Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Ascension of Our Lord & Seventh Sunday of Easter

The Ascension of Our Lord
May 25, 2017

Seventh Sunday of Easter (A)
May 28, 2017

Text: John 17:1-11
He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            “I’m praying for you.”  How often do we say that to one another when one from our midst is suffering or facing uncertainty, when their faith is weak or they have been caught in some particular sin, or perhaps they have forsaken the faith altogether?  We also say this to one another as an expression of our common faith in Christ.  When someone is leaving on a trip, or when we speak with loved ones we rarely see due to distance, or even just when we want someone to be encouraged, we speak these words: “I’m praying for you.”  And it’s a wonderful thing to say.  We have the prayer list in our bulletin, and it’s so encouraging when I can tell people that I know a number of you pray through that list faithfully, daily or weekly.  And of course I’m always telling people, “I’m praying for you.”  Speaking those words, we encourage and comfort others.  Hearing those words, we are encouraged and comforted.  And if that is the case, how much more so when we hear this morning that Jesus is praying for us.  Jesus prays for His Church.  Jesus prays for you.
            We heard about this on Thursday at our Ascension service, that one of the things our Lord Jesus is continually doing for you now that He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, is praying to His Father and yours for His Church, which is to say, for you.  He prays on the basis of His sin-atoning self-sacrifice for you on the cross, which is the same basis, by the way, of your prayers.  He is always praying through His blood, through the merits of His suffering and death.  He is praying for His Body, the Church, that she be kept and preserved through the Word and the Sacraments in faithfulness and holiness and righteousness, that she be one in the oneness of the Holy Trinity.  He is praying for you as a member of that Body, a member for whom He suffered.  Jesus prays for you in your afflictions.  He prays for you when you are sick or hurting or alone.  He prays for your marriage and your family… if you are single for your chastity and patience.  He prays for you to be faithful in your vocations.  He prays that you be sanctified by the Truth of His Word.  He prays for your loved ones.  He prays for you when death causes you grief, and he prays that you have a blessed death in the faith of Christ, that He may bring you to Himself in heaven.  Yes, Jesus prays for your eternal life and salvation.  He prays for your repentance.  He prays for your forgiveness.  And what does the Father answer Jesus?  What else could He answer?  He answers, “Yes.  Yes, My dear Son, I forgive their sins.  Yes, My dear Son, they have salvation and eternal life.  Yes, My dear Son, I will sustain them by My Holy Spirit, by My Holy Word.  For You have shed Your blood to purchase them for Me.  You have suffered and died that they might live forever.  Their sins are forgiven already.  My ministers declare it so.  And they are My dear children.” 
            Jesus prays for you, and the Father hears and answers.  Jesus gives you a little glimpse of His prayer for you in the Holy Gospel this morning, what is known as our Lord’s High Priestly prayer.  Priests sacrifice for the sins of the people, and priests pray for the people.  And so Jesus, your High Priest, makes the once-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the altar of the cross for the forgiveness of your sins, rendering all other sacrifices unnecessary and useless for your salvation.  Your atonement is complete in Him.  And now as your risen and ascended High Priest, He prays for you on the basis of His sacrifice.  Now here in the Holy Gospel it is the night of His betrayal, just before His crucifixion.  He is instructing the disciples, washing their feet, commanding them to love one another, and instituting the Supper of His Body and Blood.  And as we hear in John Chapter 17, He is praying for His disciples, and for you who believe on Him according to their word recorded in Holy Scripture (John 17:20).  And what does He pray in this beautiful text?  He prays that, now that the hour has come, the appointed hour upon which hinges the whole history and destiny of the world, that He, the Son, may be glorified, and in so being glorified, thus glorify the Father (v. 1).  Don’t misunderstand what He is saying.  Jesus is praying that the Father would lift Him up on the cross to die, for you.  And that His death would make atonement for your sins.  That His death would free you from death and from hell.  That the Father would accept Jesus’ sacrifice and raise Him from the dead, and give you, with Him, eternal life.  That is the Son’s glorification, and in the Son’s glorification, the Father is glorified.  For His delight is in your salvation, in bringing you into His Kingdom to serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. 
            Jesus prays that you may know the Father by knowing Jesus Christ, knowing, not just about Him, but really knowing Him, which is to say, believing in Him.  For in so knowing Him by faith you have eternal life… “this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (v. 3; ESV).  Jesus has the authority to give eternal life to all who believe in Him, all whom the Father has given to Him, called to be in Christ (v. 2).  And He does give that life, in Baptism, Word, and Supper.  He gives you life in Himself.  He does it by manifesting God’s Name to you and to the whole world (v. 6) in preaching and Sacrament.  The Name, of course, is “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” the Name the Father has given the Son to bear in Himself and reveal to you, the Name of our Triune God.  That is the Name placed upon you in Holy Baptism.  God writes His Name on you in the Blood of Jesus.  And why do you write your name on something?  Because it is precious to you and you don’t want to lose it.  God has written His Name on you because you are chosen and precious to Him.  The Father gives you to the Son, who keeps you for Himself by giving you His Word.  He gives you the words that the Father has given Him, and so you come to know in truth that Jesus is the very Son of the Father, made flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary, for you and for your salvation (v. 8).  Jesus prays for you.  He prays that you be kept in His Word.  He prays that you be kept in the faith.  He prays that you remain His and that He be glorified in you by your justification and sanctification, your life of faith and works of love, and your eternal salvation in Him (v. 10).  He prays that God would keep you by His Spirit, in spite of this fallen flesh and fallen world, in the midst of so many dangers to your body and soul, in this time when you cannot see Jesus with your eyes, but can only know Him by faith.  Jesus prays that the Father would keep you in His Name (v. 11). 
