Top 14 of 2014

Posted on December 31st, 2014

Here are the top posts on Esgetology published in 2014:

  1. Lutherans for Life Statement on Thrivent
  2. Sermon before the March for Life
  3. Roots and Orthodoxy
  4. Baccalaureate Vespers 2014
  5. Holy Cross 2014
  6. Adapting the Local Lifestyle
  7. Is There a Patristic Consensus?
  8. Denying the Real Presence Denies the Gospel
  9. Luther on Suicide
  10. Sermo Dei: Ordination of Eric Phillips
  11. Heaven is not for real
  12. It seems almost a miracle
  13. Vocation and Virtue
  14. Sermo Dei: Trinity 22, 2014

The news about Thrivent’s complete institutional capitulation to the culture’s obsession with erotic liberty mirrors the larger cultural issues of the erosion of marriage and the general decline of Christian influence in America.

Along with sermons (4, 5, 10, 14)—hardly a surprise for a pastor’s blog—the things that drew the attention of readers are Life issues (1, 2, 9) and Eastern Orthodoxy (3 & 7).

For 2015, I intend to continue regularly publishing sermons, along with book quotations that interest me. Most of my shorter thoughts are now on Twitter, where you can follow me @esgetology.

Sermo Dei: Christmas Day 2014

Posted on December 25th, 2014

In the beginning, God made us. He made us creatures. We belong to Him.

It was the Word who, in the beginning, made us (John 1:1-14). He made us, creatures. “Without him was not any thing made that was made.”


We became a ruined race; corrupt creatures who love darkness.

The darkness has overcome us.

Though we have seen His great light, too often we have gone back to the darkness, seeking to hide in its shadows. We are afraid of the darkness—but we are also afraid of the light. Men don’t come to the light, because it will expose their deeds, revealing us not as the world sees us, but for who we really are: children of the darkness.


Into this darkness comes the true Light. He is not like us. He does not know the darkness. He is not a creature. He is Son, the only Son of the Father. In the beginning, He already was. He is not a creature; He is the Son.

But for us, the Son becomes a creature. Why? To make us children.

America pictures Christmas as children lost in wonder. We tell children fables to give them a sense of mystery. But it is we adults who need to enter the mystery, to become children again.

What does it mean to become children of God? It is like being a creature, but there is much more: we do not simply have a Creator, but a Father. We do not have only a Lord, but in Jesus a Brother. They, with the Holy Spirit, care for us as only family cares.


We have no right, no claim to this family. We do not belong. We do not belong in the house or at the table. We belong in the darkness, outside. By nature we have no right, for we are just creatures. We can no more expect to be welcomed to God’s house, God’s table, than we could imagine that we could climb into the president’s limousine, or stop by the White House for dinner. These places are closed to us. We do not belong, we have no right.

With God, not only do we have no right, we have been openly hostile to Him. His Word we have disregarded, His Law we have scorned. We have been more concerned with our food and drink, our work and reputations, searching for pleasure and contentment, security and certainty in all the wrong places. We go to the darkness, and emerging say, “Never again!” but still are drawn back to it. We have been overcome by the darkness.


But the darkness did not overcome Him, our Jesus, the Word. He comes to pardon, yes, but something more wonderful than we could imagine: He makes us children. “To them gave He the right to become the children of God.”

It defies all reason. A son, an only son, would not seek brothers and sisters. They would share his inheritance. But this Jesus not only allows it, He embraces it, earnestly desiring to share everything He has and is with us. St. Augustine put it this way:

He was not afraid of having joint heirs, because his inheritance does not become less if its possessors are many. Those very persons, since he is the possessor, become his inheritance, and he in turn becomes their inheritance…. Let us possess him, and let him possess us.

What then could be more sorrowful than these words: “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not”? To miss Jesus is to miss everything. The King invites us to share His palace, yet we prefer the things of the gutter.


Still He comes to us in our darkness, urging us to not remain there. Why should He care? Because He loves us. Love is inexplicable. Much more so God’s love. Parents and siblings love despite arguments and rancor. God’s love in this Child cannot be fathomed. So all St. John can say is, “Look! Can you believe how much He loves us?”

Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called children of God! Therefore the world does not know us, because it did not know Him. Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is. (1 John 3:1–2 NKJV)

To be named a child of God is to be given everything—everything!—in heaven and earth. It also means that Christmas changes us.

Do all things without complaining and disputing, that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life. (Philippians 2:14–16 NKJV)

We do not know what is ahead for us in the remaining time of this life. What will the new year bring? Is this Christmas our last? Will I experience success, or be granted the privilege of enduring hardship? All we know is that we have been given the Word of life—but that tells us everything we need to know. We have life, God’s life, given to us. No creature, government, or devil can take that away. What love, that God makes us His children. We have, as His children, what His Son has. Jesus has life, light, love, truth, resurrection. In the Child born for us this day, we have everything already. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols 2014

Posted on December 24th, 2014

After this, we go home. Or maybe to a relative’s, or to a party. Rich food, strong drink, festive music. And gifts.

