Harmony in the Church

Posted on July 5th, 2016

I’m blessed with a singing church. Immanuel gladly tackles any hymn in the book. They sing the hymns well, and can often be heard breaking out into four-part harmony. Singing in this way is an important metaphor for the life of the congregation beyond the liturgy. Harmony—bringing our differently ranged voices together in coordinated song—is also how we live together as Christians.

Harmony is how we live together as Christians.

In discussing the central article of the Christian Faith—justification—our Lutheran Confessions address the importance of harmony, a life together built by not holding sins against our brothers and sisters:

In all families and communities harmony should be nurtured by mutual aid, for it is not possible to preserve tranquility unless men cover and forgive certain mistakes in their midst. In the same way Paul commands that there be love in the church to preserve harmony, to bear, if need be, with the crude behavior of the brethren, to cover up minor mistakes, lest the church disintegrate into various schisms and the hatreds, factions, and heresies that arise from such schisms. (Ap IV.232; Tappert pp139f)

What is this “crude behavior,” but disregard for the feelings and needs of others, along with a lack of love and free acceptance?

I must confess that in my early years as a pastor, I took some slights, real or perceived, personally. One particular discussion regarding church finances I took as a personal attack. Instead of talking to the person, I harbored a grudge. It ate away at me for a long time. One Sunday morning we were praying the Lord’s Prayer, and I realized as I spoke those words, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” that the problem was not the person I had made my enemy; the problem was me. I was the cause of the lack of harmony.

Now, no words were ever exchanged between us about this; I think he’d be surprised I was ever angry. Yet what could be hidden from others was not hidden from God. Nor was I unaffected by my grudge. It was a cancer corrupting my soul. I had not wanted to forgive him, but that day I determined that I needed to make the Fifth Petition a prayer for the desire and strength to forgive. How can I sing in harmony with the divine hymn if I am not in harmony with my brother?

Dissonance destroys the church’s love, but harmony celebrates Christ’s reconciliation.

Profoundly liberating is this notion that I need not look for justice or fairness from my brothers, nor demand they make satisfaction to me for their sins. If Jesus Christ is the propitiation for my sins, then He is likewise the propitiation for those of my brother. Dissonance destroys the church’s love, but harmony celebrates Christ’s reconciliation.

It’s easy to read the quotation above and then extol yourself with doing such a good job of bearing with the crude behavior of others. But the reality is, they have to put up with mine! And I probably cannot even see how I am hurting others. What a blessing, therefore, when my parishioners, my family, and my brother pastors, overlook and bear with my “crude behavior”!

As my church body prepares for its coming convention, I’m reminded of the painful observation that  “Many heresies have arisen in the church simply from the hatred of the clergy.” (Ap IV.242; Tappert p141)

koinonia life together
How easy it is to become entrenched in positions not because they are true but because we hate to lose the argument, hate to see the “other side” win, culminating in a hatred of those for whom Christ died.

My congregation has its share of different opinions, and a $5 million + building project has certainly revealed some of them. Glory to God, who has kept us united through some of these strong differences by the communion in Christ we share. That communion works love that transcends different perspectives on the work and challenges before us.

The Confessions elaborate this point a few paragraphs later:

In human relations love is not obstinate, harsh, or intractable; instead, it overlooks certain mistakes of its friends and puts the best construction on even the more offensive conduct of others, just as the common proverb admonishes, “Know, but do not hate, the conduct of a friend.” It is not without reason that the apostles speak so often about this responsibility of love, which the philosophers call “fairness.” For this virtue is necessary for preserving public harmony, which cannot last long unless pastors and churches overlook and pardon many things among themselves. (Ap IV.243; Kolb/Wengert pp157)

For harmony in the church to prevail, we must be united around a common confession of faith and bear with each other by love that overlooks the faults of others.

Lord Jesus Christ, where there is dissonance in Your Church’s song, bring harmony!

Sermo Dei: Sixth Sunday after Trinity 2016

Posted on July 5th, 2016

Prodigal Son

No two people will agree on everything. Unless a community is controlled by a tyrant, where free thought is forbidden, there will be disagreements.

We would like to think it wouldn’t be so among Christians. Yet we still have the sinful nature corrupting our desires. And the devil, particularly, hates the Church; he will do anything he can to turn Christians against each other, drive them away from Christ and His gifts – and the people He has given us to love despite their vexing personalities.

So there will be disagreements among Christians. Our temptation will be to stomp away, or go to war. But the cross of disagreements are to be a tool for our growth as disciples. Disagreements should always drive us closer to Christ as we realize that we are part of the problem. That means our approach to a disagreement starts by confessing our own sins and clinging to His Word of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness of us frees us for working to heal divisions with others and seek reconciliation.

