Sermo Dei: Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols

Posted on December 24th, 2016

Christmas Eve Lessons & Carols

Immanuel Ev.-Lutheran Church

Alexandria, Virginia

December 24, 2016, 5:00 p.m.

Isaiah 9:2, 6-7

It’s too good to be true. The Christmas we imagined, the Christmas we remembered, how can we relive them, recreate them?

It’s too good to be true. The Christmases you see on Facebook, the cards arriving in the mail, perfect pictures of perfect people set on perfect paper – none of it matches the imperfections in your life.

Certainly there are many happinesses for all people, presents and family and twinkling lights. But you know the gloom as well. In a world of divorce, depression, death; in a world of careening trucks in a Berlin Christmas Market; in a world torn apart by wars between nations and wars between family members, it’s easy to feel more connected to “the people who walked in darkness” than the pixelated people smiling for their staged status update.

“The people who walked in darkness” of which Isaiah spoke in tonight’s third lesson are more than without light; they are without hope: they dwell in shadows of rage and anxiety and fear and sorrow.

The sentimental Christmas image presents not only family experiences as too good to be true, it presents even the original Christmas story as too good to be true. Away in a Manger is an adorable lullaby, and very fitting for Christmas Eve. Yet we’re told of this Baby, “No crying He makes.” Lovely Mary is painted again and again looking very much like a woman who suffered nothing in childbirth. The feeding trough that is the Lord’s bed is mysteriously lacking any snot from the noses of barnyard animals. The manure has all been shoveled out of the picture.

When Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are depicted untouched by suffering, the too-good-to-be-true image obscures the true good news in the story. Jesus enters suffering. Jesus enters our suffering, real suffering, the world’s suffering. It stinks. Literally. So does His bottom. He needs to be changed, and Mary doesn’t have wipes or a $90 diaper bag to put them in.

The very first carol we sang tonight gets us closer to the Jesus who enters our shame and feels a real human life, without the photos cropped and enhanced:

He was little, weak, and helpless,

Tears and smiles like us He knew;

And He feels for all our sadness,

And He shares in all our gladness.

This Jesus cries real tears, and needs a real blanket to protect Him from the stable’s draft. The Lord of heaven and earth makes Himself helpless, needs the care of a mother and father just to survive.

Entering the world He made, He comes to Adam, who is afraid, naked, hiding. He comes to Eve, now cursed with pain in childbearing, and conflict with her husband. He comes to the grave of Abel, struck down by his brother. He comes to the Ark, to view a humanity in shipwreck. He comes to Joseph, crying at the bottom of a pit, pushed there by his own brothers. He comes to Moses, slamming his stick into a rock, so angry with his people. He comes to David, lustful and proud. He comes to a  valley of dry bones, a valley of graves, endless graves, generation upon generation upon generation, so many gone, so many tears expended.

He comes to the beaches of Normandy. He comes to the ovens in Auschwitz. He comes to the rubble of Aleppo. The one who cried real tears as a baby, who cried real tears at the grave of Lazarus, cries real tears for your sufferings, your losses, your sins.

He was made man and took on a truly human body … and He has it still. He did not become a human being for a period of time, only to discard His body when He was done using it. He took that human body, He took our human nature, from creche to cross, then into a tomb cold and dark. Your Lord Jesus does this not for His own resurrection alone, but to rescue and redeem your human nature, to bring you through the grave.

Tonight this Savior is born to you, for you. Into your death and sorrow and crying He comes, and the Word of God to you is this: “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men… And God will wipe away ever tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying” (Rev. 21.3f).

It’s not too good to be true. It is the true, good thing. Christ is good. His Word is truth. He is your Savior. Your sins are forgiven. Your death is destroyed. Life has come, and your life will never be the same. Merry Christmas!  +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Rorate Coeli (Advent IV) 2016

Posted on December 18th, 2016

Rorate Coeli – Fourth Sunday of Advent

December 18, 2016

John 1:19-28

What is destroying your soul? As surely as rust causes metal to crumble, as surely as the acid burns holes in your esophagus, so do the vices lay waste to your soul. Vices are not simply bad actions, or habits; they are a state of mind, a world-outlook by which we see others as obstacles to walk over, objects to be possessed, or enemies to be defeated.

The first vice we encounter in today’s Gospel is envy, the envy the leaders in Jerusalem have for John the Baptist and his success. This envy, St. John Chrysostom said, “Harms and wastes them … like some mortal venom deeply seated in their souls” (NPNF1, vol. 14, p54). What venom is deeply seated in your soul, corrupting you? Envy? Wrath? Lust?

We see John the Baptist tempted by something that has come and will come to many of you. It’s the nature of this area, where you can move among the powerful and the wealthy; where the chance encounter or right connection can advance your career. What is the cost of your integrity? A delegation comes to John from Jerusalem, and with the offer comes a denial of the faith. At what price can you be bought?

John the Baptist’s proclamation was this: the world is lost, and all of us are damned, poor, needy, miserable people. There is no life or work, no position that merits anything before God, unless – and here’s how Dr. Luther puts it – Everything a man does is damnable “unless Christ our Lord dwells therein, unless [that man] works, walks, lives, is, and does everything through faith in Him” (AE 75:178).

Doing something through faith in Christ doesn’t mean doing something on a gamble. It means that everything you undertake, big or small, is done as a repentant sinner seeking to be a faithful disciple of Jesus, confident that He will do what He says: forgive sins and raise the dead.

So John the Baptist didn’t need the favors of the powerful; the only thing he lived for was fidelity to his calling.

He knows what the talent-scouts from Jerusalem want: they want to promote him, and be part of his rise. But John’s consistent message was to point away from himself. “I am not the Christ,” confessed John. He took no honor to himself, and as a sign of this, denied himself even the basic pleasures of life.