            And that is what He does here in the Church.  He makes you one with His Church.  He makes His Church one as His own Body.  The whole thing is a Trinitarian action.  The Father keeps you in the Name that the Son has given you, the Triune Name, by His Holy Spirit, who works upon you in Word and Sacrament to give you faith in Christ, join you to His Body, and sustain and strengthen you in that faith.  That is what we will celebrate next Sunday in the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Jesus prays for you, that you remember your own Baptism, where the Spirit is given to you personally, and that you be ever faithful and bold in your confession of Jesus Christ.  Jesus prays that you be preserved when you must suffer the fiery trial of persecution and rejection on account of His Name, as St. Peter warns you in our Epistle (1 Peter 4:12).  Jesus prays that you rejoice and be glad as you share in Christ’s sufferings (v. 13), knowing that you are blessed, “because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (v. 14).  Jesus prays that you would humble yourself (5:6), that you would cast all your anxieties upon Him and recognize that He cares for you (v. 7), that you would be sober-minded and watchful, resisting the crafts and assaults of the evil one, firm in your faith, suffering in patience in the hope that God Himself will restore, comfort, strengthen, and establish you (vv. 8-10).  And again, what is the Father’s answer?  What else can it be?  He says, “Yes.”  God does it.  He does it for you, for Jesus’ sake.
            “I’m praying for you,” we say to one another, to comfort and encourage one another.  That is good and right and very important.  But even better and more important is what Jesus says to you this morning: “I’m praying for you.  I’m praying for you and for the whole Church of God.  Be at rest.  I have the Father’s ear.  I intercede on your behalf.  And because of My blood and death, the Father hears and answers, and He delivers.”  What do you do when you need the comfort of this promise?  You simply trace the sign of our Lord’s glorification upon yourself, and speak the Name He manifested to you by writing it upon you in His own blood: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  Amen. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 21, 2017
Text: John 14:15-21; Acts 17:16-31

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleuia!
            St. Paul’s mission strategy in Athens is brilliant.  He begins with what is familiar to the Athenians, talks philosophy with the Epicureans and Stoics, tours the marketplace and the main street, all the while making conversation with those around him.  And he knows something about the Athenians, the key to grabbing their attention.  They fancy themselves a thinking people.  Athens is a lot like a university town.  Paul knows that the Athenians love to spend their time in nothing else but the telling or the hearing of new ideas, new concepts, new philosophies.  And Paul has something extraordinarily new to tell them.  A man, a flesh and blood God, died the accursed death of the Roman cross.  And this man, this flesh and blood God, has been raised from the dead.  And  He will come again to judge the world in righteousness, therefore the people should repent and believe in this man, Jesus, the Christ. 
            Now, he just gives them a little hint of this here and there as he’s walking about.  He leaves them begging for more.  “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting?  For you bring some strange things to our ears” (Acts 17:19-20; ESV).  They bring Paul to the Areopagus, the natural amphitheater where court is held and the important business of the city is done, and they invite him to speak.  He begins with a backhanded compliment.  “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.  For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (vv. 22-23).  This was actually very grievous to Paul, this rank idolatry and polytheism.  And of course, this altar to an unknown god is not directed to the one true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This altar is simply meant to cover the Athenians’ bases, make sure they don’t leave anybody out, lest they offend some powerful deity.  When it comes to the gods, more is better, or so the thinking goes among the Greeks.  But Paul will now tell them about this unknown God.  He’s the only one!  And He is the Maker of heaven and earth and everything that is.  The Athenians know something of Him by nature.  Their own poets know that “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “we are indeed his offspring” (v. 28).  This is what we call the natural knowledge of God.  But now Paul will fill in the gaps with God as He reveals Himself in Christ.  It is this God whose Son became a man and died and rose for the salvation of the world and is coming again to judge.  Repent and believe.  Brilliant rhetoric!  St. Paul would get an A+ in his seminary homiletics class.  Megachurches have been named after this address.  The English for “Areopagus,” is “Mars Hill.”  But what happened?  Hearing this ridiculous idea about the resurrection of the dead, most dismissed the Gospel as utter foolishness.  Many mocked.  Some said they would hear Paul again, but really they were just being polite, or at best, always up for more intellectual discussion.  Only a few believed.  Brilliant mission strategy, yes.  But even the great St. Paul does not have a silver bullet for effective evangelism.  Brilliant strategy or no, the Christian is simply called to speak the Word of the Lord in the world.  Our God will do with it what He will.  Once in a great while, over 3,000 souls will be added to the number of believers, as happened when Peter preached on Pentecost.  More often than not, most will consider the preaching of Christ crucified and risen from the dead utter foolishness.  Some will mock, some will hear politely, and only a few will believe. 
