Monday, December 10, 2018

Making Advent Great Again

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 3:1-14
December 9, 2018
Advent 2C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

You know you’re right in the heart of Advent when John the Baptist shows up. John stands guard along the border of Advent. He’s an army of one on patrol. He’s determined to hold back the forces of Christmas—to keep the seasons of Advent and Christmas separate. He wants to make Advent great again. He’s determined to build a wall around Advent; and he’s going to make Santa and the elves pay for it.

Just when you were about to have a holly, jolly Christmas with roasting chestnuts and sleigh bells—along comes John. And suddenly all the fun seems to drain right out of the season. John is the great buzz-kill of holiday cheer. He’s Kryptonite to the Christmas spirit—the Scrooge who bah-humbugs all the silly sentimentality of the season. He’s edgy, unkempt, and hopelessly out of fashion. Undomesticated, uncivilized, and untamable—John is a figure right out of the Old Testament. He sure looks the part—dressed up like Elijah in camel’s hair and leather. He is the fore-runner, the way-preparer, the messenger who goes before the Lord to fill the valleys and level the mountains.

John sounds almost mythical—like the Paul Bunyan of the Bible. But while John might seem larger than life, he’s the real deal. He came at a particular time and place. Luke records the moment with absolute precision: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being Tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip the Tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias Tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. Wow, that could all be a really tough category on Jeopardy: Alex, I’ll take “famous figures from First Century Palestine” for $100. But this is history, my friends. Luke is giving us the facts—not some legend that happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. He tells us when, where and who. Human history was positively pregnant with God’s promise of salvation. John came at precisely the right time to prepare the way for the Lord.

But how, exactly, do you prepare the way of the Lord? How do you make Advent great again? In one word: REPENT! Turn away from your sin. Turn away from yourself. Repent and turn to the Lord. You were going along the wide and broad path to destruction; now go the other way—the Lord’s narrow way. Lose the notion that you’re somehow better than most people, or that you can somehow bribe God and butter Him up and get on His good side with your prayers and offerings. Repent of who you are, and what you’ve done, and what you’ve failed to do. Repent. See yourself as the sinner you are.

But right there, together with repentance, is also baptism. John preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Up to that point, baptism had been unheard of in Israel. There were ceremonial washings, yes; but none that were done to you by another person. The Lord was preparing to do something new, and His people needed to be cleansed of their sin—bathed in forgiveness—washed with the promises of God. Repentance and baptism go together: You repent by being baptized, and you live as God’s baptized child by daily repentance.

But John wasn’t so tactful in his proclamation of this. He was like a bull in a china shop. He minced no words. He wasn’t warm and winsome. When the crowds came out to him for baptism, John didn’t take attendance and pass the offering plate. He called them a bunch of slithering snakes. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Who do you think you are? And don’t try to pad your religious resume by saying, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ God could care less.” The ax, John declared, was already at the root of the Israelite tree. The fire was already kindled. “Any tree that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

But John also taught the people exactly what repentance looks like. Turns out, repentance isn’t just a guilty feeling. John didn’t say, “You’re a terrible sinner so don’t even try to do the right thing.” Nor did he say, “You’re justified by grace through faith, so forget about needing to do good works.” No, John taught them exactly what this new life of repentance should look like: You share. Share your clothing with those who have none. Share your food with the hungry. Do your jobs and serve in your vocations with honesty and integrity. Be fair. Be content. It’s simple stuff that most of us learned from our mothers or in Kindergarten. It’s simple; but it’s not easy.

I like to imagine what John would say to us gathered here this morning. We wouldn’t enjoy it very much. Repent, you brood of slithering Lutherans. Repent of your complacency, your excuses, your laziness and your hypocrisy. And don’t you dare say, “We have Martin Luther as our father, for God is able from these lifeless, wooden pews to fashion all the Lutherans He wants. Repent of your shallow thankfulness, your complaining and whining, your ingratitude for the Word of God and for Jesus’ body and blood. Start living like the baptized children of God—like the holy people God has made you to be in Christ. John would make it clear that God’s highway runs right through the middle of our being—right through our hearts and minds. And that’s why this Advent encounter with John is so uncomfortable and awkward. It’s personal. We see the truth about ourselves; and we don’t always like what we see. This is what it means to make Advent great again.

And right about at this point—just as we’re ready to say with St. Paul that nothing good dwells in this flesh of ours—just then, Jesus comes. His way into your heart has been prepared. He who began a good work in you through baptism and repentance will surely bring it to completion. Jesus specializes in saving broken sinners. A broken and contrite heart He cannot and will not despise.

It turns out that all the fire—all the brimstone—all the judgment that John proclaimed—it wasn’t just an empty threat. It wasn’t just hyperbole either. For this, also, is why Jesus came. The axe that was laid at the root of Israel—that axe fell upon Jesus. The wrath of God that threatens our damnation—that wrath also fell upon Jesus. The fire of God’s judgment—that judgment was aimed and discharged against Jesus. Jesus’ crucifixion cross became like a barren, fruitless tree; and so God cut it down together with Jesus. “He who knew no sin became sin for us, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” We do the crime, but Jesus gets the punishment. Jesus lives the perfect life, and we get the credit. And all this, by grace, through faith in Jesus.

All that Jesus accomplished in His death and resurrection—that river of blessings and faith and forgiveness—it has all come pouring into your life through the miracle of your baptism. Watered by that baptism, you have become a good tree bearing good fruit, for the life of the whole world. And if you’re not feeling all that fruitful, then repent—confess the ways you’ve fallen short. Make Advent great again! And then come to Supper. Come to be fed and nourished. Come to where the Savior’s body and blood are given for your healing.

