Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thanksgiving Eve

Eve of the National Day of Thanksgiving

November 23, 2022

Text: 1 Timothy 2:1-4

            The Second Commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,”[1] is so much more than the prohibitions.  It is true, “We should fear and love God so that we do not curse, swear, use satanic arts, lie, or deceive by His name.”  We should not use the Holy Name of God, or the Name of our dear Savior, Jesus Christ, as an exclamation or a mindless interjection.  But we should use it.  Not to use God’s Name is as much a misuse as using it improperly.  Behind every prohibition in the Commandments is a gift from God to be used according to His will and purpose.  God’s Name is the gift behind the Second Commandment.  In Holy Baptism, God gives us His Name.  He places it upon us, writes it on our bodies.  And not so that we can put it up on a shelf somewhere, like some sort of relic, to be marveled at, but essentially left alone.  He wants us to use it.  So, how should we use it?  In the Small Catechism, Dr. Luther tells us, we should “call upon it in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” 

            Our Epistle reading from St. Paul this evening is therefore an admonition to fulfill the Second Commandment.  First of all,” he says, as a matter of first importance, “supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings” should “be made for all people” (1 Tim. 2:1; ESV).  All people.  No exceptions.  So, what does this mean?  Pray!  Pray for all people and all things, everywhere, and always.  Pray for your own needs.  Pray for your family.  Pray for your pastor, your congregation, and your Church body.  Pray for those with whom you interact in your daily life, your friends, your colleagues, your neighbors, and acquaintances.  Invoke God’s Name on their behalf.  Speak their names before God, commending to God whatever troubles or needs you may know for which they need His help. 

            And this is true, also, for your enemies.  Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says (Matt. 5:44).  And if that is true for enemies who are out to get you, then it is certainly true for those who aren’t so much enemies, as maybe antagonists.  People you find difficult to deal with.  Maybe they drive you crazy.  Maybe they are insensitive, or say or do mean things to you.  Maybe they’ve hurt you, and your relationship with them is broken.  This is, perhaps, a good tip as we enter the season of holiday office parties and family gatherings.  Trust me on this, I’ve seen it myself… or better, trust God, because here He says it: Pray for them.  Pray that God would bless them.  Pray that God would help them.  Pray that God would heal whatever it is that is broken between you and that person.  You may just find that your antagonist turns, that their heart is changed toward you, that they treat you better, that they repent.  And you will most assuredly find that you turn, that your heart is changed toward them, so that you love them as you should, in spite of it all, so that you repent. 

            But in our text, St. Paul gets specific.  You are especially to pray for kings and for all who are in high positions (1 Tim. 2:2).  You are to pray for the president, for the governor, for your congressmen, legislators, judges, and magistrates.  You are to pray for government bureaucrats, law enforcement, your boss, and your teacher at school.  Children, you should pray for your mom and dad.  Grown-ups, you should pray for your mom and dad if they are still living (and especially for your in-laws!).  You should pray for everyone to whom you have a Fourth Commandment responsibility, anyone in any authority over you.  After all, don’t you think they need your prayers?  Especially if you don’t like their policies.  Then you really need to pray for them.  Seriously.  It’s more important even than writing letters.  Frankly, it’s more important than voting.  As important as those things may be, the Scriptures don’t command you to write letters or to vote, but they do command you to pray.  Those in authority over you are God’s representatives on earth.  Whether they know it or not.  Whether they believe it or not.  Whether act like it or not.  So we need to pray for them, that they would execute their task faithfully, according to God’s will, and for our good. 

            St. Paul says that we should do this so that “we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (v. 2).  That is why God has given authority to men.  To keep peace and order, so that His Christians may live godly lives, and that we may preach!  Because God our Savior desires all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth (vv. 3-4).  We know that earthly authorities don’t always do a good job of maintaining peace and order, and all-too-often they are not interested in allowing us to live godly lives and preach the Gospel.  So we need to pray!  Ask God.  Pray for their repentance.  Pray for their faithful leadership.  Pray that God would grant them wisdom and integrity.  It does absolutely no good to sit around complaining and despising earthly authorities.  I’m as guilty of that as the next guy, but we must repent.  Who can move a heart?  Who can change a mind?  Who can lead a stubborn unbeliever to repentance and faith?  God can.  And He wants to!  So, ask Him!  Ask Him on behalf of the authorities.  Ask Him on behalf of all people.  That is, after all, what you do when you pray, “Thy Kingdom come.”

            Have you ever thought about what unparalleled comfort this verse brings, that God our Savior wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth?  There is not a human being on earth, or in history, that God doesn’t want to come to faith and be His own.  Now, there is this great, perplexing mystery of why, if that is true, so many do not come to faith, and are not saved.  God does not reveal the answer to that mystery, and there comes a point where you need to put a finger to your lips and stop inquiring into things God has not given you to know.  In particular, you have crossed that point when you begin to object to the things God has revealed because you don’t understand them, or because you don’t like the implications.  Just be quiet at that point, and let God be God, and you be His trusting servant.  But so also, just pause here a minute and bathe in the comfort of what God does reveal in this verse.  He wants all people to be saved.  That means He wants you to be saved.  And your children and grandchildren.  And your unbelieving neighbor.  And, yes, your antagonist, and even your enemy.  And, yes, the president, and all politicians, kings, and all who are in high positions.  All people. 