After this we go home. What if you could not? What if there were no gifts? Would that make it a bad Christmas?

What if you couldn’t go home?

A good Christmas is not something we can have by what we give – or get from other people. Writing from his prison cell in December 1943, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer remembered fondly the beautiful Christmas celebrations his parents gave him as a child, and how later he greatly enjoyed buying Christmas presents for others. But now, imprisoned by the Nazis for his resistance, Pastor Bonhoeffer wrote,

Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious. The emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words, “We are beggars, it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.

Cell 92 (Bonhoeffer’s cell) in Tegel prison

After this, we go home. Bonhoeffer never went home, but was executed in a concentration camp.

After this we go home, but there are those who cannot go home. Divorce, broken relations with parents, or death keep us from experiencing community as we wish we could.


Perhaps we can see in all of this – the absences, the brokenness, even our part in all of it, the fault, the responsibility, the guilt we bear – as still doing some good. Good in that it empties our hands, makes us beggars. Our hearts should be Christ’s home. But our hearts are places of cacophony, chaos, greed and discontent. How can my heart be Christ’s home?

How can my heart be Christ’s home?

You don’t make it so by your preparations. Look at Bethlehem. Nothing was prepared. Absolutely nothing. No hotel room, no hospital, no midwife, no medicines. And where is the new-born Jesus laid? In a feeding trough. We’ve sung Away in a Manger so many times, seen creches and pictures of an idyllic nativity that the birth of Jesus has lost all the indignity, even horror. What mother would put her child where the sheep eat?

But He makes this place, this lowest of all places, His home. Later, this Child would say, “The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” He has no home, because He makes His home with us. He comes to where we are, in barns and caves, mangers and messes. He lodged with squabbling sisters and corrupt government workers. He came to the homes of rough Galilean sailors and rabbis proud and pompous. He comes to us.

He has no home, because He makes His home with us.

Are you ready to meet Him? For this One, who enters the world through the virgin, is your God. He comes to be your judge. This is “frightful news for anyone who has a conscience” (Bonhoeffer). Christmas seems safe, for we look at the Christ Child as something far distant, separated by centuries and oceans. Under such circumstances, we return home unchanged.

But this news, this frightful news that God has come is still for us. He bids us come to the manger not to see one who is cute and cuddly, but to see what our judge makes Himself: weak, despised, disadvantaged. Already His cross has begun. And already His gift to you can be seen. For your judge says, “See what I have made Myself. I have made Myself you. Leave here at My makeshift cradle all your pride, ambition, anxieties, your mumbled prayers and protestations of having made a good attempt.”

Throw all of it down and welcome this God-become-infant into your disordered, deviant heart. He is the Savior of the World. Which means, this Jesus still is what the angels said the first Christmas: He is born for you, He is born to you. Now, whoever you are, however far you have wandered, now through this Child the Father is well-pleased with you.

Now we can go home. Our own homes may be messy – with papers and dishes, or other kinds of messes that are much harder to clean. No matter. This Child has come to take us home to our Father. He takes us with Him from manger to cross to resurrection. In Him we can at last go home.

God of the grasshoppers

Posted on December 24th, 2014

Isaiah pictures God sitting above the world, while we beneath Him appear like grasshoppers, small and numerous (Is. 40.22). Perhaps you’ve smashed a grasshopper before, an annoying creature who invaded your home. But He does not smash us. He comes down among us, comes to our home, makes His bed among the grasshoppers. Every single one, to Him, is significant. He comes to save us.

Sermo Dei: Rorate Coeli 2014

Posted on December 21st, 2014

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

John 1:19-28; Philippians 4:4-7

December 21, 2014

 


 

Advent says, “He is coming!” Christ is coming, to be your judge. You are not ready to meet Him, if you have not confronted your own sins. A light must penetrate the darkness of your soul. What lurks there, in those dark places? What are you hiding, from God and man?

John the Baptist says, “He is coming, and you do not recognize Him.” John preached in the wilderness. This is not geographical information. The wilderness is the wild place: untamed, uncontrolled. The wilderness is haunted by gloom. There are creatures eager to devour you.

The wilderness is for us not a place. Or rather, it is every place. Wherever we are, we are threatened by the wildness within: rage, greed, longing, melancholy. We suppose only the young are wild; school, we hope, will civilize, tame the wild child. But the wilderness is not so easily tamed. The arching back of the screaming toddler becomes a seething fury in the adolescent, inebriated frenzy in college students, then midlife crises. The wild in us remains, so we do not escape the wilderness, but are drawn deeper into it.

There in the wilderness, the last prophet preaches to us. Yes, to us, and not only to Pharisees and tax collectors. To us John says, “Make straight the way of the LORD.” What needs to be straightened in your life? What is crooked? What is perverse? What is in error?