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 5:17-26), Jesus addresses divisions and arguments among Christians in simple language: “Be reconciled to your brother.” Here, Jesus talks about a situation where someone has a problem with you. What should you do? Go to your brother, go to the person who has a problem with you, and seek reconciliation. Come to an agreement quickly, before it comes before God the judge, and on judgment day you be thrown into prison, i.e., hell.

Elsewhere Jesus addresses the opposite problem: when your brother has sinned against you. What should you do then? Jesus says in Mt. 18,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that “by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.

Doesn’t this process of going again and again to your brother sound hard? It is! We want to set a limit, a boundary on our forgiveness. “If he hurts me one more time, that’s it. I’m done.” So Peter asks Jesus about the fine print: “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” You know the response. Not seven times, but seventy times seven – in other words, keep on forgiving, over and over again.

It doesn’t matter who’s in the wrong. You go. Seek reconciliation.

Now put the two together, first the teaching about what to do if you’ve sinned against someone, and then what to do if they’ve sinned against you. In both cases, you are to do the same thing: Go and seek reconciliation. Herbert Mueller, one of the leading pastors in our Synod, calls this the “You go” principle. It doesn’t matter who’s in the wrong. You go. Were you sinned against? You go. Did you sin? You go. Seek reconciliation. How often? You keep on going, seventy times seven. By the way, that’s a daily number. Which means, it’s impossibly high.

What, are you going to go around with a little notebook, or put it in an app on your phone? “Let’s see, that’s the third time today. 487 more and she is done!” God has called us saints, He has joined us together as faithful, loyal brothers and sisters. If you’re married, you said something like, “Till death us do part” at your wedding. And did you realize you said something similar at your Confirmation? You promised to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from Christ’s Church. Which means “Till death us do part” applies also to our life together in the church.

There were disagreements among the apostles, sometimes strong contentions; there was also one doozy of a meeting in Acts 15 – they kept on talking until they got it resolved. Another time, Paul and Barnabas got in a big argument about John Mark and whether or not he could go on a missionary journey. It got so bad that they had to separate for a time. But later Paul writes a request, “Bring Mark to me; he is useful for ministry.” We don’t know how, but they got it resolved.

As long as we are in the flesh, Christians are going to hurt each other. And whenever it happens, You go. Go and work for reconciliation. Every day, strive to put these words of Jesus into practice: “Be reconciled to your brother.” As far as it depends on you, then, live at peace with all people.

There is something deeply wrong inside of you.

Before God, we can never claim to be good – for God’s Law demands perfect obedience. Today Jesus shows us how the Commandments apply to the heart. Jesus takes the Fifth Commandment, “You shall not murder,” and shows us that we all have broken it. For it is not only ending someone’s life that breaks the commandment, but you have murdered when you are angry, or when you say, “Raca!” [which means empty-head]. Calling someone a fool put you in danger of the fires of hell. God’s law doesn’t demand mere outward obedience, but a heart that is pure. All those words and emotions of anger and pride reveal that there’s something deeply wrong inside of you.

In the next part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus does the same thing with the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” I hope you know that all sexual activity outside of holy marriage is against the will of God; but Jesus shows the full depth of the commandment by showing the “inner” adultery that goes on in our hearts and minds: “Whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

So when we look at the Commandments of God, we can imagine that we have kept them, and thus become self-righteous hypocrites; or, it can drive us to despair when we hear that unless we have a righteousness greater than the scribes and Pharisees, we can by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. But there is another, more excellent way.

Our only hope is this, where Jesus begins today’s Gospel: “I did not come to destroy [the Law] but to fulfill.” Christ came to fulfill the Law, to do in our place what we could never do ourselves. We are all murders, adulterers, covetous, greedy, slanderers. Not one of us is worthy of God’s favor. Every one of us is deserving of hell. There is none righteous, no, not one; we are all hypocrites. This is precisely why Christ came: for hypocrites like me and you; for sinners. He did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance. Christ the Good Physician came not for the healthy, but for the sick. Therefore, if we want His righteousness, we must acknowledge our sinfulness. If we want His healing, we must confess that we are sick.

Christians don’t hold the sins of others against them – because we know how much more has been forgiven us.

Christ came to fulfill the Law, and His obedience – His perfection, His righteousness, His life – He gives to us in Holy Baptism. “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death.” He has already settled accounts, He has already reconciled us with the Father, He has paid our debt in full to the very last penny. That is why we Christians don’t hold the sins of others against them – because we know how much more, impossibly more, has been forgiven us.

So now we will live trying to follow the Commandments – not to do enough to enter the kingdom of heaven: that is impossible! but – because that is now who we are: forgiven people joined to Christ, walking in a new, different kind of life.