            And He doesn’t just want it.  He doesn’t just sit around in heaven hoping by some miracle that it will happen.  No, no.  He gives His Son.  God incarnate.  Jesus Christ.  Into the death of the cross.  Bearing our sin.  Making atonement for our transgressions.  Reconciling sinners to the Father.  By His resurrection, healing what is broken.  Raising us from death.  Giving us eternal life.  This is why our text calls Him, “God our Savior” (v. 3).  By His Word and Holy Sacraments, He breathes into us His Holy Spirit.  That we be brought to a knowledge of the truth.  That we be brought to saving faith in Christ.  It is because God wants us to be saved, that we are.  He gets all the credit.  He does it all.  He saves us.  He gives us faith.  Don’t ask why some are not saved.  We know God wants them to be saved, and that they are not by their own fault.  But just rejoice in this.  God wants you to be saved.  And you are.  You believe.  By God’s grace.  Through Jesus Christ.  By the working of His Holy Spirit.  And as for the rest… keep praying, and keep preaching.  God hears your prayers, and He acts, even through your preaching, through your confession of faith, because you belong to Him, bought by the precious blood of Jesus Christ. 

            And that is why on this day, and every day, we cannot help but give thanks.  We should call upon God’s Name in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.  Paul says that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings should be made for all people.  Thank God for His love for you, His desire to save you, and His accomplishing it through Jesus Christ, His Son.  Thank God that you are baptized into Christ, and that He has given you His Holy Spirit, to bring you to a knowledge of the truth, and sustain you by His Word and Supper in the saving Christian faith.  Thank God for all the great gifts He continually pours out on you, for making you and all creatures, for giving you your body and soul, eyes, ears, and all your members, your reason and all your senses, and that He still takes care of them.  Thank God that He also gives you clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, family, friends, vocations, and all that you need to support this body and life, and so much more that you don’t need, but that He gives you anyway, for your blessing and enjoyment.  Thank God that He defends you against all danger and guards and protects you from all evil.  And thank God that He does all of this only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in you.  He does it for Jesus’ sake.  Therefore, it is your duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.  This is no burden, but it is most certainly true.

            And, beloved, thank God that He does this, not just for you.  For all people.  Thank God on behalf of all those people, some of whom don’t know to thank God themselves.  It is your priestly work to thank God in their stead, in their place.  And then, thank God for those people.  That is part of your prayers for them.  And it just might turn them.  It will most certainly turn you.  Thank God for all those people you love to love.  Thank God for all those people who are difficult to love, and love them anyway.  And call upon God for them.  God has given you His Name for this very purpose.  Use it.  Use it well.  And live in it confidently, and with great thanksgiving.  So let’s do it now.  Let’s trace the sign of the holy cross upon our bodies and, with great thanksgiving, invoke that Name upon ourselves, and for the sake of all people: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                

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

Sunday, November 20, 2022

Last Sunday of the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (Proper 29)

November 20, 2022

Text: Luke 23:27-43

            Let’s get one thing straight… Jesus is the King.  Don’t be fooled by elections or geo-political movements, by the glitzy and the glamorous, or the powerful movers and shakers of the world.  Don’t look at wealth, or grandeur, celebrity, or military might.  Do not let the appearance of things deceive you.  Jesus is the King.  All other powers, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, are subject to Him.  And if that is true (and it is), it’s time for us to start acting like it.  It is time for us to repent of our sins, take shelter under His cross, and live confidently, in hope, and with joy, as those who, in Holy Baptism, bear the Name and insignia of our King, Jesus.

            That is to say, if Jesus is the King (and He is!), it is time for us to weep for ourselves and for our children.  That is repentance.  It is time to mourn our sins, our rejection of our Lord’s rule and reign over us, our rejection of His Word, the things we don’t understand, the things we don’t like.  It is time to mourn our submission to all the other pretenders to the throne, the things, the people, the powers that we have feared, loved, and trusted above Him.  If Jesus is the King (and He is!), it is time to take shelter under the banner of His cross, which shields us from God’s wrath.  Jesus is the Green Tree.  He stands in the breach between us and God’s just and fiery wrath over our sins.  He takes that wrath, the punishment we deserve, upon Himself, to shelter and save us.  And if that is what happens to the Green Tree, God’s Son, His Righteous One, what do you suppose will happen to the dry, dead wood that is us poor sinners if we do not repent, if we are not under the protection of the Crucified?  Just ask the Jerusalem that finally and fully rejected Jesus.  In AD 70, the city that rejected her King was destroyed by the Romans, and lacking the shelter of the Savior, the inhabitants cried out to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “Cover us.”  “We’d rather die quickly and catastrophically, than suffer God’s just wrath.”  This is a warning for us.  It is a type of the Judgement to come upon the whole world, and upon every rival king and enemy of God. 

            If Jesus is the King (and He is!), it means that He is the Judge.  In the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, we get a little glimpse of the Judgment Day to come.  What does He do?  He makes a separation between those on His right, and those on His left.  It is reminiscent of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25.  As they came to the place called “The Skull,” there they crucified Him between two criminals, Luke says in our text, “one on his right and one on his left” (Luke 23:33).  See, it is precisely here, on the cross, that Jesus does His work of judging, even as He will judge in glory on the Last Day.  As we behold our Lord on the cross, there is the Judge, the King, enthroned.  He is crowned with thorns, and robed in royal crimson.  Even Pilate must acknowledge it.  INRI, the sign you see in so much crucifixion art.  It is Latin, Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews!”

