Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost
November 11, 2018
Text: 1 Kings 17:8-16; Mark 12:38-44
Guest Preacher: The Rev. Dr. Thomas Wolbrecht

Monday, November 5, 2018

All Saints' Day (Observed)

All Saints’ Day (Observed)
November 4, 2018
Text: 1 John 3:1-3

            “Saint” means “holy one.”  Now a saint is not someone who is morally perfect, or sinless, or even less sinful than the average person.  A saint is not someone who is holy before God by his or her own works.  A saint is rather one who is declared righteous and holy on account of the sin-atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ, and who receives Christ’s own holiness as a gift, by faith.  All Saints’ Day is particularly about those saints who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb by Holy Baptism, and who are with Christ in heaven, awaiting the resurrection of their bodies and eternity in the new creation, the new heavens and the new earth.  That is to say, this day is about your loved ones who have died in Christ.  They died, yet they live.  No one who believes in Jesus ever dies.  They live.  They are safe in Jesus.  Their bodies rest in the ground, but their spirits are with Christ.  They have come out of the Great Tribulation.  They are before the throne of Christ.  They see Him face to face.  And they sing.  And by the way, they are not gone from us.  We say confess it every Sunday.  As we gather around the altar of Christ’s body and blood, we are caught up together with them in heaven.  Heaven breaks in here, and we stand there.  Heaven and earth are joined, and our voices are joined in praise of the thrice-holy God “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.” 
            And the “all the company of heaven” includes all the great saints of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Ruth, King David, Esther, Mary and Joseph, Peter and Paul.  And you know of every one of them that they are saints by grace, through faith, and not by their own righteousness.  And there are the great saints of the Church gathered around the altar with us: St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, the blessed Reformer Martin Luther, Martin Chemnitz, Johann Sebastian Bach, C. F. W. Walther.  And there is my dad and my brother-in-law.  And there are your parents and grandparents and great-grandparents who died in the faith, and who are responsible for you being here today.  There are all your loved ones who died in Christ.  They meet us at the altar.  If you miss your loved ones who are in heaven… if you want to be with them once again… This is the place.  Here, around the altar, where Christ is enthroned, where He gathers us together for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb that has no end.  We best celebrate All Saints’, by gathering together with all the saints around the altar.  They are saints by grace.  And you are a saint by grace.  And in our Epistle this morning, St. John explains to us just how that can be.
            You are a saint because, in His unimaginable love, the Father calls you His own child.  See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1; ESV).  This is baptismal language.  Where does the Father make us His own children?  At the font.  In the water; the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.  There He puts His Name on us, the Name of God in all its fullness: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There He washes away our sins in the blood of the Lamb, the blood of Jesus Christ, and makes our robes white with Christ’s own righteousness.  There He joins us to the Lord’s death and resurrection.  There He makes us one with Christ, and so one with each other, one holy, Christian, and apostolic Church; one Body of Christ; one spotless and holy Bride for our Bridegroom, Jesus.  And so God loves us and gives us to call upon Him as “Our Father.”  We are His dear children.  He is our dear Father.  We call upon Him as dear children ask their dear Father.  And He loves us.  He is for us and not against us.  He has redeemed us for Himself at the price of His own Son’s precious blood.  So now as His children, we have all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.  We are heirs with Christ of the heavenly Kingdom.  We have a place at the royal table.  We are brothers and sisters with Christ and with one another, and we have a home, the Church, where we always belong. 
            It should not surprise us, though, that the world laughs at us.  The unbelieving world, the world that has rejected the Lord Jesus, rejects those who are in Jesus.  The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (v. 1).  The world despises us, considers us Christians as of no account.  She calls us haters, intolerant, bigots.  It doesn’t matter what we actually believe or what we actually say.  The lie of Satan doesn’t have to be fool proof for the flesh of man to buy in.  We should expect rejection.  We should expect persecution.  Jesus promises it, and here St. John echoes that promise.  But we do not lose heart.  Instead, we rejoice.  Because suffering the rejection and persecution of the world is actually a reflection in us of our dear Lord Jesus Christ.  It is evidence of our unity with Him, and it is the way our loving Father molds and shapes us into the cruciform image of His Son. 
            You see, we live now in the time of what Luther calls the “Already/Not Yet.”  We are redeemed by Jesus’ blood and we belong to God, but that reality is not yet apparent.  Heaven is already ours, but it doesn’t yet look like it.  No Christian, no one who believes in Jesus Christ, actually dies, but it sure does look that way when we’re lowering our loved one into the ground.  Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (v. 2).  For we live by faith, not by sight.  Faith, by definition, necessarily has as its object what we cannot see.  All the articles of the Creed are statements of faith.  We cannot see them.  Jesus loves us and is always with us.  We cannot see that.  He forgives our sins.  We feel guilt.  He gives us eternal life.  We get sick and we die.  He promises we’ll never die.  We go to funerals.  But always in faith.  Always believing and confessing what we cannot see but know to be true: Jesus Christ, who died for us, and who is risen from the dead, will raise us bodily to live forever with Him. 
            And it’s true, we do not yet know what we shall be.  We don’t know what that will look like, how it will feel, what our experience of it will be.  But we do know this: “We know that when he appears we will be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (v. 2).  We will see Him face to face.  We will see His resurrection body, the very body we’ve received in our mouths week after week for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.  We’ll see the scars, His hands and feet, His side, mortal wounds, and yet, He lives.  And we’ll be like Him.  Our resurrection bodies, fully physical bodies, these very bodies, made perfect, as they were always meant to be, in the image and likeness of Jesus, our Savior, who is risen from the dead.  And knowing that is enough.  It is enough to get us through the “Already/Not Yet.”  We will be there soon.  Jesus is coming soon to raise the dead and deliver us.  The Church can wait with patience and joy.  You can wait, because you know the full reality and where this all ends up.  November 6th will come and go, and who knows what kind of government we’ll be left with.  Go vote, of course.  But it ultimately doesn’t matter.  Jesus reigns, and He is coming soon, and then every eye will see it, everyone will know it, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess it.  The dead will sit up in their graves to say it: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:11).
            So as those who live in this hope, what do we do in the meantime?  St. John puts it this way: “everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (v. 3).  How do you purify yourself as Jesus is pure?  Well, not by your own works, we can say that for sure.  Your works only get you dirtier.  No, you purify yourself in the same way you become a saint, a holy one.  Jesus must speak it.  So you come to Church and have your sins forgiven by Christ Himself through the mouth of His preacher: “I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son +, and of the Holy Spirit.”  You dive right back down into your Baptism.  You gather with the saints of God in the holy congregation, some of whom you see sitting around you, but most of whom you cannot see, and you hear the gracious Words of your Savior, forgiving you and teaching you what it means to be a child of the heavenly Father.  And then you come together around the throne, the altar, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, those on this side of the veil, and those on that side of the veil, to be fed with the Bread of Life, the crucified and risen body and blood of Jesus Christ, to forgive you and mark you for the resurrection of your body on the Last Day.  Thus having been purified by Jesus, now you can get to work.  Now you can go love your neighbor, help your neighbor, give to your neighbor, and bring your neighbor here to be purified and join us in the mystical Body of Christ, the holy Church. 
            All Saints’ is all about the Church.  Saints are the members of the Church, here below and there above, which is to say, saints are sinners redeemed by the blood of Jesus and made holy by His saying so.  The Church is full of sinners.  Only sinners.  For only sinners can have their sins washed away.  To be a saint is a gift Jesus gives you.  It is His own holiness credited to your account.  It is His own righteousness wrapped around you as a robe, to cover your sins.  It is Jesus making you His own, so that you should be called a child of God.  And so you are.  And it is enough.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.     