So when you are challenged with arguments and strife, contention and disagreement, let go of your anger and desire to win, and hold on to these words of Jesus: “Be reconciled.” Remember that you could never make up for your sins before God, you could by no means enter the kingdom of heaven; but Christ came to fulfill the Law in your place, God’s anger is turned aside, and He is reconciled to you. We are baptized, we are in Christ, now we walk together in newness of life, until we enter the kingdom of heaven only by grace through faith in Christ Jesus.


Sermo Dei: Fifth Sunday after Trinity and the Ordination of Noah Rogness

Posted on June 27th, 2016

L-R: Christopher Esget, Peter Eckardt, Noah Rogness, Robert Kieselowsky, Gregory Todd

L-R: Christopher Esget, Peter Eckardt, Noah Rogness, Robert Kieselowsky, Gregory Todd

June 26, 2016

Luke 5:1-11

I think my first conversation with Pastor-elect Rogness was down on the blacktop at Oktoberfest. Imagine my surprise when I find out we both grew up in the same neighborhood: Hopkins, MN, a working-class suburb of Minneapolis. The memory of that place, as it was in the 1970’s, is a happy one; life was simple – for me. But not for my dad. I will forever associate the smell of oil, grease, and sawdust with him, and with how hard he worked.

My dad worked with trees: trimming, topping, or cutting them down and removing the stumps. He was up early in the morning, hours before me, and in the summer would work for as long as there was daylight. Being in that kind of business means that the work is far more than just the trees. He had to keep his trucks, his chainsaws, his aerial bucket and hydraulic loader all in operation. He did a lot of the work himself.

And in that kind of business, you don’t earn money in a steady flow. So it’s stressful when you’re not getting paid.

That’s what’s going on with Peter in today’s Gospel. He’s exhausted, he’s worked hard all night, but he’s not getting paid. There are no fish. He has employees he has to pay, but where is that coming from? And he still has to wash the nets, cleaning off the underwater muck, and repairing any tears.

Jesus commandeers Peter’s boat, so he can more easily preach to the large crowd that’s gathered. But then Jesus tells Peter to push out and go fishing again. And it’s all the wrong advice: deep water, morning – nope, that’s not where the fish are.

Peter lets Jesus know that it’s a dumb idea – but he goes along with it.

Our spiritual life is a lot like that. We pray, but are uncertain if anyone listens. The amens are half-hearted. Have you ever looked at the water in Baptism and said, “What can that do?” Have you ever looked at the bread at Communion and said, “It still just seems like bread to me”? The Word of Jesus seems like it does not, will not work.

All problems in the church today stem from this one truth: we do not believe that God works by His Word, we do not trust that the means of grace, God’s Word and Sacraments, will do what God purposes for them. Like Elijah in the Old Testament lesson, we look for God in the big and dramatic things instead of the Word, which seems like a quiet whisper compared to where the world looks for success.

But despite his doubts, Peter follows the Word of Jesus. And he is overwhelmed by success. There is such a catch of fish that his boat begins to sink. His business partners, James and John, come quickly, and their boat, too, is soon swamped with fish. The boats are sinking.

This isn’t the main point of today’s Gospel, but it’s worth observing that success often destroys people. Those who pursue wealth, fame, pleasure, are undone by the things they worshipped. You can be rich and be saved – but Jesus says it’s about as likely as a camel going through the eye of a needle. My friend John Pless says that it’s possible for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, but it will be very hard on the camel. Holy Scripture teaches us to pray,

Give me neither poverty nor riches—

Feed me with the food allotted to me;

9 Lest I be full and deny You,

And say, “Who is the Lord?”

Or lest I be poor and steal,

And profane the name of my God. (Pr. 30.8-9)

But praise God for Peter’s example here to us: overwhelmed with success, a big payday now flopping all around his boats, Peter does not revel in his riches. He drops to his knees: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Peter confesses two things here: his own sin, and that Jesus is Lord.

That is where your life as a Christian begins. It’s the pattern of the Divine Service: we confess our sins, then we hear about Jesus, our Lord, and confess Him.

Noah, this is the foundation of our work as pastors. It is never our word or person that we extol, and nothing is based on our own authority. Like the first leader of the disciples, we are sinful men not worthy to occupy the pulpit, not worthy to scoop the water in our hands or lift up the Lord’s Cup. If our work is blessed it is because it is His work, His Word, His gifts given to His people. It is not our boat but His, it is not our church but His.

The church is founded on confession – confession of sins, and confession of who Jesus is.

