Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6B)

June 13, 2021

Text: Mark 426-34

            The Seed is the Word of God.  The ground is the world.  The farmer is the one sowing the Word, originally the Apostles and all the disciples of Jesus.  It is the pastor who preaches, the Christian who confesses.  And this is how it works.  The Seed of the Word is scattered in proclamation.  And then you go to bed and let it do its thing.  You trust God.  You trust in His Word.  The Seed sprouts and grows, you know not how.  The earth produces by itself, αὐτομάτη in Greek, automatic.  That is to say, it is gift.  It is not your work.  The Seed has the power within itself to sprout and grow.  The Word has the power within itself to do the work of bringing people to faith in Christ.  You are called to scatter the Seed, to confess Christ.  The Church is called to preach the Word.  We are not called to be clever or cute.  No gimmicks.  No bait and switch advertising.  It doesn’t depend on you, or me, or our efforts.  The Spirit is in the Word.  He does it.  We’ve been given the Word.  Just speak the Word.  Then say your prayers and go to sleep and let God worry about it. 

            And what happens?  The Word of the Lord grows.  First, there is the blade.  Faith is born.  A baby is baptized into Christ.  A man or woman hears the Gospel and realizes that their sins really are forgiven in Christ.  God really does love them and wants them as part of His Family.  Then the ear… faith matures and grows stronger as it is nourished in the Divine Service from the Pulpit and at the Altar, in Bible Study, in devotions, and in Christian fellowship.  It grows through trials: pruning, fertilizer, manure, repentance.  And then the full grain in the ear… the fruit of faith: Complete dependance upon Christ and His gifts, prayer, Christian love, generosity, humility, self-sacrifice, the desire and effort to live according to God’s order.  And so the Kingdom grows, plant by plant, one by one, in this time of grace, as long as the world turns.  But then the harvest, when the grain is ripe, when the Lord knows that all who are appointed to eternal life have come to faith in Christ.  Then He puts in the sickle.  Then comes the gathering and the Judgment.  The wheat is safely gathered in.  The chaff is piled up and burned. 

            It sounds so easy.  And really, it is, in this sense: It all depends on God.  Relax.  The pressure is off.  You can’t make anyone believe in Christ.  You can’t make the Kingdom grow.  You can only give what you’ve been given, and that is the Word.  Luther famously said of the Reformation: “I simply taught, preached and wrote God’s Word; otherwise I did nothing. And while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my friends Philip and Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that no prince or emperor ever inflicted such losses upon it. I did nothing; the Word did everything.”[1]

            What makes it hard is our impatience.  We want to see results, and we want to seem them now.  Plant that seed, and we ought to be harvesting fruit.  But when is the harvest?  At the End.  And we have a severely limited perspective.  We cannot see God’s grand, eternal plan as it unfolds.  We can only see here and now, this little snapshot of the Church.  Maybe worldwide Christianity at this moment in time, although let’s be honest, none of us really keeps a thumb on the Church’s pulse in all the other nations of the world.  Our Church body, the Missouri Synod?  Okay, maybe.  Mostly just our little congregation.  And it’s beautiful, but it looks awfully small and insignificant.  We don’t know what God will do with it.  Will it always be this tiny gathering of believers, or will we outgrow our current circumstances?  Will we ever have a building?  Will we even make budget?  And those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, I share them.  But look how small they are compared with God’s grand, eternal, cosmic plan for His Kingdom.  See, we are not given to know how we fit into that, what our part in it is.  We are simply given to know and rejoice that we do fit into it, that we do have a part in it.  But only God sees all that clearly.  What do we see?  Just the Word.  Sinners gathered around the Word, to be forgiven, cleansed, and healed.  A little part of the vast field at various stages of growth, awaiting the harvest, the Lord only knows when.

            And the Kingdom always appears this way.  Small and insignificant.  Weak and on the brink of death.  When the Church appears to be thriving and wildly successful, that is the exception rather than the rule.  Because the Church is ever and always under the cross.  It is like a grain of mustard seed.  The mustard seed was the proverbial Hebrew expression for something really small.  As a modern equivalent, we might say the tip of a pencil or the head of a pin.  That is the Seed as it is sown.  That is the Kingdom as the Word has been planted.  We can’t believe anything will come of it.  But this is the Promise, and it is totally unexpected.  That tiny Seed will grow and become larger than all the garden plants.  And while there are some mustard bushes that get pretty large, this is where the parable is clearly not “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”  Because this mustard Seed grows into a tree that fills the whole world, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. 

            And this imagery is not without precedent.  In the ancient world, including in the Prophets, great nations and empires were described as trees that overshadow the earth.  In Ezekiel 31, Assyria is described as a cedar with its top among the clouds, towering high above all trees, the birds making nests in its boughs, and all nations living under its shadow.  In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, dreams that he is a great tree providing food and shelter for all, but which would be chopped down to its stump and roots, referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s humiliation, living like an animal in the wild.  We see how this is an appropriate image for great empires, growing and spreading their branches over the nations they have conquered.  One might even compare the United States to such a tree, spreading the branches of our influence, protection, and aid to many nations.