            And what is His Judgment?  It is just here that it all takes a cosmically unexpected turn.  Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (v. 34).  Forgiveness!  That is His Judgment.  That is His verdict.  Forgiveness of sins.  For the daughters of Jerusalem and the disciples who deserted Him.  For Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin, and the Jews who cried out for His blood.  For Pilate, and for Herod, and for the Roman soldiers who nailed His limbs to the wood.  For His murderers.  For sinners.  For you.  Here the Judgment is pronounced on the basis of the universal atonement Jesus is making in His body for the sins of the whole world.  And it effects nothing less than the objective justification of the whole world.  That is to say, there is forgiveness of sins for anyone who would have it!  Amnesty.  And more than amnesty… Absolution!  And justification, righteousness, given as a gift.  And acceptance as a citizen of the Kingdom, in fact, a child, a son, of the King, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.  Jesus can do that, because He is the eternal Son of the Father.  He is the King. 

            But we know that so many would not have it.  They would not receive, subjectively, the objective gift that Jesus gives them.  Because that would mean to submit to His rule.  And so there are the Jewish rulers, scoffing at Him, unknowingly echoing Satan and fulfilling Psalm 22 against Him: “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (Luke 23:35).  But He won’t do it, of course, for He has not come to save Himself, but us, and these very men who are rejecting Him. 

            Then there are the soldiers, gambling over His clothes at the foot of His cross, mocking Him, and offering Him their vinegar swill.  If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (v. 33). 

            And there is the criminal who rails at Him, “Are you not the Christ?  (Of course, he doesn’t believe that for a minute!)  Save yourself and us!” (v. 39). 

            So, to this day, there are the many who will not receive the forgiveness and justification Jesus here freely gives.  They scoff at Him.  They mock Him.  They rail against Him.  He dies for them, but they would rather face God’s wrath on their own merits.  They will not take shelter under His cross.  And they will cry, on that Day, to the mountains, “Fall on us,” and to the hills, “cover us.”  But there is no cover to protect you from God’s wrath.  Except Jesus and His cross and death. 

            Ah, but then there is the second criminal.  Something has happened to him as he witnesses the spectacle, as he beholds our Lord taking the divine judgment against our sins upon Himself, and pronouncing in its place the gracious Judgment of forgiveness and life upon sinners.  This criminal recognizes that, on his part, he belongs on the cross, and frankly, in hell.  His punishment is just.  To realize that, and confess it, is repentance.  But the criminal knows that Jesus, for His part, has done nothing wrong.  In fact, He has done everything right.  He is right.  He is righteous, and so righteousness is His to give. 

            Now, we don’t know a whole lot about this criminal, but whatever the case, we do know that doing it his own way, living by his own rules, has brought him to this point where he hangs, naked and bleeding, in excruciating (crucifixion, excruciating) pain.  He’s earned this.  He probably doesn’t have much book learning.  He probably isn’t very sophisticated.  If I were a betting man, I’d bet he doesn’t know much theology (not good theology, anyway). 

            But he has heard the Word, now, from the King’s own mouth.  “Forgive them.  Forgive them.”  And he believes it.  He will have it.  Yes, even him, even this wretched, good for nothing, callous criminal.  He claims nothing for himself.  No merit.  No worthiness.  He’s not pleading for a second chance to make things right.  He rebukes his compatriot, and confesses his sins.  And then he prays.  He prays to Jesus, hanging there next to him on the cross.  Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42).  It is a prayer and a confession… of faith… that Jesus is the true and rightful King, and that Jesus… even now, even as he hangs, dying, on the cross… can save him!  And King Jesus makes the poor malefactor a promise he can take with him to the bank, to the royal court, to his dying breath: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (v. 43). 

            Beloved, if Jesus is the King (and He is!), that is what He does for you.  Forgiveness of sins.  Justification.  He dies, that you may be His own, and live under Him in His Kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.  See, because of the Judgment that happened there and then, at the cross, we know what the Judgment will be when that Day comes, when King Jesus appears with the angels in His glory.  Father, forgive them.”  That is the Judgement.  “I have taken the punishment of their sins upon Myself.  And I give them My righteousness.  Receive them, dear Father, now, as Your own.  Your children.  As You would receive Me.  For they are Mine, and so they are Yours, bought with My own precious blood.” 

            Now, this is all hidden, of course, under the cross and suffering.  Let it not be lost on you that our reading about Christ the King is the account of His crucifixion and death.  This is the great, confounding, backwards Christian story, that God’s Kingdom comes through Jesus’ innocent suffering and death.  But we know that is not the end of the story.  King Jesus is risen!  He lives!  He is seated, enthroned, now, at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  He rules all things, all people, even the very devil.  They just don’t see it or acknowledge it yet.  He rules over it all for the good of His people.  We, ourselves, can’t always see it.  But what is hidden now, will be revealed on that Day.  And then all will have to confess it.

            Jesus is the King.  So, think about what that means, beloved.  It means you can live right now, today, in that confidence, in that reality.  Are you worried and troubled by the state of things in the world?  Do elections and politicians get you down?  Wars and rumors of wars?  Famines and earthquakes and other natural disasters?  Crime?  Injustice?  Murders, right here, in our own little town?  Never mind the world as they scoff, and mock, and persecute unto death.  How about the devil?  His accusations, his deceptions, his leading, if possible, even the elect into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  And then, there is our own sad sack of flesh.  The spirit is willing.  We want to follow Jesus.  But our flesh is oh so weak.

            It is just such pretenders to the throne that Jesus overthrows by His death and resurrection.  He wipes them out by the shedding of His blood.  So that you may lift up your head in these gray and latter days, when our bodily eyes are blind to this new reality, until Christ comes again visibly and in all His glory, the Lord has given us His Word and Holy Sacraments.  He has given us Holy Baptism as the sign and seal that we are God’s own children, redeemed by Christ, the Crucified.  He has given us Absolution to leak the verdict out ahead of time, before the Judgement Day: All your sins are forgiven.  He has given us Scripture, and preaching, to steel our hearts and spread the news abroad, a royal proclamation.  And He has given us the Supper, a seat at the Royal Table, to dine with the living God.  Let’s get one thing straight, in spite of all appearances: Jesus is the King.  Acknowledge no other.  Repent of your sins and believe the Good News.  He died, but He lives, and reigns, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  And He’s coming again.  He is coming for you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.