So the church is founded on confession – confession of sins, and confession of who Jesus is. That’s true of pastor and people. Yesterday was the anniversary of the presentation of the Augsburg Confession; on June 25, 1530, the Evangelical princes gathered before the Emperor in the city of Augsburg and confessed the Catholic faith, against the abuses of the pope and the errors of scholastic theology. Today you pledge allegiance to that Confession because—quia—it agrees with the Scriptures. Your whole life is now a ministry of confession: confessing your sins, and pointing those who likewise confess to Jesus their Savior. And you confess the Faith delivered to you. Forget your own ideas, don’t get involved in fads or new movements; they’ll soon be as dated as the yellow refrigerator my parents had back in Hopkins. Stick to the Scriptures, confess the Confessions, teach them to the people, point them always and only to Jesus.

And what does Jesus do? He commissions Peter not as a “fisher of men,” nor even as the NKJ has it, as one who will “catch men.” It is literally “save men alive.” Fish you catch and eat, but not so with men. Peter, James, and John; Christopher and Peter, Robert and Gregory, Jonathan and Noah, the work is done with the Word, and by the Word of Jesus men are saved alive.

By birth we are as dying men. We destroy ourselves with food and drink, obsess over money and sex and stupid games that glorify violence, idiotic shows that revel in what is base and obscene.

From all this, and from death itself, the Lord Jesus comes to make all things new. His Word, His gifts, save men alive. Praise God who gave us His Son, praise His Son for sending His Spirit, praise the Spirit for still leading pastors by the Word, praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for forgiving us all our sins and saving us alive. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Fourth Sunday after Trinity and the Ordination of Jonathan Scheck

Posted on June 19th, 2016

Joseph's Coat Brought to Jacob (Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari, c.1640)

Joseph’s Coat Brought to Jacob (Giovanni Andrea de Ferrari, c.1640)

Text: Genesis 50:15-21

Parents are not supposed to have favorites. But this father did. He loved his boy Joseph above all the others. He had children by three other women, but this was the firstborn of Rachel, his favorite. So his favorite son came from his favorite wife. None of this is how it was supposed to be, none of this is how God designed the human family – but the Bible does not shy away from showing us the consequences of sin.

So this son, Joseph, knew he was special. He had dreams about his specialness, and was foolish enough to share his dreams with his brothers, dreams about how they one day would bow down before him.

So they decided to kill him, Joseph’s brothers did. But in the end, they realized they could get rid of him without killing him, and make some money too. So they sold him as a slave.

On the long ride to Egypt, he certainly had time to think, imagine revenge on these brothers. For most of us, the hate would seethe and fester, until it bubbled over in explosive rage if the moment ever came to exact vengeance. That was not Joseph’s path. He became a slave to an important officer, and did well. His responsibilities and freedom grew, until he was falsely accused of rape. Then he languished in a dungeon for years. The lists of people who had wronged him might have grown along with his rage.

Networking with prisoners, Joseph ends up with an opportunity to advise Pharaoh, the ruler of Egypt. His counsel is so wise, Pharaoh makes Joseph prime minister over the land. Still more years pass. Joseph has power and influence. And then, the moment comes. The moment so many men have imagined, fantasized about: that opportunity to take revenge on the person who wronged you.

At long last, Joseph has his brothers—the ones who hated him, wanted to kill him, who threw him in a pit and sold him like a dog—at long last he has them under his control, and the final impediment to his wrath, their father, has just passed away. He can make them dig their own pit and throw themselves down. He can starve them, beat them, cast them into a dungeon so deep there is nothing but darkness, with scorpions, snakes, and rats for companions. Let them wallow in their own urine! Let them die slow, bitter deaths!

For he is, you see, in the place of God. He holds the office; he rules Egypt. The Pharaoh has delegated to him this power.

So the moment has come, and the brothers beg. They grovel.   ʾānnāʾ, nāʾ, nāʾ – “Please, please, please, we beg you!” they cry.

And he, who is in the place of God, what does he say? “Am I in the place of God?”

He, who has been invested with the power of judgment, sets aside all judgment and shows mercy. “Do not fear. I will provide for you and your little ones.” Not only does he not take revenge, the little brother becomes a father to them; he provides for them, cares for them, loves them.

That’s the word of the Lord to you all this day. Your word is, “Please, please, please, forgive me my sins!” His word to you is, “Do not fear! I will forgive, I will provide for you, and your little ones.”

But the life of the Christian does not stop there. Your life cannot stop there.

What’s going on in your life? What’s going on with your wife? Your husband? Where is there strife? Against whom are you holding a grudge, squeezing the life away because you cannot forgive, you will not accept another person in his weakness, you will not release your anger, your frustration, your resentment? Are you in the place of God? Even if you are, listen to the Word of your God: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”

Today Jonathan steps into the office of pastor. He is being put into the place of God. “He who hears you, hears Me,” Jesus says of His ministers. “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ,” you will say, countless times. “Who does he think he is?” some people will ask. “Are you in the place of God?” “Yes,” you will answer: “I am here to forgive your sins. Who am I, of myself? No one.” Jonathan, Christopher, Gregory, Peter – we are all poor maggot sacks; wretched sinners, idiots and fools. But we are in the place of God, not on account of our dazzling intellect or exceptional good looks – but we are in the place of God entirely so that you can be called to repentance and hear God’s forgiveness.

