Sermo Dei: Septuagesima 2017

Posted on February 20th, 2017

Bourbon Street, New Orleans

February 12, 2017 • Matthew 20:1-16 • Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia


On Bourbon Street in New Orleans, a sign advertises a so-called gentlemen’s club. It’s not for gentlemen. This particular den of iniquity is called “Temptations.” The gaudy neon sign displays an apple. The devil himself is mocking the people there: “I don’t even have to try with you, because either you humans don’t know your own story, or you’ve relegated it to myth. You are easy prey.”

But the audacious display of hedonism is not the only shingle the devil hangs out. In more refined places, his signs are lit with a softer glow, the lettering elegant, the product respectable. He has written “Temptations” with invisible ink.

And you buy what he’s selling. Pride. Envy. Resentment of someone you deem an outsider.

The inborn concupiscence—the disordered desires—pulls you back toward slavery, ensnaring your heart far worse than a Bourbon Street peep show, because it’s so much more respectable. What enslaves you? What disordered desire dominates you?


In the reading from Exodus we heard this morning, the children of Israel had just crossed the Red Sea, leaving their hard slavery behind. But the moment a challenge comes, they begin to long for their old life. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us?” 

The siren song urging you back to slavery is a test you will undergo throughout this life. It’s easy to see how an alcoholic, or a drug addict, is enslaved by those desires. The other kinds of slavery are more subtle. What sins permeate your life? Do you keep on gossiping? Do you harbor animosity toward someone in your heart? Are you controlled by desires for food? Do you squander your time in front of screens? Do you gaze at things forbidden?

The Lord Jesus says, “Whoever commits sin is a slave of sin” (Jn 8.34). Does that describe you?

Today, the voice of the Lord your God calls you away from those things that enslave you. He calls you to Himself, to take the status of a child in His household.


Grabbing lunch at the New Orleans airport on Friday, I saw one of the district presidents in our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod waiting for his food. I’d never really talked with him one-on-one before, so after we prayed, I asked him how many kids he has. “Five,” he replied. Now some were adopted, but that came out later. He made no distinction in their status. All are equal. All are his children.

As people talk about their children, they mention characteristics: Girl, boy; quiet, loud; tall, short; a reader, a musician; adopted. The adoption says how the child came into the family, not whether or not the child is a “real” son or daughter.

Sometimes children will make fun of others by suggesting they’re adopted. What if I told you that you are adopted? You are, or you’re not a Christian.

This is no metaphor. None of us are children of God by nature. When the Son of God comes into the world, St. John’s Gospel tells us,

He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:11-13)

The birth from below—coming from blood and flesh and a man—is not how we become “real” children in God’s eyes. The real birth is the birth from above, a reference to Holy Baptism. Today Adeline is adopted the second time; born from below, she was adopted into the family of Ryan and Whitney, and becomes their real daughter, and the real sister of Parker. Today she is born from above and receives not only God as Father, but Jesus as Brother, which means that Adeline is more your sister than even your flesh and blood siblings.

So in your Baptism, you are adopted, and that’s precisely what the call into the vineyard is.


It’s a strange story that Jesus tells, but that’s because the Gospel is strange, God is strange. He goes out and acts like he’s hiring men to work, but when the time comes for the wages to be paid, he doesn’t pay them according to any reasonable standard.

This is bad business. But God isn’t running a business, He’s creating a kingdom. This kingdom does not operate on wages, and thank God for that, because the wages of sin is death. The Lord does not distribute based upon merit—how long or how hard someone worked—but He distributes generously, freely, based on grace. The only standard God employs is His desire to be good.

This angers some. The man arguing with the master at the end of the parable resents the master’s grace. He resents the adoption of these new people and their status as being the same.

This is the mystery of the kingdom: God does not give us what we deserve, He gives us Himself and His entire kingdom. He isn’t treating these men like workers, He treats them like sons.

This is the mystery of the kingdom: God’s own Son becomes a slave; He treats us slaves like children.

So why go back to the slavery of your desires? You’ve been adopted. You have a new Father, God Himself; you have a new Brother, Jesus; you have a new family, and you have the inheritance. Renounce your former slavery; when you see the sign marked “Temptations,” keep on walking. That’s not who you are. You are not a slave. You are sons and daughters of the king. ✠INJ✠

Sermo Dei: Epiphany 4, 2014

Posted on January 29th, 2017

Following Jesus means following Him into the storm. The men with Jesus (Epiphany IV gospel, Matthew 8:23-27) are not unused to ships, wind, and the swelling of waves. But the storm that assails the followers of Jesus surpasses all they have experienced.