            Why is this?  St. Paul answers the question for us in 1 Corinthians: “The natural person,” the unconverted person, left to his own reason, “does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (2:14).  That is to say, because natural fallen man is born spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, he is unable to comprehend the Word of the Lord, no matter how smart he may be.  The Greeks represent the very highest of human wisdom.  Really, you should study them.  They’ll teach you how to think, which (this being no commentary on the present company) is a skill sadly lacking in this current generation.  The very highest of human wisdom, beloved, is unable to comprehend the things of God, unable to believe Jesus Christ and His salvation.  Foolishness.  That is what the Gospel is to the highest of human wisdom.
            That is why we need the Holy Spirit.  “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him.”[1]  “I believe that I cannot… believe.”  We’re born incapable of comprehending the things of God, believing in Jesus Christ, and so, if we are to believe, God must do it in us.  He does it by His Spirit, in the Gospel.  He does it in Holy Scripture and Preaching.  The Spirit is poured out upon you in Holy Baptism, even as He descended upon Jesus in Baptism.  The Spirit delivers the forgiveness of sins to you in Absolution.  And He unites you to Christ your Lord in the Supper of Jesus’ true body and blood.  In other words, the Spirit does His work where the Gospel is being done, which is to say the Holy Christian Church which He has gathered together and in which He is daily and richly forgiving your sins and the sins of all believers for Christ’s sake. 
            “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,” Jesus says in our Holy Gospel this morning (John 14:16).  “Helper.”  There’s that word again, Paraclete, meaning also Comforter, Counselor, Advocate, literally the One Called to your Side in time of trouble.  This is, of course, the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.  What a tremendous reading for this Sunday in the Church year.  Here we get a little foretaste of the three upcoming Feasts: The Ascension, Pentecost, and the Holy Trinity.  The Ascension, which we get this Thursday, because Jesus says He is going away (from the disciples’ sight, anyway… He really isn’t going anywhere).  But He promises the Spirit will proceed from the Father and the Son so that we will not be left as orphans.  That’s Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit.  And Holy Trinity: In this way, the Spirit will teach you that Jesus is in the Father, and you are in Jesus, and Jesus is in you (v. 20); perfect fellowship with our Triune God.  Beautiful stuff.  Stuff we only know now by faith, not by sight.
            Because this is what the Spirit makes known to us.  The “Spirit of Truth,” Jesus calls Him (v. 17), because He leads us into all truth.  And we heard last week that Jesus Himself is the “Truth” (v. 6).  The Spirit ever and always points us to Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, for the forgiveness of sins.  That is His job.  The Spirit rarely talks about Himself.  He is always talking about Jesus.  That is why every sermon is about Jesus.  That is why the cross is our theology.  The Spirit brings you to faith in Jesus and keeps you in the faith of Jesus so that you have fellowship with the Father as God’s own child.  This Spirit dwells with you and is in you and you know Him (v. 17).  He is in you in His Word, which is the Word of our Father, which is all about Jesus.  And here’s the kicker… It’s what St. Paul preached to the Athenians: Because the Spirit is in the Word uniting you to Jesus and thus restoring you to the Father, and because Jesus lives… you live (v. 19).  That’s what Jesus says.  Because He is risen, you have been raised already spiritually, and He will raise you from the dead bodily on that Day.  Or as we say it in the Catechism, “On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ.  This is most certainly true.” 
            Now, what does that mean for missions, and for a mission cogregation?  What does it mean for preachers?  What does it mean for the Church, for you?  It means the only mission to which God calls His Church is to preach Jesus Christ.  Not to be hip.  Not to be relevant (as if God’s holy Church and His precious Gospel could ever be irrelevant!).  The mission of the Church is not to conform to the world and make itself more palatable to the world.  Because Jesus says right here in our Holy Gospel, “the world cannot receive” the Spirit of Truth, “because it neither sees him nor knows him” (v. 17).  If you go meet the world on the world’s terms, you may gather a lot of people into the Church building, but they’ll leave here as unbelieving and dead as they were when they came.  The mission of the Church is not simply to fill the pews and the offering plate, which is too often how we think of missions.  It is to preach Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.  And in that Word, in the Gospel, the Spirit is present, creating faith where and when He pleases in those who hear the Gospel (AC V).  It’s all up to Him!  Wow, that takes the pressure off!  We aren’t called to succeed.  We’re called to preach.  Whatever happens as a result is the Holy Spirit’s problem!  Is there someone you know who doesn’t believe in Jesus, someone you’ve been aching to bring to the Savior?  Say a prayer for that person and invite them to Church.  Tell them you love them and Jesus loves them and you want them to know Jesus.  They might say no.  Or they might come.  They might not believe.  But they might.  That’s God’s problem, not yours.  When Paul preached to the crowd in Athens, some mocked and others dismissed the message.  Most didn’t believe.  But some did.  Because Paul preached Jesus, and by the preaching of Jesus, the Spirit created faith. 
