Monday, December 9, 2019

Welcome to the Wilderness

Jesu Juva
St. Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2019
Advent 2A

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

6021 North Santa Monica Boulevard. That’s where we are. This has been our location since the late 1940s. Before that, there was a time when the saints of Our Savior worshipped right down the street at Richards School. And our original location was a building on Silver Spring Drive. You know what they say: Location, location, location, right?

On this Second Sunday of Advent John the Baptizer always comes calling. He’s quite a character: a little eccentric, somewhat uncivilized, kind of quirky. He’s unemployed. He’s unmarried. He’s unkempt, to put it kindly—long hair, weird diet, his only clothing made of camels’ hair. And, perhaps most troubling of all is his location: John lives in the wilderness. He’s off the grid somewhere in the Judean desert.

Turning his back on both city and village, John’s ministry takes place in the wilderness. The Judean backcountry is his bedroom—the desert his dining room. Scorpions keep him company. Although John was born from a priestly line, yet, his temple is under the sun, his altar is the Jordan River, and his vestments made of animal skin. Even though he’s the grand finale of the Old Testament prophets and—as Jesus said—the greatest man ever born of woman, John spits in the face of flattery, deeming himself unworthy to even carry the Messiah’s sandals with his sinful fingers.

My fellow city-slickers, welcome to the wilderness of Advent. John calls us to leave behind civilization with all its distractions and temptations. He wants us to hear the warning he heralds. He wants us to follow his bony finger that’s always busy pointing at the One who is to come. John is the Advent man, preparing you for the coming of the Christ. One writer suggested that a psychiatrist might diagnose John as a monomaniac—someone with an excessive interest or an irrational preoccupation with one subject (kind of like my labradoodle gets whenever I shake the bag of treats). But for John, it’s all about Jesus.

But why the wilderness? What’s so appealing about the desert? Why force folks to hike for miles through unforgiving territory, under a blazing sun, to hear what you have to say? Why not set up shop in a more civilized suburb, or at least set up a soap box on a street corner? What’s up with the wilderness? C’mon John! Where are we supposed to get our venti, coconut milk, extra hot, no-foam, chai lattes with vanilla syrup and cinnamon sprinkles?

But honestly, John had no choice in the matter. Seven centuries earlier the prophet Isaiah was already pointing ahead to John as, “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Of course, God’s people had been in the wilderness before. It had taken a full forty years of wilderness wandering for the Israelites to make it to the Promised Land. Now John was calling them back into that unforgiving location.

Civilization, it turns out, is overrated. Civilized sinners are too easily duped by demons into believing the most outlandish lies. This is why we need to get out—to make an Advent escape into the wilderness. Leave behind that place where you are so easily deceived into believing that your career is your life—that your family is your life—that your possessions are your life—that your grades define you—or that social media defines you. (No Wi-Fi in the wilderness.) Leave “civilization” behind, where urban planning has made pleasure into a god—and where death masquerades as life.

John’s Advent call into the wilderness isn’t just a call to get back to nature. He’s not calling us to go camping. That would be easy. It is, rather, a call to come and stand coram Deo. Coram Deo is one of those handy Latin phrases; and it means “in the presence of God.” Just you. You and God. Mano a Deo. To stand coram Deo requires you to empty your pockets, your purse, your hands. You have to let go of all the non-essentials and extras—especially your good works and even your church membership. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Martin Luther as our father,’ for God is able from stones to raise up children for Martin Luther.

Standing in the wilderness, coram Deo, is both clarifying and terrifying. We quickly see how comfortable we’ve become with our love of money, how good we are at blaming and shaming other people, and how easy we are on ourselves. In the wilderness, coram Deo, you begin to see the real desert of your own heart, which is filled only with the monsters of your sin. In the wilderness there’s only dust and dirt. That dust and dirt points to your beginning . . . and to your end: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Coram Deo, pride evaporates, hands are emptied, hearts are broken, and parched voices can only pray, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Welcome to the wilderness. It is, in fact, a very good place to be. It’s a great location. One universal truth about the wilderness is that life is found where there is water—only where there is water. Thankfully, the one who calls us here isn’t just called “John,” but “John the Baptizer.” He’s the water-guy. John drags you out of the civilization of sin, into the wilderness of repentance, to lead you ultimately to the river of life. And once he’s got you to the water, he’s done his job. For right there, standing in that eight-sided oasis is your Savior, Jesus Christ. John just points. And you know what he says: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world—who takes away your sin—who died to give you life.

That font, or one like it, is where you first stood coram Deo—where the sinful monster inside you was exorcised, and God the Holy Trinity named you and claimed you as His own dear child. Our Lord has located Himself right there, in that precious liquid of life. Jesus Christ suffered the unquenchable fire of His Father’s wrath on the cross, as your sacred substitute. But the blood He shed quenches the fiery wrath that you deserve, and brings instead absolution, compassion, and comfort for all who trust in Him.

Welcome to the wilderness. It probably didn’t even occur to you this morning as you schlepped to church that your destination was the desert. Here in this place you are called coram Deo. All you are required to pack along on this trip are your sins for confession and absolution. Your wilderness preacher might not have much leather on today, but I’m pointing you to the same salvation and the same Savior that John did. In this wilderness your provisions are few, but they are all you need: the Word of God, the liquid of life, and a meal of our Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. You are never more Coram Deo than you are when you kneel at this Communion rail.