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Reformation Day (Observed)

Reformation Day (Observed)
October 28, 2018

Text: Rev. 14:6-7 (ESV): Then I saw another angel kflying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to lthose who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. And he said with a loud voice, m“Fear God and ngive him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and oworship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the psprings of water.”

            Reformation Day is all about the eternal Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is all about the proclamation of God’s Law and Gospel, repentance for our sins and faith in Christ, the sin-atoning work of our Lord Jesus in His suffering and death on the cross, and His life giving resurrection.  The proclamation of this eternal Gospel in Scripture and preaching and Sacrament bestows the forgiveness of sins and eternal life upon the hearers, upon you, and it is received by the very faith in Christ which it creates.  This day is not actually about Martin Luther.  It is about his teaching, which is this very eternal Gospel proclaimed in our text.  It is not about the Lutheran Church.  It is about the people of God who receive this eternal Gospel, hear it proclaimed, have it wash all over them, and eat it and drink it…  And then confess it!  It is not about sticking it to Rome.  No, we pray for our brothers and sisters in Rome, and we rejoice wherever they do have the eternal Gospel, and we long for them to come into it fully, for the eternal Gospel to reform them from within so that they join us in the preaching of Christ as our only Savior from sin and death, the salvation that He gives to us by grace alone, received by faith alone, that we be united in one, holy, catholic (in the true sense of the word), and apostolic Church.  Reformation Day is all about Christ and His gifts to us.
            Already in Reformation times, the angel, in our text, flying directly overhead, was thought to be a prophecy of Martin Luther preaching the Gospel purely once again.  This is why this text is appointed for Reformation Day.  Now, this may seem far-fetched to us, but only because we’re infected by the modernist notion that the Holy Scriptures have nothing to do with real history.  You’re gonna have to get over that.  That isn’t the kind of thing sola scriptura, Bible believing Christians say.  I don’t know if the Holy Spirit had Luther specifically in mind in this prophecy.  It’s not impossible.  The word “angel,” after all, literally means “messenger,” and it doesn’t always, or only, refer in the Holy Scriptures to the spirit beings we commonly call “angels.”  It can also refer to preachers, as it does in Revelation 2 and 3 where St. John is told to write to the “angels” of the Seven Churches, which is to say, their pastors.  Here the “angel” could be Luther.  I don’t know.  But I do know the Holy Spirit is teaching us about the ever new preaching of the everlasting Gospel by a nearly endless train of Christian preachers, a few of them more prominent, like Dr. Luther, and many whose names are lost to history but known intimately by our Lord.  So whether this text is about Luther and the event of the Reformation specifically, it is most certainly about Luther and the Reformation and God’s continual breaking in to history to declare the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Christ.  Wherever that Gospel is preached, this prophecy is fulfilled.  Which is to say, it is fulfilled this day in your hearing, at this very moment.  Because this text, like the Reformation itself, is all about Christ and His gifts to us. 
            And that is what the angel proclaims.  Now, this eternal Gospel is the Gospel in the broad sense, which is to say the whole counsel of God, including both Law and Gospel in the narrow sense, which is the forgiveness of sins.  So the preaching begins: “Fear God.”  The First Commandment.  Repent of your idolatry.  Get rid of whatever else you fear above God.  God is the One who gives His Commandments from on high, who writes them in stone with His own finger.  It is to Him you are accountable.  It is to Him, and Him alone, you are to give glory.  Not to other gods.  And there is a judgment.  This is why you should fear.  The hour, the appointed time, the moment for judgment has come.  So worship God.  Turn to Him in faith.  He made heaven and earth.  He created all that is.  The sea.  The springs of water.  He renews the face of the earth.  He sustains His creation.  And He redeems it.  Christ has come.  He died, but behold, He lives.  And He is coming soon to judge.  Therefore let this Word go out to all the earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.  Proclaim this eternal Gospel.  Confess it.  For it is a matter of eternal life and death. 
            Do you see, by the way, how this is nothing other than the preaching of St. John the Baptist… in fact, the preaching of Jesus Himself?  The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  Yes, beloved, this day, in this very moment, the eternal Gospel is proclaimed to you: Examine yourself.  Repent of your sins.  For this is the moment.  Now.  Today.  The Kingdom of God has come in the Person of Jesus Christ.  He is here, now, to forgive your sins, to wash them all away in His blood, to give you His righteousness, to feed you with His body and give you drink of His blood.  Come to Him.  Fear Him.  Cling to Him.  Hang on His every Word.  That is what it means to worship Him.  That is what it means to give Him the glory.  Receive His gifts.  Receive them now.  For He is coming again in judgment, and only those found in Him, in Christ, will be saved. 