Sunday, November 6, 2022

All Saints' (Observed)

All Saints’ Day (Observed)

November 6, 2022

Text: 1 John 3:1-3

            Pete was dying.  For real, this time.  Much like our own Glen Warmbier, we’d prayed the Commendation of the Dying with him and planned his funeral any number of times, only for him to pop back up into vigorous life and health, the same old Pete we knew and loved.  But this time was different.  This time it was certain.  As certain as we can be of death, which is about as certain as we can be of anything.  The family called in hospice.  They took him off his medications, except for pain control.  His den was converted to serve as his final abode this side of the grave.  And as his pastor, I sat beside his hospital bed pretty much every day, and often half the night, of that final week. 

            It was early on in the process, as I was reading Scripture and praying with Pete and his dear wife, and had just given them Communion, that Pete stopped me, looked me straight in the eye, and asked, “Pastor, what will it be like?”  As we all so often wonder, especially in those times when we can no longer hide death behind a curtain, or pretend it doesn’t exist.  What is it like to pass from this side of the veil to the other?  What is it like in heaven?  It’s all so mysterious.  And that is why it makes even the strongest Christians among us nervous.  “Well,” I said to Pete, “I don’t really know.  The Scriptures don’t tell us much about heaven, as in the intermediate state where the soul reposes as we await the Last Day.  And, of course, all the silly things we say about heaven being ‘That Great Golf Course in the Sky,’ for example (Pete lived on a golf course), or cultural images of ethereal souls floating around in the clouds with their harps and halos, don’t help.  We don’t become angels when we die (angels were created in the beginning, as angels).  We’re not stars shining down on our loved ones.  We don’t spend our time in the afterlife peeping on our loved ones, watching their every move.”  Which is really pretty creepy when you think about it.  I probably didn’t say this to Pete in the moment, but do you really want Grandma watching when you’re in the shower, or visiting the euphemism, as Dr. Suess would say, never mind when you’re sinning?  Let’s stop saying such ridiculous and unbiblical things about death.  They really aren’t comforting.  They’re just delusional.  “Here is what we know from the Scriptures,” I said to Pete.  “We know that we will see Jesus, and so we will be full of joy.  God will wipe away our tears and relieve us of all pain.  We’ll undoubtedly see our loved ones who have died in Christ there before His throne, and together, we’ll worship the Lamb who was slain, but who lives, and in whose blood our sin-stained robes have been washed white.”  “That’s pretty good,” he agreed. 

            “But then,” I said, “the real kicker of it all, the complete fulfillment of all our Christian hope, and what the Scriptures do tell us about, is not our soul in heaven when we die, but the resurrection of the body on the Last Day, when Jesus comes again in glory.  Your body, Pete, will rise from the grave.  Your soul will be reunited with your body.  And you’ll live forever with Jesus in your body, like Jesus’ resurrection Body, healthy, whole, complete, in a new heavens and a new earth.”  Well, Pete’s eyes grew big as saucers as he leaned forward and said to me, “Really?...  Huh!  And now it was my turn to be surprised.  “I never knew that!” Pete said.  Now, how many years, how many decades, had Pete been a Lutheran?  And, not to take it personally, but how many years had I been his pastor, and how often had I preached this very thing to him?  But then, I suppose it isn’t all that surprising.  We hear what we want.  We think what we want.  I know how it works.  I’ve sat in there in the pews, too.  And I know how it is in this fallen flesh.  We miss an awful lot.  We dismiss an awful lot.  Things that challenge our preconceived notions.  Things we don’t understand.  Things we simply don’t like. 

            But then, the Gospel, as it is preached, turns us (literally, repents us), so that it opens our ears to hear the life-giving good tidings of Jesus, crucified and risen, who will raise us, as something ever surprising and new.  I think that was going on for Pete, too.  He had heard this before.  He did know it.  But now, he knew it, in the very face of death. 

            Nevertheless, beloved, to save me no small amount of frustration later on, listen up very carefully and closely to what I’m about to say:  Heaven is great.  Your soul will go there when you die.  But even better: On the Last Day, Jesus will raise you from the dead.  Bodily!  Your body will come out of your grave, healed and whole.  Even as He, who died for your sins, is now risen from the dead, and lives eternally.  Your soul, which was separated from your body in death (that is the definition of physical death), will be reunited with your body (that is the definition of physical life!).  And you will live forever with Jesus in your body!  Really.  Huh.

            What will it be like?  St. John answers, “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2; ESV).  We are God’s children now, because we are baptized into Christ, the Father’s eternal Son.  So, as God’s children, we have a hope and expectation of the good things to come in His Kingdom.  Yes, we hope… on the basis of our current status as God’s baptized and redeemed children… we hope, in spite of the things our eyes currently see: Evil, death, sadness.  War.  Sickness.  Pain.  Brokenness.  All the marks of a fallen world, that does not know us, because it does not know Him.  All the marks of a fallen and sinful nature, and a broken and fallen body, descended as it is from Adam.  We hope nevertheless, because we know that things are not as they appear.  We also know that what things will be, what we will be, and what we are now in truth, has not yet appeared.  But soon, Jesus will appear.  And that is when we will be given eyes that see unhindered.  Jesus will come again in glory with the holy angels.  He will raise all the dead, and then He will judge.  He will give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ, as we say in the Catechism.  And He will consign sin, death, and the devil, along with all unbelievers, to the Lake of Fire.  And then we, who believe in Christ, will be forever with the Lord.  New heavens.  New earth.  Creation restored.  Bodies made whole.  All as it was always meant to be.  Free from sorrow.  Free from sin.  We don’t yet know what all of this will look like.  We don’t yet know what we will be.  But we know that we will be like Him, because we will see Him as He is.  That is, beholding the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very Image of the invisible God, the image of God we lost in the fall, will be restored in us.

