Friday, April 19, 2019

Pure, Wholesome, Soothing Medicine

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 22:7-20
April 18, 2019
Maundy Thursday-C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed—on this night!—took bread and wine and gave His church a priceless gift—a sacrament—for the forgiveness of sins. What is the Sacrament of the Altar? The Small Catechism tells us: It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink. That’s
how, Luther says, the head of the household is to teach his family about this holy meal—in terms that are simple, and clear, and most certainly true.

But in his Large Catechism Luther broadened his approach as he sought to explain the six chief parts for pastors and teachers. In fact, Luther wasn’t opposed to using a good metaphor when it helped to teach the truth about God’s good gifts. And to help express the blessings and benefits of the Lord’s Supper, Luther used the metaphor of medicine. He wrote: We must never regard the sacrament as a harmful thing from which we should flee, but as a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine which aids and quickens us in both soul and body. For where the soul is healed, the body has benefited also. (LC68)

This medicine metaphor is absolutely marvelous! For all of us—from the greatest to the least—have taken medicine. We’ve all benefited from an aptly administered pharmaceutical. It could be something as simple as aspirin for a headache or decongestant for allergies. Or it could be that you are alive and breathing today only because of the miracle of a modern medicine.

When it comes to the medicine of the Lord’s Supper, please note that it is “by prescription only.” The Lord Jesus is the one who gives this medicine; and you can’t receive it unless He gives it. And He gives it by the power of His Word. No mortar and pestle, no test tubes and Bunsen burners. This medicine is created exclusively by the Words of our Lord. Without His Words there is no medicine, no sacrament, no body, no blood. But with His Words—His Words of institution—we have the blessed medicine that heals us in soul and body: This is my body, which is given for you. This cup is the New Testament in my blood, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. It’s not the power of the pastor. Nor is it the power of our faith. It is by power of Christ’s own Words that this heavenly medicine can be offered among us on earth.

As with all medicines, so also with this sacramental medicine: You must take it as directed. Every med comes with directions and precautions. Otherwise, great harm can result—sometimes, even death. We heard earlier tonight that the medicine of our Lord’s body and blood is “for the special comfort of those who are troubled because of their sin and who humbly confess their sins, fear God’s wrath, and hunger and thirst for righteousness” (LSB 290). If you don’t think that you have any sins to confess, then this medicine is not for you. If you have no plans to change your sinful life with the help of the Holy Spirit, then this medicine is not for you. If you have no intention or desire to forgive others as you yourself have been forgiven by God—or if you do not believe the words of Jesus when He says, “This is my body. This is my blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” then this medicine is not for you. We are not playing. We are not pretending here. We are not simply engaging in an ancient ritual with symbolic meaning. We are receiving potent and powerful medicine which has the potential for great harm if received unworthily—but also the promise of great good and healing when received in repentant faith—the promise of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

The blessings and benefits of this medicine when it is received in faith are amazing. Tonight’s readings all describe this medicine as part of the “new covenant,” or “new testament.” Jesus said, “This cup is the new testament in my blood.” Through the prophet Jeremiah, the Lord proclaimed the benefits and blessings of the New Covenant, summarized in these precious words: For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more. The chief blessing of this New Covenant medicine is the forgiveness of sins. And not only does the Lord forgive our sins; but He remembers them no more.

Do you want to be freed from your shameful record of sin? Do you want those sins to be forgiven and forgotten—along with the power to forgive and forget the sins that have been committed against you? Do you desire to lead a holy life in word and deed—a holy life that corresponds to the Holy Baptism you have received? Do you need help and strength for the crosses you bear and the burdens you carry? Do you desire an antidote to the devil and his deceit? Do you want to be busy doing good, letting your light shine so that others may see it and give glory to your heavenly Father? Then receive the medicine that makes it all possible. Take the bread that is His body. Drink the wine that is His blood. Let your life be filled with His life.

What would you pay for medicine like that? Do you think you could afford it? Good medicine isn’t cheap. It never has been. And it sometimes seems like the more helpful and necessary a medication is, the more expensive it is. The medicine of our Lord’s body and blood—this pure wholesome, soothing medicine—this is medicine that money can’t buy. Only the precious life and death of our Lord could secure it for you. His sinless life in exchange for your sinful life. He Himself accepts the charges that you could never pay. He goes to Calvary’s cross so that this medicine might be yours—in the proper dosage, at the proper time, bringing you forgiveness, life and salvation.

Accept no substitutes. Don’t let anyone tell you that this medicine is not real—that it is not the true body and blood of Jesus. To believe otherwise is to make a liar of our Lord—to reject the clear and unambiguous words He spoke on the night when He was betrayed. And as for those who claim that this medicine is all just symbol and no substance—I wonder how many of them would go to their physician and say, “I only want the symbolic medicine.” Or, “Please, just give me the placebo. I’m fine with that.” No, sin and death are powerful enemies—a contagion that can only be treated and defeated by something more powerful: real body and real blood for our real sins, bringing real life that lasts forever.

The Lord’s Supper is, indeed, “a pure, wholesome, soothing medicine.” But I recently read somewhere that fewer people than ever before in our culture are receiving this medicine. The percentage of our population regularly receiving this pure medicine is shrinking down lower than it has ever been. It certainly explains a lot, doesn’t it? If it seems like the whole culture has gone “off its meds,” there may be some truth to that.

So, let’s take our medicine-with repentant joy. Let’s receive this medicine with deep thanksgiving to the Lord who gives it. And let’s hold fast to our confession concerning this medicine—without wavering—trusting our Lord, tasting His love, and receiving His healing.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Faith at the Cross

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 23:39-43
April 14, 2019
Palm/Passion Sunday

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

This Sunday has it all: powerful Scripture readings, moving hymns, triumph and tragedy, sin and sacrifice. Thousands of sermons could be preached based upon the Word of God we’ve heard today. And, in fact, every sermon is based upon the Word of God we’ve heard
today. And St. Paul in today’s epistle manages to summarize it all in one sentence: And being found in human form, He humbled Himself to the point of death, even death on a cross.

