Sermo Dei: Holy Thursday 2015

Posted on April 3rd, 2015

It is mere hours before His arrest. This is His last meal before His crucifixion, and Jesus knows it. What Jesus does at this time, therefore, must be the most important of all things that He could do.

The Lord’s Supper is the fulfillment of Ps. 23, “Thou prepares a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” The Supper is instituted, and always remains, in the context of betrayal: of enemies, thorns, clubs and spears, crosses, death. So what does Jesus do, facing this bitter end? He picks up the bread. Not just any bread – the bread of the Passover, by which God once delivered His people from their enemies.


And taking up the bread, Jesus gives thanks. How astounding is this! Before His greatest trial, before the most agonizing suffering, just as Jesus sees a close, trusted friend turn violently against Him, Jesus gives thanks. For what?

For everything. For bread. For creation. For the Passover. For the Father’s promises. For His friends. For His mother, and for Joseph. For the donkey and the palms, for the temple and the Psalms, for every good thing that God has given to man. Jesus is God, but it is as a man He does what man was meant to do: take up the gifts of God and receive them with thanksgiving.

That’s how we approach this Sacrament, and also how we approach the world, and our friends, and our work. The Supper is not something we do. It is received; a gift from the Lord. “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you,” Paul says. This meal is always our thanksgiving meal as we receive double from the Lord’s hand: both the created gifts of bread and wine, and the heavenly gifts of Christ’s body and blood, with salvation and life.

God’s Word teaches us that as we approach this great gift, we must do so with a serious and honest look at the many sins in our life. Eating and drinking unworthily will bring judgment on us.

“Examine yourself,” the Lord’s Word admonishes us, before eating and drinking this Sacrament. How are we to examine ourselves? You must compare your life—and not your words and actions only, but also your inner life, the thoughts and desires of your heart—you must compare these with the Ten Commandments. Have you been dissatisfied with what God has given you? Have you assumed the best about your neighbor? Have you wasted time and possessions, thereby stealing from God and others? Have you kept your body and eyes pure and treasured the gifts of intimacy as they were meant for holy marriage? Have you helped your neighbor in need? Have you honored the authorities God has placed over you? Have you treasured His Word as the greatest holy thing? Have you called upon Him in every trouble, and thanked Him for every good thing? Have you regarded God as the highest good, or have you measured everything by what pleases you?

Self-examination means being honest about who you really are, no excuses, no self-justification. Thus examining ourselves, we plead with God for grace and also say, “I want to do better; I want to be new and different.” Or, as David says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.”

And then, coming to this Supper, we remember Jesus. The memory of Jesus at the supper is not an intellectual exercise, like a quiz show, recalling data. Remembering Jesus at His Supper is “to remember Christ’s benefits and to receive them by faith so that we are made alive through them” (Ap XXIV). In other words, remembering Jesus means remembering that He is merciful, that He is the one who said, “Come to Me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” You come remembering that you are baptized, and that the Father’s words about Jesus at His baptism now apply to you: “You are My beloved son, My beloved daughter; in you I am well-pleased.”

We come to the Supper confident that He means what He says: “This is My body, given for you; this is My blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Are you a sinner? Then this Supper is for you.

The psalm tells us who God is and what He does: “The Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear Him” (Ps. 111.4f). If you have truly examined yourself, then you will rightly fear God. It is precisely for those who are afraid that He provides this food, a Food filled with grace and mercy.

What then makes you worthy to receive this Supper? The Lutheran Confessions say, “Terrified consciences are the ones worthy of it” (Ap XXIV). So examine yourself, look at yourself and be terrified. Then come and receive His comfort. Imitate your Lord Jesus as He prepared to die. Take up this bread, give thanks, and entrust yourself to the One who saves.

Sermo Dei: Palmarum 2015

Posted on March 31st, 2015

One was angry with Him, the other confused.

They were sisters, and their brother was dead.

Do you know the panic, when you’ve called for help, and help is not coming fast enough?

Do you know the terror, when death has come for your brother, your husband, your father? Nothing matters, because everything that is anything is gone.

That’s how these sisters felt.

And besides that, disappointment.

No – betrayal.

What a friend we have in Jesus? Some friend. He’s not there when you need Him.

He even skipped the funeral.


