Prepare for the storm

Posted on November 19th, 2014

Luther comments on Peter’s sinking into the water because he lost the Word of Christ’s promise. The life of faith is nothing other than clinging to Christ’s Word.

This is how it is when Christ comes into your ship. It will not stay calm for long. A storm will come. If you want to be a Christian then you should prepare for this storm and this discord…. Whoever wants to live blessed by God in Christ must suffer persecution, as Saint Paul says.

Luther Brevier, p340

Sermo Dei: Trinity 22, 2014

Posted on November 16th, 2014

The heart of Christianity is in forgiveness. This runs from God to us, and from us to our neighbor. But forgiveness is hard, even seeming impossible, so we want to set boundaries on our forgiveness that will give us license to turn to judgment.

Today’s Gospel (Mt. 18:21-25) has St. Peter asking a question about forgiveness. “How often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?”

Remember the man who, upon hearing the Law, “Love your neighbor,” asks the question, “And who is my neighbor?” Why did he ask that question? St. Luke tells us that he wanted to justify himself. It’s impossible to love everyone, so it is necessary to limit the scope of “neighbor.”

Likewise here, Peter wants to set a limit to forgiveness. Isn’t this what we all do? We will forgive … up to a point. We will be merciful … up to a point. How many people have you written off? How many times have you said, “I want nothing to do with that person any more?”

So Peter offers a number. It’s actually a generous number. The Jewish teaching was to forgive a person three times in a day. See how magnanimous Peter is? He more than doubles that amount: 7 times!

But the kingdom of heaven uses different math. Jesus replies not with a bigger number, but with a number to make us stop counting. Listen to St. Paul: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.” (1 Cor 13:4–5 NIV11)  Love doesn’t count to seven. Love doesn’t count to seventy-seven. Love “keeps no record of wrongs.” To count seventy times seven, 490 times a day, is a number no one could track in personal interactions. So love doesn’t count. Love forgives.

If we are counting, our anger is growing. But if we cease to count and just forgive, by the seventh, or seventy-seventh, or 490th time, forgiveness will be second nature – or better, forgiveness will be our new nature, for in Baptism the Lord has begun in us the renewal of our nature. In Baptism, the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in us. He acts and works in us by forgiveness. If we harbor resentment in our heart, we serve notice on the Spirit and begin the process of eviction. In the Holy Eucharist the Son of God comes to take up residence in us, His body and blood entering our body, not for us to digest but for Him to digest and transform us. Jesus forgives, so Jesus in us forgives those who trespass against us. How then could we set a limit, we who have been forgiven limitlessly?

The parable Jesus tells is a fearful one. Be not deceived: the day is coming when you will be called to account for how you treated others.

What can we say before God’s throne of judgment? “If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, who could stand?” So it is with the king’s servant called to the reckoning: “Therefore the kingdom of heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. And … one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.”

His debt is an impossibly high number. Ten thousand talents is nearly impossible to quantify. It works out to around sixty million days of work. Working every day, the debt amounts to over 165,000 years of work.

The enormity of the amount — thousands upon thousands of lifetimes —makes the simple description of the debtor’s position a joke: “He was not able to pay.”

Now he will lose everything. His wife will become a slave. His daughters degraded. His sons sent to hard labor. The family will be broken up, house and property auctioned off: he loses everything, and himself becomes a slave. Ruin, devastation – words cannot describe his plight.

Isn’t his plea then laughable? “Have patience with me, and I will pay you all.” How? When? The king’s patience will have to extend far beyond the scope of this man’s lifetime.

Now see what sort of king this is. He does not give the servant what he asks. He doesn’t give him patience, he doesn’t give him more time. He forgives the debt, the impossible debt, and wipes the slate completely clean.

The economics of the kingdom of God are preposterous. Coins come from the mouths of fish, a poor woman’s two pennies are worth more than your $10,000 offering because she gives from her lack, while you have more to spare. Men who work a single hour get a whole day’s pay. And now this man, who owes a sum of money beyond calculation, gets debt forgiveness. There is no bargain, there is no refinancing, there is only complete, clear, and full cancellation of the debt.

That’s the work of Jesus: Behold, the Lamb of God, who renegotiates the sin of the world? Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

It would be convenient if the parable stopped there. We would like Christianity to stop there. We have Law—an impossible debt; and we have Gospel—complete forgiveness. Now carry on, business as usual.

