Saturday, December 13, 2014

We Are Not the Christ (And That's a Good Thing!)

Sermon on John 1:6-8, 19-28
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 14, 2014 (The Third Sunday in Advent)

John confessed and did not deny.  Usually when we hear those words, we expect an affirmative statement of some sort.  Something without the word not in it.  To use the word not is what we would normally call a denial, not a confession.  We would expect the Gospel writer to say that John denied that he was the Christ.  But that’s not what the text says.  It says that John confessed and did not deny, saying, “I am not the Christ.”  A confession, not a denial, which nevertheless contains the word not in it.

In many ways, however, John’s confession is the fundamental confession of the Christian faith.  As St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians, no one can say that Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit.  This confession, however, is set against the first and most basic temptation from the Garden of Eden: “You will be like God.”  The most basic idolatry, the most basic breaking of the First Commandment, is not a matter of worshiping carved images or other obviously false gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we are our own gods.  The most basic idolatry is thinking that we can control our relationship both with God and with the rest of creation.  And so, when John says, “I am not the Christ,” he’s not so much denying that he’s the Coming One, as he is affirming that Someone Else who is coming is the Messiah who takes away the sin of the world.  He’s affirming that Jesus, not himself, is Lord.

Of course, under pressure from the Jewish religious leaders, he’s forced to expand on that confession.  After a couple of other fishing questions, he’s finally asked point blank, “What do you say about yourself?”  And even there he doesn’t simply identify himself, but refers to an Old Testament prophecy from St. Isaiah, in which John is identified simply as one who prepares the way and then simply gets out of the way.

We’re not put on this earth to promote ourselves, but to confess in word and deed our Lord Jesus Christ.  But how often, even when we think we are proclaiming Jesus, do we end up talking about ourselves, about “what Jesus has done in my life” rather than what Jesus has done for all of us on the Cross given us in Word and Sacrament?  It may sound at first like we’re giving all the glory to God, but the more we talk about things that are unique to us as individuals, things that relate to blessings we may have received in this life or ways that our own lifestyles have become better, rather than the salvation that has been worked for all mankind in eternity by Christ on the cross, the more we end up sounding like the Pharisee who prayed in the Temple, “Lord, I thank you that I am not like other men.”

Of course, there is the opposite error, too.  Satan loves to use this one against us.  There is another way of focusing entirely on ourselves.  Now, it is good to examine oneself and know that one is a sinner in need of forgiveness.  But where self-examination becomes morbid self-condemnation, then again you set yourself up against Jesus Christ and try to promote yourself over against Him in a perverse way.  The idea that your sins are too big to be forgiven.  This, too, is a sinful and wrong focus on self.  Jesus has died for your sin, it’s forgiven and forgotten and done away with.  As far as God is concerned it never happened.  That’s what the words “I forgive you” mean.  To continue focusing on our sin after we have heard Christ’s own messenger, sent to prepare His way, say, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” is to promote yourself at the expense of Christ who has taken your sin and given you His righteousness in its place.

You see, that is the point.  We are nothing, Christ is everything.  Both as sinners and as saints, our focus is not on ourselves.  Who we are doesn’t matter.  Christ and His word of Law, crushing overconfident, self-righteous hearts, and of Gospel, rebuilding those who know their sins and their wretchedness so that they become the saints God created them to be, these things are what matter.  It’s all about God.  It’s all about Christ and His Word.  Even in the Divine Service, we don’t express ourselves, we confess what God has first said to us concerning those great things He has done for all of us.  That’s why, by the way, I wear these robes.  I’m not here as Tim Schellenbach to tell you about Tim Schellenbach.  Tim Schellenbach is nobody.  These robes are there to cover me up so that I end up looking like any another pastor.  I’m just a voice, like John the Baptist, calling in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord.”

And that is what all of us are as we confess back to God, to each other, and to those around us who do not know Christ yet, the great things God has done for us.  We do not promote ourselves or even our congregation.  Yes, we’re a lot smaller than we once were, and yes, that’s worrisome.  But if someone is brought to faith through our confession of faith to them and they end up hearing God’s Word and receiving His body and blood on a regular basis at Grace or Pentecost or Faith or Messiah or somewhere else, so what?  We’ve done our job.  Whether or not they come to this place to continue to feed on God’s Word is really beside the point, so long as they continue to feed on God’s Word.  We’re not here to promote ourselves but to prepare hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

After all, it’s His coming among us that church is all about.  And thank goodness.  If we came so that we could do something for Him first and foremost, we’d always fall woefully short.  Even the largest churches in our Synod have their share of mistakes and mishaps during the service.  Their organists also play one too many or too few verses sometimes, their pastors also occasionally say things that don’t quite come out right despite the best of intentions (not to mention getting their tang tungled up during the sermon), their secretaries also commit typos in the service folder.  And so we shouldn’t be surprised that our little congregation is no different.  We try our best, but our best (and for that matter a large church’s best) could never compare to the angels and archangels in heaven if you look and listen with earthly eyes and ears.  But it is the one who comes among us in His body and blood, whose way His messenger stands in the pulpit right now to prepare, who is the real star of this show.  And He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  What He brings to you is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  He came, He was born, grew up, lived a perfect life in your place, died for your sins, and rose again for your salvation.  He gives you that perfect life, innocent death, and glorious resurrection to eternal life here and now.  And He will come again in glory to take you to that place where you will experience the fullness of these joys, these blessings, these gifts from His hand.  That’s what this service is all about.  God does it all.  I am merely the voice preparing His way, as are we all as we confess back to Him, to one another, and to the world around us what we have heard.  He is the one who is really important.  We aren’t even worthy to loose the straps of His sandals.  But He gives us forgiveness, life, and salvation nonetheless.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, December 5, 2014

Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord

Sermon on Mark 1:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 7, 2014 (The Second Sunday in Advent)

“Aren’t the Abana and the Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the rivers of Israel?  Why should I go wash in that muddy Jordan River?” asks Naaman the Syrian.  It really does seem a bit silly, doesn’t it.  At least to human wisdom.  Something as ordinary as water serving as the transition from sickness to health, from impurity to purity, from death to life.  And yet, here’s John, washing people in the same muddy old Jordan River in which Naaman had bathed centuries ago.  Only, now it’s not just physical, temporal and temporary healing that is at stake.  It’s eternal health, eternal life.  It’s about the forgiveness of sins, that which cleanses us not just in the sight of our fellow human beings, but which cleanses us in the sight of God.

