Best Books of 2016

Posted on January 2nd, 2017

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

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


Honorable Mention:

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


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

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


The 2015 reading recap is here.

You can see what I’m currently reading here.

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

Sermo Dei: Circumcision and Name of Jesus

Posted on January 1st, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermo Dei: New Year’s Eve 2016

Posted on December 31st, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermo Dei: Holy Innocents 2016

Posted on December 28th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sermo Dei: Christmas Midnight 2016

Posted on December 25th, 2016

Christmas Midnight

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

Isaiah 9:2-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The people who walked in darkness 

have seen a great light; 

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, 

on them has light shone.

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

For to us a child is born, 

to us a son is given.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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+