Sunday, April 19, 2015

Letter of Resignation

The following was read to the congregation at Holy Cross following this morning's Divine Service.
Dear Fellow Redeemed:

As you are well aware, I have recently been struggling with severe mental, emotional, and, yes, also spiritual illness.  I had previously divulged to the congregation that I have been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder II and Intermittent Explosive Disorder.  While these diagnoses in themselves do not bar a man from the Office of the Holy Ministry, my ability to manage these disorders is nowhere near what it should be for a pastor who is charged with caring for the Church.  This was brought home to me this past Holy Week as I voluntarily entered a psychiatric hospital due to severe impulse control problems combined with suicidal thoughts, quite literally a potentially deadly combination.  Due to this severe instability, I have decided, upon the urging of President Wille and in consultation with my wife and Pastor Carlson, to resign my position as your pastor as well as my position on the clergy roster of the Missouri Synod so that I may focus my attention on managing and treating these disorders and reconnecting with my family.

In 1 Timothy 3:4-5, Paul states that one of the qualifications for a pastor is that he must be able to manage his own household well.  My wife and daughter are currently living with her parents in Kansas in order to give me an opportunity to get a better handle on my mental illness.  This was originally intended to be a short-term visit of two or three months, but as my treatment has gone on longer than we expected it has turned into more than that.  I am trying to unlearn a lifetime of bad habits when it comes to managing conflict, and that doesn’t happen in two or three months.  It has become clear to me that, if I am to be able to be a good husband and father, I need to move closer to where they are living in order to reconnect with my wife and bond with my daughter, while still giving them the safe environment offered by living with her parents.  Even if I were not resigning my call at this time due to my recent hospitalization, I would still be planning on doing so within a few months in order to move closer to them.

Holy Cross is a congregation which I love very much and have thoroughly enjoyed serving as pastor.  Despite your small size and aging demographic, you are one of the more spiritually healthy and mature congregations I’ve encountered, and, as I’ve said before many times, I would challenge any congregation in the Racine/Kenosha bi-circuit to be as active and involved in the Lutheran community and in outreach dollars per capita as is Holy Cross (the catch of course, being those two little Latin words “per capita”).  You may not be as able to do organized evangelism in your own neighborhood as some other congregations, but you more than make up for it in the ways you can and do serve the cause of Christ and Him Crucified through Concordia Lutheran School, Racine Lutheran High, and the many missions you support through your generosity, not to mention partnering and sharing your building with Iglesia Luterana Santa Cruz.  I regret any heartache my own difficulty managing my illness and my resulting departure has caused or will cause you.  None of this is your fault.  I will continue to keep you in my prayers that you find pastoral leadership to continue bringing you God’s Word so that you may continue bringing it to those around you for years to come.  I also covet your prayers, as I have a lot of work to do toward my emotional, mental, and most importantly spiritual healing.  If it be God’s will, I hope someday to reenter the pastoral ministry, but that’s up to Him, not me.  My first and foremost concern is relearning how to be a good husband and father.

I thank you for the support and love you have shown to Tina and I over the course of the last 4½ years.  I know you’ve wished you could support me full-time so that I wouldn’t have to work at Walmart.  But for such a small congregation, what you have been able to do for us has been remarkable, and you have nothing of which to be ashamed on that score.  God’s blessings as you move into the future, trusting in Him for all of your needs.

In Christ,
Timothy Schellenbach

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord

Sermon on Mark 14:1 – 15:47
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 29, 2015 (Palm Sunday)

Today’s theme seems to be a juxtaposition of two very different themes.  Today is Palm Sunday, in which we celebrate our King coming to the Holy City triumphantly, with crowds shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David!  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  But in the Gospel lesson for today, He is mocked, tortured, falsely accused, falsely convicted, and executed in the most brutal and painful way that man has ever invented.  The only crowds in the second Gospel for today are the ones who cry out, “Crucify Him!  Away with Him!”  Now, this doesn’t seem, at first glance, to make much sense.  In fact, the passion reading seems at first glance to make the Palm Sunday celebration almost macabre, as it makes it look like an example of failed hopes and shattered dreams, something to be best forgotten rather than celebrated every year as part of Holy Week.

The key to the connection between these two themes comes when you remember what was really happening on that first Good Friday, as opposed to what seemed to be happening.  Jesus endured everything that happened to Him that day willingly.  It wasn’t a mistake or a defeat for Christ as some thought, and as some who call themselves Christians continue to think even today.  No, it was all according to His Father’s plan and will, and it was done out of His love for us sinners.  The guilt and the pain of the sins of everyone who had ever lived and ever would live was borne by Him so that He could pay the price for all of that sin.  He died so that we can live forever.  He suffered the pain and torment of separation from His Father so that we can be united with Him in eternity.  It was for us that He did all of this, and for our salvation.  And because He did this for you and me, it was precisely through all of this that He shows Himself to be our true King, our true Lord.  As the Catechism puts it, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me.”  He is my Lord because He has redeemed me.  He is my king because He is the one who gained entrance for me into His kingdom through His suffering and death.

When you understand this, the connection between Palm Sunday and Good Friday becomes clearer.  Good Friday is not the ignominious end of the movement that seemed so full of promise and hope the previous Sunday.  Rather Good Friday is precisely where the King hailed the previous Sunday comes into His own.  He was doing precisely what He came to Jerusalem to do.  The King of the Jews had in fact claimed His throne, but His throne was made of wood.  It was a throne from which He hung rather than being seated on it.  He had claimed His crown, but that crown was made of thorns.  The crowd on Good Friday were reacting to Christ out of the hate and anger that was in their sinful hearts—the same hate and anger toward God and toward authority that is in all of our sinful hearts—but they spoke better than they knew, because they were asking for what Christ had come to do in the first place.  They were asking for Jesus to be crucified, which is precisely what He had come to do.