            And you… rejoice, because you were once in the world that cannot receive the Spirit because it neither sees Him nor knows Him.  But the Spirit, by grace, apart from any work or merit or worthiness in you, called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, sanctified and has kept you to this very moment in the one true faith of Jesus Christ.  Jesus promised you the Paraclete, and He gave you the Paraclete.  Baptized into Christ, the Holy Spirit sent the evil spirits packing and took possession of you whole.  You live by the Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.  And because the Spirit dwells with you and is in you, you have no altars to an unknown God.  Your altar is to the one true God.  You know Him by Name, and call upon Him by Name.  His Name is on you, and His body and blood is in you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!      

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

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-14

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            We call it the scandal of particularity, what Jesus says in the Holy Gospel this morning.  It is a verse beloved by many, but those same people, maybe even you, are horrified when you stop to think about what the verse actually says: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6; ESV).  This is not the touchy-feely verse we so often think it is.  Jesus is saying He’s the only way of salvation, the only way to eternal life, the only way to heaven.  No one comes to the Father except through Him.  He’s the Truth, the Truth by which the truthfulness of everything else is measured.  And He is the Life, for outside of Him there is only death and condemnation in hell.  Do you hear how politically incorrect all of this is?  The scandal of particularity, a scandal because Jesus, this Jesus in particular, the Jesus proclaimed in the Bible, is the only way, the only truth, the only life, by which you come to the Father.  He’s the only true God, with the Father, and the Holy Spirit.  All roads do not lead to the same place.  Jesus is it.  He leads to life.  All other roads lead to death.  And if that bothers you, remember, Jesus is the One who said it.  If you have a problem with that, your problem is with Jesus Christ.  Repent. 
            But also rejoice, because here Jesus has told you the way to the Father, the way to eternal life.  It is Himself.  You don’t have to guess.  You don’t have to try this road, then that road, this truth, then that truth, making your best educated conjecture about which is the right one when your eternal destiny is on the line.  Stick with Jesus and you have it.  You don’t have to work for it.  You cannot earn it.  Jesus gives it to you freely, this eternal life, by His suffering, death, and resurrection, handed over to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments.  You want to go to the Father, to the Father’s House in which there are many rooms, and a place prepared especially for you?  You know the way.  Follow Jesus.  He’s the way.
            Now, Philip wanted just a little glimpse of the Father, and that would be enough for him.  Then he could know for certain that Jesus is speaking the truth.  We often want the same thing, just a little glimpse, some evidence that all of this is true.  Show us heaven.  Show us the Father.  That’s why books and movies like Heaven is for Real are so popular.  Now, I know some of you have enjoyed that particular movie and book, and that’s fine, but I do want you to understand something.  Your comfort and assurance do not come from the subjective experiences of people who have had near death experiences, who may or may not have seen heaven, and who certainly have filtered their experiences through their own fallen reason and worldview, not to mention erroneous theology.  And certainly your comfort and assurance are not to come from dramatized versions of those subjective experiences in movies.  What you’re wanting out of a movie like that is what Philip wanted.  Just a little glimpse.  Just a little evidence.  As if Jesus and His Word, which is Truth, is not enough.  What does Jesus say to Philip?  “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?” (v. 9).  “Well, that’s Philip,” you say.  “He got to see Jesus with his own eyes.”  True enough.  But you get to hear Jesus with your own ears in His holy Word.  You get to touch His Body and Blood in the Supper, eat it and drink it, that same Body that was crucified for you, that same Blood poured out for you, His resurrection Body and Blood now coursing through your veins.  And you have His promise that wherever two or three of you are gathered, there He is in the midst of you (Matt. 18:20).  You have His promise that He is with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt. 28:20).  So has He been with you so long and still you do not know Him, not so well anyway that you don’t have to seek comfort and assurance from those who have allegedly “been there”?  Come on, beloved!  Jesus is here right now, for you, and He’s telling you that you don’t need that when you have Him!  Because if you’ve seen Him, you’ve seen the Father!  And you have.  You’ve seen Him with your ears.  You’ve seen Him with your tongues.  You’ve tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8).  And so you’ve seen the Father.  You know the Father.  You know Him in His Son Jesus.  You get all your comfort and assurance right here in the Father’s House, where He gives you Jesus.  “The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works” (John 14:10).  The words of Jesus are the words of the Father.  Hearing Jesus, you hear the Father.  If you know Jesus, you know the Father.  When Jesus comes to you, the Father comes to you, and you have eternal life and a place in the Father’s House, at the Father’s Table.
