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.

Sermo Dei: Psalm 121

Posted on June 23rd, 2017

Psalms 120-134 are called the Psalms of Ascents. This has taken on a dual meaning: People traveled up to Jerusalem, which is built on a high place; so  on the pilgrim feasts, such as Passover, people would sing these Psalms as they ascended up to Jerusalem. The Hebrew word for ascents also can refer to the steps of a staircase. In the Jerusalem temple, there were steps going up from the Court of Women to the Court of Israelites, and the choir stood on those steps singing Psalms.

Tonight’s Psalm makes reference to the mountain paths that faced the traveler. How would they find safe passage? The terrain was dangerous, but even more dangerous were the unseen predators, both man and beast lurking, ready to pounce.

It takes courage to keep going.

The same is true for us, even if we aren’t walking to Jerusalem. We are on a journey to the New Jerusalem, and the way ahead sometimes seems dark and treacherous. There are days when it seems very hard to keep going.

Tonight’s Psalm recognizes that while danger surrounds us, and while people will let us down or even make themselves our enemies, there is one helper who is absolutely reliable: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” We have a God who creates from nothing. We have a God who provides food in wastelands. We have a God who makes roads where there was only water. We have a God who raises the dead. He is the one to whom we look for all help.

He is our keeper, that is, a keeper of sheep, our shepherd. The human shepherd needs to sleep, but this one stays awake throughout the night, so that we are never without His guardianship.

The daytime sun and the night’s dangers are not to be feared, for He who made sun and moon is Lord over all the times they govern. “The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”

One of the unique aspects of this Psalm is how vague it is. Sun, moon, mountains, the need for help. The vagueness of the Psalm is its benefit to us. God’s Word is giving us a prayer for every situation. What kind of help do you need? Sickness? Anxiety? Sin? Relationships? Fear? In every situation, in every trouble, your help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Wherever you are on your pilgrimage, the Lord is our helper and shepherd, our keeper through the dark hours of the night.

Who draws guard duty? Not the President, not the general, not the colonel; the low-ranking soldiers have the watch. But the Lord Himself takes the ordinary duty, the low-ranking duty of watching, caring, protecting.

This is He who washes feet, makes his bed in a manger, and rides on donkeys instead of horse-drawn chariots. That is your God, your keeper. His help will not fail you. +INJ+


Sermo Dei: Trinity 1, 2017

Posted on June 18th, 2017

God built fatherhood into man’s nature. God made man and blessed him for fatherhood. “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1.28). Man was made for fatherhood. The man we call Abraham is—as you can see from today’s Old Testament reading (Gen. 15:1-6)—originally named Abram. Abram means “exalted father.” That refers to God, Our Father.

Abram, named for the Father, wants to be a father himself. Abram wants a son.

But he is old, and his wife is old. Some of you know how difficult it can be to conceive a child. And as the years go by, you feel worthless, and hopeless. That’s where Abram and his wife Sarai are.

They didn’t have the many options that confront us today. Some of those options are expensive, and others are deeply problematic morally. For example, IVF (in vitro fertilization) offers you children, but the cost (besides money) is that many other children will be created in a laboratory and frozen. Those tiny human beings then either remain in an icy limbo, or are destroyed. A consistent pro-life ethic values the life of every human being, be they disabled, displaced, disregarded, or disappeared into deep freezers.

Enormous topics like these cannot be properly treated in ten minutes. Please talk to a pastor when you’re thinking through these kinds of issues. And also talk to God. Pray about your desires and your disappointments. That’s what we see Abram doing. He sets his desire for a son before God.

“You have given me no offspring,” he says. Earlier, God had promised his descendants would be “as the dust of the earth” (Gen. 13.16).

It seems like God is not keeping His promise, as though He doesn’t care. Do you ever feel that way? Ignored by God, or punished? All this Abram feels, along with one other key thing – and this is the biggest item of all. You can’t understand the Bible without getting this big theme: the promise of the Son. Not just a son, a child, but the Son. After the fall into death and sin, God gives our first parents a promise: that a Son would come and crush the head of the serpent. A child of the woman would defeat death and set the world right again.

