Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Dorr, Michigan

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 10)

July 10, 2016
Text: Luke 10:25-37

            We all know what this parable means.  Don’t be mean, like the Meany McMean Pants priest and Levite, who have neither the time nor the compassion to help a brother in need, but get over into the far lane to pass by safely and go merrily on their way.  Be like the Samaritan.  He’s a good fellow.  He’ll always stop to help.  The camping club to which some of you belong depicts him as a disembodied head with a halo.  You’ll note that is not on our bulletin cover.  We call someone a good Samaritan when they stop along the freeway to help change a flat tire, return a lost dog, or help an old lady across the street.  Those are all wonderful things to do, and I hope you do them.  But do you see what we’ve done?  We’ve made this parable all about me and the good things I can do to make God smile.  Really, we’ve reduced our Lord’s teaching to the simple moralism: always be helpful.  This is how the parable is proclaimed from most pulpits, and taught in most Sunday School classes.  And if, after ten years with you, you think that is the right interpretation, I have utterly failed as your pastor.  This misses the whole point.  The Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ has nothing to do with encouraging you to be nice.
            The parable is about Jesus!  And it is about what Jesus does for you when He comes upon you beaten, naked, dying, and dead in your trespasses and sins.  We always want to identify with the hero in the story.  You can’t do that with this parable.  If you do, you’ll think changing tires and camping make you a good Christian.  That’s not it, guys.  Here is how it is.  A man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  It’s never good in the Bible when you go down.  Especially from Jerusalem, the Holy City where God dwells in the Temple.  And especially to Jericho, that cursed city conquered by the Israelites long ago when they came into the Promised Land, the one where they blew the trumpets and the walls fell down and Joshua declared that whoever rebuilds it would lay the foundation at the cost of his firstborn, and set up its gates at the cost of his youngest child (Josh. 6:26).  And so it was for Hiel of Bethel hundreds of years later, who lost his firstborn Abiram as he laid the foundation, and his youngest, Segub, as he set up its gates (1 Kings 16:34).  So Jericho has a reputation to say the least.  The man in our text is going down from Jerusalem to Jericho.  We might say something like, “the man is going down from the Church for a good time in Vegas.”  And he fell among robbers.  Notice the perils of the journey down from what is holy to what is unholy.  Who might the robbers be in the story?  The devil?  The world?  Your own sinful flesh?  And what happens?  They strip him naked.  That’s what happened to our first parents when they fell into the clutches of the devil in the garden.  Remember?  They looked down and they were naked and ashamed.  They covered it up as best they could, fig leaves and all, and they tried to hide, but the damage was done.   They were exposed…  Those robbers stripped the man and beat him to a pulp.  As sneaky and enticing as our three main enemies can be, they never leave us unharmed.  The odd thing is, we often like the beating at the time.  And we don’t even notice the robbery… of our life.  Of our faith…  They leave us a bloody mess, half dead, soon to be carrion for the vultures, the demons, the rotting creatures of hell.  You are not the Good Samaritan in this story, beloved.  You are the wounded sack of flesh and bones on the side of the road.  Helpless.  Hopeless.  Dying.  Dead.
            And now, what about the priest and the Levite?  It’s not that they’re just big meanies.  They might be really nice guys, and they’re certainly morally upstanding citizens, good Christian folk.  It’s not even that they don’t want to help, but that’s just the point.  They cannot help you.  The priest and the Levite stand for God’s holy Law.  The Law of God is good and wise.  It is righteous and pure.  And if you can keep it perfectly, you will live.  But what can the Law do for a sinner?  It can only accuse.  It can only kill.  It can only damn to hell.  So I suppose we should be relieved that the priest and the Levite pass by on the other side instead coming over to us to finish us off. 
            But then Another comes down the road.  He is not holy in the way of the priest and the Levite.  That is to say, His holiness is not in the eyes of men.  It is no mere outward keeping of the Law.  It is something much deeper.  It is His very essence.  Now, in this way, the Samaritan offers a good illustration.  It would never occur to a Law-abiding Jew that a Samaritan could be holier than a priest or a Levite.  We speak of the Good Samaritan, but a Jew would never call a Samaritan “good.”  The Samaritans were hated.  They were the unfaithful remnants of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, intermarried with the nations and idolatrous, unclean, sinners.  Jesus is not a Samaritan, but that didn’t stop the Jews from saying, “Are we not right in saying you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” (John 8:48; ESV).  Not just a Samaritan, but a demon-possessed Samaritan, they called our Lord, so consuming was their hatred for Him.  Isaiah said it long ago: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:2-3).
            But it is the despised and hated Samaritan who comes upon the man and has mercy, who binds up his wounds and pours on oil and wine, who sets him on his own animal and brings him to an inn and personally tends to him.  And when he must go away the next morning, he pays the innkeeper to tend the man, with a promise that he will return and repay the innkeeper for any added expense.  And so it is the despised and hated Jesus who comes upon you in your sin and death and has mercy on you, who binds up your wounds and anoints you with the oil of the Spirit in the water of Baptism and gives you to drink of the wine of His blood.  He picks you up and brings you to an Inn, Holy Church, and He tends your wounds, and He charges an innkeeper, your pastor, to care for you.  And there is the promise: He will come back for you.  He will see your healing all the way through.  And to the innkeeper there is the promise: “I will repay you when I come back” (Luke 10:35).  The final healing for all your wounds, and the reward for a pastor’s faithful care, these things are given in the end, when Jesus returns and raises you from the dead and gives you eternal life in the New Creation.
            Jesus is the Good Samaritan.  Jesus is the Neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers.  Now, it is true, our Lord says at the end of the parable, “You go, and do likewise” (v. 37).  If we aren’t careful, we’ll turn this story back into a moralism: Be helpful… Be kind.  But remember, the lawyer who put Jesus to the test asked a Law question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (v. 25; emphasis added).  He was seeking to justify himself, to clothe himself with fig leaves.  Well, ask a Law question, get a Law answer.  It’s really quite simple.  Have mercy, like Jesus.  Perfect mercy.  Love perfectly, like Jesus, from your heart.  Rescue your enemy, who hates you and wants to kill you, from what otherwise would be certain death. And give yourself and all you are and all you have for the healing of that enemy.  And do this all the time, all the way, no exceptions, no omissions, perfectly, from your heart.  All the way to Golgotha.  All the way to the cross.  All the way to death and hell, to spare your enemy from death and hell.  That’s what Jesus does.  Go and do likewise.  And you can’t, can you?  Not even the lawyer could do that.  Nor the priest, nor the Levite.  Only Jesus.  This is not a moralism, this is the mirror of the Law in all its gory truth.  The Law accuses you.  The Law kills you.  The Law damns you to hell.  And that is why your Good Samaritan, Jesus, must rescue you and care for you and bring you to the Inn.  That is pure Gospel.  Jesus does it.  Not you.  Jesus is the Good Samaritan.  Not you.  Jesus is the Good Samaritan for you. 

