Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Pastoral Concern -- Same Sex Marriage

The Supreme Court of the United States is close to announcing a ruling on whether or not states have a constitutional right to ban same-sex marriages.  Based on the swell of American sentiments (or at least the sentiments that are getting the press's attention), I suspect that the Supreme Court will rule according to what seems to be the popular opinion and will declare same-sex marriage to be a constitutional right.

We can debate all day long about the definition of the word "marriage."  The sad reality is that definitions of words change.  Only at Christmas do we sing, "Don we now our gay apparel," and not think of anything immoral.  It is perhaps the only time we understand the word "gay" anymore by its original definition.  But the definition has been re-assigned.  Very few even attempt to use it according to its original definition.  We have conceded the argument there.  It seems that American culture is likely to accept the perverted (understand that however you wish) definition of "marriage" being a contractual relationship between two people regardless of gender as the new norm.  I doubt that hand-wringing and screaming in protest will stop it.

So what is the Church to do?  Some, actually many, have insisted that the Church needs to cease and desist calling homosexual behavior a sin.  Some take great pride in supporting and blessing same-sex marriages.  One sizable Lutheran denomination (ELCA) not only celebrates gay men and women, they even ordain them.  Romans 1:26-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 have been declared antiquated, in other words, rejected.

Finally, this is the big problem: When churches read what God clearly says and then give reasons why God's plain word is misunderstood, outdated, embarrassing, or just plain wrong, that is an abandonment of the Christian faith.  Once God's word is put up for a vote or rejected (reasons for such rejection abound), the floodgates are open for all kinds of ungodly ideas and behaviors to sweep through.  Finally, the Holy Spirit must depart.  He who is holy cannot dwell where people insist on supporting and celebrating evil.  Why should he stay?  If churches insist on opposing his word, he must depart.  And sinners are no longer called to repent.  If we no longer call sin what God calls sin, what is there to be repent of?

Let's break it down with this simple exercise.  Consider the following verse and ask if it is true or false.
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?  Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, no adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-10, ESV)

1)    T or F?  The unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God.
2)    T or F?  The sexually immoral will not inherit the kingdom of God.
3)    T or F?  The idolaters will not inherit the kingdom of God.
4)    T or F?  The adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God.
5)    T or F?  Men who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God.
6)    T or F?  Thieves will not inherit the kingdom of God.
7)    T or F?  The greedy will not inherit the kingdom of God.
8)    T or F?  Drunkards will not inherit the kingdom of God.
9)    T or F?  Revilers will not inherit the kingdom of God.
10)  T or F?  Swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Many churches and pastors are saying "false," and especially to #5.  

So the question must be asked: Is God's word on this true?  If the answer is "no," then we must wonder if God's word can be believed on anything.  How can you trust that you are really forgiven (assuming you still think you need it) or saved (assuming you ever thought you were lost or damned)?  Based on what?  The Bible, which many have already declared faulty?  If God's word is unreliable or untrue in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, then how can you believe 1 Corinthians 6:11: "And such were some of you.  But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God"?

Is all of God's word true, or only the parts you like?  If you start to pick and choose, that makes YOU the judge over God, and that means God is no longer to be feared or taken seriously.  And if God is not to be taken seriously, how can we enforce any standards at all?  Who decides what is right or wrong?

You can see where this whole thing is headed.  What is amazing is how fast we are getting there.

The Church will continue to be the Church.  There will always be a remnant who believes, teaches, and confesses that every word of the Bible is true.  And there will always be churches which distort or reject God's word to the cheering and pleasure of many people.  God's word says that will happen (2 Timothy 4:3-4).  And such churches will be much more popular.  God's word says that will happen, too (2 Peter 2:1-3).

Specifically regarding same-sex marriage, what will the Church do?  It will speak and act as the Church of Christ.  It will bless only that which God calls blessed, and it will withhold its blessing on that which God calls evil.  As a pastor, I am privileged to preside over worship services, some of which include people who are getting married.  I am not obligated to marry anyone, not even members of Good Shepherd.  I AM obligated to speak and teach the word of God faithfully, and that also means calling people to repent of anything God calls sinful.  Those who thumb their noses at God's commandments and live together in open fornication and cohabitation will not find a blessing from God.  I will not suggest that God blesses such people by presiding over that wedding.  So, it is not strictly a same-sex issue; it is an issue of repentance and of believing the word of the Lord.  As was shown above, those who support same-sex marriage no longer believe the word of the Lord on this issue.  They encourage people to persist in their sinful rebellion.

If the Supreme Court declares same-sex marriages to be a constitutional right, gays and lesbians will get "married."  I can't stop that, just as I can't stop murder, prostitution, drug dealing, or shoplifting.  But when the opportunity presents itself to call one who is guilty of such things to repent, I must issue that call.  I must call evil what God says is evil.  While it is true that Jesus Christ loves sinners and has paid for all sins, we must, then, admit that we are sinners, that such sexual sins are indeed sins, and repent of them.  Jesus did not tell the prostitutes to go out and by godly prostitutes.  He called them to repent.  Note from 1 Corinthians 6:11 above: "And such some of you were."  In other words, they are not anymore.  They repented and fled form their sins.