Pastor Esget and Pastor-Elect Scheck, ordained June 19 at Immanuel

Pastor Esget and Pastor-Elect Scheck, ordained June 19 at Immanuel


Jonathan: the pastor points to Jesus. To do that, the pastor must look to Jesus himself, and find in Him the only strength for ministry. All we have to offer the people, Jonathan, is what we ourselves have received. You have been baptized into Jesus, now go baptize others into Jesus. You have been taught the faith, now go teach others about Jesus. You have been nourished with the body and blood of Jesus, now you serve others with the same. You are nothing, Jesus is everything. Just get out of the way, and let Him speak. Hold up the crucifixion of Jesus before the dying, comfort those who mourn with the resurrection of Jesus. Always Jesus, that’s all you have to give – but it’s everything you need.

A police officer may need to discharge his weapon – but hopefully it never comes to that; it should be the very last resort. On occasion the pastor may need to say, “Dear brother, your sin is serious; I must tell you that if you will not turn and repent, then God will condemn you on the day of judgment.” That is the last resort, that is firing the gun only after every other option has failed. And it is always done with horror and sadness, with hope that the brother is won back.

Whether pastor or people, be not quick to judge. Be quick to forgive. Even if you’ve been betrayed, sold out, lied about, left in a prison house of fear and doubt – still, you forgive. That is what it is to be a pastor. That is what it is to be a Christian. That is what it is to be in the place of God. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: The Marriage of Ross George and Jennifer Berry

Posted on June 18th, 2016

Perugino - Marriage of the Virgin

Text: Hosea 2:18-23

“I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me.” Three times the Lord says this through the prophet Hosea.

It’s reckless and pollyannic, for the bride in Hosea is undeserving. And that is precisely the point: God acts in love and mercy upon the undeserving.

Pope Francis recently commented on marriage within the Roman Catholic church, saying, “The great majority of our sacramental marriages are null.” I.e., most Roman Catholic marriages are not real marriages because the couples entering into them do not have a proper understanding of permanence and commitment. But who does? Matthew Schmitz, the literary editor of the journal First Things, reacted with concern, observing it seemed the Pope was saying that “Marriage is something only saints can do.”

Ross and Jenni, the more you think about the vows you will take, the more you ought to realize the impossibility of keeping them. Just as the commandment to fear, love, and trust in God above all things constantly exposes our idolatry of self-love, so the mandate to nourish, cherish, submit to, love, honor, keep, to forsake all others, and to do all this relentlessly, daily, hourly, minute by minute, no matter what, even when things get worse, poorer, when you find yourselves in sickness and death – that mandate will reveal every ounce of ugliness within you, like a surgeon’s scalpel opening the flesh up to reveal not only blood and guts but cancer, decay, brokenness and death. By your own reason and strength, you cannot do it, and no amount of romantic love will ever be enough to carry you through the desolate places of loneliness, lust, and rage. Perhaps the pope is right, and only saints can truly be married.

What we see in God’s approach to marriage in Hosea is a God who acts, a God who loves and sacrifices irrespective of the bride’s worthiness. “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me.” Three times the Lord says these words that not only enact marriage’s beginning, but also pay a price. The ancient custom was for the groom to pay a price to the bride’s father. So, Mr. Berry, what is Jenni worth?!

How can you put a price on your baby girl? How could we possibly assign a monetary worth to a human being?

What the Lord is doing in holy marriage is naming His price, what He will pay for His scandalous, “worthless” bride: “I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness.” The price the Lord is offering for His bride is the price of Himself: His righteousness, His justice, His steadfast love, His mercy, His faithfulness. God’s marriage is founded on His grace. Godly marriages are founded on God’s grace.

The suffering and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus is His dowry, His own bride price.

The Son of God is the propitiation for our sins. The suffering and crucifixion of the Lord Jesus is His dowry, His own bride price. As the whip tears the flesh from His back, as the thorns bite into His throbbing skull, as the spikes drive into His hands and feet, as the thrust of the spear pours out blood and water – each of these bitter wounds is another declaration of our Lord to you, “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me.” See the price I pay for you!

Our English word betroth mean a thorough truth, a comprehensive pledge. Truth can be a vicious demon: “Does this outfit look good on me?” “How do you feel about visiting my parents this weekend?” “Would you still marry me if we could do it all over again?” Many marriages survive, hobbling through life by telling lies to these and countless other questions.