Now the Bible is more than literature, but it’s never less than literature. There’s a plot line running through Scripture, where you see this hope constantly in peril. The first son, Cain, murders the second son Abel. Cain is exiled, Abel is dead; what will happen to the promise?

The promise is passed down to Seth, eventually to Noah, and his son Shem, then to Abraham.

Murder fills the world, and coldness among people. Sarah is barren, as is Rebekah. Famine comes, and threatens the entire family of Jacob. Eventually the people of the promise are enslaved, and the Egyptians order the murder of all the baby boys. This isn’t just a heinous crime; the future of God’s promise is threatened. The scene is repeated after Jesus is born, when Herod orders the execution of all the little boys in Bethlehem, in an attempt to destroy Jesus.

The entire story of the world is about a Son who will come from the Father to rescue, redeem, resuscitate the failing human race. And one of the key moments in this story, several thousand years before a virgin named Mary went with a man named Joseph to Bethlehem – one of the key moments in this story is when childless Abram, heir to the promise, cries out to God in his old age, “Where is my son?”

The world hangs on the edge of disaster. There is no son, and the promise will die.

But God acts in these extraordinary, sometimes bizarre ways, to show us that our help, our rescue depends not on our strength but on His. He brings food in the desert, He makes a road where there was only water, and He brings a child from a barren, even a virgin’s womb.

Into their barrenness the LORD speaks: “Count the stars.” We don’t see the stars here. Only a few. The city’s artificial lights cloud the natural. But there, in the darkness of the night and the darkness of his heart, Abram sees the sky filled with innumerable distant lights, and cannot begin to count them. “That uncountable number,” the LORD says – “that is how your children shall be.” Abraham’s desire for a son will culminate in God the Father sending His own Son to rescue and redeem us.

And then comes one of the most important and most beautiful passages in the Old Testament:

“And [Abram] believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”

This passage is the heart of the Bible’s doctrine of justification by faith. It was at the heart of the Reformation, when God’s Word again shone as a bright light through the fog of Roman darkness and corruption.

Abram believed the Lord. This is not a belief in God, meaning that God exists. This believing is a confidence that a word is true, a promise is true.

Faith is believing God’s Word is true. That means you hear the Word of the Commandments and say, “It is true; I have broken them! Dear God, forgive me!” Then faith hears God’s Word of the cross, the Word of the Son promised to Eve, Noah, Abraham, David, Mary. And faith says, “There He is! The One who at long last crushes the serpent’s head; the One who is going to set the world right!”

That’s the good news that Abraham hears today. It’s still a long ways off. How God will do it remained a mystery to him. But he trusted that his Father would do it.

And that faith, God tells us, was counted to him for righteousness. In the Bible, righteousness doesn’t mean having your good deeds outweigh the bad, or being good in a kind of outward sense. Righteousness means measuring up to everything God’s Law says. Have you argued with your spouse? You are not righteous. Have you lost your temper? You are not righteous. Have you looked at another person with lust? You are not righteous. Have you gathered up money for yourself, but been slow to share it for God’s purposes and your neighbor’s benefit? You are not righteous.

God’s judgment is clear: “There is no one righteous, no, not one.” God’s judgment is clear, and you stand condemned.

So when God says that Abraham’s trust in God’s Word “counted to him for righteousness,” this is the greatest news a person can hear. It gives Abraham, and us, exactly what we heard in today’s Epistle: “Confidence for the day of judgment” (1 Jn 4:17).

Now it may be that you have lived like the rich man, and have not shared your wealth with the Lazaruses of the world. Repent, and look to the promised Son, Jesus.

It may be that you have failed again this week, and given in to your addiction. Repent, and believe what God says, that He takes away your sin.

It may be that you have said you love God but not loved your brother. Repent, and look to Jesus, who takes away the world’s sin.