Following Jesus means following Him into the storm. The Lord Jesus allows the storm. He allows the disciples to despair. He allows them to fear for their lives. Why? All so they might learn to cry out to Him, to seek His help.


Why does Jesus allow the storm? Why does the Lord allow the storms that bellow against you? Is God too harsh?

No. He treats us with far greater softness than we deserve.

Turbulence is a gift. Turmoil makes you pray. Tumult drives you to Jesus.


But Jesus is asleep. You know the feeling. There is no answer coming. God is radio silent. Jesus is asleep in the ship, and you feel like shouting the 44th Psalm: “Awake! Why do You sleep, O Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. Why do You hide Your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression? For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our body clings to the ground. Arise for our help, and redeem us for Your mercies’ sake.” 

Ludolf Backhuysen, Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee

“Why?” is a common cry among the saints. “Why do You sleep, O Lord?” Jesus Himself asks “Why?” in the desolation of the cross. In what we call the state of humiliation, Jesus does not exercise the power of His divine nature for His own benefit while working through all the trials of our human experience. He does certain things for the benefit of others, like healing or feeding, in miraculous ways, but in all His life and suffering, He feels the pain and cold and scorn just as we would. Some things He doesn’t even know during this state of humiliation, like the appointed time for the day of judgment.

I wonder if He knows fully the answer, at the time of His crucifixion, the question posed in Psalm 22, which He makes His own: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” What is worse, than to be abandoned by one who is called to love you? The Lord Jesus Himself is abandoned in this hour, abandoned by the very God who says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 


Why? Jesus is abandoned in our stead. Jesus takes the place of Jonah, the rebellious prophet, in the belly of the boat. Jesus will take Jonah’s place also in the belly of the beast, which finds its ultimate, horrific form in a cold slab inside a dark, Jerusalem tomb.

Why then does Jesus permit the storms that assail you? Why does He permit the storm that His disciples experience?

Our Lord permits the storm that the disciples might find in Him One mightier than the storm. He alone can rebuke the winds and waves.


Knowing that He is this kind of Lord, we are able to sleep—we are able to maintain a calm confidence—though the storm be fierce. Did He not save Noah through the Flood? Did He not rescue Joseph from the pit, and remove the accusations against him? Did He not save Daniel from the hungry jaws of the lions? Did He not save the three young men from the fiery furnace?

Will He not in the same way rescue you, O you of little faith?

Have you been baptized into His name? Have you been fed with His own body, refreshed with His own blood? Have you not had His blessing placed upon your head? So will He not also rescue you, O you of little faith?


You can sleep and rest secure. You have a Jesus who only appears to sleep, for He knows the storms are just the devil’s bluster. He is impotent, though He rage and breathe out malice. The cry, “Awake, O Lord! Why do You sleep?” gives way to the 4th Psalm, “I will both lie down in peace and sleep, for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”

You can go to your death with that kind of confidence. Jesus has taken His place in your boat – or rather, you have been brought into His. He will be with you through the turbulence. He will bring you safely to the other side.

Don’t despair at the turbulence in your life. For whom the Lord loves, He chastens. Following Jesus is to follow Him into the storm, so that we learn in the end who really controls all things.


You won’t always be able to be stoic. The hurts and betrayals and our own stupidity will drive us to shout “Why?” and be in a panic. The prayer of Jesus’ disciples today is yours too: “Lord, save us!” 

Shout it! Be angry, but do not sin. In your anger, in your fear, in your melancholy, this prayer is yours: “Lord, save us!”

He will answer. So you can discard the other part, “Lord, save us, we are perishing!” “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” You belong to Christ, O baptized ones! You will not perish! You will not be destroyed!


Following Jesus means following Him into the storm. So take this home today: When it seems that the Lord is sleeping, awaken Him. Arise, O Lord, and come to our aid!

At the proper time, He will bring a great calm. He says to the wind and the waves what He says to each one of you: “Peace, be still, and know that I am God.”

