The Reformation’s Special Character

Posted on April 28th, 2015

In his magnificent analysis of the Confessions, Holsten Fagerberg highlights the “Reformation’s twofold intention”:

To let the Word of God reign, but in the light of the tradition whose roots go back all the way to the protevangelium of the Old Testament, and which has been preached to successive generations with varying degrees of success and power ever since. Against this background the Lutheran Reformation developed its special character of preserving and reforming at one and the same time.

A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions (1529-1537) (Kindle Locations 1204-1207)


We live in an era where both what was preserved by the first Reformers, and what was reformed, has been lost or abused beyond recognition. Our goal is not to repristinate the sixteenth-century experience. But a simple look at, say, the Mass, reveals that we have not preserved what the Reformers did, nor kept the spirit of the reforms, that all ceremonies teach the people what they need to know about Christ.

Recovery of this “special character” will involve study of just what the Reformers kept, and a willingness to admit some of our practices today need serious reform.

Sermo Dei: Jubilate 2015

Posted on April 26th, 2015

“A mother to become a mother passes through pain.” These words of St. John Chrysostom summarizes motherhood, and also the entire Christian life. “A mother to become a mother passes through pain.” Joy is on the other side of pain, and the joy cannot come except through pain. This is no abstract principle: In explaining His coming crucifixion (Jubilate Gospel, John 16:16-22), our Lord uses the example of a mother’s pain in childbearing to show the necessity of His suffering on the cross, but also to give them the hope that the resurrection will shortly follow.

What is Jesus doing? Jesus uses the parable of mother and son to show how the lives are connected, and how one will endure suffering for the benefit of another. Jesus joins His suffering to theirs, and His joy to theirs. The same is true for you: He invites you to bring your own pain, your own suffering, your own battle with sin and sorrow, to Him. He endures your pain, and will give to you the joy of His resurrection.

He also compares childbirth to the coming joy in this way: in the day of resurrection, the former sorrows will not even be remembered – they will fade as a bad dream is forgotten in the light of day. “A woman, when she is in labor, has sorrow because her hour has come; but as soon as she has given birth to the child, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.”

By connecting the sufferings a Christian is called to bear to childbirth, Jesus is teaching us that suffering has a purpose, it’s connected to an end, a goal. Pain by itself is bad; but the pain of childbearing brings the good of human life. In the same way, all of your afflictions, all of your hardships, are a good thing when they bring about something good. What good can come from your sufferings, your troubles? The Psalmist says, “It is good for me that I have been afflicted, that I might learn Thy statutes” (Ps. 119.71). And again, “Blessed is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord” (Ps. 94.12). All of your sufferings are God working on you, to mold you and shape you into a person who has learned His Word, His Commandments, His patience and His love.

So the man of God is told, “Child, if you would come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for testing” (Sir. 2.1, translation mine). God continually tells us in His Word that testing is useful for us, so that we grow as children of God and learn to depend completely, utterly on the grace and mercy of God.

But in the midst of all your tribulation, Jesus gives to His disciples and to you this firm declaration: “Do not give up hope.” Why? “I will return.” “A little while, and you will not see Me; and again a little while, and you will see Me.” From our vantage-point in time, we can see a double-meaning in this. He returned from death on Easter, and He will return on the Day of Resurrection.

In all things, Jesus points us beyond both the joys and sorrows of this world to something eternally more important: His return and the coming kingdom of God.

All this calls us to reevaluate our life’s priorities.

If you have money, it may be taken by theft, taxes, bad investment, or bad fortune.

If you have power, you will find many who resent it and become your enemies.

If you have beauty, time will take it.

If you have strength, injury or sickness can snatch it from you.

No matter what you do, someone will complain.

The people you love will die, the food you crave will become tasteless, the sounds you love will be silenced, even the memories you cherish will fade from your mind.

And to all these things, Jesus says something disconcerting: “Yes. That’s how it will be. You will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.”

If you want your best life now, you have the wrong Jesus.