            But what is the purpose of this image with regard to the Kingdom of God?  Compared to these mighty empires and this great earthly power, the Kingdom of God looks as small as a mustard seed.  But don’t let appearances deceive you.  These empires have their day, but the Kingdom of God continues to grow, and on that Day, when the sickle is lowered and the harvest comes, all will see that the Tree of God’s Kingdom overshadows all the nations of the earth.  This will be devasting for all who have rejected Christ.  But for those in whom the Seed of the Word has taken deep root and grown into full and fruitful faith, they will find shelter under its branches and live eternally secure as God’s own beloved children.

            Ezekiel captures this in our Old Testament, doesn’t he (Ez. 17:22-24)?  The little sprig, lopped off the top of the mighty cedar (reminding us that God’s people will come back from Assyria and Babylon), God plants on the high and lofty mountain, undoubtedly Mt. Zion.  And in spite of all appearances, and against every expectation, it grows, and becomes itself a mighty cedar, and it produces fruit (do cedar trees produce fruit?).  And again, the image: “under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest” (Ez. 17:23; ESV).  In the Kingdom of God you find abundant food and shelter.  In other words, a home.  And it is the LORD Himself who does it.  Not you.  Not the pastor.  Not Synod bureaucrats or clever Church growth experts.  The LORD does.  He brings low the high tree, Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon, Assyria, the rulers of the earth.  And He brings high the low tree, the Kingdom of Heaven, the Church, you.  And how does He do it?  The Word.  I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it” (v. 24). 

            And, of course, is this not just like our LORD to plant a tree and bring about a great reversal?  For what else is the cross but the apparent bringing to nothing of all that is Christ and belongs to Him?  “Kingdom of God?!  What do you mean?  God is put to death there on the Tree!”  The LORD plants it, the instrument of defeat and utter destruction, near the garden on a hill outside Jerusalem, Mt. Zion, high and lifted up.  And there, what is smallest and least, and even accursed, grows up into the mightiest of trees, and it fills the whole earth.  Jesus sleeps and rises, and the Kingdom grows.  His Word is preached.  The Seed is cast.  The branches of the Tree spread over the whole earth.  It may be difficult for you to see, here, and now, in this place and time.  But you will see it on that Day.  In the meantime, simply believe.  Trust.  Take shelter here, in this little corner under the Kingdom’s boughs.  Eat of its fruit and remain under its protection.  Sow the Word.  Confess the faith.  Drink Wittenberg beer, or something like that, with your friends, and then go to sleep without a care.  The LORD still speaks, and He still does it.  The Seed is the Word and the Tree is the Kingdom.  And it is all in God’s merciful hands.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.           

[1] LW 51:77.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Second Sunday after Pentecost

Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 5B)

June 6, 2021

Text: Mark 3:20-35

            We all know family issues can be the most difficult waters to navigate.  If we are honest, we must admit that the ideal Christian family, where everyone is devoted to Jesus, and everybody thinks, speaks, and behaves the way they ought to, is nonexistent.  The Church hasn’t always been helpful in this regard.  While we should hold up the family ideal according to God’s order in the preaching of God’s Law, we must never paint a picture of the families in our fellowship as though they are immune from the struggles and brokenness of fallen people living in a fallen world, as though they aren’t real sinners with real sins that need real forgiveness and mercy from Christ.  When Churches paint that false image, it leads people in the real world to conclude that the Church must not be for them.  Or, people join the Church in the hope that this is the golden ticket that will make all their problems go away, and when it doesn’t work as advertised, they despair.  Or, again leading to despair, a Christian mother or father or son or daughter compares their own family to the other families in the Church, and they wonder why their family can’t get it together like it seems to be the case with everybody else.  Or, worst of all, it can lead to spiritual pride among Christians who appear to have it all together.  But it’s façade.  If you look closely, you will see the cracks, the fault lines.  Now, this is not to paint a hopeless picture of Christian families, either.  Christ is the medicine for all that ails us.  He is the Physician who binds up what is broken, restores what is shattered, heals what is diseased, and even raises the dead.  Nor is this to say that we shouldn’t order our families according to God’s Word.  Of course we should.  Things will go better for everyone.  We’ll be happier.  We’ll be healthier.  And where we fall, we’ll repent, and we’ll live joyfully in the forgiveness of sins.  But this is simply to say what we all know deep down to be true.  The brokenness touches us all, and we shouldn’t paint the family picture any other way.   

            Anyway, the Bible doesn’t paint families that way.  Cain murdered his brother Abel.  Jacob cheated his brother and had to flee from Esau’s lethal intentions.  Laban gave Jacob some of his own medicine.  Joseph’s brothers were jealous, thought about murdering him, and ultimately sold him into slavery.  What is Genesis but the continuing saga of messed-up family relations?  A messed-up family that was God’s chosen people, from whom would come the Savior of the whole world.  And so through the rest of the Scriptures.  Moses’ siblings resented his special relationship with God and office as God’s spokesman.  David’s brothers reviled the little twerp who came to watch the battle and ended up in mortal combat with Goliath.  Never mind David’s sons, one of whom raped his sister, another of whom murdered the offender, and then attempted a coup against his father.  Our Lord’s own family was not immune from these issues.  Frankly, they thought Jesus was insane.  Though they would come around after His resurrection, Jesus’ brothers were initially hostile unbelievers.  And yes, even the Blessed Virgin Mary had her sins of unfaithfulness.  Jesus was embarrassing the family.  She and His brothers wanted to get Him away from the crowd and back home where they could keep Him quiet.  It is no accident that Jesus was born into a family of sinners.  He comes precisely for sinners, to redeem sinners, to redeem the broken, individuals, families, you, and yours. 