It’s Advent. Time to prepare the way for the Lord. So let’s make Advent great again. Don’t be afraid of John or his harsh preaching or his baptism. He’s a good and faithful preacher who wants the best for you in Jesus. To Jesus he points us—in the Word, in the water, in the bread and wine. Get ready. Prepare the way. Jesus is coming.

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

Monday, December 3, 2018

Advent Expectations

In Nomine Iesu
Jeremiah 33:14-16
December 2, 2018
Advent 1C

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

I’m afraid I have some bad news for you this morning. But, I also have some good news for you this morning. Bad news and good news. There you go. Now you know just what to expect from this sermon.

Everyone has expectations. We have expectations for ourselves, and for those around us. Others have expectations for us. You’ve likely got some expectations for the season of Advent and the upcoming holy days. There are expectations at work and at school and at home. A big part of the pastoral care I provide for couples who are engaged to be married is helping them arrive at realistic expectations for
married life: He won’t always be Prince Charming; she won’t always be Miss America.

It’s also true that we have expectations for God. We who are baptized and believe—we who are God’s children—we have expectations for God: that He will keep His promises, that He will forgive us, that He will be by our side in times of trouble. Some Christians have the mistaken expectation that being a part of the church means that bad things won’t happen in your life—that you should expect to be healthy, wealthy, and successful. But I’ve gotten to the point where I tell new members to expect trouble, trials, and temptations. For if you’ve got a friend in Jesus, well, that also means that you’ve got an enemy.

Today’s text from Jeremiah takes us back to the Old Testament. You’d better believe that OT Israel had expectations—and rightly so. They were God’s chosen people—His holy nation, selected, protected, and holy. From the Lord Israel received a land, a covenant, a law, a promise. No other nation in the history of nations was quite like OT Israel.

When Israel walked away from all that—when Israel grew faithless and idolatrous and adulterous—God punished His people. God sent the Assyrians to ransack the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And then He raised up the Babylonians to pillage, plunder, and burn the Southern Kingdom, including Jerusalem. The Babylonians destroyed the temple and carted off many of the people into exile.

It was during those grim final years of the Southern Kingdom that God called Jeremiah to be His spokesman. Jeremiah had bad news to proclaim. Destruction and exile were just around the corner. But God’s people ignored him. In fact, they tried to silence him. Jeremiah was depressing—bad for morale—unpatriotic, to be sure. They locked Jeremiah up—threw him in a cistern—because of the bad news about the Babylonians that he proclaimed.

I have bad news, too. And it’s not going to boost your morale or improve your ego. Like OT Israel, you are chosen and holy. You enjoy the peace of God and the promises of God applied to your life. But like Israel of old, you’ve become lazy and complacent. Your conduct is far from holy. And concerning the promises of God, how often do you hear them, read them, and share them with others? With all the words that come out of your mouth each week, what percentage of those words are words of prayer or praise? What percentage of those words are cursing, swearing, or words of anger? You were chosen and claimed by God in the waters of your baptism. But how many people who interact with you would ever guess that about you? Your sin runs death deep. You justly deserve—not God’s praise—but God’s punishment. That’s the bad news.

But you may have noticed that the tiny bit of text from Jeremiah in today’s reading is actually good news. Just like me, Jeremiah had bad news and good news. Behold (that means “pay attention”), the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. God keeps His promises. That’s good news! You can rely on what He says. Even as He permits death and destruction, He keeps His promises. Jeremiah preached that a righteous branch—a sprout from King David’s family tree—would come. He will do justice and righteousness. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will dwell securely.

The Israelites clung to that promise for nearly 600 years. When they lived in exile with the likes of Daniel and Esther, they clung to God’s promise that a descendant of David would save His people from their sin. When they returned to the ruins of Jerusalem they rebuilt the temple under Ezra and Nehemiah—but it wasn’t like the old days. God’s people were ruled first by the Persians, then by the Greeks, they by the Romans. Centuries came and went. But all the while, that faithful remnant of Israel never forgot the words of the Prophet Jeremiah—the promise of a righteous branch, the Son of David, the Messiah whose kingdom would have no end.

And then, finally, came the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on top of a borrowed donkey. The crowds hailed Him as a king: Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven and glory in the highest! It was true. Everything they said was right on. Jesus was the one to save God’s people.

Those Palm Sunday crowds had the right words, but the wrong expectations. They were likely expecting a holy war—that Jesus would raise an army and drive out the Romans the way King David had driven out the Philistines. But we know the good news. Jesus rode into Jerusalem to suffer and die. He came to make an exchange—your sin for His righteousness. He came to be your substitute under God’s righteous wrath again your sin. The only “holy war” Jesus came to wage was against sin and death and all the powers of darkness that threaten to destroy you. And that, my friends, is good news.

The last lines from Jeremiah in today’s reading need some attention. After declaring that Jerusalem will dwell securely, Jeremiah says: This is the name by which it will be called: “The Lord is our righteousness.’” Literally, Jeremiah refers to the name by which SHE will be called. “She,” not “it.” And that “she” isn’t merely Jerusalem. That “she” is “you.” That “she” is the church. That “she” is the bride of Christ. And this bride takes the name of her groom: The Lord is our righteousness. That’s how it is for you and me and all the people of God: The Lord is our righteousness.

His righteousness is yours. It’s His gift to you. It’s not something you do; it’s something He does. It’s not something you earn; it’s something He gives. Nothing illustrates that better than when we bring a little newborn to the waters of Holy Baptism (like we did this morning with little Lydia). What can she do? Nothing. What can she earn? Nothing. What can she pay? Nothing. But now, having received the gift of Baptism, the Lord is HER righteousness and HER salvation. And it’s all the Lord’s doing—all His gift.