Our confession must begin with a denial of self: setting aside self-glory, self-seeking, self-serving. How much of your life is measured by what pleases you, how you would like things to be?

“He confessed, he did not deny, but he confessed” – this language about John the Baptist must characterize our own lives. If we would be disciples of Jesus, we too must confess our sins, not deny our attraction to vices, but confess our corruption – and then confess Christ the Incorrupt One, who heals and restores His corrupted creatures.

The last two weeks of Advent focus on John the Baptist for a reason: before Christ comes to us at Christmas, the way must be prepared in our hearts by the repentance which John preached.

Like a drunken man staggering, we can stumble first in one direction, then the other. On the one side, we stumble into the indulgence of the flesh by fornication or intoxication; then comes wrath, haughtiness, greed. Then the reformed person staggers into the other ditch of self-confidence. Do you see your spiritual life as secure in who you are and what you do? One person serves on a church board, another gives rich offerings, another donates time to charity, another tries to be good and fair towards others – and soon we are so confident that we are doing good that our own pride has become the greatest hindrance to true faith.

Living by faith is to speak like John: “I confess, I do not deny, but confess, ‘I am not the Christ.’ I am not the savior, I am not the righteous one, I am not the person with all the answers, who can solve all problems. I confess, and do not deny, but confess: I am nobody, Jesus is everything.”

We want somebody to come and say, “Look! I have the key to your happiness, I have what you have been looking for! Invest your money here, follow this advice, attend this event, meet this person. Look, here is how you can lose weight, here is how you can be at peace, here is how you can have it all!”

But John says something very different. John points us to Jesus and says, “Look! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” It is as though John says to us, “All of your ways lead you into one ditch or the other, and it will end very badly for you. Stop it, change your mind; don’t trust in yourself but also don’t despair; here is the Christ who takes away sin, who conquers death. Follow Him!”

So we approach the altar of Jesus, the Lord’s Table, confessing and not denying who we are. We lay on His Table, we lay on Him, all the things destroying our soul. We say, “Take them away, dear Jesus, remove them from me, and give instead Your body, Your blood, Your self. It is You I need. I am not the Christ, but You are. You alone can save me. Make me ready for Christmas, make me ready for Your coming. Only You can make me whole; only You can restore the world.” +INJ+

Three Meditations for Evening Prayer

Posted on December 14th, 2016

Immanuel Lutheran School Choral Evening Prayer for Advent

Three Meditations on Savior of the Nations, Come 

December 14, 2016

I. A Light to the Nations

We tell the story of the world by the stories of nations. There are wars and warriors, kings and generals, presidents and people. Many nations rise and fall, and it seems there is no end to their number.

We humans are also good at dividing people up into groups and tribes. Skin color, language differences, where you were born or what school you attended, all these things make people think of you as a good person or a bad person.

When it comes time for the Olympics, or the World Cup, we might get excited if America is doing well, and the crowds are chanting, “USA, USA!” The political idea of nationalism, though, can go beyond making sure our government protects our people, and we can start thinking that God loves some nations more than others.

I love our country because I love the ideals of freedom and fairness that are in our Constitution. Those are good things that we should spread everywhere. But God loves the people of every nation just the same.

God’s story of the world is of one nation, one family, that got divided into two. It started long before Abraham, the father of the Jews, left his home on a journey toward the land of promise. It started when one man killed his brother, when Cain killed Abel.

For millennia, the world has been divided up into two groups, two nations, the Jews and the Gentiles.

But Jesus is called, in the beautiful hymn we are singing this evening, the Savior of the Nations. He is the Light for every person.

It doesn’t matter if your skin is brown or red, if you have lots of money or not very much, if you are really smart or a really fast runner or if you are not very good at much of anything. God loves each person totally and completely. You can know that He is your Savior, because He is the Savior of the nations. He is for every person.

II. The Hero Who Heals

Most of our stories are simple, one-dimensional. Bakers bake, singers sing, kings rule, warriors fight. The idea of a ruler who serves, or a warrior who heals, is strange, paradoxical.

Tolkien expresses the work of Christ in the hero of the third book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The people of Gondor remember an ancient saying, “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer.”

Aragorn, true king of Gondor, comes from afar not only fighting the forces of darkness, but he enters the hospital and heals those who are beyond the help of all other physicians. He is recognized as king because he is a warrior who heals.

St. Ambrose’s great hymn shows us the big picture about Jesus, the true story that lies behind all myths. Jesus is not simply a baby born in Bethlehem. He is a king who has come from a far country. When Christ steps forth from the virgin Mary, He begins His heroic course.

His heroism is not shown with sword craft or skill with shield and bow. His heroism is in fighting a spiritual battle against demons, a battle to the death. Every inclination of ours is to strike back, if not with fists then with words, lawsuits, harsh emails. Our Lord Jesus knows that the only way to heal our flesh is to gird it on, assume our nature and carry it into death.

Infirma nostri corporis – the infirmity of our corpses, to be graphic, He fills with virtue, strength.

The ills of our bodies are shown also in our souls. You know what it is to hurt, to have your best friend shown to not be your friend, to see parents argue, to be in trouble, to be sad, to see people we love die, and feel helpless.

Our Lord Jesus has come to heal all of this. That is His Christmas present to us.

III. The Light Shines in the Darkness

A popular picture of Jesus shows Him outside, knocking on a door with no handle. The subtle message is there’s no way in unless you let Him in.

This doesn’t present a full picture of who Jesus is. A better image is of people in a dungeon, locked inside by a cruel monster. To the prisoners who have no escape, Jesus comes, smashes down the locked door, and sets them free.