But Jesus does not stop there. He keeps going, confronting us with the question, “What does it mean to be forgiven?”

For this man, it meant license: he was now free, free to be violent to others. The forgiven servant confronts a man who owes him a small sum. Remarkable is the term used for this new character: he is a fellow servant. They are the same. They are brothers, equals before the king. And he should be happy. When St. Matthew was forgiven by Jesus, he threw a party. When Zacchaeus was visited by Jesus, he gave back all he had stolen, and started giving away his possessions to the poor.

The man in the parable, forgiven so much, how does he act? He grabs his fellow servant by the throat and begins strangling him. He shouts. “Pay me what you owe!” Does he have the right to act this way? Sure.

He wants what is fair. He is in the right. We might not particularly like this man if we met him, but we might side with him in court.

But divine economics is not governed by fair markets or fair trade. Christianity is not about what is fair. Christianity is not about what we think is right. Christianity’s beating heart is mercy, forgiveness in Jesus.

The parable doesn’t stop with our being forgiven, and our life does not stop with our being forgiven. That is its beginning. St. Augustine put it this way: “Every man begins from Baptism; he goes out free, the ‘ten thousand talents’ are forgiven him; and when he goes out, he will soon find some fellow-servant his debtor.” Baptism, in other words, forgives our impossible debt; and immediately after, we are challenged with people racking up debts against us. The whole parable is a commentary on the Fifth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

But what do we do? We keep asking Peter’s question, “Surely, Lord, there must be limits to all this? You don’t really expect me to take this lying down! I am done with her.”

Demanding your rights, you declare to God that you want a system of merit, a system where fair judgment is rendered. And then, God gives us what we are asking for. The king recalls the one who does not forgive. You want fairness? Then hear the King say your words back to you: “Pay Me what you owe.”

Jesus calls us to mercy. No limits. No conditions. Total mercy, full stop.

The conclusion of the parable forces us to confront this frightening truth. The God who is love, the God who is merciful and full of compassion, threatens to come upon us with His wrath. “And his master was angry, and delivered him to the torturers until he should pay all that was due to him.”

So what does this mean for us? The lesson is not, behave a little better, be a little more patient. What we need is a complete transformation of our soul. “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”

That should drive us to our knees in prayer, this time not only for our own forgiveness, but for a new heart that would truly and genuinely forgive others. A devastating effect of the sinful nature is a vicious memory, remembering how we’ve been slighted, ignored, laughed at, excluded, taken advantage of. The sins committed against us damage our souls deeply.

But the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses us from all sin. Apprehending that, we see with Christ’s eyes that the sin is already forgiven. How could we then still want to grab the sinner by the throat and choke him?

Our prayer should be to receive a divine forgetfulness, that cannot recall any injuries or grievances. St. Augustine said on this Gospel, “Forgive the sin, and cast away the remembrance of it from the heart.”

Do you forgive everyone, fully and completely, from your heart? If not, then stand up with the rest of the sinners and sing David’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God!” When the stress and anxiety of the world has you tightening your fingers, ready to choke someone, loosen your death grip on your rights, make the sign of the cross, and say “God, be merciful to me, a sinner. Help me forgive my fellow sinner.”

You are in Jesus. Jesus forgives. Therefore you also forgive. No counting.

He abides in us physically

Posted on November 14th, 2014

In his glorious work “This Is My Body,” Luther speaks about the forgiveness of sins being a great benefit of the Supper. In addition to this, there is what he calls the “bodily benefit,” a union with Christ that is both spiritual and physical. Christ “wills to be in us by nature,” says Luther, citing Hilary, “in both our soul and body, according to the word in John 6 [!], ‘He who eats me abides in me and I in him.'”

If we eat him spiritually through the Word, he abides in us spiritually in our soul; if one eats him physically, he abides in us physically and we in him. As we eat him, he abides in us and we in him. For he is not digested or transformed but ceaselessly he transforms us, our soul into righteousness, our body into immortality.

-AE 37:132

Therefore we ought not be afraid of speaking of a union with Christ that is more than a metaphor for absolution. The Scripture is rich in the way it describes our salvation; we dare not truncate its full witness.

