Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Sermon -- Lenten Vespers (February 28, 2018)

This sermon was preached in a Lenten rotation.  It was preached on February 21, 2018 at St. Paul's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Belleville, Michigan.  It was preached again on February 28, 2018 at St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church in Plymouth, Michigan.


HEBREWS 4:14-16

JESUS IS OUR 
COMPASSIONATE HIGH PRIEST.

In the name + of Jesus.

     One of the lies that the devil wants us to believe is that we are special.  He wants us to believe that our sins are unique—that no one else bears the guilt that we do and that no one else could appreciate the shame that we feel.  Because the devil wants us to think that we are so special with our sins, he also makes us suffer silently and alone over our sins.  But the devil is a liar.  You are not special.  Your sins are not unique.  Your temptations are common.  As St. Paul needed to remind the Corinthians, so he reminds you: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” (1 Corinthians 10:13)  
     I do not want to suggest that your sins are no big deal.  They are.  They are offenses against God, and they harm your neighbor whom you sin against.  But the temptations you face and the guilt you suffer are common.  You are no different than apostles who debated among themselves which one of them was the greatest and most important.  You are no better than those disciples who boasted that they would never forsake Jesus, but you are no worse, either.  When there was a cost to being a disciple of Jesus, they all fled into the night.  When Peter was confronted about his allegiance to Jesus, he renounced Jesus.  Judas betrayed him.  Shame smeared them all.  All bore the guilt for their weaknesses and sins.  Judas, however, believed that his guilt and shame were special, even too great for God to deal with.  Judas sought relief from his guilt by suicide rather than by confession by which we find absolution.  Even though Judas was a common sinner, Judas died apart from mercy and forgiveness.  And tragically, relief eludes him forever. 
     You are not special; you are a sinner.  While you may be frustrated over yourself for that, you are neither despised nor rejected by Jesus Christ for that.  This is because Jesus loves you.  You are God's creation, and God loves what he has created—so much so that he came to redeem it.  But it is more than that.  Jesus Christ does not despise or reject you because Jesus also knows what it is to endure temptations.   For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)  
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  He understands that we are sinners.  He knows that we are weak against the devil and the temptations he hurls at us.  That is why he takes up our cause.  Jesus is not your coach or your cheerleader.  Jesus Christ is your compassionate high priest.  Just like Old Testament high priests, Jesus represents you before the heavenly Father.  Therefore, Jesus goes on your behalf to make a sin offering for you, even going into the very presence of God for you. 
     The Day of Atonement was the one day of the year on which the high priest was permitted to enter into the Holy of Holies, that is, into the very presence of God.  The high priest made the atoning sacrifice on that day—first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.  At all other times, however, even Israel's high priest was forbidden from entering God's presence.  Although he held a prominent position in Israel and was allowed closer access to the Lord than anyone else, he was still a sinful being.  The curtain which hung before the Holy of Holies was a continual reminder to the high priest that he was ineligible to enter God's presence because, like the people he represented, he was a sinner.
     Jesus, however, is a great high priest who has no such restrictions put on him.  We have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God... (Hebrews 4:14)  He who is holy has made a holy sacrifice.  Jesus not only made the sin offering for you; Jesus is the sin offering for you.  All your sins were laid upon him, and he, in turn, laid down his life for you.  Jesus, who is eternal, has made a sacrifice which stands for all time.  God, who became man, made the sacrifice which extends to all mankind.  This sacrifice has been presented to God the Father on behalf of all mankind.  And Jesus now sits at the right of God the Father to forever intercede for you.  He dwells in the glory of God, the Holy One who prepares a place for the ones he has declared to be holy.  Jesus is the Lamb who was slain—was slain—and now lives in the presence of God as the continual, eternal source of salvation.  The body and blood of that Lamb are regularly taken from this altar as the continual, eternal source of salvation for you.
     Through the work of your Great High Priest, you are now beloved by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and set apart by the Holy Spirit.  You have been set apart from sin, death, and the devil.  They do not own you; you are Christ's.  You have been set apart for God's honor and glory and for loving and serving your fellow man.  You have been declared to be holy, and are called to live of good and godly works.
     But we are still weak.  We still struggle and stumble.  As much as we strive to do these good works, we fall short.  We give into temptation because our sins have become a habit.  We give up on doing what is good because we become weary and no longer have the energy to fight against our selfish nature.  And some of the people we are called to serve in our various vocations make it very hard to love and serve our neighbor.  We are either repulsed by how freely they defy God's word or we are worn down by how unappreciative they are of our kindness.  Our weakness in honoring God and in serving our neighbor are obvious.
     But that does not make you special.  It makes you a normal human being who still has a sinful nature clinging to you.  Even though you get frustrated because you know that you should do better, the Lord Jesus is not frustrated with you or angry or ready to cast you out.  No, for we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:15-16)  Jesus is sympathetic to you and your condition.  Therefore, he summons you to pray to him.  For he who endured temptations is eager to help you with yours.  He who was scorned for his godly life will strengthen you to continue in yours.  He who was tormented by the devil will fend off the devil for you when you plead to him. 
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  Therefore, you get to call on him with confidence.  Yet get to acknowledge in very blunt and honest terms that you are struggling against a particular sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace....  (Hebrews 4:16)  When you do, Jesus will not be shocked or turn you away in disgust.  For Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  He looks upon you with mercy.  He deals with you lovingly.  And he will come to your aid eagerly.
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:16)  We do not have to pretend with him.  We don't have to convince God of anything.  We acknowledge what we are—sinners who are still weak, still struggle, and still fall.  But we are also sinners who are redeemed by Jesus Christ.  So we pray and confidently acknowledge who Jesus Christ is—the atoning sacrifice for our sins, the high priest who still lives and reigns in service to us, and the refuge to whom sinners run for salvation and hope. 
     Jesus is our compassionate high priest.  Jesus sympathizes with us in our weakness.  He supplies grace to help in time of need and in the day of trouble.  And he remains merciful to us.  There is nothing special about you being a sinner, but it is remarkably special that Jesus is your compassionate high priest who atoned for your wickedness in his death and lives to serve you for your eternal good.