Recently I was reading about a mining accident in the 1930’s. In mining, men go down into deep tunnels below the earth, to dig out precious things, like coal or diamonds. But for the men in this account, the tunnel collapsed. They didn’t die from rocks coming down on their heads, but maybe they wished they had. As their lights went out, they were in the dark. Time goes by, and the air is growing thin, and they have no food.

There’s no way out, no escape. Only from the outside can help come. Finally, a faint sound comes. Tap tap tap. It grows stronger. Carefully, a rescuer is digging through. And then, a ray of light.

Into the darkness, comes light. Imagine the joy, the gladness, that tiny shaft of light brought to them.

The Bible pictures our world like this dark place. All around us is trouble, and death. But when Jesus comes into the world, now the light has begun to shine. Help is coming!

That’s what Christmas is. The Helper comes, the Rescuer comes. When you see His light, no matter how bad the darkness is, you know that Life is coming. He comes in from the outside, He opens the locked door, and no darkness can stop Him. You are free.

Sermo Dei: Gaudete (Advent 3, 2016)

Posted on December 11th, 2016

Gaudete – Third Sunday of Advent

December 11, 2016

Matthew 11:2-11

“Rejoice in the Lord always.” Always? That’s fine for church – but it seems so unrealistic.

“Rejoice” is the theme for today. It’s the Latin name for this Third Sunday of Advent, and it’s the first word of the Introit, the first Psalm we sing.

But the Psalms recognize that life is not always rosy. The Psalms confront all the emotions we feel when life has us hemmed in, our sleep is disturbed, when we are angry, lonely, melancholy.

In the next breath after the call to rejoice, onto our lips comes the ancient question: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” Revive in English means to come back to life, to live again. It’s the same thing as restore in the Bible. The Jews, exiled in Babylon, pray it in Psalm 85: “Restore us, O God of our salvation.” It’s a prayer punctuated by questions: “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” The story of the world moves from empire to empire, nations rising and falling, but also individual people, people we love, growing old and dying – and ourselves, time slipping away, dreams fading, our lives obscure, no matter how many clicks, likes, or retweets we get.

“You restore my soul,” the twenty-third Psalm says – but the restored experience is fleeting, while December’s vanishing sun reminds us that this world is not yet restored; instead of experiencing restoration, we feel and face the valley of the shadow of death.

And this must be what John the Baptist’s disciples are feeling. Their teacher is in the dungeon, the adoring crowds are gone, the revival has become a death-watch.

I don’t want to give it away in case you read it, but in one of my favorite books, the protagonist is chasing a conspiracy that doesn’t exist. People are dying for an imaginary cause. When we doubt, religion can seem that way. St. Paul recognizes this in his great chapter on the resurrection, 1 Corinthians 15. If Christ is not risen from the dead, we are of all men most to be pitied. What could be a bigger waste than us being half-hearted disciples of a dead messiah?

With John the Baptist in prison, his disciples confront meaninglessness. This is no failed football season, where there’s always next year. This is no political defeat, where you can start right away working toward the next election.

This is it. Done. Over. Everything we thought is a lie. Ahead is only death. In this scenario, Herod wins, and the hero’s head is literally on a platter.

Perhaps you’ve come to such a juncture in your life, a big moment that became anticlimactic. Of all the things that have happened to me, I think it was my first communion that was the biggest disappointment. Everything the church said, but more importantly everything my mom did, indicated that nothing was more serious, solemn, and vital than that journey to the altar. As the thin wafer dissolved in my mouth, barely washed down with the sip of wine, I waited for an experience that never came. “Is this it?” I was expecting more.

Have you ever reached a milestone, or achieved a status, only to be disappointed? “Is that it?” In today’s Gospel, with John in prison, everything seems to be ending in disappointment.

So John the Baptist looks at his disciples, who have come to despair, and he sends them to Jesus. That’s what John would do for us this day as well: send us to Jesus. These disciples come and lay their disappointment, their doubts, their questions at His feet. “Are you the Coming One? Are you the Messiah? Or do we still have to wait?”

Jesus shows them the signs of the kingdom, God’s kingdom. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the dead are raised. And the poor get the gospel. In other words, they get a sermon. One of these things is not like the other.

Blind seeing, lame walking – these are miracles we can get excited about. The sermon about God’s love doesn’t seem so valuable in the face of real problems.

“Are you the coming One? Or do we still have to wait?” They’ve set it up as an either/or, but the answer is really yes to both, for they will still be waiting. This was John the Baptist’s message about Jesus from the beginning: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” In Judaism, the lamb dies. Its blood is spilled, and the body is roasted in the fire.

So here we are, in Advent, waiting. And you have doubts and fears. Your child suffers, and you cannot fix it. Someone is angry at you, irrational, and you cannot fix it. Your impulses got the better of you, again. Christmas won’t be the same without that person who isn’t coming back.

Is it real? John’s in prison. Rejoice always? Rejoice now? How can I? The grass withers, the flower fades. How can you say rejoice always?

The only way, the only answer, is the Word. You heard it in Isaiah, the first reading this morning: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”

That was my problem at my first communion. I was expecting an experience without the Word. If you will, the Word is the experience. The Word is what we eat and drink, for the Word tells us what the thing is—the Body and Blood of Christ—and the Word tells us what to expect—forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. Which is to say, resurrection.

What does that mean for you? Whatever you’re facing—a troubled marriage, or no marriage in sight; challenges with your child, or no children in sight; no job, hard job, lousy job; loneliness, sadness, addiction, dying—and through it all, the corrupting power of sin, guilt, shame—in the face of all of that, Jesus says to you, to you: “I make paralyzed legs walk; I regenerate dead eyes; I cover shame; I open graves and make all things new. I am not done yet. I say to you what a daddy says to his little child: ‘Hold on. Wait. It’s almost finished. Don’t worry, be patient.”