Have you repaired what you have broken? The Lord has spoken peace to you – but have you turned back to folly, and so spit upon His peace?

John comes into our wilderness, into all the untamed places of our lives and hearts, and calls us to straighten them in anticipation of the Lord’s judgment. Today is the day to hear Him. Today is the day to turn and repent.


Repent means turn. Don’t spiritualize it. The turning is literal, in that you stop. Are you at war with someone? Stop, turn away. Have you gone to a woman not your wife? Stop, turn away, return home. Have you told lies, or spoken ill of another? Stop, turn away, speak good things. “The soul who sins shall die,” says the Lord (Ezek. 18.20). But, if “he considers and turns away from all the transgressions which he committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.” (Ezekiel 18:28 NKJV)

John did not only say, “Feel bad about your sins.” This is contrition, recognizing your sin. But to this he added, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” We heard this last week. This week again we see John the Baptist doing something in addition to the call to turn. He points us to the object of our turning.

Turning away from sin, perpetually striving to change our lives according to the Ten Commandments, we turn to the One whom John designated. “I baptize with water,” John said, “but there stands One among you whom you do not know.”

There, in the water with John, stands the Judge. This Jesus will judge you. But this is the beautiful judgment: that Jesus, not a sinner, is baptized with sinners and for sinners. Jesus makes Himself a sinner. Jesus makes Himself the sinner. There in the water stands the Judge. He has stepped down from His seat at the front of the court and taken a place with the accused. In Him is our life. In Him is our turning. In Him is our righteousness.


So our whole life is repentance. That is, all our life we must constantly turn, perpetually abandon our evil ways and wild hearts.

But turning toward Jesus, we find our whole life, a life beyond repentance. Not that we are done repenting in this life, but we see an end to the repentance, a conclusion to the sinning, a life beyond this one of failure and remorse. Jesus stands with us sinners, and He stands beyond all sinning. He gives everything we lack.

That is why Paul can say, “Rejoice.” This is more than being Happy. A buzz, a bribe, a ballgame that ends in victory for your chosen team can make you happy. Such happiness is fleeting. “Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul says; for He has conquered all your foes, He will deliver you from death, He promises to help in every disaster.

Everything is taken care of, in the One who stands with you in the water, the Jesus who takes your sin and is your righteousness.


What is left for you to do, besides rejoice? Two things, Paul says. “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” Reasonableness, gentleness, moderation. How do you do that? Defer to others, give no one offense, always be fair. “But if I defer to others, if I don’t try to win, others will take advantage of me!” Yes, probably. But no matter, St. Paul says. “The Lord is at hand.” He will make straight everything that is crooked. As for you—and this is the second thing—“Do not be anxious about anything,” but speak to the Lord about it, “let your requests be made known to God.”


Advent says, “He is coming.” Repent, and turn from your evil ways. He stands with you in the water, your Judge become your substitute. Rejoice in Him, and be anxious for nothing. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” +INJ+

The Marriage of Rachel Rand and David Kent

Posted on December 21st, 2014

David, last night your brother Dan told us about the time you had a week to grow out your hair while playing Jesus in a sixth-grade pageant. With this wedding, you get to resume that role. In your marriage, you play Jesus, you are called to be Jesus to your wife.

This is more a manly thing even than winning second prize in a hairy chest competition.

I have a profound respect for people like you who serve in our armed forces to protect our country. The skill and courage to fight requires strength.

Now as a husband, you will need a different kind of strength. A twentieth century figure I admire is the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His older brothers had all fought in the Great War, and he had longed to be like them. When the Nazis came to power, Germany surged with pride. A student asked him what he would do if war came. “I pray that God will give me the strength then not to take up a weapon.”

It takes strength to take up a weapon. It takes a different kind of strength to decide not to. In your marriage, there will be times when you want to take up weapons against each other and go to war. Words are weapons sharper than knives. Don’t shoot unless you intend to kill; don’t speak words that will kill your spouse’s spirit.

So this is your commission, that you be Jesus, David, to Rachel. You won’t always feel like it, but you do it anyway, as devotion to your duty.

What does that really mean, to be Jesus? We have that difficult word propitiation in the third reading: “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins.” Propitiation means to offer a sacrifice to take away wrath, but the main idea for you to remember is that Jesus shoulders the burden for us. Love isn’t how you feel, but what you do to help each other. God’s love is an active, busy thing, reaching out to us to help us. You both show the love of God to each other when you make your lives actively dedicated to serving each other, bearing each other’s burdens.


So that brings us, Rachel, to this awkward, difficult promise you’ll make in a few moments: that you will submit to your husband David. What is going on here? Is this some vestige of misogynistic oppression, a tool of the patriarchy to keep women down?

Well, you know what submission is. It means to be under orders. Without that concept, the Coast Guard, all the armed forces, all our schools, cities, and states would collapse. When I was ordained, I too came under orders, orders to preach Jesus and forgive sins.