From here, it’s back to the “civilized” world out there. But we leave here different than we arrived. To stand coram Deo always changes us. Our broken hearts are now full—full of faith and hope and love. Our ears have heard the truth proclaimed and the devil’s lies exposed. Now we have clarity and comfort—and the confidence that we are in Christ’s keeping—that our location is with Him—now and forever.

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

Monday, December 2, 2019

Wake Up! It's Advent!

Jesu Juva
Romans 13:11-14
December 1, 2019
Advent 1A

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

It’s beginning to look a lot like Advent! The blue paraments and the big wreath hanging from the ceiling are dead giveaways. It’s also the Sunday when we come perilously close to running out of number threes on our hymn boards. Thanksgiving dinner is barely digested and it’s already Advent. How did that happen? Well, a late Thanksgiving conspired with a mid-week Christmas to give us an earlier-than-expected start to this holy season.

The traditional Gospel reading for this Sunday is our Lord’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. You’ve heard it before: the donkey,
the palm branches, the shouts of “hosanna.” The King of kings is drawing near; The Savior of the world is here. That sets the table for this holy season. That’s the overarching theme of Advent.

But it’s today’s epistle from Romans 13 that drills down deep into the nitty-gritty of daily life. Today’s Gospel tells us what Advent is about. Today’s epistle tells us what it means for daily living. It’s an Advent wake-up call. The hour has come for you to wake up from sleep. Advent is the season to rise and shine. Live in the light of Christ and have nothing to do with the deeds of darkness.

December is an especially good time to hear these words about waking up and living in the light because there’s no darker month than December. It’s tough to wake up in December. It’s always dark and the house is cold. Even for early birds like me, it can be a challenge to separate yourself from that Serta perfect sleeper at this time of year.

But don’t worry if you like to sleep late; Paul’s words aren’t aimed at you sleepyheads. His concern is over a different kind of snoozing—that even while our bodies may be awake and functioning, yet our hearts are asleep to the things of God—or even worse, that we’ve sleep-walked our way into a dark and sinful place where our very salvation is in jeopardy.

We baptized Christians are designed for the daytime. We are people of the light. Paul expressed it this way: The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Night is gone; the day is at hand. This is the urgency of the Advent season. It’s not the urgency of getting your shopping done or getting your baking done or the urgency of a calendar so crammed with activities that you’re either depressed or stressed to the max. The urgency of Advent is living in the light of Christ.

Advent—at least here in the church, historically—is not supposed to be a happy season of celebration. It’s a penitential season—a sober season of repentance in preparation for Christmas (which IS joyful and celebratory). But the thrilling voice of Advent always sounds out a warning—a warning to put off the works of darkness—to cast off the bathrobe and other duds of the darkness—and put on what befits the day—what Paul calls the “armor of light.”

Another way of saying it would be to put off the Old Adam with all his lusts and wicked desires, his sexual immorality and drunkenness, his quarreling and jealousy. Those are the works of darkness and death. And sadly, there seems to be more of those kinds of things going on at this time of year. Many offices and businesses no longer host Christmas parties for their employees. Why? Because people get drunk, behave badly, sin boldly, and sometimes get hurt. Don’t you follow that crowd this Advent. Those deeds of darkness don’t fit you. You don’t look good wearing them. They are foreign to who you are as a baptized child of God. And they totally discredit your Christian witness to those around you.

What should you wear? Put on the armor of light. Adorn your life with good works that leave no doubt as to who you are—and whose you are. What clothing will show you at your best as the child of God you are? Nothing other than the perfect righteousness of Jesus Himself. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ (Gal. 3:27). To be baptized is to “wear Jesus” as a robe—to be covered with His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

When our first parents fell into sin they tried to cover up their naked rebellion by clothing themselves with fig leaves. Not only did that look kind of silly, but those hand-stitched fig leaves couldn’t cover up the real problem, which is sin. That’s our problem, too. And the wages of that problem—the final, unavoidable result—is death.

That’s why we can’t forget that, before the Lord kicked Adam and Eve out of the garden, the Lord Himself provided them with new clothing. Not with fig leaves, but with animal skins. Some sort of animal had to die for that clothing to be made. I like to think it was a lamb—the very first sacrificial lamb—the first blood ever shed—the first vicarious victim to die for the sin of the world. No big deal EXCEPT that this all points ahead to Jesus, THE Lamb of God. Only He—only by the blood He shed and by the death HE died—can sinners like us receive what we need through faith: the forgiveness of our sins; and a robe of His righteousness, the armor of light.

And so we know what time it is. The hour has come for us to wake up. No more punching the snooze button. You snooze; you lose. No more lounging around groggy and hungover and ashamed. In Jesus you are a new creation. In Jesus you have salvation. And that final salvation is nearer to you now than when you first believed.

The Last Day—the Day of Resurrection—will be here before you know it. It sometimes sounds terrifying, but by Jesus’ own promise, you can hope for it and long for it—just as we do whenever we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” On that day, what we believe by faith will finally be seen and visible. What we long for, we will finally have. What God has promised us in Christ, will be given to us in full—forgiveness and life and salvation.