If it comes to a point where I have to refer people to judges for their legal marriage certificate, I will do that.  The Church will still bless what God calls blessed, such as the man and woman whose marriage is in line with God's word.  We will pray for all people.  We will offer consolation and encouragement and absolution to those who are struggling against their various temptations.  We will point people again and again to Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  And we will emphasize that Jesus forgives sins; he does not excuse them.

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; whoever does not believe will be condemned. (Mark 16:16)  This is undeniable truth.  Therefore, it is also undeniably true that those who reject God's word on the issue of same-sex marriage are, at best, flirting with damnation.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sermon -- 4th Sunday of Easter (April 26, 2015)


Pastor:            Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
Cong:              He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

In the name + of Jesus.

     The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalm 23:1)  What David confessed, Jesus elaborated on.  I am the good shepherd. (John 10:11)  Jesus is the Lord, and he is the shepherd.  He is not one of many shepherds.  We believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church, and so we believe that Jesus is the one shepherd and Savior of that Church.  There is no other Savior, and there is no other shepherd.  And as long as you have Jesus, you shall not want.  You will not lack anything that you truly need.
     But, if Jesus is your shepherd, that means that you are his sheep.  This is not really a compliment.  The point is not that you are cute.  When you tell stories that corrupt the details so that you come out looking noble and the other person is presented as heartless or stupid, you are not cute.  When you click onto immoral websites or fantasize over obscene images, you are not cute.  When you pray for or giggle at the misfortunes of a colleague because you don’t like her, you are not cute.
     You are a sheep, but it is not because you are cute.  It is because you are weak and defenseless.  Sheep do not have fangs or claws to fight back against their enemies.  They do not have speed to outrun predators, nor are they camouflaged to hide from them.  For that matter, sheep are not very aware of their vulnerability.  They are devoted to quietly grazing in the fields.  Sheep are easy pickin’s for the predators who would devour them.  This is you; for you are sinners.
     Sin, death, and the devil stalk you.  Quite often, you are unaware or unconcerned about these enemies, but even if you are, you are still defenseless against them.  Have you stopped sinning?  No, you still do.  Will you escape death?  No, no one does.  Does the devil leave you alone?  No.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (1 Peter 5:8)  He cannot snatch you out of the kingdom of God, but he will try to seduce you away from the flock and away from your shepherd.  He will entice you with a sweet sounding voice, telling you what your flesh wants to hear so that you listen to him rather than to your Good Shepherd.  Many Christians have been seduced by the sweet-sounding voice and have wondered from the faith.  Others have simply stopped listening to Jesus’ voice.  Be warned: Your enemies are very real.  They are relentless.  And you are sheep.  You cannot escape them or overcome them.  That is why you need a shepherd.
     And you have a shepherd.  In fact, you have the good one.  The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. (Psalm 23:1)  Jesus declared:  “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11)  With Jesus, you lack nothing that you truly need for this world, and especially for the world to come.  But that does not mean life is going to be easy.  It means that you need, and will always need, the Good Shepherd to speak to you, to guard and protect you, and to nourish and nurture you.
     King David wrote about the reality of life in this word: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)  The valley of the shadow of death is not a place that sounds exciting or inviting.  Yet, we will all walk there.  You cannot escape death no matter how devout of a Christian you are.  We have all been stained with sin, and so we all have a death to face.
     But even in the valley of the shadow of death, the Lord is my shepherd and I will not want for anything.  The choice of words David used is significant.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. (Psalm 23:4)  Although you cannot escape going to the grave, that does not mean you have no hope.  Jesus Christ remains your shepherd.  Not even death separates you from him.  That is because your good shepherd has gone into death already for you. 
     The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  Everything your good shepherd does is for the good of his flock, for you.  He takes his stand between you and your enemies.  Though sin should condemn you, Jesus has saved you from this enemy.  He stood in your place.  He took the blows of God’s wrath for you.  He laid down his life for the sheep.  It seemed as though death had claimed Jesus, but in fact, Jesus has claimed death!  The Good Shepherd has taken his life up again.  So, although death comes for you, Jesus saved you from this enemy.  He went into death for you in order to destroy the power of the grave by his resurrection.  And that is why you will pass through the valley of the shadow of death!  Your Good Shepherd shall raise you up to eternal life.
     The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  With Jesus Christ, you lack nothing.  He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name's sake. (Psalm 23:3)  Everything Jesus does is for his name’s sake.  That means Jesus does everything for us based on his perfect love and infinite wisdom.  No matter what you endure, it is for your good.  Once again, that does not mean he makes life easy for us.  Sometimes the path of righteousness can be pretty difficult to walk on.  Sometimes, it is downright painful.  Consider King David.  For several years of his life, he was on the run because King Saul wanted to kill him.  David knew he was the Lord’s anointed, and yet the Lord subjected him to persecution by his enemy.  The Lord did not hate David or even neglect him.  The Lord had David walk this difficult and painful path because—believe it or not—it was good for him.  The Lord, in his wisdom, decided that David needed to endure this.  But David did not endure it alone.  The Good Shepherd was always with him.  Though it was not a fun lesson, David learned that his life was in God’s hands.  His strength was in God’s promises.  His security came only by God’s protection.  Even though he would be king, David was reminded that he was weak and helpless.  He needed his Good Shepherd.  And though David’s life was filled with uncertainty and stress and fear, he did not want.  With the Good Shepherd, he had everything he needed.
     Now, David’s lesson is no different than yours.  Chances are, no one is trying to hunt you down to kill you.  Nevertheless, your life is also full of uncertainty and stress and fear.  It is a constant reminder that you need your Good Shepherd.  He does not promise to make life easy.  He promises to defend you against the enemies who would do you real, everlasting harm. 
     If you truly want peace and rest in the midst of a sinful world, then stay close to your shepherd and pay attention to his voice.  The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  No, you lack nothing with Jesus.  His rod and staff, that is—his word and his sacraments, always defend you and comfort you, even with the enemies surrounding you.  King David wrote: You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. (Psalm 24:5)  The enemies will always be there.  Sin, death, and the devil will always be around you.  But they cannot harm you—not when your Good Shepherd is with you and not when you are with him.  In fact, Jesus sets out the table so that you can celebrate and feast in the midst of these enemies.  Sin wants to have you?  Ha!  We feast here for the forgiveness of sins.  Death wants to claim you?  Ha!  We have the body and blood of our risen and ever-living Lord to give us eternal life.  Satan still accuses you?  Ha!  Jesus overrules him.  Your Good Shepherd lives to intercede for you and to console you with words of comfort and salvation.  That is why the sheep listen to their shepherd: He has the words of eternal life.
     Because the LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  I lack no good thing for this world and for the world to come.  Therefore, each of us rejoices to confess with King David: I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:6)