So don’t turn away too quickly from this idea that you submit to David. Without submission, your marriage will not be what God intended. But you have to both rid yourselves of the idea that submission in marriage is anything like a military submission to orders. Some have this military idea of the husband barking commands and the wife obeying them.

One of the great doctors of the church, St. John Chrysostom, said,

While this type of obedience may be appropriate in the army, it is ridiculous in the intimate relationship of marriage. The obedient wife does not wait for orders. Rather, she tries to discern her husband’s needs and feeling, and responds in love. When she sees her husband is weary, she encourages him to rest; when she sees him agitated, she soothes him; when he is ill, she nurses and comforts him; when he is happy and elated, she shares his joy. 

Yet such obedience should not be confined to the wife; the husband should be obedient in the same way. When she is weary, he should relieve her of her work; when she is sad, he should cherish her, holding her gently in his arms; when she is filled with good cheer, he should also share her good cheer. Thus a good marriage is not a matter of one partner obeying the other, but of both partners obeying each other. 

Like you, Jesus spent a lot of time in boats. Once during a storm, Jesus was sleeping. Fearing they were going to sink and drown, the disciples woke Jesus up. They were angry at Him. “Don’t you care that we are drowning?”


Jesus sometimes seems asleep, far away and uncaring. We forget about Him, and then we get upset when He doesn’t immediately fix our problems. David and Rachel, when the storms come, go wake up our Lord Jesus. He is with you in your boat, and you can always go to Him. Go wake Him up, stay close to Him.


So David: Be Jesus to your wife. Bear her burdens, forgive her, protect her.

Rachel: Seek every way to serve this man God gives you.

Both of you, submit to each other, and when the storms come, go to Jesus and wake Him up. By His grace, the ship never sinks. +INJ+

Meditations on the O Antiphons for Advent

Posted on December 21st, 2014

An annual tradition at Immanuel is a choral Evening Prayer service toward the end of Advent, featuring student and faculty choirs and instruments. This year, the central part of the service was the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, with students and faculty singing in Latin, alternating with the congregation singing in English. The following meditations came after the highlighted stanzas.


FIRST MEDITATION

After man fell into sin and death, God promised that a Savior would come and restore life to man. Throughout history, God gave in His Word different images, pictures, titles for this Savior. In the final days of Advent, the Church has gathered up seven of these as prayers to the Messiah to come rescue us. They’re called the “‘O’ Antiphons” because they all begin with “O.”

O Emmanuel

“O Emmanuel,” come to us who mourn in lonely exile! Not very cheerful, is it? But it’s the reality of all our existence. All the emphasis on family at Christmas has this unpleasant flip side: what happens when you cannot be with your family? Christmas for many is the loneliest time of the year.

The loneliness we experience when separated by distance or death is just part of the deeper loneliness that comes from being separated from God. But God’s promise is that our loneliness, our separation from Him and other people, has an end in the final appearing of Immanuel, the God who is with us.

O Sapientia (O Wisdom)

What do you want for Christmas? I have largely happy memories of Christmas. But one year, after opening up my last present, I gave it a mighty kick and said, “Is that all?” My parents, wisely, took everything away. The best present is to have parents who will discipline you. Yet it is not children alone who want more, bigger, faster. Never satisfied, we go through life still asking, “Is that all?”

The book of Proverbs tells us, “In all your getting, get wisdom.” Wisdom is a gift better than any other, for Wisdom shows us the source of every good gift. The things we get leave us unsatisfied. “In all your getting, get wisdom.”


SECOND MEDITATION

O Adonai (O Lord)

If you look at the first line the Latin teachers just sang, you’ll see the word Adonai at the end. It’s not actually Latin, but Hebrew. It means “Lord,” and the Hebrews would substitute it for another name, Yahweh, the name revealed to Moses from the burning bush.

So convinced of God’s majesty and awe were these Jews that the name of God they dared not utter. So they said Adonai, “Lord,” instead. But the focus in the original prayer is missing in the hymn: “O Adonai … Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.”

God redeemed the Jews, rescuing from slavery in Egypt. But there is still much redeeming to be done. Little boys kick toys, while grown men go to war, for there is much evil in the world. Anger, pride, sorrow, death enshroud us in gloom. We need a mighty Lord, a powerful Adonai to bring an end to the world’s madness.


THIRD MEDITATION

O Radix (Root of Jesse, translated in the hymn, O Branch of Jesse’s Tree)

The Grinch Who Stole Christmas has all the elements of a good story – a villain you can love to hate, a tragedy, and a happy ending. The tragedy is that the Grinch steals all the material things – presents, trees, dinners – only to find that Christmas cannot be stolen because it is in the hearts of the people.