Are you angry with God? Or worse, maybe you find it hard to believe at all. It’s been a long time since anything happened. The tombs have closed on your brothers, and sisters, fathers and mothers, husbands and wives. No one is coming to help.

Jesus made them wait. Why? He teaches them both that He weeps with them, sharing their suffering, but also that in Him is the power of resurrection. He answers in the best time, which we cannot comprehend.

This is why the crowds gathered in Jerusalem the first Palm Sunday. They came for the resurrection of the dead.


Why have you come here, to this House named after the One who rides a donkey? What were you expecting?

One has a difficult marriage, another seeks a spouse, while the widow grieves the husband who is no more. What can Jesus do?

There are those whom you have hurt, and those whom you have failed to help. Will your life be changed, if you meet the One whose name you sing?

You gave something up for Lent, and soon found excuses and loopholes for your own resolutions.

What is wrong with us?


The death that caused Lazarus’ decaying body to stink causes our own lives to stink.

Our first parents tasted the tree of the knowledge of evil. We, however, have feasted on that fruit so that our minds are sick, calling good “evil,” and evil, “good.” Do you sin intentionally, certain you will find forgiveness afterward? This is death.

This is why He came. To raise the dead.

We who are in the lowest cry out, “Hosanna in the highest!”

“Hosanna” means, “Save!”

This day the Church prays, “You, Jesus, who are in the highest, save the world that you brought into being, and blot out our sins, just as you previously dried the tears of Mary and Martha” (Romanus Melodus, adapt.).

Even a son who has wandered far in this vale of tears, even a daughter who has scorned her parents’s counsel, will they not be welcomed home again? The Father welcomes home His children, because they are His. He formed us out of clay, and comes to save us at the right time.

That is why God has brought you here, this day: because He desires to give you His gifts.


There was another crowd that assembled later in Holy Week. Offered Jesus, they cried out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” They meant it for his death, but these words, too, we must appropriate for our own. His blood is on us, for our sins are on Him. You are guilty. Our whole race is guilty.

But “His blood be on us and on our children!” is also what Mark and Melissa mean when they bring Elizabeth to be baptized today. In Baptism, we offer our children up to God, and say, “This one is Yours. Save her!”

Hosanna, “Save,” is the song most associated with this day. It has become a song of joy, because we know that it is accomplished. You don’t see it yet. Your wife needs surgery. Your son is struggling. Your career is stalled. Yet still we sing, “Hosanna!”, “Save!” not only because we need it, but because we know He will do it.

So we leave here new and different today. The encounter with Jesus cannot leave us the same. He raises the dead, and puts to flight the demons that haunt you. We follow Him to the cross, we rest with Him in the tomb, knowing that He will bring us to the raising of our bodies and the renewal of the world.

Annunciation 2015 (ILS Choral Vespers)

Posted on March 26th, 2015

Nothing is more offensive to the human mind than that a baby could be God. We like the idea of growth, progress, achievement. If you work hard enough, then someday you’ll get into a good high school, then college, and someday you could be a doctor, or a lawyer, or even president.

The Roman Empire had something like this. The Roman Senate had deified Julius Caesar—declaring him to be a god. Julius Caesar had adopted a son, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, later called Caesar Augustus. He eventually was called filius dei, “son of (a) god.”

It was during the reign of Caesar Augustus that a Baby was conceived and born, in a far-flung region of that great empire. He was in truth filius dei, the Son of God.


The older I get, the more I’m inclined to believe that this all happened on the same day, that Jesus began His human life inside the body of the virgin Mary on March 25, nine months before His birth – and that in Anno Domini 33 Jesus was crucified on the same day, a Friday, March 25. It would be just like God to arrange something like that, and have throughout history other things happen on the same date over the years.

Isaac carries the wood for the sacrifice up the hill, asking, “Where is the lamb?”, all anticipating the Day when Jesus carries the wood of His cross as the very Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. It would be just like God to arrange that.

The Jews smear blood on their doorposts, and are delivered from slavery, all anticipating the Day when the blood of Jesus cleanses the world from sin, and brings us through the waters to freedom. It would be just like God to arrange that.


