Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day

Micah 5:2-5a - Christmas Day - December 25, 2016
The Completed Puzzle

“The word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  So it has always been.  God hides his majesty and glory.  He always has.  “If God is real and so powerful – if God wants us to know him so badly and insists that everyone believe in him – why doesn’t he show himself and quit hiding?”  So says the fool.  He is a fool, though, not because such a request is necessarily unreasonable.  If aimed at our would-be rulers, this is a very legitimate question.   But no, he is a fool because he assumes that to know God is like knowing details of a celebrity politician and to scrutinize his credentials.  But God is not our equal.  He does not exist on our plain of existence.  He is not beholden to time or space, let alone scientific investigation.  And furthermore, he has no obligation to lay his cards on the table.  Nor does he want to be known by such minds that would insist that he cater to human demands of proof.  He wants to be known by faith alone.  Faith exists in humility.  To the proud he is terrifying.  So he must remain.  To the humble he is comforting.  And so it shall ever be.  God wants our knowledge of him to consist of humble faith, not impudent demands for evidence.  This is the whole point.  God wills to remain hidden to those who put God on trial.  But he chooses to reveal himself in kindness and love to those who know they’re on trial. 
The word of the cross is of course the message of the atonement. 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20 - Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016
This Thing Which Is Come to Pass
This evening and tomorrow, people all over are celebrating.  Families are gathered.  Presents are opened.  Children are excited.  But what are they celebrating?  Christians celebrate by investigating what all the excitement is about.  We celebrate by hearing the word of God.  That’s how the shepherds celebrated Christmas.  The angel preached that a Savior had been born.  What made it good tidings of great joy was not simply that he was born, but that he was born to you.  He is your Savior.  Added to this wonderful news was the sign that was given.  The angel said: 
“And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” 
The point of the promise was not simply to give them something to ponder.  It was to give them God to worship.  God’s glory that shone around them and frightened them would no longer be found in the glowing or thundering of the sky.  No, the angel said to fear not.  Fear not, for now the glory of God in the highest is made known where he makes peace on earth and reveals his favor and goodwill toward men.  This peace and goodwill were found where God became a man.  His birth changed the Sabaoth of God’s mighty angels into sweet choirs of singing heralds. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Advent Nunc Dimittis

2 Chronicles 6:1-2, 6:41– 7:3, Luke2:25-33
Advent 3 Midweek - December 14, 2016
Nunc Dimittis Servum Tuum
The reason Joseph and Mary came to the temple with baby Jesus was because she had just given birth to a baby boy.  God commanded that any son who is the firstborn child of his mother had to be consecrated to the Lord and redeemed with a sacrifice.  Even among the animals, any firstborn lamb or calf that was male had to be sacrificed.  Certain animals and human sons, which of course God did not accept as sacrifices, were not sacrificed.  Instead they were redeemed with a lamb.  This was not a weird and arbitrary commandment.  It was actually part of their celebration of the annual Passover.  God instituted the Passover.  You will recall that each household was to sacrifice a male lamb and then eat it roasted with bitter herbs.  This was in commemoration of that first Passover when the angel of death killed all the firstborn sons in Egypt, and spared the firstborn sons in those Hebrew homes whose doors were marked with the blood of the lambs they roasted.  This was the Passover.  Thus, from then on all firstborn sons were holy to the Lord and had to be redeemed by blood.  This consecration was to be done as soon as the mother who just gave birth was ceremonially clean.  So 40 days after Jesus was born, Mary went with her husband and son to the temple, first to receive her own purification and also to consecrate her little boy to the Lord.  And they did. 
Two things here are really interesting. 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Advent 3 Gaudete

Matthew 11:2-10 - Advent 3 - December 11, 2016
Refining and Purifying Christian Faith