What the Scriptures tell us about the final days leading up to Calvary’s cross is, at times, difficult to hear. For nearly everyone around Jesus—even His closest disciples—found disappointing ways to behave badly. On the way into Jerusalem, the disciples got into an argument about which of them was the greatest. Judas made plans to betray Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the disciples snoozed while Jesus agonized in prayer. Peter bragged about his loyalty, and then denied even knowing Jesus three times. And when Jesus was arrested, His faithful followers fled into the night. It is a sad, sordid, faithless account—with one notable exception.

Tucked away in the Passion of our Lord according to Saint Luke, is one little paragraph filled with fervent faith and good news. Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with [Jesus]. He was numbered with the transgressors. On His right and on His left were criminals—literally, evildoers. They had lived such outwardly evil lives—their sin was so extreme—that they were now receiving the death penalty—a public execution designed to discourage others from following their evil example. One of our Lord’s crucified comrades ranted and raved against Him, unrepentant. But the other man repented and recognized that he was getting what he deserved. Concerning Jesus he says, “This man has done nothing wrong.” And then he makes an amazing request: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

This is faith. That dying, crucified criminal teaches us what it means to walk by faith, and not by sight. When he looked at the man crowned with thorns on the center cross, he saw one thing with his eyes; but he saw something quite different by faith. With his eyes he saw a bleeding man, a dying victim, a powerless casualty of Roman brutality. Yet by faith he addressed Jesus as if He were a powerful king—a victorious hero: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.

That is faith. And that faith is precisely what you and I need more than anything else in this world. Your faith in Christ—the ability to see Him as your Savior—that is your most precious treasure. Faith alone sees the hidden realities that our eyes cannot see. Only by faith in Christ can we understand that this life isn’t all there is—that the sufferings of this present time aren’t even worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed in us—that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. Faith is the key to everything!

So if this faith is truly our most precious possession, why do we risk it? Why do we endanger it? Why do we imperil our faith through willful sinning—by treading right up to temptation instead of fleeing from it? If faith is so important, why do we squander so many opportunities to strengthen it through the reception of God’s gifts right here on Sunday morning? Faith makes all the difference between heaven and hell—between Paradise with Jesus and eternal punishment. What measures are you taking to guard and protect it—to strengthen and preserve it?

Your faith is of greater worth than gold. Faith gives what money can’t buy—what all your good works added together could never earn or achieve. Faith receives and believes the outrageous promise of Jesus the Christ: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise. Without faith, that promise is just a bunch of worthless words. But by faith, the one who hears it believes it, and it is so. Nothing changed immediately for the criminal who first heard this promise of Paradise. His body was still pierced by nails. Each breath became increasingly difficult. His cruel execution continued uninterrupted. But he—he had the promise of Jesus ringing in his ears that he would be with Jesus, that day, in Paradise. And that is faith. And that is everything.

For me this scene brings to mind a scene on a Libyan beach four years ago. Twenty-one men—Egyptian Coptic Christians—were kidnapped and killed by the Islamic State. A recent article I read about it was enlightening. The martyrdom of these faithful men was carefully choreographed. A video released by ISIS shows the martyrs clad in orange jumpsuits; and it labels them derisively as “People of the Cross.” The cross, you see, is the most offensive part of Christianity to the Muslim mind—that God should take frail flesh and die. The video is pure propaganda, designed to incite hatred for the West and cause Christians to tremble. But what the video cannot hide—what cannot be edited away—is the calm and courageous faith—faith that made all the difference for those 21 martyrs. For as knives are placed on necks, and as blades begin to draw blood—no one screams. No one fights. Only the soft voices of prayer are audible: Ya Rabbi Yasou. “Oh my Lord Jesus! Jesus, remember me!” And in an instant, they were with Jesus in Paradise.

These martyrs—together with the faithful criminal crucified with Jesus—they were given to see beyond temporary pain and death—to view with serenity and clarity the kingdom of Jesus. But they have nothing over you. You share their faith. The kingdom, the power, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ is hidden here for you in the washing of your baptism, in the preaching of God’s Word, and in the life-giving, faith-sustaining power of His Holy Supper.

Faith in Jesus is a miracle. It was faith that transformed a hardened, crucified criminal on death row into a newborn child of God, forgiven and free. He would have been listening later on when Jesus cried out, “It is finished.” He would have watched the soldiers come, seen the spear that pierced the Savior’s side, beheld the blood and water that flowed from that sacred wound—blood that paid for his sins, and water that washed him clean. Blood that atones for your sins; water that washes you whiter than snow.

And then in an instant, came total release and rescue. With his last breath on earth came the moment of perfect healing. At that very moment, on that very day, he was with Jesus in Paradise! Three days later others would see that it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Jesus. But already on that day, that man was with Jesus in Paradise.

By faith, Paradise is where God is taking you too. What happened to that repentant evildoer will also happen to all who repent and trust in Christ the crucified. His departure is a preview of our own departure. When we depart this life—at that very moment—we are with Jesus in Paradise. No wait. No limbo. No purgatory. No pearly gates. No soul sleep. Just with Jesus. In Paradise. And that is everything.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Grace Notes in a Passion Prelude

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 20:9-19
April 7, 2019
Lent 5C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Nearly every service at Our Savior begins with a prelude. A prelude is music with a sacred purpose. It’s not mood music. Nor is it just background noise—something to fill up a few minutes so that our late arrivals can be seated. Nor is the prelude’s purpose merely to showcase the pipe organ or the skills of the organist. No, a prelude is music with a sacred purpose.

