Sunday after the Ascension

Exaudi – Answer

Readings: Ezekiel 36:22–28 | 1 Peter 4:7–11 | John 15:26—16:4

Text: John 15:26—16:4

From ancient times, this Sunday has been known as “Waiting Sunday”—the time in between the Lord’s Ascension into heaven, where they were commanded to wait for the promise of the Father (Luke 24:49)  But before His passion, the Lord gave this teaching to His disciples:

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

The disciples are waiting for the Helper, the Paraclete, sometimes called the Advocate.  Why do they need an Advocate?  Because the Holy Spirit is sent in order to bear witness about Christ.

First, the Holy Spirit bears witness about Christ to the Apostles, the very first messengers of the Gospel.  These are the eyewitnesses who are sent:

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.” (Luke 24:46-48) 

And that is what they did in their preaching, in the Evangelists who wrote the four Gospels, in the Epistles which they sent to the Churches, and the prophecy of encouragement and perseverance in John’s Apocalypse.  The Holy Spirit bore witness through the authors of the New Testament, which remains with us to this day.

This preaching of Christ’s death and resurrection, as God’s plan for the fulness of time, salvation for all people is what the Advocate empowered.  The Acts of the Apostles are replete with mentions that the Holy Spirit added to their numbers, and that,

“the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” (Acts 9:31)

So it was for the succeeding generations after the Apostles, for the Holy Spirit would continue this work, for the Church is

“built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:20-22)

The witness to Christ would continue, based upon these genuinely inspired (Spirit-breathed) Scriptures of the Apostles.  That is how the true Church has continued down through the centuries.  It did not continue because of political power or ability for social control of populations, which is a mistake people often make when they think of Church history.  They see fallible human institutions, inquisitions, and abuses and conflate that with the work of the Holy Spirit.  Rather, the Holy Spirit’s witness continues despite human and diabolical opposition.

The witness of the Advocate continues into our own generation.  It is a necessary calling of all who know the true God by faith to also become witnesses, or martyrs, for Him.

And that brings us to the next thing Jesus says about the witness:

16:1 I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you.”

This witness of the Helper, the Holy Spirit, will be opposed.  This opposition started in the most unexpected of places—in the very synagogues where the God of Israel was supposed to be worshiped.  It’s sometimes imagined that the Christians broke away from the Jews because they wanted a fresh start without all those old vestiges.  But you can see in the Book of Acts that they do not want to leave the synagogue or the Temple:

“[Jesus] parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.” (Luke 24:51-53)

That’s not the action of people who want to cut ties with their brothers.  They embraced the continuity between the faithful worship of Israel and the fulfillment in Christ.

But they were driven out of the synagogue, as Jesus had said, by those who “neither knew the Father, nor me.”  It was so intense that they even thought they were offering worship to God by putting what they considered heretics to death.  Yet, the witness of the Advocate continued.

It continued into the Middle Ages leading up to the Reformation.  The bulletin cover picture illustrates the execution of Jan Hus, a Bohemian church reformer who was burned at the stake in 1415 at the Council of Constance.  Hus had questioned papal authority, and campaigned to draw all doctrines from Holy Scripture alone.  But eerily, on July 6, 1415, after the High Mass and Liturgy—”the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God”—Hus was led out to be burned at the stake as a heretic.  This kind of opposition would sadly continue a hundred years later during the time of Martin Luther and the Reformation as we know it.

The witness to Christ, and the animosity continue in our own day, by those who “have not known the Father, nor me.”  This age may consider itself secular, but its fervor and zeal betray that it is actually very religious.  It’s just that they have a different god, a different “creation” narrative, different “redemption,” different “sins,” different “penance.”  This religion is the one which rules the scientific world and that of higher education.  By faith, they believe that the world was formed billions of years ago by impersonal, material forces.  They believe that human beings are the eventual successors of more successful animals, and taken to its logical conclusions, even exterminations like that attempted by Hitler really can’t be regarded as wrong.  After all, morals are a social construct, derived from our “selfish genes” [Richard Dawkins] who just want to survive to reproduce.  The sins of our day are closed-mindedness, holding to antiquated notions of gender differences, and failing to view the world through the lens of Karl Marx.  For such sins, you will not be burned at the stake, but you will become a target of varying degrees of retribution—as mild as losing your account on social media but potentially as much as violence against your worship service.  They will think they are offering an act of worship to their “god,” believing they will be “on the right side of history” marching toward the progress of the human race.  (At least, until a meteor comes and blows up the planet.)

By this point, you might be nearly as despondent as an atheist contemplating the afterlife.  But the Lord told us that we will be witnesses, or martyrs, about Him.  The Church is the witness of God’s love for a twisted human generation, and His power to save.