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

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon -- 2nd Sunday in Lent (February 25, 2018)

MARK 8:31-38

TO CONFESS JESUS, 
YOU MUST DENY YOURSELF.

In the name + of Jesus.

     And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, (Jesus) said to them, “If anyone would come after me...” (Mark 8:34)  This begs the question: Why would anyone follow after Jesus?  You would only do it if you recognized some benefit from it.  If you follow someone on Twitter, you want to know what that person is up to or what he thinks.  If you follow a sports team, you get some kind of enjoyment in watching them perform.  You share in the thrill if they win.  So, what would make someone follow after Jesus?
     You, of course, know the answer to that.  It is because Jesus alone has the words of eternal life.  It is because Jesus alone forgives all your sins.  Only Jesus has gone into the grave to rise again, to conquer death, and to live forever.  Only Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God the Father Almighty to prepare a place in heavenly glory for you.  And because of all this, it is only those who believe in Jesus who are forgiven, who will be raised from the dead to have eternal life, and who will dwell with the Lord in heavenly glory.  We have every reason to follow after Jesus, and we forfeit everything of real, lasing value if we do not.
     Nevertheless, that does not mean it is easy to follow after Jesus.  Jesus himself lets you know that there will be a struggle in it.  (Jesus) said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  When you were marked as a child of God through your baptism, you were also set apart for a life of good works.  By these good works, you honor the God who saved you and you serve the fellow man God gave you.  In order to honor God, you recognize that his commandments are good and right, and you order your heart and mind, your mouth and your body according to them. 
     You do not have to invent the good works God wants you to do.  They are presented to you every day.  St. Paul reminds us: We are (God's) workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10)  Even though we have been marked as children of God, the sinful nature we were born with clings to us.  So, when God tells us the good we are supposed to do, we don't want to do it.  When God gives us opportunity to serve our neighbor, we are annoyed by it.  And it is not just the stranger whom we try to avoid.  Husbands would rather watch TV in the man cave than vacuum the living room.  Mothers would rather have a glass of merlot than run another errand.  Good works are avoided because they are usually hard.  They take effort, and they may take years before you actually see the benefits of your good works.  It takes parents years to raise a child.  It takes teachers months to educate a 3rd grader.  Doing what is wicked or lazy or greedy has instant results.  And we would rather have what is quick and easy, even if it is wicked.
     Therefore, Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  To follow Jesus, you must deny yourself the desire to be the god of your own world.  To follow Jesus, you must deny that your opinion and your feelings can overrule what God declares.  To follow Jesus, you also must deny yourself the cravings of your sinful heart.  You deny yourself how badly you want to utter sarcastic words or gossip.  You deny yourself how much you want to embarrass your coworker, skip going to work, or avoid household chores.  You deny that your time, energy, and money are devoted exclusively to yourself so that you can give to others and serve them.  These things are not optional.  While Jesus' words, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34) may sound like a strong suggestion, they are actually imperatives.  It is imperative that your sinful nature not master you.  If it does, that means you follow it and reap its rewards of death and hell.
     To confess Jesus, you must deny yourself.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  No one wants to take up his cross because the cross is meant for putting things to death.  And your sinful nature does not want to die.  But to confess Jesus, you must deny yourself.  You cannot try to teach your sinful nature to behave.  It cannot behave; it must be killed.  So, day after day, we repent of our sins.  We renounce what God calls evil and fight going back to it, because we know that sin leads to death.  Rather, we flee from our sins and we follow and cling to Jesus.
     To confess Jesus, we must deny ourselves.  Now, understand that Jesus is not teaching us to do anything different from him.  Jesus denied himself when he came to earth to be our Savior.  He explained that to the apostles.  He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.  And he said this plainly. (Mark 8:31-32)  The God who made heaven and earth should not have to submit to its limitations.  The God who made man should not have to suffer at his hands.  He who is the author of life should not have to die.  Yet, Jesus did all of this—and he did it for sinners.  The Lord became a flesh-and-blood man in order to have his flesh beaten and ripped by scourging, and to have his blood poured out through wounds from nails and a spear. 
     More than that, Jesus also denied himself by taking upon himself the punishment for us all.  He who is innocent was condemned so that we, who are guilty, would be pardoned and set free.  Jesus emptied himself of power to suffer in weakness.  Jesus emptied himself of glory to die in shame.  Jesus gave himself completely to the will of his heavenly Father and resolutely set his mind on the things of God—which is to save sinners.  Jesus did all of this for no other reason than he loves us.  He wants us saved from death and hell, so he endured our death and suffered our hell.  He wants us to live with him for eternity, so he conquered death and opened heaven to us.  Jesus did all of this because we needed it.  He did it for you.  And therefore, you are saved.
     To confess Jesus, you must deny yourself.  We have been set free from the sins that condemn us.  How could we go back to them, knowing that they only bring God's wrath?  It is true that sin brings instant gratification.  That is one of the devil's most convincing selling points.  Your own flesh craves what is evil and is instantly pleased when you give it what it wants.  Of course, that does not mean that the flesh will be content when you give it what it wants.  It will always crave more.  And even if you give your flesh everything it wants, you will lose everything.  For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?  For what can a man give in return for his soul? (Mark 8:36-37)  
     The Lord Jesus Christ gave up everything to gain your soul and body.  Jesus gave himself into death and hell to purchase everlasting glory for you.  He rescues you from slavery to your sinful flesh.  He gives value and purpose to all that you do in your life.  He shows you that your fellow man is blessed when you deny your desires for his good.  And he even sends his Holy Spirit to fill you with a heart that is eager to do what is good and what is good for others.  In this way, the love of Jesus flows through you to others so that they benefit from you just as you have benefited from Jesus.
     (Jesus) said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.” (Mark 8:34-35)  We have good reason to follow Jesus.  And we lose nothing when we give ourselves away for the good of others.  Your sinful flesh will never like it.  But to confess Christ, you must deny yourself, which is why you take up your cross each day and kill it by repentance.  You are no longer ruled or condemned by sin.  You are saved.  You are Christ's.  Therefore, you follow him who gives you a heart which loves what is good and does what is good. 