            But then, there is something else here for you to keep in mind.  Here you are, in the Inn, and your wounds are being tended and your ultimate healing is assured.  You’re still very weak.  The old sinful nature keeps popping up again to plague you.  He must be drowned in repentance.  But you have the medicine, the Gospel, that assures your recovery.  And so, it is true that ever so weakly and far short of the perfection of Jesus, you can begin to love your neighbor and have mercy on him.  Now, understand, you aren’t doing this to inherit eternal life, as the lawyer wanted to do.  You’re already in the Inn of the Church, and Jesus has promised to come back for you, so all of that is taken care of.  You already have eternal life.  No, you’re doing this because your neighbor needs you to do it.  And having received all of this love and mercy from Jesus, it just overflows in works of love and mercy for your neighbor.  That is always the way of faith.  That is always the way of the Christian life.  You can begin to give yourself up for your neighbor, as Christ gave Himself up completely for you.  You can die to yourself.  You can forgive and ask forgiveness.  You can give to missions and to charity.  Generously, even.  You can change flat tires and walk old ladies across the street and do good work at your job and be a faithful spouse, parent, or child.  And when you aren’t faithful (and you’ll never be, perfectly), nevertheless, there is the medicine.  There is Jesus in His Word and Sacraments.  There are the fruits of His cross.  There is Christ crucified for you, risen for you.  You don’t do anything for this.  Jesus has done it all.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 8)

June 26, 2016
Text: Luke 9:51-62

            Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die” (The Cost of Discipleship, [SCM, 1959]).  What does he mean by that?  Well, it may mean your death quite literally, your physical death as a result of persecution against the one true faith of Jesus Christ.  As we know, many of our brothers and sisters elsewhere in the world risk and even forfeit their lives to be baptized into Christ.  They shed their blood for the Savior who shed His Blood for them.  For now there is not much risk of that here in America.  But that does not release you from our Lord’s claim on your life.  To follow Jesus means to die to yourself.  It means the death of your old sinful flesh, crucified with Christ and drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism.  It means the rejection of your fleshly passions.  It means hatred from the world, and maybe even from your own family members.  Salvation is absolutely free to you in Christ, but it is not cheap.  It cost your Savior His Blood and death.  And to follow Jesus, to be His disciple, to walk in His discipline, well, that is quite costly.  It is free to you, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. For what does it mean to follow Jesus?  It means to go the way He goes, and the way He goes is suffering and the cross for the sake of His neighbor… for you!  So for you to follow Him means you also have to march through Holy Week and Good Friday and Golgotha.  There is no other path to the resurrection and eternal life.  Now, don’t misunderstand.  Your suffering and death do not somehow make atonement for your sins.  That is all done already in the cross and death of Jesus.  What, then, is your cross all about?  There are many reasons concealed in God’s hidden wisdom, ways that He is making all things work together for your good, since you are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).  But among other things, you are called to suffer for your neighbor, as Christ suffered for you.  That is to say, you are given as a sacrifice to your neighbor to speak the truth in love and the life-giving message of the Gospel to your neighbor, even if that speaking brings you rejection and suffering.  And you can do that because you know what awaits you when all is said and done: eternal life, heaven, the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. 
            Look how Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem in our text (Luke 9:51).  He knows what awaits Him.  The cross and death.  But He is absolutely determined.  He will not be swayed.  He will not be turned aside.  Not by the rejection and ingratitude of those for whom He suffers.  Not by the misunderstanding and dissuasion of His apostles.  Not by the devil Himself.  Our Lord Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem, sets His face toward the cross, for you, because He is determined to save you.  Now, that is the preaching of the Gospel, our Lord’s determination to suffer and die for the forgiveness of our sins.  Our God wins the victory over our enemies, not by some glorious show of power and might, but by surrendering Himself to the death and hell of the cross.  And that is scandalous.  It is amazing, the hatred that preaching brings on.  It is demonic in nature, this hatred.  That is why it is so irrational and vitriolic.  That is why the media blames Christians for Islamic terrorism.  That is why nuns and Christian universities and various Christian institutions and employers must be forced to pay for abortions.  That is why Christian florists and bakers and photographers must be forced to participate in same-sex weddings, even though there are many other florists and bakers and photographers who would happily provide the same service without violating their conscience.  It doesn’t matter, because the Christians must be made to conform.  Which is to say, they must be made to reject Christ and His Word.  At all costs.  Even the cost of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, freedoms once held dear by the majority of Americans regardless of political persuasion.  Now they are encroached by politicians and government officials regardless of political persuasion.  And why should that surprise us?  Our Lord tells us right here that this is what we should expect.  He also shows us how to respond.  Speak the truth in love, and then suffer for it.  And rejoice that you are counted worthy to suffer for the Name of Jesus. 
            There are only two possible reactions to the preaching of Jesus and His cross.  There is either rejection, or there is faith.  Jesus sends messengers, preachers, ahead of Him on the journey, to make preparations for His reception.  And those in a certain village of the Samaritans reject Him outright.  They do not receive Him.  Why?  Because “his face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53; ESV).  It is not simply the customary hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews, though it certainly is that.  They are categorically opposed to our Lord’s determination to go to Jerusalem and accomplish the work of our salvation.  They don’t even understand it.  This hatred grows deep inside of them, out of their fallen hearts, where Satan reigns.  And so the demonic determination to reject Jesus and His disciples.  This is the crassest form of rejection.  But then there are the disciples themselves, James and John, brothers, Sons of Thunder, from Jesus’ inner-circle, and they ask, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them,” those wicked Samaritans who have it coming (v. 54)?  We understand the sentiment.  But you see, in responding to rejection with wrath, the disciples also have rejected the Gospel of Jesus.  Why did Jesus come?  Why is He so set on going to Jerusalem to suffer and die?  For the sake of these very Samaritans.  He does not want them to suffer God’s wrath.  That’s just the point.  He comes to save them from it, to save the disciples in their misguided zeal, to save you from your faithlessness, your apathy, your casual faith, and your unwillingness to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  Our Lord sets His face to go to Jerusalem for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins.
            And here we encounter the other reaction to Jesus and His cross.  Faith.  The thing about faith, though, is that it does not come naturally.  By nature, you will reject Jesus and the cross every time.  That is simply the reality that results from being a child of Adam.  It’s his fault.  He fell.  We fell in him.  Our wills are, by nature, bound to unbelief and rejection of God, until the Holy Spirit frees us from bondage.  Faith is a gift.  It comes to us from outside of us, from God Himself, bestowed in His Word and Baptism, and nourished by the Supper, by the Holy Spirit who comes by these means to give us faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, in whom we are reconciled to the Father.  The very preaching of the cross that provokes so much hatred and rage is the means by which the Holy Spirit brings you to faith.  It’s a mystery, isn’t it, why you react one way to the preaching of the cross, and another reacts a different way?  You believe as a result of the preaching and your Baptism into the death of Christ.  Someone else, perhaps even someone very similar to you, shuns the cross with horror.  So it goes.  We don’t know why.  We only know that you believe because of the grace of God and His work upon you.  So we give thanks, and confess, and suffer in hope and joy.
            Three particular fellows are singled out in our text for their encounter with Jesus.  We don’t learn whether any of the three rejects Jesus or follows Him, but we do learn what it will cost them if they follow Jesus to the cross.  The first man says he will follow, but Jesus reminds him that foxes and birds have better accommodations in this world than the Savior and His Christians.  Being a disciple of Jesus just may cost you the comforts and pleasures the best of earthly life has to offer.  Jesus calls the second man: “Follow me” (v. 59), but the man asks first to go bury his father.  Now, Jesus isn’t heartless.  It’s not that the man’s father is dead and he just wants to get through the funeral before he leaves.  It is that the man wants to wait until everything is just right in his earthly life before he makes the commitment to Jesus and His Gospel.  To this, Jesus responds, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead” (v. 60).  Let the unbelieving world take care of its own business.  The Gospel is the first priority.  There is nothing more important, and the time to believe and follow is now.  The third man simply wants to go and say farewell to his loved ones before he follows.  Jesus responds that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (v. 62).  What happens when we follow Jesus is that we start to feel a certain nostalgia for the old life outside of Christ.  Remember the flesh pots of Egypt?  Maybe slavery to sin and death wasn’t so bad after all.  This kind of looking back can kill faith.  Repent.  Take up your cross and follow Jesus.  All the way to death. 