Paradoxical Preaching

Posted on November 14th, 2014

Adolf Köberle’s classic The Quest for Holiness contains much helpful material that addresses some of the modern aversion to sanctification. In the chapter “Sanctification as the Answer of the Justified Sinner,” Köberle insists that the faithful Lutheran preacher will preach, in line with the Augsburg Confession, both justification (AC IV) and the new obedience (AC VI).

Far-reaching consequences for Christian preaching spring from this paradoxical experience that conscience has made of God’s sole activity in effecting salvation and man’s sole responsibility for his own destruction. If preaching is to do justice to this paradoxical combination it must always speak both in dogmatic and ethical terms; in the indicative and imperative, not in the sense of synergistic combination but in the sense of that incomparable antinomy: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God which worth in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12). This Pauline “for” which cuts through all human logic is secure both against the reproach of quietism and against the possible misunderstanding that our salvation was effected by the combined cooperation of two equal partners….

So the Pauline statement in Phil. 2:12 seq. does not call into question but rather substantiates the justificatio impii. But the other thought, “Today if ye will hear his voice harden not your hearts,” likewise retains its full significance.”

Concordia Heritage Series reprint (CPH), pp144f.

God is closest to the powerless

Posted on November 12th, 2014

Beautiful comfort from Luther:

God often allows His children to be powerless and oppressed, so that everybody believes that they have no more hope and are going to perish, whilst it is in circumstances like these that God is actually closest to them. For where human strength fails, God’s power steps in: as long as there is Faith in attendance.

-Luther Brevier, p333


Sermo Dei: All Saints Sunday 2014

Posted on November 2nd, 2014

All Saints Day is November 1; at Immanuel we celebrate the festival on the first Sunday in November. It’s a day for martyrs. The term martyr is from martyria, Greek for witness; on special days, we remember martyrs for their martyria, their witness to Christ in life and death. Some martyrs, like Ss. Peter & Paul, St. James the Brother of Our Lord, St. Lucia, Ss. Perpetua & Felicity, these martyrs all have a day when the church remembers them. All Saints is a festival to remember all the martyrs who don’t get their own day.

That number grows daily, as our brothers and sisters in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere have fulfilled in their bodies the words of Jesus, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10 NKJV)

Read their stories, and you will sometimes marvel at their sacrifice, their piety, their love. Other times, you may see them simply as victims caught up in religious and ethnic conflict. You may not se them as particularly righteous.

But the Christian martyr is never a martyr for his own sake. We heard our Lord say, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.” (Matthew 5:11 NKJV) It is attachment to Christ, identification with Christ that causes martyrdom. And that is what righteousness is for us. Not how good we are or how holy we appear, righteousness is in being joined to Christ, attached to Christ. While in English the words sound very different, in both Greek and Latin the words righteousness and justification have the same root. The righteous person is the person justified. And the Scripture teaches clearly that no person is righteous, no person is justified by his own goodness; we are justified—declared righteous—through faith in Christ Jesus.

Jesus is the righteous one. Thus for us to understand the Gospel reading for All Saints, we must see Jesus in all the descriptions of the one who is blessed.

Matthew 5-7 is called the Sermon on the Mount, and the opening verses which comprise today’s Gospel reading are called the Beatitudes, from the Latin word Beatus, blessed. Standing behind this text are the opening words of the Psalter:

Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night. (Psalms 1:1–2 NKJV)

The blessed man is the man who delights in God’s Word, who meditates on it constantly. Preceding the Sermon on the Mount, the devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. Hungry for food, Jesus spurns the temptation to use His power to make bread for Himself. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4 NKJV)  God’s mouth gives words of life.

That’s Mt. 4. Now listen to how Matthew begins ch. 5, introducing the Sermon on the Mount:

“And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him. Then He opened His mouth and taught them, saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 5:1–3 NKJV)

From the mouth of Jesus come words of life. Jesus is both the blessed Man who delights “in the law of the Lord,” meditating upon it day and night, and also the One from whose mouth proceeds the Words by which we live.

Look, friends: we are dying. Today we will commemorate two men from our parish who fell asleep in Christ this past year. Next year the bell may toll for you. Or perhaps you have a few more years still. But the time is short. Man, years, generations – of all these Moses says to God,

“You carry them away like a flood; They are like a sleep. In the morning they are like grass which grows up: In the morning it flourishes and grows up; In the evening it is cut down and withers.” (Psalms 90:5–6 NKJV)

That is the life of the human race, and yours in particular: the sun is setting, evening is coming on, soon you will be withered and cut down. What then will come of all your boasting? What then of all your arguments? The secret things you have done behind closed doors, what then will you have gained? Of what use will be your money? Of what use will be your degrees?

