, and let God work for tomorrow. What do you know about what will happen tomorrow? Nothing.

Now here is what we learn about the end of Mary and Joseph’s search: They find Jesus in the temple – which means what? The temple is where the Word of God is read, and where the sacrifices are offered. That’s where Jesus is.

He is not found in all the other comforts of the world. They had searched for Jesus among friends and relatives; they had the entire city of Jerusalem, with all of its knowledge and culture; they had their own reason and understanding – but none of it was sufficient. They were looking for Jesus in all of the wrong places. Our folly is often to look for satisfaction and fulfillment and meaning in every place but where we should be looking.

Mary and Joseph end their search in the temple, where the Word and Sacrifice are.

All our own searches will finally end when we turn to the Word and Sacrifice, that is, to Bible and Cross, Bible and Confession, Bible and Communion.

He is being, and will be, obedient to the work the Father has given Him. He is already preparing for the cross to come some twenty years later.

Jesus does the work we could never do. In your anxiety, be still and know that He is God. He is the end of your anxiety, the healing of your wounds, the sacrifice for your sins, the death of your death.

So now, anxiety dealt with, sin atoned for, Jesus found, we go with Jesus home. Although He is God in the flesh, He goes home with His parents and obeys them, keeping the Fourth Commandment.

That’s where our work is found too. The Wise Men, we heard yesterday, went home by a new and different way. Jesus goes home with Mary and Joseph and is obedient. This is the joy of our life. We know how the journey ends – with Easter, resurrection, unending gladness. With joy then we go home and live in obedience, knowing that we are exactly where God wants us to be.

Sermo Dei: Epiphany

Posted on January 7th, 2018

After describing the long, arduous trip that the Wise Men undertook,  T.S. Eliot says in his great poem The Journey of the Magi,

A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Folly – the world’s voices sang in the ears of the Magi, “Your journey to worship the Christ-Child:  it is all folly!  Worthless; meaningless; foolishness.  Who would waste his time on such matters?”

The world says that to you as well. Folly! None of this is true. You are wasting your life.

Even if it is true – there’s no need to upend your life. A long journey, a deep investment of time and money – that’s fanatical, out of touch with the real world. Perhaps in darker moments, when your own faith was being tested, you’ve had similar thoughts about Christianity:  “This is all folly.”

God’s Word calls us to embrace the folly. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.… [T]he foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” [1 Cor 1.18,21].

So the Magi go on their foolish journey. We know very little about them. They were likely practitioners of a false religion, but their journey to worship Jesus tells us they were seeking the true wisdom. They risked everything, sacrificed everything to find the only One who matters – Christ.

There’s no reason for the Magi’s journey unless something, someone unique and exclusive is found there. But despite the miracle of the star, the sign only takes them so far. Arriving in Jerusalem, the star fails them – or rather, they must now inquire from the true north star, the One source of truth, the Holy Scriptures. God’s Word points them to Bethlehem: “And they said unto [Herod], In Bethlehem of Judaea:  for thus it is written by the prophet, Thou Bethlehem … art not the least among the princes of Juda:  for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.”  Thus they learn where to find Christ: not by their own wisdom, emotions, or works; Christ is found only through the Word.

The men of Jerusalem show us our great peril: They hear and know the Word, but do not take it to heart. They stay where they are, rather than go with the Magi to worship. They are hearers of the Word but not doers. They have a form of godliness but know not the power. Will you meet the same fate? You know the Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, you’ve received the Sacraments – but will you become lazy and neglectful of the gift you’ve received?

Do not think, “I have the Gospel; I cannot lose it.”  Luther said, “Just a minute, let us see whether or not you really have the gospel.  If you believe the gospel with all your heart and are changing for the better, then you really have it.  But if you become arrogant and scorn it, then you do not have it,” even if you talk all about it and have Scripture on your lips like Herod and the priests and scribes.  They know where the Christ-Child is, but do not go to worship him.  The Word calls us to press on with the Magi to journey’s end, to Bethlehem.

