Sermo Dei: Oculi 2015

Posted on March 26th, 2015

Kingdoms among men have risen – and fallen. Great empires—the Babylonian, the Assyrian, the Roman—and more modern powers. None of them could last, and if the world continues, this great republic in which we live, already in deep decline, will fall and give place to a new power.

While taking place across great spans of earthly empires, the story of humanity recorded in Sacred Scripture presents another kingdom, the kingdom that rules all the others. Dr. Luther said, “Every child that comes into this world is born into the kingdom of the devil, the lord of death, who exercises his sway through sin’s tyranny.”

This world is the devil’s kingdom. He is the Strong Man whose tyranny governs the world. All freedom under this tyrant is a false freedom, leaving you more enslaved. We poor fools imagine that sexual liberty or financial prosperity will bring us happiness. We only find greater oppression.

But chiefly marking the devil’s tyranny is his constant promotion of death. Whether it is ISIS, brutally murdering all in their path, or the progressive movement in America, so eager to put to death old people, sick people, and babies in or out of the womb – everywhere death is promoted as a good, a positive choice, something natural.

Nothing could be more hostile to the God the children of the church will confess this day, the God who made heaven and earth, the Son who for our sake was made man, the Holy Spirit who is the author and giver of life.

Into this kingdom Christ comes as an invader – or rather, a redeemer, coming to recover what was stolen.

And what was stolen was you. What was stolen was all humanity. The devil has laid claim to man as his property, but you do not belong to him. You belong to the One who made you, the One who redeemed you, the One who sanctifies you.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 11:14-28), Christ announces Himself as the One come to overthrow the devil’s kingdom, to take back what belongs to Him. In the parable of the Strong Man, Jesus says that the Stronger One comes, takes from the tyrant “all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils.” Here Jesus specifically references one of the greatest chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah 53. That is the beautiful chapter telling us that Christ is “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief…. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…. He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities.” On and on it goes, wondrously describing God’s great love for us, how Jesus identifies with us poor sinners, how He knows everything that troubles us, and assumes it into Himself, going so far as to pay our debt and right all the wrongs we have done.

Then, in death the image shifts, with the suffering Christ shown to be a warrior who triumphs, who invades the fortress and recaptures the plunder of the dragon, the despot, the devil.

He himself shall bear their sins. Therefore he shall inherit many, and he shall divide the spoils of the strong, because his soul was given over to death, and he was reckoned among the lawless, and he bore the sins of many, and because of their sins he was given over. (Is 53:11–12 NETS)

The spoils of war belong to Christ: and you are the spoils of war, the loot that is captured, the pearl of great price that is found, the treasure hidden in a field. Christ comes to rescue you from every misery, and finally death.


 

God, in His infinite wisdom, doesn’t do this all at once. It’s a question I’m often asked, particularly by young children. Adults have it too, but we’re usually too weary and broken to give voice to it. Why doesn’t God just destroy the devil, bring an end to death, and usher in the kingdom of God in fullness right now? Extreme movements, such as the one Thomas Müntzer led in the 16th century, sought to bring about the kingdom of God through revolution. Similar ideas are present also in the Islamic State, whose violent establishment of a caliphate is intended to usher in the apocalypse. The devil remains very busy.

So why doesn’t God stop it all? Two things in particular we can state clearly from God’s Word, and even three I will tell you. The first is, the Lord has others He wishes to save, even those yet unborn. The Church must do everything we can to save the lives of the unborn, first allowing them to survive and be cared for, and then bringing them the Gospel of Life. The second reason is that God wishes us to learn, grow, and be trained through the struggle against the sinful nature. The third reason can be seen in His answer to Job: it is a resounding, “Be quiet; I am God, and not you. My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.”


 

The Divine Service is given to us to aid us in the struggle against the devil and our own sinful nature. The devil, his works, and his ways are renounced at baptism, and that renunciation will be repeated again this morning by Madeleine and Elsa at their Confirmation. It is good that we do this together, as a congregation, and frequently, for in truth this entire life must be a daily renouncing of the devil’s works and ways.

And that’s why the Church is again recovering the Reformation practice of giving the Lord’s Supper also to younger people. Our Reformation fathers admitted baptized Christians to communion around six or seven, when they could say the Ten Commandments, Apostles’ Creed, Lord’s Prayer, and understand the basic teachings of Baptism, Forgiveness, and the Supper. We’re not made worthy by getting to a certain age. We’re not made worthy by gaining an elaborate understanding of all the teachings of Holy Scripture. The simple teaching of the Small Catechism is that a person is truly worthy and well prepared for the Lord’s Supper when she has “faith in these words, ‘Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.’”