It’s a good story. But, dear friends, Christmas is not something in our hearts. We cannot “have” Christmas, and we cannot experience Christmas. Christmas is much more and far better than anything like that. Christmas is about material things, or rather, the Material Thing: Jesus, God come in the flesh. O Branch of Jesse’s Tree shows us that Jesus, true God, became true Man from a real family, the family of King David, whose father was Jesse. Christianity is not an idea, philosophy, or feeling, because Jesus is not an idea, philosophy, or feeling. He is a real person, God in the flesh, who has come to deliver you. That is the real meaning of Christmas.

O Clavis (O Key of David)

I grew up in Minnesota, where Christmas always included snow. I still dream of a white Christmas, but the song by that title is really a sad song. Written in 1942, many families were separated by the war. The song was an instant hit because it gave voice to the loneliness people felt.

Built into the human heart is the longing for home, and as the years pass the longing becomes more pronounced as we remember those who will not be coming home again. Christ proclaims into this loneliness that He is the KEY OF DAVID, who opens wide our heavenly home. Jesus is the Key who opens the way to real life in the kingdom of God. So wherever you are, and whoever is with you on Christmas, and whether it snows or not, rejoice in the Key who will close the path to misery.


FOURTH MEDITATION

O Oriens (O Dayspring)

In the book The Return of the King, the evil Lord Sauron fights against his enemies with a cruel cloud that covers the land of men in a shadow of deep darkness. The author, J.R.R. Tolkien, was picturing what life in this world is like apart from Jesus.

How fitting that one of the titles for JESUS is DAYSPRING; He is the true Light that shines in the darkness and gladdens the hearts of men. The cloud of sin and death can lead us to the depressing thought that our lives are meaningless. Such a cloud bids us despair of hope and embrace death. We are a people walking in darkness. But in JESUS, we have seen a great Light. He is our DAYSPRING, dispersing the gloomy clouds of night, putting death’s dark shadows to flight.

O Rex (O King of the Nations)

The next presidential election is nearly two years away, but already candidates are jockeying for position. Presidents, rulers, kings and emperors promise so much, but can achieve so little. None can bring true and lasting peace, because none can do away with sin and death.

The true King came at the first Christmas, but He was rejected. “Behold, your King!” cried Pilate, but the people replied, “Crucify Him!” The King is coming again, and He will resolve all of our sad divisions. Whether men know it or not, Christ our King is the true Desire of every nation. He is the King we need, the true King of Peace.


CONCLUSION

As we have journeyed through this beautiful and ancient hymn, we have surveyed the landscape of human pain. But to every sorrow, the hymn trumpets, Gaude, Rejoice!

Rejoice! Because Jesus is Immanuel—God with us. God became man to end man’s separation from God. So Gaude, dear friends, rejoice, for in Jesus our Immanuel, God is with us. God bless you the rest of this Advent season, and may you have a holy Christmas, filled with rejoicing at the birth of our Immanuel.

Sermo Dei: Gaudete 2014

Posted on December 14th, 2014

The call of John the Baptist reverberates across the centuries, and still applies to us today: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Today’s Gospel reading has John in prison. Nevertheless, he is the only free man, while his disciples are the true captives.

The disciples of John the Baptist, though walking freely, are bound in a prison of doubt and fear. They had once answered the summons of the Baptist, been washed with a baptism of repentance unto the forgiveness of sins — but they had not heeded their teacher when he pointed them to JESUS as the One who fulfills all righteousness. Thus they remained in a prison worse than the one holding their teacher.

The Baptist’s call also comes to you in your prison. To you, imprisoned by lust, a mind chained to past sorrows, a heart sputtering with rage and grief, enslaved to your own desires, warped by perverse egotism – to you comes the cry: Repent.

Repentance is not contrition (sorrow for sin—or perhaps just that you got caught). John the Baptist says that the one who repents, turns and changes his mind and life. “Bring forth fruits of repentance,” he says. He says it to you: “Bring forth fruits of repentance.”

What would these fruits of repentance look like in your life? It begins with displeasure over your sin, despising how your heart is captive to the things displeasing to God. Yet from there it moves to a departure from sin and a new life striving after righteousness. Our fathers in the faith had a saying, “The highest form of repentance is not doing it again” (via Spangenberg).

In talking about this life of repentance, St. Paul said, “Whoever has stolen, let him steal no more, but work” (Eph. 4.28). St. Peter looks at Jesus on the cross and sees both the payment for our sins and the death of our sins in the death of Jesus: “[Christ] Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” (1 Peter 2:24 NKJV)

John the Baptist proclaimed this need for repentance, for a changed life, and this landed him in Herod’s dungeon, for Herod had taken his brother’s wife, and John was bold to say that this was against the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.”

But this was not the biggest scandal. John had also pointed his own disciples to Jesus. “Follow Him. He must increase, and I must decrease. This man Jesus is God’s own Son, sent to be the Lamb for sacrifice, to take away the world’s sin.” This offended John’s disciples, for they saw Jesus as a friend of sinners. Their Messiah would be a king, and Jesus did not seem very regal. If Jesus were so great, Herod would be dethroned; and certainly John the Baptist, their teacher, would not remain in prison.