But there is a deeper truth, a deeper betrothal stemming from the declaration of Christ, “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me,” “I will betroth you to Me.” He is declaring the deepest truth of forgiveness deriving from the price of His own life. Ross and Jenni, the Lord wants something more, much more for you than mere happiness, or three or four decades of managing to not offend each other too badly. He wants your marriage to be an icon of Christ and the Church. Thus the truth you must speak to each other, the pledge you must make to each other is the truth of forgiveness in Jesus, of a love that transcends eros or philia, a love that says, “I forgive you, I forget what you said, I regard you as a saint, the most beautiful, the most lovely, the finest creature on earth.”

Perhaps it is true that only saints can be truly married: and that is how a true husband sees his wife: she is holy, she is without spot, wrinkle, or blemish, she is redeemed by Jesus and I love her. And the wife sees her husband the same way: righteous, Christ-like, love incarnate.

“I betroth you to Me,” the Lord says to every one of you; and Ross and Jenni, you then have the privilege of saying God’s Words to each other not only today but each day: “I betroth you to me, I give you my word, my truth. I see in you infinite value, a bride beyond price, for you are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Psalm 119:41-48 (Waw)

Posted on June 15th, 2016

Augsburg Confession

June 15, 2016

Evening Prayer, Wednesday of Trinity 3

At the head of the Augsburg Confession, the first great Evangelical statement of faith in the sixteenth century, is this Bible verse: “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.” The Evangelical princes stood before the Emperor, Charles V, who had other things on his mind than reforming the church. He needed church unity in order to keep the sale of indulgences going, because he needed the money to fight his wars.

The war with the Turks was a serious concern. Unity in the church is of profound importance. But for those great leaders at Augsburg, they knew there was something of still greater importance: fidelity to God’s Word. This little text of Scripture was a comfort to them: “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.” Other men had stood up to political leaders: Moses; John the Baptist; Peter; Paul; the Lord Jesus Himself. Even where there was success—Moses in leading the Exodus from Egypt, Jesus in His resurrection—there was hardship: wandering in the wilderness; crucifixion. And for men like John the Baptist, beheading.

The promise that we shall not be put to shame does not mean we will not face the rage of the devil and the hatred of the world. The promise is that when we stand before the judgment seat of God, we will not be put to shame because we trusted in the Word of God, and did not fear the threats of men or devils.

We have one calling: to confess. In our day, confessing the truth about natural marriage, or abortion, will earn the scorn of the world. It is not for us to choose the time we live. It is only for us to confess. Thus the great Evangelical confessors set before us our program as well: “I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame.” They may listen, or not; but this does not affect our calling: to confess, with charity and respect, but never setting aside God’s Word.

Will we receive taunts in response? Perhaps. But this too is addressed in tonight’s portion of Psalm 119: “Then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word.” We do not respond with derision, hatred, taunts of our own: our only answer to taunts is total, complete, utter confidence in God’s Word.

The first verse of this section tells us what we hear in God’s Word. First the Law, which this Psalm has continually set before us: the Commandments of God which ever call us to repentance. But then, “Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise.” This is the answer we give to a lost and dying world: the steadfast love, the mercy, the kindness and forgiveness of the God who made us from the dust. He saves, He rescues, He loves, through the God-man Jesus Christ, our Savior and our salvation.

So do not fear kings and politicians, nor put your trust in them. Also do not despair when our leaders seem incapable of addressing the world’s problems. It is only given to us to do our work quietly, love our family, and when the hour comes, speak of the Lord’s testimonies before the kings and powerful ones. He will not abandon us, or leave us to shame. Jesus testified before Pilate, and though He was killed, yet did He rise. So shall it be for you who are in Him. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Ascension 2016

Posted on May 5th, 2016


The purpose of the world was for man to receive the love of the Father through His gifts to man and His presence with man.


He gave His gifts to us in creation, and in our senses that delight in creation – the joy that comes from walking, swimming, running, feeling the cool breeze, laughing, tasting watermelon, making music, playing catch. As Adam the first-formed matured, along with his wife, eventually God would join them, entering fully into His creation; for man who was made in God’s image was made to be in communion with Christ who is the image of the invisible God.


Immanuel, “God with us” was always the larger plan and story God had in mind for us.


The incarnation was not simply for the purpose of forgiving sins, a “Plan B” so that God could offer Himself as the sacrifice in our place. That God did that for us is unfathomable, and worthy of our highest praise forever into the ages. But the Immanuel prophecy, that the virgin would bear a son who would be Immanuel, God with us – that’s not only for our forgiveness, but Immanuel, “God with us” was always the larger plan and story God had in mind for us. As it is written in the Revelation about the endless ages which are to come: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” The plan was always, from the beginning, that God and man would dwell together, in a perfect community, or communion. The closest picture we have is the familial image, whereby God is the Father, the Son is the Bridegroom, and we the Church are collectively the Bride: all part of one family, one household, one community.