Hear how St. Peter teaches us to live in the Epistle:

The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. 10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace

We are witnesses with a blessed purpose: in order to show the love of God.  We do this by praying for this world and the people we know.  This is what it means that Christians are a Kingdom of priests, that you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” (1 Pet. 2:5)  Christians are not just punching bags for the unbelieving world; they are emissaries of God’s salvation to the world, declaring that “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” (2 Cor. 5:19)  So, one of our God-given duties is to intercede for all people in prayer—even when they are hating us.  Remember the prayer of our Great High Priest when His enemies’ hatred was doing its worst, nailing Him to the cross. Yet He was there being offered as sacrifice for their sins, so He prayed, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

It’s with this love that we are to love even those who hate us: “love covers a multitude of sins.”  St. Peter is not saying that human love covers our sins in God’s eyes or that it overcomes death. Human love is not an atoning sacrifice. It does not reconcile us to God apart from Christ the mediator. No matter how deep and pure or even perfect human love might be it can only ever be a righteousness of the law and not of the Gospel. Only the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God’s love in Christ for man, can truly promise and deliver reconciliation and righteousness. It does so when we believe that on account of Christ the Father is gracious to us. He gives to us the merits of Christ and counts them as our own. That is the foundation of our faith.

That is also the foundation of this love for the world, even when they hate us.  So, what has it been that has kept the Church, Jesus’ disciples conscious of their calling?  What has kept us in eager expectation, looking for our Savior’s return and the consummation of His promises?  Sunday after Sunday the faithful have gathered and remembered the words which He also spoke that night in the Upper Room:

“He took bread, and when He had given thanks, broke it and gave it to His disciples and said, ‘This is My Body, given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.’ And He took the cup, and when He had given thanks, gave it to them saying, ‘Drink of it, all of you, this cup is the New Testament in My Blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of me.’”

In this sacred meal, the faithful are fed with His forgiveness, His love which covers the multitude of our sins—our failure to love as He has loved us, our laxity in prayer, our insisting on our way rather than our Lord’s way.  And we once more encounter the immense love of God toward the undeserving.  He commanded us to do this in remembrance, not because our minds forget, but in order that the fruits of His sacrifice would be brought to the present.  If we don’t have His love for sinners, how can we do anything but show human forbearance and forgetfulness?  But when we have the pledge of God’s grace in Christ on our tongues, then we are well-equipped to be His priests, His ambassadors to a world that has tragically watered down love to a parody of what God shows it to be.

In our waiting for our Savior to return, we are not left without Comfort.  We are far from being left without what we need to live out the life and the vocations God has assigned us:

10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Rogate ~ Ask

Readings: Numbers 21:4–9 | James 1:22–27 | John 16:23–33

Text: John 16:23-33

This Sunday differs from the other ones in Easter, with the Latin names that we’ve been seeing, Quasimodo Geniti and Jubilate and things like that, because in this one it doesn’t come from the first verse of the Introit. It actually comes from a word in the Gospel that Jesus says several times Rogate, or ask.

This word runs all through the lesson. Just listen to the first 2 verses: “In that day you will ask nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you whatever you ask of the father in my name. He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask and you will receive that your joy may be full.”

So what does it mean to ask?

First of all, I think, as I was mentioning to the children during the Children’s Catechism lesson that the word pray is actually just a fancy word for ask. Just ask. It happens to be in in usage in Christendom that it has come to mean that you are offering a petition to our God. Because it is a prayer to God, it often takes on this this aura of asking petitions of a more powerful human party. Like when you’re at the DMV and you need to ask them to take something off of your record. It’s something you’re not really sure that you’re going to get.

Then, you combine that with the centuries of Christian history and a lot of baggage has been added to the act of asking God, and sometimes we might even become intimidated because of written prayers like the Collect of the Day. The formulated Collect of the day is no better than the prayers of any Christian. The only difference is that it’s written out in a systematic way.

Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give it to you.”

So what does it mean to ask specifically in Jesus’ name?

Unfortunately, “in Jesus name” is often taken to be a stamp of approval or the prayer is ending, a magic formula. I asked in Jesus name, so I should expect whatever my heart desires! How come God didn’t give me a Mercedes?

Asking in his name is actually much simpler than we think. It simply is the same thing as being in Christ in his Name is to live in His baptismal promise to you as a New Testament Christian. It is a reminder of whose we are, of who God has made us to be—His children! How He has adopted us in the waters of Baptism, when He put His Name on us. We bear the Name of God as adopted children through Jesus Christ.

So as his beloved children, we come to him asking him in that family name that God has given us.

To pray in his name is to ask under the shelter of the cross (so to speak) under the death and resurrection of Jesus because Paul teaches that we are baptized into his death and his resurrection (Romans 6:3-4).

Jesus continues, “I have said these things to you in figures of speech. The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures of speech, but will tell you plainly about the Father.”

In that hour, He will not be speaking in proverbs or parables as he did for those outside of the church, or as he did for the disciples in the Upper Room. He will show them plainly what God the Father is up to. His passion is the hour where He showed the Father to us plainly was not a proverb or a parable, but it’s where the Father offers up His only-begotten Son to reconcile the world to himself, to adopt sinners like you and me into his family, to draw sons and daughters to himself through faith. That is where we see God pulling back the curtain so that we can see his heart.