            Admit it, you’ve got problems, sins to be confessed and absolved, and your family is as broken as anybody else’s.  The devil has done his worst to divide and isolate you from your spouse, your children, your parents, your brothers and sisters.  Every God-given relationship is a target for his poison darts.  And your sinful flesh is complicit.  You hang on to petty grievances, jealousies, and pride.  Repent.  Satan harnesses these things to put asunder what God has joined together.  And the world, of whom he is prince, is in an all-out war against the family, against marriage as God’s holy institution, against the reservation and preservation of conjugal intimacy within the holy union of man and wife, against children whom we slaughter by the millions in the name of autonomy and sexual freedom, and against our right to resist these things in preaching and Christian confession.  The devil, by the way, is against marriage, because from marriage comes children.  And he is against children because by a Child comes the redemption of the world and Satan’s ultimate defeat.

            So that Child comes into the world, the Son of Mary, the Son of God, to bind the strong man, Satan, and plunder His goods.  And that is to say, you.  To rescue you.  To deliver you.  To bring you out of bondage to Satan and into God’s Kingdom as a forgiven and beloved Child of the heavenly Father.  So He casts out demons and heals diseases.  He touches outcasts and cleanses lepers.  He eats and drinks with sinners and He raises the dead.  And all of the sin, all of the brokenness, all that separates you and I from God and from one another, He takes into Himself.  He takes it off of us and absorbs it into His flesh.  And He sheds His blood all over it.  He is crucified for it.  He dies for it.  To forgive it all.  To forgive you.  To cleanse you.  To heal you.  To justify you.  And He is risen, and that means that in Him, you have new life.  You are baptized into Christ.  You died with Christ.  You have been raised with Christ.  You live in Christ. 

            And that changes how you live toward one another.  Yes, you still live in a fallen world, a sinner in the midst of sinners, and you still sin.  You know that.  You live now in the paradox of the already/not yet, simul iustus et peccator, at the same time justified and a sinner.  But you know that all your sins are forgiven and that Christ’s new life is yours already.  And you know that your spouse’s sins, your childrens’ sins, your parents’ sins, your brothers’ and sisters’ sins, are all forgiven.  Christ died for them, and He is risen for them, and if He forgives them, who are you to hold their sins against them?  And that… that… is the secret for Christian families living together.  Not that there is no brokenness, but that the brokenness is forgiven.  By God in Christ.  By one another in Christ.  We live together with grace toward one another, with mercy toward each other, forgiving one another’s trespasses as God has forgiven ours, overlooking weaknesses, bearing with each other with the love of Christ that covers over a multitude of sins.

            Still, it is true, there isn’t always a happy ending for our families in this life, and many of you know that all-too-well.  Children leave the faith.  Spouses are unfaithful.  Parents neglect or abuse their children.  Not every family member receives the love and healing God wants to give them.  Some family members shun and reject us specifically because of our faith in Christ or our confession of His Word, as Jesus’ family tried to shut Him up when He was preaching.  We pray fervently and persistently for those family members, that God would turn their hearts by the preaching of His Word, bring them to repentance, to saving faith in Christ, and restoration to us.  It does happen, sometimes after years.  We should never lose heart.  Never give up on God’s gracious seeking of the lost.  But it doesn’t always happen.  And here we should say a word about the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit which Jesus says in our text, is the “eternal sin” that “never has forgiveness” (Mark 3:29; ESV).  What is that sin, and should we be worried we have committed it? 

            The blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is something very specific in our text.  The scribes, who were Jesus’ family members in a matter of speaking, the Jews, His own who did not receive Him (John 1:11), said that He was demonic, that He was possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons He cast out demons (Mark 3:22).  In other words, they were saying the Spirit within Jesus is the devil.  They were calling the Holy Spirit “Satan.”  That is blasphemy.  And it is not just that they thought the thought or uttered the words.  It is that they knew better, as Jesus points out in His rebuke.  Just as a house, a family, divided against itself cannot stand, so it would never work for Satan to cast out Satan.  The demons have their problems, but they’re pretty good at team work.  To cast out demons is nothing less than the work of God, as every scribe, every theologian, must know.  So the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the conscious, informed, intentional, and persistent rejection of His testimony that Christ is Lord and Savior.  It is to know that the Spirit’s testimony is true, and reject it anyway as evil, satanic, as we see so often in the world today when Christians leave the faith they know to be true for more socially acceptable belief systems.  And it is not that the sin is unforgiveable because it’s so evil, as though there could be any sin for which Christ’s death is insufficient atonement.  No, the reason it is never forgiven is that it is the nature of this sin to reject Christ’s forgiveness right up to death or the Day of Judgment, until it is too late.