This is not just a matter of justice, of giving them what Jesus intended to give His disciples. To be a child is to be especially under assault by the forces of the culture. To be an adolescent is to have that struggle intensified, with surging hormones sending mind and body reeling, with change and confusion, desire and rage and fear and melancholy and hubris and reckless abandon. We would be foolish to not give our children vaccination against deadly diseases. We would be foolish to not feed our children with nourishing foods. How much more foolish would it be to withhold from them Christ’s gift, if they know what it is and why they need it?

And you, dear children, need this gift for the same reason we all need it: because this life is full of tough things and mean people and sad things and sins. But here at the Supper Jesus says to you, “Little children, I know that you have so much joy and wonder in the good and beautiful things in this world. I also know your sins: your lies, and your selfishness, and your not listening to father and mother. What is more, I know that you will have many troubles in this life. And so for all this, I give you Myself, My own body and blood, to feed you, to cleanse you, to strengthen you, to heal you. Stay close to Me. I will be your Good Shepherd through life and death. The devil, however strong he seems, is no match for Me. By My cross I have overcome him, and you belong to Me. You will share with Me My resurrection.”

What Christ says to these little children today, He says to all of you little children. Cling to Him through life and death, and the strong man, the evil foe, will have no power over you. +INJ+

Preached at Immanuel on March 8, 2015

Sermo Dei: Reminiscere 2015

Posted on March 26th, 2015

I was in the emergency room visiting someone, when a woman’s voice crackled through the din: “Is there anybody here to care about me?” The voice was of a person in pain not only in body but in mind: nobody will help.

“Is there anybody here to care about me?” There was no one. The hospital was slammed, the doctors and nurses where shouting and scurrying, and they could not keep up. “Is there anybody here to care about me?”

The particularities change, but that question that is on all of our minds as we sojourn through a world gone wrong, a globe fractured by abusers and abused. “Is there anybody here to care about me?”

The Canaanite woman in today’s Gospel (Matthew 15:21-28) hopes she’s found an answer to that question. “Jesus will care about me.”

But her hopes slam into God grim and foreboding. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed.”

“But He answered her not a word.” Why is He like this? Why does He not answer her? Why does He not answer you?

What is happening in our prayers? Can we change the mind of God? Can we change anything?

Abraham pleaded with God that the city of Sodom be spared if 50 righteous men could be found in the city, then is bold in talking God down from 50, to 45, to 40, to 30, to 20, to finally 10. In the end, the city is destroyed anyway after Lot is rescued.

Moses cried out, and God held off on destroying Israel when they had rebelled in the wilderness.

St. James says that we should pray for the sick, because the prayer of a righteous man avails much.

But then we have other passages, much more sobering, much more in accord with our own experience. “O My God, I cry in the daytime, but You do not hear; And in the night season, and am not silent.” (Psa 22:2 NKJV) God does not hear, does not answer. “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Psa 13:1 NKJV)

Thus it seems. You pray, and He does not answer. You keep at it, but things grow worse. “Perhaps,” a nagging voice says, “perhaps it is because you are worthless.” Or perhaps it is because you are doing it wrong. A better technique, the right formula of words, will make things different.

“To You I will cry, O Lord my Rock: Do not be silent to me, Lest, if You are silent to me, I become like those who go down to the pit.” (Psa 28:1 NKJV) On and on this goes. Perhaps there is no God at all? Maybe Marx was right, religion is merely an opiate for the masses. Maybe Nietzsche was right, and your lack of will, your inability to strike out and take what is yours is just your own weakness.

Why does He not answer?! What the Canaanite woman felt in today’s Gospel is unknown. But when Jesus did not answer her, ignored her, seemed to treat her with contempt, she persisted.

When Jesus says that He was not sent for the likes of her kind, her response is worship, which is a literal, bodily action of throwing herself on hands and knees, with her face in the dust. “Lord, help me!”

That should suffice. But she receives only insults. Not from the disciples, who gape in astonishment; but Jesus Himself calls her a dog.

Now perhaps you feel ill-treated in your life. Your work, your spouse, even your church make you feel disregarded, disliked, unimportant, unheard, uncared for. And God does not answer. He treats you as a dog, or as with Jacob, comes at you like a fighter bursting from the corner as the bell rings, ready to pummel you, kick you, pin you to the ground.

God is a strange God; alien, altogether unlike syrupy praise music or sentimental hymns. “What a friend we have in Jesus”? This Friend appears—when He appears at all— more a sparring partner, drill sergeant, or out-and-out enemy.