            Jesus says He goes to prepare a place for you (vv. 2-3), a place in the Father’s House.  He’s not talking about doing renovations to your room somewhere up there in heaven, though He does use wood and nails to accomplish His preparations.  He’s talking about the cross.  That is where He does the work.  He takes the nails, the wood, up onto the mountain, to be nailed there, to suffer and bleed there, to die there, so that you have a place in the Father’s House.  Sinners cannot live in the Father’s House.  Sinners cannot live in the presence of God’s holiness.  That’s a big problem for us who just confessed ourselves to be poor miserable sinners.  And that’s why Jesus is the only way to the Father and to eternal life.  He takes our sin away.  He does it to death on the cross.  He buries it in the tomb forever.  He washes us clean with His blood in Baptism.  He declares us righteous in His Absolution.  So even though we still sin and we’re still sinners for the moment, now in this earthly life, our old sinful nature is daily put to death in Baptism, daily crucified in repentance, along with all sin and evil desires, and our new self in Christ Jesus is daily brought forth to new life by the power of Christ’s resurrection.  As a result, the Father does not look at you as the sinner that you are.  He looks at you and sees you covered in the righteousness and holiness of His Son Jesus.  You are clothed with Jesus.  God looks at you and sees His Son, and calls you sons and daughters, and gives you the place Jesus prepared for you in His death and resurrection. 
            It is not only a place for your soul in heaven when you die, though it is that.  It is also and especially a place in the new heavens and the new earth, in your body, on the Day of Resurrection.  But it is not only a future place.  It is a place right here and now in the Body of Christ that is the Holy Church.  It is a place right here and now around the Lord’s Altar, the Christian family Table.  You are, after all, named with God’s Name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Baptism means you are God’s own child.  That makes the place Jesus has prepared for you in the Father’s House a present reality.  You have a place where you belong.  Right here.  Right now.  The place Jesus has prepared for you by His death and resurrection.
            And because that is the case, “Let not your hearts be troubled” (v. 1).  Believe in the Father.  Believe in Jesus.  For when you believe in Jesus, you believe in the Father.  You can’t have one without the other.  And be comforted.  Even when being a Christian is hard.  Even when being a Christian is scandalous.  It is, you know.  There is the scandal of particularity that Jesus preaches this morning, that He is the only way of salvation, the only way to the Father, that our Triune God is the only true God.  Then there are the scandalous things you believe because the Bible teaches them, things that the culture rejects, like marriage between one man and one woman for life, like sexuality being reserved for the holy estate of marriage, like life being sacred from conception to natural death, something only God can give and only God should take away.  Being a Christian is scandalous.  You may lose friends over this.  You may suffer family strife over this (Jesus said it would happen – Matt. 10:34-39).  You may suffer the loss of your possessions, your freedom, your life.  So be it.  Let not your heart be troubled.  Jesus has prepared a place for you that no one can take away.  It is the Father’s House.  And Jesus is the way.  Believe in Him and you have it.  Take your comfort and assurance from Him alone.  You don’t need to see it to believe it.  You have Jesus’ Word on it.  You have Jesus’ Body and Blood on it.  And in having Jesus in His Word and Body and Blood, you have the Father.  And in having the Father and the Son you have the Holy Spirit who proceeds from them.  You have the one God, who lives and reigns to all eternity, the God who has written His Name on you: The Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter (A)
May 7, 2017
Text: John 10:1-10

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            When Jesus refers to us as sheep, it is not a compliment.  He is not calling us cute, cuddly fuzz balls.  Sheep need the vigilant and meticulous care of the shepherd, particularly the way they raise sheep in the Middle East.  The shepherd leads his sheep out to graze on the hillsides where there are predators and other hazards.  The sheep are unbound, and for the most part, unthinkingly follow the rest of the flock, which offers its own perils.  “If everyone jumps off a bridge,” and all that…  But worse is when one sheep wanders off on its own.  Now, some shepherds will argue this point (and methinks they doeth protest too much), but sheep are not the smartest animals on earth.  They get themselves into all sorts of predicaments.  When a sheep is threatened by a predator, it is literally paralyzed with fear.  It doesn’t run.  It doesn’t hide.  It lies down and refuses to move.  Sheep have been known to get so close to a pond or a stream for a drink, their wool starts to soak up the water, and before you know it they’ve fallen in and they’re too heavy with water to get themselves out again.  This is why shepherds carry crooks.  They aren’t just walking sticks.  They yank the wanderers and the stragglers out of harm’s way.  This is why there are sheep dogs.  They may be man’s best friend, offering companionship to the shepherd, but they’re there to bark and growl and nip and bite to keep the sheep in the safe orbit of the shepherd.  No, sheep aren’t all that smart, and frankly, they’re a pain in the neck.  Jesus calls you a sheep, O sinner.  Chew on that one awhile.  He’s talking about how you run off on your own, away from your Shepherd, Jesus, off to gnaw on poisonous weeds, the fleshly pleasures of this world, the things that take you farther away from our Lord; how you meander right into the clutches of the wolves and the robbers and even play with their fire as if you can escape them, only to lie down paralyzed when they come in for the kill; how you run from the still waters of your Baptism and fall into the Dead Sea of sin and unbelief.  Repent, O sinner.  Repent, O sheep. 