Crosses are not a pleasant thing.  Crucifixes remind us that sin has consequences.  In many mega-churches (and want-to-be mega-churches) today you will not see a single cross anywhere you look, to say nothing of a statue of Jesus hanging on one.  That’s because crosses and crucifixes carry with them an unpleasant reminder.  They carry the reminder that the forgiveness of sin is not just a matter of saying, “Oh, God will forgive me because He’s just a nice God.”  They carry the reminder that the forgiveness of sins is a matter of Jesus suffering and dying a horrid, bloody, painful execution in our place, which means that sin, including our sin, is serious, bloody, painful business.  They carry the reminder to us that we all were among those who shouted, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” that first Good Friday, because it was our sin that put Him there.  That’s not a comfortable thought, that we are the cause of that much pain and suffering.  But, and here’s the amazing part, being put there to suffer was something He did willingly for us.  Being put there to suffer was something He did out of love for His creatures.  Being put there to suffer was something He did because He is a God who is love, and that means that he will give Himself up to death so that we might have eternal life.

It is from this perspective that we can truly understand what the crowd was saying when they welcomed Jesus as their King that first Palm Sunday.  That crowd probably didn’t understand fully what they were doing, either.  After all, they were probably expecting an earthly king, who would defeat and drive out the Romans and restore the national sovereignty of Judah and Israel.  But they were correct in welcoming Jesus as their King, because that’s what He was.  That’s what He is.  He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.  He is God Himself, who reigns over us.  But His reign over us is precisely from the cross.  He reigns over us, by giving Himself up for our sakes so that we might have life.  Just as the crowd did, we welcome His coming among us to reign in triumph from the Tree, with the very same words in the Communion Liturgy as the crowd used that first Palm Sunday almost 2000 years ago: “Hosanna!  Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord!  Hosanna in the highest!”  From the cross He comes to us and gives us His body and blood, so that, united with Him we may never be parted from Him either here or in eternity.  Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.  Hosanna in the highest.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Jesus' Right and Left

Sermon on Mark 10:32-45
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 22, 2015 (Fifth Sunday in Lent)

James and John didn’t get it.  They didn’t understand what Jesus had come to do.  They thought, like the rest of the disciples, like many other Jews at the time, that the Messiah would come to free Israel from the Romans and restore it to its former glory under kings David and Solomon.  All the talk about Jesus dying on the cross and then being raised again three days later either disturbed and upset them, or it went completely over their heads.  Even if they had some idea that the crucifixion and resurrection had to happen first for some reason, they still assumed that Jesus was going to restore the physical nation of Israel to its former glory, and that this whole death and resurrection thing was probably just a detour necessary to fulfill some prophecy or another.  And so, after hearing Jesus talk again about His death, James and John try to change the subject (actually, we learn from other Gospels that they enlisted their mom).  They would rather talk about what they think is going to happen after that.  That’s the part that they are interested in.  They’re interested in who is going to be part of Jesus’ cabinet when He becomes king of Israel.  They want to be His second and third in command in the new government.

Of course, the other disciples don’t like that.  But even though they might sound like they’re offended that James and John would be so arrogant, the fact is they just wish they’d had the idea first.  They all want to have high positions in Jesus’ supposed new government, and they’re annoyed that James and John were the first ones to ask.  None of them really understands what Jesus is here for.  None of them really understands that the death and resurrection stuff isn’t just something Jesus has to get through in the process of becoming king.  None of them understands the fact that it is precisely in His death on the cross that He becomes king.  Which is why when Jesus asks them if they can drink the cup He will drink and be baptized with the baptism He is baptized with, they immediately, and without giving it much thought, say they can.  They have no idea what they are being asked to do.

It’s easy, by the way, to sit back with our 20/20 hindsight and think that we would have done better than James and John in this situation.  But we too, according to the old Adam in us, don’t like the idea that the kingdom of God came by suffering, and specifically suffering for our sins.  We too would like Christianity to be something that rules the world and determines also civil law.  Many Christian groups spend most or all of their energy, not on examining themselves and repenting, but on trying to fix the evils of society.  We Lutherans have been hesitant to get involved in the civil sphere, and there are reasons for that.  Our mission has to do with individual repentance and faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, not on fixing the worlds problems as such.  It’s only when the most innocent and helpless (the unborn) are involved, or when we are told we must support a problematic agenda with the money in our own Synod’s benefit plans, that we have spoken out as an organization rather than as individual citizens.  But that isn’t what many Christians want to see.  They want to see the Church ruling the world.  After all, if we’re all about telling everyone else what to do, then we can distract ourselves from our own sin and our own need for forgiveness.

Jesus came to bear the punishment for the sins of the world.  Only death can atone for sin.  But one man’s death only atones for that man’s own sin, unless that one man is both perfect and God Himself.  And so the cup He will drink and the baptism He will be baptized with, are nothing less than bearing the sin of the whole world and dying with the wrath of God the Father falling upon Him full-force.  That’s not something any human being, even James and John, who with Peter are the inner circle among the disciples, can ever do.  Only Jesus can do that.