Jesus’ words today should describe the life of His disciples. We should daily ask the Holy Spirit to conform us to this image of one poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. But we will not find escape from death or satisfaction of the soul through greater efforts, as though Christianity is simply an ethical rule. The words of blessing in today’s Gospel don’t tell us how to become a saint, they tell us who Jesus is. In Him do all the saints find their holiness, their righteousness, their justification. Every Beatitude describes Jesus:

He is poor in spirit, making Himself poor that we might be rich.

He mourns and laments a world that groans under the curse of the fall and the ravages of sin.

He meekly submits to unjust whipping, beating, the piercing of His brow and the bite of the spikes pounded through foot and wrist.

He hungers and thirst for righteousness, hungering in the desert where He fasted for you, thirsting on the cross where His blood and water were poured out for you.

He is merciful, praying for the forgiveness of His enemies.

He is pure in heart, speaking no deceitful word, never acting in self-interest.

He is the Peacemaker, making peace between God and man by His atoning death.

He is persecuted for righteousness’ sake, persecuted in order to make you righteous.

All this He bore for you.  Our sin is in seeking blessings apart from the Blessed One, our Blessed Lord.

Yet still He comes to bless you.  And that blessing leads to suffering in this life, because the world scorns the Blessed One; the worldly seek the kingdoms of the earth, and despise those whose very lives indicate that the emperor of this world has no clothes.  That emperor, the devil, scowls fierce, and brings depression and darkness, trying to turn the saints away from the Blessed One and the blessing He gives and is.  And so Jesus blesses them with His nine-fold blessing, blesses those saints who have found life in Him, losing their lives in this world to be united to Jesus who is the Life.  Jesus blesses them, knowing that they will suffer His sufferings, as even the prophets were persecuted.  He blesses us with the comfort that our way is His way, which is to say, now through our grave is resurrection because of His resurrection; now through our crosses is glory because of the glory attached to His cross; now we can see in our own sufferings the kingdom of God breaking through, because in His suffering the kingdom is revealed.

He is the Blessed One, but He attaches Himself to us. He gives us what belongs to Him. He gives us His blessing, and in it, He gives us Himself.  Having Him, your life is not meaningless, but has found its true meaning.  Having Him, you need fear no suffering, for He is comfort.  Having Him, you need fear no death, for He is Life.  Having Him, you need not look to the kingdoms of this earth, which even now wither and decay.

So if you lose the election, lose your job, lose your house, lose your wife, lose your life – it’s all going to be lost anyway. The blessed man meditates on the Word of God, and there finds the life of God which cannot be lost. For He who brought about life by speaking a Word, can He not give you back everything with a Word?

Today is All Saints. And all those saints, all those holy martyrs, would have us look not to them but to the object of their martyria, the object of their witness: Jesus, the Blessed One. They lost their lives confessing Christ, because they knew that the One risen from the dead will bring His own brothers and sisters also to the resurrection.

Sermo Dei: Reformation 2014

Posted on November 1st, 2014

“What drunken German monk wrote these?” That was Pope Leo X’s response when he was shown a copy of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, posted on the door of the Schloßkirche in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.

Perhaps those were your mental words about some of the songs we’ve sung so far this morning. “What drunken German monk wrote these?” I love these songs, but admittedly they can be an acquired taste. They come from a different time and place, and we cannot help but be affected by our own language and culture.

But liturgy is not about taste – or at least, liturgy should not be about taste. We live in a unique time, a tragic time when Christian worship has degenerated into shallow pop music driven largely by marketing by the worship music industry. In Lutheran circles, Luther’s liturgical reforms have often been invoked as an excuse for discarding Christian liturgy altogether.

Every year on the last Sunday in October we use a form of Luther’s Deutsche Messe, or German Mass. It’s in our hymnbook as Divine Service Setting Five, but we print it up because it would be very unpleasant trying to follow all the page turns. It’s not something we should do very often, because it’s very much a product of the sixteenth century, and doesn’t translate well into our context.

But translation was the whole point. Luther was thinking as a pastor, not about the people in the Schloßkirche, All Saints Church in Wittenberg where the nobility worshipped, but about St. Mary’s Church where the common people worshipped. That was where Luther’s heart was, and where he often preached and heard confessions. Those people didn’t know Latin; which meant that everything that happened in the Mass, or communion service, was unintelligible to them.