Jesus continues to not meet our expectations. Why does violence remain in the world? Why do the corrupt maintain power, while the weak are abused? Why does sickness infect our bodies, sorrow infect our hearts, brokenness infect our families? Jesus is called Savior, but He doesn’t seem to do a very good job of it.

Like us, John the Baptist’s disciples are riddled with doubt. So John, like other great men, does some of his best work while in prison. Behind bars, John preaches his final sermon, a short one: “Go, take your questions to Jesus.”

Jesus, in response, does many works that fulfill the office of the Messiah from Isaiah 35: the blind see, the deaf hear, the mute speak, the paralyzed walk, and lepers are cleansed. These signs point ahead to the coming work of the new creation. When we pray later today in the liturgy, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we are not praying for Him to come to a stable in Bethlehem. We are praying for the end of this broken world and the remaking of creation. “Come, Lord Jesus, and repair all that is broken.”

But the greatest brokenness is found in hearts weighed down with sorrow, minds twisted by the memory of evil words, souls gripped with anxiety and resentment, greed and rebellion. So more joyful still is this: “the poor have the gospel preached to them.” What is this poverty? Not merely lack of money, but the lack of help and comfort. When you lose all hope in institutions and people, when you realize that there is no help to be found in your efforts or ethics, that no doctor or therapist can fix your deepest problems – into this impoverishment steps Jesus, who gives you the greatest good news: “In Me you have a gracious and merciful God; I am making all things new; by My cross you will have healing.”

Jesus then praises John for not being a reed shaken by the wind. Soon our newest brothers and sisters will make promises that many of you have made: will you suffer all rather than abandon your confession of the faith? The road to hell, it is said, is paved with the skulls of priests; and surely Christian history is littered with broken promises, vows abandoned for a momentary romp or to be spared from death. Is it a smaller thing, or a greater one, if you hide your Christianity merely to save yourself from a bit of embarrassment? Someone might call you a bigot or a fool; it is so much easier to sway with the winds of the Zeitgeist as a reed shaken by a slight breeze. Ease up on the commandments, and Herod sets John free.

But John remains steadfast, and Jesus praises him. Yet Jesus does not open the prison for John. He doesn’t need it. John will soon lose his head, but he has already found life, in Jesus.

So Jesus doesn’t open the prison for John. He opens it for you. The seeming prison of your circumstances remains – for now. But while nothing seems to have changed, everything has changed. You have the Gospel, that Jesus is risen from the dead and you shall rise too. So no matter what prisons you seem to be bound up in, the Spirit says to you, yes you: Rejoice! For your Jesus has accomplished everything already.

Sermo Dei: 125th Anniversary of St. Thomas Lutheran Church, Baltimore, MD

Posted on December 14th, 2014

I’ve lost it now, but I had an incredible picture that I took from the upstairs back window at 2010 Christian St., where I lived in the summer of 1994 while serving as vicar here at St. Thomas. It remains etched in my memory because it captured the ruined state of the neighborhood, with overgrown weeds, and boarded-up windows. Rising up out of the chaos was the beautiful spire of St. Thomas, where a pastor and people remained to preach the good news of Jesus when most people run for the suburbs.

And out of that experience, Pastor Wildner and St. Thomas became my conscience. Here is a pastor and people who love the church, love this neighborhood, and continue on when most anyone else would give up.

So the theme and hymn chosen for your anniversary is perfect: Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus. It’s a hymn for battle. And the battle can be terrifying. “Stand forth in mighty conflict … Against unnumbered foes; Let courage rise with danger And strength to strength oppose.”

I don’t always feel like I have much strength left. The world is a brutal place. Some of that brutality I experienced here. My first funeral as an officiant was just down the road, a sixteen-year old boy shot on the streets. While Pastor Wildner was away, I would come over and feed his dog Oliver. One day, I realized there was an intruder in the house; I cowered in fear, then ran out to call the police from a corner bar. I sometimes regretted my first instinct, which was to turn around and drive back to Minnesota the moment I arrived here.

That’s where our sins leave us, too. Cowering in fear, wanting to run, wanting to turn back. And it gets worse, for soon we discover that also in the church, people are sinners, and deeply flawed. Pastors let their people down, people let their pastors down. And death keeps creeping closer. Stand up for Jesus? Sometimes we feel much more like moaning Psalm 69: “I sink in deep mire, Where there is no standing; I have come into deep waters, Where the floods overflow me.” (Psa 69:2 NKJV)

And then, when things go well, we begin to think, “I made it; I did it.” You could think that about this church. “We made it to 125 years.”