Last Sunday our sermon dealt with the crosses that Christ lays on his Christians.  Crosses are hard to bear – whether they be something bad that God adds to your life or something good that he takes away.  Generally, because of the pain and personal nature of whatever hurts, folks would rather talk to some sort of professional counselor than to their pastor.  But the highest arts of sociology and psychology fall infinitely short of providing what the Christian most dearly needs in time of deep sorrow.  Oh, a counselor can help.   Please don’t get me wrong.  They are often well trained and experienced and can give wonderful and wise advice.  Sometimes all that’s needed is to have a discreet listener who will let you spill out your heart.  That can be, as they say, cathartic. 
That word cathartic means purifying.  It’s where we get the name Catherine, which means pure – a beautiful name!  God makes things pure by purging them.  Pure and purge come from the word for pyre or fire.  To purge is to cleanse by fire, usually in relation to metals like gold and silver or iron.  The Medieval Church entertained the superstition of purgatory where God, through pain, would purify those who died without being pure enough for heaven.  Of course this isn’t true.  What a terrible attack on the comfort of the gospel!  The Bible teaches that our purity is found in Christ by faith, and that this purity will be perfected in us in the twinkling of an eye on the Last Day when Christ returns.  Our pain doesn’t earn our purity.  Christ’s pain already has! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Advent Agnus Dei

1 Peter 1:17-25, John 1:29-34
Advent 2 Midweek - December 7, 2016
Agnus Dei, Qui Tollis Peccata Mundi
When God became man in the person of Jesus Christ, it was with little fanfare.  He chose a lowly birth.  He chose lowly people to reveal it to.  An angel gave them a sign and the shepherds followed the sign to the manger where he lay.  The sign was not much to see.  No sign is.  But the promise was wonderful.  It was the promise that compelled them to go and behold the sign.  It was the promise of a Savior who himself was the long awaited Christ, the very Lord God in the flesh.  This was good tidings of great joy to all people.   But all people did not behold him there – only they who had received the sign.  Only they found him and worshiped him and saw that thing which the angels had told them.  Only they, because only they received the sign. 
The angels sang: “Glory be to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”  This word for goodwill that the angels sang is the same word that the Father spoke when Jesus was baptized: “This is My beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased.”  Goodwill, well-pleased, good-pleasure – it’s all the same word.  Jesus said that no one enters the kingdom of heaven unless he is born again.  By being baptized, Jesus provided for us a new birth that links us to his own holy birth.  Baptism gives us peace with God and the Father’s good-pleasure. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent 2 Populus Zion

Luke 21:25-36 - Advent 2 - December 4, 2016
Your Redemption Draws Near

As darkest night must fade and die before the sun’s appearing,
So fades my grief away, when I think on these tidings cheering,
That God from all eternity hath loved the world, and hath on me
Bestowed His grace and favor; I’ll ne’er forget the angels’ strain:
Peace–peace on earth, good will to men, to you is born a Savior! Amen. 
In Jesus’ final beatitude, he said, “Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12).  Of all persecutions that we suffer as the children of God, I think about the most painful is when we hear people lie about Jesus – and then by extension when they revile us as well for believing and confessing the truth.  What can be worse than to hear evil spoken against us falsely because of Jesus?  What can be worse than to hear others twist our motives of love and concern as though we were judgmental and hateful bigots when really we just want what Jesus wants: for them to repent and believe the good news that their sins are freely forgiven for Christ’s sake?  What can be worse than when people fundamentally misrepresent this message of the gospel that saves them by adding in false human opinions that rob God our Savior of the glory that belongs to him alone — and then when others for whom the gospel is intended actually believe their lies to the eternal detriment of their souls?  What can be worse?  Yet Jesus says to us who must bear this sorrow, “Blessed are you.” 

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent Sanctus

Isaiah 6:1-7, Matthew 21:1-11
Advent 1 Midweek - November 30, 2016
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus
“It is truly meet, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to Thee, holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”  It is meet.  This means it is proper and fitting, because God is in all places and fills all time and is worthy of our constant praise.  It is right, because we have every good reason to be grateful to him, since he rules all things as our Savior.  It is salutary, that is, beneficial to us, because God commands us to and because he promises to receive our thanksgiving and accept it.  “Therefore with angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify Thy glorious name, evermore praising Thee and saying …”
And here we come to the words of our canticle that we consider this evening.  It is a song of both angels and men, of both those in heaven and of those on earth, of saints who have lived in ages past and of all those who still contend with death here today.  In fact, even as it is meet, right, and salutary that we give thanks at all times and in all places, our canticle represents and confesses a joining of all times and all places.  It begins with the song that we learn from the angels in Isaiah 6 who gather around God’s kingly throne in heaven.  It ends with a song that we learn from those in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John who met Jesus on his way into Jerusalem to ascend his kingly throne on earth.  Concluding both songs, we sing, “Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna in the highest.” 