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

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Things that make me go "ARRRRGGGGHHHH!" -- potholes in MIchigan

Image result for truck stuck in pothole
This actually happened in Michigan -- a truck with asphalt
to fill in potholes actually gets stuck in a pothole.

As anyone who lives here knows, Michigan roads are notorious for being in poor condition.  But winter into spring ups the level of "poor" with potholes.  Radio stations regularly take phone calls and texts about roads which have especially bad potholes.  Cars are often seen on the side of the road with tires which have been blown out, victims of hitting another pothole.  You may also have to shell out cash to repair your allignment after you replace your blown out tire(s).

By common consensus, this year is worse than ever.  In an effort to help alleviate some of the pain, I ran across this article on Facebook about the possibility of getting reimbursed, at least in part, for expenses which come becuase of pothole damages.  I have not pursued this any further than reading the article, but you may want to pursue it yourself if you racking up expenses due to pothole damage.  (I am also logging it here for future reference in case I need it.)

You can find the article here: https://wdet.org/posts/2018/02/19/86423-got-pothole-problems/

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Pastor-Teacher Conference at St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church, Plymouth, MI

On Monday, February 19, the pastors and teachers in the southeast conference of the Michigan District assembled at St. Peter's Evangelical Lutheran Church of Plymouth, Michigan for growing in God's word and mutual encouragement.  The pastors also met on Tuesday, February 20.  Here are some photos from St. Peter's.






Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon -- 1st Sunday in Lent (February 18, 2018)

MARK 12:12-15

JESUS CHRIST 
OVERCOMES THE TEMPTER.

In the name + of Jesus.

     Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation.”  What does this mean?  Martin Luther explained it this way: “God surely tempts no one to sin, but we pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us, so that the devil, the world, and our flesh may not deceive us or lead us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins; and though we are tempted by them, we pray that we may overcome and win the victory.” (6th Petition of the Lord's Prayer; Luther's Small Catechism)  
     Temptations are going to come, and you can't stop them.  Adam and Eve dwelt in a paradise garden in Eden, and temptations came.  If Satan would not leave Adam and Eve alone in their holy state, he will certainly not leave you alone.  And the world we live in now is far from holy.  It is perverse, greedy, self-centered, and self-important.  Our culture decides what matters and what is acceptable.  If you speak or act against it, the world will goad you into obeying its ways by asking, “Why are you so full of hate?” 
     Temptations are going to come, and you can't escape them.  Satan knows his time is short, and so he works relentlessly to deceive you.  Satan presents sinful attitudes and actions as beneficial.  He tries to convince you that doing things which lead to hell is really living it up.  He tells you that slavery to sin is true freedom.  And your own sinful flesh is excited to hear it.  We all have greed and lust and selfishness in our guts.  We can't escape that.  Nor can we escape Satan.  And as far as escaping the world?  That is not an option.  If we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, we have to live with our neighbor to love and serve him.
     So, temptations are going to come.  You can't stop them.  You can't escape them.  You can, however, pray against them.  The Lord who taught you to pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” is eager to hear and answer your prayer.  He taught you that prayer so that he could guard you, strengthen you, and deliver you from temptations.  If we learn to heed our Lord's invitation to pray more than Satan's invitation to sin, we will spare ourselves many griefs.  For, Jesus Christ overcomes the Tempter.
     If you struggle against temptations, there is nothing wrong with you.  It is not a sin to be tempted.  It just means that you are Satan's mark.  Temptations are going to come.  The Lord is not unsympathetic to your struggle.  The devil did not leave him alone either.  After Jesus was baptized, the Spirit…drove him out into the wilderness.  And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:12)  Immediately after Jesus was anointed as the Christ, Satan challenged Jesus' identity as the Son of God.  He urged Jesus to use his miraculous powers for his own benefit.  And Satan did not play nice.  Jesus was cast into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit.  This was not a lush garden paradise where all his needs would be met.  This was a desolate, uncivilized place.  This was a temptation which Jesus had to face by himself without the encouragement or support of faithful friends. 
     Satan still plays dirty.  He attacks you when you are weak.  He attacks where you are weak.  He likes to find you when you are alone and when you are down.  He makes your frustrations more painful and your worries more common.  He wants you to be withdrawn from your fellow believers so that you do not have anyone to admonish you against your sins or to encourage you to remain faithful to God's word.  Satan wants you to stew in your shame all by yourself, too.  He convinces you that you are the only one who has done what you have done.  He tells you that your pain and your shame are unique, and that the worst thing that can happen to you is that someone discovers your sin.  So, just as Adam and Eve lied to hide their sins from the Lord, so Satan convinces you to live in silent shame rather than confess to be absolved of your sins and relieved from your guilt. 
     Your Lord Jesus Christ provides you with a victory over sin and guilt, over death and the devil.  You and I have to keep on praying, “Lead us not into temptation,” because we are weak and we fail.  However, our prayer is to the Valiant One whom God himself elected and who holds the field over Satan forever.  Jesus Christ overcomes the Tempter. 
     Adam and Eve fell into sin in the midst of a lush garden, but Jesus overcame the Tempter in the barren and hostile wilderness.  Adam and Eve had been given to each other for support and encouragement; yet they still fell into sin.  Jesus was forced to endure the Tempter alone, and he overcame.  Even later when Jesus was suffering great temptation in the Garden of Gethsemane, his disciples left him to pray and suffer alone while they slept.  Still, Jesus Christ overcame the Tempter.  He continued in holy obedience, firmly trusting in his heavenly Father even when there was a cost to do it—even when the cost was crucifixion and consuming the cup of God's wrath for sinners.  But Jesus did it; and he did it for you.
     Jesus Christ overcomes the Tempter.  Jesus' battle against Satan was not just an academic exercise.  This was a battle for the souls of men.  Jesus fought to win sinners by his holy and obedient life.  Jesus gave his life as a ransom for you—the innocent man given in exchange for guilty.  The Son of God labored to gain the children of men.  Jesus Christ has overcome the Tempter, and you are the spoils of war.  Jesus has snatched you from the clutches of the devil.  He rescued you from the icy grave and from the flames of hell.  He even has set you free from the times when you gave into temptation—whether you were deceived by Satan's lies or you were compelled by your sinful cravings.  Jesus' innocent life has been given in exchange for all of these so that you are now forgiven of your sins and so that you are now ransomed from the devil.  You do not belong to sin, death, or the devil.  You are Christ's; for he has conquered your foes and rescued you. 
     Jesus Christ overcomes the Tempter.  He is risen and lives and continues to intercede for you to keep you as his own.  That is why he urges you to call on him in prayer when temptations come.  That is why he continues to serve you with his word and sacrament to strengthen and preserve you unto life everlasting.  And that is why he has gathered you together in the Church so that you can watch over and care for one another.
     When Adam and Eve had sinned against God, the Lord drove them out of the Garden of Eden.  He posted angel sentries to guard the way so that they could not go back and eat from the Tree of Life.  Since that day, mankind has been terrified at the sight of God's angels.  Corrupt men cower in the presence of holy angels.  However, Jesus has changed even this.  (Jesus) was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan.  And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. (Mark 1:12-13)  The angels were there to serve the Holy One and to strengthen him against the Tempter.  And this is what Jesus sends the angels to do for you now.  You are now God's holy ones.  You are his saints.  And therefore, Jesus answers our morning prayer: “Let your holy angel be with me, that the wicked foe may have no power over me.” (Luther's Morning Prayer)  He sends his holy angels to serve his holy ones and to support us so that the Tempter cannot take us back.
     And finally, when our last hour comes, the Lord Jesus will send his holy angels to bring us out of this world of temptation and sin, and they will carry us to our Father in heaven where we will never again be tempted or taunted or enticed to wickedness again.  With Jesus, we will forever be safe.  For now, we continue to flee to Jesus who is our refuge, our mighty fortress, so that we will continue to be kept safe.  He holds the victory, for Jesus Christ has overcome the Tempter.  In him, we are safe.  By him, we are saved.

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

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Something from ... Augustine on the source of good works

Something from Augustine on the source of good works.  Augustine highlights first that we are saved by faith alone.  However, faith is never alone.  From faith (that is, the new life which the Holy Spirit works in us) comes the fruits of faith, which are good works.  If, however, the good works flow from faith, and if faith is a gift of God, then even our works are God's doing within us.