It all drives us to the point of saying with the Psalmist, “I am feeble and severely broken; I groan because of the turmoil of my heart.” (Psa 38:8 NKJV) Again and again the Scriptures counsel, “Wait.” But I do not think this simply means that if you are patient enough, your life will get better.

As months pile up into years, as hairs grow gray and opportunities disappear, never to return, what then comes of our waiting? “I am weary with my crying; My throat is dry; My eyes fail while I wait for my God.” (Psa 69:3 NKJV)

Why does Jesus answer this woman in the Gospels, and not, so it seems, you? Is it because she’s better at being patient, or humble? I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with her problem. Her daughter is not just sick. She is, the mother says, “severely demon-possessed.”

Madness! Who believes these antiquated superstitions anymore? I do. I don’t see demons in every shadow or rustling of leaves; but if you do not see the power of evil forces at work in the world, you aren’t paying attention. Our Lord Jesus came into the world to destroy the words of the devil. Last week we heard how Jesus overcame the devil’s temptations. Today we see Him beginning to overthrow the devil’s work. The world is filled with madness and sadness, crime and sickness.

So if the Lord doesn’t seem to be answering your prayers, making everything just as you would like it in this life, ask yourself if you have been baptized. There the devil was renounced and the Holy Spirit given.

What more do you want? More of that. And resurrection. That’s what we pray for. That’s what we wait for.

In other words, we wait for Easter, and we are following Jesus there, with a path that goes through Good Friday, through suffering and death.

Everything you now suffer, everything you now endure, everything that now troubles you, is designed to point you away from all the things you are coveting, all the things that have become idols. Food, fame, lust, winning the game: your priorities are eschew, and your prayers are misplaced. Discard them all and start anew, with the Canaanite woman. Just say to Jesus, “Lord, help me!”

The Lord will answer this prayer, and in the end show Himself your true friend.

Preached at Immanuel on March 1, 2015

Faith wages war

Posted on March 26th, 2015

Luther is no ally of the reductionist “Lutheranism” that is again claiming his name as a cloak for vice. Here Luther comments on 1 Peter 2:11, “Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul”:

Even is some one has been justified by faith, he will certainly not be free of evil desires. That is why the spirit has its work cut out in quenching and quelling the desires of the flesh. The spirit has to struggle with this area unceasingly and to take care that the spirit does not offend the faith. That is also why people are deceiving themselves when they say there is no danger if they obey the desires of the flesh. A righteous faith wages war on the body and keeps it in check so that it does not do what desire demands.

Luther Brevier, p102

Sermo Dei: Ash Wednesday 2015

Posted on March 11th, 2015

YOUNG WOMAN RECEIVES MARK OF ASHES

First of a four-part series on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the Road to Freedom.”


 

“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” That is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic summary of liberal Christianity.

The cross is prominent in our church – but the moderating, attenuating spirit is ever at work within us. I like my Christ with His cross, but I would like to be a Christian without crosses of my own.

The Gospel of Jesus sets us free from the guilt of sin. Yet sin as a power still clings to us, inhering in our nature. The inclination to evil desires sometimes takes us by surprise, arising seemingly out of nowhere. How quickly we can give in: one person becoming enraged, another person morose, and yet a third plunging in to pornography or excessive food and drink, all while another voice tells us we are fools, betraying our own better desires.

How broken we are! The great statement of the Reformation, the Augsburg Confession, calls this sinful nature a disease, one we have all inherited and which corrupts our entire human race. How broken we are!

This day is for smearing that brokenness on our foreheads. But there is hope in the ashes, for not indiscriminately are they painted. There is the cross, marking us even in death as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.


 

And on this day beginning a forty-day journey, Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow Him. That cross comes in your callings, as you love and suffer for your family and neighbors, your church and country and enemies. But the cross is also within. This day is a call to discipline.

Jesus says, “When you fast.” He says these words to you, His disciple. “When you fast.” It’s the third in a series: “When you give alms,” “When you pray,” and “When you fast.” All this is a call to discipline your life: Alms-giving, praying, fasting, all discipline your life so that money, food, and drink have no hold on you, and your life is oriented to God and neighbor.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a controversial figure in Lutheran circles. Theologically, the work of his contemporary Hermann Sasse is more orthodox. Yet there is much to be gained from taking to heart Bonhoeffer’s radical commitment to following Jesus even when it had grave consequences. As he reflected on his brief life while in Tegel Prison, held for resistance to the Nazis, Bonhoeffer saw his captivity as leading to a much deeper freedom. He wrote a poem called Stations on the Road to Freedom. (Hopefully you received a copy as you entered.) It would be a mistake to try to find the entire content of the Christian faith there. That was not its purpose.