Your sins are great. But your Jesus is still greater. Believe His cross is for you. Believe His resurrection is for you. Believe His Spirit is given to you. Believe His Supper is for you. Believe this Word, for it is counted to you for righteousness, and you have confidence for today, tomorrow, and the day of judgment. +INJ+

Prayer Vigil for Peace in Alexandria

Posted on June 14th, 2017


Prayer Vigil for Peace

Psalm 120

June 14, A+D 2017

A service held the day when five were shot at a practice for the annual Congressional Baseball Game.

“I cry to you for help, and you do not answer me.” These are the words of Job to God. “I cry to you for help, and you do not answer me.” They are the words we feel when terrible things happen. Whether it’s the horrible shooting today, or the unexpected tragedy, or the death of someone we love – where is God? What is His answer? Why is He silent? “I cry to you for help, and you do not answer me.”

At times, it seems God Himself is the author of our troubles. “You toss me about in the roar of the storm. I know that you will bring me to death.”

Each day is typically so ordinary. The same thing, again and again. Slow progress towards our goals. Little happinesses; the same annoyances.

Then suddenly, shots ring out, sirens wail, and distress is all about. What will happen next? Is this the end of the world?

Then too often, as it doesn’t end up affecting us, we resume normality. The storm stops roaring. We stop thinking about death, and go back to daily living. Is that a good thing? We should not just give thanks to God that everything is now alright with us. Six people were shot today in our backyard. One of them is dead. That the man who died was the one who started the shooting should not lessen our compassion. What drove him, what drives any man, to the point of thinking the solution is death?

Isn’t this what pervades our culture – a cult, a culture of death? From our disregard for disabled children, to our callous attitude toward refugees, to our embrace of suicide, to the never-ending wars, all humanity is complicit in today’s shootings. Will we just keep going about our business as though nothing is really wrong? The Speaker of the House today said that an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us. I agree; although we must remember that the one attacking was also one of us. We are at war not with another political party, or another religion, or another nation – we are at war with ourselves.

Into this comes Jesus. He is the true speaker of tonight’s Psalm. “I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!” The world heard Jesus speak, speak words of peace, and they cried, “Crucify Him!” Jesus called us to repent of our sins, and we cried, “Crucify Him!” Jesus invites us to lay down our pride, lay down our weapons, lay down our grudges against others and forgive – and we say, “Crucify Him!”

Still to us tonight He says, “I am for peace.” He enters into our war, feels our afflictions, bears our sins.

In the mystery of the incarnation – the mystery of God becoming man in the Lord Jesus – God Himself enters into our suffering. He suffers all human rejection, oppression, and violence, and the Son experiences the Father’s rejection of all human sin. He feels alone, like Job. He feels frightened, as it must have felt on that baseball field and all around the YMCA and among our neighbors. He feels the agony of death, the same agony that the shooter himself went through today. The heart of Jesus aches and suffers for both shooter and victims today, and in His distress, He Himself cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?”

But He also speaks words of forgiveness. To the very ones executing them, He says, “Father, forgive them.” This is what we pray for our enemies: “Father, forgive them.” This is what we say to our enemies: “I forgive you.”

Though the world be for war, we are people of peace. We are people of peace not because we are more righteous or virtuous than others. We are people of peace because we have been forgiven by the Prince of Peace.

Jesus comes into the midst of those who denied Him, those who ran away from Him, those who took up arms and were ready to fight – He comes into their midst and says, “Peace!” And He sends them out with a word of forgiveness.

That’s what we leave here tonight with: a word of forgiveness. For us, and for others. We go out and live in that word, “forgiveness, peace” to all and for all and with all. We go out with this word until the day comes when death is finished and Jesus raises us from death to life.

God bless you all with this peace that the world cannot give. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Holy Trinity 2017

Posted on June 11th, 2017

Holy Trinity

Isaiah 6:1-7

June 11, A+D 2017

I love the Athanasian Creed. The mystery of the Trinity – three coequal persons who each are God and yet there is one God – and then the mystery of the incarnation, that God the Son assumed our human flesh into His person – the more we know the less we understand; all we are left with is adoration.