How will the promise of that day affect your Monday, your Tuesday, your Wednesday and all the days to come? Well, we did just celebrate Thanksgiving, right? Would you thank the fireman who saved you from a burning building by running right back into the flames? Would you thank the lifeguard who pulled you from the waves by diving back into the rip current? Would you thank your Savior, who called you out of darkness and into His marvelous light by running back into the darkness? Of course not! You can’t do that, dressed up the way you are in the righteousness of Christ. Would I wear what I have on right now to mow my lawn on a hot July afternoon? Unthinkable! No way!

And so it is for you on this the first Sunday in Advent in the year of our Lord 2019. Wake up! Rise and shine! You have been clothed with Christ. You are wearing the armor of light. The King of kings is drawing near; the Savior of the world is here!

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

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Living a Leper's Life

Jesu Juva
Luke 17:11-19
November 28, 2019
Thanksgiving Day

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

No matter how bad off a person may be—no matter how dire the circumstances—there’s one last shred of cold comfort that a lot of us hang onto: Somebody out there has it worse than me. You’d be surprised how often I hear that from people whose circumstances are rather grim. Maybe it’s not so much comfort or consolation they’re going for. Maybe it just helps to keep their own suffering in perspective. But rarely are things so bad for someone that they can’t at least say: Somebody out there has it worse than me.

Today we meet ten men who couldn’t say that—ten lepers whose lives were devoid of all comfort and all consolation. Leprosy itself was bad enough—an incurable skin disease which, in its worst forms, featured debilitating nerve pain, necrosis of the flesh, and even the prospect of a slow, painful death.

But leprosy was as much a social disease as a medical condition. It turned you into a pariah, an outcast. It isolated you from friends and family. You couldn’t come anywhere near the temple; you were cut off from worship. Nor could you keep your condition private. No HIPPA laws protected your medical history. There are two long chapters in Leviticus devoted to nothing but leprosy. Those chapters might be a dermatologist’s dream; but it’s rather tough sledding for the rest of us. Leviticus 13:45 describes the leper’s life this way: “The leprous person . . . shall wear torn clothing and let the hair of his head hang loose, and shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. . . . He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” It’s hard to imagine a worse predicament or to think of someone with so little to be thankful for.

But things were about to change for the ten lepers in today’s text. Jesus was coming, on His way to Jerusalem to die and rise again for the life of the world. The lepers kept their distance from Jesus, but cried out in a loud voice. They didn’t cry out, “Unclean, unclean,” like they were supposed to. Their cry was, “Kyrie eleison.” Their prayer was, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” “Lord, have mercy” is what you pray when your hands are empty and your heart is broken. “Lord, have mercy” is what you pray when your situation is so dire that only divine intervention can change things. Help and healing are what the lepers hoped for. They had been given reason to believe at least this much: that Jesus had the power to heal them and rescue them from the living hell of leprosy.

Leprosy is bad; but sin is even worse. The connection between leprosy and sin isn’t difficult to see. Sin is leprosy of the soul—a deep contamination and corruption of our humanity. Sin makes us unclean before God. It isolates us and divides us from other people. We all sounded a lot like lepers a few minutes ago when we cried out the leper’s mantra: unclean, unclean—sinful and unclean. Your sinful symptoms are manifold. You have the disease. You know it. You are as unclean as those ten lepers who pleaded with Jesus for mercy.

The miracle which then transpired in today’s text is very unusual. Typically, Jesus would touch the afflicted person, even if—especially if—that person was unclean. He typically touches the unclean and they become clean. But here Jesus doesn’t even cross the street. He simply shouts out His prescription: Go, show yourselves to the priests. That’s all He said. Leviticus explains how the priests served as health inspectors who would verify the healing and give the green light for a return to family and community and temple.

St. Luke doesn’t give us all the details about how this miracle happened. He simply states that, “As they went, they were healed.” At some point on their priestly pilgrimage, they began to notice that their leprosy was disappearing. They must have been thrilled and happy beyond all measure. Now they could go home. Now they could comb their hair and wear nice clothes because the Word of Jesus had made them clean. There would be celebrations with food and drink, perhaps not unlike the celebrations going on across our country on this fourth Thursday of November. Now they could head over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. Now they could go run that Turkey Trot/Drumstick Dash 5K. Now they could start to reassemble their wardrobe at some of those Black Friday sales.

But one of the ten stopped and turned around. One of the ten ran back to Jesus, threw himself at Jesus’ feet, and thanked Him. He worshipped. And at this point we learn that he was a Samaritan. Not only had he been a leper, he was one of those Samaritans—a double loser in the eyes of any self-respecting Israelite. But this loser—this foreigner—returned to give thanks to Jesus for the healing he had received. Ten out of ten were cleansed. But only one out of ten makes the Jesus connection and returns to worship and give thanks.

And it’s to this one that Jesus says, “Rise and go, your faith has saved you.” Not only had the Samaritan been healed, but something bigger and better was now going on. Now the Samaritan knew who to trust—not just with his health, but with his life, with his death, with everything. You might say that ten out of ten had faith to be healed; but only one out of ten had faith to be saved. That one knew at whose feet his salvation rested. Faith always returns to Jesus. Faith always gives thanks to Jesus.