But John isn’t the one doing the baptizing, just as Elijah wasn’t the one telling Naaman to go and wash.  Yes, it was John’s hands that were pouring the water on people’s heads, and Elijah’s mouth that was being used to tell Naaman to go and wash.  But it was God doing the speaking and the washing.  John wasn’t even worthy to untie the sandals of the Son of God who was to come.  And yet it is that same Word, who had already 30 years before this point become man, that was being spoken through John’s mouth.

John is nothing, Jesus is everything.  Your pastor is nothing, Jesus is everything.  You yourselves are nothing, Jesus is everything.  When John says that he’s not worthy to untie Jesus’ sandals, he’s not just saying that he’s simply of some sort of lower rank than Jesus in terms of how well he’s lived up to God’s Law.  He’s confessing his utter sinfulness and ability to come anywhere near God Himself.  When we confess our sins, we’re not just saying we’ve made a few mistakes here and there, and that God will help us fix them and become better people, we’re saying that we’re completely and totally sinful, and that even our best good works are filthy rags which do nothing for us when it comes to our relationship with God.  That’s our problem.  We do see symptoms of our spiritual leprosy in our lives.  We may be ashamed of them, or we may try to excuse or justify them, but either way they’re mere symptoms.  The terminal illness which afflicts us and which causes us to be put into the leper’s colony we call this old world, is the real problem.  Disobedience, anger, lust, covetousness, and dishonesty may be what we see in ourselves, but a born enemy of God is what we really are.

And yet, here comes John, crying in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.  And yet he also says he’s unworthy even to stoop down in the dust and loosen Jesus’ sandal strap.  He’s not worthy to get even that close to God.  He’s in the same boat we are, and yet he tells Jerusalem, and us, to prepare the Lord’s way.  Impossible!  But what is impossible with men is possible with God.  The remarkable, the amazing, the downright miraculous thing here is that it is God Himself who prepares the way for us to come and meet Him.  Yes, it is our hearts which need to be changed, but we simply can’t do it.  It is only Jesus who can change our hearts.  And He does so, through the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.  He is the one who baptizes us into His own death, in order that, just as Christ is risen from the dead, so we too may walk in newness of life.

And so we are prepared to receive the Lord as He meets us.  He Himself has made us ready.  Locusts and wild honey give way to His own body and blood.  And yet, even though they may not be as disgusting as locusts or as hard to get as wild honey, He also feeds us in, with, and under things that don’t seem to be all that wonderful.  A small, manufactured wafer of unleavened bread.  A tiny sip of wine, whether from a silver chalice or even a small plastic cup.  And yet, this is the food God gives us in the wilderness.  But no matter how much it may look like the sort of thing John ate, this is the food of heaven.  We have crossed over the Jordan from death into life.  We feast on the bread of heaven.  The way of God is prepared, and we who are not worthy to be close enough to unstrap His sandals have Him inside ourselves and therefore we inside of Him, for eternity.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Advent

Sermon on Mark 11:1-10
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 30, 2014 (The First Sunday in Advent)

“Hosanna in the highest!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  We sing these words every Sunday as part of the canticle known as the Sanctus.  The Sanctus is probably one of the oldest parts of the liturgy; in fact, according to some historians the apostles themselves sang it when they celebrated the Lord’s Supper with their various congregations.  We welcome the Son of God, who comes to us in the name of the Lord.  The crowd welcomed the same Son of God, Jesus Christ, to the Holy City of Jerusalem, with the same words.  They were going up to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, and here they welcome the true Passover Lamb, the Messiah, the Son of God.  They welcomed Him as the one who came for the purpose of saving them.  We do the same when we sing these words on Sunday morning.  We welcome Him who comes to give us the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.  In fact, you could say that the new season of the Church Year, the season which starts today and runs until Christmas Eve, is named after this Gospel lesson.  The word Advent is a Latin word that means “coming.”  During the season of Advent especially, the Church praises the Son of God incarnate by singing, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.”

As we think about our Lord’s coming to us, we usually think in terms of three categories: past, present, and future.  These three categories refer to Christ’s historical coming among us, when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.  This historical advent of Christ is what we celebrate at the end of the Advent season with the festivals of Christmas and Epiphany, although really it includes Christ’s entire earthly life, death, and resurrection for us and for our salvation.  The second category, the present tense advent of Christ, refers to the fact that He comes to us personally in His Word of forgiveness, in the washing of regeneration in Holy Baptism, and in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.  The same Christ who came down from heaven, became man for our sakes, and who suffered and died that we might live, gives us the benefits of His suffering, death, and resurrection when He speaks His Word to us and gives us His body and blood.  The third category refers to the fact that Christ will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead.  This future advent of Christ was what we have been focusing upon for the last few Sundays.