            Sometimes Christians are worried they have committed the sin against the Holy Spirit because of some evil thing they said or did.  But the plain fact is, if you’re worried you committed this sin, you haven't, because those who reject the Spirit don’t worry about sinning against Him.  Repent of your sins and know that you are forgiven for Christ’s sake.  And never forget His promise: “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). 

            In fact, what does He do?  He brings you in.  Into His House.  Into His Family.  Whatever problems you have in your own family, among your relatives, you always have a Family here with Jesus, in His Church, gathered around His Table.  Who are my mother and my brothers?” (Mark 3:33).  It isn’t a rejection of Mary and the boys outside when Jesus says this.  But it is the testimony to the even greater reality.  (L)ooking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 34-35).  The Church is Jesus’ Family, the congregation of believers, for the will of God is that you believe and be saved.  Baptized into Christ, you are children of the heavenly Father.  The Church is your mother.  Your brothers and sisters are all around you.  Yes, they have their faults, their casual weaknesses, their sins.  So do you.  That is why we’re here.  Here our Lord cleanses us and tends our wounds.  Here our Lord feeds us.  Here our Lord protects us and gives us life.  Outside, the battle rages, and our enemies threaten and malign us.  But here we are safe in the Father’s House.  And because He is our Father, and because Jesus is our Savior, and because the Holy Spirit possesses us, this House will not be divided.  It will stand, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.  Beloved in the Lord, welcome home.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.      

Monday, May 31, 2021

The Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity (B)

May 30, 2021

Text: John 3:1-17

            “Therefore, whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.”[1]  How must we think?  The Athanasian Creed places very rich theological language on our lips and in our minds, and hopefully in our hearts, as we speak about the Trinity.  And this is good.  An article of faith as sublime and mysterious as the Triune God should be clothed in the very highest and most precise language.  But it can and should also be boiled down quite simply, in such a way that our young children can understand.  There is one God.  He is the only true God.  And this one God is three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each Person is His own, and not the other.  The Father is not the Son.  The Son is not the Holy Spirit, etc.  But they are one God.  Three in One.  One in Three.  And beyond that, we can’t really understand it.  And we shouldn’t use things like eggs or apples to explain it, because those illustrations will quickly lead us into heresy, and for that, see the popular Lutheran Satire video, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies.”  The issue is, when you think you’ve stumbled on a way to comprehend how God can be One, but also Three, you’ve gone off the road.  This is an incomprehensible mystery.  The Athanasian Creed does not aim to explain the Trinity in such a way that you can grasp all the intricacies of the what and the how.  It simply confesses, in very precise terms, the biblical truth as God has revealed Himself to us.  It sets God before our eyes as the object of our faith and adoration. 

            So whoever desires to be saved must think thus about the Trinity.  This bothers a lot of people, because they think it means you have to have an advanced intellectual handle on Trinitarian theology in order to be saved, as though God is going to administer an academic test before He lets you into heaven.  But that is not what the Creed says, and frankly, it is your own self-devised hang up.  What the Creed is actually saying is that this is the God who alone saves.  This is the God in whom we believe and whom we worship, the One who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  And there is no other God.  If you confess a different god than this One, you cannot be saved.  Look, we confess that even infants can have faith in this God and so be saved, so we aren’t talking about an intellectual exercise.  We’re talking about having and believing in the right God, the only God, the one true God.  In other words, the Creed is an extended commentary on the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.”  It isn’t politically correct to say, but it is nevertheless true: Any god who isn’t Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not God! 

            “But it is also necessary for everlasting salvation that one faithfully believe the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man.”  A lot of people are bothered about this for the same reason they are bothered about the Trinity.  But again, the answer is the same.  This isn’t an intellectual exercise or a theological examination administered before entry into Paradise.  It can be said quite simply for the sake of our young children.  Jesus is the Son of God from all eternity.  But He became a man in Mary’s womb, and was born from her, so that He could grow up and die for our sins, and then be raised as a man, with a human body, so that on the Last Day He can raise us from the dead in our bodies.  And what the Creed is saying is that this is the Jesus who alone saves.  This is the Jesus in whom we believe and whom we worship, the One who is the eternal Son of the Father, true God, but also true man, born in time of the Virgin Mary, who was crucified, dead and buried, and is now risen from the dead.  There is no other Savior.  If you confess a different savior than this One, you cannot be saved.