And that’s why you are here today. Jesus didn’t linger for long with the lepers because He was on His way to Jerusalem where there was waiting for Him a cross with His name on it. There He took our place as one who was sinful, unclean, and cursed—so that you might be cleansed of every sinful stain. Today the risen Lord passes this way—here where His promises are preached—here where His holy body and blood are served up in the Sacrament as medicine for our souls—the medicine of immortality. Here we confess our uncleanness and cry out our kyrie eleison. Here we bend our knees as we pray, praise, and give thanks.

What Jesus did for that leper He has done for us. We have been cleansed of the leprosy of our sin. Jesus’ words have had their way with us. And like that leper, we keep coming back to Jesus where He has promised to meet us. We can trust Him with everything. We aren’t yet symptom-free, but the cure has been applied. Baptism now saves you. And one day—on the day of resurrection—your healing will finally be complete. The leprosy of sin will be a thing of the past. Nobody will have it better than you! And on that day you will again hear Jesus say these familiar words: Rise and go; your faith has saved you.

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

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Faith's Vindication

Jesu Juva
Malachi 3; Luke 23
November 24, 2019
Last Sunday C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

Today is the final Sunday of the Church Year. Next Sunday the Advent wreath and the blue paraments will trumpet the start of a new liturgical year. You probably didn’t realize it was the Last Sunday of the Church Year when you arrived this morning. The church calendar is always out of sync with the world’s calendar. While most Americans this week are focused on eating and traveling and shopping, today’s Scripture readings present a much more sobering subject matter.

It’s fitting that the Last Sunday of the Church Year should feature a reading from the Old Testament’s last book—Malachi. Unfortunately, if you’re looking for a grand finale or a real show-stopper, Malachi isn’t it. For all the glory and grandeur of the Old Testament—for all the promises and passion—Malachi’s main features are malaise and complacency and spiritual decay. With Malachi, the Old Testament ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.

And here is Malachi’s main complaint: Faith appears to be a waste of time and energy. It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers?—they not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.

The prophet has a point. In this world and in this life, faith should count for something, shouldn’t it? Faith ought to make at least a small difference in the here and now. Believers ought to catch a break now and then, don’t you think? Those who trust in the God—they’re the ones whose lives should be “blessed” and prosperous. And those arrogant evildoers—they’re the ones who should be taking it on the chin. But in this upside-down world, faith appears to make very little difference.

The difference between the faithful and the unfaithful—between believers and unbelievers—that difference should be as plain as day. But it’s not. Of course, we believers shoulder some of the blame for that. We don’t always live as the “light of the world.” We don’t always shine the way we should. We’re not always witnessing about the wonders of our salvation in Jesus Christ. Nor do we always practice what we preach.

Things were especially bleak among the believers in Malachi’s day. A spirit of malaise and despair showed up in the stewardship of God’s people. Instead of offering the Lord their very best, the animals brought for sacrifice were sometimes blind or crippled or diseased. Those animals weren’t good enough for the marketplace, but they were good enough for the Lord. There was also malaise when it came to marriage. Immorality and divorce were on the rise. Oh, and as for the priests—the professional clergy—those who should have been calling God’s people to repentance and proclaiming God’s promises, those religious leaders were for the most part just a bunch of empty suits—faithless shepherds who were full of pride. The spirit of the times in Malachi’s day could be nicely summed up with the words, “Who cares?”

Sadly, shamefully, that could be our creed too. Laziness and complacency have come calling among us. Malaise and futility have infected us. And that sin of ours—even on our very best days—leaves us nearly indistinguishable from the unbelievers next door. Where’s faith when you need it? Your faith should make a difference in you! Why can’t we always see it? Is it vain to serve God?

On the Last Day it will all become clear. Faith in Christ will be vindicated. On that day you will see with your own two eyes the eternal difference faith makes. Malachi also says as much: Then . . . you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve him. On that day—but not one day sooner—it will be patently obvious that through faith in Jesus Christ you have become the Lord’s treasured possession. That’s what you are right now; you just can’t see that right now.

If you want to see the difference that faith makes, then come with me to Calvary. That’s where today’s Holy Gospel takes us. There in the afternoon darkness is the crucified Christ. And please note the two criminals on either side of Jesus. To stand there and view the gruesome scene, both of those criminals appear the same. There’s no visible, tangible difference between them. Both were convicted of
crimes deserving crucifixion. Both men were dying. As bystanders, we’re hard-pressed to see any difference between those two evildoers.

Is there any difference? One of the criminals calls out to Jesus, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” That almost sounds like faith. He calls Jesus the “Christ” and wants Jesus to save him as He saves Himself. But that’s precisely NOT how Jesus saves. Jesus saves others by NOT saving Himself. Jesus saves sinners by dying for them. He justifies the ungodly, not the godly. Jesus redeems the irredeemable.

The other criminal may look no different; but he sounds different. And the difference is faith. He confesses his sinfulness—that he’s getting what he deserves. But concerning Jesus, he says, “This man has done nothing wrong.” The crucifixion of this innocent man ignites a spark of faith and hope: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. He doesn’t ask to be spared his death sentence or to be saved from his suffering. All he wants is to be remembered by the crucified King who is dying next to him. And from the lips of that King comes this promise: Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.

Two criminals were executed that day with Jesus; but one died with the promise of life. One died with faith in a crucified King. And later on, that very same day, he was with Jesus in Paradise. That’s the same promise our Lord makes to you—to you who trust Him not only when times are good, but also in terrible times. Your faith makes an eternal difference. Your faith will be vindicated.