The Peter Jackson movies do a nice job of portraying the drama and excitement of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. But there are deeply Christian aspects to the story that don’t come through in the movies. As always, you have to read the books for the best material. For example, the one ring of power, which Bilbo finds and Frodo carries into the land of Mordor, represents the corrupting power of sin. The quest is to unmake it, by casting it into a sort of lake of fire, an image straight from the book of Revelation. This finally happens, the ring is destroyed, and Tolkien, almost as an aside, lets us know that it happens on the twenty-fifth of March. The day when Jesus is conceived, the day when Jesus is crucified, is the day when the power of evil is unmade.


Recently thirteen children received their first communions here at Immanuel. Many of them are with us tonight. I told them that while they eat the communion with their mouths, there is an important eating that happens with their ears.

One of the great Italian renaissance painters, Fra Angelico, painted the Annunciation where you see the words of Gabriel coming out of his mouth going toward the Virgin Mary. Luther later indicates the same idea in a sermon, where God enters the body of Mary through her ears.

God still works like this today. He does great things through His Word, and we receive them through our ears, believing that He means what He says.


We have many holidays where the world gets excited and throws a big party, days like Thanksgiving Day and Independence Day. Other days, like Easter, get corrupted into a day of chocolate and bunnies. I like chocolate, but not even that great gift from God has the power to save me from death.

Today, March 25, we still have all to ourselves. Today, God entered our world quietly, hidden safely in the womb of a loving mother. On March 25, He came to suffer and die for us. Today, March 25, is the pivotal day of all human history. God has been good to us; let us give Him all thanks and glory!

Stations on the Road to Freedom: Death (4th Lent Midweek 2015)

Posted on March 26th, 2015

On the morning of April 8, 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was being held in a makeshift prison in Schönberg. Some of Bonhoeffer’s fellow prisoners, including a Roman Catholic and an atheist, asked Bonhoeffer to hold a service for them. It was Quasimodo Geniti, the Sunday after Easter, and Bonhoeffer read from Isaiah 53, that by Christ’s stripes we are healed, and from 1 Peter 1, that by God’s great mercy He has caused them to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. He preached to them, according to one participant, “in a manner which reached the hearts of all, finding just the right words to express the spirit of our imprisonment.” As he finished praying, the door opened, and two men entered, saying, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer. Get ready to come with us.” The words “Come with us” were known by all prisoners to mean one thing only: the scaffold. As the prisoners said good-bye to him, Bonhoeffer said to a friend, “This is the end. For me the beginning of life.”

That is how a Christian views death. It is the most terrible thing, interrupting and destroying God’s good creation. Yet for those who are in Jesus the risen one, death is now freedom from the bondage of sin.


Such is not how Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, saw death when she encountered Jesus in the Gospel reading we heard this evening. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It is an accusation. How often we would give a similar rebuke to God. He is not caring for us. His burdens are too great, His yoke too heavy.

She was not the only one concerned that Jesus does not care. In an earlier episode, the rebuke of Martha is well known. She had complained about her sister Mary not helping. What a beautiful thing to hear, then, in John 11, “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Martha comes first, and her sister is not named. What does this tell us but that the Lord abounds in grace?

The disciples also were confused by Jesus. It seemed that He did not care about Lazarus, about them, or about His own safety. And they were confused about how He spoke about death, as sleep.

Why does He call death sleep? It is only possible to see it like this if there is, in fact, a resurrection, a waking up from the sleep.

None of this they understand. Thus Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” This is brave. But it is hopeless bravado, for he is agreeing with the revilers at the cross: He saved others, Himself he cannot save. Thomas anticipates failure.

To everyone involved, Jesus seems uncaring. And then there is the accusation hurled by Mary: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” How would you react? Upon receiving an accusation of not caring, I am prone to become angry. I want to protect myself, defend myself, justify myself. What does Jesus do? He is “deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled.” He joins her in her weeping. Christ does not abandon her, and neither does He abandon us to our fate. He joins us in the confessional, He joins us at the hospital bed, He joins us in our anxious messages sent back and forth as we are worried and troubled about many things. He joins us in our crosses and goes with us to the grave. Thomas had said, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” But it is rather Jesus who says, “I will go, that I may die with them and for them. And then I will rise, that they might live with Me.”