Now the marriage of a text and a tune is a difficult thing. You can’t just put a song from one language into another and sing it to the same tune, without a lot of work. So Luther took the parts of the Mass, like the Kyrie Eleison, “Lord, have mercy,” and added to it German that rhymed. Everything was designed to preach to people God’s love for them. These were words helping people learn who Jesus is and what He does: “Kyrie! O Christ, our king, Salvation for all You came to bring. O Lord Jesus, God’s own Son, our mediator at the heavenly throne; Hear our cry and grant our supplication!”

So what was Luther really up to with these reforms of the Liturgy? Just as you put money in your pocket, he envisions the liturgy and preaching to be giving people words, Bible passages to put into their pockets and carry them home, to school, and to work. We have two pouches, two pockets, two purses, one for faith and the other for love. So when you come here to Immanuel for Divine Service, or Matins, or Evening Prayer, or Bible Study, you are getting more treasures for your pockets, grabbing them up so you have treasure with you as you love your spouse, care for your children, work and struggle and laugh and cry. The toil and struggle of life keeps robbing us of our treasure, so we keep on coming back to receive the treasures, more of God’s goodness poured into our pockets.

In a more formal way, the Augsburg Confession puts it this way:

“We are unjustly accused of having abolished the Mass…. The Mass is observed among us with [great] devotion and earnestness…. Moreover, the people are instructed often and with great diligence concerning the holy sacrament, why it was instituted, and how it is to be used (namely, as a comfort for terrified consciences) in order that the people may be drawn to the Communion and Mass…. No conspicuous changes have been made in the public ceremonies of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung in addition to the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. After all, the chief purpose of all ceremonies is to teach the people what they need to know about Christ.”

So what do you need to know about Christ? This isn’t just a matter of learning some facts. We have to learn what God says about us, how God is minded toward us, what my life means, what my death means.

Our hearts tell us all the wrong things. We are glad when we should be ashamed, and we are sad when we should be filled with joy. Everything is backward, inside-out, upside down. Jesus says (in today’s Gospel, Matthew 11:12-19) we are like children who are sad when dancing music comes on, but not sad when funeral music plays: “We played the flute for you, And you did not dance; We mourned to you, And you did not lament.” In other words, John the Baptist came telling everyone to repent, and they didn’t do it; Jesus came and threw a party and people got angry.

What about you? The Word of God says to you, “You have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” and how do you respond? “Okay; now keep it moving because lunch is coming up soon”; and then you hear that God justifies you, offers you resurrection of your dead body and eternal life, and you yawn, say, “That’s nice; I wonder what’s new on Facebook, and isn’t it terrible what happened in Canada?”

The Reformation is not an event from history. The Reformation church is not some new style of church that coexists or competes with other brands or flavors. The real Reformation is what goes on in our hearts when we respond the right way to the music of Scripture: mourning and lamenting our sins, and dancing not because our political party won the election or team won the game, but dancing because we hear the words of Jesus saying, “I forgive you all your sins. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day.”

This is no teaching invented by a drunken German monk. It’s the teaching of Holy Scripture. Luther, the German monk who did enjoy the beer his wife Katie brewed – all Luther did was say, “It doesn’t matter what Pope or Council or Tradition says; if it goes against Scripture, then we follow Scripture.” Scripture Alone (Sola Scriptura) is our authority, and Scripture is a book that points us to Christ alone, who saves us only through faith in God’s grace, His loving kindness in Jesus.

Love your family. Do good and honest work. And keep coming to Divine Service to get your pockets filled with forgiveness from Jesus. Everything else is dust and vapor; it doesn’t last, so let it go. “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing.”

Sermo Dei: Trinity 17, 2014

Posted on October 28th, 2014

When a man falls into a pit, you help him. That’s the Law.

When a man falls into a pit, God helps him. That’s the Gospel.

Jesus is at a dinner on the Sabbath, a day on which work was prohibited (Gospel for Trinity 17, Luke 14:1-11). The other guests at the Sabbath dinner are watching Jesus closely, to see what He will do when confronted with a sick man. If Jesus heals him, does He break the Sabbath law, by working when He should not?