This kindness and generosity from the Lord are not what human beings expect. When it comes to salvation, we expect that we have to do it—that we have to earn it and prove ourselves worthy. But those expectations are dead wrong. Jesus won salvation for us; and His love alone makes us worthy to be God’s holy children.

The bad news of our sin—and the good news of our Lord’s great love for sinners—that’s the theme of the whole Bible. That’s the center of our preaching and our life together. But as Jeremiah reminds us, “The Lord is our righteousness.” And He comes here to give you that righteousness of His—through words, water, bread and wine. Wait for it. Hope for it. Expect it.

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

Monday, November 26, 2018


In Nomine Iesu
Psalm 95:1-7
November 22, 2018
Thanksgiving Day

Dear Saints of Our Savior,

The text for this morning’s sermon is from Psalm 95, which we sang a few minutes ago. (It’s on p. 4 of the bulletin.) More specifically, the text for this morning’s sermon is the first word of the first verse of this first and foremost Psalm of Thanksgiving: Come! The entire Psalm is about giving thanks; but the first word is the most important word of all: Come!

Psalm 95 first became “famous” when it was sung every morning by monks in monasteries in the middle ages. That morning service has evolved over the years into what we know as the “Matins” service. Psalm 95 is still a standard part of the Matins service, made so by the monks who, of course, sang the Psalm in Latin. They didn’t sing, “Come.” They sang “Venite.” That’s why Psalm 95 in this morning’s service is titled “Venite.” It’s the first word of the first verse of the first and foremost Psalm of Thanksgiving. Come!

But whether you sing it in English or Latin, or German or Hebrew, what doesn’t change is that this first word is an imperative. It’s a command. It tells us what we must do. And if we’re going to get thanksgiving right, then the first thing we must do is “Come—Venite.” Notice it doesn’t say, “Make yourself comfortable.” Nor does it say, “Sit back and enjoy the show.” Nor does it say, “Have an attitude of gratitude.” It says, “Come—Venite.”

And come you have! Here you are! Good on you! You have left the kitchen in disarray. You have turned off the TV. You have placed one foot in front of the other, piled into in the car, and you have come to the house of the Lord. And now you are really ready to get on with the big and bold business of thanksgiving. O come, let us sing to the Lord, let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation. Let us come into His presence with thanksgiving, let us make a joyful noise to Him with songs of praise.

The thanksgiving God desires happens in public and in private. This is the public part—the part that can’t be missed—the part where you open your mouth and make a joyful noise. It’s big and bold, assertive, exuberant, and unafraid. On Thanksgiving we leave behind a world of digital, downloaded, Spotified songs for our private listening pleasure. And instead, we open our mouths with our fellow redeemed to make our own music—to unite our voices to sing the praises of our great God. If you’re keeping quiet this hour—if you’re not making a joyful noise—you’re doing Thanksgiving wrong.

That’s why there’s so much singing here in every service. It’s what we do. The guilty can’t sing worth a darn. Those ashamed find it hard to carry a tune. The fearful and the anxious—they’re just too timid to sound out their praises to God. But those who are forgiven—they can’t help but sing. Those who’ve been redeemed by Christ the Crucified—they can’t keep their mouths shut. Those who have surrendered their fear and anxiety to the God who loves them—they’re ready to make music in their hearts. Having come here into the presence of God, we sing; we sing because that’s what we’re going to be doing in God’s presence for all eternity. (This is all just the prelude to a heavenly Divine Service that will never end.)

Thanksgiving (whether in heaven or on earth) always declares what God has done. Psalm 95 gets it just right: For the Lord is a great God and a great king above all gods. The deep places of the earth are in His hand; the strength of the hills is His also. The sea is His for He made it and His hand formed the dry land. Thanksgiving is third-person praise. It’s all about Him and what He has done; not about me or you. When our personal tastes and preferences become the most important thing, well, that’s not thanksgiving. That’s selfish and self-serving. Go that route and you become the center of attention, instead of the God who is the Savior of sinners.

Sinners like us need to be shrunk down to size—so the Psalmist takes us to the sea. The sea is big and it makes you feel small to stand on the shore. We get a sense of that every time we walk two blocks east of here to Lake Michigan. In the ancient world the sea was especially big and scary. Those crashing waves and roaring waters came to symbolize all the things that threaten us—all the things that scare us and seem so beyond our control. None of us will be setting sail today. But even on Thanksgiving, your worries and fears may loom large. There are things in your life that you cannot control—that you cannot fix or change or cure.

Psalm 95 gives us hope and confidence with one simple sentence: The sea is His for He made it. In other words, the waves that threaten to wash you away—the frightening things—the things that keep you up at night—the things that you can’t control—know that your great God controls them. Nothing is beyond His grasp and power. If He could make the sea and everything in it—if He could calm the wind and the waves with only a word from His mouth—then today you can shrink your fear and open your mouth and give thanks like a pro.

Psalm 95 teaches us that Thanksgiving begins when you “come” here before God’s presence. Thanksgiving continues as you open your mouth and make a joyful noise, and as you learn to trust Him with your troubles. But Psalm 95 also teaches how thanksgiving trickles down into the nooks and crannies of your day-to-day life—far removed from this fourth Thursday in November.