LCMS 2017 Life Conference Sermon

Posted on January 27th, 2017

March for Life 2017

January 27, 2017 • Arlington, Virginia

Matthew 5:13-19

LCMS at the March for Life 2017

The trash collectors rumbled away from the suburban neighborhood, and as sometimes happens, they’ve unknowingly dumped some of their garbage in the street. A man who lives there went out to look, and he’s confused. What is that on the pavement? At first he thinks it’s dead birds, then maybe dolls. Finally, he comprehends the horror. These are children: naked bodies scattered on the asphalt – tiny victims of abortion. How did they end up on a garbage truck?

This man—Richard Selzer, a physician—goes to the hospital. He speaks with the director, who assures him this was an accident. The little babies were, he says, “mixed up with the other debris.”

This doesn’t happen every day, he assures the doctor. And the doctor tries to reassure himself as he hears this. ‘Okay, this is orderly and sensible.’ “The world is not mad. This is still a civilized society.”

Then he reflects. “But just this once, you know it isn’t. You saw, and you know.” (Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons)


There’s something worse here, I think, than Planned Parenthood harvesting and selling organs from the children they murder. That lurid crime, in its own twisted way, acknowledges the humanity of their victims, even giving them monetary value.

Those children on the trash truck, those babies littering the streets, had no value to mother or doctor or hospital. They were good for nothing, except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

When Jesus tells His Church, “You are the salt of the earth,” He is looking out on a world that has lost its salt, lost its way, lost its life. Salt was a costly resource in the ancient world, so much so that our word salary comes from the Latin salarium, money for a Roman soldier to buy salt. In a world without refrigeration, salt’s great value was in its preservative power. Without salt, food perishes. “It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.”

So when Jesus sees a world without salt, He sees a world perishing. Once it’s spoiled, there’s nothing to do but throw it out.

But Jesus cannot look away. He stares into the horror, He sees the bodies littering the street, He sees the proud, the petulant, the porn-obsessed, and He says to His Father, “I will go. I will go into their streets, I will feel their humiliation, I will join their corpses. For they can yet be redeemed.”


St. John Chrysostom, whose commemoration is today, observed that when Jesus says to us, “You are the salt of the earth,” He’s saying that our life is not for ourselves alone.

[Jesus is saying,] ‘I am sending you … to the whole world, ill-disposed as it is.’ By saying, “You are the salt of the earth,” in fact, [Jesus] presented the whole of humankind as having lost its savor and been made corrupt by sin. [Spiritual Gems from the Gospel of Matthew, pp31f]

We have been salted by Jesus, saved by His death, preserved by His resurrection. Thus we go where Jesus sends us, ready ourselves to be trampled underfoot by a world gone mad. For Jesus sends us to where the salt is fading, where life is dying.

“You are the salt of the earth,” He says to us – but not because there’s anything noble, extraordinary, or holy about any of us. He goes on to say that He is the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets.

He spends the rest of the chapter showing us the depth of our darkness. You think you haven’t murdered, but you had no problem gossiping about someone at church. You, Jesus says, are in danger of the judgment.

You think you haven’t committed adultery. But when you saw her, you took a second look. You are enflamed with desire; and when you repent, is it because you recognize the evil, or just because your lust has been sated? We dare not leave here with scorn for those in the grip of the evil one, his lies, his pomps, his deceits. For such were you.

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus says … but He also says in the same sermon, “You must be perfect.” “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So how does this match up with what we heard from Jesus, “I came to fulfill [the Law and the Prophets]”? It matches up like this: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.”

Your righteousness is never enough – but His is. Your salt is never enough – but His is. Your light is never enough – but His is. The commemoration of Roe v. Wade is tragic, but this Holy Supper commemorates a different death, a death by which joy comes into the world.

When we leave here to go to the March, remember that it is not the March against Abortion, or the March to Overthrow the Court. It is the March for Life. 


Yesterday The Washington Post described the last eight years of the March for Life as a grim affair. If you’ve been out there before, you know that’s not true. And the only pro-abortion protestors I’ve seen are the three people at the end who are getting all the press.

I don’t know if today will be any different, but America is increasingly angry, vitriolic. Dear friends, let us not be angry. Let us not see others as our enemies. The abortion clinic worker, the protestor, the mother wondering what to do – Jesus died for them. We are no better; we are fellow beggars who have found the bread.

The world is mad. This is not a civil society. Human beings are thrown in dumpsters, or sold for parts.