This is the Jesus who was with Bonhoeffer too, as he went, bound, to his last place of suffering, Flossenbürg concentration camp. The United States Army would arrive there in two weeks. But seeing the end at hand, Hitler from in his bunker decreed, “Destroy the conspirators!”

But this execution would not be Bonhoeffer’s destruction. While a pastor in London, he had preached, “No one has yet believed in God and the kingdom of God, no one has yet heard about the realm of the resurrected, and not been homesick from that hour, waiting and looking forward joyfully to being released from [this life].” All that is here, Bonhoeffer said, is only the prologue.

Death is not wild and terrible, if only we can be still and hold fast to God’s Word. Death is not bitter, if we have not become bitter ourselves. Death is grace, the greatest gift of grace that God gives to people who believe in him. Death is mild, death is sweet and gentle, it beckons to us with heavenly power, if only we realize that it is the gateway to our homeland.

This preaching was indeed how Bonhoeffer approached death when his hour came. Between 5 and 6 a.m., Bonhoeffer was taken out along with several military leaders who had been part of the conspiracy to end the National Socialist tyranny. The prison doctor reported that he saw Bonhoeffer kneeling in prayer before being taken to the gallows. “I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.”

Thus Bonhoeffer concludes his Stations on the Road to Freedom with death not as defeat, but victory:

Come now, Queen of the feasts on the road to eternal freedom! O death, cast off the grievous chains and lay low the thick walls of our mortal body and our blinded soul, that at last we may behold what we have failed to see. O freedom, long have we sought thee in discipline and in action and in suffering. Dying we behold thee now, and see thee in the face of God.

God grant us all a death in Jesus, that it become for us the beginning of freedom, coming at last with our redeemer Jesus to the final Easter, the resurrection of the body, and the renewal of the world.

Preached at Immanuel on March 11, 2015

Stations on the Road to Freedom: Suffering (3rd Lent Midweek 2015)

Posted on March 26th, 2015

We have this Lent been considering the Dietrich Bonhoeffer poem Stations on the Road to Freedom. The first station 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.

Last week we heard the second station, Action:

To do and dare–not what you would, but what is right. Never to hesitate over what is in your power, but boldly to grasp what lies before you. Not in the flight of fancy, but only in the deed there is freedom. Away with timidity and also reluctance! Out into the storm of event, sustained only by the commandment of God and your faith, and freedom will accept you with exultation.

These deeds and events are given to us by God in our vocation. Whether it is resisting socialist tyranny or the tyranny of sin in your life, whether it is serving a global church or serving your struggling spouse, your action is given to you by God, near the people and places where He puts you.

Then we enter into what inevitably follows from right action: Suffering. Bonhoeffer wrote these while in the Tegel prison for taking part in the resistance movement against the National Socialists. As Vicar Griebenaw mentioned to me earlier, this third part, Suffering, indicates his present condition while a prisoner. He sought to discipline himself through prayer, Scriptural meditation, and a life of chastity. He sought to act where God called him, to defend the victims of Socialist tyranny. And then, action ceases, and he enters into suffering:

O wondrous change! Those hands, once so strong and active, have now been bound. Helpless and forlorn, you see the end of your deed. Yet with a sigh of relief you resign your cause to a stronger hand, and are content to do so. For one brief moment you enjoyed the bliss of freedom, only to give it back to God, that he might perfect it in glory.

In suffering, your hands are bound. Why does God allow it? This God, this God who loves us, is strange and fierce. To the Canaanite woman in Sunday’s Gospel, our Lord is austere and foreboding, answering her not a word, rebuking her to the point of complete brokenness.

This suffering, too, is part of our training. It is painful, says the Epistle to the Hebrews which we heard, “But later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” If you can see it, there is tremendous joy in suffering, and that joy is found in the One whose hand is stronger.

Our Lord Jesus knows what it is to have bound hands. Once so strong and active, first fashioning wood, then healing the sick and feeding the hungry, then He became hungry and weak Himself; His hands were bound and affixed to wood, and He became utterly helpless and forlorn. So when everything in your life seems filled with fear and anxiety, and you know not what to do, you can sigh. Not the sigh of despair, but what Bonhoeffer calls the sigh of relief. You are giving this problem into the strong hand that once was bound but now is free.