This is all well and good, and it’s nice to know all this information about the season of the Church Year we are now entering, but, to ask the catechism question, “What does this mean?”  What does the coming of Christ among us signify for us?  How are we to react to the fact that our Lord is about to come to us?  The answer to that question depends upon what our spiritual condition is.  What condition is your heart in?  Are you prepared to receive Him who comes to you?  Or would you rather He wait a while and allow you to go on with your sins?  The Old Adam in all of us would rather Jesus not come to us, because when Jesus comes to a person that Old Adam dies.  This is why Advent in some ways resembles the season of Lent, which has to do with repentance and preparation.  But to those who have been recreated by God, who daily repent of their sins and return to the promises that God originally gave them in Holy Baptism, the fact that Christ is coming among us is a joyful theme.  Such people gladly and joyfully join in the songs of Hosanna in the highest which were sung by the crowd on the road to Jerusalem.

So in which category do you find yourself?  Do you joyfully anticipate our Lord’s coming among us in Word and Sacrament?  Do you await in joyful expectation and hope our Lord’s reappearing on the last day?  Or would you prefer that He hold off on both of those comings so that you can continue to enjoy life as you now know it and still have time for repentance before the end?  If you are honest with yourself, you will have to admit that there is at least a part of you that doesn’t want Christ to come to you.  Even the most pious and outwardly holy Christian still has his old sinful flesh with him that wants to do all sorts of things against God’s will.  This Old Adam hates and resents anything that would curb its sinful desires and take away the opportunity to carry those desires out.  This is why the penitential aspect of Advent is necessary.  We need to repent, to put to death the Old Adam in us which wants Christ to stay away so that he can carry out his sinful desires.

If this is not done, the Old Adam in us will overwhelm the new man in Christ that has been created in us by Holy Baptism and kill him.  And what happens then is that, even though we go through all the outward motions of being Christians, we are not going to be saved.  This begins to happen whenever we begin to excuse our pet sins instead of repenting of them.  Here I am talking about not just obviously immoral acts such as sexual immorality, murder, stealing, and so forth, but also about the kinds of sins we tend to gloss over.  Gossip, hatred, lust, and so on.  And as with all other sins, Christ’s coming to us causes us to face the fact that we have failed miserably when it comes to these things.  The old Adam in us wants to hold on to his own sinful life, and so he resents Christ’s coming.  That is why he needs to be put to death.

But Advent isn’t the same thing as Lent.  And God does put to death our old Adam and daily bring forth in us the new man in Christ which seeks to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  This is why Advent is also a season of joyful expectation and hope.  Since we have been reborn and made new creatures by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are fighting a battle inside of ourselves, the old Adam in us against the new Christ in us.  The old Adam seeks to excuse and justify its behavior and defend itself by killing the new man in Christ, and the new creature in us seeks to please God by putting to death the old Adam which would lead us into all sorts of sins.  This battle is not easy for any of us, and oftentimes it may seem hopeless, especially when we realize that it is a battle that will not end, so long as we remain in the faith, as long as we live on this earth.  Here is where the coming of Christ is good news, hopeful news that fills us with joy.  And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long, steals on the ear the distant triumph song, and hearts are brave again and arms are strong.  Alleluia!  Alleluia!  This triumph song that the author of “For All the Saints” refers to is the same triumph song that we find recorded in today’s text.  “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  For battle-weary Christian soldiers, the arrival of Christ among us is a welcome, gladdening sound.  It signals that no matter how much longer the mop-up operation is going to continue, the victory has already been won.

This is the season of Advent.  We celebrate the events that led up to the first coming of Christ among us, because these events were the beginning of our victory in Christ which took place on the cross.  We prayerfully and repentantly take part in His contemporary coming among us, because as He comes through Holy Absolution and the Holy Supper He puts to death in us the old Adam which wants to kill our faith and take us to hell.  And by this participation in His present advent among us, we prepare to receive Him when He comes again in glory and take us to that place where the battle is completely over, and all that is left is the eternal victory feast which has no end.  He is coming soon.  Yes, Lord, come quickly.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Eucharist

Sermon on Luke 17:11-19
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 27, 2014 (National Day of Thanksgiving)

What is the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  Give us this day our daily bread.  What does this mean?  God certainly gives daily bread to everyone without our prayers, even to all evil people, but we pray in this petition that God would lead us to realize this and to receive our daily bread with thanksgiving.  What is meant by daily bread?  Daily bread includes everything that has to do with the support and needs of the body, such as food, drink, clothing, shoes, house, home, land, animals, money, goods, a devout husband or wife, devout children, devout workers, devout and faithful rulers, good government, good weather, peace, health, self-control, good reputation, good friends, faithful neighbors, and the like.

Luther says here that the first and foremost way we thank God for the blessings He has given us, is to pray for them in the first place.  After all, God gives everything needed to support this body and life to everyone, whether or not they pray for it.  In fact, He gives everything needed to support this body and life even to those who don’t believe He exists in the first place.  And so the reason we pray is not because He won’t help us if we don’t, but in order to teach us that He is the one who gives us everything.  As Luther points out in the Large Catechism, that’s what the word God means: “that from which we are to expect all good and to which we are to take refuge in all distress[.]”  Which means that when we pray, we are confessing our faith that the Triune God is the one who gives us everything and helps us in every time of need.  And in that sense every prayer is a prayer of thanksgiving.  Every prayer acknowledges God as the Creator and the Giver of all good gifts, because every true prayer looks toward Him.