And what did they find, these wise men, when they arrived in Bethlehem, to the cradle of the infant Jesus?  They find no earthly king; He is not robed in finery.  His mother wears no diadem.  If the friends of the Magi could see this scene, they would be confirmed in their opinion:  this was all folly!

But these Magi recognize Jesus not with their eyes, but with their ears.  This is He whom God’s star had pointed to, and God’s Word confirmed. They prostrate themselves, and present gifts. And while the frankincense is for the worship of God, the gold and myrrh foreshadow the cross; money to survive on the flight to Egypt, myrrh for His burial.

Listen to another part of T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”:  One of the wise men says,

All this was a long time ago, I remember

And I would do it again, but set down

This set down

This:  were we led all that way for

Birth or Death?

The Birth is for the Death – His death on the cross, our death to sin, and the trampling down of death by death. That is folly, but to us as to the Magi it brings “exceeding great joy.”

And it means a new journey, which the Magi show us by journeying home on a new and living way. They are avoiding Herod, which is more than mere practicality. Everything has now changed. Their old ways they shall walk no more, their false gods they shall worship no more, for the Jesus they worshipped is now the star that never fades and enlightens everything.

That’s how it now is for you. You’ve been set on a different path. What the world calls folly is the true Wisdom, the joyous light that no darkness can overcome.  In Him will you live; in Him will you die; and His shall you be forever.

Wedding Sermon: Grace Link and Andrew Egger

Posted on January 7th, 2018

The Marriage of Grace Link and Andrew Egger

December 30, 2017

John 2:1-11

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee.” Every word in Holy Scripture is significant. And there’s more going on than meets the eye. “On the third day there was a wedding,” just like on the third day He rose again from the dead.

Rising from the dead is the shape of marriage, because marriage is a kind of death. At some level our groom already understands this, as he reflected on these solemnities via Twitter: “super excited to get married this weekend and enter once and for all into adulthood,” I say to myself as I spot a gobstopper on the floor of my car and immediately eat it.

The bride can handle a room full of kindergartners, so I imagine she can handle this challenge as well. But the meaning of marriage is not in the maturation of manners. Something much deeper has to die in you. Marriage propels you into an arena where all your selfishness, all your disordered desires are manifest. Marriage continually summons you to death, so that you can learn to live for others. Dying to self, you live for your wife, your husband, and the children God gives you.

“On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there.” Marriage creates a new family, but this new family doesn’t live in isolation. The mother of Jesus was there, possibly as the mother of the bride. Andrew and Grace, the families you came from remain forever important, as does our common family the Church. “Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples.” Your wedding in the Church means that you also have done just that. Your marriage will be blessed as each day Jesus is continually invited to be the head of your household. When you are worried about your spouse, when you are apart, and especially when you have difficulties, that is when you invite Jesus anew to the wedding.

And problems will come. Some of those problems will be of your own making, and some will happen to you. This wedding in Cana was threatened by inadequate preparation. The lack of wine symbolizes a loss of joy. And the day will come when your joy runs short. You will disappoint each other. Perhaps you will yell and say horrible things; perhaps you will cry; perhaps you will seethe in silence. I pray none of these are the case – but sin is a powerful thing, and rare is the marriage untouched by trouble.

When the wine runs out, when the joy runs out, what does the blessed mother of Jesus say? She points the servants to Jesus, and says, “Do whatever he tells you.” “Do whatever he tells you.”

She doesn’t know how the problem will be resolved. She doesn’t know what can be done. She knows one thing only: We look to Jesus for all of our help.

And His help is more than advice or counsel. This holy Christmas season we reflect on the mystery that is at the heart of marriage. The two become one flesh in marriage, analogous to the union of God and man in the womb of the virgin Mary. God doesn’t just visit mankind. He joins Himself to us, so that He says of us what Adam said when he saw Eve: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” 

The one-flesh union in marriage is for having children, for finding delight in each other, and for sharing in each other’s troubles. That’s what Jesus does in the incarnation – He says, “Your sickness becomes My sickness, your sorrow becomes My sorrow, your sin becomes My sin, and everything good I have I now share with you.”