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

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Pastoral Concern: The pastor's private prayers

The Church has no secrets.  Granted, we proclaim mysteries, and some of those we will never unravel (e.g., the Trinity, the dual nature of Jesus Christ, et al.).  But the Church has no secrets.  No secret hand shakes.  No secret password.  No secret agenda.  It is all proclaimed and declared for everyone to see and hear so that, by God's grace, people may be saved by it.

Although there are no secrets, there are some things that are done privately.  Two examples are the prayers that the pastor (at least, I do) prays during the Divine Service.  One prayer is said before the sermon.  Before every sermon, I offer up this prayer, which may vary slightly from week to week.  As the congregation sings the final stanza of the hymn before the sermon, I am at the pulpit praying:

"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer.  Dear Lord Jesus, bless this sermon and send your Holy Spirit along with it so that it may be worth something to those who are gathered here.  Use me as a mouthpiece to bring your grace and your peace to your people.  Keep me a faithful servant of your word who proclaims your word boldly and clearly.  Bless this sermon and those who hear it.  Amen."

I'm sure other pastors pray something similar before they preach.  This is just the prayer that has come together over the years, and it has remaining pretty constant for quite some time.

The other prayer which is done privately is shortly before we begin the liturgy for Holy Communoin. While the ushers collect the offering of God's people, I go into the atlar guild room to wash my hands.  In addition to that washing, I pray Psalm 26:6-12.  The English Standard Version of that Psalm is as follows:

"I wash my hands in innocence, and go about your altar, LORD, proclaiming aloud your praise and telling of all your wonderful deeds.  LORD, I love the house where you live, the place where your glory dwells.  Do not take away my soul along with sinners, my life with those who are bloodthirsty, in whose hands are wicked schemes, whose right hands are full of bribes.  I lead a blameless life; deliver me and be merciful to me.  My feet stand on level ground; in the great congregation I will praise the LORD."

I suppose none of this is shocking, but it has always been my private, pastoral prayer for the sake of leading God's people.  And since the Church has no secrets, I thought it might be worth sharing.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sermon -- 2nd Sunday of Easter (April 12, 2015)

JOHN 22:19-31

Pastor:            Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
Cong:              He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

In the name + of Jesus.