So don’t get overwhelmed by the shadows and doubts, the prisons you feel you are in, and the passing of time. Jesus is risen from the dead, and He is the answer to today’s question from the Psalms: “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” He answers, “Yes, I will revive you, restore you, forgive, heal, and resurrect you.”

Rejoice in the Lord always? Yes, always, no matter what. For He is risen from the dead, and nothing changes that. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Ad te levavi (Advent I, 2016)

Posted on December 11th, 2016

Ad te levavi – First Sunday of Advent

November 27, 2016

Matthew 21:1-9

Does the character of a leader matter? Last year, a mega-church pastor was expelled after his multiple affairs came to light. Recently he reemerged with a new wife and is preaching again. Many say his actions don’t matter.

Does the character of a leader matter? Whenever a professional athlete commits murder, or domestic violence, or uses performance-enhancing drugs, the controversy is rekindled over their role as examples to the community.

Does the character of a leader matter? Looking at the foundations of Western civilization, the great teachers on ethics and virtue gave a resounding “Yes” to that question. The character of every person matters, and an ideal leader will be mature in certain key virtues.

Theology is not simply ethics. However, the Hebrew Scriptures portray the Leader, the Messiah, as having particular ethical virtues, a character and heart that directly affects how He will govern us, how He will deal with us.

Easily misunderstood is the description of the Messiah as lowly, as it appears in today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 21:1-9). St. Matthew lets us know that when Jesus rides into Jerusalem, this is to fulfill what was written in the prophet Zechariah: “Tell the daughter of Zion, ‘Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly, and sitting on a donkey.’” The word lowly is from the NKJ; the ESV puts it as humble, and the NIV renders it as meek.

We can see certain positives here, but who wants a meek leader? Lowliness and humility sound great, but in a leader we look for strength. Meek is weak.

But is that really what the Scriptures are saying about Jesus? We know that He is willing to sacrifice, to put others first. But is Jesus meek, which is to say, “easily imposed upon; compliant, tame, deferential”?

Not at all. When the Scripture describes Jesus as lowly, humble, meek, it is picking up on one of the great character traits of a leader. It’s the idea of moderation, which relates to being in control of your emotions. In Greek mythology, a furious Apollo becomes moderate through music; he is calmed. The concept is used of animals and illness. Donkeys are tamed and fevers diminish, and that’s what moderation is in a man: the wild is tamed, and the burning fire is cooled, so the leader can act with wisdom.

Plato describes this as having a calm disposition, instead of savage rage. Aristotle, in the Nicomachaen Ethics, says it is a moderation which permits reconciliation. Now we see the Lord Jesus coming into focus, for he is the reconciler. And here’s the one I find most interesting: the Jewish historian Josephus describes a man who spoke against the king’s holiness. The king, who was absent, sent for this man. You can imagine how this kind of story would typically end: with a terrible chastisement and punishment, perhaps even death, for the man who dared to speak against the king. But Josephus writes about how the king invited him to the theater and had a quiet talk with him. Josephus records the outcome:

So the king was more easily reconciled to him than one could have imagined, as esteeming mildness a better quality in a king than anger; and knowing that moderation is more becoming in great men than passion. So he made Simon a small present, and dismissed him. (Ant. 19.334)

Imagine being summoned to the king, expecting punishment, and leaving instead with a small present! This doesn’t detract from the king’s power, it enhances it.

You’ve probably heard sermons before, including from me, about how Jesus is acting in the triumphal entry differently from every king. That’s true, in a way. But something else is happening here when the prophet says, “Behold, your King is coming to you, lowly…”. Jesus is being depicted as the ideal king. He is inclined to forgive.

All humanity is summoned before this king, this Jesus who comes into the world and is enthroned upon the cross. Your judgment is coming, your death is not far off, the end of all things is at hand. You are summoned before this king and called to give an account.

But know this: He is moderate to you, He is inclined to forgive you, even to give you gifts, though you have treated Him as though He did not matter, and as if you mattered most.

He does not send you out from His presence the same. Our gospel reading goes up through v9. In v10, Matthew tells us that the whole city was shaken, disturbed. No one knows what to make of this. His arrival means life will never be the same.

What will life now be like for you? What needs to be done away with? What needs to be transformed? That same moderation in your life means putting an end to the adultery, murder, stealing, and covetousness, the quarreling and jealousy. It’s an exchange of clothes, a changing of uniforms, because you’re on a different team now: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

It’s astonishing to me that this word we’ve always translated as lowly or meek is used of athletes: the best ones are patient—they keep training always; and they are calm: they don’t lose their focus when the competition is fierce.

And when injury or loss comes, they bear it. This expands out into how you deal with losses in this life: the death of those you love, the destruction of wealth, and any misfortune. You can bear it calmly and with patience because you already know the end.

As His disciples, Jesus calls us to the same moderation, saying, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Our character also matters.

The foundation of the Christian character is confessing that it isn’t what it should be. We began Advent on our knees, singing repeatedly, “Lord, have mercy!”

Thus we come to the one whose character is to show mercy, moderation. He invites us to Himself and sends us away with gifts instead of punishment.

And He’s a King who changes us. His character becomes ours, as He reshapes us back into His image.

The heart of that image is one of total submission to the Father. What’s this Advent going to look like for you? One of total submission to your lusts and desires? One of total submission to the commercial Christmas, where success is in buying and selling?