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent 1 Invocavit

Matthew21:1-9 - Advent 1 - November 27, 2016
The Christian’s Crown of Righteousness
In the days of Jeremiah the prophet, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah forsook God, lost their glory, and were destroyed and scattered by heathen armies.  God had punished them.  But in the midst of this punishment was a wonderful promise. 
Through the same prophet, Jeremiah, God said behold.  In the midst of all this calamity that your sins have brought upon you, look at this.  Look at what I will do.  The days are coming, says the Lord, that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness – that is, I will send a son of David to bring you honor as you have never seen before.  For what will this Branch be?  He will be a king – like his father David was.  He shall reign and prosper.  That is, his reign will be successful.  It won’t crumble like an earthly kingdom – like the one that I gave you, which you stained with idolatry, and which I therefore now take away from you.  No, his kingdom will be spiritual, and it shall last forever.  He will execute judgment and righteousness.  That is, he will not neglect the poor and lowly or deny justice to the victims of crime.  No enemy will prevail against him with either bribe or threat.  His reign will be fair and good.  And in his day Judah will be saved and Israel will dwell safely.  This means that the salvation he promises will not be able to fail, but will guarantee security to all his subjects.  And his name, this King, this Branch of David, is the Lord, our Righteousness.  “Behold the days are coming,” says the Lord.  “The days are coming when I will demonstrate that I myself am your righteousness.” 
What an awesome prophecy!  It’s just as St. Paul wrote in Romans 3,

Thursday, November 24, 2016


Luke 12:13-21 - Thanksgiving/Harvest - November 24, 2016
Eat, Drink, and Be Merry
Why does God give us so much?  In order to answer this question, we must also be able to answer the question of why God permits us to go without.  No matter how much wealth we have, our sinful flesh would present this latter question as the most pressing: Why God?  How could God let me suffer so much?  Why do you take so much away?  Well, could it be, perhaps, that we don’t deserve even that which he lets us keep?  Are we not sinners at the constant mercy of God who gives and takes according to his own inscrutable wisdom?  Yes.  We are.  It is as Job confessed, the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord (Job 1:21). 
So how is it that Job was able to confess this so plainly and confidently?  How is it that we might learn to live with much as well as with little – to be, with St. Paul, content in whatever state we find ourselves?  It comes down to knowing the character of God – that is, getting a glimpse into this inscrutable wisdom of his – whether he is giving or taking.  This glimpse is graciously afforded where God reveals his favor and regard for you.  In fact, he shows you where it is always found, so it is more than a glimpse.  The face of God that shines upon you is found in Christ his Son who suffered and died for you.  It is found where this same Christ continues to serve you with his blood-bought forgiveness, teaching you to accept all God’s goodness with a clean conscience as free gifts from a loving Father. 
We interpret all things that God permits through the lens of the cross.  Through the cross of Jesus that gains our salvation, we are able to see the hardships and pain we endure not as the crushing heel of an aloof or vengeful deity, but as the gentle hand of our Father who lays crosses on us in order to sharpen our gaze on Christ his beloved Son, our Brother, who is our all and all. 

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Trinity 27

Matthew 25:1-13Trinity Twenty-Seven – November 20, 2016
Ten Virgins  ♫♫♫

Five virgins went to heaven.  Five virgins went to hell.  All ten washed their sins away and received eternal life in the water of Holy Baptism that clothed them in Christ and made them pure.  All ten heard and learned the promises of the gospel, and in our day would have been confirmed.  All ten belonged to a good and respectable church.  All ten knew how a Christian should behave and look.  But only five of them believed the gospel.  The other five did not.  Those who believed the gospel went into the eternal wedding feast.  Those who did not believe were sent away forever. 