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t explicitly thank Him for His mercy toward us.  Just as his mercy toward us comes to us in many ways, so also our confession of faith in Him takes many forms.  And it needs to come in many forms.  We all are selfish and lazy and would rather not be reminded who it is that gives us everything, and so God has given us many ways to remind us of His goodness toward us.  In addition to the simple fact that we pray to him concerning our needs, we also explicitly give thanks to Him that He does, in fact, provide for us.  We tell others what He has done for us.  We sing, we pray the creeds, we pray along with the prayer of thanksgiving in the liturgy, we thank Him for the food we eat, we thank Him in the morning and evening that He has taken care of us.  And today, even though it’s a day set aside by a secular government to give thanks to whatever and whomever one wills, is also an opportunity to give thanks to Him for His many blessings toward us.

But if it were only the blessings of this life that we were thankful for, that wouldn’t really be giving Him very much glory, now, would it?  No matter how well you have it (or how much turkey you’re going to eat later on today), everything in this old world will have an end.  No matter what blessings God has given you in this life, you won’t be able to take it with you.  And so our true thanksgiving, our true Eucharist (by the way, that’s the Greek word for “thanksgiving”) is found when we receive His eternal blessings.  He hasn’t just given us this life; by His death on the cross He took away our sin and gave us eternity.  He hasn’t just given us this life and everything that supports it, He has given us His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection by washing us in His Word connected with water.  He hasn’t just given us food and drink, He has given us His Son’s crucified body and shed blood.  He hasn’t just given us clothing and shoes, He has given us His Son’s righteousness which cover our sin and make us acceptable to His wedding banquet.  In short, He hasn’t just given everything we need to support this body and life, He’s given us everything we need to support our bodies and lives in the world to come.  If it weren’t for that, our lives in this old world would be meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  But because we have eternity, we can live every day in this life as those who already have everything and need not worry about our needs.  Because we have eternity, our daily bread is a gift with which to serve our neighbor.  Because we have eternity, we have Jesus, whose death and resurrection are our life.  And so it is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Him who has given us these blessings.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Sheep, the Goats, and the Lamb

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 23, 2014 (The Last Sunday in the Church Year)

What’s the difference?  How does one get to be on the side of the sheep rather than the goats?  That’s not an insignificant question.  The world is unstable due to the sin of its inhabitants, and headed for judgment.  We don’t know when that judgment will come, and so we are reminded that we are always to be ready.  But how?  What’s the difference between the sheep and the goats?  Our inborn sinful natures see this Gospel lesson and think of good works.  After all, Jesus praises the sheep for being charitable to those who needed help, while criticizing the goats for not doing the same things.  And so it is natural, especially for our self-centered sinful natures which always think of rewards for good works, to have the idea that the way to be with the sheep and not the goats is to go out and do all kinds of works of charity.

Unfortunately, this view of what Jesus is saying here is also completely and totally wrong.  Remember, the sheep were unaware that they had done these good things for Christ.  They saw themselves as poor, miserable sinners, not as great saints and great workers of charity.  They knew that they had not fulfilled God’s law, and so they’re surprised when Christ commends them for doing all of these great things for Himself.  And the goats thought that they had fulfilled God’s Law.  In fact, they protested Jesus’ criticism of them.  They thought that they were “good people”  who deserved to be allowed into eternal life.  The way you see yourself is just the opposite of the way God sees you.  If you think you’re a poor, miserable sinner, God sees you through the filter of Christ’s righteousness and the forgiveness of your sins as a saint and a doer of great and wonderful good works for your neighbor.  If you think you’re a pretty good person, better than those “sinners” out there, then God sees you apart from Christ’s righteousness as a selfish, condemned sinner.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that those things cited by Jesus when He gives the reason for His verdict, are not those things that we normally think of when we hear the word, “sin.”  When we talk about “sinners,” we often to tend to think of murderers and adulterers and thieves and liars.  And of course, these sins are terrible distortions of how God intended us to live, and those who do such things are in need of repentance, and failing such repentance they too will be in danger of hell, because these sins are in fact expressions of selfishness and lack of love for our neighbors.  But that’s not what Jesus talks about in connection with the final judgment in this passage.  Instead He talks about more subtle sins.  He talks about sins of omission, things that are sinful when we don’t do them, rather than when we do.  He talks about feeding the hungry and thirsty, giving the stranger a place to stay, clothing the naked, and visiting shut-ins and those in hospitals and nursing homes and prisons.  He talks about love for the neighbor.  After all, what is the reason we keep the Ten Commandments?  Not simply because it was God who said, “Thou shalt not,” even though that is itself a good reason to keep them.  And definitely not because we are trying to earn heaven by what we do.  Instead, we keep the Ten Commandments because by doing so we show love for God and our neighbor.  But love doesn’t stop with what the Commandments say not to do; love goes beyond that to positive actions of caring and helping our neighbor.  We can see this in Luther’s explanations of the Commandments, which tell us positive actions that go along with the Commandment, such as “help and support [our neighbor] in every physical need,” “help him to improve and protect his possessions and income,” “defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way,” and so on.

But more than that, the things Jesus says in this Gospel lesson talk about charity and love for the neighbor because of His own charity and love which He has shown us.  He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world.  And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth.  He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness.  And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed our nakedness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He feeds the hungry and gives drink to those who thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.

And so, the description of the sheep in today’s text is first and foremost a description of Christ Himself in the love and mercy He has shown us.  That is the only we can show love to our neighbors, because He has first loved us.  It is His love, His righteousness, His mercy which will be seen in us on that last day.  We cannot see it in ourselves; when we examine ourselves, all we see in our own hearts is nothing but sin and death, from which we cannot set ourselves free.  But by His love and mercy He has declared us to be righteous like He is, and even though we can’t see it He has, in fact, remade us in His image, so that we really are those who feed the hungry and thirsty, shelter the stranger, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and in prison.  The Judge will be speaking on the basis of Christ’s righteousness and not our own, but He won’t be lying about us.  We really will be, and in fact we secretly already are, what He will attribute to us on that day.