            For what awaits beyond the cross is resurrection.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  And He’ll raise you.  So the Lord has called you to be His own, and in calling you, He’s bid you come and die.  It is a blessed death.  For that death is folded up in the death of Jesus.  And Jesus’ death is a death unto life.  His life is a life unto eternity and light and joy in the presence of God.  Be not afraid.  Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem for you.  Set your face upon Him.  Keep your eyes on Jesus.  He will never forsake you.  Not even in death.  He will never let you go.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                  

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (C – Proper 6)

June 12, 2016
Text: Luke 7:36-8:3

            “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:15; ESV [cf. Is. 52:7]).  Jesus preaches the good news of sins forgiven to the woman in our text, and she adores His beautiful feet.  Quite literally.  That she is behind Him, and then at His feet, shows her great humility.  It is the humility of repentance.  She is a sinner, and she knows it.  She knows her need for this good news which Jesus brings and bestows upon her.  We are not certain what her sin is.  Could it be that “a lady of the city” is something akin to our designation, “a lady of the night”?  Whatever the case, she knows her sin quite well.  She weeps tears of sorrow for having offended her God.  And with those tears, she washes the feet of her God, her Savior, Jesus.  She lets down her hair, an act considered rather immodest in her society, but certainly not to the God who has numbered every hair of her head.  With that hair, she dries His feet, kisses them profusely in worship, and anoints them with expensive perfume.  How beautiful are the feet of our Lord.  They do not kick this sinner away.  They receive her worship, even as gracious Words pour from the lips of their Owner.
            Simon doesn’t like it.  Simon, the host, the Pharisee, seeing all these things, thinks to himself: “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).  But Jesus is more than a prophet.  He is God in human flesh.  He does know who and what sort of woman this is, that she is a sinner.  That is precisely why He does not refuse her.  He knows her sins better than she, who weeps for them.  He knows her sins so well that He has taken them into Himself.  According to the Law of Moses, in allowing her to touch Him, He has taken her uncleanness into Himself.  That’s just the point.  He takes it, that He might pay for it in His suffering and death.  Yes, He knows who this is, and what she has done.  And He knows what Simon is thinking.  “Simon, I have something to say to you” (v. 40), whereupon He tells this parable: A moneylender had two debtors.  One owed him five hundred denarii, a denarius being a common day’s pay.  Five hundred days’ worth of pay!  The other owed fifty, a considerable amount, but certainly much less than the one who owed five hundred.  But be that as it may, neither of them could pay.  So the moneylender forgave the debt.  He cancelled it.  He wiped the slate clean.  Unbelievable.  “Now which of them will love him more?” Jesus asks (v. 42).  And the answer is obvious.  But Simon knows he’s been caught.  “The one, I suppose,” he replies (you can almost hear the snarkiness), “for whom he cancelled the larger debt” (v. 43).  And he’s right.  He has judged rightly.  And now here’s the application.  This woman owes a great debt to God.  Her sins are many.  She has nothing with which to pay.  She could never hope to pay off her debt.  Not by any good work.  Not even by her worship at the Savior’s feet.  But God has wiped her slate clean.  He’s cancelled her debt.  He’s forgiven her much.  So she loves much.  She worships, not so that she might be forgiven, but because she has been forgiven.  She loves Jesus because of what He has done and is doing for her.  Clearly she is represented in the parable by the one who is forgiven much, therefore loves much.
            But who does the other character in the parable represent?  This must have grated on Simon, for the Savior’s implication is unmistakable.  The other character represents him.  Yes, Simon, you are the man!  You are perhaps clean outwardly.  But inside you are full of sin and death, a whitewashed tomb, as Jesus says elsewhere (Matt. 23:27-28).  The woman has led a life of manifest sin.  Her sin is obvious to all.  But she is no worse than Simon, than the other Pharisees, than the pious Christians sitting in the pews this morning, who perhaps live morally upstanding lives, but their hearts… If others could see into our hearts, know the desires of our hearts, hear our inner thoughts… We are just as sinful as the woman in our text.  We don’t like to admit it.  Perhaps we’ve even deluded ourselves, as had Simon, into believing we’re better than her, better than others.  If this is you, repent.  If you’ve ever thought, “That person over there really needs to hear this sermon,” repent.  This sermon is for you.  If you’ve ever railed against the moral failings and weaknesses of others without first examining your own life and removing the log out of your own eye by Confession and Absolution, repent.  Perhaps, like Simon, you think you only owe the 50 denarii, not the 500 of the woman.  But you still owe 50, and you can’t pay.  You can never hope to pay back the debt.  Not by any good work.  Not even by your worship of Jesus here at Church.  Jesus must take your debt, 50 or 500 or 5,000… Jesus must take your uncleanness, your sin, into Himself, to be paid by His blood.  That’s the only possible payment.  And He does it in His innocent suffering and death on the cross, for the woman, for Simon, for you.
            Whether you’re the woman or the Pharisee in our text, you have been forgiven much.  All your sins are forgiven.  And now follows your Christian life of love.  You love because He first loved you.  You love because you have been forgiven much.  The order is very important, here.  It is true, Jesus says, “her sins… are forgiven—for she loved much” (Luke 7:47).  This does not mean her love caused her forgiveness.  Rather, her forgiveness caused her love.  It is like saying, “It rained, for the windows are wet” (Buls).  The windows being wet didn’t cause the rain.  The rain caused the windows being wet.  And so the forgiveness given by Jesus caused the woman, causes you, to love much.  That means worshiping at Jesus feet, not that you might be forgiven, but because you have been forgiven. That means serving your neighbor in Christian love, providing for their bodily needs and confessing Christ to them, not to earn forgiveness, but because Jesus earned your forgiveness and has given it to you freely.  That means being generous with your time, talent, and treasures for the work of the Church, not because working for the Church and giving to the Church earns you points with God, but because God has forgiven you all your sins in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and declared you His own child in Holy Baptism.  Jesus paid your debt to God for sin.  He paid it in full.  You are reconciled to the Father.  God loves you.  You belong to His Kingdom.  Heaven is your home.  He will raise you from the dead on the Last Day.  Rejoice.  Weep, not only for sorrow over sin, but for joy in forgiveness.  And go love, because you can, because Jesus has freed you for this very thing.   Love and serve your families.  Sacrifice for them.  Work diligently in your vocations, serving your neighbor out of love for the Lord.  Participate in society.  Pay your taxes.  Enjoy God’s creation and take care of it.  Speak up for the defenseless.  Give to charity.  That’s the Christian life.  That’s the thankful and loving life Christ Jesus frees us to live by forgiving our sins.  And when you don’t live that life perfectly (and you won’t, because you can’t), there is Jesus, forgiving your sins, saying to you as He says to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven… Your faith has saved you; go in peace” (vv. 48, 50).
            Yes, the Lord Jesus says to you as He said to David through Nathan, “The LORD also has put away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13).  He has put it away in His wounds.  You shall not die, for He has died in your place.  And He is risen, and reclines with you here at His Table with His risen Body and Blood.  Come and fall at His feet, those beautiful feet that were pierced for your transgressions.  Come and hear the gracious Words coming out His mouth.  Take and eat, this is my Body… Take and drink, this is my Blood… shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.  He will not kick you away.  He will never do that.  He receives you.  Jesus receives sinners and eats with them.  Jesus receives you and feeds you for eternal life.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.