But Jesus does say that they will drink His cup and be baptized with His baptism.  That doesn’t make sense, if they can’t.  Well, they can’t in their own right, though they will be treated in ways that resemble His death.  James will be the first of the Twelve to be martyred.  John will be exiled and will outlive all the others.  Peter will be crucified upside-down.  Andrew will be crucified on an X-shaped cross.  But Jesus isn’t just referring to the fact that they, too, will be treated the way Jesus was treated.  He is referring to the fact that His death and resurrection will become theirs.  He dies for them.  He dies for you and me.  His death atones for their sin, and ours.  But what’s more, is we participate in His death and resurrection.  When you were baptized, you died with Him, and rose with Him.  You really were there on the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday, dying and rising with Him.  And the body and blood that were given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, the same body and blood that rose again as the first-fruits of the new creation where we will live forever, are present for us to eat and drink in the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  James and John, as well as you and me, really do participate in His death and resurrection, through the Sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion (by the way, that’s why Jesus chooses the words he does, emphasizing the cup and the baptism, because it is those Sacraments which give us His death and resurrection to be our own).

As for the question of who will sit on His right and His left when He comes into His kingdom, His Father answered that question, too.  But you have to understand that Jesus’ kingdom is one of the forgiveness of sins.  Which means His throne is where He gives that forgiveness from.  When Jesus came into His kingdom, when He was crowned and given His throne, none of the Twelve were on His right or on His left, though John was standing in front of Him with Mary His mother.  When Jesus came into His kingdom, those on His right and on His left were thieves.  One repented of his sin and trusted in Jesus for salvation, the other mocked Him.  But the point is, the throne is the cross.  The crown is made of thorns.  And so those who are with him are not those who are most loyal to Him but notorious criminals, as is appropriate for the one who became sin itself for us.  His right- and left-hand men at this most important time in His life were sinners, as He took on the sin of the world.  But it is because He did that, that we also can hear and believe what He says to the thief who repented: “Today you will be with me in paradise.”  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Driving out Snakes

Sermon on John 3:14-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 15, 2015 (Fourth Sunday in Lent)

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life.”  Just by itself, that sentence, taken from the beginning of today’s Gospel, sounds pretty good.  The Son of Man is to be lifted up.  He is to be placed on high, so that everybody can see Him, be drawn to Him, and live forever.  Many Christians have taken this to mean that His name and His praise is to be spread as far and as wide and as publicly as possible.  Confessing faith in Him is do be done with as much public impact as possible, so this line of thinking goes, so that He can draw as many as possible to Himself.  And there’s nothing wrong with that, in and of itself.  But spreading the good news that mankind can now have eternal life with its Creator is not, first and foremost, what Jesus was talking about here.  The “lifting up” that Jesus speaks of here is not, first and foremost, a matter of putting His name and His face on as many billboards or TV’s or whatever as possible.  Nor is it a matter of singing over and over again repetitive songs about how good God is without ever saying anything about how He showed that goodness in sending His Son to die for us.  What Jesus is speaking about, here, is His death.  Jesus is lifted up the same way the bronze serpent was lifted up: He is put on a pole as a sign that what plagues us has been defeated.  And what plagues us is sin and death.

It’s no accident that it was serpents which attacked the Israelites in the wilderness.  It was Satan in the form of a serpent who first tempted Adam and Eve (and all of us, their children) to sin in the garden.  Snakes have always been depicted as Satanic creatures because of this.  A missionary named Patrick, centuries ago, was reputed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, when in fact what he drove out of Ireland was devilish pagan ideas about religion, by teaching the people there about the Holy Trinity.  He used a three-leaved clover (a “shamrock” in the local dialect) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, by the way, which is why that plant is still associated with his name and with the Church’s traditional celebration of his life and work, which takes place this Tuesday.  I do think it’s ironic that a Christian symbol of the Trinity gets splashed all over the place in connection with that festival, even in places where people would otherwise object to anything remotely Christian being displayed.  Who knows, maybe that’s the next Christian symbol the “angry atheists” will attack.  I also think it’s ironic that this time of year we put this Christian symbol of the Holy Trinity next to icons of the old pagan earth-spirits (leprechauns, in the Irish dialect), but that’s just a symptom of the world not knowing what it’s doing when it stumbles upon holy things, or supernatural things in general, for that matter.  But anyway, the point is, where the Trinity is confessed, the devil is defeated, which is why the legend grew that he cast out the snakes.  He actually cast out the demons, by baptizing and catechizing the Irish natives about the true God, the Holy Trinity.

The irony about this, though, is that it was precisely a snake that the people were to look at in order to be cured from snakebite.  You would think a more appropriate symbol would have been something having to do with God and His majesty and holiness, His power and ability to save.  But it was a snake, the very thing that ailed them, that they were to look to for salvation from snakebite.  So also with us.  It is precisely the image of sin and death that we are to look to for our cure from sin and death.  But, Pastor, we’re supposed to look to Jesus, aren’t we?  He is life and peace and love, isn’t He?  How can you say we’re supposed to look at sin and death?  Jesus on the cross is the very image of sin and death.  Yes, He was perfect and knew no sin.  But, as St. Paul points out, He who knew no sin became sin for us.  He took the world’s sins upon Himself, and paid sin’s penalty.  The wages of sin is death.  And so, in order to be saved from sin and death, we look at where the whole world’s sin and death were concentrated into one man, the God-Man Jesus Christ.

As Jesus tells Nicodemus, it is precisely in His death that His love for the world is shown.  He took sin and death into Himself willingly, so as to defeat them, and in so doing he also defeated the ancient foe, Satan, who tempted Adam and Eve into sin in the first place.  We look on Christ’s defeat in order to receive the fruits of His victory.  Resurrection to eternal life comes at the cost of dying to this old world.  You can’t raise up what hasn’t first died.  You can’t bring forth from the font that which hasn’t first drowned there.  That’s why it’s Christ’s crucifixion that the Church has depicted at the center of the faith for centuries.  Yes, the resurrection is there, too, but it is the cross that has become the preeminent symbol of Christianity.  We still live in this old world, and so it is precisely the fact that He took everything that ails us into Himself on the cross that is our comfort here.  The resurrection is coming, and that’s also a great comfort, but it was the crucifixion where our victory was actually won.  We look upon sin and death in order to be cured from sin and death.  We eat and drink Christ’s body broken and His blood shed so that our bodies will be whole and perfect on the day of His coming.  Christ was raised up on the cross, and it is precisely as the Crucified One that He draws all men to Himself, and gives them eternal life.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What Sign Do You Give?