            Lutherans have their peculiarities.  I mean, just look at yourselves.  It is good and right that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, even, and perhaps, especially on Reformation Day.  But I will tell you this: Lutheranism is a gift.  I don’t know why you’re forever apologizing for being Lutheran.  Roman Catholics don’t apologize for being Roman Catholic.  Baptists don’t apologize for being Baptist.  Everything the Baptists do is unapologetically Baptist.  They don’t excuse themselves to their guests or their fellow Christians from other denominations for having authentically Baptist worship.  The Roman Church doesn’t apologize for the Mass.  But we’re always suffering an identity crisis here in Lutheranism.  We’re afraid when our worship is too Lutheran.  We’re afraid when our doctrine is too Lutheran.  So we ape the non-denominationalist denomination.  We try to do worship like they do, or preach like they do.  Lutherans, get over yourself already.  Just receive and give thanks for the gifts handed down by your forefathers.  If you’re Lutheran, be Lutheran.  It’s not a sin.  In fact, it is a high and holy gift from God.  The liturgy is a gift.  Our hymnody is a gift.  The Lutheran Confessions are a gift.  The Holy Scriptures, from which the liturgy and our hymns and the Confessions all derive, are a gift.  Don’t be embarrassed by your Lutheranism.  Embrace it as the vessel in which you have received, and continue to receive, nothing less than the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.
            After all, what is important in Lutheranism?  The Confessions answer that one for us: The Gospel and the Sacraments, which give us Jesus, who forgives our sins.  That’s it.  That’s Lutheranism.  Listen to just a few articles from the Augsburg Confession, the Augustana, for which this congregation is named: Article IV: “Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works.  People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith.”[1]  Article V: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.  Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given [John 20:22].  He works faith, when and where it pleases God [John 3:8], in those who hear the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.”  Article VII: “The Church is the congregation of saints [Psalm 149:1] in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.  For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments.”  On and on it goes: Faith in Christ, the Word of God, the holy Sacraments (Baptism, Absolution, Lord’s Supper).  Eternal salvation.  Forgiveness of sins.  Another way to say it is grace alone, faith alone, Scripture alone, Christ alone.  And you’re apologizing for this?  No, embrace it.  Claim it.  Proclaim it.  Love it.  Because, in spite of the peculiarities of the people involved, you’re really just loving Christ and His Word and His Baptism and His Supper.  That’s Lutheranism.  And by the way, you’re loving those people, too, warts and all, because in Christ’s Church we live by grace and the forgiveness of sins.  We joyfully put up with each other, defend our neighbor, speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything. 
            And what of Martin Luther?  How should we regard him?  We do not worship him.  What a ridiculous charge.  You know that isn’t what is happening here.  Nor do we agree with every single thing he ever said, although we do agree with most of it, because most of it is right out of the Bible.  And believe it or not, we actually aren’t named after him.  We’re named after his teaching.  That’s the only way he would ever allow a group of Christians to call themselves “Lutheran,” and he says as much.  This is how we should regard Dr. Luther: He is simply the chief teacher of our Church.  We thank God for him and we rejoice in all that he continues to teach us in his preaching and writing.  And this isn’t wrong, unless it’s wrong to thank God for all the Church Fathers or for the pastors who have taught you, baptized you, fed you with the Supper over the years, consoled you with the Gospel, pronounced Christ’s forgiveness.  Of course you should thank God for them, and you should thank God for Luther and for his teaching, of which you are a direct beneficiary.  But then, the teaching really isn’t his.  It is God’s.  It is Christ’s.  And that is why I’m a Lutheran.  That should be the reason you are, too.  Because the teaching of Lutheranism is simply the teaching of Jesus Christ.  It is the eternal Gospel.  And as you hear the eternal Gospel, your sins are forgiven, and you are in Christ, and Christ is in you.  And the angel directly overhead (whoever he may be), along with all his angelic friends, and with the whole company of heaven, including now Martin Luther… they rejoice.  They join their praises with our own.  And so, beloved, hear once again the eternal Gospel for you: Fear God and give Him the glory.  Worship Him, which is to say, believe His Word and receive His gifts.  Your sins are forgiven.  You have eternal life.  In Christ, who is coming soon.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