The purpose of the prelude is to engage the hearts and minds of the baptized, leading them to ponder and reflect and perhaps even pray—based upon the Biblical theme of any given Sunday. It is music based on words—on texts—from the hymnal and the Bible. The practice of “preluding” goes back centuries. It even precedes the musical ministry of Johann Sebastian Bach—who set new standards of excellence with his preludes.

The prelude points ahead, sets the table, announces the presence of the Risen Lord among His people. This is why, when the prelude begins, our visiting and conversations conclude. The prelude is your invitation to set aside the routine cares and concerns of life, and instead, “lift up your hearts” and consider the Christ. Ponder the Passion. Reflect on your redemption from sin and death.

I’d like to suggest that the parable we heard from Jesus this morning—the parable of the wicked tenants in the vineyard—that this parable functions as a kind of prelude. That is to say, this parable points ahead and sets the table—causes the hearers to ponder what is about to happen—especially when you consider that Jesus spoke these words only a few days before the day of His death. Jesus was in
Jerusalem. Crowds of people followed Him everywhere, while the teachers of the law watched from a distance, looking for an opportunity to arrest Jesus and kill Him.

Now, I would also suggest that this Passion-prelude isn’t a very complex composition. The main themes are relatively easy to pick out and understand. It begins with the simple statement that a man planted a vineyard, rented the vineyard to some tenants, and then went away for a long time. Planting a vineyard is hard work and a big investment; but the end result—namely a well-stocked wine cellar—makes planting a vineyard the perfect plan.

But the owner of this vineyard seems to make some rather unwise business decisions. First of all, he rents the vineyard out to tenants; and tenants can be trouble. Renters can be rascals. You never know what you’re in for when you delegate the delicate task of grape-growing. But then the owner ups the ante when he decides to go off traveling to another country for a long time. Those of you in business know that if you want things done right, then you need to check in once in a while, keeping a close eye on the operation. This landlord seems just a bit too trusting and confident.

Well, not surprisingly these tenants turn into big-time trouble at the harvest. It’s a full-fledged mutiny in the vineyard. No absentee landlord is going to collect anything from these rascals. When the owner sends a succession of servants to collect the fruit of the vineyard, the servants are beaten, wounded, and thrown out of the vineyard empty-handed. Now, this is the point where the owner of the vineyard should have lawyered-up. But he makes a fateful decision instead: What shall I do? I will send my son, whom I love; perhaps they will respect him. Anyone can see that this isn’t going to turn out well. They threw [the Son] out of the vineyard and killed him.

Now if this parable were set to music as a prelude, imagine what it might sound like. The main theme is certainly one of judgment. There is a slow but steady beat as the parable progresses, and as the catastrophic conclusion becomes clear. In minor tones with increasing dissonance this music would reflect murder—the murder of the owner’s beloved son. But, of course, this isn’t just any owner and any beloved Son. The owner of this vineyard is God Himself. The servants He sends are the Old Testament prophets. The terrible tenants are the chief priests and teachers of the law. And the Owner’s beloved Son is the One who tells this parable: Jesus, the Christ.

The overarching theme of this Passion-prelude is judgment—judgment on Old Testament Israel. You can’t reject the owner of the vineyard and kill His beloved Son and not get yourself evicted or worse. This parable also speaks of the judgment that would befall Jesus. It’s a bald-faced prediction of His Passion—of how He would be killed by ruthless tenants. St. Luke writes that the teachers of the law knew that Jesus had spoken this parable against them; but I perceive that He spoke it against us too.

We too can be terrible tenants. We too have been placed in the midst of a beautiful vineyard that we did not plant. That is to say, we are members of the holy Christian church—not by our own choosing, but by grace, through faith, for the sake of Jesus. We are but tenants here. Everything we have is a gift from our gracious LandLord—spiritual blessings like the forgiveness of sins and the promise of life everlasting—as well as physical, tangible blessings like house and home, family and food, money and property.

We each live in a veritable vineyard of blessings. It’s a vineyard that we didn’t plant, full of blessings that we don’t deserve. And we’ve been all too happy to ignore the Owner—to live life on our terms, counting our grapes and hoarding our wine. At harvest time, when the paycheck comes in, we’ve been reluctant to give our gracious God His fair share. Oh, we know it’s all His. But we’re fearful—scared that if we give too much back to the Owner, well then there might not be enough left for us. On our best days we are stingy stewards. And on our worst days we are faithless rebels who openly defy the will of our Lord.

As tenants, we are always tempted to ignore the Landlord—or worse. There will always be reasons to hold on to more of the harvest and keep it for ourselves—including the high cost of retirement, healthcare, and college tuition. But do we fear a downturn in the economy more than we fear, love and trust in a gracious God who gives us all things and who withholds nothing from us, including His own beloved Son? “He who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all—how will He not also graciously give us all things?”

This gracious God of ours spared not the life of His beloved Son to redeem us. And that brings me to one final aspect of this Passion-prelude. In music there is also a sound called a “grace note.” A grace note is a short little skip of a note, attached to a note of the main melody. It’s really not much more than a little embellishment to the main musical theme. But in this parable, it’s the little grace notes that mean the most to you and me. Let me mention just a few of these grace notes.

The actions of the owner comprise a beautiful grace note in this Passion-prelude. This owner—this Landlord—is gracious and forgiving—slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. By human standards it’s almost pathetic the way He bears with us terrible tenants. His faithfulness is greater than our faithlessness. He is not an evictor of sinners, but a Savior of sinners.