And yet I find the Athanasian Creed terrifying. It demands that not only my mind be conformed to God’s Word, but my life and deeds too. The books will be opened and I will be judged. Those who have done good will go into everlasting life; those who have done evil will go into everlasting condemnation. It’s tempting to condemn these words from the Creed as unLutheran, contrary to the doctrine of grace. And yet those words come straight from the lips of Jesus. There’s no getting around them.

So which are you? Are you among those who have done good? The more I know myself, the more I see how much evil there is in everything I do; every word, every glance, every interaction with others, every moment alone, reveling in my pride or sinking into my despair. “Every intention of man’s heart,” says the Word of God, “is only evil all the time” (Gen. 6.5).

We are those who have done evil. That’s the realization of Isaiah in today’s first reading. Isaiah is standing in the earthly Divine Service, in the Temple in Jerusalem, and he sees a vision of the heavenly Divine Service going on continually. Heaven opens to Isaiah, and it is both beautiful and terrifying.

He sees seraphim, spirits of fire. No gentle angels, powerful energies flow forth from them, and they are unlike anything seen in this world. And their immense power bows to the one whose power is infinite and glory beyond compare.

They sing a song of the end of creation, the goal, which they experience now, and we see but dimly. “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” We do not see the earth full of God’s glory. We see it full of man’s vainglory, his attempts at pride that end in destruction.

Holy Isaiah does not feel holy. He is confronted with his sin. Before God, he  expects judgment, death. “Woe is me! For I am lost,” which can also mean “undone” – the confrontation with God cannot end well, Isaiah believes.

Whether you feel death, or failure, or that your life is worthless, or you hear the commandments and know how far you fall short, there is something for you in Isaiah’s words, “Woe is me; I am undone.”

Sin costs. That’s what the altar showed. It was not a table, it was a fire, where both cooking and destruction happened. Some food was put there to be grilled, roasted, baked; other food was put there to be entirely consumed. Entire animals were burnt to ashes on the altar, along with flour, and oil. Mixed with incense, there was an vibrant cloud of smoke that would rise up, beautiful with a powerful mixture of smells, smells of blood and death, and pungent smells mixed with sweet and exotic.

The fire there burned perpetually. And as Isaiah confesses his sin, a seraph, a spirit of fire, takes a burning coal from the fire and touches it to Isaiah’s mouth. Something comes from the altar that takes away sin. “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

This anticipates what Jesus does for you this day. Something comes from the altar and purges your sin. It does not burn, for our Lord Jesus felt the burning agony in His body. In today’s Gospel (John 3:1-17), Jesus invites you to believe in Him.

Believing in Jesus is no intellectual exercise, nor even a simple leap of the will. Our belief in Jesus means we stand like Isaiah before the Lord’s altar and say, “I am judged; though the church see me as holy, however the world perceives my actions or character or talent, I know that there is One who sees me for who I am. He knows the darkest thoughts of my mind, the wicked impulses that run through my veins. He sees me, and yet to my astonishment, loves me anyway.”

That’s what it is to be baptized. What the Father said to Jesus at the baptism, He now says to Sam and Charlie and all the baptized: “You are My beloved son; in you I am well-pleased.”

He loves us!

It’s not hard to believe about a baby; but we soon grow out of that into tantrums, trauma and drama and long years of ingratitude. Yet God looks on us at our dirtiest, covered in excrement, crying for no reason and every reason, confused and angry and sad, and still He says, “You are My beloved son; I adopted you, and you are Mine; you make me very glad!”

Then at the proper time, He invites us to receive solid food from His table.

He takes away my sin, all the evil I have done, the evil deeds by which I should be judged – all this evil He erases by inviting me to His altar. Something comes from the altar, but it does not burn. He gives me glad food by which He joins me to Himself.”

Dear friends, come with me to the altar of Jesus, and hear the words spoken to Isaiah as being also for you: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  +INJ+