[1] All quotations from the Augsburg Confession from McCain et al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis: Concordia, 2005, 2006).

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 24)
October 21, 2018
Text: Mark 10:23-31

            The reason it is so difficult… impossible, even… for the rich, or anyone, to enter the Kingdom of God is the same reason the rich young man went away sad in our Holy Gospel last week.  That is the human heart’s obsession with idols, be it mammon, as in the case of the rich young man and the vast majority in the prosperous West, or whatever other idols to which we dedicate our fear, love, and trust.  The trouble for the rich, and for us all, in matters of salvation, is not our possessions, but our heart.  Our Lord makes the shocking statement in our Holy Gospel: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23; ESV).  And when the disciples express their amazement, Jesus expands the statement to everyone.  Not just the rich, but “how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24), period!  In fact, it is just as possible for the rich, or for you and me, to enter the Kingdom as it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle!  Now, how possible is that?  It’s not.  And Jesus has the disciples and us just where He wants us, with the question on our minds and in our hearts and on our lips: “Then who can be saved?” (v. 26). 
            Don’t pass by that question so fast on your way to the Lutheran answer.  The Lutheran answer is right, but it lulls you into a false sense of security.  The point is, with man it is impossible to be saved.  Jesus says as much.  With man it is impossible” (v. 27).  It is the first half of the verse, but it is an incredibly important first half.  Nothing you can do, nothing that you are, nothing that you possess can gain entry into God’s Kingdom.  You are wholly disqualified by your sins.  Even if you are a “basically good person.”  Even if you are “an exceptionally good person,” like the rich young man from last week’s text.  Remember, he could say after the review of the Ten Commandments that “all these I have kept from my youth” (Mark 10:20).  He’s a pretty good guy.  But in the command to sell all his possessions and give it all away to the poor, Jesus exposes the young man’s heart problem.  He can’t do it.  Not joyfully, anyway.  He goes away sad.  Because his riches are his god.  Now, I’ll be you dollars to doughnuts the rich young man was a very generous giver to the Synagogue and to the poor.  But Jesus told him to give it all.  And that meant to reject every last thread of the earthly security he thought the money could buy him and rely upon God alone.  So he’s rich.  He’s morally blameless.  He’s the best of the best.  But in and of himself, he’s still outside the Kingdom.  With man it is impossible.  He cannot be saved.  And neither can you.  No matter how much you have, or how much you don’t have.  No matter how much you give to the Church or to the poor.  No matter how blameless your conduct.  No matter how you vote.  No matter how respected in the eyes of all your peers.  You may be the best of the best, but in and of yourself, you cannot be saved. 
            And that is why your Lutheran answer that you’re so eager to jump in with is so important.  It’s actually Jesus’ answer.  With man it is impossible, but what?  But “not with God.  For all things are possible with God” (v. 27).  You have to have both sides of that coin for this to be the splendid Gospel that it is.  With you, there is no possibility of being saved.  You must come to the bitter end of yourself and your own resources.  You must be utterly lost and damned, so that your whole salvation is entirely in the pierced hands of Jesus Christ.  All things are possible with God.  Even your salvation.  Especially your salvation.  That is His great mission, His greatest act of love.  The Father sends His Son.  He gives Jesus.  He gives Him into death.  For you.
            And see what happened there.  The very richest, God Himself, becomes the very poorest, the despised corpse on the cross.  He gives up all and He gives it away to the poor.  Which is to say, He gives it away to you.  All of it.  All of His riches.  All of His righteousness.  All of His life.  His creation.  His very Kingdom.  All things.  It’s all yours.  And you don’t deserve it.  No matter how much of an upstanding citizen you may be.  Still, in your heart, you have rejected God.  You have rebelled.  You have chosen your own way.  He doesn’t do it because you’re worthy of it.  He does it because He loves you.  And He loves you, not because you’re so gosh darn loveable.  He does it because He is good.  It is His nature to be good to you.  It is His nature to have mercy upon you.  It is His nature to give, and to give it all, for you.  The Gospel that all things are possible with God, including and especially your salvation, is only Gospel when you see it up against the utter impossibility for you to be saved apart from His saving you in Christ.  But when you do see it, you are forever changed.  Once a rebel against God, rejecting His Kingdom, His righteous reign, now you are captivated by the God who loves you so much and to such an extent.  That is to say, you have faith in Him.  The Holy Spirit creates that faith by this very Gospel.  The Spirit is active in preaching to do this very thing, to take you captive to Jesus Christ.