And that saving work was accomplished through the cross of His beloved Son. This is the ultimate incredibility of God’s love for you. What you had coming to you for your sins—Jesus accepted as your substitute. Jesus got clobbered for you. And now, because your sins are answered for, they can condemn you no more. Everything that would destroy you, convict you and evict you—Jesus has faced it all. And none of it, not even death, destroyed Him. And none of it, not even death, will destroy those who belong to Jesus.

This prelude parable contains another little grace note. You might have missed it. I hear it in the crazy plan of the wicked tenants when they say, “Let’s kill the Son, and the inheritance will be ours!” Now, everybody knows, that’s not the way it works. Murderers don’t inherit what their victims had coming to them. But in a plot-twist no one saw coming, this is exactly the way it worked with Jesus. In the murder of God’s beloved Son we terrible tenants—we poor sinners—we stand to inherit everything. The Son’s rejection is our acceptance by the Father. Jesus’ death is the trump card that makes every hand a winner, no matter how big a loser it might have been.

This is grace—a “grace note” in prelude to judgment. But unlike the musical grace notes, the grace notes of our God mean everything for you and me. In this case, the grace notes form the only theme that matters—a song of salvation that will ring on until that day when we’re all gathered around the throne of the Lamb, singing a symphony of love and praise that will have no end.

Until then, these grace notes mean that you are already living the good life—forgiven and free. You have a place at the Owner’s table. And at the Owner’s table only the best is served—the wine that is Jesus’ blood and the bread that is His body. Your gracious God is so generous with you; you don’t have to ruin it with your grasping, greedy ways. The inheritance—all of it—is yours. For Jesus’ sake.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, April 1, 2019

The View from the Pigpen

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
March 31, 2019
Lent 4C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

It’s too bad it’s not Fathers’ Day today. For of all the fathers in the Bible, there’s none quite so amazing as the waiting father. It is the waiting father who stands at the heart and center of the parable we heard from Jesus today. This father endures everything—including dishonor, disgrace, mistreatment, and shame—all at the hands of his children. And yet this father never stops hoping, never stops enduring, never stops loving his wayward sons. He never disowns them. This waiting father rejoices in the return of his sons, is prodigal with his forgiveness, is quick to throw a party, and is outrageously lavish with his grace.

The parable begins with a scandal. The younger son tells the old man to drop dead. By requesting his inheritance early, the unspoken message is: “Dad, I wish you were dead.” Shamefully scandalous words—words that make the Fourth Commandment blush for shame. But incredibly, the father does just what his son requests—drops dead in a legal sense—divides his property between the boys—as should have happened only if he were six feet under.

As you might imagine, it rarely goes well for young men who suddenly inherit large sums of money. The younger son headed to a distant country with his newly acquired wealth and began to squander it in reckless living. And “reckless living” does not mean that he invested in the wrong mutual funds or occasionally forgot to balance his checkbook. No, one wordsmith explains reckless living like this: “He whored with the best of them. He swore with the best of them. He gambled with the best of them. He drank with the best of them.” All that he had been given by grace—the inheritance, a good name, a father’s love—all that he wagered and wasted and tossed out like yesterday’s garbage.

Hard times set in for the boy. Destitute and dizzy with hunger, the younger son took a job working in a gentile’s pig pen. I’m not sure where the closest hog farm is to Whitefish Bay, and I don’t care to find out. But in my limited exposure to hog farms, I can tell you that there’s little doubt when you’re in the vicinity of one. The smell and the flies are what start to give it away—especially after a rain on a hot afternoon. Working in such a place is about as bad as it gets for a good Jewish boy—for whom pigs were considered unclean in every way. About the time he started longing to eat what the pigs were eating, the young man finally came to his senses.

The pig pen has a way of doing that—of slapping sinners across the face and wakening them from their downward spiral. I’m sure we can all think of times in our own lives when we’ve found ourselves in the pig pen, so to speak—surrounded by a sinful squalor of our own making—far, far away from the forgiving embrace of our heavenly Father.

But this is actually one of the best things about our heavenly Father: He’ll often allow you to wallow in the mess you’ve made for a while, until you come to your senses and repent. Of course, our sinful nature doesn’t much care for this kind of fathering. We’d prefer to have Him swoop in and bail us out of every sinful situation we back ourselves into. In the pigpen you can either rail against your heavenly Father and blame Him for the mess you’ve gotten yourself into, OR you can simply go home to your Father with a repentant heart.

It’s that moment of repentance that you see depicted on the cover of today’s bulletin. The great artist Albrecht Durer shows us the prodigal son in the pigpen. Take a look at that engraving with me. Notice that the son is literally down on one knee with his hands
folded—the posture of repentance. It’s also worth mentioning that the prodigal son bears a striking resemblance to Albrecht Durer himself. Might it be that Durer has placed himself in the place of the prodigal? Don’t we all need to see ourselves there? Notice also that he’s looking off into the distance toward home—toward his father’s house. And doesn’t his father’s house in the distance look remarkably like a church? Don’t we all need to see this place as the Father’s house—the place where repentance leads—the place where we are welcomed and forgiven and embraced?

It’s hard to imagine the prodigal son’s journey back home—what exactly was going through his mind. I have no trouble imagining his journey from home down into the depths of the pig pen. But the journey from the pig pen back home—the journey of repentance—well, that’s a road less travelled. As the boy walked home, he planned what he would say to his father:
Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
Make me like one of your hired men . . . so that I can redeem myself, pay off my debt, and earn back your love which I have squandered.

That little speech is the way we expect the story to go. It’s certainly what Jesus’ hearers expected. They expected the young man to return home on his knees, groveling, begging, pleading with the father for a second chance, and promising to make things right.