Your suffering seems like a loss of freedom. But the suffering is preparing you for a much greater freedom than anything this world can offer. So the Lord Jesus says to the church in Smyrna, “Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested.” Even the affliction worked on you by the devil, God is going to use for His testing, His proving, His training. Then comes the well-known passage often used in Confirmations: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” In its context, we see it is about martyrdom, being put to death. What does the martyr do? He commits everything into the hands of Christ. And what results? Life.

So be disciplined about prayer and Scripture reading. Keep yourself pure from evil influences. Act where God places you. And then, when suffering comes, do nothing. That’s when God acts. We trust everything to Him. His hand is stronger. He has been through your suffering, His hands were bound, His mouth was punched. Risen from the dead, we entrust all things to Him, knowing He will do better things than we can even desire.

Preached at Immanuel on March 4, 2015

Stations on the Road to Freedom: Action (2nd Lent Midweek 2015)

Posted on March 26th, 2015

Last week we heard the first station on what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the Road to Freedom, 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.

This week we take up the second station, Action:

To do and dare–not what you would, but what is right. Never to hesitate over what is in your power, but boldly to grasp what lies before you. Not in the flight of fancy, but only in the deed there is freedom. Away with timidity and also reluctance! Out into the storm of event, sustained only by the commandment of God and your faith, and freedom will accept you with exultation.

After Discipline comes Action: Doing what is right, which is often in conflict with what you want. God calls us to act in the place where He puts us. No place is unimportant, no situation is insignificant, even if the world regards it as such. The large, the famous, the wealthy – these things, even—or rather, especially!—in the church, are considered grand.

Refraining from right action will generally make our temporal situation better, or at least maintain the status quo. For Bonhoeffer, he had numerous opportunities to make a successful career in the church. A noteworthy theologian at a young age, he could have stayed in America as the National Socialists expanded their tyranny. Upon returning to Germany, he needn’t have joined the resistance.

Are there evil forces in your life? Is there a resistance movement that you need to join? Few people receive biography-worthy opportunities for resistance. But that makes your life no less important, and your struggles no less critical.

What action do you need to take? Take the evil influences in your life and discard them. No half-measures. Do not hesitate over what is in your power.

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going.” Compare this with Bonhoeffer’s poem, “Out into the storm of event, sustained only by the commandment of God and your faith.”

We are not like Abraham, with a specific commandment of God for a specific journey. But we have the Ten Commandments and we have our neighbors. There we have enough to do, for there is the storm of event that finds us. The war, the church struggle, the persecution of the Jews, all this came to Bonhoeffer. But there are struggles that have come to you, struggles with people, struggles with passions, and we want to run from them, do the safe thing, play to run out the clock and hope the problem goes away.

Will we, like Gideon, Samson, or David conquer kingdoms, stop the mouths of lions, or become mighty in war? Most likely not. But each of us, in our actions, can be “made strong out of weakness.”

Every action that we undertake as Christians is done not for our own pride or glory, not for fame or renown; it is not action for its own sake. Every true Christian action begins with discipline, laying aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, running with endurance the race that is set before us, and the action is done and performed always looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.


Why are we afraid to act? Why are we afraid to put away from us what is evil? Why are we afraid to be serious about prayer and meditation on God’s Word? Why are we afraid to go to confession? Why are we afraid to do what is right?

Because we fear the consequences. We fear losing our dignity, losing our possessions and reputation, we fear losing our freedom. But Bonhoeffer’s great insight was in seeing that it is just the opposite. In the action is freedom. Fearing to act is a prison. Fearing to be faithful only to what God says and not what the world thinks, that is a dungeon worse than any concentration camp. No, “Away with timidity and also reluctance! Out into the storm of event, sustained only by the commandment of God and your faith” – there is true freedom. For only then have we said “No!” to the tempter’s voice saying, “God is not really your God, God is not really your Father, you are not really His beloved son, He will not care for you.” When we listen to God’s Word, then we are free, for only in Him is freedom.

And so we act, knowing that whatever the outcome, His Word is true, “O Death, where are your plagues?” They are cast down! “O Sheol, where is your sting?” It is removed!

God grant us the the strength to discipline ourselves, and act only according to His Word, setting aside every worldly fear.

Preached at Immanuel on February 25, 2015

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


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.