It turns out that Thanksgiving involves not just our minds and our voices, but our entire body from head to toe. O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. This little sentence about bowing down and kneeling isn’t just a primer on the proper posture for those in the pews. For when you bow down and when you kneel you are making yourself small. This is how thanksgiving plays out the other 364 days of the year—on Monday through Saturday as you work at the callings God has given you. Thanksgiving leads you to make yourself small—to set aside your big ego and your big appetite and your big desire to be in control over everyone else and call all the shots.

Thanksgiving shrinks you down to size—helps you to see the world in proper perspective—so that you can seek and serve the needs of others—so that you can do the little things that make all the difference. But let me show you. I can demonstrate this better than I can say it. ****The Psalm says “Let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.” You know what it means to bow down. You know what it means to kneel. But the word for “worship” here (the word for Thanksgiving here) makes us even smaller. The Hebrew word literally means to prostrate yourself. That means to go down low like this . . . You can’t go lower or smaller than this. When I’m prostrate I go from six feet four inches down to about 8 inches. Thanksgiving makes us small in service to others.****

I can tell you that when you get down on your hands and knees—when you make yourself small like that—you get dirty. That’s how thanksgiving goes sometimes. Being thankful means being unafraid to get our hands dirtied in the nitty-gritty work of the vocations God has given us. When you do the hard work that you’d rather not do—when you bend down to help your neighbor—when you wash the dishes on Thanksgiving—when you work to forgive the person who has sinned against you—when you sacrifice for your spouse—that’s thanksgiving—personal, private, seen perhaps by no one except the Lord. But He delights in it. And every time you make yourself small like that, you are walking in the way of Jesus—Jesus, who made Himself nothing, taking the form of a servant—who humbled Himself becoming obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross—to save you from your sins.

He is our God, and we—we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand. He is yours. And you are His. He’s the Shepherd. You’re the sheep. Psalm 95 teaches that thanksgiving begins with you coming here. But your redemption—your salvation—that began with the Son of God coming here. He came down from heaven for us and for our salvation. He made Himself small in the womb of a virgin, and on a Roman tool of torture. He came to earth as bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh—to bear your sins—and to open the kingdom of heaven to all believers.

My fellow sheep, as you do your grazing later today, don’t forget that we are the people of His pasture. The plenty we enjoy is the plenty He supplies. Food and drink, house and home, wife and children—they are all good gifts from our giving God. As the sheep of His hand we know that those hands of His have nail-scars in them—the deep marks of His deep love for you. And on the day of resurrection, you will hear that deep love expressed by the Lord Jesus in one simple word when He calls you from death to life: Venite! Come!

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

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Gospel According to Daniel

In Nomine Iesu
Daniel 12:1-3
November 18, 2018
Proper 28B

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

When it comes to the book of Daniel, most of you can recall two major events from this major prophet. If I asked you to tell me about the contents of the book of Daniel, I suspect most of you would tell me about two things: Daniel in the lions’ den and the three men in the fiery furnace. A fair share of you could even tell me that those three men were named Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

We know those stories from Daniel because those are the stories that are included in the children’s Bibles. Those are the stories that get rhymed and illustrated in the Arch book series. Those are the stories that get taught every so often in our very own Sunday school classrooms. But this morning I want to expand your Daniel horizons. From now on, whenever you pull up the Daniel file, I want to be sure that it also includes the good news that we heard minutes ago in Daniel chapter twelve. For the next few minutes, allow me to acquaint you with the Gospel according to Daniel.

As a whole, the book of Daniel is challenging. Much of Daniel is what’s called “apocalyptic” literature. Like the New Testament book of Revelation, Daniel contains lots of unusual symbolic imagery, dreams and visions, with a heavy emphasis on the events of the End Times. But the three verses at the center of our attention today are clear and comforting, sure and certain. If you’re wondering what the end of the world will be like, Daniel—in these three verses—tells us almost everything we need to know.

“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people.” The Michael here called a “prince” is better known as Michael the Archangel. The archangels are the five-star generals of the armies of heaven. Michael the Archangel is best known
for slaying the satanic dragon in Revelation chapter twelve. The name Michael means “one who is like God.” And at the end of days, this mighty warrior archangel will be fighting for and protecting the people of God.

This mention of Michael is a wonderful reminder that angels are at work for you—and for the benefit of the whole church—even in ways we cannot see. The Bible tells us, for instance, that angels are here among us this morning, in this place, as we gather around the Lord Jesus and His gifts. The words of the proper preface remind us of the unseen guests who join us for every Divine Service: angels, archangels and all the company of heaven. Martin Luther reminds us that we should begin and end each day asking God, “Let Your holy angel be with me that the wicked foe have no power over me.”

The angels of God are a daily reality in our lives. But because their presence is largely unseen, we tend to ignore and forget about this gracious dimension of God’s care for us. When tragedy is narrowly averted—when we walk away unscathed from twisted wreckage—when we turn away from shameful sin and vice at the last minute—does it even cross our minds that the holy angels of God may be at work on our behalf? Or are we more likely to conclude that dumb luck and chance simply landed in our favor?

Dumb luck and chance will get you nothing when it comes to the end of the world as we know it. You’ll be glad for the assistance of the angels at that time. Just how bad will it be? Daniel tells us: “There shall be a time of trouble such as never has been” since the first nation was founded. Just think of all the distressing times we read about in the history books: wars, famines, pandemics, natural disasters, revolutions, ethnic cleansing and mass murder. Did you see the post-fire footage from Paradise, CA? Incineration as far as the eye can see. But Daniel reminds us, “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

And do not be deceived—your government will not be there to rescue you. The false god of government will be rendered impotent as the end draws near. I love my country. I treasure the freedoms we enjoy because of those who pledged their sacred honor to battle against tyranny. The United States Constitution is one of the finest documents ever penned by human authors. But big government is quickly replacing our great God in the hearts of many. Do we fear, love and trust in God above all things? Or is it Washington we look to for deliverance and rescue? Whether it be the economy or climate change or healthcare—the prevailing sentiment today seems to be that our government will bless us and keep us and smile upon us and give us peace.