            And of course, in both cases, we understand, and the Church has always understood, that some people will have a deeper command of these statements than others.  Some will know the Athanasian Creed by heart (yes, believe it or not, there are some here this morning, though to my shame, I am not one of them, who know the Creed word for word).  There are others who cannot yet, or maybe ever, grasp the high language of this Confession.  Certainly the youngest of our children cannot.  Okay.  That does not mean they are not confessors of this faith, this God, this Jesus.  Because this is the faith, this is the Name, this is the God and the Savior into which they, and you, are baptized.  They are born into it.  And then they grow into it.  Just as a babe in arms, or even a baby in the womb, knows, believes, and trusts in Mom, without any ability to intellectually comprehend her or confess her; so the Christian who is baptized into Christ, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, knows, believes, and trusts in Him.  And just as that baby grows to know Mom deeper, and in relationship to her, and begins to form the word “Mom,” and then to know all kinds of things about her; so the Christian grows from birth in Baptism to know God deeper, and in relationship to Him, and begins to know and say things about Him that are revealed in His Word.  This is just a summary of what Jesus says right before His ascension into heaven: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20; ESV).  Baptize and teach.  Teach and baptize.  The two always go together.  Birth and growth.  Faith seeking understanding.  Baptized into our Triune God and growing in relationship to Him.  Baptized into the faith of the Creed and growing in understanding of it.  And it should be said, because of your finite and fallen mortal mind, you will never understand it as you should, until you see with your own eyes the God whom you here confess. 

            This is the God, the only One, who loved the world in such a manner that He sent His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16).  This is the Savior, the only One, the eternal Son of the Father, who came in the flesh, not to condemn the world, but in order that the world be saved through Him (v. 17).  This is the Spirit, the only One, sent from the Father, through the Son, who blows where He wishes, and though you do not see Him, you hear His sound through His Word (v. 8).  It is this Spirit who hovers over the waters to take what is formless and void and give it shape and fill it (Gen. 1:2).  That is to say, you, as you are born of water and the Spirit, for unless one is born anew, of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God (John 3:3, 5). 

            Now, like Nicodemus, you hear the Creed, and you say, “How can these things be?” (v. 9).  It is always the temptation to be the teacher of Israel in such a way that you set yourself up as judge over God’s doctrine.  The only answer for that is to listen to Jesus and get over yourself.  Or the biblical word is, repent. 

            The Creed is not given to be an exercise in how you’re more orthodox than the holy fathers of the Church who composed it.  It is given to you as a gift.  The God in whom you believe, the Jesus who saves you… this confession teaches you about Him and gives you words to say about Him, words that are drawn directly from God’s own revelation of Himself in Holy Scripture.  You should always fear to set yourself up as judge over the ancient and well attested teachers of the Church.  It can be done, and it is sometimes necessary.  The Reformation, for example, comes to mind.  But it should not be done as a cavalier matter of opinion or taste.  You should never simply say, “I don’t like that Creed, or hymn, or liturgical element, or tradition, or Church Father.”  A little humility goes a long way, and the burden of proof is on you.  Don’t become a teacher too quickly.  Be taught.  Be formed.  This Creed does that for you as it preaches the one true God.  The Spirit is blowing.  Don’t shut the window. 

            “This is the catholic faith,” and I know that word bothers you, but that ought to be the least of your worries.  Surely you know by now that word does not mean “Roman Catholic.”  It is a Greek word that means “according to the whole,” as in “according to the whole doctrine believed by the whole Christian Church, at all times, and everywhere.”  That is what the Creed confesses, and in that sense, this is a very Lutheran word.  Don’t let Rome keep everything good to itself. 

            The more serious objection is to the bit about deeds at the end, but this shouldn’t bother you, either, because it simply says what Jesus teaches us in Matthew 25 about the sheep and the goats, and the answer to the objection is the same in both cases: Only those who have this God as their God, who are justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in this Christ whom we confess alone, have good works.  Because their entire righteousness is Christ.  Christ’s righteousness counts as theirs, and in Christ, and by His Spirit, they begin to do righteous things.  Tainted with sin, to be sure, but then those works are covered by the sin-atoning blood of Christ, cleansed by Christ, sanctified in Christ.  And they are not saved by those works, but they do those works because they are saved, and they enter into life because of Christ. 

            But those who do not have this God as their God, who seek righteousness apart from Christ, may do the very same works, but those works are only sin, because they are not covered by the sin-atoning blood of Christ, they are not cleansed by Christ, they are not sanctified in Christ, and they are not done by His Spirit.  And all these have to present before God on the Day of Judgment is their works.  And those works are only sin.  They are only evil.  Thus they enter into eternal fire.  It is a great tragedy, because Christ died for them.  The Father sent His Son for them.  The Spirit preached for them.  This one true God was also for them.  But they would not have Him.

            But you have Him.  And He is for you.  And He has revealed Himself to you.  And He has given you faith in Himself.  And so we have these words to confess Him.  And rather than object to them, we ought to give thanks for them, and speak them joyfully, in praise and adoration.  There is one God, the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There is one Lord Jesus Christ, true God from all eternity, the very Son of the Father, true man born in time, the Son of Mary.  He died for you.  He is risen for you.  And He lives for you.  You are baptized into this God, and this Savior.  The Spirit blows through in His Word, placing words of confession on your tongue.  Let us open now our lips and speak His praise.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.   

[1] Quotes from the Athanasian Creed are from Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006) pp. 319-20.