But why does Christ say that He is present in, with, and under those we are helping through our charity?  From everything I’ve said so far, it sounds like He is the one working through us rather than the one receiving the fruits of our labor.  Well, He is on both sides of the equation.  The poor, the hungry, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, and the stranger are all pictures to us of what Christ became in our behalf.  Because it was on the Cross, in particular, that Jesus Himself was indeed hungry and thirsty; He had gone without food throughout the long night and day of His so–called “trial,” and remember His Words: “I thirst.”  It was on the Cross that He became a stranger, betrayed and deserted by His closest friends and forsaken by His own dear Father.  It was there on the Cross that He was naked before the entire world, while His clothes were divided among His enemies; there that He was “sick” to the point of death, and executed as a prisoner of His own people.

Christ has taken away sickness and hunger and pain and death from His people by taking it upon Himself.  This is why those who are sick and in prison and naked and hungry and thirsty and strangers are pictures of Him for us, because in saving us He was all those things, and if we refuse to help those who are afflicted in these various ways, we are denying that His sufferings for us have any meaning or value.  Christ is on both sides of the equation.  Through us He serves our neighbor, and through our neighbor He gives us the opportunity to show His love for us.  It is not by trying to do “good works” that we save ourselves, rather Christ has given us salvation as a free gift which shows itself in our lives, and will then, in turn show itself in the lives of those we help as well.  This is because Christian charity, unlike that of the government’s welfare programs, carries with it the message about the place where there is no hunger, no thirst, no pain, no poverty, no prisons, and no death.  Christian charity is a small picture for its recipients of the place we will inherit as Christ’s sheep.  There Christ will feed us for eternity with the feast of His victory which has no end.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Joy of Your Master

Sermon on Matthew 25:14-30
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 16, 2014 (The Second-to-Last Sunday in the Church Year)

The word talent as we know it in modern English actually comes from today’s Gospel lesson.  In today’s language, talent is defined as “a special natural ability or aptitude,” such as the ability to be good with numbers, good with music, great at basketball or running, or any of a thousand other things a person might be good at.  But in the Greek of the New Testament, a talent was a unit of money, specifically, a large gold coin.  Now, many interpreters of this parable have taught that the gold coins given out to the servants represent various gifts and abilities God gives to His Christians, which He then expects to use them in His service.  The association between these natural or special abilities and the gold coins of today’s Gospel lesson has historically been so strong that the Greek word for these gold coins became the English word for these abilities.

And that interpretation of this parable has some merit to it.  Each of us is unique, and each of us has unique abilities and areas of life that are our particular strong suit.  As we consider our place in life under the Ten Commandments, part of our “place in life” is the various abilities which God has given each of us.  After all, that’s part of how our particular place in life is determined.  Some are good at physical labor, others are good at intellectual pursuits and abstract thinking.  Some are talented in music, others in visual art.  Some have the ability to read facial expressions and body language very well and are thus able to figure out the politics of a situation when others of us are totally clueless.  And the list could go on.  As we think about how we serve God and our neighbor in our own place in life, our own particular talents do figure into the picture.  A strong swimmer has an opportunity to keep the Fifth Commandment by helping and supporting his drowning neighbor in every physical need in the way that a man who can’t swim simply can’t do.  And so it can be useful to see the parable in this way, as an exhortation to actually use the abilities that God has given us and not to hide them or cover them up out of fear of messing things up.

The problem, of course, is that, just as with all the other gifts that God has given us in this life, we have been unfaithful stewards of the abilities God has given us.  Music can glorify God; it can also glorify as god things that are not God.  Intellectual ability can be used to deny Him as well as to understand the world He has created.  Physical prowess can be used to hurt as well as to help.  And so on.  And so the mere use (as opposed to hiding away) of our abilities is not what gets us right with God.  In fact, if we glory in ourselves and our own abilities instead of glorifying God, our abilities can drive us farther away from Him.  That was what the third servant was afraid of doing; that’s why he hid the talent he had been given in the ground; he was afraid of what using it might do to hurt his relationship with his master.  Because apart from the Gospel, apart from Christ, our God really is “a hard man, reaping where He has not sown, and gathering where He has not scattered.”  There really is zero tolerance for those who abuse God’s gifts if their transgressions are not covered by Christ.  And that’s where we find ourselves as we look in the mirror of God’s law: we are either abusers of His gifts, or we are those who are afraid and hide them away.

Here is where I think we need to look at this parable a little differently.  If the talents of the parable are our natural abilities, then we have all failed to use them properly, if not failing to use them at all in God’s service.  However, if the talents in the parable are seen as something different, something special that God has given His Christians, then it changes the whole picture.  I’m not speaking here of any particular “spiritual gift” of the sort that many churches give their members surveys for.  Most such “spiritual gifts” are actually only natural talents, and, depending on how the survey is designed, often what is measured is not a person’s aptitude for a particular position in the church, but merely how much they happen to enjoy doing that thing.  You don’t have to be good at something to enjoy doing it, or even to think that you’re good at it, for that matter.  No, there really is only one thing that God gives to Christians and not to everyone else.  All the blessings we have in this life are things that God gives both to the just and the unjust; as Luther reminds us in his explanation to the Fourth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “God certainly gives daily bread to everyone, even the wicked, without our prayers.”  No, what God gives specifically to Christians is faith and trust in the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation which was won for us by Christ on the cross and proclaimed to the world in the empty tomb.