What can we ask the Father in Jesus name, in that baptismal Name He gave us?

First of all, just to be clear, we do address prayers to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit and all of them are right. We have been given, that name of the Trinity, and while each Person may have a unique work and relationship to the others, the unity of the One God remains.

As far as what to ask, here it’s helpful to understand there’s two kinds of asking and I made reference to it with the with the children. In the original Greek, there are two different words translated “ask”– ἐρωτάω (ero-TAH-oh) and αἰτέω (ay-TEH-oh). In the first verse of the gospel lesson, “In that day you will ἐρωτάω nothing of me. Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you αἰτέω of the Father in my name, he will give it to you.”

ἐρωτάω is to request someone where the outcome is uncertain. There’s not a guarantee that they’re going to do what you asked. For example, in Luke 7, “One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and reclined at table.” (Luke 7:36)

But αἰτέω has a completely different expectancy to it. It is where you were asking someone with the promise that, or the reasonable expectation that they are going to do what you have asked. An example that I’ve heard of this is where you go to the bank, not today ’cause they’re closed, but say you go to the bank tomorrow and you ask for money from your account, you would expect that they would give it to you. In Luke 11, Jesus gives an example of this asking: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12)

The asking that Jesus is saying about prayer is this later one. You’re not trying to convince the Sovereign Lord on High of your puny petition. You are just like Luther taught us in the Small Catechism asking as dear children ask their dear father. And that’s why Jesus emphasizes it by saying in verse 26 and 27, “In that day, you will ask in my name, and I do not say that I will ask the father on your behalf, for the father himself loves you. Because you have loved me and had believed that I came from God.”

Faith is at work in you who believe. Back to this promise of Jesus, “truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask the father in my name, he will give it to you.”

That could be very broad. It could be misunderstood if it comes unhinged from who God has revealed Himself to be. He is not the heavenly sugar daddy who gives us whatever our spoiled heart’s desire. No, what we are able to ask is everything according to what God has revealed, He made his desire and his disposition to hear us clear on the cross: He desires all to be saved. He desires to care for his children. He desires to take care of every earthly need that we have.

But we shouldn’t ask and can’t expect that he’s going to do something contrary to his will. This is why it’s wrong for us to say God d*** you. We shouldn’t say something like that. It’s not our place because it’s not God’s will, but it would be better for us (as those who justly deserve to be damned), to instead say “God save you” or “God have mercy on you.”

Even though it just doesn’t satisfy that that intensity we have when we’re flying off the handle. Remember last week’s lesson from James (James 1:16-21) where he says, “the anger of man does not work the righteousness of God.”  Thanks be to God that he’s put his anger away in His Son.

We can ask for God’s help in every need we can ask even in times where we are tempted. We cannot ask for something that is completely against his will, but we can ask, when we see that we are being tempted to break his commandments, we should by all means pray for His help! “Call on me in the day of trouble, and I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15)  We can also ask for someone else who is being tempted, “Brothers, if you see anyone who is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” (Galatians 6:1)  We can ask for forgiveness when we have failed, and we can trust that he answers our prayers. We can ask for justice to be carried out for him to save people.

We are free to ask for anything in the faith that he has given us, from the inconsequential to the profound. Faith receives abundantly: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” (James 5:16)

The Lord has already given us a starting place: The Our Father (Lord’s Prayer) is a great place to start.

It’s not something that’s meant to be thoughtlessly rattled off, but something that Jesus has given us to ponder daily. These are things that he teaches us to ask for and to expect from God.

That his name would be hallowed, that we would live lives that reflect that name that he has given to us, that we would reflect Christian lives. And that he would have mercy on us when we fail, where we fail to do that. That his Kingdom would come is the prayer of the church in in our day, where numerically it is declining. We pray that his Kingdom would come because we see more of the population of the Earth going the way of their own delusions. We pray for his will to be done, trusting that it’s not our own wisdom and learning our own powers that are going to go the best way, but we entrust those things to our Heavenly Father. We ask him to provide for all of our needs that we ask him to not only forgive us, but enable us daily to forgive those who have wronged us. We ask to be protected against temptation and more on that when we get to the end of the text and that. Finally, we ask to be delivered from every evil that we suffer day to day, and the evil of everlasting death. All of these things Jesus has taught us to ask for because God has promised to answer us in those needs.

Another place than Scripture that is so valuable is in the Psalms. The Psalms are filled with every manner of prayer. Every situation that a Christian will find themselves in is in the Psalter, all 150 Psalms. If you just want the brief tour, I’d recommend looking at the prayers in Responsive Prayer 2, page 285 in the hymnal.

There are things that can prevent us from asking, from praying. “I don’t know if I’ll say the right words!” We could feel unworthy to ask for such great things (and we are, but He has offered them!) 