By God’s grace, He does all this for you, and now in marriage He begins to do this through you. Thus you say to each other, “Your troubles are my troubles, your joys are my joys, and with my body I honor you, serve you, protect you.”

Your marriage, Grace and Andrew, will find its greatest joy in the mundane things, even the unpleasant things, precisely because God transforms them into opportunities for loving sacrifice and communion.

“On the third day there was a wedding.” On the third day Jesus rose from the dead, and in Him your marriage cannot die.

“Jesus was invited to the wedding.” He promises to be present and to be your Lord in sickness and in health, for better, for worse.

“Do whatever he tells you.” For in Him you will live, in Him will you die, and His shall you be forever.  +INJ+

Reformation500 Sermon

Posted on October 31st, 2017

The Five-hundredth Anniversary of the Reformation

When your baby boy bonks his head, what matters? When your husband lies dead, what matters? When you sit with Job on a dung-heap, children gone, possessions gone, sores covering your stinking body, what matters?

Job’s own answer, through a long struggle of pain and torment, was this: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He shall stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God.”

The Redeemer is Jesus. Jesus is what matters when you hold tightly to your sick child. Jesus is what matters when the coffin of your father descends into the earth. Jesus is what matters when your own life is in total crisis.

The church on earth has a way of losing focus. The church on earth has a way of losing sight of Jesus. When ethnicity and culture become the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. When secular politics becomes the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. When socializing or social actions becomes the identity of a church, that church loses sight of Jesus. A thousand things can rise up to become more important than Jesus in His own church.

In Luther’s day, the church had forgotten how to repent.

In Luther’s day, the church had forgotten how to repent. Money and certain actions defined repentance and earned forgiveness. Repentance was a thing you did, not a change of heart and life. What set the Reformation in motion was this simple statement Luther posted on the door of the Schloßkirch in Wittenberg on Oct. 31, 1517: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” That beginning of the 95 Theses generated a repentance movement that could not be stopped. While previous reformers like Jan Hus were tortured and killed, God’s grace saw fit to protect Luther from martyrdom. But we must never make this repentance movement about Luther.

The repentance movement we call the Reformation was not about Luther. The repentance movement we call the Reformation was not about Germany. The Reformation was about pointing people back to Jesus. “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

For 500 years, even Reformation churches have forgotten the point. In Germany this summer I found Luther’s face plastered everywhere, on billboards and beer steins, his words becoming slogans twisted beyond recognition to sell gaudy trinkets.

Luther is remembered as a hero of personal freedom, a hero of nationalism, a leader of rebellion or revolution. Beyond any doubt Luther would be horrified by all of that. What would he say to us? While the context for Reformation has changed, the need for it has increased. Were Luther here to preach to us today, would he thunder against Pope Francis or President Trump, Angela Merkel or Harvey Weinstein? I imagine he would have some choice words for all of them – but his fire would be aimed first and foremost at us. The very same words with which he began the Ninety-five Theses would still apply: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent!’ He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

Does your entire life demonstrate repentance? Or are you holding parts of your life back? Do you think you stand higher than those medieval peasants who dropped coins into a box imagining they’d escape purgatory? Or do you not see that they recognized sins had a cost? You imagine a quick prayer grants you freedom to keep on sinning. We all get a good giggle out of Luther’s colorful quotations, while imbibing a steady diet of filth streaming in from every direction.

The Reformation spawned an educational system so that every peasant boy could read the Bible. Inheriting that legacy, you have a college education but cannot be bothered to read the Bible diligently. You have time to play soccer but no time to pray. You have money for mansions but no money for missions. You want everyone else to change, but you spend no effort applying the Catechism’s Table of Duties to your own life.

The most important words of Luther were not his but Christ’s: “Repent!” “Change your mind,” Jesus is saying to you. “Turn and become different.” The call to Reformation goes to you and your heart.

That kind of Reformation leads to joy, for when we throw ourselves, weak and helpless, at the feet of Jesus, we hear Him say, “Don’t be afraid. I forgive you, I will be with you, in every trouble.”

It seems like there is more trouble than ever. False teachers plague the church. The world spins deeper into madness and decay. Christianity in the West is in rapid decline.