That faith, that trust, is what works in us to produce all sorts of other good works.  That faith that God forgives, loves, and will save us is what gives us the freedom to serve God and our neighbor with whatever else He may have given us without fear.  It is precisely the absence of that faith that the third servant showed when he buried the coin in the ground.  He was so afraid of using the gift wrongly that he failed to receive the gift as a gift, but instead saw it as a burden.  And that is the exact wrong thing to do with the gift of faith.  In fact, to do that with the faith God has given you is to deny the content of that faith.  True Christian faith trusts in the forgiveness of sins.  It is doubt, not faith, that causes us to see God according to His wrath against sinners.  There is no wrath for those who trust in the forgiveness of sins, only the joyous freedom to go about our lives and do whatever we do to His glory and out of love for our neighbors.  To bury faith is to doubt God’s goodness.  But the gift here is God’s own demonstration of His love for us: while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.  It’s true that faith buried is no faith at all.  To see God as a harsh master is to see Him outside of Christ.  But that’s the beauty of His gift to us: faith gives us Christ Himself.  And it is He that works in and through us to love and serve our neighbor, both in the ordinary ways that come about as we go about our daily work, as well as in that most extraordinary way that God gives us, namely of telling our neighbor about Christ and thus giving him that eternal life where we will all share in the joy of our master.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Oil of Forgiveness

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 7, 2014 (The Third-to-Last Sunday in the Church Year)

There are many Christian churches out there who seem to make it their full-time occupation to try to figure out what is going to happen when in connection with the end times.  The tremendous popularity of the “Left Behind” books is part of this phenomenon.  Of course, the Lutheran church doesn’t agree with the thesis of those books, namely that the believers will be raptured out of the earth several years before the end of the world; we believe that  this is a mistaken interpretation of Revelation (and other passages) and that the believers will be taken to be with God on the last day itself.  The point is, no one will know the day or the hour.  And so it should not be our primary concern to figure out the end times.  Rather our primary concern is to make sure that we are always ready for His coming, that we always have the oil of our faith replenished by the Holy Spirit working in us daily and weekly through Word and Sacrament here in this place and through our private devotions as well.

There are no guarantees in this life.  Whether Christ’s return is imminent or a long ways off yet from our human perspective, there is no reason for complacency.  Things can happen, things which we do not plan for or expect.  That’s the reality of life in this world.  Even apart from the question of when Judgment Day itself will come, we are reminded that we could face our own personal Judgment Day at any time.  Those who die before the last judgment will have their eternal fate decided by the question of whether they trusted Jesus for the forgiveness of sins at the time of their death.  This, too, is Judgment Day.  This, too, can happen to any of us at any time.

In today’s text, Jesus tells a parable about two groups of virgins who are waiting for the bridegroom to arrive so that they can play their part in the ceremonies of the wedding feast, which involved carrying their oil lamps in with the bridegroom when he arrived.  Five were wise and five were foolish.  The wise ones made sure that they were prepared by having extra jars of oil for their lamps, just in case the bridegroom was delayed.  The foolish ones only took the lamps themselves, and whatever oil was already in them.  As it happened, the bridegroom was indeed delayed for whatever reason, and so the oil in the lamps themselves was nearly burned up.  The ones who had not brought extra oil along asked the ones who had if they could borrow some, but the others replied that there wasn’t enough for all ten of them, so they would have to go find a shop that was still open and get some.  By the time they got back, however, they had already missed their part in the feast, and the bridegroom refused to let them in.  In fact, he was even so hard as to deny that he even knew who they were.

This parable is a picture of us as we await our Lord’s coming.  Our Lord has delayed His return for almost two thousand years now, and so it is tempting to forget that He is coming again at all.  It is tempting for many people, even if they know there is a heavenly Judge who will hold them accountable, to assume that they will have time to “get right with God” before they die, and that in the meantime they can simply do whatever they feel like.    But the fact of the matter is, you can’t do that.  You can’t cynically “get right with” God.  We can’t do anything from our end that will affect our relationship to Him.  What God expects of us is that we be perfect for our entire lives, and we already failed at that while we were too young to remember.  Even if we were able to be perfect for the rest of our lives, and we’re not, we would only be doing what God expected anyway, and so we wouldn’t be making up for what we had already done wrong.  And we can’t rely on other people, either.  We won’t be saved by having our names on a church membership roster; we won’t be saved because our parents or friends are Christians.  Yes, you were baptized, and the flame of faith was lit in your heart then, but if you aren’t replenishing your supply of oil through daily contrition and repentance, through frequently sharing in God’s Word and Christ’s body and blood, the oil just might not last and the flame of faith can go out.  The new you who was created in Baptism is just like any other human being; he needs to be fed or he will die.  And just like the foolish virgins who tried to borrow oil from their companions, we won’t be able to rely on the presence of our names on a congregational roster at that point.

So, if we are already sinners and we cannot make it up to God, then what?  Well, it is good to remember where our supply of oil comes from.  God Himself gave us the fire of faith in the water of Holy Baptism, and through His Word and His body and blood He continues to provide that fire with the fuel it needs to continue to burn brightly.  The sins you have committed are forgiven because of Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf on the cross.  And not only are those specific sins forgiven, but your inherited sinfulness, your inherited orientation away from God and toward that which displeases Him, of which specific sins are only mere symptoms, is also forgiven and taken away.  That forgiveness, given you by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace, is the oil which sustains your faith.  Nothing else can do it.  But that is enough.  Your sins are forgiven, and since your sins are forgiven, you have salvation and eternal life.  “For where there is the forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation,” according to the Small Catechism.