Sermon on John 2:13-25
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 8, 2015 (Third Sunday in Lent)

“What sign do You show for us for doing these things?”  Another way of putting that question might be, “Who do you think you are, coming in here and chasing away the businesses we’ve allowed to set up shop?”  This isn’t just an abstract theological question, this question of who Jesus is and what authority He has.  The money-changers were there because the temple tithes were supposed to be paid in Jewish money, while what most people had and used in their daily business was Roman money, which carried on its face the symbol of their hated oppressors.  The animals and those who sold them were there because it was easier to buy animals for the sacrifices at the temple than it was to bring them from all over the empire, especially for those who lived elsewhere than Judea.  Not to mention the fact that this guaranteed that the animals used would be ritually clean and without blemish, something that not everyone knew how to inspect for, especially since those who raised livestock for a living were a much smaller percentage of the Israelite population than had been the case centuries ago when the sacrificial regulations were revealed to Moses.  The fact that both the money-changers and the sale of sacrificial animals both made a nice profit, and a portion of that profit went to the landlord, which just so happened to be the Temple priesthood, well, that was just

So Jesus upsets their applecart by evicting the businessmen from the Temple.  It’s perfectly natural that the Jews would ask what authority He has to evict people from this building.  Who does He think He is, the owner of the building, or something?  Of course, as we know, that’s exactly who Jesus is.  He is the Angel of the Lord who appeared to the Israelites in the pillar of cloud and fire, whose glory rested on the first Tabernacle and then Solomon’s Temple (which had been built on the exact same spot as the current Temple), who met His high priests in the Holy of Holies every year between the golden cherubim who flanked the lid of the Ark of the Covenant.  It really is His temple.  Of course, as the creator, everything is His, but this was the place He had established for the Israelites to meet them in grace and mercy and forgiveness rather than wrath and judgment, and so this place is His in a way that nowhere else in the world at that time could claim.

Now, if He had simply said that, of course, it would have proven nothing.  In fact, He does indirectly say that when He refers to the Temple as “My Father’s House.”  So the Jews ask for a sign that He really is the one who has authority to do these things.  But Jesus doesn’t give them the sort of sign they are asking for.  He doesn’t do some miracle on the spot to prove He is the Son of God.  Nor does He pull out His Galilean driver’s license that says “Son of God” on it, or the title deed to the Temple grounds.  He instead tells them about something that is going to happen in the future.  He will be put to death, and on the third day He will rise again.  But He says it in kind of an odd way.  He talks about “this temple,” referring to His body, which, of course, simply confuses everybody.  They think He’s talking about the building they’re standing in.  In fact, that’s one of the things that is brought up at His trial before Caiaphas early on Good Friday morning, namely that He said He was going to destroy and then rebuild the Temple.

One could argue that Jesus was simply being obscure here, telling some sort of parable or riddle to confuse the Jews.  And there’s an element of truth there.  Jesus’ parables aren’t so much intended to make the lesson easy to understand (despite what you may have been told by the advocates of using lots of stories and object lessons in sermons) but to make it more difficult and confusing for those who are not of the Faith.  As Jesus Himself says elsewhere to His disciples, “I speak to you plainly, but to the rest in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’”  The same thing is true here.  Jesus is saying something that will only be understood later by His disciples after He has risen from the dead, and not at all by the Jews who asked Him the question.

But, at the same time, what He says is perfectly true.  The Temple was the place of sacrifice.  That was the whole point of having all these different animals for sale: they were to be presented for sacrifice.  But Jesus is the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  He is the true sacrifice for sin.  The whole elaborate system of sacrifices that was laid out in the books of Moses was designed for one thing, and one thing only: to point forward to the once for all sacrifice which would take place very soon now, which we will celebrate a little less than a month from now.  Jesus is the true sacrifice.  He is the true temple.  He is the true altar.  His death on the cross is what makes the whole Old Testament sacrificial system worthwhile.  The animal sacrifices do nothing by themselves; it is only as sacraments tied by the Word and Promise of God to the true sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, that they mean anything at all.

And, by the way, that’s part of why Jesus chases them all out.  It wasn’t just that His holiness was offended by the crass profiteering the priests were engaged in, though that was part of it.  The bigger reason why He chases out the money-changers and the livestock brokers is because soon they will no longer be needed.  The true sacrifice is at hand.  They were never intended to be an end in themselves, they only pointed forward to the sacrifice of God Himself outside the gates of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman authorities.

And so it is also with our worship here in this place.  The one true sacrifice for all sin is really present on this altar, Jesus’ body and blood, the true temple, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.  We don’t re-sacrifice Him, and our sacrifice of thanksgiving and praise is just that, a sacrifice of thanksgiving, not a sacrifice that atones for sin.  But the One who was sacrificed for all is really present here, and His body and blood which you eat and drink really do, at the very same time, stand before God’s presence in the heavenly temple to plead for you before the Father.  The sign that He has done away with the animal sacrifices is the same sign that your sins really are forgiven and that you will live forever with Him in eternity.  The temple of His body was destroyed, and then it was rebuilt in three days.  His resurrection is what proves that your sins are forgiven, that you are no longer separated from your Creator, and that you will dwell with Him in eternity.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Take Up Your Cross

Sermon on Mark 8:27-38
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
March 1, 2015 (Second Sunday in Lent)

What Peter experiences here is something that’s common to many students.  I’m sure it happened happened either to you or to one of your fellow students sometime while you were in school, whether grade school or high school or even college.  You get an answer right, the teacher congratulates you, and then, next thing you know, you raise your hand again, confident that you know where the teacher is going because of the compliment you got last time, and end up saying exactly the wrong thing.  It’s a humiliating experience.  But in this case, it’s far more than that.  You see, if Jesus had followed Peter’s advice here, there would be no point in any of us being here today.  If Jesus had followed Peter’s advice, there would be no way for any of us to be saved from death and hell.  Dying on the cross was the entire reason Jesus came to earth.  It wasn’t just something bad that happened to Him toward the end of His ministry; it was what He came to do.