     On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them… (John 20:19)  I suspect that these disciples were not only afraid of the Jews.  I’m sure they were afraid in part because of them.  The fevered pitch of the crowds chanting, “Crucify him!  Crucify him!” had to be fresh in their minds.  That had only happened three days earlier.
      But it was only hours before that when the disciples themselves had boldly proclaimed words that they were deeply regretting.  Maybe they did not regret the words, but they certainly regretted not following through on them.  Each of them boasted their undying, unyielding allegiance to Jesus.  Each had made a case for which of them was the greatest.  Each of them had vowed that they would even go to death for Jesus.  None of them had done it.  All of them ran for cover into the darkness in Gethsemane.  All of them abandoned Jesus when it got too difficult or dangerous to be his disciple.
     On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were… (John 20:19)  This was Easter night.  The disciples were in hiding and had locked themselves in.  Throughout the day, they had heard the reports.  The women who had gone to the tomb to prepare Jesus’ body for burial did not find Jesus.  The found angels who said he had risen.  They found the tomb empty.  Then, on the way back into the city to tell the apostles, they saw Jesus!  Jesus had risen, just as he said!  Some of those disciples ran to inspect the tomb for themselves.  They were convinced that the tomb was empty.  They were convinced that the body was not there.  They were not convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead.
     And what if he actually had?  What would this risen Savior say to apostles who were not at the tomb, awaiting his resurrection?  What would Jesus say to disciples who were so full of themselves in the safety of the upper room, but so cowardly in the danger of Gethsemane when their allegiance was tested and failed?  What would Jesus do to disciples who had forsaken him?  These disciples were likely not afraid only of the Jews, but even more so of Jesus. 
     Suddenly, despite locked doors and secret locations, Jesus stood in the midst of them.  His first words?  “Peace be with you.”  When he said this, he showed them his hands and side. (John 20:19-20)  Remarkably, there were no words of condemnation, not even disappointment.  The scars said it all.  Jesus had taken their guilt away.  Jesus had atoned for their cowardice, for their failure, even for forsaking him!  He poured out divine blood to cover over the shame of sinful men.  All was forgiven.
     Of course, the disciples were afraid and guilt-ridden because they knew that they had done wrong.  Their confession had been genuine.  Their boasting was even sincere.  But in the hour of testing, they failed.  They were not faithful to Jesus.  It is no different for you—especially if you have made a confirmation vow.  In that vow, you swore that you would suffer everything, even death, rather than turn away from Jesus and his word.  And yet when the pressure is on—and forget pressure from your enemies, this is pressure among those whom you call your friends!—you turn.  You give way to temptation and plunge headlong into sin.  I suppose we could spend some time here detailing some specific sins that people commit.  But the specifics are never really the issue, as if this sin is not as bad as that sin   Every sin is a departure from God’s word.  Every sin is an abandonment of Jesus.  Every sin breaks the vow—for you have not suffered everything rather than turn away from Jesus.  Not death or bloodshed or imprisonment or confiscation of your property.  It is just easier to forsake God’s word than to follow it.  Can you understand why the disciples would have been afraid of Jesus?  It is for the same reason you do not want to confess your sins out loud.  They are too painful to repeat, too shameful to admit. 
     What is worse is how we attempt to soothe our consciences about such things.  We may ignore them or deny our sins.  But neither one of those is repentance.  We may try to justify them and we might buy our own arguments, but God does not.  We can lock ourselves away in our secret shame, but that will only lead to greater guilt, and then to despair, and then—if you follow the footsteps of Judas Iscariot—to suicide. 
     This is what the Lord says: Whoever seals his transgression will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy. (Proverbs 28:13)  In that proverb are both a warning and a promise.  The warning is that ignoring your sin and shame is of no benefit to you.  It brings a curse.  But the promise is that he who repents of his sin and confesses it finds mercy from Jesus.  By his wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5); and by his resurrection, we have life.
     “Peace be with you.”  When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side.  Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.  Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you.  As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”  And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.  If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” (John 20:19-23) 
     Jesus appeared to the disciples.  He declared peace.  He bestowed mercy.  Jesus showed them the scars that testified of his atoning sacrifice.  This is what brought joy to the disciples.  This is how Jesus bestows peace.  But Jesus has not appeared to you.  Nor will he, not until the Last Day.  Just as Jesus appeared to the guilt-ridden disciples to bestow peace upon them, so also Jesus wants guilt-ridden disciples today to have peace.  Jesus does not want you to live in your sins—either persisting in them or consumed by guilt because of them.  Therefore he commissioned these disciples to be his ministers to administer his peace.
     Jesus breathed on them, giving them the Holy Spirit.  Then he gave them his authority: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  Jesus sends his ministers to speak in his stead and by his command.  That means that forgiveness does not come to you just by wishing it will or thinking it should.  Instead, Jesus tended personally to his disciples.  He declared, “Peace be with you.”  And he showed them his hands and side to demonstrate where that peace comes from—from the divine Savior who suffered, died, and rose for them.
     In the same way, Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21)  Jesus sends his ministers to deal personally with you and to bestow peace.  Flesh and blood men, as Jesus was, articulate the peace that Jesus gave.  His ministers are flesh and blood men who also know the reality of sin and guilt in their own lives.  These ministers know the comfort of forgiveness and proclaim the forgiveness they themselves have received.  The minister’s, “I forgive you,” is Christ’s, “I forgive you.”  It is based on Jesus’ death and resurrection, and it is given for you so that you are not ruled by sin or crushed by guilt.
     There is no need to live in secret shame or to carry a burden of guilt any longer.  The Lord Jesus has suffered and died for you.  He calls you to repent of your sins.  He teaches us to say with King David, “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Psalm 32:5)  Just as Jesus promised he would rise from the grave, so he promises to forgive us when we confess our sins.  He sends his ministers to bestow this peace, and he is eager for you to live in it.

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

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Sermon -- Easter Day (April 5, 2015)


Pastor:  Alleluia!  Christ is risen!
Cong:    He is risen indeed!  Alleluia!

In the name + of Jesus.