But we still have everything we need. We have Christ and His Gospel. We have Baptism and Christ’s Supper. We have the Bible, and unlike most of the church’s history, we have the money for everyone to own a Bible and the education to read it. “Every celebration of the Reformation is also a time of thanksgiving for the Holy Scriptures” (Löhe). God has given us this treasure, and it is rich. It has everything you need. When you are afraid, there is Psalm 130, “Out of the depths I cry to You!” When you are sad, the Scriptures say to you, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” When you come to any new morning, we have words to praise Him, “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!” And when you are dying, “Lord Jesus, remember me in Your kingdom; into Your hands I commend my spirit.”

And everywhere are the Lord’s promises to you: “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.” “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”

And daily you have the Lord’s guidance: “Little children, love one another.” “As far as it depends on you, live at peace with all men.”

The true and faithful Reformation was not a revolution.

So that we would have all these rich treasures, the true and faithful Reformation was not a revolution. Some smashed crucifixes; Lutherans kept them, for there we have a picture of Jesus saving us. Some threw out the church year, but Lutherans kept it, knowing that we need to remember the Advent of our Lord, His suffering in Lent, His death on Good Friday, His resurrection on Easter, His Ascension, and His gift of the Spirit on Pentecost. Some made Baptism and the Lord’s Supper into works that humans do to obey God, but Lutherans kept the Bible’s emphasis on God giving us His gifts. The Reformation was conservative; we weren’t starting a new church but going back to the old and true catholic church.

The Reformation was conservative; we weren’t starting a new church but going back to the old and true catholic church.

We still need Reformation. 500 years later, we are not yet united with our old brothers and sisters in the Roman or Greek churches. We have work to do.

We still need Reformation. The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has a good confession of faith and outstanding people, but she has challenges. We have work to do.

We still need Reformation. God has blessed our Immanuel congregation, but each one of us needs to grow in prayer and good works and charity. We have work to do.

We still need Reformation. The world needs Jesus. We have work to do.

And we will work, because God has called us to work. But above all else, He is the author and finisher of the work. We do work, but everything depends on Him. He is what matters.

I had hoped to come up with something really profound and eloquent for this 500th anniversary of the Reformation. But all I have is this: Jesus is what matters, and His Word and Promises are the heart of the Reformation message. He is what matters when your child is sick, when your father is dead, when you are in trouble.

Repent of your sins. Keep the Reformation going. Receive Christ’s gifts. Rejoice.

Repent. Reform. Receive. Rejoice.

Sermo Dei: Fleming/Nuttelman Wedding

Posted on July 22nd, 2017

The Marriage of Amy Fleming to Christopher Nuttelman 

St. John 20:10-18 + The Eve of St. Mary Magdalene + Our Savior Lutheran Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan

She is not wrong, Mary Magdalene. She sees a Man standing upon the earth. She supposes Him to be the gardener.

She is not wrong. He is.

The first man was designed to be the gardener – to rule on earth as God’s steward. From his side came forth the woman, bone of his bone, flesh of his flesh. She would garden with her man, as co-regent. They received a divine call – to be fruitful and multiply, and so become participants with God in the ongoing act of creation.

They received a divine call – to be fruitful and multiply.

He fell, and in his fall marriage itself became a twisted, misshapen thing. She desired to dominate him, and in turn he ruled her harshly. No longer was he gardener, for the garden was closed to him. Thorns now pricked his fingers. He bled. And the bloods he and his wife mixed bore corrupt fruit. Their son was a murderer. The blood of Abel cried out for vengeance. Thorns spread and covered the earth. Memory of the garden receded into myth, legend, until at last their children’s children sneered that it was a lie. There was no garden. There is no meaning beyond bread and thorns and sex and death.

And suddenly, there He stood. Mary Magdalene is right, supposing Him to be the gardener.

She had come for death. Her Jesus was crucified. Her Jesus had died. And that same death is what calls you, Christopher and Amy, to this altar today. Today you die.

Marriage in Christ is slowly untwisting you from the corruption of the fall.