The whole reason why there is a Christian church is for the sake of the cross.  We’re not just here to teach good morals or “Christian values.”  Good morals and good values can be taught without Jesus.  He didn’t come to set an example for how we are to live.  He didn’t come to be a role model for us.  He came to live life in our place, die the death we deserved, and give us heaven as a free gift.  If the only thing we think we’re here to do is give people good morals and good values, we’re going down the same wrong road that Peter was.  It is only in view of Christ’s death and resurrection that what we do here, what we preach, makes any sense.

You see, who Jesus is (which Peter gets right in today’s text) and what Jesus did for us (which Peter gets wrong) is not something we can figure out based on human reason.  It’s something that God must reveal to us, and He does that in His Word.  It’s only because the Holy Spirit works through the Word to create faith in the heart that we are able to trust in Him and be saved.  That’s the real reason why the German Lutherans who settled here in America founded many of their churches by building and starting schools, in many cases even before they built their houses of worship.  That’s the reason why continued, lifelong catechesis in the Christian faith is necessary throughout your life.  The things that God would have you believe and trust for your salvation are contrary to what your reason will tell you, they are contrary to what the world will tell you, and they are even contrary to what many other Christians will tell you.  It’s even contrary to what your own mind and heart will often tell you (Peter found out that one the hard way).

The idea that our sins were so terrible that they required a bloody, painful, bitter death to get rid of, is not something the world will tell you.  It’s also not something you want to hear.  What you want to hear is that God’s forgiveness is the forgiveness of some tolerant grandfather who just lets you do whatever you want because He’s just a nice guy.  What God’s Word tells you, however, and what Jesus had to remind Peter and the other disciples of in today’s Gospel lesson, is that your forgiveness and salvation came at a huge price, a price that meant the death of God Himself on the cross.

That’s why the Church gets so somber and serious during the season of Lent.  That’s why we take Christian education and especially catechesis, that is, education in Christian doctrine, so seriously that we’re willing to put in extra time, talents, and treasures so that we can maintain our own school system where this truth is integrated into the rest of what our children learn about the world God created.  That’s why the Church also takes seriously the unfortunate necessity of exercising Christian discipline and even excommunication sometimes, when a person is so intent on a sinful path that they become careless about the fact that their ongoing sin is what is striking the hammer blows on the nails piercing our Lord’s hands and feet, and pushing down on the thorns gouging into His scalp and scraping the bone of His skull.  Forgiveness is serious business.  The death of God on the cross is serious business.  It is not to be taken lightly.

But while it is to be taken seriously, it is given by God freely.  That’s the other thing that we don’t always understand.  We like to think we can earn God’s favor by what we do, how well we live our lives.  But that’s not the case, either.  God is God. He is the one who gave us everything we are, and everything we have.  He doesn’t need anything we have to give Him.  In fact, when we try to earn His favor, when we try to earn His rewards, we are in fact insulting Him and denying that everything we need was given to us in Christ’s death and resurrection.  We are saying that we can add something to Jesus’ perfect sacrifice.

There is nothing that we can add.  All that is necessary has been done already.  And so, that frees us.  It frees us to take up our own crosses, as Jesus says to do, and live for God and for each other.  Instead of thinking about what we need to do to make up for our sins, or what we can do to impress God and each other, we instead serve our neighbor in love.  And it’s a love that’s expressed in the most ordinary ways.  Feeding and clothing your own children.  Teaching them the Christian faith as you have been taught from the Catechism.  Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and a thousand other things we do in our daily lives, toward our own friends and families, without even realizing that we do them.  That’s what taking up the cross means.  Living for God and for others, not because we want to earn something or impress them (which would really be doing it for ourselves), but because God loved us that much.  We love only because He first loved us.  And His love takes the form of a cross, an instrument of torture and execution that He bore so that we don’t have to.  But that cross is nothing less than the throne of God, where He gives us Himself.  That cross is nothing less than the altar upon which the Lamb of God was sacrificed for us.  That cross is nothing less than the place where Jesus Himself gives us eternal life with Him.  That cross is, for us, nothing but heaven.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 22, 2015

God Tempts No One

Sermon on Mark 1:9-15
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent)

What is the Sixth Petition of the Lord’s Prayer?  “And lead us not into temptation.”  What does this mean?  “God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh may not deceive us or mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”  Okay, we can see where Luther got that explanation from the section of James that was read as our Epistle lesson for today.  But what it doesn’t explain is what happened to Abraham and Isaac in our Old Testament reading, or for that matter that it was the Spirit which drove Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was God the Holy Spirit who drove Jesus Himself, God the Son, into the wilderness precisely in order to be tempted?  How can we say that God tempts no one if it was He that put a test on Abraham to see if he would obey God or not?  After all, the Greek and Hebrew words for “tempt” and “test” are actually the same word.  Is it really true, as the Catechism and St. James teach us, that “God tempts no one?”  For that matter, isn’t it supposed to be Satan, not God, who does the tempting?  How can God and Satan be involved in the same activity together?