Character matters. Don’t be characterized by the world’s priorities. Prepare your heart for your King’s arrival. His character is to forgive and show mercy. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: The Funeral of Barbara Pauling

Posted on November 26th, 2016

Jesus, Mary, and Martha

November 22, 2016

Immanuel Evangelical-Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia

John 10:11-16; 11:21-27

Frederick, dear brother in Christ; Ellen, Steve, Taylor, and Drew; Alyson; Steve and Melissa; and all the saints gathered here this day: Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Poor Martha gets a bad rap. She’s remembered mostly for being upset that her sister isn’t helping her with the meal preparations, earning her the gentle rebuke of Jesus, calling her by name twice: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things.” Her sister Mary is praised for devoting herself to the teaching of Jesus.

But shortly before today’s Gospel reading about Jesus and Martha, St. John tells us, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Martha gets named, while Mary is just “her sister.” Jesus loves her; and she comes out to meet Jesus, while Mary stays in the house. Mary’s angry at Jesus for not being there when Lazarus died.

Martha’s upset too; but she still speaks with absolute confidence that Jesus will keep His Word and promises. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says to her. “Do you believe this?” “Yes!” she cries.

When I came to Immanuel something confused me. I was pretty sure that the organist was named “Barbara,” but sometimes I’d hear her called “Martha.” And Barbara was always busy, like Martha, toiling away. Sometimes I’d throw Martha into a sermon just as a little shout-out to the lady on the organ bench. She always caught the reference.

But Barbara was also every bit like the Martha described in today’s Gospel: confessing to the end that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who is the resurrection and the life.

There are so many things that made Barbara unique and special. But a brief conversation we had on Good Friday in 2003 is among the most memorable to me. We had just read the passage from 2 Cor. 5 on reconciliation:

Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation.

A faithful Christian, Barbara believed whole-heartedly that the death of Jesus is what makes peace between God and man. And along with this, she whole-heartedly wanted all the dear people in her life to live with one another in peace and harmony.

Barbara loved harmony, among people and in music. Adorning a wall in our house is a beautiful piece of art, handmade by Barbara with the most intricate needlework. She spelled out our last name using musical instruments, vines and roses, and various musical symbols. I like it even more now because there’s a piece of her love and thoughtfulness that lives on with us in our home.

I suspect all throughout the country are similar things in other people’s homes, pieces of her self-giving that touched countless lives. Her memory and love lives on.

But there’s something much more important that we need to say. For the Christian hope is not simply that a memory lives on, or in some sense the spirit lives on.

Today we carry a body to the cemetery. Laying the casket in the ground seems so final, so futile and hopeless.

Another casket was carried, long ago. As Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt, there’s this small little reference among all the haste and chaos and blood of the passover and flight and pursuing army and parted waters of the Red Sea. “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.” Why? Because dead bones matter to God. He has a plan for them. God did not make Adam to be only a soul, or only a body. Neither did he make Joseph, or Barbara, or you, to be only a soul, or only a body. He made us to be both, joined together. So the bones matter.

The prophet Ezekiel is shown a valley which has become a cemetery. There were no neatly arranged graves, or caskets. He saw in all its horror the death of man. Bones were scattered everywhere. The Spirit asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” “O Lord GOD, You know.” It’s kind of a copout. It’s like Ezekiel is saying, “I think you’re wanting the answer, ‘Yes, they can live,’ but all I see is death. Dead bodies don’t come alive again, bones do not reassemble.”

That’s what we see. But God does more than what we see, or what we think can be. The Word of God speaks over the graveyard:

“‘Behold, O My people, I will open your graves and cause you to come up from your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. Then you shall know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves, O My people, and brought you up from your graves. I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the Lord.”

Can these bones live? The LORD who made us from nothing answers with a resounding, “Yes!” That’s why Moses took the bones of Joseph up from Egypt with him. God wasn’t done with them yet. Neither is God done with our sister Barbara yet. Neither is He done with you.

Christ is risen, and our sister Barbara shall likewise rise.

That one great truth is what caused Barbara to lead the church in song. She played with vigor, with a tempo that dared you to keep up and a thunder from the balcony that shook the floor all the way up to the front of the church. It all confessed, “Christ is risen!”

Today then, let us not mourn as those who have no hope. Christ is risen, and we sing with the Psalms, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.”

Christ was crucified, and the words to the thief are true: “This day you will be with Me in paradise.”

Christ died, and in Him is reconciliation. Fulfill then Barbara’s wish, and live in peace with each other.

Christ slept in the grave, and now all the graves of the saints are made holy.

Christ is risen, and Barbara’s song has become ours: “Our Father keeps Immanuel in grace with love and peace. For this we truly thank Him / Our praises never cease.”

Christ is risen, and hell is in uproar!

Christ is risen, and the power of sin is removed.

Christ is risen, and the grave has become the gate which the righteous pass through.

Christ is risen, and even in the face of death the Church cries out: “He is risen indeed, Alleluia!


Sermo Dei: Trinity 25, 2016

Posted on November 17th, 2016

The “Abomination of desolation” is an intriguing item in today’s Gospel (Matthew 24:15-28). Listening to America talk this past week, you’d think the Abomination of Desolation is Donald Trump in the White House. Or, that we narrowly avoided it in Hillary Clinton. But America is not Israel or the Church, and the White House is not the Messiah’s palace. So we Christians gather here not to pledge allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, but under the banner of the scarred Christ, in whose stripes we have healing. Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

Jesus is your Lord, which means your citizenship is in heaven. The blessings and duties of that citizenship should be the center of your hope and how you live your life. This does not exempt you from your citizenship here. You have a duty to be a good citizen of the United States of America. Whether you think the president-elect is manifestly unfit for office or someone whose head belongs on Mount Rushmore, you owe him honor and respect because of his office.

St. Paul says, “Render … to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (Rom. 13.7).

Likewise, we have a command to pray for all our leaders: “I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence”(1 Tim. 2.1f).