Marriage is death, but not in the foolish way that men sometimes speak of. Marriage calls you to die to your self, die to your desires and live for the other. And in this death you find the life God meant for you. This process is painful. You are drowned, then lifted up; buried, then made to stand. In the confrontation with your self-love, marriage in Christ is slowly untwisting you from the corruption of the fall. Grafted together, two branches becoming one, you are joined to the Vine. And the Vinedresser prunes you, that you might bear more fruit. It hurts to be pruned. But He is working it for your good.

He who bore the curse upon His brow, wearing the thorns Adam wrought, opening His side for His bride – this Gardener now summons you, Christopher and Amy, to take up the work He gave to our first parents. You are not slaves. You are not animals, to simply serve your basest impulses. You are no mere producers of carbon, as though your very breath was a threat to the environment. You are the crown of God’s creation, son of Adam, daughter of Eve, remade in God’s image. You are stewards of the earth. Today you receive a divine calling: Christopher, love your wife. Amy, submit to your husband. As God wills, be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and bring it under God’s loving dominion.

The goal of Christian marriage is to live into what God called the first gardeners to be. Nothing is “yours” or “mine,” but everything is gift, made by God to enjoy His benefits. You are to each other naked and without shame, nothing hidden, nothing withheld, rejoicing in the otherness, open to life.

When you were ordained, Christopher, a stole was placed around your neck. This yoke of Christ reminds us that the work is God’s and the tools He gives you—the means of grace—are everything you need for His work.

You become yoked together, bound by Christ Himself.

Soon that stole of God’s grace will be wrapped around your joined hands. You become yoked together, bound no longer by your own will or decision, but bound by Christ Himself.

And He is the One who says to you both, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:28–30). Now there will be times when the burden does not feel light, but heavy. There will be times when the yoke that joins you is digging into your shoulder, pressing you down, and you feel you cannot go on. You feel lonely, misunderstood, ignored. Harsh words still ring in your ears and choke your throat. You may cry without knowing exactly why.

In your difficult times, this is what heals your marriage: returning with Mary to the place of death, you find the Gardener, the living Man who stands upon the earth and forgives sins. With tears cascading down her cheeks, Mary Magdalene was heartened by one word from Jesus, who calls her by name. There in her darkness the Word of Jesus shines like the sun. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything. It gives meaning to all the menial things you do for each other. As you deal with soils and smells; as you change a diaper or wait anxiously in a doctor’s lobby, you are precisely where God wants you, and there in that moment nothing else is more important.

Your marriage in Jesus now forms a choir. Martin Franzmann’s great hymn called each life to be a high doxology. That ideal is what drew you to the Doxology Conference, where you met. Your marriage is for the purpose of doxology. Your marriage forms a choir, singing together perpetual praise to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Your marriage is high doxology to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Basic to singing together is breathing together. Have you ever noticed it, when we sing as one church? We all breathe in together – and we all exhale as one the song of praise. Breathing together as a choir requires discipline, coordination, subordination to the director, our Kantor who is the Holy Spirit. The dialogue of pastor and people is a more advanced form of this art, where a lifetime in liturgy makes us perfectly synchronized: “The Lord be with you / And with your spirit.” “Lift up your hearts / We lift them up unto the Lord.”

It will take time, discipline, coordination, subordination to the Holy Spirit to learn this liturgical dialogue of marriage. “Help me / I will.” “Love me / I do.” “Come home / I’m on my way.”

But things go wrong in the liturgy. A candle won’t stay lit, a disturbance makes you lose your concentration, you lose the pitch, lose your mind and forget your part. And that’s what will happen in the liturgy of marriage. Something goes awry and it starts to feel like everything is now wrong. And that’s when you do the same thing we do in church. Stop, take a breath, go back to the words and move on together.

Right after this account with Mary Magdalene, Jesus breathed out the Holy Spirit on the Church and gave us the gift of forgiveness. That’s the deep breath and the Word we return to when we’ve stumbled and lost our rhythm, lost our pitch. We go back to that word of forgiveness, and we move forward with the sins that once bound us now cast into the depths of the sea, the harsh words remembered no more, the selfishness put away as far as the east is from the west. Blessed is the husband whose transgressions are forgiven. Blessed is the wife whose sins are covered. I said, I will confess my transgressions to my spouse, and the Lord forgave us both the iniquity of our sin.