If you want to become a better you, you have the wrong Jesus.

If you want something to give you hope for this life only, you have the wrong Jesus.

Our Lord promises that you will have tribulation in this world. You get a cross, you get a discipline, you get a drowning.

But with that you also get a joy that no one can take. You get the resurrection, you get sins forgiven, you get life in God’s kingdom.

We don’t merely soldier on, stoically enduring, hoping things one day will be better. Jesus is risen from the dead, and that’s the sure and certain pledge that God is going to make all things new—all things, new heavens and a new earth, new bodies, new hearts free of anxiety and anger, lust and sorrow. The resurrection of Jesus is our joy, and the joy of the Lord is our strength.

You may have lost children.

You may not have been able to have children.

You may have children who rebelled and turned away.

You may live in a prison of fear and tyranny, a loveless home, a thankless job.

You may have a body full of pain, a mind full of fear and uncertainty.

You may struggle with sin deeply, sins you commit and sins committed against you.

But to every one of you, the LORD repeats His promise: “You now have sorrow; but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and your joy no one will take from you.”


Sermo Dei: Misericordias Domini 2015

Posted on April 19th, 2015

good shepherd

“The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And yet I want so much. Not a house, but a bigger one; a bigger family, with fewer challenges; a bigger church, with bigger offerings and shorter meetings. I want pleasure without consequence, power without responsibility, spiritual growth without spiritual exercise. I want Easter without Good Friday, illumination without meditation, the love of my neighbors without having to love them back.

I want. I want. I want.

And a Psalm assaults our corrupt, selfish hearts: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” How is this possible? Only if our wants are shown up for what they are: our wants, fleshly, from below. At the heart of my wants is me, my, I. Others matter only insofar as they serve me, make me happy, cast me in a positive light.

So for our Shepherd to lead us to the House of the Lord, He must take us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. All that is of me, my, I must die. The things we think we want are not good.


Jesus comes to turn us away from what is not good. Jesus comes to turn us back to what was good in the beginning That is what “He restoreth my soul” in the twenty-third Psalm means. He turns my soul, converts my soul.

How does He effect this restoration? As He kills you, that is, kills your sin, kills your selfishness, kills the you that wants your glory, your power, your success – as He does this killing, He points you to His own dying. “I am the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep.”

Jesus dies your death. Every wrong that you have not righted, every word you cannot take back, all the anger and bitterness accumulated in your heart – for all of that, for all of you, the Good Shepherd gives His life.

He comes to you as one who owns the sheep, not as a slave-owner, but as a Creator, a Father, a Brother. He cleans you in the quiet waters of Baptism, where He traces His own name on you, and there He begins His work of restoring you, converting you.


Life in the flock of this Shepherd is not stationary. We move towards a goal. It’s a common goal, but the particularities of the path look different for each of us. The outlines of the path are this: “He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness.” See how St. Peter connects the death of Jesus, and our forgiveness, with the paths of righteousness in our new life. Peter says in today’s epistle (1 Peter 2:21-25), “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” You have been healed, forgiven, baptized, and now you live to righteousness, walk on a new path, live a new life. What are the paths of righteousness for you? St. Peter explains that for us also: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.” What is His example? The paths of righteousness in which we are to walk look like this: “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”

Who wants this? Reviled, we want to revile in return. Suffering, we threaten. Entrust ourselves to God? No, it seems He is paying us no attention, not treating us fairly. We have rights to exert and rules to enforce.

But the paths of Jesus, the paths of righteousness, the way of the flock of the Good Shepherd is not down these roads of anger, reviling, threatening. The path He leads us on is the way of goodness and mercy. Even in the presence of enemies, we do not fear or lose heart, but simply eat what He gives us at His table.