But it would serve a good purpose for us this Lent to think about our own lives as disciples of Jesus through the four stations he outlined: Discipline, Action, Suffering, and Death. (Those are our themes tonight and the next three Wednesdays.)

 

 

The first station on the road to freedom, Bonhoeffer said, is Discipline:

If you would find freedom, learn above all to discipline your senses and your soul. Be not led hither and thither by your desires and your members. Keep your spirit and your body chaste, wholly subject to you, and obediently seeking the goal that is set before you.  None can learn the secret of freedom, save by discipline.

There is a paradox here: Only by losing your freedom do you gain it. Think about the disciplines Jesus sets forth: fasting (in tonight’s gospel), along with almsgiving and prayer. How is fasting freedom? You are doing without food. Freedom, it would seem, would be eating and drinking whatever, whenever, however much you like. And where is the freedom in almsgiving? Freedom, it would seem, would be in keeping your money and gaining more of it, not in giving it away. And what about prayer? What freedom is there in calling upon another for help? Wouldn’t freedom be in needing no help from the outside?

But the truth is, we are not free, and cannot free ourselves. Food, drink, money and possessions have a powerful hold over us. So now do our devices, smartphones and tablets. People clutch them, and panic when they go missing or forget them at home.

Food does not make us free. Money does not make us free. And freedom will not be found in autonomy—not needing to pray; we will find freedom when we have cast ourselves entirely on the One who sets us free.

The Lenten call to discipline is not made in a vacuum. We err grievously if we imagine that by our discipline we will achieve anything good before God. The Lenten call to discipline is, like the ashes, ever cruciform. Today Jesus tells us to fast. Sunday, we hear of the perfect forty-day fast of Jesus.

The call to discipline is the call to discipleship – they are the same word. We follow Jesus not to learn His secret techniques of self-mastery and success, but to learn from Him that His defeat of the devil is accomplished for us, the wages of sin have been paid by Him in full, and that He has bread to give us in His Supper that alone can satisfy our hunger.

Our disciplines fail because we rely upon ourselves. Yet there, even in failure, is a profound lesson: lamenting the disaster of our lives in ashes, we look to the cross in which our ashes are shaped.

The world urges us to gorge and feast, but it leaves us sick and numb. The discipline of being a disciple of Jesus leads us to true freedom: freedom in forgiveness, freedom from the fear of death, freedom from demanding your own way. In Jesus, you are free from everything that holds you in bondage.

Contempt for the Gospel

Posted on February 24th, 2015

Doctor Luther on the misuse of the Gospel:

It should be said and taught that the old leaven must be completely swept aside and that those who give into the whims of the flesh and deliberately and against their own conscience obstinately remain in their sins are not Christians nor do they have the faith. What is to be condemned all the more is when people do this in the name of and under the cover of the Gospel and of Christian freedom. For this shows contempt for and blasphemes against the name of Christ and the Gospel.

Luther Brevier, p70

Sermo Dei: Sexagesima 2015

Posted on February 9th, 2015

“I can’t go on like this. I’m at my breaking point. I can’t take it anymore!” Have you said words like these? Have you spent a day or a decade feeling like your situation is untenable? Work, family, sickness, even church can try your patience, tempting you to lash out in ways strident, selfish, sinful. “I can’t can’t go on like this!” is the cry of someone who has lost patience.

Today Jesus tells us (Luke 8:4-15) not just, “Be patient,” but to hear the Word of God with patience. Yet before He gets to that, He describes what prevents the Word from doing its work in us. Jesus is asking us to look carefully at ourselves, and consider if we have been living and acting as one of the three kinds of soils that fail. How easily we set aside the message God has for us, so that it ends up trampled, devoured, withered, or choked.

vg-sower

Yet God is liberal, for see how liberally, recklessly He sows. He does not discriminate at all. To everyone comes the seed, to everyone is preached the Word. What is that Word? Repent and be baptized! Repent and be saved! Repent and receive forgiveness! Repent, and bear fruits worthy of repentance! Turn from your foolish ways, your bickering, your obsessions and addictions, your sins and pride, and behold the Lamb of God, who died for your sins and delivers you from death and hell! This is the seed, this is the Word, this is the message God has for you.