But the last thing anyone would have expected is for the father to go running down the road, past the neighbors, to greet his wayward son. The last thing anyone would have expected is for the father to throw his arms around the boy and shower this son with kisses who still reeks of the pigpen. The last thing anyone would have expected would be for the father to listen to the son’s two-sentence confession of sin, but not even allow him to launch into that third sentence about how he was going to make things right by living like one of the servants. No, before he can even get to that, his father places the robe and the ring of sonship on the boy. He gives orders to kill the fattened calf and throw a party for this kid who was dead, but now alive—who was lost, but now is found.

The last thing the religions of this world expect is for God to be merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love. The last thing the religions of this world expect is a God who justifies sinners—while they are still sinners. The last thing the religions of this world expect is a God who shows undeserved kindness to sinners for Jesus’ sake.

It’s only once he’s already in the father’s embrace, as the father is kissing him, that the son squeaks out his little confession. And this is terribly important. He never gets to make a deal with dear ol’ dad—never gets to say that line: Make me like one of your hired men. Our God doesn’t make deals. He strikes no bargains. Our God drops dead to save sinners. This is the God who in Jesus Christ dies for His enemies, who seeks and saves the lost, who scans the horizon for sinners returning home so that He can meet them at the gate and gather them up in His embrace.

Like the prodigal son, we too have an older brother. His name is Jesus. He is the Son of God who left His Father’s home to join us in the pigpen of our sin and misery and death. Jesus did what the older brother in the parable did not do. He went out to seek us and find us, to rescue us from the slop of our sin, and bring us back home to the Father. Our older brother, Jesus, laid down His life as a ransom to save us, to buy us back. God made Jesus to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Jesus we might become the righteousness of God. He was executed as our sacred substitute, and reconciled us to the Father.

But before the music swells and the credits start to roll, there’s the matter of the older son, the firstborn son, who behaves like a lot of firstborn sons. He’s the rule-keeper—the serious, stressed-out, straight “A”, religious, voted most likely to succeed son. He can’t believe what a pushover his father is. “Lo, these many years I have served you, never disobeyed, yet you never gave me so much as a goat, let alone the fattened calf. But now this scumbag son of yours comes crawling back home after burning through your money with prostitutes and you roll out the red carpet.” To which the father essentially says, grab a glass and join the party. Your lost, dead brother is alive and found.

And there the parable ends. We don’t know what the older brother ends up doing. The more important question is what will we do? For we have walked in this son’s footsteps too. Will we get angry at the Father’s prodigal grace? Will be become religious, judgmental, looking down our noses at those who can’t seem to get it right, wanting them to be “good” like us before we permit them to join us? OR will we grab a glass and celebrate? Will we learn to laugh out loud at the grace of God who wants all of His children—the rule-keepers and the rebels, the first born and the last born and everybody in between—at His eternal party? Will we come to Communion rejoicing to remember that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them? Will we “get it,” that grace that’s bargained-for and earned and worked-for isn’t grace at all? Will we draw strength each day from the fact that we who were dead in sin will now live forever in Jesus? God grant it for Jesus’ sake.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Citizens of Heaven

In Nomine Iesu
Philippians 3:17-4:1
March 17, 2019
Lent 2C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

I have a confession to make. It’s time for me to come clean. Although you’ve known me as your pastor for many years, I’m actually a secret agent for the Sunflower state—the state of Kansas—my home state. I’ve been trying to convert you to all things Kansas. I’ve tried to highlight the Kansas City Royals and the Kansas City Chiefs. I’ve tried to talk up the things Kansas is best known for, like wind . . . and livestock. I’ve subtly tried to tout the wonders of wheat and the beauty of barbed wire. If in recent years you’ve felt your heart longing for the good life in Kansas, it’s no doubt because of me—your goodwill ambassador for the great state of Kansas.

I mention this to help provide some context for today’s reading from Philippians. When St. Paul wrote his epistle to the church at Philippi, that city, along with most of the Mediterranean world had been conquered and colonized by the Roman Empire. And whenever the Romans conquered a new territory, it was their practice to send in some of their best, most patriotic citizens in order to colonize the new territory—to demonstrate for the native people of that place what it meant to be good and loyal citizens of Rome. (For much the same reason that the state of Kansas has deployed me here in Wisconsin.)

The city of Philippi was a case study in success for the Roman policy of colonization. When Philippi first came under Roman domination, Rome sent some of their best citizens to live there—including lots of retired soldiers and their families—proud, patriotic, flag-waving, Fox News-watching members of the Roman VFW, you might say. Rome gave them a pension and a new home and said, “Go and live there and make this place Roman in every way.” Their task was to transform the culture from the bottom up.

Apparently, even some of the Christians at Philippi had gotten caught up in all the civic pride and patriotic fervor. And perhaps St. Paul saw the need to rein them in and remind them of this important truth: Our citizenship is in heaven, and from there we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like His glorious body, by the power that enables Him to subject all things to Himself. Yes, they were citizens of—and ambassadors for—Rome. But more importantly, they were citizens of heaven and ambassadors for the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.

And in that respect, we modern American Christians are just like the Christians in First Century Philippi. Our citizenship is in heaven. We, too, have been shipped out to the ends of the earth to help spread the reign of our gracious God—to colonize the world for Christ—to show by word and deed that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Your real home—your true home—is neither Wisconsin nor Kansas. Your citizenship is in heaven. You’re but a stranger here. Heaven is your home. And here on earth we are secret agents for the Savior—goodwill ambassadors for the faith once delivered to the saints. Here on earth we are a colony of heavenly citizens.