            And when that happens, suddenly your use of wealth, your use of “stuff,” and your whole disposition toward your wealth and your stuff, changes.  What once was an idol, mammon, becomes now a tool for use in the work of God’s Kingdom, for Gospel proclamation and for providing for the needs of your neighbor.  It becomes a tool by which you can love your neighbor concretely.  You can be generous.  Scandalously so, as your Lord Jesus was scandalously generous with you to the point of death on the cross for your forgiveness and life.  That’s the kind of giving, that’s the kind of love we’re talking about here.  It’s as scandalous as our Lord’s command to the rich young man to sell everything he has and give it to the poor. 
            Now, this takes practice.  We’re still in the sinful flesh, even we who have been ultimately liberated from that flesh by the Holy Spirit’s work in the Gospel and in our Baptism.  We still have to deal with old Adam in this life.  So our habit is to cling to our riches, our stuff, for all we’re worth.  Thus there is a battle within you, a struggle for who has control over your possessions.  Christ in you, the new creation in you, wants to use everything at your command in such a way as to bring glory to God and to love and serve your neighbor.  But old Adam wants to hoard it up.  He’s a miser.  Whenever you’re miserly, that’s a sure sign old Adam is in the driver’s seat.  Kick him out, and nail him to the cross.  Kill him, every time you see him.  That is to say, repent.  And that’s not just a theoretical kind of repentance.  You know what kills him every time?  When he says keep it for yourself, give it away then and there.  That’s what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus.  That’s what it means to crucify the flesh.  Do the very opposite of what your flesh desires and demands.  That is repentance.  And of course this will hurt.  I’m not gonna lie.  You won’t like it.  It hurts to be crucified.  But remember this: Crucifixion always, ALWAYS, ends up in resurrection.  Good Friday always gives way to Easter.  And as you kill old Adam by giving your wealth away, a certain deep and abiding joy will displace the pain.  That is Christ emerging and arising within you, rejoicing to live before God in Christ’s own righteousness and purity credited to your account by faith, and producing the fruit of faith, which is works of love. 
            Well, then there’s Peter.  God love Peter, because he’s always saying the things we want to say, but we don’t, because we know they’re wrong.  “Lord, what about us?  We’ve left everything.  We did what you said.”  There certainly is a little bit of the rich young man syndrome in Peter: “all these I have kept from my youth.”  We never really get over this struggle with self-righteous, pharisaical old Adam, in this life.  Not even Peter does.  Then again, if anyone can say this, Peter can.  He and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee did leave their boats and their nets, their family members and fishing business to follow Jesus.  And what is at the heart of Peter’s assertion?  “We are doing the right thing, aren’t we, Lord?  This is all worth it in the end, isn’t it?  Because we’ve gambled everything on it.”  There is an uncertainty here that is very human and endearing, even if it is sinful.  Because that’s our worry.  If we are generous with our wealth in the Name of Jesus… or if we’re called upon to give it up in faithfulness to Jesus, as certain florists and bakers have been in recent years for refusing to do gay weddings… or if we lose friends on Facebook for confessing Jesus, or real relationships with our loved ones because they reject us on account of Christ… or if we’re called to be martyrs, to spill our blood, to die for Jesus… It is the right thing, isn’t it Lord?  This is all worth it in the end, right?  In other words, you won’t forsake us, will You? 
            And Jesus answers, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5), or as He says to Peter: No one who has lost everything for the Gospel will be left destitute.  I will not forsake him.  I will provide for all his needs.  I will feed him.  I will clothe him.  I will set him in a family, my people, my Church.  Yes, there will be persecutions.  That is so important for us to recognize, that even as Jesus is going through the list of things He will provide a hundredfold for those who have lost, He adds, “with persecutions” (Mark 10:30).  But that’s okay.  That’s actually part of the reward.  Because all the loss, including what is suffered in persecution, is ultimately repaid beyond our wildest imagination in the age to come, which is to say, in eternal life, in the resurrection, in the new creation.  And that is why this is all worth it.  Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).  And who can save both body and soul in the resurrection of the dead, and will do it, because that is His promise.
            Beloved, how difficult it is for you to enter the Kingdom of God.  With you, it is impossible.  But not for God.  With God, all things are possible.  Even your salvation.  And even getting you to pry open your wallet now and then to help out your neighbor in need, and not to worry if God is going to hold out on you for the first time in the history of your life because He suddenly thinks you’re being too generous.  With God, this is how the impossible becomes possible and even certain: Jesus gives it all up on the cross.  He gives it to the poor.  He gives it to you.  And now you live and you reign with Him.  I’d call that a miracle.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Friday, October 12, 2018