We could be distracted, and often are. Our minds are like kittens. They can go crazy. Our thoughts can be so busy when we have a moment to pray. (Speaking from experience) You quietly fold your hands and close your eyes to take away the distractions and keep your hands from doing the million things on your To Do List. And what do you do? You obsess or you plan, or you think about all the things that you failed at this or that. That’s not prayer; that’s worry. So, there are many things that can distract us from prayer.

But the Lord has given us his Holy Spirit to keep us asking, to keep us focused on Him and His work, and so the things that encourage us in our prayers that don’t have to be formatted, they don’t have to be any more than, “Lord, have mercy.”  He has adopted us as his children, so we should picture him being on the edge of our edge of his seat to hear from us whenever we put our feeble trust in him. He’s commanded us several times in these verses to ask him, and he’s promised to hear every single last request, even those prayers that don’t even have words.

In the last part of the reading today reminds us of what we will be driven, what will drive us to prayer?

Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me. I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

It really shouldn’t come as a surprise to us when bad things happen. Jesus has said that it will happen. Our own experiences have shown that it will happen. But the thing that is unique for the children of God is that we have a Father in heaven, who has promised to hear us in our tribulation and who has promised to love us, save us, protect us, and deliver us! We have an Almighty Father who has given His Son nailed to the cross and raised from the dead is the guarantee that he will answer every request of his children. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8, “He who did not spare his own son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32)

So don’t be intimidated by the word “prayer.”  Be encouraged to talk to your Heavenly Father constantly in your heart, inwardly, in public, wherever it is. Asking him in faith, trusting His Word, where he has shown you what you can ask for and expect from him, and he will surely do it.

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Cantate – Sing

Readings: Isaiah 12:1–6 | James 1:16–21 | John 16:5–15

Text: James 1:16-21

The text is the epistle reading which we’ve heard where Saint James teaches the church, “Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

Over the past two years, and especially at various times before that, trust in various institutions and occupations has been greatly challenged.

Since the pandemic, we have lost our trust and our patience with one another and with businesses, with governments, with scientists, with media outlets.  And if we had trouble trusting them before the last two years, have only made it worse.

What this has done for us as Christians is that it has exposed—actually for all of society, I should say—is that it’s exposed our many idols.  It has reminded us of the fact that we should not “put our trust in princes in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  But, that we should fear, love and trust in God above all things, and any human agents that God appoints, are just as human as we are.

But that problem of trust, and that fear of being deceived can even creep into the church. It can be tested by greed, by pastoral abuse, by affairs that pastors fall into, or infighting within the church.  All of these things can lead us to conclude, even with people like Joseph Smith, “Which church should I join?”

In the midst of this human bog of deceit and changing opinions, God speaks. God does not lie. There is one place where we will never be deceived, and that is in His holy word.

There in the word of God, it’s like a sanctuary, a sanctuary from all the failures of the world of other people, and even of ourselves in the ways that we have been deceived and misled, even if it wasn’t into great shame and vice.  Even the little ones are enough.

His Word will never mislead us. It will never deceive us even if Satan should take portions of it and cherry pick it as he did in the wilderness [Matt. 4:1-11] when he tempted our Lord with the words of Psalm 91 but conveniently left out the part about, “guarding you in all your ways.”  God’s word will not mislead us, and it’s for that purpose he has given us his Holy Spirit so that we know him who is true. We know His Word. That is true.

And so, if there is one place in this world of disappointment and lies and deceit and just plain ignorance, we should be glad that there is one place where we can go a rock to which we can continually come where we will be fed, where we will drink pure spiritual milk of God’s word. How much should we delight in it and take this word to heart!  Especially when we’re disheartened by the things that we hear from scientists, from governments, from the media, and any other deceit, including any human.

“Do not be lead astray” is one of those chief aims of the Church.  The words that the Holy Spirit inspired James to write here are a letter to the church.

And while we have the word of God written for us, we are also sheep who are so easily lead astray.

1839 Methodist Camp Meeting

The past several months we’ve been studying several Restorationist movements of the 19th century, and in each of those movements there seems to be a common theme that they want to “just get back to the Bible.”  Whether it was Barton Stone wanting to just have no creed but the Bible, many were trying to boil things down to the word of God, but they ended up going in such a strange direction. Even William Miller, who many people followed, ended up giving birth to a number of other groups that reacted based on his false prediction of the end of the world.

But the Lord knows the needs of his sheep, and so he actually—in the midst of this potential mess of human teachers who could get the word wrong—and by the guidance of his Holy Spirit He does keep his sheep.  He tends them and nourishes them.  He leads them to the waters of eternal life.  What a paradox this is, that God uses men who are also fallible to accomplish this, entrusted with His Holy Word, so that by His Holy Spirit’s aid, we are not led into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.  God has preserved his church as he promised to [Matt. 16:18].

James continues, “Of His own will, he brought us forth by the Word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.”