The charge is really a trumped up one. The Rabbis had dealt with such problems already. For example, the laws seemed to conflict when it came to circumcision. Circumcision had to be done on the eighth day of birth; but what if that day fell on the Sabbath? The circumcision took priority. The same was reasoned for other medical or rescue work. Here is a passage from the Talmud, which contains the central teachings of Jewish law and reasoning:

Whence do we know that the duty of saving life annuls the sabbath? Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah answered: If circumcision, which affects only one member of the body annuls the sabbath, how much more so for the rest of the body! Rabbi Simeon ben Menasia says: Behold it is said, “And you shall keep the sabbath for it is holy to you” (Ex 31:14). To you the sabbath is handed over, but you are not handed over to the sabbath. (Mek. Abbeta on Ex 31:13) “Rabbinic Literature: Talmud,” DNTB, 900

So when Jesus says, “Which of you, having a donkey or an ox that has fallen into a pit, will not immediately pull him out on the Sabbath day?”, they have no answer, because Jesus is following rabbinic reasoning: this man’s need annuls the Sabbath law.

But there is also a symbolism going on that runs through all of Jesus’ teaching: this sick man is a symbol of the human race. This theme comes up again and again: the Prodigal Son wandered away, squandered his inheritance, became enslaved and starving; the Good Samaritan must rescue the man robbed, beaten, and left to die in a ditch.

That’s who you are. No matter how strong you are now, no matter how wealthy you are now, no matter how happy and successful you are now, you end in a pit, you end in a grave.

But along with that, there is the contagion within you, the sickness that fills you with anxiety and dread, a slave to your lust, a slave to your hunger, the passions that drive you to drink too much, get too close to that woman not your wife, the passions that expel unwholesome words from your mouth, making you impatient with your husband or your child.

When you act selfishly, when you give in to your anger, regard yourself higher than others, that is when you are doing precisely what Jesus identifies in the Pharisees. Even the small thing like their choice of seat at the dinner table reflected the condition of their heart, full of pride, wanting the praise and respect of others.

Every one of us is the creature at the bottom of the pit. Our only hope of rescue is one who will come into our pit, come breath the poisoned air, enter our hell to effect our rescue. That is the work of our Lord Jesus. He humbles Himself to exalt us.

So what was the Sabbath for? The first sabbath, the seventh day of creation, indicated the perfection of creation. Once death was introduced into the creation, and with it sin, the Sabbath was given not as a rule for pleasing God. A day off from work is not a burden, but a blessing. But there was something deeper at work in the blessing of the sabbath: God works where you cannot; God supplies what you lack. Thus we have these events where people are commanded not to gather food on the sabbath day, with the promise that God would feed them. On those days when people gathered food anyway, the sin was not in working, but the sin was in not trusting that God would do what He said. The sin was in not recognizing that God is the worker, God is the creator.

Baptism 800x474

So what’s going on at a baptism? With the baptism of a child, parents like Sam and Kara bring their little Fran and say, our little baby is born into a world that is a pit, a hell of mortality and suffering, sin and sadness. Dear Jesus, help!

And when we hear Jesus say that you must receive the kingdom of God as a little child, it doesn’t mean that if you weren’t baptized as a baby, you missed the boat. It means that the baptism of an adult is the same thing: you make yourself helpless as a baby, who cannot feed or clothe herself. When we all join in the renunciations and affirmations of baptism, we acknowledge that the devil, his works, and his ways hold too much sway on us; and we confess that Father, Son, and Spirit are working together as One God to rescue us from this pit, this grave, this hell.

Coming to Divine Service is us shouting together from the bottom of the pit, Jesus, help! And the mystery of prayer is in shouting those words also for our world, especially for those who don’t want to be rescued or who don’t believe there is a Rescuer.

Our message to the world is not, “Be better!” but, “There is a Better One, the Lord Jesus, who has joined us in this pit, Himself suffered here, was buried here, and invites us to join Him, saying, ‘Friend, go up higher.’

So definitely help other people and be nice. When a man falls into a pit, you help him. That’s the Law.