Do you have a heart of stone, so that you hear the Word, but never seriously consider it? Do you come to preaching but leave no different than when you came? Do you make no room for God to break into your daily life, yet have plenty of room for work, TV, reading, and sports? How can you consume so much of the things of this life, yet consume so little of the Word of God? Repent, lest the Word get trampled down on your hard heart, and the devil lift it off and it is gone.

When things go well, we believe with joy, but when we have a bad interaction with a fellow Christian, or a misunderstanding with the pastor, or are disappointed that the church doesn’t do enough or say enough about this or that, we are tempted to leave and turn back. In today’s parable, some hear and believe, but having no root, they wither in the face of temptations. Jesus says, “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” The judgment of God should cause each of us to tremble.

And what is the last and greatest danger? “The [seeds] that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.” Has your heart gradually become preoccupied with the love of money? Have you developed a liking for the pleasures of this world? Have your worries and anxieties supplanted faith and hope? Our Lord describes riches as thorns, for touching them can quickly wound us, pricking us with some sin. Did not the same Lord say, “How hard it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”? The blessings of this life do not have to be a cause of sin, but how easily and often they are! David says in the Psalms, “If riches increase, do not set your heart on them.”


Through all of these dangers, Christ is setting us up for His word of comfort. That word is patience. It sounds like law. “Keep, cling on to the Word with patience.” Yet it is not law; it is not a command. Nothing is more irksome than, when in the midst of your impatience, you are told to be patient! It doesn’t help.

But Christian patience is no mere self-mastery, a technique of self-control. Christian patience is hope, a confident expectation of victory. “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?” says the Psalmist: “My hope is in You.” Our Lord can tell us to hang on to the Word with patience because the Word tells us everything is done already, everything has been finished already by our Lord Jesus Christ. He has overcome death; He has conquered the grave; He has atoned for sin; He has opened the way to everlasting life; if these things are true—and they are—how could you possibly despair? And if there is no reason for despair, no reason for sorrow, than there is no reason to lose hope, and no reason to lose patience. For everything has already been done for you.

This is why the book of Daniel concludes, “Blessed is the one who endures” – a theme taken up by St. James: “Be patient … brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruits of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and late rains. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.… Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”

So when next you are tempted to say, “I cannot take it anymore,” know that our Lord has already taken everything for you. When next you are tempted to sin, know that our Lord was tempted in every way you are, and did not fall. When next you are provoked to anger, remember how our Lord prayed for His enemies’s forgiveness, and gives you grace likewise to forgive. When next doubt enters into your mind, hold fast to the Word of Truth. When next you are lured by riches, remember how our Lord became poor for your sake, and learn simply to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” When next you are bewildered by the losses and trials of this life, remember our Lord who gave us the words to say: “Thy will be done.” When next your conscience accuses you of past sins, hold fast to the Word of absolution which you have heard from the Pastor. And when at the last you are frightened by death and the darkness of the grave, rejoice that Christ has won the victory, and all of His good works are imputed to you.

Hold fast to that Word, for He will never let you go, He will never leave you nor forsake you.

Sermo Dei: The Conversion of St. Paul 2015

Posted on January 28th, 2015

A storm was coming. Those in its rumored path were terrified. They had heard how this storm struck in Jerusalem, killing their friend Stephen.

This storm was named Saul. But standing in his path was the One who stills storms.

Light flashes around him. As at the Transfiguration, Jesus is revealed as true God in human flesh.

This world-changing event demonstrates how God works. Saul’s conversion is not the result of his theological study, emotional yearning, or ethical efforts.

Jesus does the action. He does the turning, the converting, the off-the-horse-knocking. Saul is struck blind, his eyes now matching his mind. He was incapable of seeing Truth, the one shining Truth upon which all other meaning depends. Jesus makes him blind, and Jesus makes him see again. The action of conversion, the restoration of sight, the baptism, all of it is Christ’s work.

The action of conversion is Christ’s work.

Jesus does the action. But the action has a reaction. Saul who persecuted the disciples becomes himself a disciple. The teacher becomes a student, a learner. He who persecuted the Way becomes one who walks on this Way. Before the disciples were called Christians, they were called the Way, followers of the Way. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and following Him means being on the road with Him, going His Way, guided by His truth, enlivened by His Life.

Life as Saul previously pursued it was not merely adapted or adjusted. Following Jesus meant an overturning of everything he had been and done. It’s true: this is a new life.


What else changed? See how Ananias addresses Saul. He calls him, “Brother.” Think of it. This storm named Saul was on his way to Damascus to destroy the disciples of Jesus. But the Word of the Lord causes Ananias to greet Saul as “Brother.”