Inland Empire Pastors Conference Devotion

Inland Empire Pastors Conference
Christ Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, Sandpoint, Idaho
October 9, 2018
Text: Mark 12:28-34

            Love, when demanded of us, is always a Law word.  It trips people up, of course, because it’s a nice sounding word, and we think nice sounding words are always Gospel, but you know this if you’ve ever tried to teach Law and Gospel to your Catechism students.  You give the students a verse and you make them identify it as Law or Gospel.  I’m not so sure it’s such a helpful practice, but it’s right there in the CPH workbook, so it must be right.  You throw out a few softballs.  You shall not kill.”  Law or Gospel?  “Law!” the students exclaim, with a knowing smile on their faces.  “Go ahead, give us another one, Pastor!  Hit us with your best shot!”  God so loved the world”… there it is, that nice word, “love”… “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16; ESV), you say, and you smile, and they smile, because they all know it, and you know they know it.  “Gospel!” they yell triumphantly.  And the angels in heaven sing.  But… you have an ace up your sleeve, and they don’t even see it coming.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30).  Two nice sounding words that should be Gospel: “Love,” and “heart.”  At best, you’re gonna get a couple of confused looks.  Those are the smarter kids, but I wouldn’t tell them that.  More likely, you’ll get the self-assured smiles as the kids exclaim, “Gospel!”  And THEN the look of self-doubt as they see that smug look of schadenfreude satisfaction spread across your face.  Because you got ‘em!  You rascal!  You did it!  You outsmarted a pre-teen!
            But it fools every one of us.  Not in the simplistic, “What is the verse, Law or Gospel?” sort of way, but on a much deeper level.  You and I, dear brothers in Christ, actually think the salvation of the Church and of the world depends on us and on our love.  Oh, you know it’s wrong in your head, but I’m telling you, Pastor, your temptation is to place the salvation of your flock and your community and your whole world squarely on your own shoulders and your ability to love those people.  You’ve got a Jesus complex.  You know that you have to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, and you think that if you love God hard enough and love your neighbor just the right way the Church will grow like gangbusters and everyone will want to love Jesus like you love Jesus.   But it doesn’t work out that way.  It never does work out that way in the Kingdom of God, and the theologian of glory is always either utterly delusional or bitterly disappointed.  This is why we pastors are forever running around in desperation trying the latest and greatest thing, or suffering silently in the throes of depression.  You bind up your whole worth as a pastor in your ability to love, God and neighbor.  The symptoms are unique to each individual, but finally every one of us is like the scribe in our text, who understands that the higher things of the Law, love for God, love for the neighbor, accomplish much more and are more God pleasing than the minutiae of legalism.  And the Scribe is not far from the Kingdom of God.  He’s not far.  But he’s still not there. 
            Because Jesus must get us there.  It is interesting that when the scribe asks Jesus which Commandment is the most important, Jesus doesn’t answer with a Commandment, He answers with the Creed.  He recites the Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (v. 29; Deut. 6:4).  And that, dear brothers, isn’t Law, it’s Gospel (though your Catechism kids might not be able to identify it as such).  It is Gospel, because it is the self-revelation of God as Israel’s God, our God, the God who is for us!  Hear” is the imperative.  I’m not so sure imperatives are only Law.  In this Word, He is giving us ears to hear the profound truth: The LORD, YHWH, is one.  And that is a little glimpse, though a very significant one, into the unfolding revelation of God as Trinity, His threeness in oneness, as it will be unpacked by Jesus in His Naming of the Name (singular) of God into which we are baptized: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19).  That’s Gospel.  The Creed is the Gospel.  The Creed is God for you, God for me, God for us.  And that is where we start in any discussion of love.  We start with who God is, revealed in Jesus, for us.  For we can only love if God first loves us.
            It doesn’t dawn on the scribe or on us right away that when Jesus says the Lord our God, the Lord is one, He is referencing Himself.  The whole content of the Creed has arrived, in the flesh.  God is born of the Virgin Mary.  And now, in that context, He begins to talk about Commandments.  The greatest, of course, is the First Table of the Law.  You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30).  Your whole being, your very essence goes it to fearing, loving, and trusting God above all things, keeping His Name holy by your words and actions, and learning, loving, and cherishing His Word.  The second greatest is the Second Table: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 31).  Honor your parents and other authorities.  Don’t murder your neighbor, but save him by dying for him.  Don’t take his spouse, but be faithful to yours.  Even if she’s unfaithful to you.  Die for her, in fact.  Don’t steal.  Give your all, your very self for the neighbor.  Don’t give false testimony.  Suffer it against yourself, though, even when they crucify you on account of it.  Do not covet, which is idolatry, but keep commending yourself to the Father, who will rescue you and vindicate you.  And see, Jesus is the only One who fits this description of the great Fulfiller of the Commandments.  These two great Commandments, given us to keep, but not kept by us, Jesus takes upon Himself, and He does them to the very end of Himself on the cross.  He loves God, loves you, to His death on the cross.  To bring you, not almost into the Kingdom of God, but all the way in.  All the way in to the throne room of the Almighty, with a seat at His Table. 
            And what He does for you, He does for all His people.  Pastor, your salvation and the salvation of your flock, the salvation of the lost, the salvation of the world does not depend on you or your love.  It depends only and entirely on Jesus Christ, crucified for sinners, and risen from the dead.  It depends only and entirely on His faithful love for God His heavenly Father, and for you, His neighbor, His blood-bought brother.  And this is incredibly freeing news.  You don’t have to be delusional or disappointed.  You don’t have to run around desperately trying to save everyone, and when the demons come around with their lies to cause you to despair, you can tell them where to go.  Hear, O Pastor: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  And He is for you, not against you.  He forgives your sins.  Even your lovelessness.  He makes you God’s own child.  He loves you with an everlasting love.  He will never leave you nor forsake you.  Love, when attributed to God, is always a Gospel Word.  And the perfect love demanded for God and for neighbor in the two great Commandments is the love of God incarnate, Jesus Christ, for you and credited to your account.
            And now, of course, you should love.  You should love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  You should love your neighbor as yourself.  And now, in Christ, you’re finally free to do just that.  Imperfectly, of course.  Haltingly.  Stumbling all over yourself.  But you do.  You love because God first loved you.  You receive God’s love in Christ, and His love flows through you to the dear people in your flock.  Pastor, God is graciously using you as a conduit.  He’s pouring out His love on His people through your ministry, in your preaching and teaching, even pre-teen Catechism kids; in your baptizing and visiting the sick and the dying and placing the body and blood of Jesus on the tongues of sinners for whom Christ died.  It’s not all that creative.  But it is the mask of God by which He loves His people.  By which He gives them ears to hear.  Hear, O Israel, hear, O Church: The Lord your God, Jesus, loves you.  He saves you.  You belong to Him.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (B—Proper 22)
October 7, 2018
Text: Mark 10:2-16