The truth is, God doesn’t need our efforts. He uses our gifts, our strengths, even our weaknesses and mistakes, for His glory and for the good of the church. But He who made heaven and earth from nothing, by the power of His Word, doesn’t need us. If we don’t praise Him, He will raise up disciples from the stones.

I often think about my own congregation that God surely loves her, God surely wants His Church there, because by objective measures it should have failed. Financial problems, facility problems, school problems, pastor problems, people problems – the rational response to it would be, “Close up shop and quit. We’re doomed.”

Have you ever felt that way about St. Thomas? I bet you have. Who knows whether this congregation has another 125 years, or 125 hours? But it is not in your hands. It’s the Lord’s Church, and He is the One who has led and guided His Church through good and bad, prosperity and adversity. If it were up to you, everything would have gone to ruin long ago. But Christ’s Church stands by His will and command.

What’s interesting about this hymn, Stand Up, Stand Up for Jesus is the lack of motion on our part. Jesus leads, He moves, but we stand. So there is no marching, walking, or running in the hymn. Just stand.

And even that, just standing, we cannot do on our own. “Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord,” begins Psalm 130; “Lord, hear my voice! Let Your ears be attentive To the voice of my supplications. If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” No one stands before the Lord, if He keeps track of our sins. Who could stand? No one. “But there is forgiveness with You, That You may be feared. I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, And in His word I do hope.” (Psa 130:1–5 NKJV)

So when we stand up for Jesus, we are standing up because of Jesus. Without Him, you cannot stand. Without Him, Pastor Wildner cannot stand. Without Him, St. Thomas Lutheran Church cannot stand. Without Him, the world cannot stand, and the gates of hell would surely prevail.

But with Him, we have forgiveness and help in the day of trouble. With Him, we do not crawl, we do not walk, we do not run, we do not fight, but we stand, and the LORD fights for us.

When the Israelites departed from Egypt, everything appeared lost. The waters of the Red Sea blocked the way before them, and the armies of Pharaoh were closing in behind them. Who can stand against such power? But “Moses said to the people, ‘Do not be afraid. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD, which He will accomplish for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall see again no more forever.’” (Ex 14:13 NKJV)

Stand still. Stand still, and see the salvation of the LORD. He will do it.

A man once suffered great ruin. Raiders came and slaughtered his children, stole his cattle, and he lost all his property. He got sick, and his wife got mean. He was depressed, and sat on a pile of manure, scratching his skin with a broken pot. Bleeding, and tear-filled, his life seemed no longer worth living. He wanted to die.

But the Holy Spirit gave this man a vision of the future, and this man, whose body was ruined, saw the body of another Man, God in the flesh. And so this sick and sorrowful man sang a song that still inspires our music today, thousands of years later: “I know that my Redeemer lives, And He shall stand at last on the earth; And after my skin is destroyed, this I know, That in my flesh I shall see God.” (Job 19:25–26 NKJV)

When I can no longer stand, Job says, He shall stand, my Redeemer, and He will make me stand. We stand up for Jesus, we stand up with Jesus, we stand up because Jesus is the One who stands.

So that’s where we stay. St. Thomas church survives, and continues to care for those who most need it, by the strength of Jesus, “through whom also,” St. Paul says, “we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.” (Rom 5:2 NKJV);

We stand by grace, we stand in grace, and you stand to keep on telling Baltimore His grace. When St. Peter was lying chained in prison, an angel set him free, and said, “Go, stand in the temple and speak to the people all the words of this life.” (Acts 5:20 NKJV) These words are also for you: Go, stand, speak to the people all the words of this life. Not your life, your works, your community, but this life, the life that is found only in Jesus.

This Jesus gives you everything you need to stand in the Word and Sacraments dished out for you here at St. Thomas. That’s where you are fitted with the armor you need. “Put on the whole armor of God,” the Apostle says, “that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand.” (Eph 6:11, 13 NKJV). “That you may be able to stand,” “to withstand in the evil day,” and “having done all, to stand.” Why? How? Because the Lord fights for you. You stay close to the Word and Sacraments, and everything is done for you to stand.

And then, when we come to the end of all things, and nothing in this world remains standing, we will see what St. John already saw, recorded in the closing chapters of Holy Scripture:

“And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books.” (Rev 20:12 NKJV)

There is a day of Judgment coming. If what is recorded in the books were counted against us, who could stand? But with the Lord there is forgiveness. Place all your trust, dear people of God, in the Jesus who writes your name in the Book of Life. He stands, risen from the dead. He stands with you, through every trouble. By Him, in Him, because of Him, you stand. +INJ+

Sermo Dei: Populus Zion (Advent II) 2014

Posted on December 9th, 2014

“The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time. Nevertheless there are learned, educated men, occupying high positions in public life, who cling to it with the faith of a child. It is simply incomprehensible how anybody can consider the Christian doctrine of redemption as a guide for the difficult life of today.”