Monday, May 24, 2021

The Day of Pentecost

The Day of Pentecost (B)

May 23, 2021

Text: Acts 2:1-21; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

            “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[1]

            The Holy Spirit was poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, and He abides with you as He blows through on the wind of His Word, the Holy Scriptures, the Preaching, the Absolution.  And He dwells within you as you receive the true Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Supper, for wherever Jesus is, there is His Spirit.  These are the Means of Grace.  They are the Means to which the Holy Spirit has attached Himself, His vehicle, the place where He has promised to be for you so that you can know it is the Holy Spirit you are receiving, and not some other spirit.  By these means, the Spirit does His work.  That is, He does His calling by the Gospel.  He calls you, calls me, calls all who hear the preaching.  You know that the word for Spirit in both biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek, can also mean wind or breath.  So the Spirit comes on the breath of preaching.  He blows into your ears on the wind of the Word.  And He enlightens with His gifts.  That is, by this same Word, and by the Sacraments (Baptism, Absolution, the Supper), the Holy Spirit brings about the results of His call.  He turns on the lights for you, so that you see and believe that Jesus Christ is your Savior from sin and death, that He restores you to the Father, and makes you God’s own child.  And by these same gifts He sanctifies you, sets you apart as holy for God, marks you as belonging to Him.  And He keeps you in the true faith.  He alone is responsible for your perseverance as a Christian unto eternal life.  He does it.  By His Word. 

            And what this is, this pouring out of the Spirit upon you in Baptism, and His work in you through the Means of Grace, is the direct result of Jesus’ death for your sins, His resurrection, and His ascension.  For since He has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father, He sends the Helper, the Holy Spirit.  The Greek word for “Helper,” as you may know, is “Paraclete,” and that word can mean Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, Intercessor, Mediator, and yes, Helper (Schmitt).  The imagery of a defense attorney comes to mind.  Or even better, Paraclete literally means the one called to your side, as when a child falls off of his bicycle and calls upon his mother for comfort and for aid.  Because our Lord Jesus was crucified for us, and is risen, and lives, and reigns, the Helper comes, sent by Jesus, the Spirit of our Father.

            And this is simply the ongoing reality of Pentecost.  Pentecost is actually the Greek name for the Old Testament Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot in Hebrew.  Pentecost means fifty.  It is the fiftieth day after Passover, or seven weeks.  That is why we celebrate Pentecost on the fiftieth day after Easter.  And it was a first fruits festival.  But the Jews also commemorate it as the day God gave the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai.  And think about what happened on that day.  God came down upon the mountain.  A great fiery cloud appeared… where(?), but on the top of the mountain, on Sinai’s head.  And there was a great sound, “thunders and lightenings… and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled” (Ex. 19:16; ESV).  And God spoke.  He gave His Word.  He preached.  And the first fruit God was looking for in the people with whom He was making Covenant, was a life lived according to His order set forth in the Commandments.

            So this is what the multitudes have come together to celebrate in Jerusalem in our second reading (Acts 2:1-21), and now all at once, there is the sound of the mighty, rushing wind from heaven, and it is God coming down, the Holy Spirit blowing through.  And there appear on the heads of the Apostles “divided tongues as of fire” (Acts 2:3), because now God will speak, not from the fearsome conflagration of Mt. Sinai, but in the preaching of His Apostles.  Immediately, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak,” to preach, “in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance” (v. 4). 

            Now, this Pentecost pouring out of the Spirit is miraculous, but notice all the plays on words and images that set up what is now the regular pattern.  The Spirit/wind/breath rushes in from heaven into the gathering of the Church.  And the Spirit/wind/breath fills the lungs of the Apostles, who open their mouths to exhale, to breathe the Spirit/wind/breath out in preaching.  And not just any preaching, but the Apostolic Word.  We’ve seen this image before, and all over the place in Holy Scripture.  Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’  And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46).  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  God breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, so that he became a living being (Gen. 2:7).  Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to the breath, Thus says the LORD GOD: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe on these slain, that they may live” (Ez. 37:9).  The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).  Thus we confess in our Augsburg Confession that the Spirit works faith where and when it pleases God in those who hear the Gospel (AC V:2-3).  He breathes Himself into us by the preaching.  That is the pattern now.  And so God sends His preachers to breathe that Apostolic Word into you.  The Spirit blows in on the wind of the Word preached.  So we don’t get a mighty, rushing wind, but we get a sermon.  And believe it or not, it is a miracle every time.  We get the Scriptures.  We get Words… and water, bread, and wine attached to the Words, the Words we have received from the Apostles, who received them from our Lord, Words upon which the Spirit comes. 

            So Pentecost may be a fixed point in history, but its reality continues in the Church among you to this very moment.  Here the Word is preached, and here the Spirit blows through to do His calling, enlightening, sanctifying and keeping. 

            And so the Spirit blows through the world.  Jesus says that as the Spirit comes, He convicts the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.  This can be a little confusing, so it is worth speaking about each one.  The Spirit convicts the world concerning sin, Jesus says, “because they do not believe in me” (John 16:9).  In the final analysis, sin is unbelief.  But in the Word, the Spirit shows Jesus to be the Son of God, the very truth the world denies. 

            The Spirit convicts the world concerning righteousness, Jesus says, “because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer” (v. 10).  The world, believing itself to be righteous, crucified Jesus as an unrighteous criminal, the accursed death of the cross.  But God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, exalting Him to heaven, to be seated at the Father's own right hand, to rule, thus vindicating Jesus and declaring Him to be THE Righteous One, and the One in whom is all our righteousness.  As the Word is preached, the Spirit convicts the world of this truth. 