To that Daniel would say, “Do not be deceived. Don’t bow down to that idol.” Daniel himself had been a citizen of Jerusalem—the capitol city of God’s holy nation. But God Himself used the Babylonians to destroy it and burn it. And this is why Daniel found himself in Babylon. God’s people will be delivered, even as earthly kingdoms rise and fall. In fact, Daniel reminds us that it’s not your earthly citizenship that matters. Instead, “Everyone whose name is found written in the book will be delivered.” That’s a reference to the Lamb’s book of life, mentioned many times in the Bible.

There’s a great multitude of people whose names are in that book, who are saved by grace through faith for the sake of Jesus. It’s comforting to me that it’s always referred to as the “book” of life. The names of those who belong to the Lord are written down in a book. I like this metaphor because whenever something is written down and published as a book, there’s an air of finality about it. I routinely write things down on post-its and scrap paper. It’s not a perfect system. I sometimes lose important information.

But books—books have a little more staying power, don’t they? In God’s book, the names of those who trust in Jesus are written down, recorded, preserved. It shows that God means business when it comes to your salvation. He will never forget the promises He first made to you in your baptism. It doesn’t mean “once saved, always saved,” but it does mean that your salvation has been in the works since before the world began. And when your days in this world are winding down—or when this world itself is flaming out—what comfort and joy it will be to know that your name is inscribed in the Lamb’s book of life.

I told you moments ago that Daniel’s words about the end of time were clear and comforting. How’s this for clarity? “Those who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” On the Last Day God is going to raise up you and all the dead. Please note that all will be raised—believers and unbelievers—no exclusions. The believers in Christ will awaken to everlasting life; the unbelievers to shame and everlasting contempt. Or to put it in the language of the New Testament, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” You know that I’m not what you might call a “fire and brimstone” preacher. But make no mistake. Those who foolishly reject God’s gracious gift of salvation—those who walk away from Jesus and His Word—they will face an eternity of shame and regret.

But those who are wise will shine, Daniel tells us. In the Bible to be “wise,” doesn’t necessarily mean to be smart or even highly intelligent. Those who are wise are those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Those who are wise are not perfect. They daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment. Those who are wise believe that Jesus is their Savior—that His blood has cleansed them from all guilt and sin. Those who are wise view Jesus as their substitute—who kept God’s law perfectly on their behalf, and took the punishment they deserve.

Those who are wise will enjoy an eternity in God’s presence. They will shine like the brightness of the heavens. You are wise because you’ve got your eyes fixed on Jesus. And Daniel declares that by your words and by your witness, you can bring others along with you. “Those who lead many to righteousness [will shine] like the stars forever and ever.” You are wise and you enjoy the righteousness of Christ because someone cared enough about you to bring you to church, to teach you about Jesus, to bring you to baptism. Sinners can’t become wise on their own. They must be led. They must be brought. They must be invited, just as you were. Your God loves it when more are taught and more are brought to join in His feast of victory.

Of course, today you might be feeling the agony of defeat more than the feast of victory. Today you might feel like you’re in the lions’ den or about to get burned up in a furnace of fire. But that’s not the last word. God gets the last word. And according to Him, for all eternity you will shine like the stars, reflecting the glory of your great God. Here ends the Gospel according to Daniel.

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

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Widow's Faith

In Nomine Iesu
St. Mark 12:38-44
November 11, 2018
Proper 27B

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

As you read through the Bible, it doesn’t take long to realize that widows—women whose husbands have died—widows have a special place in the heart of God. Think of Ruth, the young Moabite widow—who by the mercies of God became a daughter of Israel and the great-grandmother of King David. Or think of Anna who was with Simeon in the temple, worshipping night and day, awaiting the redemption of Israel. And in the earliest days of the New Testament church, widows were the very first recipients of Christian mercy and charity.

Today’s readings have a slightly different take on widows. The widows we hear about today aren’t so much recipients of charity and mercy—as they themselves are instruments of blessing and examples of faith. The widow at Zerephath was an outsider—not a Jew, but a Gentile. Yet the Lord sent the Prophet Elijah directly to her. Like Old Mother Hubbard, this widow’s cupboard was bare. A handful of flour, a tiny bit of oil—just enough for a tiny loaf of bread to share with her son. A single mom unable to make ends meet. And now there’s a guest—another mouth to feed. But from this guest’s mouth comes the Word of the Lord: The jar of flour shall not be spent, and the jug of oil shall not be empty. And by faith this widow bakes and believes the Word of the Lord spoken by Elijah.

Now, if widows had a special place in the heart of God, then the Scribes had a special place when it came to the wrath of God. In today’s Holy Gospel Jesus singles out the Scribes for condemnation because they were masters at manipulating widows and bilking them out of their money and homes. Like televangelists today who prey on the homebound who watch them on tv, the Scribes used religion to take advantage of widows instead of helping them. Jesus is effusive in His condemnation of them. It turns out, God doesn’t take kindly to those who defraud widows.

Now, while Jesus and His disciples were sitting in the temple courtyard, another widow entered with her offering. In those days they didn’t use offering plates or offering envelopes—or paper products of any kind. No, the coins went into metal boxes with tops that
were shaped something like the bell of a horn. Lots of coins would make lots of noise and clatter when they went down. When the rich came in, ears perked up and heads turned as clattering coins filled the temple coffers. But as the poor widow put in her two tiny coins, no heads turned. There was no great sound. Nobody noticed what this widow dared to do.