Bereft of this vision and goal for humanity, we are divided into clans and tribes, or even as radical individuals, our only purpose to conquer others or avoid them.



The success a few years ago of a book called The Purpose-driven Life was no doubt related to the sense of purposelessness and disconnectedness that we feel. Farms are huge and mechanized, and we no longer work the earth; developments in transportation have us living hundreds or thousands of miles from home and family; people are becoming disconnected even from basic biological truths about what it is to be a man or a woman. We are lost in the cosmos: without purpose, without meaning, without hope. All modern society offers is sex without love, homes without children, games that we watch instead of play, and the perpetual anxiety that we are not having as much fun as everybody else on social media, where artificial lives always appears picture-perfect.


The shallow life drives us to wallow in drink and sex, ambition and anger; raging about government and politicians, always dissatisfied, imagining life would be better if we just acquired one more thing.


Adrift and unmoored, we look for a personal purpose statement without seeing the larger purpose to all human life that ought to shape our entire worldview. Even the disciples of Jesus were not immune to this blindness. Immediately before Jesus ascends, the Holy Apostles ask Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” I think, in the year of Trump and Clinton, we can identify with that question.


Our Lord will not be king of Israel, or America; He will be king of the cosmos.


Election years are always tense; emotions run high, and we tend to think of a potential loss in apocalyptic terms. Although the Holy Apostles did not live in a political environment like ours, we see their thoughts about politics and the reign of Jesus were closely aligned. But they have missed the mark; our Lord will not be king of Israel, or America; He will be king of the cosmos. All of the crosses we bear now have a purpose: God loves us as His adopted children, and is shaping and preparing us for life in His kingdom.


Jesus ascending to the Father shows that God has something much greater in mind than restoring the glories of a past Israelite kingdom. The Ascension shows us that God has begun to bring about what He intended in the beginning. The Ascension shows us that a Man now dwells with God. For the Son of God does not shed the human nature He assumed into His person. He remains forever incarnate, forever standing before the Father for us, displaying the wounds by which we have healing. The Ascension fulfills the Scripture, “We have an advocate with the Father,” “Jesus Christ is the propitiation for our sins.”


The Ascension is not intermission, but inauguration.


The Ascension is not intermission, but inauguration. The Ascension of Jesus shows that the union of man with God is already begun. Our hope, our life is a constant anticipation of that becoming a full reality for us. Our life now, though, is not a series of speed bumps on the road to our own perfect union with God. Being human means that even now we learn to enjoy food and drink and people and words and music and art not as the world does, but as gifts from God; and our communion with God makes us connected with all people around us not as competitors in a race to gather and hoard, but as brothers and sisters from our first father and as people for whom Jesus also died.


The Ascension shows us that the body of Jesus, risen from the dead, does not dwell in a world of death. He is making all things new, and when death is destroyed, we will dwell in our bodies where He is with His body. So let not sadness or loss overtake you; Jesus is risen from the dead, the mortal world holds no power over Him, neither shall it have any power over you. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Groundbreaking 2016

Posted on April 20th, 2016

Immanuel Lutheran School Faculty (Kevin Wolf/Photo)

Immanuel Lutheran School Faculty (Kevin Wolf/Photo)

Immanuel Lutheran School Expansion Project Groundbreaking Ceremony

April 17, 2016

The sin at the Tower of Babel was not building a tower. It was in the name. “Let us make a name for ourselves,” they said.

Solomon built the first great temple in Jerusalem, not for his own name, but a house for the name of God.

When a group of German immigrants gathered in Old Town Alexandria in 1870, they gathered under the name Immanuel—God with us. It is the title given to the Savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ, whose name is forever blessed.

The names of those people who first gathered have faded from our community’s memory. For those people sacrificed their time, their treasure, their talent, not to build up their own name, but that the saving name of Immanuel would be passed down from generation to generation. The first thing they did was establish a school. Within nine years they built a church. Five years later they built a school.

War came. The school closed.

They moved to this location, and erected the name Immanuel here. They built a new school. And as they grew, they built another church, and the school expanded into the old church building.

We now stand at a crossroads in American history, and Western civilization. Even as ISIS recently destroyed the ancient gate of Nineveh, so the walls of our once great culture are collapsing. The American church is in steep decline. We could accept defeat, or retreat; perhaps move to other countries, where Christianity grows.

That day may come. But today is not that day.

Today we build. For our work, the work begun 146 years ago, is not done.