Sunday, May 29, 2016

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (C—Proper 4)

May 29, 2016
Text: Luke 7:1-10

            It must be a high honor to have the Lord Jesus Christ marvel at your faith.  I wouldn’t know.  But this is an indication that there is something to learn here from the centurion.  Jesus says of him, “I tell you, not even in Israel,” not even among the Jews, not even within the visible Church and that nation of God’s own people, “have I found such faith” (Luke 7:9; ESV).  This man is a foreigner, a Gentile, and even worse, he works for the government.  What is it about his faith that causes Jesus to marvel?  More often than not, we probably interpret the text this way: What makes the centurion’s faith great is that he knows Jesus doesn’t even have to be present to heal.  “Just speak the Word, Lord, and my servant will be healed.”  That is certainly true, and that is part of it.  The centurion does not regard Jesus simply as a magician or miracle worker or great healer.  There is an implicit confession here that Jesus is God, or at least that He can harness the power of God, that He carries the authority of God.  Just say the Word, give the order, and the sickness will obey.  In this the centurion has us beat.  We think it would be better to see Jesus.  If we could just see a miracle.  If we could just talk to Him face to face.  Then we could know that He will rescue us.  The centurion believes without seeing, which is more blessed.  But there is even more to his faith than this.  The Jews who come to Jesus on the centurion’s behalf plead for him on the basis of his worthiness: “He is worthy to have you do this for him, for he loves our nation, and he is the one who built us our synagogue” (vv. 4-5).  “He’s a good guy, Jesus.  He does good things.  He deserves this.”  That is the basis of the Jews’ faith: The goodness of the person, based upon the good things he does.  But that is not the centurion’s faith.  The centurion’s faith confesses this: I am not worthy.  “Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof… But say the Word, and let my servant be healed” (vv. 6-7).  By faith, the centurion recognizes that he has no worthiness, no righteousness, no goodness to plead before Jesus.  But he believes in Jesus’ goodness.  He believes in Jesus’ willingness and ability to help.  And he confesses the power and authority of Jesus’ Word: “But say the word, and let my servant be healed.”
            We learn what faith is from the centurion.  Faith is simply trust in Jesus to save.  Whatever the circumstances, whatever the affliction, whatever your background, whatever your sin.  Faith does not look to the self and your own worthiness, righteousness, or goodness.  Faith recognizes that you have no such thing before God, and so faith confesses your sins to God and clings to the Holy Absolution pronounced in the stead and by the command of Jesus.  That is to say, faith clings to the goodness of Jesus, who saves you in spite of you, forgives you in spite of you, loves you in spite of you, heals you in spite of you.  He does it because of Himself.  And He does it by His Word.  “Just say the Word and let your servant be healed, dear Jesus.”  And He does: “I forgive you all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son +, and of the Holy Spirit.”  Now, it is very important to recognize here that since this is true, that faith is not based on your worthiness, then it cannot in any way be your work.  Faith does not come from you.  It comes from God, as a free gift.  Faith is not something you drum up within yourself, deep down in your heart (oh, it’s scary deep down there!).  It comes from outside of you, from God, from the Holy Spirit, who bestows it on you in Baptism and preaching and the Sacrament of the Altar.  Faith is not intellectual knowledge or understanding, nor is it the ability to confess, though it certainly seeks these things and grows into them by the gracious work of the Holy Spirit.  And so we baptize little babies, and we believe that they believe, because faith is the gift that God bestows on them.  Just as baby believes in Mom, trusts Mom, looks to Mom for every good thing, even though baby doesn’t know the name “Mom” or have any ability to confess her goodness.  Mom is pure gift to baby.  And so is Jesus.  Faith simply trusts.  Faith simply receives.
            So faith is not about some quality in you.  Faith is all about Jesus.  Luther often used faith and Jesus synonymously, because if you have faith, you have Jesus, and if you have Jesus, you have faith.  Faith is all about the death and resurrection of Jesus for your forgiveness, life, and salvation.  Faith always looks to Jesus and His righteousness and life bestowed upon you freely.  Whenever you’re looking at yourself, that isn’t faith.  That’s navel gazing.  That is being curved in on the self, incurvatus in se is the theological Latin.  And it’s the very definition of sin, to no longer be looking to God, but looking at the self.  Like Adam and Eve in the garden, who, after sinning, looked down upon themselves, and for the first time found that they were naked, exposed, and ashamed.
            Well, needless to say, the devil has a lot of fun with this, always at our expense.  And it goes something like this: Being the good Lutheran that you are, you know that you’re saved by faith alone.  Faith alone, faith alone, faith alone, you’re always quoting the old Lutheran slogan, and I’m glad, because that means I’m doing my job as a pastor.  But there is a danger here, and the devil knows it well.  “What if you died tonight?  How do you know you are saved?” the devil asks you.  He’s very good at the old Kennedy Method of Evangelism.  And, of course, the old slogan rings in your ears, “Sola fide!  Faith alone!”  And so you answer, “I know that I am saved because I believe.  I have faith.”  It sounds like the right answer to your Lutheran ears, doesn’t it?  And I know what you mean, and so does every Lutheran in the building, and frankly, so does the devil, but that doesn’t stop him.  “Ah, yes, faith alone!” he says.  “You have faith.  Or do you?  Are you sure?  Do you have the right kind of faith?  Do you have enough faith?  Is your faith strong enough?  Because I have to tell you (I hate to bring it up), but I know what you’ve done, and I know who you are, and I know those deep, dark, dirty secrets you keep buried within you, the ones you never tell anyone, the ones you pretend not to remember, pretend God doesn’t know about.  Yes, those.  You see, that doesn’t look like faith to meChristians don’t do those kinds of things, or think those kinds of thoughts.  Maybe you’re not so full of faith, after all.  Maybe you’re not really saved.”
            Oh, he’s a tricky devil, isn’t he?  But he’s right, in this sense: If you’re looking at yourself, you aren’t going to see a Christian.  You aren’t going to see faith.  If you do, you’re a Pharisee.  Repent.  But if you don’t, do not despair.  Confess with the centurion.  “Lord, I am not worthy.  I am anything but worthy.  I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.  I am not worthy to have you hear my prayers or answer them.  I am not worthy to have you love me or save me or heal me or heal those I love.  I do not come to you on the basis of my worthiness.  I am not worthy.  But You are.  And You promised.  Say the Word, Lord.  Say the Word that delivers Your sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection.  Say the Word that forgives my sins and washes me with Your Blood.  Say the Word that bathes me and breathes life into me and feeds me with the fruits of Your cross.  Say the Word.  For you are God, the only-begotten Son of the Father, and You have all His authority.  You say into the darkness, ‘Let there be light’ (Gen. 1:3), and there is light.  You say the centurion’s servant is healed, and so he is.  You tell Lazarus to come out of the tomb, and so he does, alive and well (John 11).  And so You say to me, ‘You are forgiven,’ and I am.  You say of bread and wine, ‘This is my Body, this is My Blood,’ and so it is, and with it You feed me and heal me, take possession of me and save me.  So just say the Word.  I am not worthy.  But You do all things well.”