Nobody noticed, that is, except for Jesus. Jesus notices what we do not notice. Jesus always notices faith. What Jesus heard was not the widow’s two tiny coins; Jesus heard faith. He noticed a widow’s trust in God who always takes care of widows and orphans—faith that gives away the last bits of flour and oil—faith that dared to put the last two pennies into the collection box. Jesus memorialized her gift and her faith: Truly I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. What?! That’s not what the accountants would say. That’s not what the IRS would say. Her tiny gift would feed no poor and balance no budget. But Jesus said that she gave “more” than all the rest. Jesus’ accounting method is different: It’s not the amount. It’s not the number of zeroes that matters. It’s faith. Faith alone. Faith that is of greater worth than gold.

To the eyes of Jesus, who sees deep into the heart, that poor widow’s penny-sized offering was worth more than all the gold in King Herod’s treasury. The wealthy put in large amounts, to be sure; but even larger amounts remained in their pockets. The widow put in a microscopic amount; but the amount that remained in her purse was zero. Her gift totaled one hundred percent.

By the way, Jesus called this widow “poor,” but He never called her “old” or “elderly.” In the First Century young widows were much more common than they are today. The widow on the cover of this morning’s bulletin isn’t old and gray, but young. In fact, she’s holding a toddler in her arms with another tiny tot at her side. I see this text in a whole new light when I think that the “famous” widow might have been a twenty-something mother of two, and not an aging octogenarian.

This account doesn’t give us the whole story of stewardship, but it does teach us a few crucially important points. Jesus notices what we do not notice. He noticed the widow’s offering. He notices your offering—and the faith that leads you to give it. He notices the offerings given by teens, and by pre-teens and even the kindergarten crowd. And it’s not unheard of for some of the little ones you see here today to give a few pennies for Jesus. But make no mistake, those pennies are precious to Jesus. And if we don’t teach our children about this grace of giving, they will never learn it from anyone else.

This widow should cause us to examine our own offerings—to evaluate not just the amount, but the percentage we return to the Lord. If ten percent was the benchmark in the Old Testament, I wonder what we should aim for in the New Testament. The point is not that we turn over every last penny to Jesus. But it’s also safe to say that this widow didn’t just give what she felt “comfortable” giving. She didn’t just give what she could spare. She didn’t just give what was left over after she paid the mortgage and the utilities and the car payment. She gave sacrificially. She gave off the top with no fear of hitting rock bottom. She gave as an expression of her faith. And you can do that too.

Or consider again the widow of Zarephath. When the Lord directed Elijah to go to her for food, Elijah must have assumed that this was going to be a widow of means—the Jackie Onasis of widows. Turns out she and her son were destitute. But by the grace of God (who loves especially the widow and the fatherless), the oil and the flour did not run out. There was always enough. There was always more. The Lord always provides. You know that too. You believe that too. “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” (Rom. 8:32)? And the offering you give is a chance to show that you believe it—to express your faith, that with our gracious God, there is always more, always enough, always abundance. The Lord always provides.

These widows show us what faith looks like. But it would be a mistake to see these two widows merely as teachers of the law. That dear widow with her two coins wasn’t merely singled out by Jesus to show us what do do—or just to make us feel guilty about the offerings we give. No, this dear widow is showing us the Savior—pointing ahead to the crucifixion cross of Jesus—to the greatest offering ever given in the history of the world.

This widow gave everything—all she had—in an act of pure love and devotion. Her pennies preach a sermon more powerful than any preacher could ever proclaim. For just as she gave away all she had, so Jesus gave all He had for you on Calvary’s cross. Only there was not the clanking and clattering of gold coins, but only the steady dripping and dropping of the blood of the Lamb, slain for your sin, securing your salvation, cleansing you from every stain. Jesus gave away all He had and all He was for you. He held nothing back as your sacred substitute.

That offering—the offering given by Jesus on Good Friday—that offering makes you rich. By faith in Jesus, you enjoy the riches of God’s grace, forgiveness for your sins, comfort in your sorrow, peace that passes understanding. Today you are invited to an extravagant meal that money can’t buy. On the menu is the body and blood of Jesus, shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins. Unlike any other meal, we come to this meal with empty pockets, empty hands, empty hearts. And Jesus fills us with His very life.

We trust Jesus with the big things—forgiveness, salvation, the life everlasting. Why not also trust Him with the small things? Why not trust Him with our coins and currency? Sometimes the oil and flour may run low. Sometimes your account balance might not register much more than the widow’s two mites. But you are never outside the Lord’s notice—never beyond the reach of His care and His love. He will never leave you or forsake you. “Let not your hearts be troubled,” He says. Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and He will handle everything else.

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

Monday, November 5, 2018

Blessed Are the Dead

In Nomine Iesu
Rev. 14:13
November 4, 2018
All Saints’ Sunday

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

If the church took its cues from culture, then this morning’s sermon would be all about this week’s elections—or about last week’s cutest Halloween costumes—or about how early the sun will set this afternoon—or how Thanksgiving is less than three weeks away. But the church doesn’t take her cues from culture. In fact, on this first Sunday of November we do something completely counter-cultural. As the world around us slips into a chilly and dreary darkness, our attention turns to light and life—to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Welcome to All Saints’ Sunday!