Joseph Goebbels, German Minister of Propaganda in the Nazi era, wrote those words, outlining Adolf Hitler’s thoughts on the clergy and his plans to eliminate from the German heart the worship of a humble Christ who sacrifices Himself in favor of the Nietzchean ideal of strength, the “will to power.”

True, mentions of “Nazis” or “Hitler” are generally signs that an argument has deteriorated beyond hope of redemption—but this topic of redemption remains an object of scorn and derision in our own troubled times. Sincere belief in God is deemed incompatible with “learned, educated men,” and belief in the Christian doctrine of redemption will get you labeled as a child or insane.

Yet this is what Jesus points us toward, in the Gospel reading for this Second Sunday in Advent (Luke 21:25-36). “There will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on the earth distress of nations, with perplexity…Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”

“Your redemption draws near.” Redemption is popularly thought of as a comeback, like in sports or politics, often involving a rehabilitation of reputation. The other popular idea of redemption is performing an act of heroism or going on a quest to atone for your past. Think Darth Vader throwing the emperor to his death, and reconciling with his son; despite his evil, he’s redeemed by his heroic death. One of my favorite movies, The Mission, features a warrior who kidnaps natives in South America and sells them as slaves. After he kills his own brother, he ends up seeking redemption by going with a Jesuit priest back to the natives he once enslaved, dragging his armor and sword in a bag that becomes increasingly heavy. When the armor and sword is eventually cut, it tumbles down a hill. He’s done his penance, he’s redeemed.


It’s a beautiful story, but not the Christian meaning of redemption. The redemption that God offers you is not done by your heroic act. It is not done by your penance. You don’t accomplish your redemption. “Your redemption draws near,” Jesus says, meaning, it draws near to you, from the outside. Someone else is doing it. “The only thing that a man can contribute to his own redemption,” said William Temple, “is the sin from which he needs to be redeemed.”

Redemption in the ancient world meant being bought out of slavery. Or to be released from death in exchange for renouncing your faith. You can see this at work in the shocking news from the pastor dubbed the Vicar of Baghdad, Andrew White. In a recent message he described soldiers of the Islamic State capturing a group of Christian children. They would be spared if they converted to Islam. “No,” they said. “We love Yeshua.” And so they were executed.

Why would they turn down this redemption? Because they looked for a better one, the redemption of Yeshua, Jesus, who would save them not for a time but for eternity. The writer to the Hebrews says, “[Some] were tortured, not accepting deliverance (redemption), that they might obtain a better resurrection” (11:35).


I don’t think we can understand our Lord’s deliverance until we come to grips with our own death, as well as the darkness of our own intentions and motives. C.S. Lewis said, “No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.” Who does God judge, according to our first reading today? The arrogant.

That’s dealing with the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods.” Idolatry is not only found among the worshippers of fraudulent religions. Arrogance is to set yourself not only above other people but above God Himself. In Ps. 19, the word “arrogant” is translated “presumptuous”: “Keep back Your servant also from presumptuous sins; Let them not have dominion over me.” What sins have dominion over you, rule you? What are you presuming by your choice to sin?

Are you not saying, “God will forgive me”? Would you commit adultery by saying, “My wife will forgive me”? Would you neglect to feed your children, saying, “I will ask forgiveness later”? Why then do you presume upon God’s forgiveness? Beware, lest what you call repentance is actually an excuse to keep on serving yourself above all.

“Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day”—the Day of Judgment—“come on you unexpectedly.” This is complacent living, “as if the Last Day were still a thousand years away” (Spangenberg). The Word of God is clear: we are to live not for the cares and concerns of this life—that is, occupied with how much we can get—but we are to live in light of that Day.


St. Paul in today’s Epistle describes this new life of the Christian as living in harmony with each other – a musical term. The notes sometimes move in different directions, but all serving the greater purpose of the song. What brings discord, dissonance? Arrogance, pride. Without getting too technical, the beauty of music is resolved tension, as discord is released. Christ redeems us freely, without any merit or worthiness in us, and this we also do, living in harmony, resolving tension—discord—with others by forgiveness.

The atheist philosophy is right: “The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time.” For our time is given over to greed and selfishness, a world where erotic liberty trumps religious liberty, where some police, and our government, show disdain for human life, and the love of many grows cold. In this world, power and privilege rule, and the Christian doctrine of redemption is no path to worldly success.

But you, dear Baptized child, are loved by God. You don’t live for power or pride, for you have been redeemed, and that outside of yourself, not with gold or silver, but with the holy and precious blood of Jesus, as of a lamb without spot. The insanity of the Christian doctrine of redemption really doesn’t fit at all into our time, but it is the only solution for our time, and for the remaining time of your life.

So rejoice and be glad, daughter of Zion, child of God, for your redemption draws near, outside of you. Love your neighbors, live in harmony with others, and wait quietly for Christ your redeemer. Rejoice and be glad, for your redemption does not depend on you but Jesus, who has done everything already.