            Faith looks not upon itself.  Faith looks always and only to Jesus.  You can have faith without ever hearing the word, “faith.”  Baptized babies are a case in point.  When faith looks upon itself it is always uncertain.  The devil knows that and he will exploit it.  But when faith is synonymous with Jesus, it cannot be shaken.  Beloved, rest in the sure things that are outside of you, the things of Jesus Christ.  How do you know you are saved?  Not because you believe, but because Jesus died for you, and Jesus is risen from the dead, and because He promised, and He cannot lie.  You know you are saved because of Jesus.  You know you are saved because you are baptized into Christ.  You know you are saved because Jesus says so in His Word.  You know you are saved because Jesus puts Himself into you in the Supper of His Body and Blood.  He becomes one with you, and you are one with Him.  You are not worthy, but Jesus is.  And He has the authority.  Jesus has spoken.  He has said the Word.  And it is so.  You are saved.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (C)

May 22, 2016
Text: John 8:48-59

            “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us” (Liturgical Text from the Introit).  The Feast of Holy Trinity is different from other feasts and festivals in that it commemorates a doctrine rather than a particular event or person.  This morning we highlight our confession of the two great dogmas of the Church catholic (small c, not Roman, although Rome also confesses these).  “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith… And the catholic faith is this, that we worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity” (Athanasian Creed, LSB 319).  In other words, there is one God, and He is Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  That is the first great dogma of the catholic faith.  And this is beyond our comprehension.  There is no mathematical equation that can explain it.  Every illustration falls far short and will eventually land you in heresy, denial of the catholic faith.  If you think you understand the Trinity, you are in error.  This is not an article of faith to be understood, but to be believed.  “Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.  But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ” (LSB 320).  In other words, there is one Lord Jesus Christ, who is God from all eternity, the only-begotten Son of the Father, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity; but also man, who in time was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, from whom He received our human flesh and was born under the Law, fulfilled it for us, was crucified, suffered, died, and was buried, rose from the dead on the Third Day, ascended into heaven, and is even now seated in His human flesh at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, ruling all things in heaven and on earth, and that He has done all of this for us men and for our salvation.  That is the second great dogma of the catholic faith.  We confess these two great dogmas in the Athanasian Creed this morning, as we do also in a simpler way in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.  This is what it means to be a Christian.  We believe these articles.  There are many sects that claim to be Christian, but do not believe these two great dogmas, the Trinity and the Incarnation of our Lord, that have been believed and confessed by the holy Christian Church in every time and every place.  That is what the word “catholic” means, “according to the whole,” the whole doctrine believed and confessed by the whole Church.  If a Church does not confess this, it is not a Christian Church, whatever else it may be.   
            And so, the Feast of the Holy Trinity makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it?  It’s not just the length of the Creed, and the length of the Service.  It’s the exclusivity of the confession that this God alone, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the true God.  And it’s the confession of these very technical and precise points of doctrine.  We don’t like it.  It’s too theoretical.  And it is, by definition, incomprehensible.  It gives us a headache.  We like things we can grasp.  And when we can’t grasp a thing, when we don’t have command over it, or when we have trouble directly applying it to some concrete circumstance in our lives, we dismiss it as irrelevant.  Which is simply to say, we’re totally self-obsessed.  We’re in love with ourselves.  We think it’s all about us… or to be exact, it’s all about me.  We like the sermon to be about us.  We want something we can take into our life to improve our marriage or our job or even cure our depression.  That’s what makes a sermon relevant, we think.  But when a preacher comes along with all this high-fallutin’ talk of Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity, we’re not quite sure where to hang it in our self-construction, and frankly, what does it even mean, anyway?  And so we do what self-obsessed human beings, particularly 21st Century Americans, always do with things we don’t understand.  We dismiss it as irrelevant to us.  And do you see what you did, there?  You dismissed God as He reveals Himself in Holy Scripture, as He reveals Himself in the flesh of Christ, as irrelevant.  Is this Sunday a tough one for you?  Get over it.  Get over yourself.  Repent. 
            Holy Trinity Sunday takes us out of ourselves and our self-absorption and gives us to ponder the ineffable mystery of the nature of God.  This is not something to be comprehended or understood.  That would be to put God in a box of our own making.  This truth is something to behold in wonder.  This is a reality in which to bask and delight and simply praise.  You are not God, and neither am I.  It’s okay that we don’t understand everything.  We live by faith.  And so, Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.  God in the flesh of a little Baby born in Bethlehem.  God dead on a cross for you.  A man risen from the dead and seated at the right hand of God the Father, whom we worship as God.  How can these things be?  It is not for us to know the how, but simply to know as reality, because our gracious God has revealed it.  Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to Him because He has shown mercy to us.
            And in reality, this is finally all about you.  Because God has made Himself all about you.  He shows mercy to us.  He does not remain a stranger, a great Other, infinitely separate from His creation.  Instead, He reveals Himself as our God, our Father who created us and sent His Son to be one with us, to redeem us and make us His own, a Father who loves to hear and answer our prayers, and who preserves us by His Spirit in His Word.  He reveals Himself in the flesh of His Son, Jesus, who was crucified for our forgiveness and is risen from the dead for our justification, in whom we have salvation and eternal life in heaven, who will raise us from the dead on the Last Day.  He reveals Himself in the sending of the Spirit who gushes out of Jesus’ wounds, proceeds from the Father and the Son, who teaches us and reminds us of all things that our Lord has taught us, who points us ever and always to Jesus and keeps us in the one true faith unto life everlasting.  There is nothing more relevant than our God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He wrote His Name on you in Baptism, made you His own child, washed away all your sins.  He declares you forgiven in Absolution as He traces His Name on you again, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He speaks Himself into your ears in Scripture and preaching, and He feeds you with all His fullness in the Body and Blood of Jesus.  How could there be anything more relevant than that?  It’s a matter of eternal life and death.  If you have this God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you have eternal life.  If you don’t have Him, you die for all eternity in hell.  So I guess it’s okay that we spend a few extra minutes on the Creed today.
            The point is not that you understand it, but that you believe it.  Abraham believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Abraham longed to see the day of his Descendant, Jesus.  He saw it and was glad (John 8:56).  Faith is not the same thing as understanding, though, to be sure, it always seeks to understand more and more.  Faith is simply trust, trust that God is who He says He is and does what He says He does, that He saves us, as He has promised.  And that is what He does in Christ.  And if you know God in Christ, you know God.  If you know God in Christ, you know Him as your Father.  If you know God in Christ, the Spirit of God is in you.  If you know God in Christ, you have eternal life.  The Jews in our Holy Gospel were blood descendants of Abraham, and they prided themselves on their knowledge of God.  In fact, they thought they had Him pegged, they thought they understood Him.  But Jesus says to them, “you have not known him” (v. 55; ESV).  Because you cannot know God apart from Christ.  If you know Christ, you know the Father.  If you do not have Christ, you do not have the Father.  Jesus reveals the Father as your God who loves you and is for you.  The Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, and the Spirit always points us to the Son, by whom we have access to the Father who loves us in His Son. 
            At this point you may wish you had an aspirin.  But you’re thinking too hard.  Just look at Jesus.  Just look at the Son of God crucified.  Jesus is all you need to know.  That is why God gives pastors.  To point you to Jesus.  To proclaim Christ crucified and distribute Him to you in the Supper.  That is why we have a vicar this Summer.  This is really a good day to install Vicar Gaschler.  He is here to learn and to teach us.  He is here to proclaim the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  He is here to proclaim Christ crucified in every word he speaks and everything he does.  Pastors are servants of the Word.  The Word is the vehicle of the Spirit, who gives us Jesus, who gives us the Father.  Jesus says, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (v. 51).  To keep the Word means not only to obey it, but to hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it, to believe it, to treasure it, to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  Because the Word gives you everything you need.  And everything you need is Jesus. 