All Saints’ Sunday turns everything on its head. Nothing is as it seems. The last are first, and the first are last. Those whose lives seem to be cursed—well, it turns out that they are the blessed ones. The poor in spirit—the meek, the mourning, the hungry, the
thirsty, the merciful, pure-hearted, peace-makers—these are the ones Jesus calls “blessed.” Not the rich. Not the winners. Not the powerful and the popular. But blessed are the poor in spirit.

But today’s text from Revelation 14 adds a surprising and shocking beatitude that no one would have ever imagined: Blessed are. . . the dead. Here’s the entire verse (our choir sang it beautifully a few minutes ago): And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Blessed indeed,” says the Spirit, “that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.”

Blessed are the dead? That sounds so strange—especially when one of the main themes of the Scriptures is that death is the just wages for sin (Rom. 6:23). Death is what our sins have earned for us. Death is the outcome and result of sin. From that perspective, death is anything but blessed. But consider also this sentence from Psalm 116: Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. When God sees the death of His saints—His holy ones, justified in Jesus—He views it as a precious thing—a blessed event. I think it’s safe to say that none of us would naturally attach those adjectives to that noun. At the gut level, none of us would think of death as “precious” or “blessed.”

We live in a death-denying culture which spends big bucks to defy the aging process—which is really just the slow, steady drumbeat of dying. Halloween is about as close to death as we like to get. I noticed how several north shore neighbors turned their front yards into scary cemetery scenes, featuring coffins, and skeletons and tombstones. If nothing else, it serves as a reminder that pretend death is a lot easier to deal with than the real thing. Everybody knows those skeletons are made of plastic, the coffins are empty, and the tombstones are Styrofoam. It’s pretend, play death. But as for the real thing—No thanks. We don’t want anything to do with that.

The whole funeral industry seems hell-bent on denying death. If there’s a burial at the cemetery, all the dirt from the grave gets covered up with green astroturf. The actual burial is usually done by hired workers after the mourners have all left the scene. We exchange a lot of sentimental sweetness about how our loved ones are in “a better place,” or how they’re in heaven playing golf, or cheering on the Badgers, or doing whatever it is they loved to do. Or we hear how they live on in our memories, or in the stories we tell about them.

Nobody except an occasional clergyman ever dares to state the truth with clarity and conviction: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints. The truth is that these days you have to go to a lot of funerals before you actually hear the sure and certain hope that we believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. And we believe that for the sheer and simple reason that Jesus Christ died and rose bodily from the dead—demonstrating beyond doubt that He has defeated death decisively, once and for all.

Outside of Christianity, nobody has this good news about resurrection life. Outside of Christianity—outside of Christ—death is never blessed or precious. The followers of Jesus have a monopoly on this matter of death and resurrection. Because Jesus is the only one—the only one to have died and then risen from the dead. Moses and Abraham died; but they didn’t rise. Buddha died; but he didn’t rise. Mohammed died; but he didn’t rise. Jesus was crucified, died and was buried, and on the third day rose again from the dead.

It’s because of Jesus’ death and resurrection that we can use words like “precious” and “blessed” to describe our own death, and the deaths of all baptized believers. Blessed are those who die in the Lord. Not just any death, but those who die in the Lord—those who have been united with Christ through the waters of Holy Baptism. Blessed are you, dear baptized believer, trusting in the promise of life everlasting in Jesus’ name.

Your death (yes, it’s coming), your death is also blessed and precious to the Lord—not because of you, but because of your Savior, Jesus. And not because of your works. Your good works matter, to be sure. But your good works “follow” you in death; they don’t “precede” you. That’s what we heard last week—that you are saved by grace, through faith in Christ, as a gift. They say you can’t take it with you; and that’s true concerning money and possessions. But your good works are a different story. Your good works will indeed follow behind you; but you don’t lead with them. Nothing you do can make your death blessed or precious. Jesus handles that.

Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. In these last days, in the wake of Jesus’ death and resurrection, our Lord has transformed the wages of sin into a moment of profound blessing for all who trust in Him. Today we not only remember “all the saints who from their labors rest,” but we remember in particular those from whom we have only recently parted company. We will name some of them in a few minutes. The wounds and the pain of that parting still hurt and sting. We feebly struggle; they in glory shine. In them, all of our Lord’s beatitudes have been fulfilled. Their poverty of spirit has been answered by the riches of the kingdom of heaven, and their mourning has turned to joy in the comfort of the Christ. Their departures from this world were made precious and blessed—their robes were washed white in the blood of the Lamb.

So, what’s it going to be like in heaven, with the Lord? What’s it like for those who are already there? Put simply, it will be a “blessed” reunion. Beyond that, we don’t have a lot of details. We do have glimpses, and snapshots and parables that depict the kingdom of heaven as more about a party and fine food and drink than about sitting around strumming harps on the clouds.

One thing we know for sure is that the population of heaven will be more diverse than what we see with our eyes gathered here this morning. St. John beheld “a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”

Something else we know for sure about eternal life is that the main activity will be worship—an unending liturgy to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. And that liturgy won’t differ all that much from what we sang earlier this morning in This Is the Feast of Victory: Blessing, honor, glory, and might be to God and the Lamb forever. Worthy is Christ, the Lamb who was slain. It’s going on right now in heaven. And although we can’t see it with our eyes or hear it with our ears, yet we confess that even this humble service is joined and tended and augmented by angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. A great cloud of witnesses is swelling our humble hymns of praise.

God has wiped every tear from their eyes; and He will also do it for you. Blessed are you. Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.