     “Unless you have believed in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:2)   Those are haunting words.  They are words that have plagued Christians over time and for various reasons.  We confess our faith.  We repent of our sins.  We strive to turn away from those things which our Lord has decreed to be wicked.  We pray.  We come to church.  We kneel at the Lord’s altar to receive Holy Communion.  We hear the readings and the sermon.  We add our, “Thanks be to God,” and our “Amen.” 
     Still, there’s this nagging voice that haunts us: Have I been duped?  Am I a fool?  Can this really be true?  Even St. Paul once wrote, “If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied more than all men.” (1 Corinthians 15:19)  If we are penitent, and if we strive to live according to God’s commands, if we are on the receiving end of sneers because we are clearly set apart from and stay away from a world of depravity and debauchery, and if we have been confessing our faith in fairy tales and legends this whole time, then we are the most pitiful laughing stocks the world has ever known.  So yes, the words are haunting—“Unless you have believed in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:2) 
     St. Paul does not leave you haunted for long.  He assures you that your faith is not founded on fairy tales.  Your confession is not wishing upon a star.  St. Paul says that the resurrection of Jesus is historical fact and is well-attested by numerous witnesses—in fact, hundreds. 
     For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.   Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. (1 Corinthians 15:3-8)
     This is of utmost importance: Jesus is risen from the grave.  Everything in your life depends upon this.  The historical fact of Jesus’ resurrection is not just so that you can go through life thinking, “Okay, I am not a fool.  I am right.”  Your faith in the resurrection is not about winning arguments or being smarter than the agnostic.  Jesus’ resurrection means that you have a peace that is unshaken, a comfort that is unbreakable, and a hope that is undeniable.
     This is of utmost importance: Jesus is risen from the grave.  Most people go through life without believing this is true.  Many may even mock your faith in Jesus’ resurrection, or in any resurrection from the dead.  And you know what?  Most of them get through life just fine.  They have jobs and pay their bills.  Their kids are in little league and get their homework done.  They have well-manicured lawns, season tickets, and weekend getaways.  They know how to behave, they show up for work, and they are nice.  And if this is true for so many people, you may wonder why it even matters if you believe in the resurrection.
     St. Paul not only says it matters, he says it is of utmost importance.  No matter how nice and well-mannered a person is, he is going to die.  Everyone dies, because everyone is a sinner.  Everyone has to answer to God for every selfish act, every careless word, and every bitter, lustful, greedy, or vicious thought.  You do not get to set the standard for what is good or evil.  Nor does anyone else.  You will not accept it when someone tells you that he had a right to slander you.  You know that is not good, even if someone else says that it is.  That is why God sets the standards. 
     God’s standard is not merely that you be nice.  I’m sure you can be nice to anyone for one minute—though sometimes you will not even give people that long.  God’s standard is this: Be holy, because I, the LORD your God, am holy. (Leviticus 19:2)   Holiness means that you will always be patient with people who are difficult.  You will always be supportive of the one who is promoted ahead of you.  You will always be content with your blessings and not bemoan those of another.  You will even pray for and bless those who insult you.  You haven’t made the cut, have you?  No one does.
     Still, God’s standards are firm: Be holy.  Now, how will you get the holiness God demands of you?  Fairy tales will not get it for you.  Being nice will not be enough.  The grave awaits sinners, and no one escapes it.
     Dear Christians, fear not.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures… (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)  You have a real, historical flesh and blood Savior who has come to bring you a true and real forgiveness.  Jesus of Nazareth is God in the flesh.  He has paid for all of your sins by his holy, precious blood and by his innocent sufferings and death.  Jesus was truly holy and perfectly obedient.  He did not die for his own sins; for, he had none.  Still, Jesus’ death was necessary because it is the price that must be paid for sins.  His innocent life was the perfect sacrifice for you.  God the Father emptied out all of his anger upon Jesus.  Therefore, whoever believes in Jesus will not suffer God’s wrath or go to hell because Jesus has already endured that for you.
      This is of utmost importance: Jesus is risen from the grave.  Jesus’ resurrection proclaims that your forgiveness is not wishful thinking.  Jesus, who paid for your sins by his death, is risen!  That means God the Father has accepted the payment for your sins.  He has conquered the grave and therefore has authority to tell you that your sins are pardoned.  He has the authority to tell you that your grave is powerless.  He will raise you up from your grave on the Last Day.  His resurrection means that you will have your own resurrection from the dead. 
     Therefore, when we come here for a funeral and bury our dead, we are not conceding defeat.  Rather, we are acting in faith.  Just as the death of our fellow Christians is real and is really saddening, we also bury them in defiance of death.  For we know that we are only loaning our loved ones to the grave for a while.  The Lord Jesus, who conquered the grave about 2,000 years ago, will come again to summon from the grave all people.  He will raise us up with bodies that will never again be subject to death or sickness or pain or sadness.  This is not based on wishes or fairy tales, but on the risen Jesus whose own resurrection was witnessed by Cephas, then to the twelve, then to more than five hundred, then James, then all the apostles, and finally to St. Paul.  You will see him too, when he comes at the Last Day to raise you.
     Until that day, your real, historical Savior comes to you in real, tangible ways.  His resurrection is not a fairy tale, and so the way he bestows his salvation to you is not by wishing on a star, either.  Jesus delivers his forgiveness where his word is rightly preached.  He attaches that word to water, and by it he washes away sins and bestows the very righteousness you need.  He prepares a sacred meal for you in which the body and blood which given for you into death are here given for you for your life.  This is where you find forgiveness, new life, and salvation.  And if his word and sacrament are where Jesus bestows his salvation, then receiving these will be of utmost importance to you too.
     This is of the utmost importance: Jesus is risen from the grave.  Others may not believe this.  Others may even mock it.  But their mockery does not mean they find any comfort or peace.  Their best hope is that there is no God to answer to.  For, their guilt is real.  Their death is real.  And their conscience is really bothering them about it.  But for you, you have a real Savior from all of this.  This is of the utmost importance: Jesus is risen from the grave.  Therefore, your guilt is really pardoned.  Your grave is really powerless.  Your death is really overcome.  Your eternal salvation is really certain.  For these reasons, your peace, your hope, and your comfort are real and really unbreakable. Your real, historical Jesus will deliver you to your real, heavenly future. 