            Pete slipped into a coma a few days after our conversation about the resurrection.  But then, he woke up!  Now, this doesn’t happen for everybody, or even for most people, but for his last full day on this earth, surrounded by his family, I think Pete was getting a head-start on the resurrection.  For lunch, he ordered up a Five Guys Burger and Fries for everyone, his treat.  And the rest of the day he spent directing his sons on how to slow-roast Pete’s Famous Prime Rib dinner for the family feast that night.  It was a beautiful day of love and laughter, joy and celebration, the very best food, and the very best drink.  As it will be in heaven, and on the Day of Resurrection.  As it is now, with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven around the body and blood of the risen Lord Jesus.  We don’t see it from this side of the veil.  But there they are, on the other side, joining us for the Wedding Feast of the Lamb in His Kingdom that has no end.

            Pete’s condition deteriorated again that night, as we knew it would.  We sat beside him and prayed and sang.  About mid-morning the next day, a far-off look came over his eyes.  And he began to chant.  “Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…”  I don’t know how long.  15 minutes.  A half hour.  The hymn is true… “When the fight is fierce, the warfare long, Steals on the ear the distant triumph song” (LSB 677:5).  It was a prayer.  But I suspect he was singing with them.  But then his voice became weaker.  Finally, only his jaw was moving to the rhythm.  And then…  When Pete breathed his last, it was to exhale the Name of his Savior.  Undoubtedly, he is still chanting, “Jesus… Jesus… Jesus…”  But now, for us, it only just steals on our ears, from a distance, and it is entirely hidden from our eyes. 

            Not for long, though.  Soon, very soon, the Lord Jesus will appear.  We’ll wake up with Pete.  And with Glen, and Leonard, Odessa, and Kathleen.  With Moses, and King David, with Ruth, and John the Baptist.  With Peter, Paul, and Martin Luther.  With Mary, the Mother of Our Lord, and with all the saints, all our loved ones who have died in Christ, and live in Him, whose robes have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb, who are coming out of the great tribulation.  Jesus will do it.  He will call us forth from the grave.  He’ll give us His hand, the one with the nail print, and lift us out.  And then we will live with Him.  And we will be like Him.  For we will see Him as He is.  With resurrection eyes.  In our risen, living body.  Really.  That is not just what it will be like.  That is how it will be on that blessed Day.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.       

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Reformation Day (Observed)

Reformation Day (Observed)

October 30, 2022

Sola Scriptura: 500th Anniversary of Luther’s German Translation of the New Testament

Text: John 8:31-36

            If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32; ESV). 

            In 2017, we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation, dating its beginning to Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg.  But really, when you get right down to it, it will be the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in one way or another for the rest of our lifetimes.  Last year, we celebrated the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech at the Diet of Worms, and his subsequent “kidnapping” by his own prince’s secret agents, to hide him away at the Warburg Castle as Junker George.  And we heard that, while he was there, though he was very lonely and sad and frustrated, he was also quite busy.  Praying.  Thinking.  Writing.  And translating.

            This year, we celebrate the 500th Anniversary of the publication Luther’s September Testament, his translation of the New Testament into German.  Now, we should not underestimate the importance of this milestone.  Remember, at this time in history, very few people actually read the Bible for themselves.  For one, Bibles were expensive.  That is why the Bible was chained to the desk in the library.  It wasn’t because the Pope didn’t want people reading the Bible.  It was because the Bible was an expensive volume, and they didn’t want people to steal it.  But it was also only allowed to be printed and read in Latin.  The Latin Vulgate was the only version of the Scriptures authorized by the Roman Church.  So, for most people, their exposure to the Bible was only at Church, during the Mass, where they heard the readings in Latin, a language the uneducated (which was most people) couldn’t understand.  If the people had a decent priest, they may get some preaching in their own language, and perhaps they knew some of the Bible stories.  But Bibles in the vernacular (the language of the people) were strictly forbidden by the Roman Church.

            So, when Luther translated the Scriptures into German, it was a watershed moment.  It blew the doors wide open for vernacular translations.  This is particularly pertinent for us in terms of the English translations we use.  The influence of Luther’s German Bible on the 1611 Authorized Version translated under King James, for example, is incalculable.  The translators leaned heavily on Luther as a translation tool.  And think about this: The translation we use in our worship and in The Lutheran Study Bible, the English Standard Version, is a descendent of the King James translation.  And even versions that are not from that branch of the translational family tree, such the NIV, or the NASB, or whatever you use, are nevertheless the beneficiaries of the great tradition of translations that came before, including our own Dr. Luther’s Die Heilige Schrift, his Bible.  So, that you can pick up a Bible anytime you want (as I pray you often do), and read it in your own language, and understand what it says…  And, for that matter, that we read it here in Church in your own language… That is not a gift to be taken for granted!  Thanks be to God, who has given you, and all Christians, this tremendous gift, largely through the efforts of His servant, Dr. Martin Luther.