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

Monday, October 29, 2018

501 and Still Counting

In Nomine Iesu
Romans 3:19-28
October 28, 2018
Reformation Sunday

Dear Saints of Our Savior~

It was 501 years ago this week that a young priest and professor of theology put pen to paper and changed the world. It was 501 years ago that Martin Luther made the six-minute walk from his cloister in Wittenberg to the doors of the Castle Church. 501 years ago 95
theses went up for debate—and the world would never be the same. Those theses had to do with the troubles the church was facing at that time—indulgences, purgatory, papal politics. And we covered all of that in detail last year—on the 500th anniversary. What’s left to say? What more can we add for year 501 that wasn’t proclaimed at year 500—or year 499 for that matter?

Well, let’s remember that the Reformation began with a call for repentance. When Doctor Luther first dipped his quill in the ink and composed the very first of 95 theses, what spilled out onto the paper wasn’t a jab at the pope, but a timeless call for repentance: When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Matt. 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance. The Reformation began with repentance. And the Reformation continues (501 years later) with repentance (or at least it should).

Of course, repentance is a red-flag—an indicator that something isn’t right—that there’s a problem—that something needs to change. And if you’re thinking that the Pope was the problem or the catholic church was the problem or purgatory was the problem, think again. This isn’t a day for catholic-bashing or some kind of a Lutheran happy dance in the end zone or a Protestant Pride Parade. No, the Reformation is about repentance. Repentance means there’s a problem. And that problem isn’t so much with Rome as it is with you and me.

The Apostle Paul neatly sketches out the problem in Romans chapter 3: For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus. Faith alone justifies the sinner before God. Not your works, but Christ’s work. Not your righteousness, but Christ’s righteousness. Not your blood, sweat, or tears, but Jesus’ blood, shed once for all on the cross (and now distributed from this altar). If you don’t get this right, then you’ll get nothing right. If you don’t get this right, then Christianity becomes just another religion among religions.

Every other religion out there is a religion of works. It’s all up to you—your works, your rule-keeping, your zeal. But we confess with St. Paul that good works and commandment-keeping are not anyone’s stairway to heaven. The Law of God may be good and wise, but it’s not your friend. The Law can save no one. It’s there to silence all religious boasting. The Law is there to shut every mouth and empty every hand—to sweep away every religious credential and leave you on your knees with nothing to say in your defense except: God, be merciful to me, a sinner.

I’m sure that many of you have undergone an MRI at some point. MRI’s are wonderful diagnostic tools. They see what the human eye can’t see. They reveal the root of the problem—and the results are sometimes shocking: Here’s where the tumor is tangled up. Here’s where the cartilage should be. Here’s why you’re in such bad shape.

The Law of God is our spiritual MRI, peering deeply into the heart of all that we think, and do, and say. The Law sees what we can’t see. It gets past all the symptoms to reveal the root of the problem: a heart that doesn’t fear God, or love Him, or trust Him. The Law reveals a heart that’s defective—a heart that covets, lusts, envies, hates, murders, fornicates, lies, steals and slanders. Martin Luther caught a glimpse of that diagnosis and it terrified him. It was like reading an MRI that showed a body riddled with cancer. God’s Law shows a body of death riddled with sin.

So what do you do? As a monk, Luther was accustomed to going to confession on a daily basis—sometimes multiple times in a single day—running back to confess one more sinful thought, word, or deed. It got so bad that his father confessor, Johann von Staupitz, finally told Luther to stop looking at his sin . . . and start looking to Christ. And, in a sense, the reformation for Luther began right there. He began to behold Jesus—not as a judge, but as his Savior—not holding the scales of justice to measure your sins against your good works, but holding the scars that saved you, the wounds that rescued you, the death He died to free you. “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

This is what makes Christianity different—distinct from a world of religions. No one else has this—that you, a convicted sinner, guilty as guilty can be, can stand before God and be declared innocent by the blood of Another who died for you. Christ became sin for us to free us from our sin. Christ went to death for us to free us from death. He became what you are (a sinner) so that you might become what He is (holy). Jesus takes our sin and gives us His righteousness. Luther called it a “blessed exchange.” It’s not a deal. It’s not a negotiation. It’s not God doing His part so you can get busy doing your part. We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law. To have faith in Christ is to trust that the deed of our salvation is done—that the transaction is complete—that all bets are off. “It is finished.” Jesus said so.

To the unbelieving ear this sounds outrageous, scandalous, and just plain crazy. It’s certainly no way to run a religion. How do you expect people to do good works if they aren’t necessary to be saved? Aren’t we supposed to do our part? Doesn’t God help those who help themselves? Don’t my prayers and my offerings and my volunteer hours do something to get me in good with God? Nope. All fall short. AND all are justified by His grace as a gift . . . through faith in Jesus Christ.

If you feel like you need something to do—well, here’s a suggestion (going back to 1517): Repent. Come before the God who loves you with your hands empty and your heart broken—and admit the worst about yourself. And thank God that Jesus Christ has given you His best. He has set you free for a whole life of good works—good works not for God, but for your neighbor. God doesn’t need them; your neighbor does.

Why does all this matter? Well, next Sunday is All Saints’ Sunday. We will remember with thanksgiving all those from our fellowship who during the past year departed this life to be with Christ. This was no achievement on their part. The achieving was done by Jesus; they did the receiving. They were justified by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith. And so are you. And that makes all the difference. And if I have the privilege to be at your deathbed in the years ahead, don’t let me year you say, “I have lived a good life.” None of us has lived a good life. All fall short. But we are indeed justified freely through faith in Jesus. He did not fall short. He accomplished it all at His cross: the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

And that’s the good news that never gets old. That’s the good news that brings us peace and joy on anniversary 501 of the Reformation. That’s what keeps us going for this year, and for all the years until our Lord comes again in glory.

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