But no degree of rage will be sufficient to win. Jesus receives all rage into Himself. There is His passive righteousness, assuming the curse, suffering the cross, being made sin. That is how we win.

We have no life to offer anyone today, no life of ours. All we have is the life of Jesus. We deserve to be trampled underfoot, with all the bodies littering this vast graveyard we call earth.


But Jesus calls dead men from their graves.

Jesus makes blind men see.

Jesus takes Planned Parenthood directors like Abby Johnson and brings them to the other side of the fence.

Jesus takes post-abortive women like my friend Julie and calls her to help vulnerable women at a local women’s clinic here in Northern Virginia.

What does Jesus call you to do? It’s right in front of your eyes. Love your wife. Love your children. Don’t have any? Teach Sunday School. Go bring some diapers to your local clinic. Don’t complain about the unruly toddler in church. Smile at the mother, and you’ll do more good than you can possibly imagine.

You are the salt of the earth because you are in Jesus. You are the light of the world because you are in Jesus.

Life wins, because Jesus is risen from the dead. With Him do we march. In Him do we live, in Him do we die, with Him we shall live forever. +INJ+

Encouragement for pastors

Posted on January 4th, 2017

From St. Basil:

Do not lament over a responsibility transcending your strength. If you had been destined to bear the burden unaided, it would have been not merely heavy; it would have been intolerable. But if the Lord shares the load with you, “cast all your care upon the Lord” and He will Himself act. Only be exhorted ever to give heed lest you be carried away by wicked customs. Rather change all previous evil ways into good by the help of the wisdom given you by God. For Christ has sent you not to follow others, but yourself to take the lead of all who are being saved.

He will Himself act!

2016 Year in Review on Esgetology

Posted on January 3rd, 2017

Looking back over 2016, these posts rose to the top in views, links, and feedback (posts from previous years are noted in parentheses):

  1. Sermo Dei: The Resurrection of Our Lord 2016
  2. Harmony in the Church
  3. Our Lord’s Gifts Are Not Garbage (2013)
  4. Luther on Suicide (2014)
  5. Holy Cross 2014 (2014)
  6. Sermo Dei: Ash Wednesday Matins (2013)
  7. A tale of two churches (2012)
  8. Sermo Dei: Reformation 2016
  9. Little Apples for Simpletons
  10. LCMS Convention Sermon: “Saints and Faithful Brothers”

Best Books of 2016

Posted on January 2nd, 2017

In 2016 I read twenty-seven books (far less than what I’d hoped). Here are my top five new reads in 2016:

  1. The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (Michael Walsh)
  2. Christianity and Liberalism (J. Gresham Machen)
  3. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
  4. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Bernard Lewis)
  5. The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Albert Mohler)

 

Honorable Mention:

  1. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Lawrence Wright)
  2. Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service (Arthur Just)

 


Here’s the entire list, in reverse order of completion:

  1. Order to Kill (Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills) – started November 2016; finished December 2016
  2. Warriors of the Storm (Bernard Cornwell) – started November 2016; finished December 2016
  3. Crazy Busy (Kevin DeYoung – started November 2016; finished November 2016
  4. Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped (Garry Kasparov) – started October 2016; finished November 2016
  5. Big Money (P.G. Wodehouse) – started September 2016; finished September 2016
  6. Lions of Kandahar: The Story of a Fight Against All Odds (Rusty Bradley, Kevin Maurer) – started August 2016; finished September 2016
  7. Meet Mr. Mulliner (P.G. Wodehouse) – started August 2016; finished September 2016
  8. It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies (Mary Eberstadt) – started July 24, 2016; finished August 2016
  9. Hold Me Tight (Sue Johnson) – started June 23, 2016; finished August 2016
  10. A Few Quick Ones (P.G. Wodehouse) – started July 14, 2016; finished July 29, 2016
  11. The Conviction to Lead: 25 Principles for Leadership That Matters (Albert Mohler) – started June 14, 2016; finished July 24, 2016
  12. Something Fresh (P.G. Wodehouse) – started June 7, 2016; finished July 14, 2016
  13. Fahrenheit 451 [reread] (Ray Bradbury) – started June 17, 2016; finished June 23, 2016
  14. The Devil’s Pleasure Palace (Michael Walsh) – started May 16, 2016; finished June 14, 2016
  15. Heaven on Earth: The Gifts of Christ in the Divine Service (Arthur Just) – started March 14, 2015; finished June 10, 2016
  16. The Survivor (Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn) – started April 3, 2016; finished June 7, 2016
  17. The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Bernard Lewis) – started May 6, 2016; finished May 16, 2016
  18. Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (and How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots)  (Matt Lewis) – started April 20, 2016; finished May 6, 2016
  19. Late-Talking Children: A Symptom or a Stage? (Stephen M. Camarata) – started April 5, 2016; finished April 20, 2016
  20. Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (Tim Weiner) – started January 24, 2016; finished April 5, 2016
  21. Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (P.G. Wodehouse) – started March 15, 2016; finished April 3, 2016
  22. The Cost of Discipleship [reread] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) – started February 9, 2016; finished March 18, 2016
  23. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoevsky) – started September 9, 2015; finished March 15, 2016
  24. Christianity and Liberalism (J. Gresham Machen) – finished March 10, 2016
  25. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics [reread] (C.S. Lewis) – started November 17, 2015; finished February 1, 2016
  26. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 (Lawrence Wright) – started December 2, 2015; finished January 24, 2016
  27. God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas [reread] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) –  started November 29, 2015; finished January 6, 2016