Jesus Himself expressed the same idea when He said, “You are the light of the world. . . . Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:14, 16). Jesus is saying that you’ve been placed here for a purpose. He’s using you colonize this dark world with His light and life. In the wonderful work of your vocations—to family and friends, co-workers and classmates, neighbors and citizens—you are humbly bearing witness to the truth that this world isn’t all there is—that Jesus is the resurrection and the life, whose kingdom will have no end. You are a citizen of that kingdom. You are presently serving on earth as an ambassador for the God of heaven.

But your deployment here is not without difficulty. Many people live as enemies of the cross of Christ. And these enemies haven’t changed much from the First Century to the Twenty-First Century. Paul describes them this way: Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. For St. Paul, and for us, these “enemies of the cross” were a crying shame. These are people for whom Christ died—but who have nevertheless rejected Jesus in favor of their own idols.

This means that we who are citizens of heaven should take our heavenly citizenship seriously. We are citizens of heaven to be sure; but we are not always model citizens. Would the people you interact with each day have any idea that your citizenship is in heaven? By the words you use—by the choices you make—by the witness you give—by how you manage money—by your works of mercy and compassion—is there anything distinctively different about you? Anything that would give away the fact that you are a blood-bought, died-for child of God? Do you honor God with your body, believing that your lowly body will one day be transformed to be like the glorious, resurrected body of Jesus? Or does your belly with its appetites take the lead in your life—driving you into the destruction of idolatry and self-love?

I have another confession to make this morning: I haven’t been a very good secret agent for the Sunflower state. Instead of converting you to all things Kansas, something unexpected happened. It started with your Friday Fish Fries and your tasty cheese curds. It continued every time I sampled one of your locally-brewed beverages. I found myself rooting for the Brewers, Badgers, Bucks, and Packers! Instead of “Home on the Range,” I found myself humming “On Wisconsin!” Instead of making Kansans out of you, you made a Wisconsinite out of me. Now, this is my own personal problem. I’ll have to sort out my statehood status in private.

But let my failure serve as a warning to you—to every citizen of heaven currently stationed here on earth. The Lord has sent us out as His ambassadors to change the culture of sin and death around us. But what do we see happening? Instead of Christians changing the world—instead of the church changing the culture—the Christ-less culture is changing the church. The shameful ways of the world are worming their way into the church. Practices and positions strictly condemned and forbidden by the Word of God are now being tolerated and touted by many so-called churches and so-called pastors. But to turn against God and His Word—to celebrate what God forbids—will only lead to shame and destruction.

The Christian church is always counter-cultural—especially when she gathers around God’s Word and sacraments. Here the words are God’s Words. Here the music isn’t designed to entertain, but to confess the truth of our great God and to praise His holy name. The Divine Service is not earthly, but heavenly. This is truly heaven on earth. And you—you are a colony of heavenly citizens, stationed here temporarily until the day of your homecoming.

Your heavenly citizenship has everything to do with Jesus—who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven. Jesus was the best citizen heaven ever had. Heaven was His home and He was but a stranger here. He left behind the kingdom and the power and the glory of heaven to take up residence here, as a human colonist on earth among sinners like us. He exchanged His heavenly throne for a manger in a stable—threw away His crown for a cross. Jesus became a citizen of this world for you. And the rulers of this world—rulers like Herod, Caiaphas, and Pilate—saw to it that Jesus would suffer and be crucified.

Jesus—the man from heaven—was crucified for you. His death was the necessary price to secure your heavenly citizenship. Only His blood would be sufficient to cleanse you from your sin and make you holy. Most of you became citizens of heaven on the day of your baptism. And this morning, heaven welcomed its newest citizen. Right here in water and the word, God Himself worked in little Jackson forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and the devil, and eternal salvation in His heavenly kingdom.

Beloved in the Lord, this good news about Jesus is called the gospel—and that’s what we’re all about here in this little outpost of heaven called Our Savior Evangelical Lutheran Church. Here we speak the language of heaven—the Word of God—to which we respond with prayers, praise and thanksgiving. Here we eat the food of heaven—the bread that is Jesus’ body and the wine that is Jesus’ blood—for the forgiveness of sins. And this is why the Divine Service is so important. It transforms you. It reminds you that through faith in Jesus Christ you are a citizen of heaven.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

When Temptations Come Alluring

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 4:1-13
March 10, 2019
Lent 1C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

We’ve come a long way since last Sunday. Last Sunday—Transfiguration Sunday—we were up on the mountain with Jesus, seeing the Savior in glorious majesty. But on Wednesday we descended into the depths of repentance. Today we’re in the wilderness of temptation. Inspiration last Sunday; temptation this Sunday. Today we’re on the battlefield where the Christian life plays out in the trenches of
temptation and sin.

Still dripping wet from His baptism and filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert. For forty days He was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them He was hungry. In that moment of delirious hunger, the devil comes calling. Whatever else you might say about the devil, it’s clear that he has a very shrewd sense of timing. He knows precisely when Jesus will be at His most vulnerable; and he knows the same about you. The devil can’t read your mind, but he does observe everything about you and uses that information to his advantage. Timing is everything in the game of temptation.

In the book of Hebrews it says that Jesus was tempted in every way, just like us. Today we only hear about three of those temptations. The first is the temptation of appetite: If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread. Jesus was delirious with hunger. None of us have ever known the agony of a forty-day fast. What harm would there be in following Satan’s suggestion? We’ve all got appetites—God-given appetites—appetites for food, for fun, for knowledge, for pleasure. These appetites inspire us and motivate us. They give us a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

But the same appetites that motivate us can also control us. The devil has perfected a terrible technique which turns normal appetites into controlling addictions—idols that demand everything from us while giving back less and less: the thrill of placing a bet, the glimpse of pornography, the high of a drug, the buzz of alcohol, the flirtatious emotional affair with the potential for more. All it takes is a little re-wiring for these appetites to consume our lives completely in sin and shame.