Through Malachi the Lord declared concerning His people: “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” God will spare His people as a father spares his son. But of course, we who are privileged to read beyond the book of Malachi know that God—our God—did NOT spare His one and only Son, but gave Him up for us all. We who breathe the grace-filled air of the New Testament, we know that God sent His Son to deliver us from the domain of darkness. And in that beloved Son we have everything, including redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

Behold the difference Jesus makes. Our sin means that we deserve nothing more than to be hanging next to Jesus with nails in our hands and feet. That’s what we deserve, but that’s not what we get. What you get instead is the grand and glorious promise of Jesus Christ that on the day you die—on that day, I tell you the truth—you will be with Jesus in Paradise. Jesus takes the nails. Jesus takes the sins. Jesus takes the shame that’s rightfully yours, but you—you get Paradise.

There no way to understand this or make sense of this good news. All you can do it believe it. All you do is trust it. That’s what we mean by faith. Faith doesn’t mean a life of success and victory; but it does mean a life of love for God and service to your neighbor. It means that you are free to love as you are loved by God—free to serve as you are served by Jesus. Your faith will be vindicated on the Last Day. For when that show-stopping grand finale finally comes, you will be with Jesus in Paradise.

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

Monday, November 18, 2019

Take This Job and Love It

Jesu Juva
2 Thessalonians 3:6-13
November 17, 2019
Proper 28C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

The end is near. These final Sundays of the church year serve to remind us that this world, in its present form, is passing away. Today the Prophet Malachi warns us that the Last Day will burn “like an oven.” Jesus warns that earthquakes, famines and false Christs will increase as the Day draws near. “Heaven and earth will pass away,” He says, “but my words will not pass away.”

What would you do if you knew? Now, no one knows the day or the hour of Christ’s return. But for the sake of argument: If you knew the world would end tomorrow, what would you do today? How would your plans change? Where would you go? What would you do? And who would you do it with? Legend has it that when a similar question was posed to Martin Luther, he had a rather simple response. If the world was ending tomorrow, Luther said that he would plant a tree today.

What I especially like about Luther’s answer is that it involves working. Work is worthwhile and God-pleasing—even when the end is near. Planting a tree means getting up, going out, digging down, and getting your hands dirty.

The value of work—the spiritual significance of work—goes all the way back to the Garden of Eden. God placed Adam and Eve in the garden with the intent that they were “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). There was work to be done, even in paradise. We so often think that our work-a-day existence is a result of living in a sin-filled, God-forsaking world, but no! God gave work to our first parents even before the fall into sin. This means that work is intrinsically good and God-pleasing.

It’s not hard to imagine what this work in paradise might have looked like. There were likely fruits and vegetables to be harvested. Maybe there were cows that needed milking and cheese that needed making. And that beer wasn’t going to brew itself. (My version of paradise sounds a lot like Wisconsin.) But even in a perfect world there was work to be done.

But you and I live in a fallen world. And that fact makes our work much more difficult and far less rewarding. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” the Lord told Adam, “thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you.” This is why work never works out the way you want it to. Screws get stripped. Batteries give out. Muscles get pulled. The tree you plant today can be taken down by the wind tomorrow. But none of this changes the fact that work is a good gift from God—that God has given all of us work to do.

Like us, the Christians at Thessalonica had been called by the Holy Spirit to trust in the saving work of Jesus Christ for their rescue and deliverance from this dying world. But some of them apparently thought that faith in Jesus was a good excuse to take early retirement and check out of working all together. They decided it was okay to take a permanent vacation from their God-given vocations. Their motto was, “Take this job and shove it!”

We don’t know whether these idle brothers were simply lazy deadbeats who were merely milking the charity of wealthy, well-to-do believers, OR whether they were so devout and so eagerly anticipating the return of Christ that they quit their jobs like lottery winners and engaged in a life of leisurely prayer as they awaited the coming of the Son of Man. But whatever their motivation, Paul makes it clear that their work-free lifestyle was contrary to the word and will of God. God is a working God; and God wills that His people work too. Paul was a tentmaker. Peter was a fisherman. Luke was a physician. The rule was this: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat. Get to work! Stop being busybodies and get busy!” Paul wrote.

Now it needs to be pointed out that there are times when people want to work, but can’t. Many of us know what it’s like to be unemployed or underemployed. You want to work; you want a job; but nothing comes your way. Others cannot work because of mental or physical disabilities or illness. Others of us know what it’s like to have your back go out. It’s nearly impossible to work when you don’t have a working back—when you have to rely on the kindness of others to simply tie your shoes. Paul is not addressing these situations in today’s epistle. There is no condemnation for those who want to work, but can’t. Regarding these brothers and sisters, Paul would remind us to bear one another’s burdens, and care for those who cannot care for themselves. “Whatever you do for the least of these,” Jesus says, “You have done it unto me.”