“Not that he denied good works, or emptied them of their value, when he says that God renders to every man according to his works; Romans 2:6 but because works proceed from faith, and not faith from works.  Therefore it is from Him that we have works of righteousness, from whom comes also faith itself, concerning which it is written, The just shall live by faith. Habakkuk 2:4” (Augustine, Selections from “On Grace and Free Will,” chapter 17)

Good works are not evil; they are good.  But the merits of salvation come from Christ alone.  He is our Savior.  He saves us completely.  Once saved, good works flow forth.  For, those who are alive in faith must live.  That life is made evident by our good works.  And those works are rendered good only through faith in Christ.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Something from ... Augustine on where one places his faith


Something from Augustine on Good Works and where one places his faith:

“It is to be feared … lest poor wretched man, when he leads a good life and performs good works (or rather thinks that he leads a good life and performs good works), should dare to glorify in himself and not in the Lord, and to put his hope of righteousness living in himself alone...”  (Augustine, Selections from “On Grace and Free Will,” chapter 6)

Seems to me that Augustine could have been a Lutheran, teaching that we are saved by faith alone and not by our works.  This is also why Lutherans believe that we are still the church catholic.  We teach what the Church has always taught.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sermon -- Ash Wednesday (February 14, 2018)

LUKE 18:9-14

REPENTANCE SEEKS 
ONLY THE BLOOD OF CHRIST.

In the name + of Jesus.

     (Jesus) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)  The parable is a warning for people who go to church.  While the men in the parable had very different reputations before the people, both were sons of the covenant.  Both went to the temple to pray.  The Pharisee was a teacher of the law.  He was an example of pious living.  We might even think of him as a pastor.  On the other hand, there was a tax collector.  He was a Jewish man who hired himself out to the Romans to collect taxes from his fellow country men.  These tax collectors were known thieves.  They inflated the amount you owed for your taxes and kept the extra for themselves.  Everyone knew it, but there was nothing you could do about it.  You had to pay what you were told to pay. 
     “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.” (Luke 18:10)  One was an example of virtue, respected by everyone.  One was an example of villainy, despised by all.  Nevertheless, each man knew where he needed to go—to the temple where God had chosen to dwell with his people and to bless them. 
     The Pharisee was the first to pray.  He stood up in the courtyard, stretched out his hands to heaven (as was the typical posture for prayer), and prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)  Now, the Pharisee was probably telling the truth about himself.  Morally, he was better than most.  He was not a cheat.  He did not sleep around with other women.  He fasted, and he tithed—not just his income, but everything that came into his possession. 
     The tax collector, on the other hand, did not assume the usual posture for prayer.  He did not look up to heaven, as if he should expect to receive something from there.  Instead, he beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)  Everything the tax collector said about himself was true, too.  He was a sinner.  He did not sugar coat it.  He did not make excuses, such as, “Well, if I didn't collect taxes, someone else would do it.  He might cheat even worse than me.”  He simply acknowledged what he was—a sinner.
     Now, once again, remember why Jesus told this parable.  (Jesus) told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt. (Luke 18:9)  This parable is for you.  It is likely that you are an example of virtue rather than villainy.  And it is likely that you could make a list of things you do which illustrate your Christian life—church attendance, giving offerings, and decent behavior.  Like the Pharisee, you would probably be telling the truth.  However, the problem with the Pharisee is this: Even though he went to the right place for worship and prayer, he did not believe the word of the God who dwelt there. 
     We heard the word of the Lord in our Old Testament lesson: Our transgressions are multiplied before you, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and we know our iniquities.... (Isaiah 59:12)  This confession is meant for the lips of all people, for all are sinners.  It is not for us to compare ourselves with others, trying to determine who is better or who is worse.  When we do, we pick the best of ourselves and compare it to the worst of others.  The Pharisee looked down on the tax collector with contempt.  It was not hard to do.  The tax collector was despised by everyone as a cheat and a traitor.  The tax collector probably assumed he could never be good enough, not as good and the Pharisee, anyway.  It does not matter.  We are to compare ourselves to God's Law, not to others.  God's holy Law multiplies our sins.  God shows us our envy, our pride, our sinister thoughts, our selfish motives, and our efforts to preserve our good reputation even if we have to lie, deceive, or slander to do it.  There is no reason that we should expect any good to come to us from heaven.  We have earned wrath.  The best we can do is to take our place with the tax collector and plead for mercy.
     No matter how bad the tax collector had been, he believed God's word.  Therefore, he went to God's house and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (Luke 18:13)  More accurately, his prayer was, “God, be propitiated to me, a sinner.”  In other words, the tax collector was praying that God would be appeased by an atoning sacrifice made on his behalf.  Repentance seeks only this atoning sacrifice, which is the blood of Christ.
     Repentant hearts do not try to convince God that our sins aren't that bad.  Repentant hearts do not make excuses.  The Lord multiplies our transgressions before us; and so, we are alarmed by our sins and the wrath they deserve.  What comfort is there is knowing that others are worse?  We answer only for our own sins.  Therefore, we seek an atoning sacrifice which would appease the wrath of God.  Repentance seeks only the blood of Christ.
     Are you a sinner?  Good.  Because Jesus Christ comes only for sinners.  He is the Lamb of God which takes away the sin of the world.  That means his blood is spilled out before God the Father to be the ransom price which buys you back from sin, death, and the devil.  That means he burns in the fires of God's wrath and is consumed in the torments of hell.  His holy, innocent sufferings and death appeases the wrath of God which stands against all who are guilty.  He bears your guilt.  He bears your punishment.  He delivers you from death and wrath and hell.  This is what the tax collector prayed for.  This is what repentant hearts seek.  And this is what Jesus delivers to you.  Repentant hearts seek only the blood of Christ; for this alone puts an end to God's wrath.  This alone covers your sin.  This alone saves.
     Two men went up to the temple to pray.  They looked very different.  If someone had asked you which man was better, based on what you see, you would have said the Pharisee.  If asked which man deserved to have God's blessing, you would have said the Pharisee.  But based on God's word, you would have different answers.  Which was better?  Neither.  Both were sinners.  The Pharisee did not think so, but the tax collector believed God's word and confessed he was.  Which deserved God's blessing?  Neither.  Both deserved wrath.  The Pharisee did not think so, but the tax collector held God to his promises and pleaded for mercy.  Therefore, the tax collector sought propitiation.  Repentance seeks only the blood of Christ.
     Jesus rendered the surprise verdict: “I tell you, this man (that is, the tax collector) went down to his house justified, rather than the (Pharisee).” (Luke 18:14)  The tax collector did not justify himself.  That is impossible.  Rather, he was justified.  This is God's work, God's judgment, and God's verdict.  God declared the tax collector not guilty of sin based on the propitiation of Christ, that is, based on the blood which Christ shed as the atoning sacrifice for sinners.  This is how you are justified, too.  Jesus Christ is the propitiation, that is, the atoning sacrifice, for your sins.  He covered your sin in his righteousness when you were sprinkled in baptism.  He bestows God's peace as he gives you his blood in the Lord's Supper.  He has done all the work to remove your guilt from you.  He has cleansed you of every spot and stain of sin.  And he keeps you in the faith with his saving word of grace. 
     Repentance seeks only the blood of Christ.  For this alone saves.  And by faith in Jesus' blood and sacrifice, the Lord sends you home justified.