One of my weekly challenges is finding appropriate artwork to put on the cover of our Sunday bulletin. This first Sunday in Lent is always challenging. A lot of the artwork on the temptation of Jesus includes a depiction of the devil. In my opinion, no matter how you try to draw and depict the devil, he always comes out looking far less threatening than he really is. That’s because we don’t know the devil by appearance; we only know him by his work—by his fingerprints—by the temptations he sends our way. How would you draw the devil? Horns and a pitchfork just don’t cut it.

Jesus knows and recognizes this enemy. And Jesus is not derailed by the temptation of appetite. Jesus came to serve, not to be served—and not to serve Himself. It is written, “Man shall not live by bread alone.” Jesus is quoting the Old Testament here. Notice how Jesus doesn’t draw upon His own power to fight against temptation; HE draws upon the power of the Word. It’s the same Word that you and I have at our disposal. One little Word can fell him. You don’t need super powers to resist the devil. You just need the Word. That we don’t use the Word—that we don’t honor and respect the Word—that we barely even know the Word—all this just goes to show that we’re no different than our first parents. We prefer hearing the devil’s lies over the Word of God.

The devil next took Jesus to a high place and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world. The splendor, the glamour, the glory of this world and its kingdoms. This is the temptation of power. “If you worship me,” the devil says, “it will all be yours.” It’s an intriguing temptation—Jesus running the kingdoms of this world. What would that look like? One world government, one world religion. It would certainly mean the end of poverty, disease, oppression, crime and terrorism. Utopia, really—heaven on earth. And all of this without so much as a drop of divine blood being shed.

We know this temptation too. We know what it feels like to bow down to whomever or whatever it takes to increase our power and control. We’ve compromised our principles to get ahead. We’ve re-defined our morals. We’ve clarified our values—all so that we can get richer faster. We’ll do whatever it takes to be more popular and powerful. Rather than doing things the hard way—rather than living under the cross of Christ—we prefer the shortcuts Satan sets before us.

But Jesus refuses the deal for your sake. Again, drawing upon the Word: Worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve. There is only one way that the Son of God will get to the top. There is only one way that Jesus will take His seat on the throne as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and that is to be lifted up and enthroned as a corpse on a cross. Only by dying and rising will all authority in heaven and earth be given to Him. Only by His death and resurrection will it come to pass that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

The final temptation is to test the Word of God. For this temptation the devil cracks open his Bible. Maybe you weren’t aware that the devil is a great student of the Bible. He knows the contents well (much better than you) and uses them to suit his purposes (like here with Jesus). You are the Son of God, aren’t you? Well, you know that the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God says in Psalm 91 that God’s angels are watching you like a hawk. If you slip, they’ll catch you. You won’t even stub your pinky toe. Whatsay we put the Word of God to the test? Why don’t you take a flying leap from the top of the temple, and let’s see what happens?

We’ve been tempted to do that—to put God’s Word to the test—to challenge it—to splice it and dice it so that we can make it say what we want it to say—so that we can justify ourselves and our sin. I know that gossip is wrong, but as long as I’m speaking truthfully and lovingly it’s okay. . . . I know that sex outside of marriage is wrong, but God made me a sexual being and all my friends are doing it. . . . I know that I’m supposed to honor my mother and father, but no one has parents as dysfunctional as mine. They don’t deserve to be honored and so I won’t do it.

But hear how Jesus responds to the Bible-quoting devil: You shall not put the Lord your God to the test. To test God at His Word—to call into question or contradict the very words of God—is always a refusal to trust Him—a refusal to believe Him—an act of faithlessness. Jesus will have none of it. God gives us His Word because He loves us—for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. So let’s take God at His Word instead of testing Him.

Beloved in the Lord, temptation is a depressing topic. It’s not enjoyable. Because we’ve all been on the receiving end. We’ve battled against the devil and the world and our own sinful nature, and we haven’t always emerged victorious. In fact, we’ve frequently folded like a cheap suit; and sometimes we’ve surrendered without even offering up token resistance.

But no matter how often temptation has gotten the best of you, there’s good news running through today’s Holy Gospel from beginning to end. If all you see here is a string of personal achievements for Jesus, you’re missing the good news. Jesus’ victory is your victory. He’s your stand-in substitute. His perfect record when it comes to temptation becomes the perfect record for all who trust in Him. Through faith in Jesus, you don’t have a checkered past, stained and littered with lost battles against temptation. You have a string of victories won for you by Jesus Christ. You are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. His honor, His merit, His bravery, His valor—it has all been awarded to you. His record is your record. His death and resurrection define you as one redeemed and forgiven. Your baptism empowers you for your own daily battles against temptation and sin. And when you are tempted, He always provides a way out so that you can stand up and resist the devil’s schemes. The Lord Jesus is in your corner. His grace has you covered. And in Him eternal victory is yours.

Though devils all the world should fill,
All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill.
They shall not overpower us.


In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Exit Only

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 9:28-36
March 3, 2019
Transfiguration C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Timing, they say, is everything. If there’s an important discussion that needs to happen, don’t have it at bedtime. You’re too tired then. Likewise, important conversations are doomed from the start if you try to talk as everyone is preparing to rush out the door to work and school. You’re too distracted then. If you want your words to have the desired impact, timing is everything.

Eight days before His transfiguration on the mountain, Jesus had dropped the biggest bombshell of His ministry so far. The first words of today’s gospel reading point us back in time to those jaw-dropping revelations Jesus had uncorked eight days earlier: The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Jesus had also said: If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

What do you suppose the disciples thought about all this? What do you think was bouncing around in their brains for the next week while Jesus’ words about rejection, death, self-denial, cross-bearing, and losing one’s life began to sink in? We don’t know for sure.
Luke skips over that entire week, moving directly from Jesus’ prediction of His Passion right up to the Mountain of Transfiguration. But I wonder. I wonder if, during that week, at least some of those disciples weren’t looking for a way out—a graceful exit from following Jesus. I wonder if they weren’t re-thinking their enlistment—looking for a polite way to go AWOL before things got ugly.