I can probably summarize the sermon up to this point in two sentences: Work is good. And work is hard. It’s difficult. We rarely get it right. When it comes to our God-given work and vocations, the temptations are always there to say, “That’s not my job. Let someone else do it.” The temptations are always there to cheat, to cut corners, to be lazy, to get complacent, to do as little as possible. And even when your attitude is good—when you know that your work matters—there’s the constant battle against discouragement and despair, when your work feels meaningless, when it seems that you’re just spinning your wheels. And the flip side of that is when work takes over everything else—when your work and career become the most important thing in your life—when you become a workaholic and neglect the people—the people God has given you to love and serve.

The problem concerning work at Thessalonica was primarily a congregational problem. It was a problem in the church. We know that because Paul warns them about any “brother” who is idle—brother being a word to denote a fellow believer. Apparently, there were plenty of “busybodies” in that congregation, people who were “busy” with gossip and meddling in other people’s business. I don’t think that “busybodies” are much of a problem among us at Our Savior. But I do think that God’s Word today should lead each and every one of us to ask: As a baptized child of God and a member of this congregation, am I doing everything I can—am I working with the energy and wisdom God supplies—to strengthen our life together, to build one another up, to never grow weary of doing good for these, my brothers and sisters in Christ?

Work is good. Work is hard. But your work has eternal value in Jesus. No one has ever worked harder, or more faithfully, than Jesus. No one has ever labored as lovingly as the Lord Jesus. Jesus was there at creation and all things were created by Him. But when sinful rebels needed redeeming—when a fallen world needed to be re-created—Jesus willingly took that job and loved it. He did not cheat. He did not cut corners. He came into this world and worked. He labored against all the frustrations that you and I face every day, amidst blood, sweat, and tears. For busy, hard-working sinners, and for idle, complacent sinners, Jesus took on the dirty job that no one else could do. He became the servant and slave of all. He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.

Jesus quite literally worked Himself to death to save you. He labored and toiled beneath the weight of all our sins. He worked and worked until they nailed Him to the cross. There’s an old saying: Idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Lazy, labor-free hands are a prime opportunity for the devil to start giving directions. But if idle hands are the devil’s workshop, then the nail-scarred hands of Jesus spell the devil’s demise. For those hands are the hands that bless and forgive you. Those hands are the hands that will embrace you in love when you depart this life in peace, and finally find rest from all your labor.

Work is good. Work is hard. But the work you do today has eternal significance and value in Jesus. He magnifies your work and honors it. For Jesus Himself says that whatever you do for the least and the lowly, you are doing it unto Him. Ultimately, all of your work, all of your labor and toil on behalf of others, Jesus receives it all just as if you did it for Him. This means that your labor in the Lord is never in vain. The work of your vocations is wonderful work. God Himself uses it for the life of the world.

Our God is a working God, and our God is working hard yet today—equipping you for your work—forgiving your sins, increasing your faith, feeding you with the body and blood of His Son. He who began a good work in you in baptism is still working—and He will surely bring it all to completion on the Last Day—the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.

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

Monday, November 4, 2019

Savior of the Stained

Jesu Juva
Revelation 7:9-17
November 3, 2019
All Saints’ Sunday

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

This past week your pastor did something reckless and risky. Some would call it foolish and foolhardy. Others would say that he rolled the dice and took a big-time gamble. You see, this past week your pastor purchased a new, white dress shirt. It wasn’t cheap. How long do you think it will last? How many times will I get to wear it before a drop of ketchup or coffee comes into contact with the fabric? How long will it be before blood or grease or chocolate renders this expensive new shirt unwearable? I give this new shirt six months to live—tops.

The color white is, of course, the most stainable of all colors. And white is also the color for this day—All Saints’ Sunday. On this day we remember the saints who now rest from their labors—all those made holy through faith in Jesus, who are now with Jesus. You have known some of these saints. All Saints’ Day is the church’s Memorial Day. On this day we name our dead before the Lord with tear-filled eyes, but firmly believing what is declared about our dead in the book of Revelation: They are blessed. As our choir so beautifully sang, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” And as our hymn of the day expressed it, “We feebly struggle; they in glory shine.”

The book of Revelation tells us about that shining glory. If you’ve spent much time reading the book of Revelation, then you know it can be a tough nut to crack. But the book of Revelation—just like all of Scripture—is breathed out by God and is useful. And Revelation is especially useful for us on this day because it gives us a sneak peek into heaven—because it gives us a glimpse of the glory which the dead in Christ now enjoy forevermore.

In today’s reading from Revelation 7, St. John lays out one detail after another: After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. The saints in heaven are speaking and singing and worshiping, along with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, praising God and the Lamb—who is Jesus Christ.

But it’s what this heavenly host is wearing that caught my eye: They are wearing white robes. White—the most stainable color. In
case you haven’t noticed, I have some experience with wearing a white robe. And keeping a white robe white is a full-time job. Everything stains it: a drop of wine, a smudge of make-up from one of our huggable members, or worst of all—a drop of blood from my dry, chapped hands. Wearing a white robe is riskier than you might think.

But let’s take this talk about stains to a deeper level. Stained clothing is an unfortunate occurrence, and that’s all. Like spilt milk, there’s no use crying over stained clothing. But there is a different kind of stain which is a crying shame. I’m referring to the stain on our souls which results from our sin. No one can see a stained soul, but you know it’s there. You can feel it. Our idolatries leave a mark. Our adulteries leave a spot. Our lack of love for God and others leaves us impure and unclean. The hurt and the harm that we dish out leaves behind a noticeable area of discoloration. The gossip that we slop around in tarnishes and darkens our souls. Our sin contaminates, corrupts, pollutes and sullies our souls. It’s ironic that the most shameful stains we bear can’t even be seen.