And He gives it to us, together, as a community. In the Gospel for today (John 10:11-16, Jesus emphasizes the unity of the Church. There are sheep that still need to be gathered in; and the idea of churches divided from each other is a scandal, for there is to be one flock, under one shepherd. Today we begin a trial period for a new method of distribution. It’s not perfect, and neither was the way we were doing it. The earliest celebrations of the Lord’s Supper were at sit-down meals, which became impractical once the church began to grow. But something was doubtless lost in that first transition: the visible experience of eating together, as a community, as a family.

The method we’re going to be experimenting with today can seem individualistic. I’d like us to think about it instead as more communal, where we commune not just with our own family, or a group of six or eight people, but all together, as one group. There is one dismissal at the end, for there is one church, one family, one flock. I hope it goes well, but even if it doesn’t, we live together in love and forgiveness, because Jesus has forgiven us, by the life He laid down for us.

This week, I hope you’ll think about these things: The Lord is your shepherd; nothing that you need will He withhold from you. He will be with you through Death Valley. He has converted you, made you part of His flock. Now you go and lead a new life, walking the paths of righteousness, confident that you will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

Sermo Dei: Easter Monday 2015

Posted on April 8th, 2015

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

Emmaus road

“What kind of conversation is this that you have with one another as you walk and are sad?” Since the power of corruption entered the world, our entire race has been walking in sadness. Surely Adam wept as the blood of his son seeped into the earth. Surely Eve wept as her firstborn stormed off into exile. And our race has continued in sadness.

Disciples of Jesus are not exempt. Sadness, suffering, even persecution awaits them. So many things will make us sad in this life: the struggles in the church for faithfulness and charity; the death of those we love; and the many times we have succumbed to the weakness of our fallen nature.

Yet the resurrection of Jesus is truly good news in such a way that we should not fall into despair. When we look at the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus in this evening’s gospel, we should not criticize them too harshly. It is true that these men did not have a right faith. They did not believe the word of Jesus that He would rise again; and they did not believe the women who testified of His resurrection. The way St. Augustine put it is striking: “They were walking along, dead, with Christ alive. They were walking along, dead, with life itself. Life was walking along with them, but in their hearts life had not yet been restored.” 

Can we criticize these disciples without criticizing ourselves more? For we have more than the words of the initial witnesses in a time of deep grief. We have the testimony of many eyewitnesses, who saw our Lord, ate with Him, touched Him. Their testimony is written to us in blood.

The resurrection should fill us with the greatest joy. How then can we, too, be walking along dead, though we have received the Word of Life?


Easter Sunday is all about the resurrection. But this Gospel, properly for Easter Monday, is about how the resurrected Jesus continues with us.

We will learn to see Jesus in the same place the Emmaus disciples did: in the breaking of the bread. That is where and how the Lord wishes to be now recognized. For the risen body of Jesus shows us His triumph over death – but the breaking of the bread, i.e., the Lord’s Supper, shows us that His resurrection is joined to us. He whom death could not hold attaches us to Himself, with the promise that death cannot hold us either, since we are united with Him. Here, again, is how Augustine put it:

We break bread, and we recognize the Lord. It was for our sake that he didn’t want to be recognized anywhere but there, because we weren’t going to see him in the flesh, and yet we were going to eat his flesh. So if you’re a believer, any of you, if you’re not called a Christian for nothing, if you don’t come to church pointlessly, if you listen to the Word of God in fear and hope, you may take comfort in the breaking of bread. The Lord’s absence is not an absence. Have faith, and the one you cannot see is with you.

The longer we live, the more things we will find to be sad about. But the Lord is with us through all the sadness, He has been Himself through the deepest sadness, and has burst open the portal to all joy. So being a Christian doesn’t mean denying sadness or having to hide it for fear of shame. But it does mean that we see the end of all sadness in the resurrection of Jesus, our chief therapy and anti-depressant is in this holy Eucharist, and we are confident in the coming day when Christ will wipe away every tear. So be glad this bright Easter week and confess:

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

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

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

Sermo Dei: The Resurrection of Our Lord 2015

Posted on April 5th, 2015

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

“On Saturday we kill the Jews, on Sunday we kill the Christians.” That’s an Islamist motto, which Lela Gilbert explores in her book Saturday People, Sunday People. Christians are known as Sunday People, and all around the world the Sunday People are facing violent persecution.