            The LORD GOD said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’” (Gen. 2:18; ESV).  God settles the solitary in a home” (Psalm 68:6).  Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).  Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24).  What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9).  And God blessed them.  And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).  Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth.  Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them” (Ps. 127:3-4).  This morning our Lord teaches us about marriage and family.  All the Bible verses I just read to you are only the beginning of the theology of marriage and family our Lord gives to us in Holy Scripture.  Family is foundational for life.  It is the most basic unit of society where individuals live together in relationship.  Everyone has a place.  Everyone has a role.  Husband and wife, mother and father, parent and child, brother and sister, grandparent and grandchild, aunts and uncles, nephews and nieces, the household and its relationship to the extended family.  Society as a whole is made up of these little units of society.  And God did this on purpose.  Because man is created to live in fellowship.  Life is lived in relationship to others.  Not everyone gets married.  Not everyone has kids.  But we all have a place by God’s design, or at least that is how He would have it.  And in the family, when it works how it is supposed to, we get a little picture of the inner-relationship of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, three Persons, living in continuous and harmonious relation to one another.  And we get a little picture of how that inner-relationship turns outward to create a new object of love: man, who is to live in relationship to God and to his fellow man.  God loves within Himself, which love creates man to be a receiver of that love.  Husband and wife love within their one flesh union, which love begets children to be receivers of their love.  That’s the ideal.  That is how God originally created it to be. 
            So marriage is to be the lifelong union of one man and one woman in love and fidelity.  Sexuality is to be kept holy, reserving this expression of love for marriage alone.  The marriage bed it to be kept pure (Heb. 13:4).  No adultery, which is to say, no mixing in of another by sexual activity outside the marriage.  And from this expression of love, husband and wife beget children, who are loved and provided for and protected by a father and a mother, and raised by them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Eph. 6:4).  Again, not everyone has to get married.  Not everyone has kids.  But this is the family blueprint God gives us as a gift in the Holy Scriptures.  This is how we order our relationships among one another.  God gives us this blueprint for our good.  This is how we can all thrive in our life together.  These are holy vocations to which God calls us, to give and receive, and together, to flourish.
            But we also know we’ve messed this all up.  Christians are not excluded from this indictment.  Husbands and wives are unfaithful to one another.  Spouses are abandoned.  There are messy divorces.  Evil words are spoken.  Spouses and children are threatened and hurt by violence.  Our culture would have us believe that sex outside of the loving and safe commitment of marriage is normal, to be expected at a younger and younger age, and can be consequence free.  That’s how our children and all of us are catechized by the television set and the internet and every other form of mass media.  And we who regard sexuality as holy are looked upon as prudes, stuck in the past, as judgmental, as hateful.  Meanwhile, porn use is at an all-time high.  Easy access, right there on all your electronic devices.  It is destroying homes.  It is destroying lives.  It has reduced especially our young women, but also our young men, to a commodity, a thing to be used and abused for our own enjoyment. It is demonic.  Lord, have mercy.  Then there is homosexuality and so-called same-sex marriage, which is entirely opposed to the natural law (two people of the same gender cannot beget a third), and to God’s Law, His gracious plan for us as revealed in Holy Scripture.  So we mess up our marriages.  We make marriage meaningless.  And then we butcher our children in abortions and sell their body parts for research.  We guilt the elderly and the terminally ill into hastening their own death, lest they become a burden to us.  We call it “death with dignity.”  A theologian of the cross should call a thing what it actually is: Suicide.  Murder.  Christ, help us. 