 

The 2015 reading recap is here.

You can see what I’m currently reading here.


What great books have you read lately? Please share in the comments.

Sermo Dei: Circumcision and Name of Jesus

Posted on January 1st, 2017

In six days God made the world, and on the seventh, He rested, for everything that He had made was very good.

It did not stay good for long. The man God made fell. He returned to the earth from which He was formed. All those who followed were afflicted with the same congenital condition – mortality. Incurable. Inescapable. Terrifying. Liquor and licentiousness, the building of cities and then their destruction by warfare, tyranny and anarchy, the acquisition of possessions and the achievement of fame or infamy – nothing could satisfy the longing man had for life. Still he died – generation upon generation.

What was needed was not a greater effort, a new discovery, or a refined philosophy. What was needed was a new beginning, a Genesis-all-over-again, an action by God to re-form, refashion man once again in His image and likeness, so sullied by the Fall. What was needed was an eighth day, a renewal of God’s creative work. Only an eighth day, a gracious visitation to the creation by the Creator, could remedy what had been so hellishly ruined by man.

As a sign of this coming eighth day, eight people were on the ark, saved through the flood waters. But the chief sign was the covenant of circumcision, commanded to be performed on the eighth day of a boy’s life.


Now such a ritual seems preposterous. What purpose could there possibly be in the cutting of skin on that part of the body too indecent for me to mention in this holy place? How does such a grotesque, and arguably cruel action, serve as a sign of God’s covenant, His promise to mankind?

Circumcision chastens and cleanses, if you will, that part of the body which, in the words of St. Athanasius, “serves as the instrument of corporal regeneration.” As such, it speaks to the corruption now attendant to human birth – namely, that we are born with various flaws and defects, illnesses and syndromes; but more, that humanity shares universally a nature that is corrupt and sinful. “Surely I was sinful from birth,” says the Psalmist, “sinful from the time my mother conceived me.” This is why the Scripture says that “All men are liars,” and that “all have gone astray,” and that “every inclination of a man’s heart is only evil all the time,” even “from his youth.” To us, a child appears innocent and pure. But if we could see the human nature for what it is – if we could see the human nature as God sees our nature – we would recognize that it is corrupt and altogether wretched from the beginning. Even a child whose life is just beginning needs a new beginning, a new birth. This is why the Holy Christian Church has always baptized babies, just as the boys under the old covenant were circumcised on the eighth day.


Now, just eight days earlier, these hallowed courts rang out with songs of a “holy Infant,” One born of a pure virgin, not of the blood of a man; One untainted with the guilt of original sin. Why then is our Lord Jesus circumcised on the eighth day? He has no need of it. He does not need the promise given to Abraham – He is that Promise. He does not need to follow the Law given by Abraham’s God – He is Abraham’s God. So why is Jesus circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with the Law? Already in infancy we see Jesus as our substitute. For this is why Our Lord took on our flesh – to fulfill the Law in our flesh, to suffer for us in the flesh, to redeem us in the flesh. In His circumcision, the sacrifice which culminates in the crucifixion has already begun.