            But know this.  You aren’t just any sheep.  You are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.  You belong to Him.  A good shepherd is one who will lay down his life for the sheep.  Like young David in the hills of Bethlehem, he’ll wrestle with the lions and the bears.  He’d rather be torn to pieces than let a predator make off with one of his precious lambs.  It’s the strangest thing.  These silly, rebellious, stupid sheep… The shepherd loves them!  And there is one thing sheep have going for them.  They know the voice of their shepherd.  They won’t follow the voice of a stranger.  Shepherds will often gather their flocks together for grazing.  They’re all mixed up with one another.  But when evening comes and it’s time to return to the sheepfold, each shepherd will call, and the sheep know which voice to follow.  This is also what it means that you are sheep.  You may not know much, but you know your Shepherd’s voice.  You know, in the cacophony of all the would-be shepherds calling you in the world… you know the voice of Jesus.  You know His Word.  And you follow Him.
            Now, at night, the shepherd calls, and the sheep gather to him, and he leads them to the sheepfold.  Here the danger is that thieves and robbers will break in and steal, or predators may try to sneak in through the gate.  So the shepherd sleeps in the entrance of the fold.  If you want my sheep, you’re gonna have to get through me!  And so Jesus says, “I am the door” (John 10:7; ESV).  He means that quite literally.  He’s saying, “If anyone wants to get my sheep, you’re gonna have to get through me!”  You’re safe in the sheepfold.  And what is the sheepfold?  You’re in it!  It is the holy Christian Church.  Jesus is the door to the Church.  You enter by Him.  That is to say, you are baptized into Christ.  The water and the Word, the font, that is where you enter through Jesus.  You enter through His death and resurrection.  You are made one with your Lord.  And here, in the sheepfold, He tends you.  He cares for you.  He leads you in and out with His voice, His Word.  He provides you with green pastures, sets a table before you in the presence of your enemies, His body, His blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.  Your cup overflows.  And He keeps you safe.  He teaches you His voice, and warns you against the voices of others, the thieves and the robbers and the snarls of the adversary who prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.  You Shepherd puts Himself on the line, lest these enemies steal or consume you.  And it’s not just for show, God against some lesser creatures that are no match for Him.  Your Shepherd, your God, is a man, Jesus Christ.  And He dies for the sheep.  He dies for you.  That is what it means that He is your Good Shepherd.  When others would run away, He confronts the danger head-on, and gives Himself in sacrifice.  For you.  To save you.  And on the Third Day, He rises from the dead, and now He ever tends you and cares for you, vigilantly and meticulously.  You belong to Him, and you are precious in His sight.
            In our text, Jesus spends a great deal of time and energy warning us against the thieves and robbers.  Who are these characters?  These are the false teachers who, by trickery and sneakery, and in service to the wolf, Satan, want to steal you away from the sheepfold.  Now, this is the part of the text nobody likes.  This gets a lot of pastors in hot water with the sheep.  But I don’t work for you.  I work for the Good Shepherd.  So here you go.  There are false teachers who claim to be Christians, but are not.  And there are false teachers who sincerely think they are Christians, but are not.  And there are false teachers who are, in fact, by a felicitous inconsistency between their teaching and their faith, Christians, but are nonetheless dangerous because they lead other sheep astray.  That is to say, some of the books and movies and television programs you like because they claim to be Christian, aren’t good for you!  (I told you you wouldn’t like this part.)  And some of the religious personalities you admire may lead you astray.  “But Pastor, they’re so sincere!”  Yes, yes they are.  They are sincerely wrong.  You’ve heard the old saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  “But Pastor, a little bit of false doctrine isn’t going to hurt anyone.”  Neither is a little bit of arsenic, until it builds up in the system and kills you.  “But Pastor, some of the stuff they say is pretty good.”  And not everything the serpent said to Eve was wrong.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all for her to give him a hearing, and take the good and leave the bad.  (That was sarcasm, by the way, for those of you in Rio Linda.  The point is, no, she should not have listened to the serpent, at all!)
            Now, don’t walk away thinking I’m saying things I didn’t say.  No, I am not unchurching all the Christians who aren’t Missouri Synod Lutherans.  No, I am not saying all the other Christians are going to hell.  If you walk away thinking that, you aren’t listening.  What I’m telling you is, doctrine matters.  All of it.  Jesus’ voice matters.  If He said it, it’s important.  Even if you don’t think it is.  Even if you don’t understand it.  Even if you don’t like it.  He does not lie.  He is your Good Shepherd.  He knows what is good for you and what is bad for you.  You follow His voice, and His voice only.  All other voices lead to deadly peril.