            He does.  The sadness you feel as you hear these things, and the guilt you suffer as you come face to face with your own role in them… this is the Holy Spirit working repentance in your heart.  This is God calling His people, His dear children, to Himself for forgiveness and healing, to be made whole in the wholeness of Christ and His redemption.  Are you divorced?  Have you been abandoned?  Have you been unfaithful?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Christ Jesus will never leave you or forsake you.  He is faithful.  He keeps His Promises.  And He holds you in the pierced palm of His hand.  Nothing can snatch you away from Him.  Have you been abused, or are you an abuser?  Have you abused your own body by uniting it with others, becoming one flesh with those to whom you have no intention of committing?  Have you lived together outside of marriage?  Are your eyes and your heart full of lust and dissatisfaction with what and who God has given you?  Have your eyes looked upon things they should not, things that are evil, things that are demonic?  Have you used the flesh of others like meat to be consumed, rather than as precious bodies and souls for whom Christ died?  Repent.  And rejoice.  The blood of Jesus washes away your sins.  Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at the one caught in the sins of the flesh (John 8:7).  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  But if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:8-9).  Have you failed to speak up for the defenseless: the unborn, the elderly, the weak, the vulnerable?  Have you supported an abortion, advised an abortion, had an abortion?  Have you failed to care for your elderly or ill parents and loved ones?  Have you sought to hasten their death with a lethal dose of drugs?  Repent.  And rejoice.  Our Lord survived the womb of His mother for the sake of those who did not, to die for them and for all of us who have blood on our hands, to wash our hands and our hearts and our whole being clean in His Blood.  The Lord Jesus was obedient to Mary and Joseph, He honored them, served and obeyed them, loved and cherished them, for us and in our place.  He cared for His dear mother, placing her in the care of the Apostle John even as He was dying on the cross.  In Jesus, every life is sacred, from conception to grave, because He gave that life in the first place, and He has redeemed it by His death on the cross. 
            Jesus forgives.  Jesus restores.  And Jesus blesses.  Oh, how He loves the children.  He is indignant with His disciples when they turn the children away.  Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belong the kingdom of God” (Mark 10:14).  And He takes the little ones up in His arms and He blesses them.  This is what He does for our precious children and for each one of us in Baptism.  That is where He takes us into Himself and blesses us with the very Name of God.  That is where He makes us children of the Heavenly Father.  Beloved, do not hinder your children.  Bring them to Jesus.  Bring them to Baptism.  Bring them to hear His Word in Church.  Every Sunday.  This is part of being a parent, guys.  Bring them to Sunday School where they can learn more about His Word.  Bring them to Catechism instruction so they can join us at the Table of Jesus’ Body and Blood.  That is what this text is about.  And do not hinder yourself.  Because all of this is for you, too.  You are a child of God.  You belong to Him.  Jesus has made it so.  Rejoice.  Because here you have a home.  And here there is always a place for you at the Family Table.  And that frees you up to live joyfully in the relationships in which God has placed you.  Love your spouse.  Delight in your spouse, and be faithful.  If you’re living in sin, repent and make it right.  Believe in Christ’s forgiveness.  Love your children.  Delight in them, and bring them to Jesus.  Love your parents.  Honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  Love your extended family and your circle of friends, your neighborhood, your community, your nation, and the people of the earth.  Love your Church and, as you do so well, love your pastor. 
            Things are messed up in this fallen world.  There is no such thing as the ideal family.  None of us perfectly follows the blueprint our Lord has given us.  And for this, we repent.  But though we be unfaithful, the Lord doesn’t stop being faithful to us.  He sets us in a family.  He gives us a home.  He brings us to His Church.  This is great comfort for all of us, but especially for those who are single, who long to share their life with someone, but it just hasn’t happened yet… Or those who long to have children, but for whatever reason, can’t… or those who suffer loneliness and isolation, those who mourn a spouse or a parent or a sibling or a child they have lost…  This is comfort for you.  Look around you, brothers and sisters.  This is your family.  This is your home.  These are your parents and your siblings and your children.  Now, we’re not perfect.  To be sure, we fail and we fight and we have to forgive.  Love takes work.  It is not an emotion, this love.  It is a decision and an action.  But here you are, and you are loved.  Warts and all.  And you are called to love the person next to you, warts and all.  Because in this family, we live by grace.  In this family, we live in the forgiveness of sins.  In this family, we live by the cross and empty tomb, by the death and resurrection of Jesus, by the cleansing water of Baptism and the life-giving food of His Body and Blood.  And we live by every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.  Here in this family, beloved, you are never alone.  You are always in the bosom of your mother, the Church, with your brothers and sisters in Christ, attended by the holy Angels.  And always, always, wherever two or three are gathered in His Name (in His Baptism!), there is Jesus.  And wherever Jesus is, there is your Father, and there is the Spirit.  In Jesus, God brings you into the inner-relationship of the Trinity.  In Jesus, God begets you as His beloved child.  In Jesus, you are home.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.