Now at His circumcision, the Child of Mary receives a name – the name of Moses’ successor, Joshua, which goes from Hebrew into Greek as JESUS. Joshua led the children of Israel across the waters of the Jordan into the Land of Promise. Holy Baptism now supplants circumcision, for by it we are led through the waters into the ark of the Church; in that wonderful sacrament we cross the rushing waters to become part of Israel, not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. Listen to what St. Paul says in Col. 2:

In [Christ] you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in Baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.

So circumcision as a theological, sacramental rite passes away when Baptism comes, for in Baptism we have not simply a trimming away from the instrument of faulty human generation; but we have regeneration, a new birth bestowed by the Holy Spirit.

And we get the promise made to Abraham’s children that we heard in the first reading: “I will be their God.” Not just a God, but our God, i.e., our protector, our Creator, our Redeemer, our Father, our Rescuer.

And Baptism, like circumcision, is a promise given “in the flesh” – it is concrete, tangible, indicating that the Lord’s promise to you is not merely an emotional high or a sentimental boost, but a promise to care for the very flesh of the fleshly men He created, and redeem it from the grave.


Now of course I mean “men” in the broad sense, encompassing both male and female, all humanity. But see how much greater is the new covenant than the old – for the blessing of Baptism, unlike Circumcision, is given to both male and female, demonstrating that in Christ there “is neither Jew nor Greek, … neither slave nor free, … neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” 

On you who have been baptized, a new day has dawned. The eighth day has begun. Jesus, circumcised on the eighth day, was transfigured on the eighth day after Peter confessed Him to be the Christ. On the eighth day, that is, the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the dead. Eight days later, He revealed Himself to Thomas, who confessed Jesus to be Lord and God. Every eighth day we gather for the same confession.


He is your Lord. He is your God. He is your Jesus, for He saves you from your sins. He saves you from your death. Already in infancy, He began to shed His blood for you. Will He now abandon you? Will He now leave you in the misery and fear that will be yours in this valley of the shadow of death? No. He who has begun His eighth-day work in you will bring it to completion in the Day of our Lord’s return, when your flesh shall rise from the grave, immortal, free from sin, joyously alive in the kingdom of Christ Jesus, our Lord and our God.

Throughout this new year, call upon the name of Jesus in every circumstance, good and bad. He is your Joshua, and He will bring you to the land of promise. ✠INJ✠

 

Sermo Dei: New Year’s Eve 2016

Posted on December 31st, 2016

2016 was a strange year. Retrospectives now abound, along with advice to get your finances in order and plan for a healthy and productive new year. Look back, take stock, do better.

On New Year’s Eve, the church also calls us to a different kind of looking back. The Psalm of Moses, Psalm 90, sends us back to our origins. The God who formed the earth, and formed us from the earth, sends us back to earth, pulverized. “You return man to dust and say, ‘Return, O children of man!’”

A better translation would be, “You turn the human race back to dust, and say, ‘Return, sons of Adam!’” It is not a single man, or people as individuals, that God turns back to dust, but the entire human race. We’re all in this together, as one human family, descended from one father, Adam. Made from the earth, we shall return there.


At first, it seems like a long time before that will happen. “The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty.” When we are young and vibrant, that still seems far away. So Moses gives us another image, of a flower. “In the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.”

This is not natural. God did not create the world this way. He made us to continually receive from Him the gift of life. In communion with Him, we would not know corruption, or death. Dear brothers and sisters, you must fight against this voice of the culture all around us, which is really the voice of the devil himself, saying, “Death is natural, death is just a part of life.” What could be more evil, what could despise God more, than to connect death with God’s good gift of life? Death is not normal, death is not natural, death is the divine punishment for sin. All of us sons of Adam must feel it. From the moment you need contacts or glasses, to the point where the aging knuckle feels arthritis, all of that is a reminder that you, O human race, must return to the dust on account of your disobedience.

And that time for you is near, be it another half century, or in 2017. The Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect. Our time is short. The length of your life is very uncertain, and even eighty years fly by like a dream in the night that vanishes. Jerome, the fourth-century pastor who translated the Bible into Latin, writes in one of his letters about the short span of our life:

The shortness of man’s life is the punishment for man’s sin; and the fact that even on the very threshold of the light death constantly overtakes the new-born child proves that the times are continually sinking into deeper depravity. For when the first tiller of paradise had been entangled by the serpent in his snaky coils, and had been forced in consequence to migrate earthwards, although his deathless state was changed for a mortal one, yet the sentence of man’s curse was put off for nine hundred years, or even more, a period so long that it may be called a second immortality. Afterwards sin gradually grew more and more virulent, till the ungodliness of the giants brought in its train the shipwreck of the whole world. Then when the world had been cleansed by the baptism—if I may so call it—of the deluge, human life was contracted to a short span. Yet even this we have almost altogether wasted, so continually do our iniquities fight against the divine purposes. [NPNF2 vol. 6, p11]

Does that last sentence apply to you, and how you’ve spent your life so far? “Yet even this we have almost altogether wasted.”