And since we have this forgiveness, life, and salvation, we can celebrate with joy the marriage feast of the lamb which has no end.  Since forgiveness is given to us even now, we have life and salvation even right now, even though we can’t see it yet.  In receiving Christ’s body and blood we participate in that great feast of victory which has no end, the marriage feast of the lamb in His kingdom.  And we are more than just bridesmaids and guests in that wedding feast.  We, the Church, are, collectively, the Bride Herself.  What we celebrate is nothing less than the union between ourselves and God, a union which was begun when the Son of God took on human flesh and united God and man in one Person, which will be fulfilled on the last day when He comes in glory to judge the living and the dead.  This will be a greater and more glorious festival than any party, any wedding reception we have ever experienced here on earth.  We will be celebrating nothing less than our eternal fellowship with our creator.  “Now let all the heavens adore Thee, Let men and angels sing before Thee, with harp and cymbal’s clearest tone.  Of one pearl each shining portal, Where, dwelling with the choir immortal, We gather round Thy radiant throne.  No vision ever brought, No ear hath ever caught, Such great glory; Therefore will we Eternally Sing hymns of praise and joy to Thee.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, November 1, 2014

I've moved.

Therefore I'm changing the name of the blog.

Blessed is Christ in You

Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 2, 2014 (All Saints’ Day, transferred)

The first section of the Sermon on the Mount, commonly known as “the beatitudes,” is a description of all of God’s saints.  And that means that it’s a description of you.  You are a saint, if you are a Christian.  God’s people are holy.  He makes them that way.  And that’s what the word “saint” means.  Holy one.  Hallowed one.  All Hallows Day, or all Saints Day, is technically supposed to be on November 1st, which, by the way, is why All Saints Eve, or All Hallows Eve, or Hallows’ evening, or Hallowe’en, falls on October 31st.  But recently the custom in many Lutheran congregations has been to transfer this festival to the first Sunday in November, so that it actually gets celebrated.  Reformation Day usually gets transferred to the last Sunday in October for the same reason.  All God’s people are Holy.  He makes them that way.  He takes their unholiness, their impurity, into His own body and nails it to His own cross.  He declares us to be righteous and holy.  And we are.  We become holy, because He says we are, just as at the beginning of Creation the light shone forth because God said it did.  We are sanctified.  We are saint-ified.  The Beatitudes are a description of what we, God’s saints, are.

Those who have gone on before us are saints too.  In the medieval church, saints were thought to be those who went straight to heaven when they died instead of spending time in purgatory.  Certain noteworthy individuals were recognized by the pope as having lived remarkable lives, and given the title of saints.  While we certainly do want to honor the great things that God has done through His people of all times and places, especially those saints whose lives and ministries are recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures such as the twelve apostles and others who were associated with our Lord, we don’t believe that there is such a thing as purgatory, so we refer to all Christians as saints, because all true Christians will go straight to heaven when they die.

Of course, when you examine yourself, you can’t see the saint in you, at least, if you’re being honest with yourself.  All you see inside yourself is sin and death, from which you cannot set yourself free.  You see envy, you see self-centeredness, you see gossip, you see lust, you see pride, you see greed, you see self-pity, you see failure to keep promises, failure to love your neighbor, failure to be diligent in the use of God’s Word.  You may even remember vividly some pretty gross outbreaks of these things in your life in this world as well.  What you don’t see is what the beatitudes describe.  Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Blessed are those who mourn.  Blessed are the meek.  Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  Blessed are the merciful.  Blessed are the pure in heart.  Blessed are the peacemakers.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.  If you think you see these things inside yourself, you’re probably not looking at yourself realistically.

But God looks at you differently than you look at yourself.  You see yourself as you exist in this old world.  You see the self that is part of this old life, the old Adam in you who was fatally drowned in the Baptismal water but who still clings to life as long as your life in this old world continues.  That’s why you can’t see the things that Jesus says about you in the Beatitudes.  When God looks at you, he sees His own Son, whose righteousness covers your unrighteousness.  He sees the only One who ever fulfilled the descriptions found in the Beatitudes perfectly.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was poor in spirit, not considering being God himself as something to be bragged about, but made Himself nothing, subjected Himself to our fallen existence out of love for us.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who mourned over the unfaithfulness of the city where His own name had been established so that He could be with His people.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was meek even when falsely accused and convicted of all sorts of crimes and crucified for the sins of others, for the sins of the whole world.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who so hungered and thirsted for the righteousness of the world that He took all of our unrighteousness upon Himself.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who had more mercy and charity and compassion on us poor lost sinners than we can ever imagine or hope to emulate.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was the only human being ever to walk this earth to be truly pure in heart, to be truly free of selfishness or sin.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who made the ultimate peace, the peace between God and man.  When God looks at you, He sees the One who was persecuted and killed not just as a sinner, but as the ultimate sinner, and not just in spite of the fact that He was in fact not a sinner, but precisely because of His righteousness.  When God looks at you, He sees Jesus Christ.

And yet, as I said before, what God sees when He looks at us, and what He says about is, is not a lie.  His Word does what it says.  When He sees Christ’s righteousness and says that we are righteous, that Word actually comes to pass.  A clean heart is created in us and a right spirit is renewed within us.  The new you really is accurately described by the Beatitudes.  You can’t see that in yourself (and if you think you can see it in yourself, frankly that’s your old sinful pride talking and so it’s really more evidence of your sinfulness), but others can see it in you.  They see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.  And of course, as I said before, God also sees you that way.  Because Christ is not only covering your sin, He’s living in you and working through you.