But, remember, our Lord knows a thing or two about timing. Timing is everything. And before a single disciple managed to head for the exit, Jesus took Peter, James and John up to a mountain to pray. And as Jesus was praying, something happened to Him. His face was changed in appearance. He was shining like the sun. His clothing became dazzling white, too bright to look at—like the bright afternoon sunshine on a white, snowy landscape—brighter and purer than all the angels in the sky.

And then something just as amazing—Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in glory—Moses and Elijah who were long dead but now very much alive. Moses the Law-giver and Elijah the prophet par excellence. There they were, standing alongside the shining Jesus, speaking of Jesus’ departure in Jerusalem. Now, “departure” makes it sound like Jesus was hanging out at the airport. But the Greek word is actually one that you already know: Exodus. They spoke of His Exodus which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.

Jesus’ “exodus” would be the very death and resurrection He had predicted one week earlier. Good Friday and Easter would be our Lord’s personal “Passover” from death to life. This Firstborn Son would not be spared. Through dying and rising Jesus would part the sea and bring all of us out of slavery to Sin and Death into freedom, forgiveness, and life eternal. This exodus is why Jesus came. All the Old Testament Law and all the Old Testament prophets pointed ahead to this—like billboards on the freeway.

Many of you have had the sometimes stressful experience of driving in an unfamiliar city. Traffic is buzzing around you as you make your way through multiple lanes in a maze of freeways. Suddenly you realize that the lane you’ve settled into is an “exit only” lane. Unless evasive action is taken quickly, you will be exiting whether you want to or not. You could say that our Lord’s entire earthly ministry was spent in the “exit only” lane—on a ramp that would lead Him without detour to the cruelty of the cross and the depth of the grave.

Moses and Elijah were what you might call “exit experts.” They each had their own spectacular exoduses. Moses had led the children of Israel out of slavery in Egypt right through the Red Sea waters. Centuries later the prophet Elijah was given an equally impressive exit when chariots and horses of fire carried him up to heaven in a Kansas-quality tornado. Elijah quite literally exited this world in a blaze of glory.

Perhaps this Transfiguration Sunday also finds you eyeing the exits. Just like the Twelve in the week before the Transfiguration, perhaps you too are quietly considering an exit from the difficulties of discipleship. Continuous cross-bearing and self-denial have a way wearing down even the most faithful Christians. It’s tempting to look for an exit to an “easier” life of putting your needs and your happiness ahead of everything else—including Jesus. Now, no one would stand up and admit that here this morning. But look at your attendance over the past year. Examine your stewardship over the past year. Count up the minutes during the week you spend in prayer and in God’s Word. And then ask yourself, “What are the trends? Am I following Jesus more closely, or is there increasing distance between me and my Savior?”

On the mountain the Father’s voice declared, “This is my Son . . . listen to him!” Are you listening to Jesus? The truth is that what God says to “do” we rarely get done. And what our God says, “thou shalt not do,” that we have no trouble doing—in thought, in word, in deed. It’s so much easier to go along and get along with the ways of this dying world—so easy, in fact, that plenty of folks who once populated a pew every Sunday are now eyeing the exits, abandoning the faith once delivered to the saints. Will you—or won’t you—be among them?

Before you answer, take a moment to stand with Peter, James and John. Behold the glory of Jesus. See what they saw. Remember, timing is everything. Jesus knew the dark days that were coming; and so He revealed His glory—God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God . . . being of one substance with the Father. Every cell of His human body glowed brightly with the glory of God. This is God’s beloved Son! This is our Savior! And His transfiguration is the beautiful proof that there is none other like Him. He’s not simply a leader, a teacher, or a prophet. He is the Son of God, the Son of Man, God in human flesh come to save sinners. He’s got His own “exodus” to accomplish—and He’s taking you and me with Him! What more can we say besides “Alleluia!”

Look once more at the exodus of Jesus. See Him hanging dead on the cross, bearing your sin and the sin of the whole world. See Him broken, bleeding, dying, and buried. That’s how He saved you—in the hidden glory of His sacrificial death and His resurrection from the dead. We listen to Him because He alone has the words of eternal life. We listen to Him because He brought you into His church through the cleansing splash of Holy Baptism. This is a sermon about “exits,” but it’s also true that no one “enters” the church—no one comes to faith in Jesus—no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. This church is HIS church and He’s made you a part of it! See how much He loves you!

The Lord Jesus has a grand and glorious “exit” in store for you. Moses and Elijah provide a sneak peek. Don’t forget that these two holy men had been dead and gone for centuries before turning up with Jesus on the Mountain. Apparently the reports of their deaths had been greatly exaggerated. See them on the mountain, alive and well in the presence of Jesus. That’s where you’re headed too. No matter how ugly your exit from this world may be—whether you die quietly in your sleep or have your head severed as a martyr—yet you will live forever in and with Jesus. You will see His shining face and His nail-scarred hands with your own two eyes.

But not yet. His glory is hidden now—in the water of your baptism, in the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood, in the pages of your Bible and in the words of this sermon. The glory of Jesus is shining here and now, bringing you forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. Jesus has a heavenly exit in store for you and all who believe. Don’t deviate from that “exit only” lane. You will be alive and well forever, in the presence of Jesus—just like Moses. Just like Elijah. That’s why on this Sunday—and every Sunday—we can say together with Peter, “It’s good—it is good, Lord, that we are here.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.