And all of that waste, Moses says, will be set forth as evidence in the Day of Judgment. “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.”


For Moses, all this reflection on the shortness of life and God’s judgment upon us is a setup for this prayer: “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” We count the numbers of years, we count our birthdays and keep track of various anniversaries and milestones, but through this Psalm, we are asking God to help us with a different kind of counting: to see the passage of time as a gift, with one purpose, to gain and exercise wisdom.

In the ancient world, wisdom was often equated with knowledge. In the Scriptures, however, wisdom is knowledge of God—His holiness and justice—along with exhibiting that holiness and justice in the practical areas of your life. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” and that wisdom is exercised, God’s Word says, by turning away from evil (Job 28:28). Solomon, the greatest of the Hebrew wisdom teachers, summarizes man’s life at the end of Ecclesiastes, which I think of as his book of repentance: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13).


You were made for a life of love, love received from God, love shared with His creatures. You number your days, you order your life in this way, whether you have many more years or just a few more hours. And when your last hour comes, when your days are numbered, you die in the strength of God’s promise: “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died” (Epistle). Risen from the dead, He intercedes for you.

Don’t be confident in your youth or strength. Don’t despair when they fail. Don’t worry about the coming year. Live each day in the wisdom of God. Do the work of your vocation, forgive your neighbors, rejoice in Christ crucified for your absolution, rejoice all the more at His resurrection and His coming at the last day. For in His hands is every hour, day, and year, even unto the ages of ages. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Holy Innocents 2016

Posted on December 28th, 2016

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation.” This day’s liturgy applies those words to the little children of Bethlehem cut down by Herod’s sword. But the great tribulation is a vast span of terror, from the little children slaughtered by Pharaoh in Egypt down to today’s little children cut down by the billion-dollar abortion business.

Upon first hearing the horrible story of their slaughter, it seems the Divine plan is only about protecting the infant Jesus. He escapes, but the children of Bethlehem do not.

But Jesus doesn’t escape. His doom is delayed. It is for all the children of Adam that Christ came into this world. He will experience all their sufferings. “That it might be fulfilled” is twice repeated in these short six verses, revealing to us that God’s plan is to join Himself to all the suffering of the human race—not only the children of Bethlehem, but the slaves in Egypt, the weeping of Rachel, and the suffering of all those dear to Him.

“Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.” Every one of you is dear to God and valued. It doesn’t feel that way when you are going through the tribulations of this life, some caused by your own sins, some by the sins of others.


But into all these troubles Jesus enters. He assumes them into Himself. Every great tribulation from the beginning of the world He goes through, so that He can rescue all victims. “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The blood of His tribulation cleanses us from our own.

For what? He makes you, right where you are, Josephs and Marys. Mary, to care for children and nurture them; Joseph, to guard women and children and provide for them. King Herod still lives. He has traded in his sword for scissors and poison. He crushes skulls and harvests organs. The Great Tribulation is taking place today across the globe. To protect his adopted son, Joseph fled. What action is God calling you to take, to protect and care for little children today? God calls some to marriage and childbearing, others to adoption, still others to teach Sunday School, donate to a clinic that helps women, or provide an education at a Christian school.

The conclusion of the matter is certain. God has a plan. And you are a part of it: you will be rescued from the Great Tribulation, washed by the blood of the Lamb, and until that day, care for all the little ones God puts in your path.

 

Sermo Dei: Christmas Midnight 2016

Posted on December 25th, 2016

Christmas Midnight

December 24, 2016, 11:00 p.m.

Isaiah 9:2-7


What kind of darkness is in your life? What kind of gloom enshrouds your soul?

The holy prophet Isaiah sees a world of vagabonds, starving people who have no hope, or as he says, “Have no dawn,” i.e., the gladdening rays of morning never seem to come.