God has done that through his word.  He’s done that through his word in the 20th and 21st centuries just as much as he did in the 1st century.  Lest you think that our church today has more problems and more heresies, just read the book of Acts. Just read the annals of the early church and all of the heresies that they had to stamp out, which are refuted in the Nicene Creed.

But for our part, because it is the word of truth that gives us birth, we can be confident that our birth is from above.  It is from God. It is not just someone’s idea. It’s not that we’re holding to an antiquated idea or holding to some tradition, trying to hold with all of our might to see that it’s passed down to the next generation. This is God’s work. God worked through his word through the Holy Spirit whom Jesus has sent to his church.

And so, there’s also a reminder there because we are born of this word of truth that we have been brought forth, we have been birthed birth from above as Jesus taught Nicodemus in John 3:1-8.  The opposite of that is that we ourselves do it.  How can anyone give birth to himself?  It’s absurd.

It is not our strength. It is not our wisdom or our works that can save ourselves or others. Today, the church is troubled by many notions that it is just a human idea, and if other human philosophies come in, if wokeism is given free rein to our children or in our institutions.  Several years ago, I watched in a video from Bill Nye the Science Guy that stated he believed that Christianity will probably fade out in the next 100 years.  This view is held by many of the neo-atheists.

But the Gospel of our salvation is not a human work. It is not human effort that preserves the church. It is Jesus work, and so we hold to this.  We hold that it is not our works that save.  As Protestant Christians we say, “Of course our works don’t save.”  But sadly, I think that because we live in a time when Christianity is challenged by the wider culture and those who hold to the word of God have to work harder to hold to it, we think that something we must do—some business model, some clever explanation, some the next silver bullet, so to speak—is going to win the world for God.

And so, in light of that, James continues to say, “Know this my beloved brothers, let every person be quick to hear, slow, to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Sadly, we are very quick to speak, especially in our day when we have so many different platforms upon which to speak.  We’re happy to lend our opinion and our wisdom. But as Peter was reminded on the Mount of Transfiguration, there is a time to speak and a time to be silent [Ecclesiastes 3:7]: “[Peter] was still speaking when behold a bright cloud overshadowed them and a voice from the cloud said, this is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.” (Matt. 17:5)

Man is all too happy to lend his opinion of the situation to lend his fixes.  God is the one who needs to speak to us first, and constantly, because of that tendency for us to be lead astray.

But another way that we try to help God out is by using the way that gets results on earth: the way of anger.  You know what’s really going to help Christ mission? A little manipulation, a little turning the screws, yelling at people will get results.

But this is not the way of God. Again, because the church is not a human institution, not a human idea. The gospel is not something that was cooked up by people in the 1st century.

God works righteousness through his word, and so Saint Paul writes to the Corinthians in his second book, Chapter 4, “But we have renounced, disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word. But by the open statement of the truth, we would commend ourselves to everyone, conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Cor. 4:2)

Wouldn’t it be easier if we did use the ways of the world?  Maybe the pews would be more packed.  They certainly seem to be at churches that turn God’s word into something else that it’s not, something that appeals to the current culture.

James writes to us in light of the fact that we are not to be deceived into thinking that the righteousness of God comes from us.  It comes from above from the father who does not lie or deceive.

He says, therefore, for our part, “Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

The Lord’s instruction here is to turn our back on our old Adam, the sinful flesh that clings to us. Our sinful flesh doesn’t die easily.  It says back to God, “But I had such a good idea! Oh, I had such good intentions.  Doesn’t that make sense?” But God calls that evil. He says, as Saint Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you.”–lumping our ‘good intentions together with–“sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these things, the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked when you were living in them, but now you must put them all away.”

A Christian faith that is ruled by human error by the deceit of the devil by man, working by man fervent effort, is liable to fall because it has given up hoping in God to do his work, and thinks that somehow, someway, we do something or do all of it. But such a faith turns out to merely be a construct, a so-called theology.  What you will find under the surface is that rampant wickedness that filthiness and call it “freedom in the Gospel.”

Even if we find this at work in us, urging us on toward these things that “make sense” and give us what our itching ears want to hear, they only lead us to death. They will deceive us. But the Lord’s work in us is to put all of that away from us away from us. He puts our old Adam to death.

And then—only then—are we ready for the Lord to be the only one who can save us.  He is the only one who can sustain his church.  The only one who can help parents train their children in the way of the Lord, so that his testimonies are proclaimed from generation to generation.

So, if this is what the Lord says that He will do it for those who are not deceived, how do you explain the state of the church today?  One way to explain it is, of course, the unbelief that is well at work in people’s hearts and in the world.  The Lord tells us that his word is going to accomplish his work. But what do we see in churches?  That those who actually faithfully hold to his word seem to be on the verge of failure.  Why is it that the Orthodox churches are the ones that are struggling?  The ones that are small, the ones that have trouble supporting a pastor?

This is what leads people into the ideas that we need new measures.  Incidentally, it was tried in the mid-1800s when the LCMS was founded, when people who called themselves Lutheran were calling for doctrine that was more appealing to the American religious scene—rewrite that dusty, old Augsburg Confession, minimize baptismal regeneration, downplay the bodily presence of Christ in the Sacrament.

The idea that the church which is faithful to the unchanging word of God is a failure, is a lie of the devil.  And the reason that he uses that tactic is because we should be faithful to the word. We should devote ourselves and pore over God’s word. But, if the devil can convince us that the word is not enough, then he can easily offer counterfeit alternatives.

But where does that leave us?  It leaves us as the people of God in a place of lament.  WE have remained faithful to the word of God. We have desired this for ourselves and for our children. Yet what we see around us is contrary to that, as if we were on the wrong path.

But it also leaves us hating the world lies hating what the devil and our sinful flesh have done to ourselves and to those we love.  Yet over all of this strife, we continue trusting that God’s word is true and powerful to do what God says.

And so I’d like to close today’s sermon with praying Psalm 44 together.  It’s a Psalm of lament.  We’re going to pray it as a prayer for Christ’s Church in our day:

1O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old:
2you with your own hand drove out the nations, but them you planted; you afflicted the peoples, but them you set free;
3for not by their own sword did they win the land, nor did their own arm save them, but your right hand and your arm, and the light of your face, for you delighted in them.
4You are my King, O God; ordain salvation for Jacob!
5Through you we push down our foes; through your name we tread down those who rise up against us.
6For not in my bow do I trust, nor can my sword save me.
7But you have saved us from our foes and have put to shame those who hate us.
8In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. Selah
9But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies.
10You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil.
11You have made us like sheep for slaughter and have scattered us among the nations.
12You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them.
13You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us.
14You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples.
15All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face
16at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger.
17All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant.
18Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way;
19yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death.
20If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god,
21would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart.
22Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.
23Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever!
24Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?
25For our soul is bowed down to the dust; our belly clings to the ground.
26Rise up; come to our help! Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!

And we can trust that God hears the cry of his faithful people.  Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Easter (Jubilate)

Readings: Isaiah 40:25–31 | 1 Peter 2:11–20 | John 16:16-22

Text: John 16:16-22

Alleluia! Christ is risen!

There is a caricature of Christianity that says because Christ is risen, we should always be happy, always be looking up, and seeing the bright side of everything.  It’s backed up by dreadful platitudes like, “God has a plan.” And “He never gives you more than you can handle.” This is a deadly lie, because it is dishonest both to our Lord and His suffering, and because it is woefully out of touch with reality.

Yes, Jesus has won salvation for us and forgives our sins, but He has not yet moved us to paradise. St. Paul teaches us to rejoice always, but also to endure suffering. We know that Jesus lives. But the cross we bear is unavoidably real.

This is the lesson our forefathers in the faith have taught us. Adam and Eve had sorrows even after they were spared death and nakedness by God’s intervention and promise; they had to bury their son, Abel. King David had sorrows and horrible consequences for his sins, even after he received the absolution from the prophet, Nathan. His first son by Bathsheba still dies. Even after the events of Easter, the personal appearances of Jesus, the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, the apostles still had many sorrows.  Despite that comment Jesus made to Peter, ““If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” John had to carry on the apostolic ministry after all the others had died.

We have sorrows even after Baptism—and the more we bear the Name of Christ and strive to live by His Word, the more we will be attacked and hated by this world’s prince. Jesus predicted this He said: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”  He told us this ahead of time, so it would not be a shock.

The salvation which our Lord Jesus won for us is real.  We are not saying a platitude to affirm that Christ is risen. I know that my Redeemer lives, what comfort that sweet sentence gives.  This truth gives us joy now. It changes us and puts all the world into perspective.  It’s far from being the once-and-done solution we wish it would be, but it’s what St. Paul describes to us in Romans 5:

“Since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” (Rom. 5:1-5)

But this salvation is not fully realized before the Christ’s return. Until that Day, we have sorrows and our faith waits for the fullness to come.

These sorrows come upon us simply from living in this broken and unjust world. Misfortune and tragedy happen to us and to our loved ones. We are often victims of injustice at the hands of the powerful and sometimes even at the hands of our friends and families. We cry out to God and ask why this happens, but He does not give us that answer.  Rather, we all go the way of the cross—“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)  The disciple is not above his teacher [Matt. 10:24-25].  Yet, unlike our Teacher, we are not completely innocent. We complicate these sorrows by our sinful choices and our reactions to what God allows or sends. The old man in us is not yet fully crushed. We act in anger, pride, short-sightedness, and selfishness that is not from our heavenly Father, but is as James says, “is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.” (James 1:15)  None of us is a completely innocent victim.

Our Lord compares all of this to a woman in labor.

21 When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.

His primary point is that our suffering is temporary. The reward of eternal life with Him which follows our suffering will be so great and joyous that we will forget, in a sense, the suffering which we endured. St. Paul makes the same point when he says “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)  He goes on there to explain how the creation is subject to futility, groaning the day when Christ returns.

There is also a hint in our Lord’s illustration of childbirth that our suffering is a consequence of our sins. It is a holy chastisement from our Father. The pain and danger of labor is the explicit a punishment and consequence for Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the garden:

“And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, And you shall bruise His heel.” To the woman He said: “I will greatly multiply your sorrow and your conception; In pain you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:15-16)

The pain and danger of childbirth are a curse upon us. Yet human birth under the Law is the means by which God became a Man for us and saved us—“Yet she will be saved through childbearing,” the Apostle says to all of Eve’s daughters (1 Tim. 2:15). Our Lord Jesus Christ is that Seed of Eve, born of Mary under the Law, with sorrow and pain. His heel was bruised by Satan on the cross until all of the Father’s wrath was appeased and every last accusation of Satan against us disappeared from his mouth and death itself lost its sting.

Only when all of the Law had been completed, did our Lord say, “It is finished” (John 19:30) and so it was. There was no more ransom left to pay, no more that needed to be done to Satan to pry us loose from the strong man’s house. Jesus then submitted to death in obedience to His Father. His Body and His Soul were rent apart. Then, on the third day, He rose again. Even what men in this evil and unjust world had done, God worked for good. The curse of the Law in labor led to the Gospel of peace in resurrection.

Mary, the blessed Virgin and mother of our Lord, is the prime example to us of faith. The angel Gabriel foretells her honor by God, an honor that will bring pain and shame among men. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” In response she says, “Let it be to me according to your Word.” (Luke 1:27-38). She accepts the honor and willingly bears the burden. She is the most blessed of women, and even still, as Simeon said after the Nunc Dimittis, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also.” (Luke 2:35)  Mary must watch her innocent Son be brutalized and slandered and killed in the most horrific way imaginable. She has sorrow. Then she sees Him again. He rises. But again, His visible presence is removed from her and He ascends to the Father. Until she is transferred to glory, Mary gets her Son no differently than we do. She has Him by His promise in His Word and in the breaking of the bread. Until God delivers her from every evil of body and soul, she must wait, she must live in this evil place, in the midst of sorrow, by faith, learning to rejoice in all things.

And so it goes for us as well.  We are truly children of God, born from above in the Baptismal waters, and forgiven of all our sins.  In this, and all of God’s promises, we rejoice always. Yet we also have sorrows now. Our sins deserve punishment, and our flesh will fight against the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. In all this, Christ’s grace is sufficient. We endure all this in faith, hopeful and expectant. We look to His Word for comfort and we look for His return in glory when we will be complete, when our hearts will rejoice and our joy no one will take from us.

Because of this, Christians have a much better reason to celebrate Mother’s Day.  It’s far more than a celebration of human achievement. After all, we know the frailty of that—the broken ties, wombs that cannot bear, and children who have been taken by death.  No, far greater than a celebration of motherhood under the Law and death, we rejoice in the fruit of Mary’s womb.  For by Him, all of you have the gift of eternal life.  You have the joy which no one can take from you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Third Sunday of Easter (Misericordias domini)

Readings: Ezekiel 34:11–16 | 1 Peter 2:21–25 | John 10:11-16

Text: John 10:11-16

The Lord Jesus says, “I am the Good Shepherd.”  This Sunday in the Church year has come to be known as “Good Shepherd Sunday.”  So, let’s to dig deeper into what this statement of Jesus means.  Let us not just pass over this, and adopt a picture of Jesus that spends the day nuzzling cute little sheep.

I. “I am” – Greek: ego eimi

Jesus is saying that He is true God, together with all that implies.  John’s Gospel is known for seven such “I am” statements.  This is more than your typical metaphor.  It goes back to way God revealed Himself to His people of old.  Most notably, with Moses in Exodus 3, we read:

13 Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ” 15 God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

The translation which we see in our Bibles, “the Lord” (small caps) is the Hebrew traditional way to render this covenant Name of God, “I am” (especially see Gen. 2:4 creation, Ex. 13:21 deliverance)  It means that this is the living God; the God who is without any qualifiers, who created all things ex nihilo (out of nothing, John 1:3), and He depends on no other.

It’s not apparent from the English, but this is why Jesus gets into such hot water with the Jews in John 8.  If He were nothing more than a raving lunatic, saying He lived before Abraham, they could have overlooked that.  But He says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am…[and] before Abraham existed, I am.” (John 8:28, 8:58)  He is saying that He is truly God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

II. “Good” – Greek: kalos

The word “good” gets thrown around like an old t-shirt in our day.  “How are you?” “I’m good.”  Jesus caught the rich young man off guard when He replied to the address, “Good Teacher” in Mark 10 by responding, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18)  Well, when you put it that way, it contracts all our measure of good against the “gold standard” which is God Himself.  So also here in the Gospel:

The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13 He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. 14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.

Since Jesus is the Lord, the “I am,” we should also recall in creation where the Lord God saw what He made and said, “It is good.” (Gen. 1:10 ff.)  But to teach us what this means in action, He contrast what the good Shepherd does compared the hireling.  There’s no personal stake in the sheep’s welfare for the hireling; they are not his sheep, and if they perish, he’ll simply move on to another gig.

Also, lest we think “good” is talking about the quality of His shepherding, what actual shepherd, seeking a livelihood, would lay down his life for the sheep?  This is not a lesson in how to successfully make a living by owning sheep.  If anything it’s the sheep who ought to be shorn and to die so the shepherd and his family have something to wear and eat.

But that is the stark difference with the Good Shepherd, who is Himself God. And this is what God the Shepherd does: “Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” (Ezek. 34:11-13)

III. “Shepherd” – Greek: poimein, pastor

God makes clear His definition of a shepherd.  It’s something like David, who wrote the inspired Psalm 23, which we prayed today.  It’s much more than what the spiritual leaders were doing which occasioned the strong rebuke in Ezekiel 34.  It’s more than any person could claim, for, as Isaiah and Peter said, For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” (1 Pet. 2:25)  Only this Good Shepherd, true God and true man can fully fit the bill.  All others are flawed reflections at best.

But, then why do we use the word, “Pastor,” (which is simply Latin for shepherd) to address those men whom the Lord calls to His service?  Having anyone call you “pastor” s hould make you quake in your boots.  I could take a cue from the Lord and say, “Why do you call me pastor? There is no shepherd but Jesus alone.”

Here to wrap up the discussion of the Good Shepherd, it’s beneficial and necessary to understand the similarities and the differences between the Good Shepherd and those who come in His Name.

Thankfully Scripture does give us other ways to conceive of this office.  Jesus in Luke 12 and St. Paul in 1 Corinthains 4 compare the pastoral office to that of a steward who is in charge of the household: Who then is the faithful and wise manager, whom his master will set over his household, to give them their portion of food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” (Luke 12:42-43) and “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” (1 Cor. 4:1-2)  The holy things don’t belong to the steward at all, but to Christ.  In both passages, the measure is not how “nice” or “personable” or “clever” he is, but “faithful” to His Master.

This past week at both our Synod’s seminaries, 101 candidates [45 from Fort Wayne and 56 from St. Louis] for the pastoral office received calls into the Lord’s harvest.  This is an exceeding gift for so many men to be willing, well-equipped, and tested to tend the Lord’s flock.  It’s a tradition, at least at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, is for the seminary president to send the candidates off with this charge:

“Go, then. Take heed unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which He hath purchased with his own blood. [Acts 20:28] Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind; 3 Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being an example to the flock. 4 And when the chief Shepherd shall appear, ye shall receive a crown of glory that fadeth not away. [1 Pet. 5:2-4]

The Lord bless thee from on high, and make thee a blessing unto many, that thou mayest bring forth fruit, and that thy fruit may remain unto eternal life. [John 15:16] Amen.”[1]

“Amen,” because we can only but trust that God will accomplish what He has promised to do through the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Here, the portion of 1 Peter gives another description of the shepherding office: Feeding the flock, overseeing their welfare, willingly devoting yourself to God’s heritage and—though they themselves are just as thoroughly a sinner—being an example above reproach.  Their commendation comes not from the praise of men who call them reverend or gush over their sermons, but from the Chief Shepherd (Archshepherd, literally).  Because of this, many use the term, “Undershepherd,” but it’s a little clunky for daily use.

Jesus alone is the One who lays down His life for the sheep, and requires nothing in return.  He relies on nothing from the sheep to accomplish this work.  But, the men who serve Him do.  These men and their families have to eat, and so, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” and the laborer deserves his wages” (1 Cor. 9:14, Luke 10:7).

They need their own Sabbath rest, sleep, and time off.  These undershepherds also have other vocations—that of husband, father, son and brother.  These vocations cannot be neglected any more than they can in any Christian’s life.  But of the Good Shepherd, we can be sure from Psalm 121, “Behold, He who keeps Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps.” (Ps. 121:4)  Only our Immanuel can promise, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

The undershepherds are also, every one of them, fallible men.  They serve a Church which is comprised of fallible people.  This Church together is gathered around Christ, who washes these servants and the flock they serve in His holy, precious blood.  These undershepherds will have faults, they will need to recant of things they’ve said in error, repent of their vanity, apologize for their hot temper, and so on (just think of the example of Peter).  And yet the Lord has been pleased throughout time to accomplish His work through sinful servants.  It is a proof of His power and goodness that He shepherds His people though wicked men. 

Imagine this!  That with this ordering of the Church in mind—with Peter standing right before Him—that He would say, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:18-19)  What treasures are handled by human hands, and what potential there is for abuse and corruption.  But what an Almighty Good Shepherd we have, that He, who laid down His life for His sheep, would continue to enlarge His fold in our midst:

“And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.