            So… heady stuff this morning.  But all good stuff.  The Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity.  One God, Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  One Jesus, Two Natures, Divine and Human.  God in the flesh, crucified for our sins and raised for our justification.  This is the holy catholic faith.  This is what the Word gives us.  And so we believe, and so we are saved.  “Blessed be the Holy Trinity and the undivided Unity.  Let us give glory to him because he has shown his mercy to us.”  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (C)
The Confirmation of John Harmsen and Caleb Wiese

May 15, 2016
Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 14:23-31

            The Feast of Pentecost: 50 days after Easter Sunday, 50 days after the resurrection of our Lord, 10 days after the ascension of our Lord into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty and rule all things according to His will and for our good.  Jesus promised this day would come.  He told His disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Promise of His Father, the Baptism of the Holy Spirit, which would take place mere days after our Lord’s ascension (Acts 1:4-5).  Pentecost is the fulfillment of this Promise.  All the disciples were gathered together in one place, when suddenly there was the sound of a mighty, rushing wind (the word for “wind,” incidentally, also means spirit and breath in Greek), and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues as of fire rested upon each one of them and they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  And they began to preach.  In fact, they began to preach in languages previously unknown to them (that is the gift of tongues… not gibberish no one can understand, but known human languages previously unknown to the speaker).  They began to preach to all who were present that Christ Jesus is risen from the dead.  He died to make atonement for our sins.  And now He lives.  And He reigns.  And He has sent His Spirit upon His disciples, to make of them one Body of Christ, one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church.  Originally the Feast of Pentecost was an Old Testament Feast, one of the three great feasts in which every Jewish male was required to appear at the Temple in Jerusalem.  Sometimes called the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost was a harvest festival celebrated 50 days (Pentecost=50) after the Passover.  The Jews would bring the first and best of their sheaves to wave before the LORD, acknowledging that He gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater.  He gives us each day our daily bread.  He is the Giver of every good gift.  Pentecost was a Feast of Thanksgiving.
            It was also traditionally celebrated as the Day on which God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses.  For man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God (Matt. 4:4).  And whether this is, in fact, the day God gave the Ten Commandments, note the relationship between harvest (bread) and the Word.  Just as God gives a harvest of wheat to sustain our body, so He gives a harvest of His Word to sustain our spirit.  And note how this is fulfilled in an even greater way in the New Testament.  God pours His Holy Spirit on His Church and fills the hearts of the faithful, kindling in them the fire of His love.  And they preach.  The Spirit comes through the Word.  He feeds us on the Word.  He attaches Himself to nothing less than the Word of our Father.  And by that Word He points us ever and always to the Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ.  That is the work of the Holy Spirit, to bring us to Jesus, to give us Jesus, to make the death and resurrection of Jesus our death and eternal life.
            That is what Jesus says in our Holy Gospel: “the Helper,” the Paraclete, the Comforter or Advocate, literally “the One called to your side” in the day of trouble… “the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26; ESV).  In other words, the Holy Spirit puts you in Jesus and keeps you in Jesus by the teaching you and reminding you.  He keeps you in the Word.  This is what we mean when we confess in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1]  Note very carefully, you cannot choose to believe in Jesus.  Faith is the work of the Holy Spirit.  And He does this work in such a way that you can always know it is Him and not some rogue evil spirit.  The Holy Spirit attaches Himself to particular means.  We call them the means of grace.  They are the Words of God recorded in Holy Scripture and preached.  They are the Words of God attached to water in the cleansing bath of Holy Baptism, attached to the Office of the Ministry in Holy Absolution, attached to bread and wine in Holy Communion, which by that Word is the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  There, in the divinely appointed means, where the Word is, you can always find the Holy Spirit doing His thing.  You know exactly where to find Him.  You can always find God for you, in the Word.  He has tied Himself there for you.  The Word, the Word, the Word.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  By the Word our Lord is by our side, upon the plain, with His good gifts and Spirit.  Spirit, wind, and breath: All the same word in Greek.  The Spirit no longer comes in a mighty, rushing wind, but in the breath of preaching.  By the Word, He breathes Himself into you, O Adam, O man of dust.  He breathes into you the breath of life.  He spirits into you the Spirit of life.
            That is what we celebrate today in the lives of our confirmands.  The Spirit breathed eternal life into Caleb and John by breathing Himself into them at their Baptism.  Born anew in that moment, they became sons of God, believers in Jesus Christ.  And just as when you are born and take your first breath, you continue to breathe for the rest of your life, so it is with the new birth in the Spirit.  You take your first breath at Baptism, but the Spirit continues to breathe Himself into you by His Word proclaimed and read and ingested in the Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  You cannot live without breath.  You cannot live without God’s Word.  And there is a danger here.  It is difficult to stop breathing air, though you can do it.  You can suffocate yourself, and of course, we all stop breathing at some point, and that is an indication that death has occurred.  But it is very easy to stop breathing God’s Word.  “I don’t have time to go to Church today.  I’ll get there next week.  Or the week after that.  I have important things to do today, and there is no other time I could possibly do them.  And why should I attend Bible study?  It’s always the same old thing.  I’ve heard it all before.  I know it by now.”  Now, we all know instinctually that we don’t have the luxury of putting off breathing until some more convenient time.  We do it constantly, habitually, even unconsciously, because if we stop, we’ll die.  And it’s the same thing, over and over and over.  We’ve done it before.  But we do it again.  Breath after breath.  12-20 times per minute on average.  Somehow we never get bored of it.  We panic when we have trouble with it.  Do you get the point?  Repent.  And get to Church.  Every week.  Breathe deeply of the Word. 
            The Spirit attaches Himself to the Word.  By the Word, the Spirit breathes Himself into us, giving us saving faith in Jesus.  By the Word, God declares our sins forgiven for the sake of Jesus.  By the Word, God declares us His own beloved children.  And we live by the Word.  It is our breath.  It is our life.  Lord, keep us steadfast in Thy Word.  Jesus says, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).  To keep the Word of Jesus means more than simply to obey it.  It means to hear it, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  It means to be devoted to it, to love it and cherish it and like St. Mary, to treasure it up in your heart.  Like a love letter from your beloved that you treasure up and read again and again, that you ponder and savor and learn by heart.  When you love Jesus, that is what His Word is to you.  Which brings us back to Confirmation.  John and Caleb are about to promise to keep God’s Word faithfully, to love it and cherish it, to hear it faithfully and receive it in their mouths in the Supper.  They are going to promise to die for it, if necessary.  This is pretty heady stuff we ask these sixth graders to promise, to solemnly swear before God and this congregation.  They will face all the same temptations the rest of us do: To sleep in on Sunday, to get to God’s Word another time, another place, but not now.  And they will sometimes give in to their lazy flesh.  They will often fail.  Just like you.  Just like me.  But that is why God sends the Paraclete, the Spirit, to call John and Caleb and you and me back to His Word, to breathe anew into us the breath of life, the breath of faith, to teach us and remind us of all the things Jesus has said to us.  We can only make John and Caleb promise these things because we know it is the Spirit who will keep them.  And He will keep you.  It is His work, by grace.  Just breathe.  Just receive.  Just live in the Spirit-wrought life bestowed upon you freely in Jesus Christ.
            And what is the result?  “Peace I leave with you,” says Jesus; “my peace I give to you.  Not as the world gives do I give to you.  Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (v. 27).  In this world there is much to be troubled about.  But in Jesus you have peace.  Because it all works out for the good in Him.  Just take a deep breath.  Breathe in the Word and be at peace in Jesus.  That is what the Spirit works in you.  Faith.  You know how this ends.  So you have peace.  Because you have Jesus.  You have His Word.  You have His Spirit.  You have His life.  His Father is your Father.  Peace, beloved.  Peace.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).  Amen.           