            And the Spirit convicts the world of judgment, Jesus says, “because the ruler of this world is judged” (v. 11).  Satan is defeated.  The serpent’s head is crushed.  Jesus wins, for He was crucified for our sins, and raised for our justification, and He claims for Himself a Kingdom.  He rules over all things.  As the Word is proclaimed, the Spirit blows through to announce the good news that Jesus has conquered as the true and rightful King.  In this way, the Spirit glorifies Jesus.  He takes what belongs to Jesus, all that Jesus has received from the Father, and declares it to you.

            Now, as we said, this same Holy Spirit was poured out on you in Baptism.  Just as the Spirit descended like a dove upon Jesus at His Baptism, and remained on Him, so it is with you.  He possesses you.  You do not possess Him.  Nor are you any longer possessed by Satan and the demons.  The Spirit possesses you.  And He remains on you.  He abides.  And again, He does this through His Word.  And this means every time you sin or go astray, there is the Spirit calling you to repentance and to faith in Christ, preaching to you redemption and forgiveness in the Gospel.  When you need wisdom and patience, there is the Spirit enlightening your mind by His Word, counseling you and helping you.  When you need comfort, when you’ve been bloodied and hurt, when you’ve been soiled by the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh, when you need help loving your neighbor, there is the Spirit sanctifying you for God, cleansing you and setting you apart as holy, God’s own possession, and nourishing you with the Word and Body and Blood of Jesus.  And He prays for you and in you, and brings your prayers, sanctified, cleansed, before God with groanings too deep for words (Rom. 8:26).  And when you are in danger of falling, He keeps you.  Even as He does for the whole Christian Church on earth.  He keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith, daily and richly forgiving all your sins, and giving you eternal life.  And so He will do until the Last Day, when He raises you and all the dead, and gives eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  This is most certainly true. 

            I cannot believe by my own reason or strength.  But God has poured out His Spirit through Christ, and this Spirit blows through as God’s Word is proclaimed, giving me a living and abiding faith in Jesus Christ unto eternal life.  And so He does for you.  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, May 16, 2021

Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter (B)

May 16, 2021

Text: John 17:11b-19

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

            Jesus prays for us.  Not just on the night He was betrayed, in what we call the “High Priestly Prayer,” but even now, ascended to the right hand of the Father, He bends the Father’s ear on our behalf.  He prays that we be kept in the Father’s Name, that we be one holy Christian and Apostolic Church united in Him, that we be kept and guarded in these days when our Lord is hidden from our sight.  He prays that His joy would be in us in spite of the world’s hatred and opposition, that we be kept from the evil one, and sanctified in the truth that is the Father’s Word.  Jesus prays for us.  And what can the Father possibly answer His Son… what can God possibly answer God, but yes?  Yes, my Son.  Yes, because I love You.  Yes, because You died for them.  Yes, because You are risen and live for them.  Yes, because Your will is My will, and My will is Your will, for We are one.

            What does it mean that God keeps us in His Name?  It means that He keeps us in Jesus.  The Father gives the Son His Name (John 17:11).  Remember that God’s Name is not just the word by which we designate Him.  God’s Name is His whole character and reputation.  It is His revelation of Himself to man, and it is His very essence.  Our God is YHWH, “I AM.”  He is the God who is (incidentally, as opposed to the other so-called gods, who are not).  All things that exist have their existence from Him, for He is the Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things, visible and invisible.  Jesus, the eternally begotten Son of the Father, the Word who was with God in the beginning and who is God, is the revelation of the Father to us.  To be kept in God’s Name is to be kept in Jesus. 

            And that is to say, it is to be kept in the one true faith.  It is to be kept in His Word.  It is to be kept in our Baptism into the Name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We are called Christians, and that means “little Christs.”  It is really shorthand for the Triune Name into which we are baptized.  It is to be kept in His Family, His Church, around His Table.  It is to be kept for salvation in spite of all the opposition of the devil, the world, and our own sinful nature.  If this is to happen, God must do it.  Thus Jesus prays for us.   

            This is so important, that God keeps us in His Name, because the truth of the matter is, Jesus has been removed from our earthly eyesight.  He has ascended into heaven.  Now, as we heard on Thursday evening, this does not mean He is gone, removed from our presence.  It rather means He is present now in a hidden way in His divinely appointed Means of Grace.  But that makes it awfully hard for Christians in a world that hates us, as it hated our Lord.  It makes it awfully hard when Christians have to bear what our Lord bore: The rejection, the mockery, the abuse, and scorn, and even death at the hands of unbelievers.  It makes it awfully hard, because Satan himself is against us.  He tempts us, he trips us up, and then he accuses us.  He leads us to doubt Christ and His Word.  He afflicts us.  He orders people and things to act against us.  He is a powerful enemy.  Now, we know that Christ has defeated him by His death and resurrection, but this is Satan’s little hour, and we must suffer through it.  And, of course, our sinful nature is a constant enemy.  Old Adam hangs around our necks and weighs us down, and would turn us away from Christ and back to the world and the Egypt of our sins.  This is why Jesus prays for us.  We are in the world, and He does not pray that we be taken out of it.  We are in the world as His agents, and we are in the flesh, and this is Satan’s realm to all appearances, so our Lord knows the danger.  But He prays for us to the Father, to keep us in His Name, and the Father hears His Son, and answers, and that is how we are kept, and even given joy.  We rejoice, with the very joy of Christ.  Because we know His victory, and that He is with us, and that He is coming again soon, visibly, to set all that is wrong right again. 