On Holy Thursday, 147 holy martyrs were killed in Kenya. A survivor said that when the terrorist group al-Shabaab stormed the university, they began separating the Muslims from the Christians. “If you were a Christian you were shot on the spot. With each blast of the gun I thought I was going to die” (

If you read the accounts of Christian martyrs through the centuries, you will find in them a beautiful serenity. Not simply acceptance, but confidence. That is because “Sunday People” does not simply identify the day Christians gather. We are a Sunday People because Sunday is the day Jesus rose from the dead, and that means something for who we are. No, that’s not saying enough. It means everything.

If Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. (1 Corinthians 15:17–19 NKJV)

resurrection of Jesus

What is this “hope in Christ”? We all have hopes – hopes for marriage and family, hopes for work, hopes for church. Some may come to fruition. Many will not. “Hope in Christ” is no nebulous positivity that things will improve. Christian hope is not uncertain, but confident that God keeps His promises. And the promise of Christ’s resurrection is that it is the beginning of the renewal of the world. Your body will rise from the dead at the commanding Word of God. You and all believers in Christ will dwell in the union of heaven and earth that the Lord calls “New Jerusalem.” “Behold!” your Lord says, “I am making all things new!”

That is a future hope that changes everything now. Author Peg Ekerdt tells about a card she received from her friend Barb, a woman who was dying from breast cancer. It was a handwritten card, and it didn’t say, “Happy Easter,” or even, “Christ is risen.” It said, “We are an Easter people.” Here the dying woman is preaching to the living: “We are an Easter people.”

The saying is often ascribed to St. Augustine of Hippo: “We are an Easter people, and Alleluia is our song.” We don’t know who really said it first. It’s better that way. “We are an Easter people” is not the saying of a man, but the identity of the disciples of Jesus. Christians are not an ethnic group, a political party, followers of a philosophy, or mere moralists. Christians are Sunday people, Christians are an Easter people.

What does that mean? For Barb, the woman suffering from breast cancer, it meant that her cancer did not have the last word. It would destroy her body, but she had entered into communion with One whose body was raised from death. Cancer does not have the last word, God has the last word, and the angels declare it: Christ is risen!

If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.   But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming.” (1 Corinthians 15:19–23 NKJV)

That is the Easter message from a man named Paul, one of hundreds of eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus. Before He encountered the risen Jesus, Paul wasn’t merely a skeptic, he was a violent opponent of Christianity. But seeing the risen Jesus, everything changed for Paul. This murderer of disciples became himself a disciple and finally a martyr. Once you belong to the Easter people, how you live and how you die are completely transformed.

How would our lives be different if we were in earnest Sunday People, Easter People? Your goal for your children would be not so much to get them into a good school, but to get them to the resurrection. Money and possessions would stop being sources of anxiety, becoming gifts received from God and given to others. Your body would be a temple of the Holy Spirit destined not for a grave but for glory.

The resurrection of Jesus is the single most important event in human history. But it is not only history. When you were baptized into Christ, His past became your future, the resurrection of His body becoming the first blossom of the resurrection of His body the Church.

We Easter People need to be Sunday People because we forget this. Monday brings this world’s temptations and threats, disappointments and deaths. We end up walking like women in graveyards, looking for bodies, hoping our spices can cover the stench.

But then we remember, We are Sunday People. We don’t come to church to fulfill a duty. We come to remember our identity, and receive from our Lord consolation in our trials.

The tasks before us seem insurmountable. Amid tears of desperation, we groan, “Who will roll away the stone from the sepulcher?”

But look! The stone is rolled away – not by our own doing, lest we should boast. It is the Lord’s doing, for death cannot hold the author of life.

Everything that Jesus did and suffered, He did for you, to make you His own Easter People.

Christ was condemned, and you rebels go free.