What message is there for you in that greeting spoken to Saul, “Brother”? The blood of Stephen has hardly dried from Saul’s hands. See what the forgiveness of Jesus does! It sets murderers free, and enemies greet each other as family. Even before Saul is baptized, Ananias, though afraid, greets him with love. Would not the life of our congregation, the life of our synod, the life of our world be transformed were we to give and receive from our heart that one word, “Brother”?

The assaults of pseudo-science would have us set aside the truth that God is our maker and Adam our first human father. Losing these truths, we have no Father, we have no law, we have no brotherhood. What then is left but power and prejudice?

Photo: Mollie Ziegler Hemingway at the 2015 March for Life in Washington, DC. http://thefederalist.com/2015/01/23/the-2015-march-for-life-in-photos/

This past week hundreds of thousands of people visited our city for the annual March for Life. We don’t need the Bible to tell us that killing a child is evil. It’s simple science that from the moment of conception, the mother is carrying a human being in her womb. But part of the great evil of abortion is its connection to the eugenics movement. The same ideology that drove Germans to murder millions of Jews drove the movement in America to eliminate the “undesirables,” particularly blacks. Abortions in the black and hispanic communities are more than double their share of the population. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, established the “Negro Project.” In a letter she stressed the need for deception. “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.” She referred to African-Americans as “human waste.”

Such ideas are not new. Since Cain killed Abel, the human family has divided into tribes and gone to war with itself. The Gospel of Jesus Christ overthrows every notion of race, tribe, clan, for it calls us back to the truth that we are all made by God, part of one human family as children of Adam, and called together as one family into the mystical body of Jesus. That’s why Ananias could greet Paul as “brother,” this man who had set out on his journey to put him in prison.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ overthrows every notion of race, tribe, clan.

I couldn’t track down a connection, but I suspect there’s a reason the Conversion of St. Paul falls exactly a week after the Confession of St. Peter, which we celebrated last Sunday. Peter took the good news of Jesus to the Jews, while Paul took that same gospel to the Gentiles. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the world-rescuer, and that He loves and receives sinners, is a message for a murderer like Paul, and for selfish, broken, ridiculous fools like you and me.


 

After Saul’s conversion he spends three years in Arabia. We’re not told what he’s doing during this period, and perhaps that’s the point. Saul needs separation from his old life. He’s not doing anything, but Jesus is continuing to do, to act. I suspect Saul is studying the Scriptures and praying. He sees everything now in a new light. Moses, Psalms, and Prophets are revealed as, in every letter, dot, and dash, pointing to Jesus, His cross, His righteousness, His resurrection. Saul sees everything—everything—now changed in life because Jesus is life and gives life. The things Saul was pursuing, even while he thought he was serving God, were things leading to death.

What about you? What in your life, what in your heart, what in your mind needs to be converted, changed, transformed? We keep coming to confession, preaching, and communion because our conversion, our transformation is not yet complete. Following the Way, we are not yet at our destination. Jesus is leading us toward death. Daily we drown the lusts of the flesh; daily we crucify the lusts of the eyes; daily we subdue the pride of life. When Jesus called Saul, He called him to come and die. “I will show him how many things he must suffer for the sake of My name.” Jesus calls you and me to come and die. For dying, we live. The Jesus who calls us to come and die with Him gives us life in Him: joy now and joy beyond measure in the resurrection.

Much of this dying happens within our family. There, in honoring parents, loving your wife, submitting to your husband, caring for your children, you learn to die. But we also receive a new family, new brothers and sisters in Jesus that we receive in the new birth of Baptism.

We cannot have God as Father and Jesus as brother and not acknowledge all those joined to us by the Spirit as also our brothers and sisters.

“Brother” is no mere pious phrase. All the baptized, even those whose company you don’t prefer or whose behaviors and characteristics annoy you, each one is your brother, born not of the blood of your biological mother but born of the blood of Jesus and through the waters of the Spirit’s baptism. We cannot have God as Father and Jesus as brother and not acknowledge all those joined to us by the Spirit as also our brothers and sisters. Our union with Jesus makes us inextricably connected to each other.

It is often said that Paul changed the world, preaching Jesus to the Gentiles and ultimately spreading Christianity to the far corners of the world. But Paul didn’t change the world. Jesus changed Paul. He forgave him. That changed everything. It changes everything for us too – now in this life, and in the life of the world to come. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: The Confession of St. Peter

Posted on January 20th, 2015

Dear friends in Christ Jesus, today is a glad day: Benjamin Alexander, son of Aaron, today becomes son of God through the waters of rebirth and renewal.