So that’s what we’ll do, regardless of who is in office: we will pray, we will be good citizens, and keep working for the benefit of our neighbors.

But make no mistake: There’s a very different election that matters, and that is the election, the choice on God’s part to save us. Twice in today’s Gospel reading Jesus speaks about the elect, those whom God has chosen to save. All disciples of Jesus will have to undergo suffering. However, Jesus says that even the great tribulation, the great suffering and trauma of world-collapse, will be minimized because of God’s choice to save us, apart from any merit or worthiness in us. “Unless those days were shortened,” Jesus says, “no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.”

We dare not imagine politics can save us. Politics, like parenting and policing, are how we try to keep order in a chaotic world. But we Christians know that this world cannot be perfected by better laws or better lawmakers. The entire world is steeped in the corruption of death. And that death is both in you and coming for you. We heard the holy prophet Job say, “Man … is few of days and full of trouble.” Your time as citizen here is short. Your life will be troubled, first because you’re a human being, and second because you are a disciple of Jesus. God’s Word tells us that everyone who wishes to live godly will suffer persecution.

Roman Siege of Jerusalem

Roman Siege of Jerusalem

That trouble in life is what Jesus is preparing His disciples for in today’s Gospel. “Things are going to get bad for you,” Jesus is telling them. He compares the trouble ahead to a terrible event in the Jewish past. In the year 169 BC, the king of Syria, Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus IV, “Illustrious”), attacked Jerusalem, and he returned in 167 BC in an attempt to eradicate Judaism. The history book 1 Maccabees gives an account of what Jesus is referring to as the Abomination of Desolation:

Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the 145th year,  they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of whole burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah 55 and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. 56 The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. 57 Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of anyone or if anyone adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death. (1 Mac 1.54-57)

“That’s how it’s going to be for you,” Jesus is telling His disciples; “There is another time of persecution coming.” The Lord is prophesying about the coming war between the Romans and the Jews, which was fulfilled in AD 67-70, culminating in the destruction of the temple and the burning of Jerusalem.

What does that have to do with us? Well, is the world becoming a hostile place for Christians? Most certainly! Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, such as Syria, are daily being led to the slaughter. Here in America, the persecution is softer and in many ways more deadly. Whether through government actions that have increasingly limited the first amendment freedoms of religion, or through Christians making political victory more important than moral integrity, the core of Christianity has long been in the process of hollowing out.

The truth is, we all want success. We would like more money, more time off, nicer houses, more recognition, and to be accepted and loved by the culture. But you cannot gain those things and be a disciple of Jesus all the way, to the extreme. Better to not be too serious, too radical, too devoted.

All of those little compromises that we make start adding up to something bigger: I like being a citizen of this kingdom more than my heavenly citizenship. Can’t I just pursue pleasure and glory now, and regard the kingdom of God as my retirement plan?

The answer, of course, is absolutely not. But are you ready to live that way? Are you ready to live as a disciple of Jesus now, put the needs of your family ahead of your own? Are you ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus now, completely and totally? Would you go with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into the fiery furnace? Would you go with Daniel into the lion’s den? Would you go with Ignatius to the Roman Coliseum, there to be fed to ravenous beasts? Would you go with Stephen to be stoned? Would you go with James to be beheaded?

Will you keep the integrity of your body, which is the temple of the Holy Spirit, when lust beckons? Will you be devoted completely to your spouse especially when things are tough at home? Will you look at your money as a means to bless church and neighbor? Will you look at your time as something managed by God and not for your own luxury?

When the abomination of desolation comes to the church in our day, will you stand on the Word of God no matter what, or will you compromise?

Enjoy the good gifts God has given you in this life. But get your encouragement, your hope, your joy from the promises of God. This short life gives you death: your own death, and the death of those around you whom you love.

Yet that death the Scriptures insist on calling sleep. Why? Because a sleeper can be awakened. Today the Word of the Lord gives us this great good news: Since “Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” St. Paul then outlines what will happen: “The dead in Christ will rise first.” Then those Christians who are still alive on the last day will meet the Christ the King in an arrival ceremony to inaugurate the new heavens and new earth.

That’s our destiny. That’s the result of our election — not the election we vote in, but the election of us and for us by God. He chose us in Christ, while we were still sinners. He loves the unloveable, makes righteous the sinner, makes alive the dead.

Are you despairing of the situation in this life? Be of good cheer, you are a citizen of the New Jerusalem. Are you overjoyed at your success? Humble yourself before God, lest you be overwhelmed by pride and folly. Keep your eyes on Jesus. Keep your eyes on your neighbors who need you. Keep looking for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come. You have been elected by God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. That is the election that matters. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Psalm 119:105-112 (“Nun”)

Posted on November 9th, 2016

A strange way the Psalm speaks to us. God’s Word is not a light to our eyes, but to our feet and path. Why not the eyes? Because what we see leads us astray. All around we see boasting and pride, despair and death. What we see with our eyes deceives us. But with the ears comes something different, something higher.

Our eyes say, “You will not prevail.” But the Word says, “Christ is risen, He has prevailed.”

Our eyes say, “The wicked triumph.” But the Word says to our ears, “The wicked shall be put to flight.”

Our eyes gaze in the mirror and say to us, “I am imperfect, I am getting older, I shall die, and perhaps alone.” Our ears hear God say to us, “You are never alone, you are My beloved child, in whom I am well-pleased.”

Our eyes gaze in the mirror of the Law and say to us, “I am a sinner, and I shall surely be damned.” Our ears hear God say to us, “I forgive you all your sins.”


Thus God’s Word is not a light to our eyes, but a light to the path we go on in the darkness. The world is a darkness of sin to us, but also a darkness of unknowing. We know not what the rest of this night will bring, much less the rest of this year or the rest of our life. But the Word enlightens the feet that travel by faith on God’s path, the Word enlightens the ear that trusts His guiding voice.