            The Father keeps us in His Name by the Word Jesus has given us (v. 14), and by the Spirit He will pour out upon us in that Word.  Sanctify them in the truth,” He prays; “your word is truth” (v. 17).  Well, this Word is that which written for our learning in the Holy Scriptures, the revelation of God’s will for us and His saving acts for us.  This Word is that which God sends His preachers out to preach.  And that means, first of all, the Apostles, of whom our Lord is speaking in the original context of our Holy Gospel.  It is of them, specifically, that Jesus says to the Father, “As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (v. 18).  (The word “Apostle” means “sent one,” one sent with all the authority of the one sending him in the matter for which he is sent.)  But then it is also those who are sent to continue the apostolic preaching of the Word, the Christian pastors.  By their preaching and teaching, God continues to sanctify (set apart for holy use) Jesus’ disciples, you, in the truth that is His Word.

            And, to continue the extension of this sending, this is why He sends you.  To be His agents in the world.  To be salt and light and leaven that permeates every dark and sinful corner of humanity with your confession of Christ and your loving service and sacrifice in His Name.  Jesus does not pray that God would take you out of the world, and this is why.  This is your purpose in life.  Through you, living your Christian life in your various vocations and stations in life, He seasons, enlightens, and leavens the whole world, so that others hear the Gospel and believe.  So that others become His disciples.  So that others live under His blessing bestowed in Christ who died, and who is risen from the dead. 

            God loves the world for Jesus’ sake, and He enacts that love in the world through you.  You are His mask, His hands and feet, His voice in the world.  God loves your neighbor through you.  God feeds and clothes children and changes their diapers through the hands of parents.  God fed and clothed you through your parents.  God governs through earthly authorities.  He teaches through teachers.  He employs through employers.  He serves through servants.  He feeds through the work of the farmer and the grocery store clerk.  We learned an important lesson this week about how God enables us to drive from point A to point B through the work of people in the oil and gas industry.  And you know the list could go on and on.  Of course, all of these things He does through believers and unbelievers alike.  But He doesn’t just leave it in the hands of unbelievers.  Have you ever thought about that?  He gives His Christians to season all the various activities and stations in life.  Why?  Because only the Christian will strive to do it in the way God has given.  Only a Christian can be a Christian spouse, a Christian parent, a Christian citizen, a Christian worker.  And particularly relevant at this cultural moment, only a Christian can be a Christian friend.  Yes, this is an important part of our mission.  Befriend people.  Be present for them, as in your bodily presence.  In a world of social media virtual friends (and virtual, by definition, means not the real thing!), and especially in the way we have treated one another over the past year as pathogens to be avoided at all cost, our culture is absolutely starving for real, bodily present friendships. 

            And all this is to say, only a Christian can show that God’s order is the very best for all.  And only a Christian can bring the presence of Christ into every situation.  When spouses love one another with self-sacrificial love and remain faithful to each other for life, as the living picture of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  When parents raise their children in the fear and admonition of the Lord and teach them to grow in faith toward God and fervent love toward their neighbor.  When citizens honor the governing authority for God’s sake, and work for the good of all citizens, not out of a sense of entitlement or victimization, but out of Christian love.  When workers work, not just for a paycheck, but in mission for God, to love their neighbor with God’s love, to love and serve their employer and their fellow workers and their patrons.  When friends bring the incarnational presence of Christ to all their associations, confessing Christ, and loving for the sake of Christ, and simply being in Christ and bearing Christ in the presence of their friends.  Think about this.  Wherever you are, you are God’s agent.  Be intentional about this.  Pray for this.  In every circumstance, everywhere you go, in every relationship, in your speaking and your acting, you bear the presence of Christ.  That is why He leaves you in the world. 

            But not forever.  He is coming back.  He is coming soon.  Then He will raise you and all the dead, and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.  Then He will be vindicated in the eyes of all, as every knee bows, and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2).  Then He will glorify His Church.  And the world that hated Jesus, and hated His Christians, along with the very evil one himself, will be condemned.  And your sinful nature will be at an end.  You will live in the New Heavens and the New Earth, fully restored and perfected, this creation risen from the dead.  For the sake of those yet to come into the full number of those who will believe and have life in Jesus’ Name, God leaves you in the world.  But you know the reality of that which is to come.  Wait patiently.  Pray.  Trust.  And go as God sends you. 

            In the midst of the danger, Jesus prays for us, and God keeps us in His Name, and sanctifies us by His Word.  Jesus prays, and God in heaven hears, and He answers: “Yes, My Son, that one, too, is Mine.  I will keep him.  I will sanctify him.  I will name him with My Name, and grant him life, for Your sake.”

            Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.