Let’s bring this a little closer to home.  If God is good, and He is almighty, how is it that we are allowed to wander into situations where sin beckons to us and crouches at our doorstep?  Can’t He stop us from being put into situations where someone has left their belongings unguarded?  Or where we know a bit of juicy gossip about someone that we can hardly resist sharing?  Or where someone else besides the one God has joined us to looks more attractive or even like a better fit than our own spouse?  Or when a loved one is dying and we have prayed with all our might that He would heal them, with seemingly no response, and it looks to us like perhaps God doesn’t even exist?  If God is almighty, can’t He simply prevent us from even experiencing the opportunity for “false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice,” as Luther puts it?

The fact is, however, if we were outwardly sinless and perfect (because temptation simply never came our way) that itself would be a temptation.  For us, the descendants of Adam and Eve, even keeping the Law is itself a form of temptation.  Look how good I’m doing.  Look how righteous I am.  I thank you that I’m not like that tax collector over there.  And instead of praising God, we praise ourselves.  In keeping us completely away from the more obvious temptations, God would then be tempting us with the subtle and most dangerous temptation of all, namely the temptation to put ourselves instead of Him on the throne of our hearts.

The problem of temptation is simply the problem of sin.  It’s not God’s will that sin be in the world in the first place.  It wasn’t His will that Adam and Eve eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  It’s not His will that we face difficult choices in our lives, in which even though one path is clearly right and the other clearly wrong, the wrong path looks so much easier or more attractive.  It’s not His will that we face those even more difficult choices where both paths involve an element of sin and the only thing we can do is, as Luther put it, “sin boldly.”  None of this was what God created us for.  None of it is what He wanted for us.

But that’s where our Gospel lesson comes in.  It is precisely the sin, the brokenness, the hardship, the helplessness, and the hopelessness of living in a sin-filled world with sin-filled hearts, that our Lord became man in order to take into Himself.  He was tempted precisely because we are tempted.  He who knew no sin became sin for us.  And He won the victory over it.  The small victory he won over Satan in the wilderness foreshadows the much greater victory He won by staying on that cross and giving His life as a ransom for many.  The only way to deal with the problem of sin, and therefore the problem of temptation to sin, was to take it upon Himself.  The only way to deal with Satan was to defeat him so thoroughly that even his worst weapons, the temptation to false belief and despair, are now tools that He uses to bring us closer to Him.  Luther was fond of saying that the devil is now “God’s devil.”  The worst he can throw at us is now a tool God uses to drive us to His Word and Sacraments, to draw us closer to Himself.

And so it’s precisely when Satan tempts us that God is testing our faith, not in order to weaken it, but in order to strengthen it.  It’s precisely when we are given the occasion for false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice that we also have the opportunity to further refine and temper the true faith, trust, and righteousness that is now ours in Christ Jesus.  God doesn’t tempt us, but at the same time He does.  He tests us, not in order to knock us down, but as training so that we learn all the more to lean on Him and His righteousness when we know our own is completely worthless.  It is precisely when we are weak, in other words, that He is strong.  He uses testing to teach us that He is the one who is our strength, and we can’t learn that unless we first see how weak we ourselves really are.

God allows us to be knocked down so that He will be able to raise us up.  God puts Abraham in a no-win situation so that Abraham will rely solely on God’s promises that He will provide the lamb for the burnt offering.  It is precisely when Abraham thinks he has no choice but to murder his own son, that God puts faith in him that even so God will still fulfill His promise to provide the true Lamb who will take away the sins of the world.  It’s possible that he thought Isaac was that Lamb, that Messiah.  But the lamb caught in the undergrowth nearby served as the substitute, just as Jesus is our substitute, the one who undergoes temptation, suffering, and even death in our place.  God did provide the Lamb for the burnt offering.  God did take our place in the trackless desert of temptation, where we can’t find our way and it looks like all paths lead nowhere.  In His stead, then, we receive the straight road that leads to eternity, the road marked not by our own fleeting mirage of victory, but by His cross and seeming defeat.  Does God tempt us?  Did He tempt His Son?  In one sense, yes.  But in view of His ultimate purpose of salvation, no.  He only knocks down so that He can raise up.  He only breaks so that He can heal.  He only kills so that He can make alive.  He doesn’t tempt us for the sake of judgment, but for the sake of fixing our eyes on Jesus who won the victory for us all.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


Sermon on Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 18, 2015 (Ash Wednesday)

“Remember, O man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  This paraphrase of Genesis 3:19 is what is said when ashes are placed on Christians’ foreheads in many churches on Ash Wednesday.  While we at Holy Cross haven’t been practicing the imposition of ashes, the verse which accompanies it is worth keeping in mind.  God made Adam from the dust of the ground, and when we who came from him die we will eventually become dust again.  Life lived only for the sake of this world is simply futile.  Vanity, says St. Solomon.  Nothing that is done in this world will last.  We will die, and what we have built for ourselves will belong to someone else, who will eventually die and again it will become someone else’s.  And on Judgment Day, everything in this old creation that hasn’t already fallen down, been blown up, or washed away will be destroyed with fervent heat, as atoms and molecules and even smaller particles come undone at the command of their creator.

Humanity doesn’t want to be dust.  Humanity doesn’t want its works and its ways to become nothing.  Humanity wants to become its own god.  That, after all, was what the serpent in the garden whispered to us: “You shall be like God.”  We want to be admired.  We want to be worshiped.  We want to be remembered.  We want to impress.  But our Creator is, by definition, greater than anything we can come up with.  And so our desire to be worshiped convinces us to ignore Him and deny His very existence, as the very idea of an infinitely intelligent and infinitely powerful being stands in the way of humanity’s desire to become lord and master of all.