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

Sermon -- Easter Dawn (April 5, 2015)

EXODUS 14:10 – 15:1

In the name + of Jesus.

     When the Lord had called Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, he said, “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and the Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them.” (Exodus 6:3)  This does not mean that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not know the name of the LORD.  Each one built an altar to the LORD and called on the name of the LORD.  They knew and believed the promises of the LORD.  What they did not know or experience, however, was the LORD acting to deliver his people.  The LORD would reveal himself to Moses and all Israel as the LORD, that is, as the God who graciously redeems and saves.
     The Lord had led Israel out of Egypt after the Passover.  The firstborn in Egypt were slain, but Israel had been spared because their homes were marked by the blood of an unblemished lamb.  After the Egyptians had recovered from their initial grief, they rallied and mobilized their army.  They marched to get their slave laborers back.  It would be easy.  Though Israel was perhaps 2 million strong, they were also unarmed and untrained.  What was even more advantageous for the Egyptian army, they had Israel cornered.  Egypt stood behind them, and the Red Sea stood before them.  Israel could not outrun them or outwit them.  They were easy pickins for the most formidable army on earth.
     But God Almighty was ready to keep his promises and to reveal himself as the LORDIsrael would do nothing.  The LORD would act and fight for them.  He would overcome the enemy single-handedly.
     First, he drove back the waters of the Red Sea—enough that 2 million people and their flocks and herds could pass through on dry ground.  The Egyptians chased Israel into the sea, which the Lord used for their demise.  The LORD brought the waters back over them and destroyed them.  Israel, safely on the opposite shore, witnessed a resounding victory that they did nothing to win.  God Almighty revealed himself as the LORD.  He is the God who graciously redeems and saves.
     You know this LORD too.  He has revealed himself to you as a greater Savior.  And you are the recipients of a resounding victory that you have done nothing to win.  Jesus has singled-handedly taken on your enemies for you.  He has taken your sin and paid for it.  He has assumed your death and has overcome it.  He has battled the devil to win you.  Jesus has crushed him underfoot and delivered you from his grasp.  It was not the last gallant act of a dying man.  Your risen Savior is risen and lives to assure you that your enemies are defeated and dead.  Jesus Christ is risen and reigns.
     The LORD delivered his people through the waters of the Red Sea.  That was their baptism into the old covenant.  You, too, have been delivered through water.  You have been baptized into the new covenant.  By those baptismal waters, Jesus has washed away your sin.  It is drowned, and you are freed from it.  By baptism, the Lord put you to death and raised up a new creation.  Now, if you already died when you were baptized, then death is already done for you.  Death no longer has a claim you.  You are children of the resurrection.  You are heirs of eternal life.
     God Almighty has revealed himself to you as the LORD, the God who redeems and saves.  He has won an everlasting victory for you.  You have received the benefits of Jesus’ work on your behalf.  Rejoice.  Lift up your hearts and be glad.  The enemy has been defeated.  Jesus lives and reigns.  And the victory is yours.

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

Friday, April 3, 2015

Sermon -- Good Friday (April 3, 2015)

MARK 15:37-39

In the name + of Jesus.