It is also a sad time. [REDACTED] have lost the child they were expecting. I grieve for them. Many of you have borne similar sorrows. The Word of God to our first mother is true: Conception is now filled with sorrow, and bringing forth children filled with pain.

Yet to our first parents God gave a hope: the promise of a Child who would heal these wounds and repair this world’s brokenness. His nativity we celebrated at Christmas, and in today’s Gospel (St. Mark 8:27—9:1) St. Peter confesses that this Jesus is the Christ, the world-rescuer.

 


 

But the expectation was that the Christ, the Messiah, this Anointed king in the line of David would subdue the world with force. We understand. We want to back a winner. We want our will to prevail. Politics, home life, church: what isn’t tainted with the will to power?

Many longed for—and still long for—a Messianic figure to bring order and peace to the cosmos as other rulers in this world attempt to do.

Jesus upends their expectations just as He overturned tables in the Temple. When Jesus begins talking suffering, sacrifice, and death not for His enemies but for Himself, Peter’s beautiful confession, “You are the Christ,” turns to confusion.

Peter assumes the role of teacher over Christ. After Peter confesses, “You are the Christ,” Jesus “strictly warned them” to keep it to themselves, knowing how people misunderstood the work of the Messiah. That very same term is used then of Peter, here translated rebuke. Jesus speaks of His death, and “Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him.”

The way of the cross was hidden from Peter, as he goes from confession to confusion. Is it much different for us? For you who became Christians as adults, or who had an experience of a renewal of the faith, you know the initial joy that the Gospel brings. But along with it, there is an expectation of success. Everything will be good now. After all, does not God promise great blessings to His children?

Indeed; but like vegetables to children, blessings can seem repugnant when swallowed. We want what tastes good, but it is our sense of taste that needs to be transformed. Meaning: our affections, our passions, our desires are disordered. This is the awful power of the sinful nature. It is present in us from our beginning, which is why we bring Benjamin to baptism, just as he is taken to the physician before he knows to ask for it. He needs the medicine, he needs the work God promises in baptism. St. Peter, after he was transformed and restored by the power of Jesus’ resurrection, preached at Pentecost that the promise of baptism is for us and for our children. God’s power is not dependent upon our wills; indeed, it is to transform and free our broken wills that He comes to us with His gifts and promises.

But the long journey following baptism is the journey of, to, and with the cross. For fighting against this new birth is the Old Adam who clings to us still, the sinful nature who is mindful not “of the things of God, but the things of men.”

Rising from the waters of baptism, Jesus was immediately tempted, harassed by Satan with “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” So it is with you. “Whoever desires to come after Me,” Jesus says, “let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.”

What do you most desire? Even the good desires planted in our nature, desires for food, drink, union with the opposite sex, and children – how easily these desires ruin us as we abuse God’s good gifts and measure everything by power and pleasure.

What do you most desire? The path of discipleship is learning to desire nothing but God and His kingdom, and what benefits the neighbor. Outside of this, what will it profit you if you gain the whole world while your soul remains corrupt, filled with bitterness and pride, anger and folly?

 


 

Peter’s confession was true, even if he did not yet fully understand it. Jesus is the Christ. He has come to destroy the works of the devil. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus pays those wages in full by His death on the cross. In Him is our faith, our trust.

But note the renewed and restored Peter’s preaching on faith in his letter read this morning. Our goal is to become “partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” You feel those desires yet in you. They are powerful, and this Christian life is spent fighting them. Faith is the beginning, but love is the end.

Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1:5–7 ESV)

To accomplish this, the Lord sends us times of sadness. They are difficult. But He ends them in His good time, in better ways than we could imagine or devise.

Thus we come to this holy altar for the medicine we need, medicine to give us joy amidst tears, and to check our pride when we prosper in this world. Approaching the altar, we learn from today’s Gospel about the confession of Peter how we should confess: “Dear Lord, I have had in mind the things of men, and not the things of God. I have resented the crosses You send me, and taken credit for Your gifts. I return to You chastened. Your Son is my Christ, my Messiah, my Jesus. I need You more than ever. Abandon me not to my folly, but renew me with the Holy Spirit you poured out this day on little Benjamin. I am Yours; save me.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Baptism of Our Lord 2015

Posted on January 16th, 2015

Baptism of the Lord Jesus

Approaching the waters, Jesus announces, “I am a sinner.” John knows better. “No You are not. While in the waters of my mother’s womb I leaped for joy, for the Righteous One has come at last.”

Still Jesus approaches Jordan’s banks. “I am a sinner.” John replies, “Is this some kind of trick? I need to be baptized by You.”