But never forget who you are: A fellow prisoner in the pit. When a man falls into a pit, God helps him. That’s the Gospel. +INJ+


Preached at Immanuel, Alexandria, October 12, 2014

Sermo Dei: Trinity 16, 2014

Posted on October 6th, 2014

Early Mosaic of St. Ambrose of Milan

Early Mosaic of St. Ambrose of Milan

St. Luke 7:11-17: The Raising of the Widow of Nain’s Son

October 5, 2014

On October 17, in the year 379, a man named Satyrus died. He had been a lawyer, and held civil office in the Roman government, but had given it up to help his brother Ambrose, when he became bishop of Milan in 374. A deep bond connected these brothers, and Ambrose delivered a funeral oration that is historically interesting and spiritually comforting.

Ambrose lived in a time of fear, recognizing that the collapse of the Roman Empire was near. “This [is a] time of common fear, when everything is dreaded from the barbarian movements.” He talks about the unselfish nature of Satyrus, flowing from Christ: “Christ died according to the flesh for all, that we might learn not to live for ourselves alone.” Christ’s death is a vicarious atonement, He dies for us; and not only does this rescue us, it also teaches us to be directed to the needs of others.

He is grieving; and when we lose something, we can become angry or depressed. But “I cannot be ungrateful to God,” Ambrose says; “for I must rather rejoice that I had such a brother than grieve that I had lost a brother … I enjoyed the loan entrusted to me, now He Who deposited the pledge has taken it back.”

None of this is said stoically. Ambrose is not without feeling, but he has watered his couch with tears. You know what that is. And it is not wrong to be sad over death, and sorrowful over sin. God knows your times of sadness, and what is more, He makes them His own. God became man and was Himself sad, weeping for us and with us in our own human nature.

Beyond sadness, there is also a loss, a strange new reality when someone you love has died. How do you go on living in the same house, visiting the same places? Have you ever looked for the dead, expecting them to still be where you frequently saw them? Ambrose says his brother’s absence was constantly in his mind; “[I] kept on turning my head seeking him, as it were, present, and seemed to myself then to see him and speak to him.”

In today’s Gospel we heard that there was a large crowd traveling with the widow to the grave. It is important to go to funerals and burials, to show those who mourn that we mourn with them. Ambrose thanks his congregation “that you esteem my grief as no other than your own, that you feel this bereavement as having happened to yourselves.”

That is how Jesus responds when He sees the poor widow on her way to bury her son, her only son. He has compassion. He makes her sorrow His own sorrow. And this account of the raising of the widow’s son is of great comfort to St. Ambrose grieving the death of his brother, his closest friend. There is “no doubt,” he says, “that Christ is moved to mercy” by our tears. “Though He has not now touched the bier,” (the bier is the open coffin; and he means the coffin of his brother, but by this language he is referring to the Gospel lesson for today, where Jesus touches the bier of the widow’s son) “yet He has received the spirit commended to Him… And though he that was dead has not sat up on the bier, yet he has found rest in Christ.”

When we hear about the miracles of Jesus, like the raising of this widow’s son, it is natural to wonder, normal to ask, Why doesn’t Jesus do this for us?

First of all, the miracles of Jesus tend to have a specific purpose. You wouldn’t need many miracles to prove that Jesus has divine power, or that He has the power of life over death. So why this woman? The text emphasizes that her young son is her only son; and then the knife twists in our gut as Luke tells us, “And she was a widow.” This means that she is all alone, no one to love, and no one to care for her. A widow without a son would be destitute, without an inheritance. Jesus is giving special help to this woman in a terrible circumstance.

Raising of the Widow of Nain's Son

But it remains true that the wages of sin is death, and so we all must travel that path. And we shouldn’t want just this, a return to life in a world still fallen, a revival of a body that will only die again. The resurrection that happens to this boy, this son of the widow of Nain, is not the ultimate thing, but a foreshadowing of the great work that is yet to come, the restoration of human nature to a condition without sin and without suffering. We aren’t looking merely for an improved life, a better politics, a healthier body; we look for the new heavens and the new earth, where sin will not be diminished but abolished, a world where the implements of war are put down forever, where the gates of the city need never be locked.

That’s why Ambrose says about his brother’s death, “Though [Jesus] has not now touched the bier, yet He has received the spirit commended to Him,” meaning the day is coming when Jesus will touch Satyrus’s coffin, and He will come to the graves of all those in Christ and give them back not a few more years, but eternity. “[My brother] had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice?”