            And this teaches us something about the Holy Ministry.  The word “pastor” means “shepherd.”  When kids get this wrong and accidently call me “pasture,” they aren’t all that far off.  Same root for both words.  Pastors are undershepherds of the Good Shepherd.  Which means what they speak better be the Word of Jesus.  It better be the Good Shepherd’s voice you’re hearing.  There are thieves and robbers, and they’re sneaky.  They love to pose as pastors.  Now, on the one hand, God gives pastors to help you sort out the voices, to warn you against false teachers.  That is my job.  To warn you, and to name names.  But on the other hand, it is so important that you, as a sheep, know your Good Shepherd’s voice, in case I turn out to be one of those false teachers.  How do you know?  How do you learn to discern the voices?  This is where it is so important, beloved, to drink deeply of God’s Word.  To be in it always.  To immerse yourself in it.  As we pray in the collect, God grant that we hear the Word, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it.  The very most important thing is to be in the Divine Service at every opportunity.  Don’t be a sheep wandering off by yourself!  God will send the sheep dogs after you.  Don’t say I didn’t warn you.  Be in Bible study and Sunday School.  Be in prayer and devotion at home each day.  This is so important.  Be like the Berean Christians, who heard Paul’s preaching gladly, and then searched the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11). 
            Then recognize what God has given your pastor to do for you.  He’s to be Jesus’ mouth and hands in this flock.  In other words, he’s to do the dirty work.  Shepherds don’t just hike around the hills all day in the green grass with their sheep.  There is the sheering and the binding of wounds and the manure and the stink of it all.  There is the constant counting and watching and, for the Christian shepherds at least, the leaving of the 99 to go find that one rebellious sheep who wandered off, and carry him back as he kicks and bleats and bites the shepherd.  The life of the pastor isn’t all glitz and glamor.  Yes, there’s the preaching and teaching and baptizing and feeding with the Supper.  All wonderful stuff.  It’s the stuff you usually see.  There is also the wrestling in prayer for your soul, the spiritual battle that goes on daily behind the scenes.  There are the visitations, the delinquent calls, the vigil at the bedside of the dying Christian, making sure the sheep can hear the voice of the Shepherd through the Word until he hears that voice for himself before the throne in heaven.  There are the wounded and angry sheep to be tended.  There are the frank discussions about sin.  Sometimes there must be discipline.  There is Confession, and of course, Absolution!  There is joy, and there is sorrow.  There are the tragedies of the sheep, and there are the triumphs.  When a bishop is consecrated for his office, he is given, quite appropriately, a shepherd’s crook.  Every pastor ought to have one.  It’s a rod and staff of comfort for the sheep.  It’s also a hook to yank you back when you wander and sometimes give you a little knock on the behind.  In other words, the pastor’s job is Law and Gospel.  It’s the Word.  It’s the voice of Jesus. 

            Beloved, Jesus calls you a sheep, and it’s not a compliment.  But it is a comfort.  Don’t be insulted.  Embrace it.  It means you are loved and cared for by the Good Shepherd, your Savior, Jesus Christ, who will never leave you or forsake you.  So good is He, He gave His life for the sheep.  He gave His life for you.  But that’s not all.  He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.                     

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter (A)
April 30, 2017
Text: Luke 24:13-35

He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!
            Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent” (Luke 24:29; ESV).  They did not even know it was the Lord when they spoke this petition.  As yet their eyes were kept from recognizing Him (v. 16).  But their hearts had burned within them as this Stranger opened the Scriptures (v. 32) to Cleopas and his traveling companion on the road to Emmaus, showing them from Moses and the Prophets (what we have come to call the Old Testament) that the Christ must suffer these things, be condemned to death by the religious and secular authorities and be crucified, and in this way enter His glory (vv. 26-27).  To be sure, their invitation was a customary act of hospitality.  It is dangerous to be out on the road at night.  There are robbers and wild animals and other hazards of the road better dealt with in the light.  But it is more than that.  They do not want their time with this wise Traveler to end.  There is something about Him that comforts them.  He gives them peace when their life is anything but peaceful, having just suffered the traumatic death of their Teacher and Lord, their hopes profoundly disappointed, grief and fear their constant companions.  And now this confusion, the reports of the women about the empty tomb and preaching angels declaring that He is risen from the dead.  In the midst of all of this there is this Man who, by the simple speaking of His Word, gives them hope and faith that this is all according to God’s plan, that somehow in all of this God has worked salvation, and in the end, the God who brought about the defeat of death by dying, who raised Jesus from the dead, will make all that is wrong in our world and in our lives right.