[1] Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (C)

May 8, 2016
Text: Rev. 22:1-20

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            This morning St. John describes for us the Holy City of God, New Jerusalem, as she is manifest in her fullness on the Last Day.  And though it may not be your first thought after reading this description, upon closer examination, she looks remarkably like our Church.  After all, this heavenly reality sets the pattern for the Tabernacle and the Temple in the Old Testament, and so also traditional Church architecture in the New.  It matters how we build our Church buildings.  The design, the pattern, says something about God and about His relationship to His people as it has been restored in Christ.  It says something about the heavenly reality, the furnishings, the artwork, the way things are set up.  This is not to say that there is only one right way to do it, or that Church buildings should be uniform, or some such nonsense.  This is not a denial of Christian freedom.  Nor is it to say that the building makes the Church.  We know from Holy Scripture that the Church is the people of God, holy believers in Christ, gathered around Christ’s gifts in Word and Sacrament.  We can do that without a building.  But when we are blessed with a building, as we are here in this place, we want the building itself to preach.  And so, compare the pattern here with the Holy City described in our reading from Revelation.  The River of the Water of Life (Rev. 22:1) bubbles up in the Font, cleansing us from our sins.  The Font is front and center, for there we are given new birth by water and the Spirit.  There God’s Name is written on our foreheads, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And from there our sins are forgiven in Absolution.  And there is the Throne of God up there in the center of the chancel.  Really… God sits upon the Altar with His Body and Blood, week after week, feeding us Himself for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  That is why we bow toward the Altar.  It is the Throne.  It is the Mercy Seat.  The chancel is the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed as God’s Throne in the Old Testament.  In the New Testament, the curtain is removed, represented by the rail which is open to you, and we have access to God’s Throne where He meets us in the flesh under bread and wine.  And the water of the Font flows from the Throne, and we enter the Throne room through the water.  And from the Throne, through the water, we receive the Fruit of the Tree of Life, the Fruit of the Tree of the Cross, our Lord’s true Body and Blood.  This Fruit is for the healing of the nations.  It is for our healing and life.
            What we see now by faith under these weak and despised forms, we will see with our own eyes in all its glory in the Holy City on the Last Day.  But for now, we live in the time of waiting upon the Lord.  We have one foot in both ages: The old age of the fallen world and our fallen flesh, and the age to come where all is restored and perfected, the new heavens and the new earth, when Christ comes again.  “Behold, I am coming soon,” He promises (v. 12; ESV).  But for now, in the meantime, the evildoers still do evil and the filthy are still filthy (v. 11).  That is to say, the unbelievers who despise the Lord and His Christians have their day.  For a little while, they persecute Christ and His Christians.  They sue over bathrooms and wedding cakes and gag the speech of Christians.  They revel in sexual perversion and kill the babies whose only crime is that they were the unintended consequence of their parents’ iniquity.  This will go on for now, and it will get worse until the Lord returns.  In the meantime, the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy (v. 11).  That is to say, the believers still believe and still live in the water before the Throne and partake of the Fruit from the Tree of Life.  And they confess.  They speak.  You speak.  You call a spade a spade, a sin a sin.  You protect your wives and mothers and daughters from indignity and exploitation.  You guard the holiness of your neighbor’s body from your own lust and the lust of others.  You speak for those who cannot speak for themselves, the defenseless unborn, the weak and the terminally ill.  And you give generously and sacrificially to provide for the needs of the poor and the preaching of the Gospel to the ends of the earth.  If necessary, you die.  You kneel on the beach and with your last breath, as they slit your throat, you cry out to Jesus, confessing His Name, as our brothers did in Libya last year.  You do this because you know what awaits you, the Holy City, your God and Father, your Savior Jesus Christ, eternal life, and the resurrection of your body.
            Because of this, the Church prays, “Amen.  Come, Lord Jesus!” (v. 20).  We long for His appearing and deliverance.  On that Day He will raise all the dead.  The souls of all people, believers and unbelievers alike, will be reunited with their bodies.  And then He will judge.  Those who have not believed in Him, but have despised His gift of salvation, will be locked outside of the City to suffer hell, not just in their souls, but in their bodies, for all eternity.  “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (v. 15).  But we who are in Christ do not fear this judgment.  For our sins have been washed away.  Christ is our righteousness.  We are baptized into Christ.  “Blessed are those who wash their robes [Baptism!], so that they have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates” (v. 14).  We live for this Day, when we are brought into the fullness of the joy of our Lord. 
            And now, what is our calling, our vocation, in the meantime, as we already possess this gift hidden in Christ but do not yet enjoy it visibly?  Our vocation is to do what we always do: Repent and believe the Gospel and abide in Christ by His Word and Baptism and Supper.  And we’re given the glorious privilege of inviting those who do not believe in Jesus to come and be baptized and join our number and be blessed.  “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’  And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (v. 17).  The Bride is the Church, and through the preaching of Christ that goes on in the Church, the Spirit calls even more to come.  And you are the ones who hear the preaching.  You are each, individually, given the privilege to say, “Come.”  That is, you are given to confess the faith, to invite others to Church, to tell them about Jesus and His love.  And those who are thirsty are the ones who know things are not right here and now.  They recognize this is a fallen world.  They recognize that they are sinners in need of redemption.  The Law has done its killing work.  They need the medicine of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus.  They need the water of life.  They need Baptism and the Spirit.  It is all free.  Come and drink.  Take without price and without limit.  Slake your thirst in the gifts of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

            So we live now by Jesus’ Promise.  He is coming soon.  To which we reply with hearty Amen.  And we wait.  We believe.  We pray.  We confess.  Most of all, we receive what our Lord here gives us freely, the Fruits of His Cross.  And so we live with our eyes on the reality that awaits, what St. John has told us: Where the Font reveals the River of the Water of Life; where the Altar reveals the very Throne of God; where the Cross reveals the Tree of Life; where the bread and wine reveal the Fruit that is for the healing of the nations.  Partake of the gifts now, beloved, and look forward to the gifts in their fullness then.  Baptism.  Absolution.  Preaching.  Supper.  These are the things that connect you with what is to come.  And the Holy City descends to earth here and now where the people of God are gathered around the things of His Son.  The glorious City awaits us, but you can enjoy it already here.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  And because He is risen, He makes all things new.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.             