And this darkness that blinds our eyes also afflicts our souls. This is especially true of the Christian. Do not think that if you suffer this means you are cursed by God. The very opposite may well be the case. In tonight’s Psalm, God’s Word teaches us to sing, “I am severely afflicted.” This word afflicted covers so very much. It can mean to be humbled, like in losing a contest; or it can mean to be depressed, filled with sadness; it can mean to be put into chains as a slave or in prison.

So the sadness you feel, the experience of trouble or bondage – this comes upon the servants of God to work upon them a heart open to His grace, a heart that finds God alone as mercy and strength.

This affliction that the Christian confesses is an affliction Christ Himself experienced. Holy Isaiah says that the Messiah “was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter.”

The life that you want, you need to stop expecting. God gives you the life He wants, to shape you to be His woman, His man, a receptacle for His grace and a distributor of His mercy to those whom God has placed in your path as neighbor.

The life you need is not the life found in the ideal house or spouse, the ideal work or social life. The Life God gives is much bigger than all these. “I am severely afflicted,” the Psalmist says; “I am severely afflicted,” you say; “give me life, O LORD, according to Your Word.” 

This short life ends in a vanishing breath. “Meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless,” says Solomon the wise. Life is not found in an abundance of riches or pleasures. Life unto the ages is the Life God’s Word gives.

So rejoice and be glad, you afflicted ones, for blessed are you. In your affliction, in your sorrow, in your depression, in your humiliation, God is creating a home for His life. And this life shall carry you far beyond these vanities into the resurrection kingdom of the City built by God.

Sermo Dei: Reformation 2016

Posted on October 30th, 2016

The ghosts that haunt us are not the ones hanging from trees around our neighborhoods every October. We have our own Dickensian specters, the wraiths in our minds poking at our memories, haunting us with past abuse, wrong decisions, deeds that seemed pleasant but are now recognized as worthless, destructive, evil.

A conscience not yet entirely seared is haunted by past sins. Worst are the besetting sins, the sins we return to like comfort food. These ghosts that haunt us whisper, “You will never change. You are my captive, and we will continue on this path that leads to destruction.” We grow to love our captors. The world is deep in the throes of Stockholm Syndrome. Are you in danger of joining them in this strong delusion?

Martin Luther was a monk haunted by such ghosts – or we could say demons. The demons beguile and seduce, then guide us to self-justification. “You’re not so bad,” they whisper. “Certainly you’re better than that fool over there. Look at him! Pompous jerk. He doesn’t work, not like I do. Look at her! She gossips and preens, acts like she’s the queen. Thank God I am not like them.”

Such are we. Luther was different. Luther had many sins, but self-justification was not one of them. The ghosts that haunted him did the opposite. With Luther they took up the chief work of Lucifer, the work of accusation. As he advanced from monk to priest to doctor of theology and professor, he saw that he could not advance in the Christian life to the degree demanded by God. For God’s law demands perfection, and the medieval church had developed elaborate systems for achieving that perfection through the payment of money and the performance of church-created works not instituted by God.

The doctrine of Justification still matters.

It’s hard for us to imagine the degree of bondage Luther experienced through God’s Law and the pope’s demands. For our age has the opposite problem. Everything has become free, and our age demands everything be free. Free love, free healthcare, free prophylactics, free education. When a politician comes along saying there will be a reckoning, we will have to pay for the life we’ve chosen, he or she never stands a chance. With similar scorn, the church of the Lutheran Confession still stands today to say the same thing theologically, even to a decadent, hedonistic age: “There will be a reckoning. Your sins cost something. They must be dealt with.” So the doctrine of justification—the teaching that only in the death of Jesus is there a proper reckoning, a full payment—still matters.


Here too we find ghosts that haunt us. “Luther was an anti-semite!” the accusers cry; “He was the precursor to the holocaust!” “Luther tore the church apart!” “You Lutherans worship a man, a tradition, a German heritage. You are too conservative, too exclusive, too narrow-minded.”

The content of the Faith is what matters, not the messenger or his culture.

But the churches of the Lutheran Confession thriving in Africa know little of a Germanic culture or European problems, other than they know that it’s the Europeans who are now evangelizing them with the Gospel of Hedonism and Sexual Revolution. They recognize what we must recognize: that the content of the Faith is what matters, not the messenger or his culture. This is why the famous statues of Martin Luther show him holding up the Scriptures, and the famous painting of Cranach has him off to the side, pointing to Jesus in the center.


Confront the ghosts that haunt you with that same finger point to Jesus. Confront the ghosts that haunt you with the Words of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Spirit drives away every demon with this declaration: “Jesus Christ, your God and Lord, died for your sins and was raised again for your justification.” The Holy Spirit scatters every specter with the cry, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

So when the ghosts haunt you of your worthlessness, say, “What of it? Yes, I am worthless, but worthy is the Lamb who was slain. In Him is all my worth, for He has made Himself my Brother, and I am now God’s beloved child. In me—even me!—He is well pleased.”

When the ghosts haunt you about your guilt, say, “True, I have fallen many times! But my Lord Jesus comes for me as a Good Shepherd seeking out His lost sheep, and even now He is carrying me home on the same shoulders that hung upon the cross.”

When the ghosts haunt you regarding your corrupt nature, with its eating disorders and lusts and addictions, and finally your broken, cancer-ridden, oozing body, reply with all boldness, “True, I am sick in mind and soul and body, but by His stripes I am healed; Jesus gives His living body to my dying body, and He will grant me to eat of the Tree of Life, which is for the healing of the nations.”