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

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Lenten season


Preparation for the Lenten Season

A Lamb goes uncomplaining forth, our guilt and evil bearing
     And, laden with the sins of earth, none else the burden sharing.
Goes patient on, grows weak and faint 
     To slaughter led without complaint,
          That spotless life to offer,
Bears shame and stripes and wounds and death,
     Anguish and mockery and says,
          “Willing all this I suffer.” (Christian Worship 100:1)

The Lenten season is a 40 day period (not including Sundays) leading up to Easter.  It is a penitential season.  That is why it begins with Ash Wednesday – a powerful reminder that “dust you are, and to dust you will return.” (Genesis 3:19)  Since we are dust and marked for death, we approach our Lord in penitence and humility, seeking his mercy.

One of the ways we may express our penitence is by fasting.  Fasting need not be a total deprivation of food.  Traditionally, Christians would reduce the number of meals they ate from three to two.  Of those two meals, one (usually the later meal) was rather light.  Or you may partake in two rather small meals with a regular sized meal.  Sundays, however, remain feast days.  Fasting, prayer, and the giving of alms go together. (Matthew 6:1-6,16-18)  The time that we give up on feeding our bodies is devoted to prayer and meditation, and the money we would have spent on ourselves would be given to the poor or to a charity.  Though such practices are not mandatory, Luther’s Small Catechism reminds us, “Fasting and other outward preparation may serve a good purpose….” 

The Lenten fast is also experienced in our Divine Services.  During the Lenten season, we will not sing Alleluia or the Gloria in Excelsis (“Glory be to God on high…”).  Flowers are also removed from the altar.  As we continue further into the Lenten season, the fast intensifies and we will notice some omissions from our Services:

These omissions are a fast for our eyes and ears.  Perhaps it will seem awkward to be missing these things, but that is the point.  Lent is a penitential season.  Our celebration is muted.  But this also will highlight the air of celebration on Easter Sunday when all of these sights and sounds return to our worship as we will rejoice in the resurrection of our Lord.

Grant that I your passion view with repentant grieving.
   Let me not bring shame to you by unholy living.
How could I refuse to shun every sinful pleasure
   Since for me God’s only Son suffered without measure? 
(Christian Worship 98:5)

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Sermon -- Transfiguration (February 11, 2018)

MARK 9:2-9

GLORY IS REVEALED 
WHEN YOU LISTEN.

In the name + of Jesus.