Today we build. Not for our own name. One day our names too will be forgotten, lost to human memory. We build for the name of Immanuel, the God who is still with us. Here children will learn the truth about the world, her history and her future. They will love what is beautiful and noble, their ears opened to great music, their minds ruminating on poems and puzzles, they will sing, play, laugh, and learn what is virtuous and lovely. I thank God for all of you, your offerings, your sacrifice, your optimism, your love.

At the beginning of his compositions, Johann Sebastian Bach wrote “JJ,” for Jesu Juva, “Jesus Help.” And at the end, +SDG+, Soli Deo Gloria, “To God Alone Be the Glory.” Let us now write with our prayers, “Jesus, Help!” over this site. And when it is complete, we will gather here again to celebrate the name Immanuel, and give God alone the Glory. +INJ+

Immanuel Lutheran School students at Groundbreaking (Kevin Wolf/Photo)

Immanuel Lutheran School students at Groundbreaking (Kevin Wolf/Photo)

Sermo Dei: Jubilate 2016

Posted on April 20th, 2016


capilla sitian resurreccion

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“A little while,” “A little while,” “A little while,” “A little while,” “A little while,” “A little while,” “A little while.” Seven times our Lord’s words are repeated in today’s Gospel. Why?

We have a skewed perspective on time. When we are young, we misuse our time because it seems like there is so much of it. In the 25th Psalm, David looks back on his many sins and pleads with God, “Do not remember the sins of my youth!”

In the 90th Psalm, Moses reminds us that our time is limited:

10The days of our lives are seventy years;

And if by reason of strength they are eighty years,

Yet their boast is only labor and sorrow;

For it is soon cut off, and we fly away.

11Who knows the power of Your anger?

For as the fear of You, so is Your wrath.

12So teach us to number our days,

That we may gain a heart of wisdom.

Our time is short. When we are in the midst of suffering, though, it seems just the opposite. The agony appears endless.

We should always apply the Bible to our own lives. But we cannot do that as God intended until we first understand the original intent. In today’s Gospel (St. John 16:16-22), Jesus is preparing His disciples for the troubles that are ahead of them. That very night, Jesus will be arrested, and after they all abandon Jesus, they will despair. They failed their Master, and then they will see Him scorned, ridiculed, tortured, and executed.  “You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; and you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will be turned into joy.”

Sorrow becomes joy at the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.

Our experience often tells us different. Troubled marriages, aging bodies, barren wombs, cold tombs where our dead stay. How does the resurrection of Jesus change that?

To you also, the Lord says, “A little while, a little while, just a little while.”

And then, a parable, about a woman in labor. A strange parable, and entirely out of place. Jesus told many stories. But this conversation is taking place on Holy Thursday, hours before His arrest. And the language Jesus uses does not seem appropriate.

“A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”

We don’t talk about newborn babies like this. It wouldn’t be a bad pro-life idea: get balloons, fill them with helium and carry them to the hospital: “It’s a human being!” Of course it’s a human being, that’s why we shouldn’t kill them. But a mom or dad says, “Look at this precious little boy!” or, “Isn’t she the cutest baby you’ve ever seen!” Also, no mother says, “My human being has been born into the world,” but, “We have a new baby,” or, “Our family has a new addition.” We’re not thinking cosmically at that moment, but personally.

Something bigger is happening when Jesus says, “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”  He uses the illustration that the pain and uncertainty of childbearing, though it is excruciating to the mother, gives way to unbelievable joy after the “little while” of labor. But the deeper message is that Jesus Himself is the human being born into and given to the world. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a a son is given.” Jesus is the human being who is not for Mary and Joseph only, but the long awaited Son for Adam and Eve and every one of their children down to all of us.

Born once of a virgin womb, He was born anew from a virgin tomb, the new grave in the garden in which no one had yet been laid. The resurrection of Jesus is the firstfruits of your own. So what is your suffering now? It is but for a little while.

Why does the Lord make you wait? He is training you, training your heart, teaching you that all the other things in which you trusted are not important. Be faithful to your calling, dear Christian. Cling to the Creed, keep the Commandments, call upon God in the day of trouble, He will answer you.

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,

to the soul who seeks him.

26 It is good that one should wait quietly

for the salvation of the Lord. 

He loves you as a mother loves her new baby, as an artist his creation, as a composer her composition, as an architect his city. He will not abandon you. Only a little while, and you will see.

For the Lord will not

cast off forever,

32 but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion

according to the abundance of his steadfast love; 

Be confident in this, for we are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.

Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Faith and Good Works

Posted on April 15th, 2016

A gem from Luther on faith and good works:


Faith is something living, something active…. Faith is not an idle, loose thought…. There is something busy, active, and powerful about Faith, so that it is impossible for it not to do Good Works without ceasing. Faith does not ask if Good Works need to be done. It has already done them and is still doing them before even being asked.

Luther Brevier, p122