     When Jesus stood before the Roman court, Pontius Pilate pulled Jesus aside to interrogate him.  Pilate was alarmed that Jesus had allegedly claimed to be King.  Jesus had not demanded or sought this title throughout his ministry.  In fact, when people confessed that Jesus was the Christ, Jesus urged them not to tell other people.  Things took a bit of a shift on Palm Sunday, though.  On that day, Jesus rode into Jerusalem to the shouts and songs of the people.  Those shouts and songs were Messianic: “Hosanna!  Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13)  For once, Jesus did not refuse the accolades.  He is the Messiah-King.
     So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33) Jesus replied. “You say that I am a king.  For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.  Everyone who is of truth listens to my voice.”  Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” (John 18:37-38) 
     Pilate is like everyone else in this world.  Truth is what we decide it is.  Though Pontius Pilate had formally declared no less than four times that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death or even punishment, Pilate found it more convenient to punish Jesus and to put him to death than to stand for what he knew was the truth.  Truth was negotiable to Pilate.  He chose what was easy over what was right.
     Week after week, we remember Pilate’s crooked and cowardly act: He suffered under Pontius Pilate.  We also remember our own crooked and cowardly acts: I have done what is evil and failed to do what is good.  We, too, abandon God’s truth when his truth makes life hard.  So, our truth is malleable.  We bend it according to the crowd we are in.  When the popular opinions of the day shift, we move our truth accordingly.  When the truth impedes our advantage, we go around it.  We even resort to lies and deceit to convince ourselves that we are standing in God’s truth.  The boyfriend and girlfriend who are cohabiting may argue, “Well, we’re not married, so technically we aren’t committing adultery.”  The employee may insist, “My employer makes tons of money off my work, so padding my expense account is not stealing.”  You may even convince yourself, “Well, as long as I don’t act on my jealousy or hatred, God is pleased.”  Even if you lie to yourself this way, understand that God is neither fooled by such lies nor will he be mocked by an innocent fa├žade.  Lies will never make you righteous.  Repent.
     What is truth?  Truth is exactly what God says: The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.  You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. (Psalm 5:5-6)  God, because God is holy and delights in the truth, God abhors all who bend it, warp it, or deny it.  The truth is that all men are liars.  All are sinners.  We all deserve the death we have coming.  We all should be damned.  The guilty deserve death and punishment.  This is the truth, and God will not bend it or negotiate on it. 
     God’s truth always stands.  It does not change in different countries, in different cultures, or in different generations.  Jesus came into the world to testify to the truth.  Everyone who is of the truth listens to his word.  And listen: Jesus does not deny God’s wrath against sinners.  Jesus does not soften the Commandments.  That truth stands, even if it stands against you.  Rather than soften the blow of God’s Law, Jesus has come to take the blows for you.  This is what Jesus proclaims: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)  If you will stand before the Father and not perish, then it can only come by faith in Jesus Christ. 
     Jesus delivers you from your sins.  He pays the price for every lie you have told.  He covers the cost for every deceitful argument you used to try to defend your sins.  The truth is: The guilty deserve death and punishment.  And so Jesus upheld God’s truth: He took all of your guilt from you.  When his enemies accused Jesus of all kinds of crimes and sins, he did not dismiss or deny the charges.  He accepted them all as if they were his own.  In fact, he made them his own. 
     If he is guilty, then he must pay the price.  He must receive the curse.  He must be put to death.  And so he was.  The guiltless one became the guilty one.  Jesus received the blows for you—the blows of the fists, the blows of the scourge, the blows of the nails, the blow of the spear, and the death blow of God’s wrath.  Jesus Christ made himself the guilt offering on behalf of sinners.  And so the death has been died.  The curse has been poured out.  The guilt has been paid for.
     Pontius Pilate had dismissed Jesus by asking, “What is truth?”  His centurion responded differently to Jesus.  When the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)  The centurion saw how Jesus Christ had died.  He had undoubtedly been on crucifixion detail before.  He had seen how men die.  But when he saw Jesus die, he was convinced that Jesus was different.  Jesus did not fight death.  On the contrary, Jesus gave up his life.  Jesus died as he had chosen, as he had prophesied, and at the very time he wanted.  He was not a helpless victim who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jesus’ trip to Golgatha was on purpose.  It was for the purpose of paying for the sins of the world.  It was for the purpose having your hope no longer rest on lies, but with the truth.
     The centurion confessed an undeniable truth: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)  Jesus had to be the Son of God if his death means anything for you.  The criminals who died on Jesus’ right and left did nothing to pay for your sins.  I cannot pay for your sins, and you cannot pay for my sins—no matter how bitter the death may be, no matter how much we might want to, and no matter how highly we think of each other.  Here is truth: Truly no man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life. (Psalm 49:7)  But Jesus was not just another man who died.  The centurion had it absolutely right: “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)  Jesus is God who pays for your sins.  The Son of God has personally attended to your salvation.  Since God has bled to pay for your sins, your sins are truly forgiven.  Since God was pleased to suffer and die for you, God truly loves you and saves you.
     The Lord does not work in relative truths.  His word is truth, and it is not fuzzy.  So, we no longer resort to deceptive arguments which attempt to redefine good and evil.  We no longer have to lie and try to convince ourselves and the world and God himself that we are good.  When God’s word condemns us, we confess our sins.  It is honest.  It is the truth.  So we say so.  Since God calls sins evil, we do not go back to our sins but flee from them and fight against them. 
     At the same time, God also proclaims our salvation.  His word on this is truth, too, and it is not fuzzy.  God tells us: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:13)  Therefore, the Church regularly gathers to call upon his name.  God says that faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:17)  Therefore, we flee to hear his word, both as it is preached and as it is attached to the sacraments, so that we truly partake in his grace and mercy.
     What is truth?  The centurion had it right: Truly this man was the Son of God. (John 19:37)  Truly, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)  Truly, sins are forgiven, death has been put to death, the curse is lifted, and the way into heaven is open.  The Son of God has done this, and he does not deceive you.  “It is finished.” (John 19:30)  Salvation is complete.  Eternal life is certain.  And that is the truth.

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

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Sermon -- Maundy Thursday (April 2, 2015)

JOHN 13:21-35
One Of You Will Betray Me.

In the name + of Jesus.

     Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread; and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body, which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.”  Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and said, “Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (Words of Institution)
     We hear these words every Divine Service when the bread and wine are consecrated for the Lord’s Supper.  The Words of Institution proclaim the sufferings and death of our Lord.  They remind us that we are not merely reenacting Jesus’ Last Supper.  They tell us that what we receive in the sacrament is precisely what Jesus Christ says, “This is my body.  This is my blood.”  They remind us why we eat and drink: “For the forgiveness of sins.”  The Words of Institution proclaim that these are the most holy things—for this is Christ given to you in tangible form.  This is the heavenly meal already here on earth.  These are the holy things reserved for and given to the holy ones.
     There is much to ponder here—both for our meditation and for our comfort and salvation.  For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)  If you proclaim the Lord’s death, then you are also proclaiming God’s mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.  If you partake in the holy communion, then Jesus is mingling his body and blood with yours.  If you feast on this sacred meal, you are physically receiving and ingesting the Lord’s mercy, forgiveness, and salvation.  This is awesome and amazing stuff.  We do not take it lightly, and we dare not take it lightly.
     As amazing and as awesome as this is, it is all prefaced with these words: “The Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed….” (1 Corinthians 11:23)  It sounds out of place.  Before we ever get to the words of promise and comfort, we hear words of an ominous tone: Our Lord Jesus Christ was betrayed. 
    On the very night he was betrayed, Jesus told the apostles in blunt terms: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (John 13:21)  Each one wondered and asked, “Is it I, Lord?” (Matthew 26:22)  Partly spoken in fear, partly in disbelief.  Jesus was clear.  One of you will betray me.  One of you is a traitor.  I had told you that my enemies would seize me, beat me, and crucify me.  One of you will make it happen.  One of you. 
    These disciples had willingly submitted to Jesus as their teacher.  They had confessed him as the long-awaited Messiah.  They saw him as the one who would bring in the kingdom of God.  One of them would betray him?!  Surely, that disciple would be the lowest of the low.  Earlier that evening, these disciples had debated which of them was the greatest.  Nevertheless, they did not use Jesus’ words as an opportunity to cast suspicions on the others.  No one said, “Lord, I bet it’s that guy.”  Each one rightly feared for himself.  Each disciple pleaded, “Is it I, Lord?” (Matthew 26:22) 
     The Lord Jesus Christ knows what it is to be sinned against, even by those who are nearest and dearest to him.  Perhaps you know the feeling as well.  People whom you have trusted have turned on you.  One whom you thought would have your back stuck a knife into it.  One who was supposed to be your confidant blabbed.  One who vowed marital faithfulness cheated.  You may well know the pain of betrayal. 
     You don’t forget such sins against you.  You probably never will.  But you may forget how you, too, have sinned against others.  And none of us truly appreciates how greatly and how frequently we sin against the Lord.  The Lord could have easily told you, “Truly, truly, I say to you, all of you will betray me.  Rather than be guided by God’s word, you will defy it.  Instead of recoiling from sin, you will run into it and revel in it.  You will cherish the friends who encourage you to sin and bask in the cheers when they celebrate your wickedness.  You call yourself my disciple, but you have defied me.  And you will do it again.” 
     The Lord Jesus Christ still is betrayed by his disciples.  You and I betray him with every sin we commit.  We may boast like the apostles that we would not turn from Jesus and that we would suffer everything for him, only to flee later—ashamed to be caught as his disciples because we do not want people to think we are different.  Despite our Lord’s warnings, we still fail him and sin against him.  The Lord Jesus Christ still knows what it is to be betrayed.
     “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” (John 13:21)  And even though he knew it was Judas Iscariot, Jesus did not strike him down.  Later in the Garden, when Judas showed up with the mob to arrest Jesus, Jesus spoke one word and knocked them all to the ground.  But then they all stood up again and collected themselves.  Judas was not struck dead; for the Lord still longed for his repentance.  Jesus, on the other hand, would be struck dead.  The Lord Jesus Christ willingly went into the hands of his enemies.  The Lord Jesus Christ willingly went to shed his blood for you.  He would be pierced to the cross for the sins of all, even for those who betray him. 
    Jesus took your sins upon his body to pay for them.  Jesus shed his blood to be the sin offering which atones for you.  Though he was betrayed, Jesus faithfully served you to save you from your sins.  Jesus is never unfaithful to you.  He is your faithful Savior, which means that his body and blood continually stand as the payment for your sins.  Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, blessed the bread and the wine and summoned his Church: This is my body, which was given for you.  This is my blood which was shed for you.  Take and eat, for this feast is given to you for the forgiveness of sins.
     You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that his love for you is always faithful, and that his blood for you always marks you as forgiven.  Even when you have not been faithful to him, he remains faithful to you.  He still calls you his own.  He still intercedes for you.  He is not ashamed to call you his brothers and sisters.
     Like Jesus did, you live in a world of sinners.  Even those who call you their loved ones will still sin against you.  On the night he was betrayed, Jesus gave not only a new testament, but also a new command: Love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)  This love demonstrates itself this way—that you have mercy on those who sin and forgive them.  You pray for them and relinquish any rights to revenge.  Remember that Judas, who had betrayed Jesus, was overwhelmed with guilt.  His own efforts to fix things failed.  You cannot fix broken commandments.  His guilt drove him to kill himself; for he had given up on Christ’s mercy.  Therefore, even those who have wounded you need your mercy so that they will not be driven into despair.  This is how Jesus loves you.  He is pleased to have mercy upon you.  Jesus does not merely tolerate you as long as you keep your distance.  Rather he desires that you dwell with him forever.  In the same way, you get to live with each other not in revenge, but in bestowing forgiveness and favor.
     Our Lord Jesus Christ on the night he was betrayed went forth to cover even the sins of betrayal.  He has mercy even on the lowest of the low.  He exalts you, declaring you to be holy and making you partakers of the most holy things.  By these, he administers his forgiveness to you and marks you as heirs of the holy kingdom.

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