            So stay with us Lord.  It’s getting dark.  We don’t want to be alone.  It feels like You have forsaken us, like You have gone away.  After all, we can’t see You.  Not with our fallen eyes.  And there are dangers here in the darkness: the sin that seeks to destroy us and those we love; Satan and his minions who want to rob us of our faith and hope; sickness and pain and death, which leave us in the meantime with our constant companions of grief and fear.  But here when You speak Your Word, our hearts burn within us, for You give us faith and hope and peace in the midst of all these perils.  For You open the Scriptures to us.  Beginning with Moses and the Prophets (the Old Testament) and continuing with the writings of the Apostles and Evangelists (the New Testament), You show us that in Your suffering and death you enter into Your glory and You take us with You.  You do not leave us or forsake us.  You do not leave us in sin, for You died for our forgiveness and You daily forgive us in Holy Absolution.  You do not leave us a prey for Satan and the demons, for in Your crucifixion, You crushed the serpent’s head.  You do not leave us in death and the grave, for You are the risen and ascended Lord.  You have prepared a place for us in heaven with You, and on the Last Day, You will raise us bodily from the dead.
            “Stay with us, Lord, for it is evening, and the day is almost over” (LSB 243).[1]  The disciples’ petition has become the cry of the holy Christian Church.  It is a prominent petition in the Church’s Evening Prayer liturgy.  We sing it in hymns like “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide.  The darkness deepens; Lord, with me abide” (LSB 878:1).  It’s not the strongest Christmas carol we sing, but my mother often sang “Away in a Manger” with me before bed when I was a child.  The third verse is priceless in the petition, “Be near me, Lord Jesus; I ask Thee to stay Close by me forever and love me, I pray” (LSB 364:3).  Around the dinner table we often pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest.”  We don’t just mean at our meal, but in our homes and in our lives.  These petitions echo Luther’s evening prayer which we learn in the Small Catechism: “graciously keep me this night.  For into Your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things.  Let Your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me.”  If you haven’t memorized that prayer, please do, and pray it every night.  Memorize some of these evening hymns.  Memorize and pray this verse from the Holy Gospel: “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent.”
            And Jesus does.  He stays with you.  He does not make Himself visible to your eyes, but He is with you as assuredly as we’re all together here this morning, with you as your God certainly, but also as your fellow Human Being, as a Man, a flesh and blood Presence.  Your eyes are kept from recognizing Him.  That is until He is at the Table with you, the Altar, and He takes bread, blesses it, and gives it to you.  That is how the disciples at Emmaus recognized Him, in the breaking of the bread.  And so you.  Faith recognizes the Lord Jesus in the bread that is His Body, the wine that is His Blood.  We recognize Him in the Supper, really and substantially present.  And we realize that just because we cannot see Him, that doesn’t mean He’s gone.  After breaking the bread before the Emmaus disciples, He vanished from their sight (v. 31), but He didn’t go away.  They knew, as we know, that He is always with us, hidden in the Sacrament.  He is always with us, hidden in His Word, for when He speaks, our hearts burn within us.  He is always with us wherever we go, because that is what He said: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
            And so, the time is getting late.  Do you recognize that it is toward evening?  Do you recognize that these are the gray and latter days of the world?  You may know it by whatever darkness is in your life.  Sins that plague you, guilt that won’t go away, deteriorating bodies, your own and those of loved ones, and finally the grave that you know will one day be your bed.  Change and decay in all around you see, as the hymn puts it (LSB 878:4).  There is certainly the darkness that surrounds the world: wars and rumors of wars, earthquakes and famines, corrupt politicians, decaying morals, abortion, homelessness, the hypersexualization of the culture, gay marriage, the list goes on.  What good news for you and for all people that the risen Lord Jesus comes to you where you dwell and He stays.  He abides.  He never goes away.  He died for the darkness.  He covered it all in His blood, washed away all the bad, all the sin, all the fallen-ness.  And He blew a hole through death, opened up the grave, exposed it to the light of His risen glory.  “Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome” (LSB 243; John 8:12; 1:5).  He stays.  He lets His light scatter the darkness (1 Cor. 4:5) and illumine His Church (2 Cor. 4:6).  He casts the bright beams of His light upon you, enlightens your mind, your heart, your soul, so that you see Him even where He is hidden from your eyes, but really present for you.  You see Him by faith, and you know that He has answered your prayer.  He stays with you.  And the evening has no power over you.
            The Emmaus disciples reported these things to the Eleven in Jerusalem that same evening.  And just as Jesus had vanished suddenly from their sight at Emmaus, so also He appears suddenly in the midst of the disciples in Jerusalem.  And He speaks His peace.  He shows them His hands and His side, His crucifixion wounds.  He eats some broiled fish (Luke 24:36-42).  And there is no doubt about it.  This is no ghost.  Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.  For 40 days He appears here and there among His people, out of nowhere, and then vanishes again.  But there is no doubt it is Him.  On day 40 He ascended into heaven and was hidden by a cloud.  But He is not gone.  He is with us, just as He was with the Emmaus disciples and the apostles.  We do not see Him with our eyes, but one day we will.  In the meantime, come to the Table.  You will recognize Him in the breaking of the bread.  Here He answers your prayer.  He stays with you.  For He is risen!  He is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Hymns and liturgical texts from Lutheran Service Book (St. Louis: Concordia, 2006).  Catechism texts from Luther’s Small Catechism (St. Louis: Concordia, 1986).