The stains that sin leaves behind are the most stubborn of stains. Good luck getting rid of those stains. You can work and work and scrub and scrub. There’s no such thing as bleach for the soul. You can carry on pretending that those stains aren’t really there; but you’re only fooling yourself. And these stains carry consequences. A stained soul isn’t just a fashion faux pas. A soul stained by sin has the potential to separate you from God—has the potential to keep you on the outside of the pearly gates—which is a dreadful, hellish place to be.

So let’s take another look at those saints who dwell on the inside of the pearly gates—so that we soul-stained sinners might one day join them. Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Every white-robed resident of heaven—every saint of our Savior—has come through what is called “the great tribulation.” Because it’s called “the great” tribulation, some are inclined to see that as a reference to the great and intense suffering to be endured by Christians who are still living on earth in the dark days leading up to Judgment Day. That will certainly be a “great tribulation.” But please notice that the elder who speaks is referring to all the white-robed residents of heaven when he declares that these have come out of the great tribulation. In other words, every saint of God in heaven has endured this “great tribulation.”

What is this great tribulation? It’s the battle you wage daily against sin. It is the persecution, the temptation, the suffering, the crosses you carry because you are one redeemed by Christ the crucified. This great tribulation often leaves you with a weary heart, and tear-filled eyes, and yes, inevitably, a sin-stained soul. But rejoice and be glad, because every white-robe-wearing resident of heaven has experienced it. This life can be filled with terrible tribulation—things that are unfair, unjust, and painful. This tribulation is real and unavoidable—as surely as your blood runs red.

This is why we celebrate All Saints’ Day. This is why we take a Spirit-led sneak peek behind the pearly gates every year on the first Sunday in November. Because we need to see how that great multitude gathered around the throne of God has gone through the great tribulation you are now enduring. Only they have come out. They have exited. They are finished with sin and death and tears. Why? How? Based on what? How did they get from here to there—from tribulation to jubilation? Sir, you know. Madame, you know. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

Of course it sounds ridiculous that something could be made white through blood. In our experience, we know that blood creates stains; it doesn’t remove them. But not so with Jesus, the Lamb of God. For the blood of this red-blooded man was shed in sacrifice for you—for you and every soul-stained sinner. The blood of Jesus removes the stubborn stains that nothing else can erase. The blood of Jesus purifies and cleanses those hard-to-reach stains on the soul. So confess those stains. Repent of what blemishes your soul. Let the blood of Jesus shed on His crucifixion cross do its cleansing work on your soul. Let yourself be whitened and brightened in preparation for that day when you too will leave behind this great tribulation to shine like the sun in the kingdom prepared for you since before time began.

The blood of Jesus is THE stain remover when it comes to the Christian soul. Not even a trace of stain is left behind where the blood of Christ has carried out its cleansing work. His blood can make the foulest clean. And His cleansing blood isn’t something that you have to imagine or pretend. It is real. And we need the real thing because we have real sins. This is why Jesus invites you with these words: “Drink of it all of you. This cup is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” The soul-cleansing, stain-removing blood of Jesus is offered to you this day in the Lord’s Supper. Real blood, for real sins, for real cleansing, and life that lasts forever. Here at this altar your soul is whitened and purified in the blood of the Lamb.

Blessed are you on this All Saints’ Day. Yours is the kingdom of heaven. Remember that as you leave here today. The next time a meatball ricochets off your plate and onto your white shirt—the next time the ketchup squirts its way onto your necktie—the next time you’re stuck trying to scrub out a stain in the laundry room—be comforted as you remember this: The very worst of your sinful stains have been lifted away in the cleansing blood of Jesus. Your time of tribulation is nearly over. Don’t let anyone tell you that white isn’t your color. You look good in white. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven.

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

Monday, October 28, 2019

"Sinners Only"

Jesu Juva
St. Luke 18:9-14
October 27, 2019
Reformation/Proper 25C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

One of the first things they teach you in pre-school and kindergarten is how to line-up. And knowing how to line-up is a very useful skill to learn. The proper method for lining-up is one of those skills that you will definitely put to use your whole life long. In fact, if you’re especially good at lining up—if you have an aptitude for it—and if you have a knack for seeing to it that other people line up properly—well then, you, my friend, just might have what it takes to become part of that elite group here at Our Savior we call the “ushers.”

Lining up isn’t as easy as you might think, however. You have to be alert for those scoundrels who are always trying to cut in line. And then there’s the shame and embarrassment of getting in the wrong line. You get in the wrong line at the airport or the train station or going through customs or at the DMV—and things will not go well for you.

Getting in the wrong line actually happens more often than you might think. In coming here to the church, many people are actually getting into the wrong line. For instance, people occasionally show up here during the week asking for money. Not food or clothing, not prayers or counseling—just some cash, thank you very much. Essentially, I have to tell them, “You’ve come to the wrong place for cash. You got into the wrong line.”

And then there are those who line up here at church without really knowing the reason why. Their families originally put them in line here. They meet up with friends and family here. Lining up at church is a good habit—it’s what respectable people do—so they keep on doing it. But exactly why they’re lining up here, they’re not really too sure about that.