            Now, as heirs of the Reformation legacy, we believe and confess the great solas of the Christian faith: Sola gratia (grace alone), sola fide (faith alone), solus Christus (Christ alone), and even the famed subscript that great Lutheran musician, Johann Sebastian Bach, inscribed at the end of his every composition, S. D. G., Sole Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory).  But we know that there is yet one more sola in the list, and without this sola, we wouldn’t know, and therefore wouldn’t believe or confess, any of the rest.  And that is sola Scriptura (Scripture alone).  It is from God’s revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture that we come to know Him as the gracious God who saves us from our sins, by sending His Son, Jesus Christ, into our flesh, to suffer and die on the cross, and be raised again from the dead in our flesh, to give us forgiveness and eternal life.  It is through the Scriptures, and the preaching of the Scriptures, and in the Sacraments (which are Scripture in action), that God grants us His Holy Spirit, who gives us saving faith in this same Jesus Christ.  By the Scriptures, God tears our eyes away from our own focus on the self, and our own idols, and our own glory (that is, He brings us to repentance), and directs our sight to His glory in saving us and bringing us into His Kingdom (that is, he gives us faith in His Son).  When we confess sola Scriptura, what we are saying is that our whole doctrine, all that pertains to our Christian faith and life, is ruled and normed by Holy Scripture.  Not by human reason.  Not by sacred tradition.  Not by human will, personality, or emotion.  We certainly use all of these things, but we must only use them in service to Scripture, and never to overrule Scripture. 

            So, for example, I may not understand something in Scripture, whether it be because the thing itself is mysterious and not meant for my comprehension, but rather, for my faithful reception and adoration (here we may think of the teaching on the Trinity, or how the Lord’s body and blood can truly be present for us to really eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper).  Or, be it because of my own ignorance, which is a lot more common than we’d like to admit.  We don’t know everything.  We actually are not the divine arbiters of what is, or is not, reasonable.  The temptation is, “I don’t understand the Trinity, so I reject the whole teaching”…  Or, “All the people who taught me science, all the people I consider to be educated and intelligent, say the world was created by random chance in evolution, so I reject the Bible’s account of Creation”… Well, what am I saying about myself when I make those judgment calls?  “I’m God, and God is not God (not mine, anyway!),” that’s what I’m saying.  It’s idolatry.  And that is what we say about ourselves any time we reject what God’s Word says.  We don’t like what Scripture says about marriage and sexuality.  “We’ve evolved,” we say.  “The world has changed,” we say.  So we reject Scripture, which is to say, we reject God.  We don’t like what Scripture says about the sanctity of human life, from conception to natural death.  “There are lives not worth living,” we say.  “There are lives we don’t want, that inconvenience us, that burden us.  There is no inherent right to life,” we say.  So we reject Scripture.  We reject God.  Repent.  We must all repent.  We do not stand above the Bible, as a judge of what is right or wrong in it, reasonable or unreasonable, culturally acceptable or ripe for rejection.  The Bible stands above us.  The Bible molds and shapes us.  The Bible judges us, and preaches to us our only hope in the Day of Judgment, which is Christ crucified.   

            Holy Scripture is God’s inspired and inerrant Word.  We confess the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture, which is to say, behind every human author of Scripture across the centuries, there is one divine Author, the Holy Spirit.  Every word of it is from Him.  St. Peter writes, “no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21).  St. Paul writes to Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God,” literally “exhaled” from God, His very breath, breathed into (the meaning of the word inspired) the human author, “and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).  To be sure, the Scriptures do have human authors, and their personalities and writing styles and cultural contexts come out in their writing, but that doesn’t change the fact that behind them, there is the Holy Spirit.  You can think of the Scriptures as mirroring the Person of our Lord Jesus, in that they have two natures, divine and human.  God is the Author.  And human beings are the authors.  But the human authors serve as God’s instruments to carry out the writing.    

            And so, because the Scriptures are God’s Word, we confess that they are inerrant.  Which means we can trust them.  God does not lie.  God does not make mistakes.  Thus, inerrancy.  By which we don’t mean that there aren’t scribal errors in transmission or variants in the text, but these are all very minor, and none of them affect our doctrine or salvation.  Translational errors can and do occur, so we must be aware of those, but we are inheritors of any number of very fine translations, which, in spite of their various strengths and weaknesses, give us God’s pure Word.  What a gift.  What grace.  Jesus spoke of the Old Testament as God’s own Word.  He tells us that the Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:35).  Jesus, Himself, is the Word of God made flesh (John 1:1, 14), and so every Word that proceeds from His mouth (Deut. 8:3; Matt. 4:4) is God’s own Word.  And He gives His Apostles to preach and write down His Word.  Whoever receives you,” He says to the Twelve as He sends them out to preach, “receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (Matt. 10:40).  We receive them as we receive their writings.  The Church, the Household of God, is built on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, St. Paul writes (Eph. 2:20), which is to say, the Old and New Testaments, Christ Jesus Himself being the Cornerstone, in whom the whole thing is held together and grows into the Holy Temple of God (vv. 20-21).