They have no dawn. They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. 22 And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness. (Is 8:20b–22)

All this comes upon them because they did not listen to the Word of God. And all this sounds still like the general condition of the world today. Refugees streaming out of war-torn hell-holes. People angry and bitter, enraged at the government, defiant of God – and a general gloom hanging over the world like a dark shadow. “Behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish.”

These words come just before the Old Testament reading for Christmas Midnight, Isaiah 9. And it seems like they, and we, deserve exactly what we are getting, earning it by our own actions, our own apathy and selfishness throughout this year, throughout our lives.


But suddenly the situation changes, and not because any one of us does any good thing.

“They will be thrust into thick darkness. But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish” (Is 8:22–9:1). Not by any offering, not by any of our good works, certainly not by any of our good intentions, but purely out of God’s kindness and mercy, He announces a change: “They will be thrust into thick darkness”—that’s the punishment, the condemnation of God’s Law—but then this beautiful announcement coming entirely from the heart of God: “But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish.” This is not an either/or—some get the dark gloom, others get no gloom—no, this is God announcing an unmerited, undeserved end to the gloom.

He then describes it, and that’s the point where tonight’s reading began:

The people who walked in darkness 

have seen a great light; 

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, 

on them has light shone.

The light shines in the darkness. Those who are in the darkness are not the cause of the light; it bursts in from the outside. That is the work of God. What is the cause of the light?

For to us a child is born, 

to us a son is given.

God does a new thing, a thing no human could do. Because no human could do it, God Himself becomes human. He enters our darkness. He enters your gloom. He comes and experiences the rage against God and government. He knows anguish, distress, hunger.

He does all of this for us. He enters as a child both to feel all our human woes, but also to show us He means no harm.


The rulers of the earth do government upon the shoulders of the people. Unto our shoulders they put the burden. The people pay the taxes, the people do the work, the people fight the wars, the people die while the ruler stays safe in a secret, reinforced bunker. The work and the costs he puts on other people’s shoulders.

Not so with our God who becomes man. Everything about His rule is different. “And the government shall be upon His shoulder.” He shoulders the sin, He shoulders the suffering; His strong shoulders, now bleeding from Pilate’s whip, carries His own cross. He governs by the cross, not through hanging others upon crosses, but by going there Himself. And so the government is upon His shoulder, and He becomes the Child with four names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

A counselor advises the ruler, lays out a plan. “Wonderful counselor” does not do it justice; He is not simply wonderful, but His plan is a wonder, too incredible for our imagination: that God should become a man, that the Creator should become a creature to rescue creation – and that He should win the victory by dying – who could fashion such a plan?

The Lord is His own counselor, and also One who has the power to carry out His own plans. Thus He is the “Mighty God,” or better, the “Hero-God.” Luther tried to put this Hebrew expression into German with Kraft-held: “Strength-hero.” The counselor who proposes a wondrously impossible battle plan is also the special-forces warrior who carries out the operation, the hero who goes alone into enemy territory for the most dangerous mission.

Returning as the conquering hero, He is the “Everlasting Father,” or, as the Hebrew scholar H.C. Leupold put it, the “Father-forever.” This is no confusion between the persons of the Trinity, as though the Child, the Son,  is really at the same time the Father. No, this means that the Lord Jesus acts forever as our guardian; He has come to be our protector and guide, and to keep on doing this without quitting.

So this Child of Four Names is the Counselor who draws up a plan that is a wonder, a Hero who executes the plan, a Father-forever who guards His people, and then finally He is the “Prince of Peace.” His plan of wonder was to do the hero’s work of battle peacefully. He overcomes temptation through patient suffering. He is silent as the spit of accusers runs down His face. He conquers by the cross. All that He does is peaceful, and those under His rule, those among whom He is prince, He guides in the way of peace.


So be of good cheer, you who have dwelt in darkness! Rejoice and be glad, you who have sins and shame! For the Mighty God comes to you as a Child. He does not threaten, but takes you upon His shoulders. He carries you home by means of the same cross He shoulders. Tonight He shares in your birth, so that you can share in His death.

The Light shines in all your dark places now. Confess your sins and hide in the darkness no more. The light shines, and your gloom is put to flight. To you, to you is born this night a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. He is your life, your light, and death and darkness have no power over Him. Come and adore Him, come and receive Him, for God became man in Palestine, and now gives Himself to you in bread and wine (adapted from Betjeman). +INJ+