Last week, with the parable of the sheep and the goats, we learned how God distinguishes those who believe from those who don’t believe by how they treated and served Christ’s Christians here on earth.  Those who did not show love to Christ’s brothers did not show love to Christ.  This pertains to the second table of the law: “love your neighbor as yourself.”  Of all neighbors most worthy of our service, and of the greatest concern to our Lord, it is those who are of the household of faith – those who worship with us, confess with us, preach to us, correct us when no one else will, and care for our souls by the commission and command of our Savior.  It is those who receive with us the forgiveness of sins – our brothers and sisters in Christ.  God distinguishes his sheep from the goats by what they do and leave undone towards the least of his brothers.
This week, with the parable of the ten virgins, we learn how God distinguishes those who believe from those who don’t believe in another way: by how they treated the word of God here on earth.  Those who did not gladly hear and learn it did not love Christ.  This pertains to the first table of the law: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5). 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

All Saints'

Revelation 7:9-17 - All Saints' Day - November 6, 2016
Looking Forward to Heaven

What will heaven be like?  How will we enjoy ourselves?  I recall reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when I was young.  Mark Twain, a clever observer of human behavior and custom, assigned to his character a common misunderstanding of heaven.  In his attempt to justify why he would rather remain a naughty and precocious boy, Tom Sawyer said that he would rather not spend eternity sitting on a cloud and playing a harp anyway.  Is that what heaven is like?  Watching Loony Toons as a kid filled me with the same kind of apprehension.  It looks like heaven will be awfully boring … and lonely.  Of course, this caricature of heaven is untrue.  But many modern replacements of this uninspiring image actually fall even further from the truth. 
Nearly every morning I take a walk through the Springdale Cemetery.  It’s beautiful in there, especially this time of year.  Many faithful Christians are buried there including some of our own departed members and some of your dear loved-ones.  It always strikes me, though, to see some of the memorials that are erected in honor of the dead – whether it be some little banner that describes heaven as a never-ending fishing trip or just a Hawkeye flag in place of flowers.  Some of them are permanent too – like the image of golf clubs on the headstone or an engraved poem about how one has become an angel in heaven.  But how are these images of heaven any closer to the truth than the imagination of Tom Sawyer and Elmer Fudd?  These are fantasies.  They are unspiritual fantasies too, that turn heaven into an extension of earth.  In reality, the life we live on earth should be regarded as an extension of the life we will live in heaven. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday

Psalm 46,etc. - Reformation Sunday - October 30, 2016
The Everlasting Gospel
This morning we celebrate the Lutheran Reformation.  The Lutheran Reformation is arguably the most significant historical event since Pentecost.  Both events turned the world upside down. 
On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit alighted on the chosen disciples with tongues of fire on their heads, and gave them power to preach the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name.  Many believed the gospel and were saved.  Many did not.  Those who believed found God’s favor in the full and free forgiveness of sins which they so dearly needed.  They feared God.  God turned to them a Father’s heart and gave them his Holy Spirit.  By faith they laid hold of the redemption that God freely offered in his Son Jesus Christ who had drowned their sins in the depth of the deepest sea. 
Those who did not believe continued to trust in their own works to earn God’s blessing.  They did not fear God.  They remained in their sin despite the fact that Jesus died and rose to remove them.  Remember how the older brother resented his father for receiving back his prodigal son?  In the same way, those who despised the grace of God also resented the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ for receiving sinners to himself. 

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Trinity 18

Matthew 22:34-46 - Trinity Eighteen - September 25, 2016
David’s Son and David’s Lord
The reason the Pharisees were so blind to the true nature of the law is because they were so disinterested in theology.  The reason they were so unable to see how the law applied to their lives is because they did not care about Christian doctrine.  They found theological discussion of God’s word boring.  They were much more interested in what they considered more practical matters, and they thought they had a firm handle on these.  Instead of meditating on the promises and mysteries of Holy Scripture, the Pharisees preferred to discuss other things — like what they had to do to gain God’s favor and blessing — or how they might build some sort of system for remaining faithful to God while caring as little as possible about the why and wherefore of what God actually commanded. 
This is what they did.  In order to do this, they took interest in what all men know by nature (at least to some degree): the law.  The law is written on everyone’s heart.  It can be smeared, distorted, ignored, or even added to, sure.  But it is God who wrote it on our hearts when he made us in his image – so it’s there.  We call this natural law.  Now, every false religion out there, or that’s ever existed, is and has been what really just amounts to an ornate and perverted twisting of this natural law.  People suppose that by being obedient to the law, however they may have arranged it, they might find approval in their consciences and rewards in heaven.  This is natural.  And it makes sense.  Doing good makes you feel good.  And only good people go to heaven.  So be good, and you’ll get there and you’ll feel good about yourself on the way.