How ironic, then, that the way our rejected Creator solves the problem is not by boasting, not by demonstrating His mighty power (although He can and does do that simply by reminding us that nature itself isn’t under our control in the form of hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires and the like), but in becoming one of us.  He who created the dust itself was made man, made from dust.  He who breathed life into the first man suffers death at the hands of His fellow men.  The real Lord and Master of all doesn’t need to boast of His status and His greatness, and so it’s no problem for Him to become one of us, live a humble life, and die a painful and undeserved death.  He who built it all lived not for his own greatness but for the love of His fellow men.  He went down with the creation He made into the grave, so that He could rebuild it in His own resurrection.  And His greatest glory is found in this, that He did it not to brag or boast of His power, but for the love of His bride the Church.

Laying up treasures on earth is not only against Jesus’ command in today’s Gospel.  It’s also futile.  You are dust, and shall return to the dust.  Laying up treasure in heaven, however, doesn’t mean trying to impress people by being “spiritual,” either.  Things done for supposedly religious reasons in this world will also turn to dust.  It’s not just monuments like the Tower of Babel raised in defiance or rejection of the Creator, but also houses of worship which have turned to dust over the millennia.  Certainly it is good to praise God, to worship Him, and to confess Him before our friends and neighbors, but even that can be done for the wrong reasons.  Phariseeism is in all of our hearts, and it’ll be there until we do, in fact, return to the dust we came from.

Rather, laying up treasure in heaven means regarding as valuable and important those things which give us heaven.  Our true treasures are not those things we do, whether we do them for ourselves or even supposedly for God, but those things our Creator has given us that bring us into the new creation.  Our watery grave in which we died with Christ only to be resurrected with Him by water connected with and comprehended in God’s Word.  The speaking of our Creator, which comes true even if it had not already been true, which declares you citizens of the new heavens and the new earth, forgiven, restored to God’s fellowship, and perfect.  And the body and blood of our crucified and risen God Himself, the first-fruits of the new creation which will not turn to dust, rust, or be stolen.  These are your true treasures, the things God gives you that have Himself, His Father, and the Holy Spirit hidden within, and therefore grant eternity with Him.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, February 15, 2015

A Small Church?

Sermon on Mark 9:2-9
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 15, 2015 (The Transfiguration of our Lord)

In today’s text, we see Jesus choose His three closest disciples and lead them up onto a mountaintop.  This is the point in Jesus’ ministry when He sets His face toward Jerusalem.  He begins the long, slow journey that will eventually result in His death for our sins.  This journey would be a depressing and confusing one for the disciples, since to them it would seem like their Lord had gone crazy.  He is heading toward the one place where human wisdom and common sense tells them He absolutely must avoid.  He is heading straight for a sure and certain death at the hands of the chief priests and the Roman government, and that’s suicidal madness as far as worldly thinking is concerned.  And so the disciples would be sorely tried and tested over the next months, as they will have to face a series of events that will seem like the defeat and collapse of everything their Master has being doing throughout His ministry.

To prepare them for this, to strengthen them for this, Jesus undergoes the transfiguration we see in today’s text.  Because to the disciples it will look like their church is falling apart and being destroyed by their leader’s supposed mistake of going to Jerusalem, Jesus strengthens them and reassures them by letting them see the heavenly reality of Who it is that is with them.  He lets them see some measure of what He looks like to those who have been glorified in heaven.  He lets them see two of the saints who are with Him in eternal life, Moses and Elijah.  He does all this because the disciples need to know that there is more going on than what they will see with their own eyes.  They are not being misled or betrayed by Jesus when He gives Himself up into the hands of the authorities.  Instead, all these things are happening according to God the Father’s plan.  Jesus cannot truly be defeated because He is God the Son.  The cross is not a defeat for Christ, even though that is what it looks like.  Instead, death is swallowed up by death.  It’s sting is lost forever.

Now, it may be tempting for us to be troubled when things aren’t going as well for the Church as we would like.  It may be tempting to despair or doubt when we see that our congregation is not doing as well numerically as it may have in times past.  It may be tempting to feel that God has turned His back on us or that we are somehow doing something wrong in terms of the way we worship or the way we live as Christians.  It can be tempting to think that God has abandoned us.  But make no mistake about it, to think this way is a temptation is from Satan.  No one else but Satan would want us to think that God has abandoned us or is punishing us in some way because our congregation isn’t outwardly as strong or as healthy as we would like.  God has not abandoned us, even if we aren’t where we would like to be as a congregation right now.  He hasn’t abandoned us, any more than He abandoned His disciples.

There is one thing needful in our lives as Christians and as a congregation.  That one thing needful is Jesus Christ.  And with Christ comes a multitude of blessings.  With Christ comes the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.  Giving us these things is the purpose of the Church, and so if we receive the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation from God here, our church is doing what it is supposed to.  Yes, it would be good to see more people here, especially younger people, and we should all encourage our friends and neighbors to join us here so that more do come to receive God’s salvation.  But if even only one person comes to faith through the preaching of the Word and administration of the Sacraments here—even if only one person is transferred from the realm of eternal death and hell into the blessedness of eternal life, our Church is serving its purpose.  Even if we don’t gain any new members, simply the fact that this Church is helping those members we now have to continue to be strengthened in their faith and kept on the narrow road that leads to the kingdom of God—this fact itself indicates that Christ is present with us and doing His work among us.  And that’s all we need to know.