            But we must not fail to understand the overarching purpose of Holy Scripture, why it is we take such great comfort in knowing the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures, and their inerrancy.  It is not because the Bible is a book of morals, or wisdom for life (though, to be sure, these are in the Scriptures).  It’s overarching purpose is to reveal Christ as our only Savior from sin, death, and the devil.  It is to give us Christ.  Holy Scripture, as God’s own Word, is powerful, with all the power of God.  It is God’s speech.  And when He speaks, it is done.  It reveals God’s Holy Law, to bring us to a knowledge of our sins, so that we repent of our sins, and it reveals God’s Holy Gospel, to show us Christ, the Savior, and to actually bestow on us Christ’s salvation, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life.  The Gospel is, as Paul says, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).  Luther says that the Scriptures are the manger in which Christ is laid, in which we may always find our dear Savior.  He is on every page, and in every Word.  He is there for us, to save us, and give us life.  When you pick up a Bible (as I pray you often do, daily, continually) to read it in personal and family devotions, and when you hear the Scriptures read and proclaimed here at Church, Christ is delivering Himself and His gifts to you.  His Spirit.  His life.  His love.  His righteousness.  His forgiveness.  His consolation.  His divine counsel and aid.  His wisdom.  His peace.  His healing and wholeness.  A restored relationship to His Father, who is your Father, who loves you, and makes you His own Child.  In short, He gives you His very Kingdom, and all that belongs to it.

            And Luther put it in the language of his dear German people, and in their hands by printing it (with a little help from Gutenberg’s invention and the printers who produced affordable copies).  And this led to others putting the Scriptures into the languages of their own dear people, and into their hands, so that, for the last 500 years, the Holy Bible has become the best-selling book of all time.  And well it should be.  For it is the Word of life.  It is the Word of God. 

            There is the old story, possibly apocryphal, about Luther in the Wartburg, throwing his inkwell at the devil.  Now, we can be sure that the devil pestered him plenty as he went about his work in the old castle.  And people said that, well into the last century, you could still see the ink stain on the wall (though it turns out that the stain had been “touched up” a bit for the sake of the tourists, to make it more visible).  But the real throwing of ink at the devil, to which Luther did refer in his lifetime, was his translation of Holy Scripture.  When the devil pesters you, throw the inkwell at him.  Run to your Bible.  Read the Word.  Hear the Word.  That is the Sword of the Spirit to fend off the evil one, and it gives you the shield of faith to extinguish his flaming darts (Eph. 6:16-17).  Hear the Scriptures.  Pray the Scriptures.  Read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures.   And on this day, thank God for lonely, sad, frustrated Dr. Luther, locked up in the Wartburg with His Greek New Testament, who put pen to paper, that we may read God’s Word.

            Many other significant things happened in 1522, not least of which were Luther’s Invocavit sermons.  But that story will have to wait for another time.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.        

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25C)

October 23, 2022

Text: Luke 18:9-17

            Last week, Jesus told us a parable to the effect that we ought always to pray and not lose heart.  This morning, Jesus teaches us how to approach God in prayer.  In other words, what should be our disposition toward God in our prayers, our posture?  And on what basis should we pray?  To answer these questions, Jesus paints a picture for us by means of another parable, and He makes His point by way of contrast.

            On the one hand, there is the Pharisee.  Now, we think of him as the villain in the parable, and we’re right, but we have to understand just how shocking this is to the original audience.  The Pharisee is the model practitioner of Jewish piety and religion.  Like someone we would look up to as a pious and respectable Christian.  In other words, the audience agrees with the Pharisee’s assessment of himself.  But Jesus wonders why a man who has it so completely all together, as the Pharisee claims he does, would even bother to pray in the first place.  He stands there in the Temple, apart from all the rest, and prays thusly: He thanks God… for himself.  He thanks God that he is not a poor, miserable sinner, that he is not like extortioners, or the generally unrighteous hoi polloi, or adulterers, or even like (as he casts a sidelong glance toward the man in the back) this dirty, rotten, traitorous, greedy, good-for-nothing tax collector.  Whereupon the Pharisee undertakes to list his own spiritual resume for God, essentially telling God all the reasons He (God) should be thankful for him (the Pharisee)!  I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12; ESV).  Now, the only required day of fasting in the Scriptures is the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, but the Pharisees, ever the overachievers, fasted every Thursday (because Moses was traditionally thought to have ascended Mt. Sinai on a Thursday) and Monday (because Moses was traditionally thought to have descended Mt. Sinai on a Monday).  I give tithes of all that I get” (v. 12).  Not just the profit I make, but also the things I buy… you know, just in case the guy I bought the things from didn’t make his tithe.  And if he did, You get twice as much, God!  Thanks to me!  Aren’t you lucky to have me around.  The Pharisee doesn’t pray because he needs mercy and help from God.  He prays because he thinks God needs him!  He is essentially ungrateful and self-centered, self-obsessed.  And there is something else we must not fail to observe about this posture in prayer.  The Pharisee doesn’t pray God’s mercy for the needs of others, either.  No, no.  He despises others.  Self-righteousness, self-justification, always leads to contempt for others, and ungratefulness to God for anything other than the self, and what comes from the self.

            But then there is the tax collector.  We think of him as the hero in the story, and I suppose in some sense that is true, although not in the way that we usually think of heroes.  His heroism is not based on anything intrinsic to himself, but in his utter lack of intrinsic heroism.  He stands far off.  He will not even assume the traditional Jewish prayer posture, hands outstretched, eyes lifted to heaven.  No, his eyes are cast down, and his hands beat his breast in a gesture of sorrow and repentance, and he prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13), literally, “God, be propitiated toward me, THE sinner!”  He prays, not on the basis of any worthiness within himself.  He does not even consider himself worthy to be in God’s Temple, in the presence of those he undoubtedly thinks are more righteous and pious than himself, like this Pharisee.  He demands nothing.  He makes no claims for himself, other than his own sin and wretchedness.  But he needs God.  He needs mercy.  He needs propitiation, a sacrifice of atonement for his sins that only God can provide.  It is on that basis that he prays.  And it is for that reason, because he does not justify himself, but looks to God alone for justification and all mercy, that this despised tax collector goes home justified, declared righteous by God.  And, on the other hand, this fine, upstanding, respectable, pious Pharisee, does not.  He goes home still in his sins.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled”… by God!  And that is what we see in the Pharisee… “but the one who humbles himself will be exalted”… by God!  And that is what we see in the tax collector.