Jesus Christ is the light of the world. In your family this light shines.

All the cultural markers point to a dramatic decline of the church, as the West dies. But all the evidence today points to a hope beyond this present darkness. Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and in your family this light shines. In you is the life of Jesus. In you is the love of Jesus. He blesses your marriage this day. In Jesus will you die to self. In Jesus will you live. And with Him shall you be forever.

Sermo Dei: Psalm 125

Posted on July 22nd, 2017

Psalm 125 + Evening Prayer + July 19, 2017

What shapes your mind? What influences your thinking? What rules your heart?

Tonight’s Psalm expresses both confidence in God and a warning to Israel at a time when they were shaped, influenced, and ruled by a foreign power. “The scepter of wickedness,” i.e., the rule of evil people, is upon Israel. And in this terrible situation, “Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion” – they cannot be shaken, they will remain loyal to God, no matter how bad things get. “But those who turn aside to their crooked ways the LORD will lead away with evildoers!” The greatest threat from the occupiers is not death, or torture, or slavery, or the theft of property. The greatest threat the occupiers present is to make Israel like them, to join them in their crooked ways.

Just two weeks ago we celebrated America’s Declaration of Independence. Our national anthem teaches us that we are the land of the free. Is that true? America’s government as designed was intended to give us the free exercise of religion. America’s culture as currently expressed is intent on not only taking away that freedom, but to enslave your mind such that you become assimilated.

Eroticism without love and commitment, leisure without work, creation without a Creator, consumption without consequence, entertainment without substance – everything surrounding you is designed to turn you aside from the Way of the Lord.

Our Lutheran Confessions speak about life under the rules of medieval religion as life in “a carefully planned prison.” Today, we experience life in a carefully planned amusement park, where we can amuse ourselves to death. The operators of the American theme park have but one goal: at all costs to keep you from the exit sign labeled Truth (with a capital “T”).

We are surrounded by constant temptations to deny the faith, or more likely to simply forget, to drift away on a current of consumption. That current is taking us closer and closer to the waterfall, where we plunge to our death.

Do we have the fortitude to swim against the tide?

What will that fortitude look like? What will it take to say, “I have time for prayer and Bible reading, even if I have to take time away from social media”? What will it take for us to say, “I have strength to confess what I believe to my friend, even if she doesn’t like it”?

You are not your lowest desires. You are what God has called you: a saint. You are not a victim of fate or circumstance. You are baptized, and a citizen already of the New Jerusalem.

You are not someone who will turn aside to the crooked ways. You are those who trust in the Lord. You are like Mount Zion: you cannot be moved, but you will abide forever, because the LORD surrounds you with greater strength than anything this world can offer you.

What shapes your mind? What influences your thinking? What rules your heart?

You have a Good Shepherd who has died for your sins and risen again for your justification. Let His mind be in you.

How to Prepare for the Lord’s Supper

Posted on July 6th, 2017

The whole power of the mass consists in the words of Christ, in which he testifies that forgiveness of sins is bestowed on all those who believe that his body is given and his blood poured out for them. This is why nothing is more important for those who go to hear mass than to ponder these words diligently and in full faith.

 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 36: Word and Sacrament II, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 36 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 43.

A life-giving eucharist

Posted on July 5th, 2017

Cyril of Alexandria on Christ’s body and blood being truly present in the Supper, and the power of the Word of God. “He, being the Truth, cannot lie.” Amen!