And as I mentioned before, there are far more here than you can see and count.  The true number of those gathered here today is greater than anyone knows except for God alone.  For where Christ is, there all the saints are present as well.  Where Christ is, there are Moses and Elijah.  Where Christ is, there are Peter, James and John.  Where Christ is, there are Augustine, Luther, and all the other great theologians of Church History.  Where Christ is, there is the incredible number of nameless ordinary Christians who have fought the good fight, finished the race, and kept the faith over the course of the centuries.  Where Christ is, there are our own loved ones who have died in the faith.  Where Christ is, there are our loved ones who are still living and continuing in the Christian faith in other places.  Where Christ is, there are the angels and the archangels and all the company of heaven.  And Christ is present among us now, as we have gathered in His name.  He is present not only in His Word but also and especially in His body and His blood.  We gather here to be strengthened by Him in their presence.  We join with them in their songs of “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth.”  We join them as they celebrate the victory feast of the lamb who was slain.

So, are we a small Church?  I’d say that, no, we aren’t.  There are thousands upon thousands worshiping with us today.  We all gather around the true altar where the Lamb makes Himself both the host and the meal in the victory banquet which is held in His honor.  This heavenly reality is revealed to us through God’s Word in order to strengthen us as we face the trials of life in this sinful world, where we cannot see or hear this great cloud of witnesses.  Our congregation, alongside every other Christian congregation in which the Word is rightly preached and the Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution, is nothing less than a visible manifestation of the otherwise invisible one, holy, Christian and apostolic Church which we confess in the Nicene Creed.  Are we a small church?  Of course not!  How can our Church be small, when all the host of heaven is here with us?  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, February 7, 2015

You Are Raised Up

Sermon on Mark 1:29-39
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 8, 2015 (The Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany)

If it hadn’t been for the blizzard, we would have heard last Sunday about Jesus’ healing of a demon-possessed man who came forward to confront Him while He was preaching in the Synagogue.  Now he heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, and then goes on to heal others and cast out more demons.  These are great and impressive miracles, of course.  Casting out demons, and healing people simply by speaking the Word is certainly not something you see every day.  It is a testimony to just Who Jesus is, that He has authority over even demons, not to mention mere physical illnesses.  But I think sometimes we might get caught up in the fact that Jesus is demonstrating His power here and showing that He is God.  There’s more to it than just the fact that Jesus is doing miracles.  It’s not just about Jesus’ sheer power.  Remember why it is that people get sick in the first place, and why it is that demons can possess people at all.  The creation itself has been fundamentally corrupted by the sin of its inhabitants.  All disease, hunger, thirst, injury, disaster, and, yes, even demon-possession, are symptoms of the fact that mankind, the crown of creation, is now subject to death, and therefore creation itself is subject to futility, instability, and breakdown.  Jesus’ mother-in-law’s fever, and the possession of various people by fallen angels, are things that are only symptoms of the basic disease of sin that was brought into the world by Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden.

And so, Jesus’ ability to heal people and drive out demons is more than just merely a miraculous demonstration of the fact that He’s God.  It’s more than just a rather dramatic way of proving His claim to be the promised Messiah.  It is, in fact, part and parcel of what He came to do.  He came to put to death the old creation in His own body, and raise up for us a new creation, in which we, cleansed and purified of sin and all its effects, will live forever.  He came, not just to do away with the effects of sin temporarily for a few people back in first-century Palestine, but to do away with sin itself, forever, and restore the creation to what it was originally intended to be.

Now, St. Mark actually hints at this in his choice of words to describe what Jesus does for Peter’s mother-in-law.  He comes to her and “raises her up,” says St. Mark.  Now, that doesn’t mean that she was actually dead and that He resurrected her.  But it is interesting that Mark uses the same word as what is later used to describe Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, and our own resurrection.  And then he says that the fever left her.  This one isn’t as easy to see in English, because Mark uses a Greek word that can be translated all sorts of ways, but the verb that is translated “left,” as in “the fever left her,” is actually the same word that is translated “forgive” when the object of the verb is sin.  Forgiveness and raising up go together.  Death is only in the world because of sin, and so the forgiveness of sin (and therefore of death, and therefore of disease that leads to death), results in the raising up, the resurrection, of those who are forgiven.

I mentioned last week, in connection with the fact that Jesus cast out, or exorcised, the demon in the synagogue, that Holy Baptism is actually an exorcism, a casting out of the chief demon himself, Satan, in order to make room for the Holy Spirit.  The same thing is true of Holy Absolution, the preaching of the Gospel, and the Holy Supper.  That which is corrupted, and desecrated by sin is destroyed to make way for the new creation that God will “raise up” to live before Him in righteousness and purity forever.

And I’m not just speaking of purely spiritual things, either.  Peter’s mother-in-law eventually died.  So did everyone else that Jesus healed during His earthly ministry.  But when Jesus forgives us and raises us up, He raises us up not just spiritually, but physically as well.  He makes us part of the new creation, the new heavens and new earth, in which righteousness dwells.  Even though the text doesn’t say explicitly, it’s a pretty good bet that Peter’s mother-in-law was a believer, and if that’s the case, even though she died, yet she lives.  Even though Peter himself was crucified upside down under Roman persecution, he lives in eternity.  You and I also, because our sin has been forgiven, are also raised up.  We will live forever, not just spiritually, but also bodily.  When Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead, we will be raised up from the dead to live forever with Him in the new creation.  Compared to this, the miracles recorded in our text are actually not all that spectacular.  They are merely dim foreshadows of the greater miracle that happens here every Sunday, where your sins are forgiven and you are raised up to eternity.  You become part of the new creation when you eat and drink the first-fruits of that new creation, namely the risen body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Instead of being granted temporary healing, we receive here a new and eternal life where neither sickness nor demons will ever come near us again.  You are forgiven.  You are raised up.  You will live forever with your Creator.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +