Saturday, January 17, 2015

Peter, Thomas, and Nathaniel

Sermon on John 1:43-51
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 18, 2015 (The Baptism of our Lord)

If you ever had any doubts about whether the Gospels are factual history or mythology, today’s Gospel lesson convince you that what we are dealing with here is a factual account of what really happened.  Mythological heroes just don’t talk like this.  Nathaniel, one of the twelve apostles, one of the founders of the earliest Christian Church, is here depicted as being sarcastic about Jesus’ home town, and Jesus Himself gives a bit of a wry observation about Nathaniel’s personality.  Nazareth?  Can anything good come from Nazareth?  Might as well ask if anything good can come from Gary, Indiana.  And what Jesus says about Nathaniel, while it is a compliment, is one of those compliments that could be taken as a criticism, too.  “A true Israelite, in whom there is no deceit,” sounds like high praise.  But what Jesus is talking about here is the fact that Nathaniel pretty much says whatever he’s thinking.  He’s incapable of deceit, not because he is any better than anyone else; Nathaniel too was born in sin, a descendant of Adam and Eve.  Rather, he’s incapable of deceit because his mental filters just aren’t that good.  He blurts out what he’s thinking even if what he’s thinking is a bit insulting or impolite, such as his commentary on the town where Jesus grew up.

But it is such imperfect men as Nathaniel that God uses to spread His kingdom here on earth.  Show me a perfect pastor and I’ll show you a faker who probably has more than a few skeletons in his closet.  It is precisely because He’s God and all the glory should go to Him that he uses sinful men as His messengers.  It’s precisely because He’s God and He’s all-powerful that He uses those who aren’t necessarily all that great at public relations, or who easily lose their temper, or are stubborn, or are wishy-washy, or lazy, or any of a thousand other faults, to bring His Word to those who need to hear it.  It is His power, and His power alone, that is at work when the Word is preached.  To make that point, He uses men who just don’t have the talents or the personality to draw a large following, to bring His good news of forgiveness and eternal life to their fellow sinners.  It must be God working, because if it were up to us, we would fail, and fail miserably.

Today is also known in the Church year as “The Confession of St. Peter,” and the Gospel lesson for that festival is the account of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.  What Jesus says to Peter on that occasion also applies to what Nathaniel says this morning as well: “Blessed are you, because flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”  Nathaniel also confesses who Jesus really is, the long-awaited Messiah, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh come down to earth to save us.  But how was that revealed to Nathaniel?  Yes, there was a miracle involved, namely that Jesus saw Nathaniel and knew him when he was in a place where he thought he was alone.  But ultimately it was the Word of God which informed Nathaniel of who Jesus is: the Messiah promised for hundreds of years, going all the way back to the promise in Genesis 3 that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head, and following throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.  That’s partly why Nathaniel believed even though he only saw the one minor miracle: He knew the Scriptures.  The Holy Spirit works through the Word.

But Jesus does promise him that he will see much greater things than this.  The heavens will open, and he will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.  It is precisely Jesus who is the ladder of Jacob.  Nathaniel’s ancestor Jacob, also known as Israel, after whom the nation of Israel is named, saw a staircase reaching from heaven to earth, symbolizing that God would come down to us to rescue us from our sin.  Jesus here identifies Himself as that staircase, as well as the man who wrestled with Jacob that same night and renamed him Israel.  To the true Israelite, who cannot deceive because he’s too blunt and even rude, God will show His salvation, His route down from heaven to join us, share in our sufferings, and take us up with Him into glory.

You see, Nathaniel is not the only one in this Gospel lesson who is without deceit.  There is another here who cannot lie.  But Jesus’ truthfulness is different from Nathaniel’s.  Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from a lack of mental filters or a tendency to blurt things out.  But Jesus’ truthfulness doesn’t come from scrupulousness in always speaking true things, either.  Jesus is without deceit simply because He’s God, the Son of the Father, the Word by which the heavens were made.  What He says, is.  Which is why it is by His Word, even when spoken by sinful men, that faith is created in the heart, even the cynical heart which doubts anything good can come from humble beginnings.  The Word does what it says, despite doubt and cynicism.

This Gospel lesson comes from the first chapter of St. John’s Gospel.  Near the very end of that same Gospel, there is an account involving another disciple who confesses Jesus as the Son of God.  Every year on the First Sunday after Easter we hear the story of St. Thomas, who claimed he needed to see Jesus to believe in His resurrection.  What Jesus says to Thomas then, is an echo of what happens here in Nathaniel’s case.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ.  Which is why God calls preachers.  Which was why Jesus called Nathaniel, and Thomas, and Peter.  All had personality flaws, all had doubts.  All were sinners forgiven for the sake of Jesus’ death on the cross.  It’s the Word itself that does the work.  As we go forth and confess to our friends and neighbors what we’ve heard from God, that’s a comfort for us as well.  The Word itself does the work.  The Word itself comes down to us and gives us eternal life.  The Word Himself comes to us personally to forgive our sins and give us His own body and blood.  It’s all the Word.  It’s all Jesus.  And that’s all that’s necessary.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Fire and Water

Sermon on Mark 1:4-11
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 11, 2015 (The Baptism of our Lord)

In today’s Gospel, John says that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit.  But where has the Holy Spirit promised to be found?  In the word.  Holy Baptism is not simple water only, but it is water comprehended in and connected with God’s Word.  It is water comprehended in and connected with the Holy Spirit.  Which means that “water baptism” and “Holy Spirit baptism” aren’t two different things, but two descriptions of one and the same thing.  Now, St. Luke in his parallel to today’s text, quotes John as saying that Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Which means that to be baptized with water and God’s Word, water and the Holy Spirit, is also to be baptized in fire.

Fire is a useful thing, but it is dangerous if it is not properly contained.  Fire provides heat for our homes, it causes our cars and trucks to move down the road, it cooks food, and a thousand other useful things.  But it provides all these benefits by destroying its fuel.  And that’s why fire is dangerous.  If not properly controlled it will use all sorts of things as fuel which ought not be burned, including ourselves.  It may be useful, but it’s not tame.

But there are uses for fire that rely on the fact that fire is destructive.  This is how fire becomes purifying.  Metals are refined using extreme heat, because it is only in a molten state that impurities can be removed.  It is this use of fire that John is talking about when he describes the baptism of Christ as being a baptism in fire.  Our sins, our impurities, are removed from us in Holy Baptism.  When we come forth from the waters of Holy Baptism, that which is not pure in us, the Old sinful Adam, has been put to death and a new, pure man in Christ has been created to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

Another way of saying this is to say that we who have been baptized into Christ have been baptized into His death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead we too should walk in newness of life.  We were buried with Christ by Baptism into death, so that even as Christ is risen from the dead so we also should walk in newness of life.  When you were baptized, you died, in other words.  It sounds pretty harsh to say it that way, but it’s the truth.  When you were baptized, you died, and then you were raised to a new life.  The continuous forgiveness you receive by faith every day, and the forgiveness you receive from my mouth every Sunday in Holy Absolution, are simply part of your Baptism, where the Old Adam is daily drowned so that the New Man can daily come forth and arise.  This is how the water of baptism functions as fire in your life.  It destroys the Old Adam so that the New Man in Christ can arise.

If all of this is true, though, and Baptism purifies us from our sinfulness, then we need to ask, why did Christ need to be Baptized?  After all, He was without sin in the first place.  He didn’t need to be purified of His sins, because He didn’t have any.  In fact, John asks Him this very question when He comes to be baptized.  St. Matthew records that part of the conversation.  The answer is that just as we were baptized into Christ’s righteousness, He was baptized into our sin.  When He was baptized, He was beginning His public ministry, He was taking on His role as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And He didn’t just make that sin vanish; He took it upon Himself and bore it to the cross.  It was at His Baptism that Christ became the one who takes away our sin, and it is for this reason that His Baptism in the Jordan River is important to us.  Christ was baptized into our sinfulness so that we can be baptized into His righteousness.  Which means He went through the fires of Hell so that we can be warmed and lightened by His face in heaven.

This season in the Church Year is known as the season of the Epiphany, after the festival of the Epiphany, also known as the coming of the wise men, which we celebrated last Sunday.  The word Epiphany means “shining out” or “shining forth.”  The idea is that the Gospel lessons during the Epiphany season show us how Jesus shines forth as God even though He is also man, and even though He is living as a humble and lowly servant of us all.  Here at Jesus’ Baptism, where He begins His public ministry as the Lamb of God who takes up and takes away the sins of the world, His divine nature shines forth through the testimony that the Father and the Holy Spirit bear of who He is.  He is the Son of God, in whom the Father is well-pleased.  He is the one to whom the Holy Spirit testifies.  He is God become man so that mankind might be restored to fellowship with God.  The Father declares that He is well-pleased with the Son, because the Son is sinless.  And because the Son is sinless, He can carry our sins to the cross and burn them up there.  The whole Trinity testifies to the salvation that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Fire gives light.  The refiners’ fire which purges our sins away from us is what shines forth in the coming of Christ to the world.  But then He subjects Himself to that fire on the cross.  In  fact, He is our light, our source of warmth and light, because He becomes the fuel for the fire.  He bears our sin to the cross.  He becomes our sin.  And He burns it up in Himself.  Which is why even though the fire purifies us, and make no mistake that is painful because it means putting ourselves to death, it grants us warmth and light and ushers us into the eternal light that comes from God’s face.  Life comes from death.  The broken body and shed blood warm and enlighten us as we partake of them.  And yet they come from the cross, which is where Christ’s light comes from, precisely because He has taken the darkness into Himself and burned it up.  We have the light of heaven because we have the light that comes from the cross.  Amen.  

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Troubled

I'm not sure why I didn't post the last two weeks' sermons, but here they are for your enjoyment.

Sermon on Matthew 2:1-12
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
January 4, 2015 (The Feast of the Epiphany)

These men didn’t show up in Judea by accident.  The Lord had led them there.  Exactly how He did that is something of a debate among Christian historians.  Some think they were simply pagan astrologers who saw a particular star in the heavens that corresponded to their own system of reading important events, and that, because God wanted them to show up, He made it so that their astrology happened to be right this one particular time.  Others, including myself, suspect that these men were students from the order of scholars in Babylon, the same order of wise men of whom the prophet Daniel had been the wisest during Judah’s exile in Babylon.  In this case, these men would have been believers in the coming Messiah on the basis of that portion of the Old Testament which had already been written at the time of the exile.

There are also many theories about the nature of the star they saw.  Virtually all modern depictions of the manger scene include a large, highly visible star in the sky over the stable where our Lord was born.  But because it was only these men from the east who noticed the event, I doubt it was nearly as far out of the ordinary as most of our modern Christmas artwork portrays it, but was rather something the average person would have dismissed as simply another star, but which only had meaning to those who spent their lives studying the movements of heavenly objects.  If that’s true, then what was it, exactly?  Was it a confluence of various planets?  Was it really a star God miraculously caused to shine in that time and place but which ordinarily wasn’t there?  And if so, was it a supernatural miracle or did He use the natural phenomenon we know as a supernova, where a star explodes and becomes more visible in telescopes, or even to the naked eye, than it previously would have been, before fading again?

The fact is, there is a huge amount of information we don’t know about the visit of these men from the east.  We don’t even know if some or all of them were kings, or how many of them there were, despite the popular idea of the “three kings,” one for each of the gifts they brought.  But their visit is significant not so much in how it came about, but in what it signifies about the Child they came to worship.  And yes, the text does say they came to “worship” the Child.  Whatever else they did or did not know about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, they knew that this Child was God in the flesh.  They knew that none other than the creator of heaven and earth was present before them, receiving their worship and adoration.

The contrast between these men and those who were in power among the Judeans of that time is obvious.  Last week we talked about the bloodthirsty dictator called Herod who slaughtered all the male babies under two years old in and around Bethlehem in a vain attempt to kill this supposed usurper of his throne.  The religious leaders were troubled, too.  Their own power over the people of Judea was also being challenged here.  Unlike Herod, they clearly knew Who they were dealing with.  Micah’s prophecy they quoted to Herod was clearly about the coming Messiah, the Seed of the Woman, the Suffering Servant, the Son whom the virgin would conceive, Immanuel, which means “God with us.”  These same religious leaders would hound Jesus during his whole ministry, eventually putting Him to death for being the One they, in fact, knew Him to be, namely God the Son.

We’d like to think we would have been among the wise men and not those in Jerusalem who were upset by the whole thing.  Or perhaps we would have been among the humble Old Testament believers who already lived in Judea, such as Mary and Joseph themselves, Zechariah, Elizabeth, and their son John, Simeon, Anna, and so on.  That’s where we’d put ourselves in the story if we had to imagine we were part of these events.

But it troubles us when the Scriptures remind us of God’s Law, doesn’t it?  It troubles us when we’re reminded that we haven’t been perfect.  And it’s not just that we haven’t been perfect.  It’s not just that we’ve done a few things wrong.  It’s troubling to us when we realize that even our best and most pious good works are stained by the corruption of selfishness and pride which stains everything we do.  It offends us when we are reminded that our relationship with our creator is not going along happily and swimmingly the way we’d like it to.  In this we aren’t so different from the religious leaders in Jerusalem.  For that matter, we’re not so different from Herod himself.  Anything that puts something other than ourselves on the throne of our hearts becomes an object of our wrath and hatred.  Anything that reminds us that there is Someone more important than ourselves who can call us to account is met with discomfort at best, and murderous hatred at worst.

But being the object of hatred and murder was why Jesus came here in the first place.  You heard me right, God came into His creation for the purpose of being hated and killed.  He wasn’t among those infants killed by Herod immediately following today’s Gospel, because it wasn’t His time, but the absorption of all of our hatred and rebellion against Him was why He was born.  The absorption of all the hatred of all mankind against Him was why He was born.  Which means that it is all mankind, not just the members of that nation God had originally chosen to be His ancestors and relatives, which had their hatred and violence against their creator taken away from them by His act of dying on the cross.  Of course, anybody can still reject this wonderful news, and many do to their eternal judgment, but the fact is it was the rebellion of the whole creation against its creator that died on Good Friday, and an entire new creation newly aligned with its creator’s design which rose again Easter Sunday.

What this means for us is that we are among those who have died with this old world and who have risen as citizens of the new heavens and the new earth.  We are the ones who belong to His heavenly court and share in His heavenly banquet.  Which means, ironically, that He is now the one who brings us the true treasures of eternal life.  Our stuff, or money and possessions and even our very bodies, become the gold of heaven which He dispenses freely in love toward Him and service toward our neighbor.  Our prayers become the incense which is pleasing to Him for the sake of Christ and which He answers in the way most beneficial to us and to our neighbors.  And our very graves (which, admittedly, now use embalming fluid rather than myrrh, but the point is the same) become the beds from which we will awake from sleep to live forever in His kingdom.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Holy Innocent Son of God

Sermon on Matthew 2:13-18
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 28, 2014 (The Holy Innocents)

Christmas has consequences.  Jesus Christ is born, and suddenly everything is different.  We move from the Old Testament into the New.  Instead of looking forward to the coming Messiah, God’s people now look back upon Him and His completed sacrifice on our behalf on the cross.  Christmas isn’t just a break from everyday life, a holiday that we celebrate and then go back to our normal lives as if nothing had happened.  The Second Person of the Trinity has taken on human flesh.  Our creator has become one of us.  That’s not something you can ignore.  It changes things.  It changes the world.  And, of course those who have it pretty good in the status quo are going to resist change, even those who used that word as a campaign slogan.  The rich and the powerful, especially, don’t like change that doesn’t serve their purposes and interests.  And there is no more radical change in all the world than the change from allegiance to this world’s prince, Satan, an allegiance into which we were originally born by nature, to an allegiance to the King whose kingdom is not of this world.  The idea that us Christians have an allegiance that goes beyond what we owe to any earthly ruler is threatening to those who seek power and control over their fellow humans.  Right now the big religious bogeyman in our country is Islam, but I would not be surprised to see any religion that makes exclusive claims about itself, including conservative Christianity, being portrayed as an enemy of civilized society before too many more years.  And so it’s not surprising that even before this newborn heavenly King was old enough to humanly understand what was happening, His very existence indirectly resulted in the murder of countless other children his own age in and around Bethlehem.

Today we celebrate an unusual saint’s day.  Most of the days in the Church’s calendar that are devoted to specific saints, are days which observe the lives, ministries, and deaths of individuals who did great and noteworthy things for the Kingdom of God as adults.  But today we remember a group of innocent young boys, killed even before they were old enough to know what was happening.  What we see in today’s Gospel lesson is nothing less than the full fury of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh against God and His gift of salvation and eternal life to us.  It’s not a pretty sight.  We normally tend to avoid thinking about the fact that we human beings are even capable of such brutality and viciousness.  But it happens just the same.  Just as the thousands of innocent victims in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the hijacked airplanes of September 11th are remembered by our country as heroes, even though many of them did nothing more than be in the wrong place at the wrong time, so also these children, the victims of an earlier and less complex (and more officially sanctioned) form of terrorism, are remembered by the Church as heroes as well, since their deaths were directly related to the coming of the Son of God in the flesh to save us from our sins.  So also, by the way, ought we to remember the millions of unborn children that have been murdered in our nation since 1973 simply for the sake of selfishness and convenience.  We have put to death more of our own citizens each and every day since the Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973 than died on September 11th, 2001.  Just as the blood of Abel cried out to God regarding Cain’s guilt, so also cries out the blood of the Holy Innocents, that of the victims of abortion, as well as victims of every other act of violence and murder which has resulted from Cain and Abel’s parents falling into sin.

As their blood cries out to God, we add our voices to it and cry to Him as well: “How long, O Lord, how long?”  Why don’t You do something about it?  The answer, however, is not as simple as we’d like it to be.  You see, if God were simply to wipe out all those who murder and are prideful and want to have things their way, there would be nobody left on the earth.  The attempt to deal with sin the way we want to deal with it, always has unintended consequences, because it is not just our enemies who are selfish and sinful.  We all have the same sin in our hearts as Herod and Hitler and Stalin and, yes, even Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.  We may not have acted on that sin in the grossly destructive ways that those men did, but our hearts are no different, neither as individuals nor as a nation.  And so if God were to do away with evil in the world by doing away with all the evil men, we wouldn’t like the results.  He’d do away with us, too.

Instead, God deals with evil in the world in a way that preserves His creatures while cleansing them of their sins.  He does it by taking all of the evil and the selfishness and the pride and the lust and the boastfulness and whatever else is involved in the stain of sin on our hearts, and applying it to His own Son.  That’s why Holy Innocents is celebrated as a festival as one of the 12 days of Christmas.  It stands as a reminder to us of why Christmas happened.  Christmas happened so that Good Friday and Easter could happen.  Christ entered the sin-filled world so that He could take that sin upon Himself and in return give us His perfect and holy life.  He was declared guilty so that we could be declared innocent.

In fact, Jesus is the One who truly bears the title of “Holy Innocent.”  Even those babies in Bethlehem were born sinners like the rest of us, so that even their untimely deaths were not more than they deserved.  But He is the only one that is truly innocent, so that His death sanctifies them and their deaths.  And so, since those Old Testament Christian babies, who had been made part of God’s people and been given faith in the coming Messiah through the sacrament of Circumcision, died in that faith, they too were Holy Innocents, not because of their own righteousness, but because of what their Lord would do for them some 30 years later on the cross, and because of the faith in Him that had been granted through the Old Testament Word and the Sacrament of Circumcision.  And thus their deaths were sanctified by Christ to become for them the gate of eternal life.  And their blood cries out, not just of the sin of Herod, but also and more importantly of the salvation of Him who shed His blood for them on the cross.

The same thing is true of you.  Even though you bear the guilt of sin, not just of original sin but also all of the actual sin you have added to it during the course of our lives, you now carry the name of “Holy Innocents.”  Christ’s perfection has become yours.  You have been baptized into Him and have heard His Word declaring you “not guilty,” and you will soon eat His body and drink His blood which was shed on your behalf.  Therefore your death, whenever it comes, will be a testimony not only, not even primarily, to your sin or the sin of those around you.  Rather your death will proclaim to all the world the salvation which Christ has given you.  Death for Christians has become the gate of everlasting life, where the evils of this present world will no longer trouble us or cause us to weep any more.  Rachel will no longer weep for her children, for there will be no more sin, sorrow, or suffering.  Christ the Innocent One has made all of us Holy Innocents with Him, and we will all share in that blessedness with Him forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Nails, Spear, and Peace

Sermon on Luke 2:1-20
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 24, 2014 (The Nativity of our Lord)

“Nails, spear shall pierce Him through, the cross be borne for me, for you.  Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary.”  Not the sort of love, peace, and joy that you normally hear about at this time of year, is it?  But that’s really what we’re here for.  The baby born in Bethlehem is the Savior, Christ the Lord.  But what does it mean to be the Savior?  It means taking the effects of our sin upon Himself.  It means death, because that’s the wages of sin.  God came to earth, yes, but He came to die.  Tonight has meaning precisely because of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Many times during Jesus’ ministry He reminded His disciples of this.  And just as many times they failed to understand what He meant.  Mary, who treasured all these things up in her heart, would live to see it all happen.  The shepherds came to worship, not just a baby, but the Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep.  The angels sang of peace on earth, but that peace came at the price of the cross.  We celebrate the birth of our Savior, but His salvation is from sin, death, and hell, by means of His taking our place.  Christmas doesn’t mean anything without Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

But because He was born, lived, died, and rose again for us, we really do have peace with God now.  All the things which go wrong because of sin in the world are now no longer permanent because He took these things upon Himself.  We celebrate His birth because the angels in heaven now can celebrate our eternal birth into His kingdom in Holy Baptism.  We rejoice with them because He was born to save us.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Saturday, December 20, 2014

You Have Found Favor with God

Sermon on Luke 1:26-38
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
December 21, 2014 (The Fourth Sunday in Advent)

Being reminded of our own sinfulness is not pleasant.  Most people go out of their way to avoid it if they can.  Of course, it’s not just the reminders of the end of the world that do this to us.  Our old selves flee from any reminder that God’s Law makes demands of us that we have not, and cannot fulfill.  And this includes the reminders of His Law that come to our minds when we see or encounter one of His messengers.  Even human pastors make some people uncomfortable, because of the reminder we represent, even without saying anything, when someone sees one of us wearing a clerical collar in public, of whatever has been bothering that person’s conscience.  Even my co-workers at Walmart take an extra second or two to recognize me if I stop by the store where I work to pick up something while I’m wearing my clerical collar, because they see that collar and are suddenly blind to everything else about me, including my face.  Even when I’m wearing my Walmart vest, some of my co-workers who know I’m a pastor will suddenly apologize if they’ve used foul language in my presence.  Of course, there isn’t much I haven’t heard, so if they think they’ll offend me specifically, I’d rather they not bother apologizing, because that just ends up being hypocritical.  On the other hand, if remembering that I’m a pastor causes them to remember that they shouldn’t be using foul language in the first place, that’s another thing entirely.  In any case, however, if that’s the reaction that God’s human messengers get from their fellow sinners,  it’s not surprising that God’s supernatural messengers provoke outright fear in the hearts of those who see them, even in the heart of the virgin Mary.

But Gabriel says to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”  And he then goes on to tell her what will happen to her, that she will become the mother of the boy-child who is God Himself, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity.  It is through the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God on the lips of His messenger, His angel, that God the Son comes to dwell within her.  And the Word does what it says, as always.  God the Son does, in fact, come to dwell within her.  He is conceived as an infant in her womb, but He also comes to dwell within her in an even more miraculous way, the same way He comes to dwell within each of us by the power of the Word.  He comes to dwell within her heart, to put to death the fears and doubt that come from her old self, so that a new heart can be created within her, a right spirit renewed within her.

That’s what God’s Word does for us.  Remember, God can’t lie.  Not so much because He’s good and won’t tell a lie, but because His Word is powerful and creative, and whatever He says comes true even if it wasn’t true before.  For those who don’t know or refuse to acknowledge their sin, God’s Law comes and crushes us and causes us to fear God’s wrath and punishment.  But more importantly, the Gospel, the good news of what God has done for us, tell us that we should not be afraid.  The old Adam is right to be afraid; Christ’s coming to us means that he gets drowned underneath the waters of Holy Baptism, and that this old life and the ability to pretend God doesn’t exist and we can continue living comfortably in our sin are themselves temporary.  But what God says to us then is, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”  And that’s the whole point of what we’re about as the Christian Church.  That’s the whole point of my job as your pastor.  Because of Christ’s innocent life, sacrificial death, and glorious resurrection, we have found favor with God.  God comes to dwell within us, under bread and wine, with the same body and blood that were conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.

As we examine ourselves according to God’s Law, this doesn’t seem possible.  We see our sin, our selfishness, our tendency to do even outwardly good things for the wrong reasons.  We know we aren’t worthy to have God’s messenger speak to us, let alone for Christ to come and dwell with us.  But what is impossible with men is possible with God.  What we couldn’t do for ourselves, He did for us.  He lived a perfect life, died an innocent death, rose again, and ascended into heaven, so that we could die to our sins and live a perfect new life with Him.  For Christ’s sake, we also have found favor with God.  It may look impossible that this could be true, but with God, nothing shall be impossible.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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 +