It was fitting therefore for Him to be in us both divinely by the Holy Ghost, and also, so to speak, to be mingled with our bodies by His holy flesh and precious blood: which things also we possess as a life-giving eucharist, in the form of bread and wine. For lest we should be terrified by seeing (actual) flesh and blood placed upon the holy tables of our churches, God, humbling Himself to our infirmities, infuses into the things set before us the power of life, and transforms them into the efficacy of His flesh, that we may have them for a life-giving participation, and that the body of (Him Who is the) Life may be found in us as a life-producing seed. And do not doubt that this is true, since Himself plainly says, “This is My body: This is My blood:” but rather receive in faith the Saviour’s word; for He, being the Truth, cannot lie. And so wilt thou honour Him; for as the very wise John says, “He that receiveth His witness hath set his seal that God is true. For He Whom God sent speaketh the words of God.” For the words of God are of course true, and in no manner whatsoever can they be false: for even though we understand not in what way God worketh acts such as these, yet He Himself knoweth the way of His works. For when Nicodemus could not understand His words concerning holy baptism, and foolishly said, “How can these things be?” he heard Christ in answer say, “Verily I say unto you, that we speak that which we know, and testify that which we see, and ye receive not our testimony. If I have spoken unto you the earthly things, and ye believe not, how will ye believe if I tell you the heavenly things?” For how indeed can a man learn those things which transcend the powers of our mind and reason? Let therefore this our divine mystery be honoured by faith.

 Cyril of Alexandria, A Commentary upon the Gospel according to S. Luke, trans. R. Payne Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1859), 668–669.

Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Posted on June 25th, 2017

Sermon for the Commemoration of the Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

June 25, 2017

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

“Jesus Christ is Lord.” Before there was an Apostles’ Creed, or Nicene, or Athanasian – before any of the great councils, before any catechism – before the New Testament itself was gathered together from the writings of the earliest disciples of Jesus – before all of this was the most important confession upon which all other confessions are built: “Jesus Christ is Lord.”

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is the original confession of the Church. To understand what this means is the subject of all true Christian study; to confess with all your heart, soul, strength and mind Jesus Christ is Lord is the source of all genuine spiritual growth.

Every new Christian confession or creed seeks to speak again the Church’s original confession: Jesus Christ is Lord. The Creeds of the ancient Church all centered around this one great truth. The Apostles’ Creed, which we are given at Baptism; the Nicene Creed, which we say at Divine Service; and the Athanasian Creed, with its defense of the Trinity – all these creeds flesh out what it means that Jesus Christ is Lord.

As time rolled through the centuries—with the collapse of the Roman Empire first in the West and then in the East, the rise of the papacy, and the loss of Biblical authority and influence—this one central truth became mingled with errors. The Lord’s Supper became a sacrifice performed by priests; that sacrifice was said to earn merit before God, rather than dispensing forgiveness. Around the tenth or eleventh century, the priests performing the sacrifice were forbidden to have wives. The blessed virgin Mary, mother of God, became more than a sublime example of faith, but one to whom we were to pray. Christian people were denied the Chalice in the Sacrament, and given the host only. The Mass was said in a language that many people could no longer understand. Confession before the priest lost its focus on absolution, and consciences were burdened with listing all sins, and penalties (or satisfactions) were imposed by the priest for those sins. Fasting became not an exercise of faith and Christian self-discipline, but a commanded work. The invented spirituality of monasticism superseded the authentic spirituality of living in one’s daily vocation according to the Ten Commandments. Bishops took on worldly power, becoming managers and governors rather than Gospel-preachers. Moral corruption among the clergy grew, while Christian knowledge and discipline among the laity declined. Through it all, the Lord’s Church persevered. Faithful pastors labored, monks and nuns prayed for the Church, many people continued to go to mass, say their prayers and be Christians as best they knew. Yet the need and cry for reform grew greater and greater. Rome protected its power, and persecuted the reformers. Men such as the fifteenth century Jan Hus were burned at the stake.

Finally, in the early sixteenth century, a reformation movement arose that could not be contained. Luther raised in his 95 Theses in the year 1517 the question of indulgences—purchasing with money the forgiveness of sins. This grew to the more fundamental question of what authority will rule in the church—the authority of Pope and human tradition, or the authority of God’s Word? All this came at a bad time for Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. He already had big problems. The surging Ottoman Empire waged war against the West. Their armies laid siege to Vienna in 1529. Threatened by these Islamic invaders from without, the Christian lands were now torn from within by the turmoil brought about by Luther and other reformers.