            In is not unlike the contrast between Cain and Abel in our Old Testament reading (Gen. 4:1-15).  What is going on there?  Remember that in the previous chapter of Genesis, after Adam and Eve had fallen into sin, the ground was cursed because of them (Gen. 3:17).  When Cain brings “the fruit of the ground” as an offering before the LORD (4:3), he is saying to the LORD, in effect, I am working within the curse.  Look at my works.  Look what I have brought forth in spite of Creation’s handicaps.  I am doing better than my parents.  It is not unlike Adam and Eve’s fig leaves… a futile attempt to manage sin and cover it over with our own efforts. 

            On the other hand, what does Abel present as an offering?  The firstborn of his flock and their fat portions (v. 4).  And in this way, he is reflecting on the way God covered over his parents’ nakedness, their sin and shame.  With garments of skins the LORD clothed them (3:21).  Abel is asking the LORD to do the same for him.  To cover him with the sacrifice of atonement.  He is confessing that he cannot overcome the curse of sin by his own works.  He must be covered by the LORD. 

            And where does each sacrifice lead?  Cain’s self-righteous sacrifice leads him to hold his brother in contempt, such that he lures his brother out into the field to murder him.  And still, he would justify himself over against God: “am I my brother’s keeper?” (4:9).  But Abel’s sacrifice… though it does not shield him from suffering and death… because it relies on God alone, and on His propitiation and mercy, leads to his very blood crying out from the ground.  That is, though dead, he still speaks.  Which is to say, he lives!  God covers his sin and shame.  God rescues him from the curse.  God rescues him, even in death!  And, of course, this is not by the blood of the lambs and goats Abel offered, but by the blood of the Sacrifice to which these point: The Lamb of God who takes away Abel’s sin, and the sin of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ. 

            And all of this teaches us how to pray.  We should not come before God as the Pharisee does, thanking God for the gift that we are to Him and to all humanity, and that we are not like others, especially those other people in the pews whom we know to be sinners, whose specks we can see perfectly well through the logs we refuse to acknowledge protruding out of our own eyes.  We should not brag to God about what great things we can do for Him.  Nor should we be like Cain, parading before God the various ways that we’ve worked around the curse, presenting the work of our own hands, our own righteousness, our self-justification.  These things lead only to contempt for the neighbor and ungratefulness to God.  And ultimately, they lead to eternal death. 

            Instead, we should be like this tax collector, which is to say, repentant and humble.  We should know our own sin and unworthiness, and confess them before God, “I, a poor, miserable sinner.”  We should plead simply and humbly for His merciful propitiation.  And we should expect to receive it, not for our own sakes, but for Jesus’ sake, and because our Father in heaven is good, and loves us, and wants us to be His own.  We should be like Abel, asking God to cover us with the skin of His Sacrifice, asking Him to cover us with Christ and His righteousness, His death on the cross, His resurrection, His forgiveness, life, and salvation.

            Which is to say, we should be like infants, baptized into Christ.  When Jesus says, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16), Luke specifies that the children being brought to Him are infants (v. 15), βρέφη in Greek, a word that could even refer to babies in utero, like little John the Baptist, who leapt in his mother’s womb at the sound of Mary’s voice, pregnant as she was with our little unborn Lord (1:41).  Helpless infants make the very best Christians.  Whether we are baptized as adults, or as little babes in arms, we should all be little babes in the faith of Jesus Christ.  Even the most upstanding and respectable Christian, one who demands our admiration and imitation, should approach God in this way.  Which is not to say we don’t mature in the faith, and in our understanding of God’s Word, and in our Christian life.  But it is to say, as Jesus does this morning, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (18:17).  That is, as one who relies totally and completely on God’s merciful propitiation.  As one who is utterly helpless apart from God.  As one who expects all things needful, and every good and perfect gift, from Him alone.  Like a helpless infant, who expects all good things from Mom.  As a little child, who believes every word Dad says.  As the little ones who implicitly trust their parents to supply their every need, and rely on them for protection and guidance.  Not because they, the helpless little babes, are worthy of such help.  But because it is the nature of a parent to cover, and care for, and clean, and nourish, and shelter their beloved sons and daughters.  So God does for us, for Jesus’ sake.  And that is why we pray.  And that is our posture before our Father in heaven as we make our petitions.  Confession.  Humility.  And total reliance on His merciful propitiation.  One of my favorite prayers is the simple and ancient Jesus Prayer, based largely on the words of the tax collector: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  That is the humble prayer our Lord always loves to hear.

            And God answers.  He gives mercy.  He gives Jesus.  And when we pray, and when we live, in reliance upon Jesus alone, we go to our house having been justified by God.  And, far from holding our neighbors in contempt (a grievous sin for which we must repent), we pray for them, as fellow sinners in need of God’s same propitious mercy.  And, far from thanking God for ourselves and the gift that we are to God and to the world, we thank Him for His gracious, undeserved gifts to us, which He lavishes upon us for Jesus’ sake. 

            We ought always to pray and not lose heart, not because we trust in ourselves that we are righteous, but because we trust that Jesus Christ is righteous, and in mercy, He gives us His righteousness as a gift.  We are covered in the skin of His Sacrifice.  The curse is coming to an end.  By the offering of Jesus Christ, God’s first-born and the very best of the flock, God is making all things new.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.