Christ was judged, and you are acquitted.

Christ fell, and you are raised up.

Christ was spit upon, and you are wiped clean.

Christ was mocked, and you are praised.

Christ was hated, and you are the Father’s beloved.

Christ says, “It is finished,” and gives you a new beginning.

Christ is killed, and you are reborn.

Christ is buried, and you are baptized.

The stone is rolled away, and the door to paradise is opened to you.

resurrection icon

Christ is risen, and death is undone.

Christ is risen, and Adam and Eve are lifted up from hell.

Christ is risen, and you shall rise too.

Christ is risen, and the demons are put to flight.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and you are His Easter People.

So sing and dance, clang the cymbals and blow the trumpet, for Jesus Christ is risen today!

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

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

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

Sermo Dei: Good Friday 2015

Posted on April 3rd, 2015

For a purpose God made man. He endowed the man and woman with gifts, and called them to be like God. Through childbearing they would become participants in God’s ongoing act of creation; through stewardship of the world they would learn love. Young and new as children, they would grow and mature. Man had an end, a goal: to take the wild world and make it ever-more beautiful through love and creativity.

But man sought pleasure, aesthetics, and wisdom apart from the Creator. They bought the lie that God was holding out on them, hindering them from being gods themselves. Thus man came to a different end, a bad end, a deadly end. He seemed finished.

That fact—that we are finished—can cause us increasing anxiety the more we realize the truth. Your teeth, your bones, your children, your homes – we experience a profound brokenness in every aspect of life. Perhaps we develop a skill, earn money, make friends, accomplish some of what we set out to do. But where does it leave us? There is a fundamental problem in the world, in our nature, in our politics, that we cannot repair.

When the Creator enters His own creation, He comes indeed to pay our debt, remove sin, and fulfill the Law. But more is happening than simply a transaction. God becomes man to effect a renewal, a rebirth. As a man, Jesus lives out man’s curse. In the curse, the earth brings forth thorns. Now those thorns are twisted into a crown. As Jesus is crowned with the curse, Pilate declares, “Behold the man!”

Each of those thorns represents not only Adam’s curse, but what we have added thereto. Your angry outbursts; your calculations and prevarications; your resentment and envy; your boasting and selfish ambition – all of it is pounded into Christ, by hammer, nail, and slashing of the whip’s tail. Today God says not to ancient Israel but to you:

“What have I done to you, O My people, and wherein have I offended you? Answer Me. What more could have been done for My vineyard than I have done for it? When I looked for good grapes, why did it yield only bad? My people, is this how you thank your God?”

He has looked for good fruit in you this Lent. You were called to fast, but instead you feasted. You were called to pray, but instead you grumbled. You were called to give, but you have spent on yourselves. You are Judas, betraying your Lord. You are Pilate, weak in the face of pressure. You are Peter, cowering in fear. Your sins crucified Jesus.

Yet anticipating all this, we heard last night an undeserved word: Jesus, “having loved His own who were in the world … loved them to the end.” “To the end” is more than “to the finish.” The love of Jesus for us is “to the goal,” “to the perfection.” Love’s perfection is in the bleeding, sighing Jesus; a fountain of living water so exhausted that He thirsts, for everything He has and is He has given away. When Jesus was condemned, the rebel Barabbas went free. The rebel is set free, we are set free. With nothing left to possess, nothing left to do, now Jesus says, “It is finished.” That’s what man was meant to be: like God, not by seizing power, but by giving everything away. That’s what kind of God we have. That’s what kind of God-man Jesus is. He gives, He forgives, He loves to perfection.

In this Holy Communion, He joins Himself to you and keeps on giving. This means there is no more grasping, no more anger, no more anxiety, no more not forgiving. For everything in Jesus has been done, performed, accomplished, finished. Your end, your purpose, is now found in His cross and resurrection.

The holy prophet Habakkuk prayed, “In wrath, remember mercy.” And Jesus answered, “It is finished.”

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