So the emperor called a meeting, in the German city of Augsburg. Everyone desired unity. Everyone recognized the threat from the Ottoman Empire. But something even more important was at stake: the Church’s original confession—Jesus Christ is Lord. For the dispute was not simply about indulgences, the marriage of priests, whether the Mass was said in Latin or German, or whether the people could receive the Chalice at communion. The Gospel itself was at stake; those other matters were just symptoms of a deeper sickness – a corruption of the first confession that Jesus Christ is Lord, that we are justified, saved, declared righteous only by His death and resurrection.

Another war was being waged besides the Islamic invasion of Europe. Within Europe, within the heart of the Church’s hierarchy, a war was being fought against the most basic truth of the Gospel. So the reformers summoned to Augsburg could not help but confess. On this day in 1530, on the twenty-fifth of June, the Augsburg Confession was read before the Emperor. Twenty-one articles on Faith and Doctrine, seven articles on abuses that had been corrected. This confession took its place as one of the great documents in the Christian Church outside of Holy Scripture – for indeed, it pointed the Church back to Scripture and confessed again that one central truth: Jesus Christ is Lord. It became the standard of the Reformation of the Christian Church. Not an establishment of a new church, but a continuation of the pure teachings of God’s Word, a preservation of the genuine, ancient, authentic catholic faith. These confessors were later called, against their wishes, Lutherans.

487 years later, and 500 years after the Ninety-five Theses, the Reformation is unfinished. Many of Europe’s churches are museums. American culture is now commonly referred to as post-Christian. Remembering the Reformation should not be merely a history lesson. It will look differently than it did five centuries ago, or twenty, but now more than ever we are called to confess. Jesus says, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”

What does it mean to confess? It begins with what happens when you hear the Law of God. As we heard from Nehemiah this morning, what happened when Ezra read the Scriptures to the people? “All the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law.” When you hear the words of the Law, do you weep with the confession that the Law condemns you? Confessing Jesus as Lord means confessing that you need Him as your Lord, that without Him you will without doubt perish eternally.

Confessing Jesus Christ is Lord means renouncing every other lord, be it the false gods of false religions, or the false gods of pleasure, power, and finance. Who are your lords? What things do you serve? On what are you focused?

And what of the church? What is the church for us? Is it a place where our organizations, programs, institutions, societies, and endeavors dominate? Or is it a divine hospital where sins are confessed, forgiveness is given out in the means of grace, and God is praised? Do we worship ourselves and what we do and accomplish? Or is God worshipped?

You are doubtless aware that the churches in our day are deeply divided over questions about worship, questions about the office of the ministry, questions about homosexuality, among others. All of these questions are really about something deeper: the Gospel. Is Jesus Lord, or are our preferences lord, are our tastes lord, are our rights lord, is our immorality lord? Jesus is Lord whether we confess it or not – but is He Lord among us?

And then, is He your Lord? To be a confessing Christian, to confess Christ, is to say with the Augsburg Confession that there is one God in three persons, that I am born with original sin and have added my own sins to it, that God the Son became man to atone for my sins and give me His life, that faith is given to me through God’s establishment of the office of the holy ministry, and that this faith will result in a new life of obedience, and that all this takes place in the church where I am a part of the sacramental life of Baptism, private confession, and the Lord’s Supper.

To confess Christ will cost you. It may cause divisions among friends, divisions in homes. Confessing Christ will bring ridicule from the world, and opposition from those pastors and churches that are led not by the Holy Spirit but by the spirit of this age. Yet none of these things can compare to the great sacrifices made by the Apostles who confessed and were thrown out of synagogues, or the sacrifices made by the martyrs who signed their confession with their blood. Compared to these, do we wilt in the face of mere disapproval and insults?

Finally will come for you the last moment of confession – the end of this life. There, in the face of death and judgment, let this be your confession and your comfort: that Jesus Christ is Lord over death, that in Him your sins died, that on Him your judgment was laid, and that by the power of His resurrection you shall rise too, and appear before the Father on the Last Day. And then, you who have confessed Him to be your Lord, you will He also confess to His Father. And so shall we ever be with the Lord.