This Reformation is ongoing in our lives, and it will continue in the Church until the end of the world. With Luther and all Christians we will continue to confess. “I believe that God has made me and all creatures; I believe that Jesus Christ is my Lord; I believe that the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” Scatter the specters with Scripture’s teaching: “Yes, I have fallen short of the glory of God, but I am justified by His grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Put to flight every ghost that haunts you with these sure and certain words: “Into Jesus I have been baptized, a baptism which now saves me. He gives me His true body and true blood to eat and drink, which gives me life. In Christ will I live, in Christ will I die, and His will I be forever.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: The Marriage of Jonathan Scheck and Cari Geyer

Posted on October 24th, 2016

Pastor Esget and Pastor Scheck, ordained June 19 at Immanuel

Pastor Esget and Pastor Scheck, ordained June 19 at Immanuel

October 21, 2016

Evangelical Lutheran Church of the Apostles, Melrose Park, IL

Dear Saints loved by God, bride of the mystical bridegroom, our Lord JESUS Christ,

It was not good for Jonathan to be alone. So the Lord prepared for Jonathan a helper suitable for him.

To you, Jonathan, God gives Cari as bone of your bones and flesh of your flesh. Many gifts we receive and enjoy for ourselves. But in the gift of marriage comes the call to donate yourself, open up to and sacrifice yourself for the needs of your nearest neighbor.

We heard how Adam’s side was opened up, in a sleep like unto death. His rib became the constitutive element of the woman, signifying that the husband guards and protects her in the same way that the ribs shelter our vital organs. The LORD did not make her from the man’s head, lest she seek to rule over him. Neither did He make her from the man’s foot, lest he imagine that she is someone to be trampled upon. No, He made the woman from the man’s side to teach him to keep her always by his side as close companion.

But because of the hardness of your heart, the Lord JESUS says, you will not want to do this. The sinful nature makes us selfish creatures who prefer being served to serving, who prefer being loved to loving, who prefer receiving gifts to sacrificing ourselves.

Cari, you have the greater challenge ahead. Being a pastor’s wife is a challenging calling. It is often more difficult than being a pastor, because the calling of the pastor’s wife is hidden, confusing, and lonely. You go to live in a new place as a new wife without a support structure that most people have. Jonathan has a role to play, work to throw himself into: He is the shepherd of Oswego, the parson of Parsons – and who are you? What do they expect of you? Must you be on the altar guild? Are you expected to make something for a particular function? Will people judge you by what you wear, how your house looks, and a thousand other things, expectations they have of you that you never know about until it’s too late?

Cari, don’t take all the drama so seriously, and don’t worry too much about it. The best thing you can do, the one calling you have, is to be Jonathan’s wife, and as God grants it, the mother of your children. With that, there is enough work to do. If you want to do something in the church, join something, volunteer something, do it freely because you want to. Love your husband and live like a disciple of Jesus. If people see that, they will love you for you.

Jonathan, being a pastor is all-consuming. The work is never, ever done. You should work hard, and be prepared to work at any hour of any day. However, being husband to Cari is a greater calling than being pastor to your congregations. If you don’t take care of her, you won’t be able to take care of your congregations. So when she’s sick, when she’s lonely, when she’s sad, when she’s angry, stop what you’re doing and take care of her. If you learn how to love your wife, you’ll learn also how to be a pastor. You can see that implied in the reading from Ephesians.

And speaking of that, there’s a mistake in the service folder. Well, it’s not in the folder so much as it is in the Bible. Well, not the Bible either, but just our translations of it. We pick up reading in Ephesians 5 at verse 22, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Right above those words in our English Bibles is a heading, usually something like, “Teaching on Marriage.” It’s hard to make a bigger mistake than that. It leaves out the preceding verse, where the idea of submission is introduced: All Christians, St. Paul says, are to live like this: “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” That’s the setup for wives submitting to husbands, so if we read it together, the way St. Paul wrote it, it goes like this: ‘Dear saints of God, give thanks always, ‘submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands, as to the Lord…’” So the wife has a unique calling to submit to her husband flowing from the general calling that all Christians have to be submissive to each other.

The man who says, “The problem here is that she just won’t submit!” misses the larger point that the husband submits also. He submits himself to the needs of his wife by sacrificing for her, giving up for her. We all have different roles, different offices, but the same general command applies to us all: submit to one another.

This ties in with another missing Bible verse, this time from Genesis 2. The rite stops with v24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” It stops just before it gets interesting! The last verse of the chapter reads, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.”

I suppose we skip that because we don’t want to talk about getting naked in church. But it means much more than the physical intimacy between husband and wife, which the marriage rite calls “finding joy and delight in one another.” The nakedness between our first parents before the fall was a complete openness. Nothing hidden, nothing withheld. No deception, no manipulation. We fear that if someone really knows us, really knows who we are, what we think, how we fell, we won’t be loved, we won’t be accepted. We’ll be put to shame. After this, throughout the Scriptures, nakedness and shame run together. The first thing our first parents did after setting aside the Word of God was to try to cover themselves. They hid both from God and each other. Still today, we hide our sins and seek to justify our actions.

The calling in holy marriage is to be naked and without shame, to be completely open, entirely honest, with a heart that forgives and forgets. You will fail in that, every day. Every day start anew, by looking to the heavenly Bridegroom.

For He who hung naked upon the cross was put to shame for you. And behold, like Adam, the side of the Second Adam opened up. The centurion thrust His spear, and the side of Christ was opened, pouring forth blood and water. This is the new genesis, the re-creation of man, and the life of your marriage. This is what a bridegroom does: the husband dies for the very bride who crowns Him with thorns and affixes Him upon a cross. Jonathan and Cari: in this Bridegroom is the life of your marriage. In Him will you live, in Him will you die, and His will you be forever.