     You've probably had it happen to you before.  You walk into a room and step into the middle of someone's story.  The first thing you hear is your friend saying, “And then what happened....”  You want to know, “What happened first?!”  If you have children, you've seen it from the other side.  I recall when my wife and I were talking, a child came into the room only to hear the words, “...going to Disney World...”  Then the child ran out of the room excitedly to tell the other kids, “Mom and Dad said we're going to Disney World.”  They might have wished we had said that, but we didn't.  They did not hear the first part of the story.  Today's Gospel begins in a similar way.  St. Mark writes, “And after six days...” (Mark 9:2)  It begs the question, “What happened six days prior?!” 
     A week before this Gospel, Jesus was speaking to his apostles.  He asked them who the crowds thought he was.  After that, he asked the apostles, “Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)  Peter answered on behalf of the apostles, “You are the Christ.”  And (Jesus) strictly charged them to tell no one about him. (Mark 8:29-30)  It's not that Peter's answer was wrong.  He was exactly right.  But most Jews had visions of what it meant that the Christ had come.  They expected to see Israel become a rich and powerful nation.  They expected the Christ to usher in a kingdom where they would bask in the glory and benefit from it.
     But Jesus informed the disciples that this expectation was wrong.  Jesus explained what it meant that he was the Christ.  If they wanted to see that glory, they would need to listen to him.  Jesus said that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, to suffer and be rejected by the religious leaders, be crucified, and then rise on the third day.  He went on to tell the disciples that some of them would not taste death before they saw the Christ establish his kingdom. 
     And after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became radiant, intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them. (Mark 9:2-3)  The divinity of Jesus shone through the humanity of Jesus.  For once, the Son of God looked like the Son of God!  Peter thought, “Now this is what we were waiting for!  This is the glory we were expecting from the Christ.”  So Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  It is useful for us to be here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (Mark 9:5)  Peter saw this glory, and he wanted to bask in it and benefit from it.
     Peter had a worldly desire for glory.  We do too.  What do people consider glorious?  Power.  We envy those who are in control and get to decide the rules.  Or money.  Money gets things done and allows people to go wherever they want and to do whatever they want.  How about popularlity?  You get to have all kinds of people fawn all over you and are afraid of hurting your feeelings.  On a smaller scale, we consider it glorious to be able to manipulate or to use other people.  You may consider it deporable.  But tell your friends how you manipulated a salesman for a better deal or lied to get out of a ticket or jury duty.  Your friends will not rebuke you; they will congratulate you.  It is your moment of glory.  The Lord, however, offers no such praise.  He condemns us and the world for such a self-centered view of glory.  Repent.
     The glory of God is revealed only when you listen.  When the apostles were enveloped by a cloud and God the Father spoke to them, he did not tell the disciples to soak in the scene and gaze at Jesus' glory.  Instead, the voice came out of the cloud, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him.” (Mark 9:7)  These disciples were to remember the words of Jesus who told them that he was going to suffer and die.  If they had listened to the conversation between Jesus and Moses and Elijah, they would have heard the same thing.  St. Luke tells us that they were speaking of Jesus' departure from this world—in other words, his sufferings and death.  That is where God would reveal his glory in Jesus.  That is where God proclaims his love.  Because there, Jesus serves sinners by suffering and dying for them.
    Glory is revealed when you listen.  The glory that the Lord desires you to have is not a momentary thing.  The world might give people their moment in the sun.  Even if it lasts for a number of years, eventually, death brings it all to an end.  But the glory the Lord desires you to have is eternal.  Jesus secures that glory for you by walking away from the mountain of transfiguration to climb the hill of shame.  Jesus left his glory to go to Mt. Calvary where he would suffer for the sins of people who lust after glory, riches, power, and fame.  There, Jesus was crucified in shame and in weakness, rejected and reviled, beaten and bloodied, cursed and condemned.  All this Jesus endured for your benefit.  This is the payment for your sins.  This is where God's wrath was redirected so that his mercy rests upon you.  This is what secures your place in God's kingdom and opens to you the gates to God's glorious, heavenly dwelling.  Because of Jesus, you do not merely have a moment in the sun; you have everlasting glory in the presence of your gracious God.
     Glory is revealed when you listen.  As they were coming down the mountain, (Jesus) charged (Peter, James, and John) to tell no one what they had seen.... (Mark 9:9)  Jesus wanted people to listen to God's promises rather than to press him for images of glory.  This is what Jesus wants for you, too.  Do not gauge God's love on how popular or powerful or successful or healthy you are.  If your world falls apart, you may wonder if God really loves you.  If you are despised, you may wonder why God is not paying attention to you.  If your life is full of frustration or you are enduring low moments, you may convince yourself that God has let you down.  Do not trust what you see with your eyes or what you feel.  God's love is not gauged by what we see and feel.  If you want God's glory revealed, listen to him.  His word never lies to you.  His mercy never fails you.  His care is not revoked from you.  These are is only revealed and received by his promises.  Listen to him.
     (Jesus) charged (Peter, James, and John) to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:9)  Jesus' glory would remain hidden until after he rose from the dead.  And so it is with you.  The glory that we will receive when everything is finally right and good comes after the resurrection of the dead.  Then we will see God face to face and rejoice in his presence forever.
     Until that day, we continue to live and to serve in this world.  Until then, our glory is hidden in our service to our neighbor.  When you think of your mother in all her glory, you might imagine her in a beautiful dress and all dolled up.  That might be your mother at her prettiest, but your fondest memory is likely when she was weary and grubby and taking care of you when you were sick.  It may not have been her prettiest moment, but it is what benefited you the most.  Likewise, Jesus shows us what glory looks like.  It was certainly not pretty when Jesus hung from a cross; but it is what benefits you the most.  It is what secures your salvation and eternal glory. 
     This glory is not obvious, but to those who believe and are saved, it is the most precious image of Jesus we know.  That is because of the promise God has attached to Jesus' sufferings and death.  If you want to receive the everlasting glory that comes through Jesus, listen to him.  He alone has the words of eternal life.