We live in just such a world of “imminent evils and threatening dangers.” And is there a greater evil than the one within us, the evil that clings to created things instead of the Creator? Is there a greater evil than your heart, which stands in judgment over others, withholding forgiveness? Look at this scene, of a widow who has lost her son. See the same thing unfolding all around you, every day, across this mad world infected with disease, lust, and never-ending war: see it all, unfolding within you, as your heart clings to dead things that cannot satisfy. “We are half-hearted creatures,” C.S. Lewis said, “fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us.”

Today Jesus doesn’t just address the widow of Nain. He speaks to you: “Do not weep. Rejoice in what I have done, take courage in what I will do; for I have pardoned all your sins, I have overcome the grave. Follow Me, and you will never walk in darkness, for I will transform your lowly body to be like My glorious body, and I will replace your heart of stone with a heart of flesh filled with wisdom and charity. Leave your weeping, abandon your anger, for great is My mercy toward you, I deliver your life from the depths of hell.” +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Funeral of Robert L. Smith, Jr.

Posted on October 3rd, 2014

ILC Church Directory

Philippians 3:7-14, 17-21; 4:1

October 3, 2014

Some years ago, at an anniversary party for Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a toast was offered: “To Smitty: the only man who can turn a short story into a novel.”

Mr. Smith was quick with a joke, a smile, and a story. But in my own experience with him, what stands out most is what he didn’t say. A few years after becoming the pastor here, a small controversy arose, where Smitty and another man disagreed with me about something. They actually strongly disagreed. And looking back, I know I should have handled the situation better. I was trying to make a point, you see; I had things to teach the congregation, improvements that needed to be made.

It took me too many years to realize that Smitty, and the other person, were teaching me. They taught me something about being a man, especially about how Christian men resolve differences. Smitty resolved the matter peacefully, privately, and by treating me with more respect than I showed him.

I was too young to recognize how much I should have respected him. And I think he knew that too, and showed grace to a young pastor. He served our country honorably in the military, continued serving our country in security and intelligence work, and kept it a secret. He spent a lifetime keeping us all safe during the long and frightening cold war, spent years loving a wife and raising four children, and then spent many weekends and evenings caring for the church property and tending to our school’s finances. Men respected him.

Smitty respected office, authority. He loved, deeply, the American flag, and everything good that it stands for; he took pride in being a citizen of the United States.

The Epistle reading we heard from Philippians was written by a Roman citizen, St. Paul. Paul knew what a valuable thing it was to be a citizen of the Roman Empire. Before he was put to death for being a Christian, Paul used his citizenship to appeal to the Emperor.

Yet as valuable as citizenship is, as honorable as love of country is, God’s Word teaches us there is something of infinitely greater worth. “But our citizenship is in heaven,” declares the holy Apostle, who then gives us this greatest of comforts: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”

The end is not this casket. Mind fails, footsteps falter, and the heart ceases to beat. And as we visit the grave, we might be tempted to question like Mary Magdalene, for the stone of the grave seems large, oppressive, impossible to overcome. But we have their testimony, and the testimony of  so many eyewitnesses, that Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified, is risen. And by that power of His victory over death, Christ will transform this lowly body to be like His glorious body; Christ will rejuvenate, resuscitate, resurrect the body, for that is the right granted to citizens of our Lord’s kingdom.

Pastor Esget, Fred Pauling, and Robert Smith bringing trees for Christmas 2010

Pastor Esget, Fred Pauling, and Robert Smith bringing trees for Christmas 2010

That doesn’t take away the rottenness of today. Our hearts ache for you, Marilyn, and for your daughters and all your family. I hate it that you have to go on without your husband, your dad. Death is awful. Getting old is hard. The prophet Isaiah tells us what will happen after we all have grown old and the world groans with weariness: this old earth the LORD will make young again: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Now, we struggle to remember forgotten things, but then, all that is bitter, painful, sinful, shall be forgotten.

When your husband or father dies, it would be natural to feel a kind of cosmic shift, a deep loss inside you. When Jesus says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, He feels all of that lostness – and of course more, the full weight of the world’s corruption. But to the forsaken in this life, God promises to Himself care for us: “When my father and my mother forsake me” (that is to say, “leave me behind”), the Psalmist says, “then the Lord will take care of me” (Ps. 27.9).  

That is the Lord’s promise to you, Marilyn, and all you who are joined to Jesus and the power of His resurrection: He will care for you, through this vale of tears, until the end. He keeps His promises, and on the day of resurrection we will rejoice and be glad in what the Lord has done. +INJ+