But Jesus insists. Descending into the waters, the sinless One becomes sinner, Life is steeped in death. The logic of the Logos, the orderliness of the Word descends into disorder, chaos.

Into Himself Jesus absorbs all that is broken. He drinks in your pain, He soaks in your sorrow. It is as though every tear streaming from bitter eyes, every drop of blood spilled through injustice and disregard, every plague and contagion, all of humanity’s rage and spite, all of our pus and excrement, everything that soils and infests flows with raging torrent into that river.

The Baptism and the Cross are one. And then comes the preaching: “This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased.” The sermon is for you. But what is more, the sermon is about you.

For you too have been baptized. Dr. Luther put it this way: “You should enter into Christ’s baptism with your own baptism, so that Christ’s baptism is your baptism and your baptism is Christ’s baptism and thus there is one baptism” (Luther Brevier, p23).

 


 

Around you, the storms of life still rage. The tears and blood, the dread and melancholy, the real sins and real hurts continue. We were told this would happen, but believed the lie: we expected rewards, blessings without crosses, and seem surprised when the words are proved true again, that only through many hardships do we enter the kingdom of God, and the paradoxical sign of His love is discipline. All this continues, indeed increases until the world finally crashes to its end.

But through it all, the voice of the Father at the Baptism of Jesus rings out as His Word for our baptism: “You are My beloved child. In you I am well pleased.”

Diagnose yourself, and you see nothing but sin and death, a barren wasteland where nothing good grows. Gaze into that mirror and say, “It is true.”

But hasten on to the Jesus who joins you in the wasteland, joins you in the foul and murky waters and says, “I am with you.” Stand with Him there in the waters; say back to Him, “I am with You!” And hear the voice of the Father speak to you both, together as one: “You are My beloved Son. In You I am well pleased.”

You are the Father’s delight. He loves you. After this comes temptation, fasting, affliction, sorrow, whipping, thorns, cross, burial. But through it all, you remain the Father’s delight. He loves you still. Resurrection is coming, when dead things live and barren places bloom. +INJ+

Epiphany 1 Chapel Sermon

Posted on January 15th, 2015

Has anybody ever asked you, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” If you had asked me that question when I was a little boy, I would have said that I wanted to operate big construction equipment. I had a book called “Digger Dan the Steam-shovel Man,” and I would make my mom read it to me over and over again. Later I wanted to be a policeman, or an astronaut. Then I decided I was going to be the catcher for the Minnesota Twins. That didn’t work out.

Now stop and think for a moment about the implications of that question, “What do you want to be?” The question assumes that our being, who we are, is defined by what job you have.

 


 

What if we thought about the question very differently? It would be a much better thing to say, “What do I want to be? I want to be a Christian. I want to be a disciple of Jesus.”

Aren’t you that already? When you were baptized, God gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit, He named you His child and said, “I will be your Father.”

So, we already are Christians, we already are disciples of Jesus.

 


 

And yet, we’re not all the way there. Part of our heart, part of our mind, part of our will, does not want to be a Christian. That’s what we call the sinful nature: the heart, the affections, the passions, our desires all keep on trying to make us say “No!” to God and His Word.

 


 

In today’s Bible reading (Luke 2:41-52), Jesus is a boy very close to your own age. He is about twelve years old. Joseph and Mary have taken Jesus to the big city of Jerusalem, to visit the temple and celebrate the Passover.

Jesus had always been a good boy, and Joseph and Mary aren’t worried about Him remembering to come along when their big group of travelers  leaves Jerusalem for the long trip back to Nazareth.

But Jesus stays behind. He wan’t trying to be bad or not obey Joseph and Mary. But already at twelve He knows who He is. He doesn’t say, “One day I want to grow up and die on a cross.” But He does say, “I will be exactly what God the Father wants Me to be, and I will do exactly what God the Father wants Me to do.”

So when Mary and Joseph finally find JESUS on the third day in the temple, they demand an explanation. “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”

That’s who Jesus is: the one man who doesn’t think about what He wants to be. The only thing He wants is to be what God the Father wants Him to be. Jesus is what Jesus does: Jesus is our Savior, Jesus does the saving. Jesus is Lord, and He lords us, He cares for us, He protects us, He gives us life.

 


 

Everything we are is wrapped up in Jesus. So if somebody asks you, “Who are you?” you can say, “I am a Christian, I am a child of God, I’m with Jesus.” And that’s also your answer if someone says, “What do you want to be?” You can say, “I want to be a Christian.” Everything else is just details. +INJ+