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (C)

May 1, 2016
Text: Rev. 21:9-14, 21-27; John 16:23-33

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            In the beginning, on Day One, when God created the heavens and the earth, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Gen. 1:2; ESV).  But then God spoke.  “Let there be light,” He said, “and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good” (vv. 3-4).  God speaks and there is light.  Where God’s Word is, there the darkness is dispelled.  Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14).  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (v. 1).  “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (vv. 4-5).  Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome.  Jesus Christ is the Life of the world.  He is the Creative and Almighty Word of God.  He is God.  Where Jesus is, the light prevails over the darkness.  Evil is overcome.  Sins are forgiven.  The prince of darkness is expelled.  Death gives way to life.
            Our reading from Revelation is about the final triumph of light over darkness.  Now, we know this struggle well.  In this world, in this flesh, the darkness seems to be winning.  Children are afraid of the dark, and truth be told, adults are, too.  Why?  Because darkness veils what is unknown.  The darkness blinds us to both good and bad.  We cannot see to attain the good.  We cannot see to avoid the bad.  There is danger in the darkness.  And what is true of the physical darkness is also true of the spiritual darkness.  Spiritual darkness is the stuff of sin, death, and the devil.  Because we are fallen creatures who have stumbled into the darkness, we cannot see to attain the things that are good, the Commandments of God, the things of light.  Nor can we see to avoid the things that are bad and downright dangerous and deadly, sin and all its perils.  It does not help that the devil appears to us as an angel of light, that he tricks us into thinking the good things are bad and the bad things are good, and he has perfect command over the things of darkness, the demons and the hidden perils and traps he has laid.  And the things of darkness have a home-field advantage.  They know their own turf.  We are blind, and we know nothing.  And so we need God to speak.  And when He does, His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).  It exposes all that is not good, every wickedness and evil.  It exposes the devil and his wicked hoards and drives them away.  It exposes our sin to the light of Jesus’ redeeming work, so that all is forgiven.  It exposes death as defeated in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And it lights the way through the valley of the shadow into the radiant Kingdom of our God.
            St. John writes of the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, “there will be no night there” (Rev. 21:25).  That means the stuff of darkness will be at an end forever.  Right now this is something we can only know by faith, not by sight, for our eyes see the darkness all around.  But this is the Promise.  No more darkness.  Only light.  What will it be like to live in such a place?  There will be no danger.  No more can death threaten or the devil rage.  There will be no sin.  No longer will the darkness find shelter in your flesh, for you will be full of light, the light of Christ.  And everything will reflect the radiance of the glory of God and of the Lamb.  That is how St. John describes the Holy City, Jerusalem.  “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb,” says the angel as he carries John to a great, high mountain (vv. 9-10).  We met this Bride last week, and we learned she is the Church, she is you, washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and clothed in the dazzling white of Jesus’ righteousness.  She’s beautiful.  John searches for words to describe Her radiance, but all earthly words fall short.  The best he can do is compare Her to a rare jewel, like a jasper… but not quite like a jasper, either, because She’s clear as crystal.  And so free from the darkness is She that, as the light of the glory of God shines upon Her, She not only reflects that light, but the light radiates through Her and from within Her.  Now, St. John describes Her as both a woman and a city.  Hard to comprehend, I know, but it’s the best he can do with our fallen, earthly language.  Notice, the gates (there are twelve of them, a number that always designates the Church) are guarded by angels (v. 12).  Protection.  The City is secure.  She is safe.  You are safe.  And on the gates are written the names of the twelve tribes of the sons of Israel.  For this is the New Israel.  The Holy Church is built on the Patriarchs and Prophets of the Old Testament, and the believers who lived before our Lord’s Advent are just as much members of the Bride as the New Testament believers, and they have a place in this City, a country, a home.  And the wall of the City (again, security, safety) has twelve foundations, and on them are written the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (v. 14).  St. Paul says something very similar about the Church on earth when he writes that She is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the corner stone” (Eph. 2:20).  You see, the Church in heaven and on earth is built upon Her crucified and risen Lord and the Scriptures He has given through the Apostles (the New Testament) and the Prophets (the Old Testament).  And so New and Old Testament believers are joined together in one glorious City, one New Israel, one holy Christian Church of all times and places gathered before God and the Lamb.
            Now, two things are lacking in this City, but they will not be missed, for their absence is due to the glorious Promise of God’s personal and intimate presence with His people.  There is no temple.  No need.  For the temple is the place of sacrifice, but the sacrifice for our sins was made once and for all by our Lord Jesus on the cross.  And the temple is the place where God promised to dwell with His people, but now He dwells with them forever, face to face.  God is their Temple.  Jesus is their Temple.  There is also no external source of light.  The City has no need of sun or moon to shine on Her, “for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb” (Rev. 21:23).  The source of all light is God Himself, and Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.  Incidentally, this explains the light God created in the beginning.  There was no sun, moon, or stars until day four, but there was light in the very beginning, when God spoke.  So there is not such a separation between created light and the light of the Holy City in our text.  The source of all light is God, and Jesus means what He says when He declares, “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12).  So you should not worship the sun or the moon, but the Giver of the light.  And whenever the sun rises at dawn or you turn on your lamps at night, this is cause for doxology, praise of your Creator who gives you light, who redeemed you and sanctifies you, the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 
            Now we dwell where darkness is still a reality.  But God speaks, and His speaking is the gift by which the Holy Spirit enlightens us, which is to say, brings us to faith in Christ and keeps us in it.  And though we still live in a dark world, and though our flesh is still darkness, this light of God’s Word works the same way it did in the beginning and will in the end.  That is to say, as a New Creation in Christ, bathed in the Light, the Light entering you by your ears and by your mouth and flowing in your heart and through your veins, you reflect the Light of Christ and His light radiates from within you.  And so it brings light into the world.  Jesus said to His disciples and He says to you, “You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).  Jesus, of course, is the Light of the world, and because you are in Jesus, you are the light of the world.  For you bear Jesus.  You are in Jesus.  Jesus is in you.  His light radiates from within you to enlighten others as you love your neighbor, serve your neighbor, sacrifice for your neighbor, and speak Christ to your neighbor.  Ah, yes, you speak Christ, which is to say, God speaks His Word, and the lights come on for your neighbor, just as the light burns in you.  And it’s all gift from the Creator who speaks, “Let there be light,” and there is light. 

            And where there is light, there can be no darkness.  Light is a substance.  Darkness is an absence.  Where the light fills a place, there is no longer an absence but a fullness.  And so the stuff of darkness cannot dwell in the New Jerusalem.  “(N)othing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev. 21:27), those who love the darkness and shun the light and do not want the forgiveness and life of Christ.  But then there are those who are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life (v. 27).  That’s you.  That is you who see clearly now in the Light by which the Spirit enlightens you, the Light that is Christ and His Word.  You were blind and groping around in the darkness.  But now you see.  By God’s grace, you see that Jesus Christ has restored you to the Father and made you God’s own child.  You see that Jesus is the way to eternal life and a real home in a real place, the New Jerusalem, a place of safety and abundance and light.  You see that Jesus died to cast away all darkness.  You see that He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.