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

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

The Imposition of Ashes -- Ash Wednesday is February 14

Remember that you are dust, 
and to dust you will return.

These words paraphrase Genesis 3:19 where the Lord proclaimed a curse upon man when he had first sinned.  St. Paul repeated that thought in his letter to the Romans: “Sin entered the world through one man, and death through sin, and in this way death came to all men, because all sinned.” (Romans 5:12)

Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.  This is the harsh reality of sin.  The use of ashes long pre-dates the New Testament Church.  In the era of the Patriarchs, Job confessed his sin and declared, “I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:6)  The Imposition of Ashes teaches a dual lesson.

1)  It is a mark of penitence.  We demonstrate outwardly the sorrow for sin that we have inwardly.

2)  It is a mark of death.  It is a reminder that we are all dust, and to dust we will return.  The ashes remind us that we are helpless in our sinful condition.  Our only hope is a Savior.  We repent of our works.  We cling to Jesus for his.

No one should feel obligated to receive the ashes on the forehead.  If you do not want to do it, the ushers will simply pass you by and go to the next row.  Children may participate at the discretion of their parents.

We will begin the service with the rite.  Where the bulletin indicates, the ushers will begin to invite people by row to come to the communion railing to receive the ashes.  The penitent will kneel at the railing (like Lord’s Supper), and wait as the pastor applies the ashes to the forehead in the shape of a cross.  Please resist all temptations to scratch or smear the ashes.  (The ashes will easily be washed off with soapy water.)

This ceremony truly sets the tone for Lenten season.  We are marked as sinners.  We are marked for death.  We are marked as the penitent whose only hope is Jesus Christ.

Our comfort comes from Jesus who takes our sin.  He dies our death.  He marks us as his own who have been baptized into his name.  That is where the penitent find comfort.  That is where the dying find life.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

A Pastoral Concern, Lutheran Satire, and Sexual Misconduct

There have been an alarming number of stories recently about sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, and other related matters.  It is equally alarming to hear that much of this is not new, but has been covered up by perpetrators, by victims, and by other accomplices. 

While I suppose we should not be surprised by the evil that takes place in this world, sexual sins always seem to be worse.  They are not only a violation of one's body, they are usually also a violation of one's trust.  They are of such a personal and intimate nature that even criminals find them appalling.  (As I understand it, criminals carry out their own brand of justice on such offenders once they are put in jail.) 

I wonder why such sins are, sadly, so common.  I have some guesses.  I can think of numerous factors which attribute to people's utter lack of self-control and/or sense of entitlement.  These factors include pornography which, thanks to the internet, can be brought into the home of anyone.  In fact, there barely seems to be any stigma associated with pornography any longer.  People boast openly about their desires to watch it.  It is normalized, and that emboldens others to view it.  If people feed their brains with these graphic images, what makes us surprised that they want to act out on them in real life?  The virtual image only stokes up desires; and those desires crave to be gratified in reality. 

While not actually porn, much of what we choose to entertain ourselves with on TV, at the movies, and even in our music encourages and glorifies sex.  (It is usually called "love" in many songs; but who is kidding whom?)  It encourages people to act out, to gratify lusts, and once again to normalize using other people for one's own pleasure and gain.  Perversion is celebrated.  Promiscuity is cheered.  Am I overstating it?  Listen to a rock star boast of his sexual exploits to a concert hall full of people, and then listen to the fans roar with approval.  No one wretches in disgust.

Meanwhile, the Christian Church continues to proclaim the 6th Commandment, to encourage self-control of one's urges, to promote the sanctity of marriage, and to declare that God's intent for sexual happiness is limited to a husband and wife.  Hebrews 13:4 is pretty pointed on that: "Marriage should be honored by all and the marriage bed kept pure; for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."  Christians do not call sex dirty.  We agree with God--sex within marriage is pure.  It is blessed.  It is God's design that sex be restricted to the marriage bed so that, should pregnancy result, a father and mother who are united in marriage are united all the more to parent the child with whom God has blessed them. 

Unfortunately, the world condemns the Church's teaching of God's design as prudish and oppressive.  Of course, if God's design is followed, rampant sexual misconduct would be reduced dramatically.  Men would understand that any woman to whom he has not committed himself as her husband means that he keeps his hands off.  He even puts to death the thoughts about her that are impure.  She is not his; and therefore he respectfully treats her as belonging to another--whether she is married to another man or may potentially be married to another man someday.  (I am not naive enough to believe that the evils would stop.  There will always be the adulterers and the sexually immoral, and that will always be sad and evil.)

While encouraging people to behave is a noble goal, the Church also desires to call to repentance those who have fallen into sexual sins so that they will not be consumed by them and condemned for them.  We proclaim Christ--whose love is seen not in seeking what he can get out of people, but by laying down his life for the salvation of all.  As a faithful groom, Jesus has done all things for the good of his bride, the Church.  He removes every shameful stain from her, covers her blemishes, and makes her beautiful and radiant.  He remains forever devoted to her and faithfully seeks to glorify her.  That is what love is supposed to look like; and in Christ, it does.

For your edification and amusement, check out this video from Lutheran Satire which is related to this topic.