Others line up at church because they have an agenda to push and they want to enlist the church’s help. They think the church should take a stand on immigration, or impeachment, or that the church should push hard for certain political candidates, or that the church should champion the charge against global warming. But those who seek to harness the church for their own purposes are ultimately in the wrong line.

In the parable we heard from Jesus this morning, we’ve been given two examples of getting in line. The first was the Pharisee. And he right away strode up to the very front of the line. He deserved to be there. He had great credentials for being there. He didn’t need any help from anyone. He had a resume of accomplishments that was second to none. He trusted in himself—brimming with self-confidence. And just to be polite, he even thanked God: “I thank You, God, that I’m better than everyone else.”

The Pharisee was comfortable and content there at the front of the line because, as he looked down at those around him, there was nobody else like him. Looking down on others is always a satisfying exercise for most people. It makes us more pleased with ourselves. Because no matter how depraved and messed-up we might be, we can always find someone more depraved and more messed-up than we are. This is also why we gossip. This is why we take such delight in sinking our teeth into the reputations of other people: because it raises us up, reinforces our belief that we are better than everybody else.

But in many ways, this Pharisee really was better! He fasted twice a week while most ordinary people fasted but once, if at all. The Pharisees did this extra fasting to atone for the sins of the people. The common people were such horrible sinners that the Pharisees (who hardly had any sin to speak of) generously fasted for the sins of others. What a good thing to do! What’s more, the Pharisees tithed. The Law required a tenth of one’s income. But because so many of the common people failed to tithe, the Pharisees not only gave a tenth of their income, but also a tenth of every purchase they made. Imagine that! Tithing not only your income, but your expenses too! What a good thing to do!

So be careful not to despise the Pharisees. They lived clean, decent, useful lives. They did their utmost to fulfill the Law of God. Before we despise them, we should compare our conduct to theirs. How many of us are ready to give ten percent to the Lord not once, but twice? How many of us would be willing to go without food for a day for the spiritual good of our sinful neighbors?

Of course, I know what you Lutherans are thinking—that the Pharisees had only good works, but we have faith. Works don’t count, but faith counts. Lazy Lutherans like to look around and see others busily engaged in good works, and then comfort themselves with the message that faith alone saves, not works. We Lutherans thank thee, God, that we are not as others are: Roman Catholics who pray to Mary, anything-goes Anglicans, Methodists so concerned about social justice. Yes, we thank thee God that we’re so good at pointing out everybody else’s errors.

Beloved in the Lord, before you condemn the Pharisee in the parable, you need to recognize and condemn the Pharisee in here. This Pharisee is the hardest one of all to recognize because he’s always so busy—busy looking down on other people and seeing them as something less. The Pharisee in here always measures his own worth according to other people and, inevitably finds himself bigger, better, and more religious and spiritual than they. The danger faced by every Pharisee is that we become so busy looking down on others that we no longer look up to God—because, in fact, we’re so good that we don’t need God.

But there was also another man who lined up that day to pray—a tax collector. Unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector had led an outwardly evil life—a life of greed, graft and corruption. But unlike the Pharisee, the tax collector wasn’t looking around at everyone else, comparing himself to them. He had no religious resume—no spiritual credentials to present. He simply beat his breast and blurted out the God-awful truth: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

Comparing yourself to other people will get you nowhere; doing that only feeds the Pharisee inside. It is, instead, when we stand in the presence of the holy God, that we recognize our sin and are shrunk back down to size. The tax collector was standing alone before God, as a sinner. When you stand before God there is no hope in trying to fool Him. He can’t be fooled. When you stand before God no references or recommendations will help you. And you cannot bribe Him.

The tax collector knew what the Pharisee did not—knew that he was a sinner—knew that He needed God. Only by the mercy of God could he stand. He places his future in God’s hands. The tax collector was standing in the correct line. The tax collector had lined up in the line designated for “sinners only.”

That line for “sinners only” at first seems like a line to avoid. Who wants to be in that line?! No one tried harder than Martin Luther to avoid the “sinners only” line. Back in his monastery days Luther did all that he could to rid his life of sin—praying for hours, confessing every infraction in excruciating detail, beating himself into submission. But the harder he tried, the more he hated himself, and the more he hated God.

But by the grace of God, Luther learned that the “sinners only” line is actually a very good place to be. Jesus Himself once went through that line, for He was numbered with the transgressors. He identified with the tax collectors. He stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with sinners. He who had no sin became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God. He Himself took your sin and shame to His crucifixion cross. He came to save His people from their sins.

It’s precisely when you get into the line for “sinners only” that Jesus joins you—joins you with what you need: with mercy, with faith, with forgiveness. It’s in the line specified for “sinners only” that you are washed in Baptism and fed with Jesus’ body and blood.

It’s not easy being in the line for “sinners only.” You have to honestly admit the worst about yourself. Sometimes you will be tempted to wander off, thinking that you must belong somewhere else. But do not be deceived. For in this line is grace. In this line is forgiveness and faith. In this line (for sinners) is the tender mercy of God; and apart from God’s mercy there is only hell. This is the line where we all belong. And after a time of waiting in this line, you will not be disappointed. For at the end of this line there is Jesus—the friend of sinners—the Savior of sinners. And you will be with Him forever.

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