And so, the Beatitudes are descriptions of God’s holy ones, God’s saints.  They are descriptions of you and me according to our new selves.  Even though you can’t see it, God’s word tells you this.  And His word doesn’t lie, because it creates what it declares.  And that means that the blessings described by the Beatitudes are yours as well.  Yours is the kingdom of heaven.  You shall be given the ultimate comfort, eternal fellowship with your God and creator.  You shall inherit the whole new creation when Christ comes again to raise you up.  You shall be filled with righteousness, indeed, your hunger and thirst are already filled when you eat the body and drink the blood of Him who died so that these things can happen.  You shall obtain the ultimate mercy, the ultimate charity, eternal life itself, where all your needs will be met before you are even aware that the need exists.  You shall be called sons of God.  And, summing it all up, again it is said, yours is the kingdom of heaven.  That’s the inheritance of God’s saints.  That’s where you are already by faith, and where your loved ones who died in the faith are already in spirit.  That’s where you shall live forever, body and soul, into eternity.  Blessed are you.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, October 25, 2014

You Shall Be Free Indeed

Sermon on John 8:31-36
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
October 26, 2014 (Reformation Day, transferred)

Whoever commits sin is a slave to sin.  With these words Jesus shatters a whole world full of illusions and self-deception.  Most people think of the ability to commit sin as a matter of freedom and rights.  The more options you have open to you, the more choices you can make, the freer you are.  Especially in areas where Christianity and most other religions for that matter have identified your behavior as wrong.  That’s the way most people think.  To say that sin leads not to freedom but slavery, as Jesus does, seems alien to many people in the world today.

But it’s true.  God created us in such a way that we are to serve Him and our neighbor.  Our hereditary defect of sin, however, causes us to always be looking out for ourselves, to always be trying to figure out what I can get out of any situation.  And the sins we commit themselves capture us.  Habits form.  Even when we no longer want to be the way we are, it’s so much easier to keep making the choices we’ve made before rather than break those habits.  Even when we know its wrong, even when we know it will be hurtful to ourselves or to our relationships with each other or our God, we find ourselves doing the same things, committing the same sins, over and over again, often without even realizing we did it until after the fact.  Sin enslaves us.  It doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when the consequences catch up, they catch up with a vengeance, and usually only after the sin has become habitual and very difficult to resist.  Especially when you consider that even outward righteousness doesn’t really free you from this slavery.  Even the Pharisees, the most outwardly righteous people who lived in Jesus’ day, are slaves to sin, because their behavior shows that their decisions are dominated by it.  The fear of sinning which causes a person to follow an overly-complex set of man-made rules and regulations is itself a form of slavery, and it was also this kind of slavery from which Jesus came to free us, and against which Martin Luther later fought so hard in terms of the Roman papacy of his day.  The Pharisees followed their complex system because they were afraid of sinning.  The medieval church also created that kind of fear in the hearts of the people, as we can see from the amount of money they were willing to shell out for indulgences.  A person who is constantly afraid of sinning is dominated by sin just as much as is someone who is constantly giving in to the temptation.  He is simply not free.  And besides, often this extreme fear of sinning also causes people not to do good when they have the opportunity, for fear of sinning.  Fear of sin paralyzes a person and causes him to sin by not doing what he should do, because he’s afraid of sinning by doing what he shouldn’t.  And this only makes the cycle worse.

Over against the slavery to sin, both the slavery of indulgence and the slavery of fear of sin which leads to the sale of indulgences, Christ stands and promises to set us free.  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.”  He is the one who can set us free, for He as God has authority over sin, death, and the devil which have enslaved us.  He is the Son of God the Father, and as the Son he can free those who are slaves.  The power of sin is not broken when we try our hardest to not sin.  The power of sin is broken when the sins we have committed, and those we will yet commit, are forgiven and no longer held against us.  This breaks the fear and the despair which lead us either into works-righteousness and paralysis or deeper into the addiction to actual outward sins.  Forgiveness carries with it the power of the Holy Spirit to amend our sinful lives, and to live as God’s free children rather than as hired servants in His world.

We have become the adopted children of God’s house because the Son of God became one of us and became our brother.  His innocent life, his suffering and death, and His resurrection and ascension set the pattern for our life, death, resurrection, and eternal life.  Where Christ has gone there we shall go, and in fact we have already gone through those things in Holy Baptism.  We already in this world partake of the feast of Heaven in the body and blood of Christ Jesus.  We already have a life that is free from sin, though while we yet live in this world this is hidden underneath the old sinful nature and the old troubles, pains and hurts.  But even while we are troubled by temptations and by guilt from our sins, and even while we suffer and must put up with life in this sinful world, we are already living the new life which Christ has given us.  We have already died and been raised with Christ, and this freedom gives us the ability to live as God’s free people in this sinful world.

This is the kind of freedom that the Reformation was about: not a political freedom, not a freedom from government authority, not a freedom to do whatever we want, and not even the noble freedoms we enjoy as Americans, but freedom from sin, freedom from condemnation, freedom from hell.  The Gospel, which grants us this freedom, is what the Reformation was all about, and it is still what the Lutheran Church is all about.  The Festival of the Reformation is not just a celebration of an old historical event or the Lutheran equivalent of a patriotic party.  The Reformation is not about bashing other Christians, even though we must recognize and clearly point out that many other Christian church bodies are indeed wrong about what this freedom means for us as well as about certain other things the Bible teaches.  The Reformation is not even about the church war between the Lutherans and the Pope, even though it’s true that many of the concerns Luther raised in his day are still a concern to us Lutherans today.  Instead, the Reformation is a commemoration of the larger war against sin, death, and the devil which was won by Jesus Christ by dying on the cross and rising again for our justification.  Sin, death, and the devil no longer enslave you.  The Son has set you free, and so you are free indeed.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +