Fourth Sunday in Advent

~ Rorate Coeli ~

Readings: Deuteronomy 18:15-19 | Philippians 4:4-7 | Luke 1:39-56

Text: Philippians 4:4-7

“The Lord is at Hand For You”

Intro: It formed the theme for last Sunday, and now here it is again: Rejoice in the Lord always. Today focuses heavily on the reason for rejoicing in all circumstances: The Lord is at hand.

1. The Lord is at hand…to judge.

a. His nearness is not good news in and of itself: 32 “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. 33 So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates.” (Matt. 24:32-33) The Lord’s imminent return is not good news for the unbelieving.

b. Jesus was near to Peter when he denied his Lord and Jesus’ gaze caused Peter to weep. (Luke 22:58-62) The Word that Jesus had spoken caused bitter tears.

c. He is near even when you are purposely overriding your conscience and doing what you know isn’t right. In these moments, we put on a mockery of the life of faith, using the Lord’s patience as an excuse to gratify our flesh. Remember the bitter tears of Peter, and repent.

> The nearness of His condemnation of our unbelief isn’t His ultimate goal. His desire is to put our Old Adam, with all his rebellion and wickedness to death. Instead of judgment, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18) The Lord is at hand.

II. The Lord is at hand…for His people.

a. The Lord’s nearness had caused the people to tremble at the foot of Sinai. “Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.” (Deut. 18:16) So the Lord sent Moses and Aaron as His representatives. He promised to once again draw near in the Prophet who would bear His Word (Old Testament reading, Deut. 18:15-19).

b. Elizabeth and Mary recognized the nearness of the Lord. Even the infant John recognized it and rejoiced inside Elizabeth! It was not just a thoughtful reminder, but it was embodied in the infant in Mary’s womb.

c. This is the comfort of the Lord being at hand for you, bringing His mercy and salvation. The Israelites hoped for this Prophet, Elizabeth and her baby leapt, Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God her Savior.

The Lord is at hand with His Word and in His flesh.

III. The Lord is at hand…for you.

a. Though we rightly deserve His displeasure for our denials, our weakness, and our unfaithfulness, the Lord Jesus Christ was born to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:23). The Lord is at hand to save you.

b. The nearness of the Lord is not just a cognitive device to calm our minds. It’s a truth which our faith clings to, and a peace which is delivered by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. The Lord is at hand to give you peace.

c. And it’s a reality that as often as we forget or push away the nearness of the Lord, we look for peace in the wrong place. We try to find it in our understanding and how well we manage our life and relationships. This can only give us a passing, human peace.

d. In that false belief, we think the Lord is far away. I’m suffering, and He’s somewhere else. His congregation is hurting and He is idly looking on. Our world is wandering into darkness, and He must just be fed up with us.

e. But our Lord does not simply stand by waiting for us to “figure out the right thing to do.” He is active in our lives, to break our confidence in our understanding, our own proud accomplishments. And that illusion of self-made peace we give up in repentance, God fills us with peace that no man could ever dream of.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Because it is true the Lord is at hand, cast your cares on Him; seek His help in prayer; praise Him for the abundant good He does for you, and enjoy a peace which surpasses that of our thoughts. Rejoice in the Lord at all times, for “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:1, 11) In the Name + of Jesus.


Third Sunday in Advent

~ Gaudete ~

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 | 1 Corinthians 4:1-5 | Matthew 11:2-11

Text: Isaiah 40:1-8

It’s been said that Isaiah is a reflection of the Bible, Old and New Testaments. The first 39 chapters speak of God’s judgment against His wayward people and the nations of the earth. The 40th chapter begins the proclamation of John the Baptist, announcing the coming of the Servant of the Lord and culminating in the New Heavens and New Earth and the rejoicing which follow (Isaiah 65-66).

I. The Hebrew word, “Comfort” ties together God’s judgment and His gracious pardoning of sin.

a. We’re familiar with this verse, especially from the hymn which we’ll sing during Communion.

b. This word—nacham—which here means comfort, is also used before the Flood:

i.  The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. (Gen. 6:5-6)

c. Human sin is so serious that He regrets making man. It grieves Him to His heart. So much so that He sends destruction on the earth except for Noah and His family who feared Him. Don’t be fooled into thinking that your sin doesn’t have a serious impact on your Creator. It’s no light, private matter that “doesn’t hurt anyone that much.” It grieves God to His heart.

d. Remember the judgment against the ungodliness, the drowning of hard-hearted Pharaoh, the death of the uncircumcised nations who fought against Him. Remember Jesus’ warning about the end of days, how it will come when people are “marrying and given in marriage, and then the flood came and swept them all away.” (Matt. 24:38-39)

II. But see what this nacham, regret, causes God to do—not just to save one family in an ark, but to give His Son as a ransom for all.

a. After the floodwaters had subsided, the Lord promised, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.” (Gen. 8:21)

b. It’s not a bigger act of judgment, but a monumental act of grace and salvation for sinners. For even though the wickedness of God grieves God to His heart, His heart is love. It moves Him to send His Son. And from what His Son came to do, comes not regret on God’s part, but comfort to the contrite. The very same word in this new context, nihem, means to comfort.

c. Out of the suffering which His Son freely bore, behold what God has done:

that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.

III. This Word has a real effect. Here a modern image is appropriate: that of a road grader.

    A voice cries:
                  “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
                Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
                  the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

a. The Lord’s work to lay down and restore according to His plan. A freshly graded road doesn’t puddle, or have cart tracks. What a bombed-out, washed-out mess our world is, and our own hearts because of sin.

b. His Gospel changes us from what our sin has made us, and restores us into the human beings we were created to be. Just as a road with a proper crown will drain and put the water in the proper place, the water of our Baptism works to restore us to God’s design.

c. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, not only to objectively save us from what we deserve, but to manifest God’s work through faith with a new heart. This is where we see a deposit of that salvation, the new creation which God works in His people.

d. Here is an example of this “road grading” of the Holy Spirit. In speaking about the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Luther writes:

He has set this up for our strengthening and assurance as a sign along with the promise that matches this petition in Luke 6:37, “Forgive, and you will be forgiven.”…
Therefore, this sign is attached to the petition so that when we pray we may recall the promise and think, “Dear Father, I come to you and pray that you will forgive me for this reason: not because I can make satisfaction or deserve anything by my works, but because you have promised and have set this seal on it, making it as certain as if I had received an absolution pronounced by you yourself.” For whatever baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which are appointed to us as outward signs, can effect, this sign can as well, in order to strengthen and gladden our conscience. (Large Catechism, III 96-98)

There are plenty of things around us that can cause us to doubt this proclamation of “Comfort, comfort” and that God’s Kingdom has come to us. Like John the Baptist asking in prison, “Aren’t you the Coming One who will proclaim liberty?”  But the Lord points us to these visible signs of His coming: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:4-5)  You have been given eyes to see God’s work and your ears have been opened to hear God’s Word. You are daily cleansed from the leprosy of your sin and your body is daily being prepared for the resurrection (even if outwardly it wastes away), and the Gospel has been preached to you.

Not only do you hear of this Kingdom, but in these ways that the Lord points us to, we also see His Kingdom coming among us. So, take comfort, dear citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, when all else fades away, this Word of your God stands forever. In the Name + of Jesus.


Second Sunday of Advent

Readings: Malachi 4:1-6 | Romans 15:4-13 | Luke 21:25-36

Text: Malachi 4:1-6

Every day, we are reminded that the godless enjoy prosperity and ease. They are the ones getting their way in the senate, gaining favor in school and society. The boastful sneer at the Christians and speak evil of them falsely (calling them bigots for not bowing down toward their god: same sex marriage).

Psalm 73 describes their success:

4         For they have no pangs until death;

         their bodies are fat and sleek.

5         They are not in trouble as others are;

         they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.

6         Therefore pride is their necklace;

         violence covers them as a garment.

7         Their eyes swell out through fatness;

         their hearts overflow with follies.

8         They scoff and speak with malice;

         loftily they threaten oppression.

9         They set their mouths against the heavens,

         and their tongue struts through the earth.

10     Therefore his people turn back to them,

         and find no fault in them.  (Psalm 73:4-10)

You look at the worldly people—those of the queer movement, the anti-Christians, the ones whose consciences are seared—and think how easy they have it! Right now, they enjoy public favor and protections, right now they are at ease in their lifestyle. Their values are celebrated on the news and in the public square, while the Christian is demonized. It’s their dealings that are successful, their barns that grow ever fuller. Sure, they have the same pains as other mortal men, but the gods of their delusion care for them. The life of a pagan is the life of freedom and peace in this world.

Recall the story of Naomi and her husband, Elimelech. She went into the land of the Moabites when unfaithfulness brought famine. Their sons married Moabite wives, and then Elimelech and his sons died in the land of Moab. Upon hearing that the Lord had visited Israel and restored bread to Bethlehem (the “house of bread”), Naomi is poised to return. She tells her Moabite daughters-in-law to stay:

Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!”… “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me?... No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” (Ruth 1:8-13)

Why would anyone choose to be at odds with other men? Who would follow after a God whose path brings such suffering?

But He is also the God who promises life and salvation through His Son. There is salvation from the curse found nowhere else!  So, what will you have? Peace now, in the favor of man and their gods? Or the peace from heaven that you have to wait to see?

To those who hold to the Lord, in spite of the passing promise of worldly peace, He promises, “The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.” The day will come when the people faithful to the true God will be vindicated. There will be a separation between the righteous and the wicked, and only the righteous will have God’s favor in eternity.

The signs which are given assure us that He is not leading us on:

 “And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (Luke 21:25–27)

Notice the biggest things that the worldly people fear: getting sick (especially terminally), that the climate will change and the oceans rise, ominous predictions about clean drinking water going away, that the economy will collapse and cause them to suffer want, and worst of all death itself because they don’t know what comes next.

We’d be lying if we say we’re haven’t shared in at least some of these fears, because we’re human and our sin also clings to the gods of this passing world.

Although the people of the world are in terror because of the threat of the world being destroyed, this should actually encourage the Spirit in God’s children that His Word is true. The fact that people are terrified of climate change and “apocalyptic” events should assure us that the word of the Lord is true.

At this point, they will accuse you of holding to a tradition that makes you right and condemns everyone else. That’s a valid point, because who wants a worldview that can’t serve them? Yet we do not have this truth from ourselves. It isn’t borne out of a self-chosen favoritism that says God loves people like us and condemns everyone else. It is borne from His own Word.

It’s a Word which condemns our sins all the same, because we have desired what is contrary to His will. We have been guilty of sexual immorality, of blaspheming, of neglect and hatred of our neighbors. Yet, in confessing those as the sins which they are, the same Word declares the forgiveness of our sins for the sake of the blood of Christ.

Elijah has come, John the Baptist, who pointed to the faithful and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” All who were struck by their sin heard that and repented of their wicked works and believed in the Lord who works righteousness.

So, now the task of the Church is to proclaim this same repentance and Gospel to all the people of the earth. All who believe in Him will be saved. All who refuse to believe will be condemned (Mark 16:16). So, at last, it is not our opinion of others that counts, just as their opinion and raging cannot do anything more to us than bodily suffering [Matt. 10:28].

The judgment which ultimately has power is that of the Lord, who separates those who fear the Name of the Lord given in Baptism, and those evildoers who spurn His call to turn from disaster. It is they who will seek mercy on the Last Day and will not find it. The time of clemency is now. “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near” (Isaiah 55:6)

We’re not pleased that people will be condemned. Neither is the Lord, who is the world’s Savior. So let us continue to tell them this truth, in hope that they also will repent before “the day comes upon them burning like an oven.” O Lord, have mercy upon our race, especially upon the souls of those who now proudly reject you. May they be turned from their ignorance and rejection before it is too late! In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

First Sunday in Advent

~ Ad Te Levavi ~

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8 | Romans 13:8-14 | Matthew 21:1-9

Text: Matthew 21:1-9

“Your King Comes to You”

This is the beginning of Advent, the season leading up to Christmas.  This word, Advent, is handed down to us from generations of Christians before us. It means, “to come to” (ad + venire), It’s about Christ’s coming—first to save His people from their sin, and again at the Last when He “will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28)

“Say to the daughter of Zion,

       ‘Behold, your king is coming to you,

humble, and mounted on a donkey,

on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.’ ”

Behold says Zechariah. Wake up! Pay attention! Why? Because your King is coming. He alone shall reign among you. What does it mean to have a king when we live in a democratic republic? We did not choose Him, but He was given to us.

Christ alone is your king, not Moses with his law. Sin, death, and the devil are not your master. Let none but Christ your Master be. All these tyrants who have long plagued you are vanquished by your King, Jesus.

Jesus alone is chosen, promised, and sent by God to you. He has purchased and won you.

He came in this way because He is King—more than a personal King, but King of Creation.  Above His cross, He bore the inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews,” but He is so much more.  It would simply be a tragedy if Jesus came as the rightful King of the Jews, they didn’t receive Him and rather crucified Him.  But in fact by their rejection, God established His reign, so that after He rose from breaking the power of His enemies, He proclaims, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me.” (Matt. 28:18)

What sort of King He is

            He is not an earthly ruler of an earthly kingdom.  He is a spiritual King whose Kingdom is one of faith (yet one day of sight).  The Jews had it wrong when they heard of God’s Messiah coming as King.  They heard terms like kingdom, land, and Zion, and they were confined to merely physical interpretations.  Right before His ascension, the disciples still asked Him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)  By which they meant, are you going to set up a nation state, establish a worldly government, choose people to be your “right hand man” and so forth. Some false teachers even still say that Christ will come to establish an earthly kingdom in a “golden age” for a 1,000 years. But if we listen to all of Scripture, and to Christ Himself, it’s clear this is not how He reigns.

We are at a severe disadvantage to think of the Kingdom, of Zion, of Israel, and our King in merely earthly ways.  He is God, so His reign extends not borders found on a map but extends over the whole universe—“He upholds all things by the Word of His power.” (Heb. 1:3)  His Zion is not merely a special name for the earthly city Jerusalem, but for His dwelling in the midst of His holy people—“For the Lord has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling place: “This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it.” (Ps. 132:13-14)  His Israel is not the blood descendants of the patriarch Jacob, for “All who receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

At Jesus’ entry into the city Jerusalem, it was expected that He was an earthly king, for He was riding in as Solomon, the natural son of David (1 Kings 1:44).  Yet, it was soon clear that His reign would not be a continuation of King Solomon.  God raised Him up, not to a dazzling throne with fanfare.  The shouts of Hosanna quickly came to a close.  Instead of a gold-clad throne, He was raised up to reign from the tree of the cross.  The justice He established was the “temporal death and eternal punishment” that we “justly deserve.”[1]  The righteousness He established was the sinless, obedient heart and life that no son of Adam could do.  He was indeed righteous and having salvation, as Zechariah foretold (Zech. 9:9).  But what earthly King could do this for His subjects?  As the King of the Jews breathed His last and was laid in the tomb, it became all too clear that His reign would not be limited to Jerusalem.

How He reigns

            Among earthly rulers, you find power, politics, sway, and even corruption.  Not so with King Jesus.  He comes “humble and mounted on a donkey.”  He comes not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom for many (Matt. 20:28)  He comes not with threats of condemnation but with words of comfort for the broken, the sinful, those “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (Matt. 9:36)

That is how He still comes, in humble means, as a servant-King.  He brings people into His Kingdom, under His reign, not by coercion and threats, but by His humble, yet powerful Word.  He doesn’t display His power in mighty acts of destruction, but in the peaceful fruit of sins forgiven and the hope of eternal life.  He nourishes His people, not with glorious power to overcome every obstacle, but with His crucified and risen Body and Blood.  All this so that His power might be perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).

            Indeed, the Day is coming when He will come in power, but now is the day for His Kingdom to grow.  We often grow impatient with His ways, but He who knows the hearts of all also knows what truly “work” to extend His reign.  When we’re surrounded by businesses and churches-modeled-after-consumerism that seem to thrive we grow envious of their visible success.  But if we are to be faithful to our Lord, we too remain humble servants, waiting to be exalted by our God.

Why He Comes

Lastly, we consider why He comes.  It might occur to us that we get by just fine without a King.  But who is able to face the Judgment Day without fear?  King Jesus intercedes for you.  Who is able to face the spiritual warfare that would deceive us, make us complacent in our sins, and drag us ignorantly to hell?  King Jesus is able to loose our chains and fight for us.  Which one of us can do battle with death and overcome?  King Jesus comes to give you His victory over the grave!

The crowds who saw Jesus coming into Jerusalem cried, “Hosanna!” This wasn’t just praise for Him. It’s a cry that means, “Save us, we pray!” So that cry is still on our lips every week. Our King comes to us with His victory, His intercession, and the victorious host, and gives it all to us His Body and Blood. That continues to be our cry, “Hosanna!” and He answers us with His might!

He purchased and won you from sin, death, and the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  He did all this so that you would belong to Him and live with Him and serve Him in His Kingdom.  In this life, that Kingdom may not look like much—it is sometimes hard and painful, take sacrifice, even cost you your life—but it is a Kingdom which endures beyond time, gives victory over death, and promises you eternal prosperity and blessing from God.

Behold, daughter of Zion, who are the faithful of God in this place, your King is coming to you, and God grant you to receive Him.  Amen!

[1] Lutheran Service Book, p 184

The Feast of All Saints (observed)

Readings: Revelation 7:2-19 | 1 John 3:1-3 | Matthew 5:1-12

Text: Revelation 7:2-19

Theme: The victory and salvation of the Church of all time belongs to the Lamb, which He has given to you.

I. Reading the Book of Revelation is kind of like diving into the Old Testament. It seems to be full of contradictions, scary judgments, and uncertainty about who belongs to God and who doesn’t.  Only occasionally are there some quotable parts that bring comfort…

Examples of seeming contradictions: The wickedness of man is great, so God destroys all except eight through the Flood.  God desires to bless the nations, and then he orders Joshua to exterminate them. He promises great things for Israel, but then sends them into slavery in Egypt, then later rebellion and exile. 

But neither the Old Testament, nor the Book of Revelation can be properly understood without God’s Son, Jesus Christ.  Just as the Old Testament is the story of God’s people—the patriarchs and Israel—Revelation is about the Church.

II. One of the reasons Revelation isn’t appealing is because it has a stark, honest view of the fallen world.  It’s like a horror movie that takes a level view of the evil so that you can see just how insidious and deadly it is. Unlike slasher movies or grotesque video games, it does not glorify the evil or cheer for how bad things can get.  Rather, Revelation shows the true nature of man’s wickedness, the devil’s contempt and murderous plans, and the only Power that can overthrow such worldwide corruption.

III. This section of Revelation gives us a view from above, the eternal picture of the Church, lest we be weighed down with the moments we endure right now.  It’s actually through the past history of God’s people, recorded in the Old Testament, that we understand the full significance of this vision.

a. The evil of this world (as uncontrollable as it seems to us) is held back at God’s command, just as it was when God sent the Flood (Job 38:11).  It is God who knows His own, and calls them out as an exceedingly great host, preserving them against the seemingly out-of-control forces of darkness.

b. The ranks of Israel recall the battle census of Numbers, where each tribe is accounted. But something is different here! Judah is at the head of the line.  The Lion of the Tribe of Judah has conquered as the Lamb standing even though it had been slain.

“Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” And…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne” (Rev. 5:5-7)

c. Now that the Lamb has conquered in the fight, there is a great multitude—an exceeding army[1]—that no man can number. This is what the Lord indeed had sworn would be to Abraham (Gen. 15:5-6).

d. The great tribulation has played out from the time when enmity was set between the woman’s seed and that of the Serpent (Gen. 3:15), carried out by those who are of the devil.  It’s pictured in Daniel 12:1-3, rising again in the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD (Matt. 24:15-21), but reaching its apex in the time immediately before the return of Christ. It is not identified merely by intensity at a particular point in history, but from the Fall all the way until the final Judgment (Matt. 23:29-36).

e. Because of the Lamb’s victory, they stand in victor’s robes and bearing the palm branches of pilgrims (Lev. 23:40) and victors (1 Macc. 13:51). Not because they had the strength, but because the Lord fought for them (Exod. 14:14)

40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days.” (Lev. 23:40)

The Jews entered it with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel.” (1 Macc. 13:51)

So their cry gives glory to God: “Salvation (security, safety) is by our God who sits on the throne and by the Lamb” 

f. They are before the throne of God and are serving Him day and night.  He who sits on the throne makes His dwelling among them 27 My dwelling place shall be with them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 28 Then the nations will know that I am the Lord who sanctifies Israel, when my sanctuary is in their midst forevermore.” (Ezek 37:27-28, and John 1:14).  Theirs is the victory over God’s enemies—over sin, devil, and even death itself.  Hear the promises all rolled together here:

10They shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them.” (Isaiah 49:10)
6The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.” (Psalm 121:6)
8He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 25:8)

IV. From this eternal, heavenly perspective, we see what is true for us.  These words are already yours in Christ.

So what do you think of the Church?  If you were to just look with your eyes and measure by your human understanding, you would see defeat and scattering, division and failure.

No!  Look with the eyes of faith which God gives you, so that you may know that the Church is the weak and victorious.  Small and forlorn in ourselves.  Dead and dying to the world.  But in Christ—the Lion of Judah, the Lamb who has conquered His foes—we are God’s great host, beloved and holy, though we die yet shall we live.

Beloved of God, we are already part of that multitude, so take up the praise already, because it is yours to hold onto, even while we now dwell in the shadow of death.  That shadow will pass away when the true light comes.  In the Name of + Jesus.


[1] In this context, ochlos can mean “a mass of soldiers” (

Reformation Sunday

Readings: Revelation 14:6-7 | Romans 3:19-28 | Matthew 11:12-19

Text: Matthew 11:12-19

Theme: The Reformation is about the natural beauty of hearing the Word of Christ in faith.

They’re on the side of your head, but they don’t often get much attention (unless something is wrong with them). But on this commemoration of the Reformation, let us focus on the human ear.

I. Different human ears:

a. The ear with the kind of piercings that would shock your grandmother. This is the Reformation understood as breaking away from the powers that be. Luther is the epitome of the “little guy” who stands up against the mighty and he triumphs. He is the German national hero who broke the chains of the Roman papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

The “freedom” of the Reformation means that no one can stand in the way between me and God. This is the way I am, and God better accept me. No one can tell me how I am to worship, with all the anarchy that invites.

b. The ear with ear buds in. This is the freedom of the Reformation, to interpret the Bible on my own terms. You choose what comes in and cancel out any “noise.”  The Bible becomes a private, self-chosen book of belief. One of the sad outcomes was the magisterium was replaced with each individual Christian being his or her own “pope.” 

c. The ear with beautiful, tasteful gold earrings. Consider the impact of the Reformation on art. One can take pleasure in the music, visual arts, and architecture. J.S. Bach, one of the greatest musicians of the baroque period. Beautiful and colorful stained glass that glisten in the sun and fill the sanctuary with rich colors, depicting beautiful scenes. Grand sanctuaries that have beautiful chancels and high altars which fill one with awe. But while these all have pleasing aesthetics, if the focus is on the human achievement, the Gospel is missing.

This persists in our own day when church music is judged on the basis of how it makes you feel, more than what is being prayed or confessed in the words.

II. The ear, unadorned, unobstructed, in the beauty which God gave.

a. Our Lord says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  This is what the ear was made for: to receive the Word of God, and the heart to receive it in faith.

b. John & Elijah are evoked because they were instruments of the Lord directing His people back to the hearing of His Word in obedience and faith. Contrast Ahab and the Pharisee’s response to Elijah/John: “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’” and “When all the people heard this, and the tax collectors too, they declared God just, having been baptized with the baptism of John, 30 but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves, not having been baptized by him.” (1 Kings 18:17; Luke 7:29-30)

c. The Reformation was about this: The beauty of hearing the Word of God in faith. True freedom is given by this, not breaking earthly bonds. True understanding is given by the Holy Spirit on God’s terms, that we may repent and believe in Jesus, clinging to Him through all. True beauty springs from this Gospel, not the other way around.

III. The necessity for ear care.

a. Lest it be clogged with wax. Discernment is good just as ear wax keeps out foreign objects, but an excess can cause hearing loss. Dr. David Scaer: “I hate Lutheranism!”  A few examples:

i. The idolizing of Martin Luther and imitating him and quoting him excessively.

ii. The devotion to all things labelled Lutheran tradition, as in “This is the way we’ve always done it and how dare you question if the tradition is edifying or the interpretation is faithful to Scripture.”

III. Finally, “I learned that once upon a time in Catechism, and now I never need to learn again.”

IV. Lest the ear be neglected and dirty.

a. Magnifying the freedom of the Gospel can lead to trivializing the Word of God and treating the holy as profane. We must watch out for this in an age where all kinds of other traditions are criticized (especially since Christianity is in a villainized category today). Here, we do well to look to our fathers and mothers in the faith, who revered the Word of God as holy, saw the benefit of piety, and handed these rich practices to us in our own fleeting age.

~ The Reformation reminds us how all things depend on the faithful hearing of God’s Word. This is His gift to sinners, that with ears that hear, we may rejoice with tongues that confess, throats that sing, and lives that profess His grace and riches given to us. May the Lord who opens deaf ears, clothes us with pure garments, and renews our hearts so bless us in this true faith. In the Name + of Jesus.


The Feast of St. James of Jerusalem

Readings: Acts 15:12–22a | James 1:1-12 | Matthew 13:54–58

Text: James 1:1-12

Theme: The Lord rescued James from relying on his own understanding, and gave him heavenly wisdom to lead the Church after the Ascension.

I. The followers of Jesus after the Ascension have become a mess. Conflict over circumcision (Acts 15:1-5), being driven away from worship in the synagogue (Acts 13:44-50), uneven distribution to the poor (Acts 6:1-2), and persecution from the Jewish authorities that got so bad they scattering out from Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3).

II. What have you done, Lord?  You left the Church in the hands of men—not the wise and capable, but fishermen and family members.  What kind of basis is that for a movement with a commission like, “Go and make disciples of all nations”?!  How will that ever make it from “Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”? (Acts 1:8)  They’re having trouble keeping it together just in a 100 mile radius!

III. But in the middle of this chaos, on the heels of the death of John’s brother, another James arises from a most unlikely place—the Lord’s formerly unbelieving family.  This James is the one who thought Jesus was out of his mind (Mark 3:21), who thought Jesus simply Joseph’s son (Matt. 13:55).  But now, who is this to whom Peter says to tell after his angelic release from prison? (Acts 12:7)

Remember what the Lord does powerfully through weakness.  The very pinnacle of this is how God was at work in suffering, death, and rejection of the Christ.  Yet in that very act, it was the salvation of the world. As St. Paul also highlights, “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Cor. 1:24-25)

IV. Now, James is not just a man turned believer, but God raised him up as a fair and wise leader (Acts 15:12-14). 

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Men and brothers,[1] listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
            16         “ ‘After this I will return,
                        and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
                        I will rebuild its ruins,
                   and I will restore it,
            17         that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’

He diplomatically navigates this contention which could have divided the Church, able to see clearly to God’s intention drawn from the Scriptures (vv. 15-18)

James continues to reflect the divine wisdom and true fear of the Lord as he writes to the scattered believers (James 1:1-12). By his inspired epistle, he reminds them of the words of Jesus (Matt. 5:12), of Peter (1 Pet. 5:7), of Solomon (1 Kings 3:9-12), and even of Jeremiah (Jer. 9:23-24).

James takes these and applies it to their present situation, because above the present circumstance are the Lord’s promises, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” and “You will be My witnesses.” (Matt. 28:20; Luke 24:48)

V. We often look to the past and nostalgically dream about “the good old days” of the Church and our congregation.  Times when there were “enough” people, there was money, things were easy.  (We do the same thing with our own youth and wish we could relive that.)  This is vanity, a chasing after wind.  There never has been a time when the Church has been at ease in this world (at least as long as the Church is being faithful to her Lord and His Word). James learned this early on: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” Without the testing of faith, such a faith mutates into pride and complacency.  But the testing is the very way by which we are made perfect and complete.

Carefully consider the Church even during the time of the Apostles.  Even though there was confusion and division, the Lord saw to it that His Church would not lose sight of Him, that His Word and His gifts would not be neglected or maligned.

So, what is it that we lack now?  Do we lack heavenly wisdom? Follow the example of Solomon, who saw that he was in way over his head and asked God to equip him for the task.

Do we need a strong leader to stand at the helm and ground the flock in God’s Word?  By His grace, He provides for that—not just in pastors, but also in laypeople. Those who can say, “Brothers and sisters, this is the way we need to go.”

Are there concerns about money?  Yes, the congregation, according to our reason and our misplaced trust in money doesn’t measure up. Let the lowly brother boast in his exaltation, 10 and the rich in his humiliation”  This is no reason to cry that the sky is falling.  If there isn’t enough money for everything we used to do, we recount where true riches are: in the priceless Word of God preached and taught, the treasures of heaven given to us in Christ, the Body and Blood of God’s Son on the altar for you.

  • The Lord brought James from unbelief to faith, and soon into a position where he was needed to provide direction to the fledgling Church.  He was given the wisdom needed, the tested faith, the steadfastness for his task which the Lord had laid before him.  James addressed the church, “To the twelve tribes in the Dispersion” because they were separated from one another, weak and incapable in the world’s eyes, but the Lord had given them a common destination—a true home.  This reminds us that the Lord doesn’t expect us to set up long-term here. There’s no promise of leaving a building to the next generation.  Rather, His promise, spoken by James is: 12 Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”  In the Name + of Jesus.


[1] The Greek specifically mentions that the assembly which was deliberating this theological issue was all men.  This is distinct from the use of “brothers” elsewhere in the New Testament that refers to both men and women. (cf. verse 23, ESV footnote)

Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Deuteronomy 10:12-21 | 1 Corinthians 1:1-9 | Matthew 22:34-46

Text: Matthew 22:34-46

Theme: Knowing the Lord our God, Jesus Christ, is a gift which He gives, not the fruit of our efforts to know Him.

I. I remember trying to explain the Trinity to my friend, who was a young Christian. It wasn’t an easy thing to explain, because it defies our reason and any earthly analogies. More recently, I’ve been confounded by trying to debunk Dispensationalism, because it’s supposedly backed up by biblical passages., and it can deceive even someone who is knowledgeable in the Bible.

Sometimes I share in the frustration of someone who is trying to explain the mysteries of the faith or confess the truth to someone who is being led astray by error. I want there to be a “simple” or understandable answer.

II. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Awkward conversations like, Why doesn’t your church let women be pastors? Someone saying, Oh, you go to that church that didn’t give my husband communion. Someone of you have tried to explain to you children or grandchildren why it matters that they don’t live together before marriage. It’s painful when you can’t seem to get through, especially when it comes to fellow Christians.

III. In the Gospel today, Jesus is on common ground with his opponents insofar as they accept Scripture to be God’s Word. They well-acquainted with the Law. They think they are clever enough to test Him. So far, so good, it seems.

Yet their supposed fellowship is strained. What do you think of the Christ? They have the right answer to this, but they cannot explain King David’s own inspired words in Psalm 110:1.  The mystery of the Trinity is hidden from them. Although they have a scholarly and religious knowledge of the Scriptures, they are unable to know the Christ on whom the Law and Prophets hang.

They’ve applied themselves so much to the holy Word of God, but it’s not by this that they know God or His Christ. You become a better musician through practice. Your long resume testifies to your experience in your field. But without the Holy Spirit, no one can confess Jesus as Lord. I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says, ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit.” (1 Cor. 12:3)

The Pharisees set out to trap him by their cleverness, but they were silenced by their inability to know the Lord’s Christ. In contrast to this, Mark’s Gospel notes that “the crowds heard Him gladly” (Mark 12:37)—those who didn’t have the education and credentials to boast of. God granted to the unlearned the coveted wisdom from above, so that they could rejoice in His Christ as Savior.

IV. This teaches us how each of us needs to approach the Holy Scriptures. When we sit down to read the Bible or hear it gathered together, we are not studying for a midterm (as the medical college students do, memorizing and quizzing each other on vocab). Rather, we humbly begin with prayer for the Holy Spirit:

a. That He would grant us faith and understanding.

b. That He would teach us the lessons we need for right now in our walk (against the Internet “wealth of knowledge” attitude).

c. That He would daily renew us to love our God with all our heart, strength, and mind.

d. That He would fill us with love for our neighbor and the words to speak truth to them.

e. That He would grant to us all the measure of His grace to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.

V. For us together as the Jesus’ Church, this delivers us from the allure of the church growth gurus, who tell us the reason our churches are not full is because we haven’t found the right way to “advertise” Jesus and make Him appealing to people today. In contrast to that, God teaches us through Moses:

12 “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good? 14 Behold, to the Lord your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. (Deut. 10:12-14, Old Testament lesson)
  • Do not lose sight of who the Lord our God is. He who is with us is more than our bodily ability, lest we should think it will fail because of our age, or our numbers, or our skill at explaining profound mysteries.
  • It’s not just an idea or a tradition that we bring to the world. We bear the living God and His Son, Jesus Christ, who declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20)


Seventeenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Proverbs 25:6-14 | Ephesians 4:1-6 | Luke 14:1-14

Text: Luke 14:1-14

Theme: We exalt ourselves and our works, so God humbles us, so that He would exalt us through His Son.

Intro: It all takes place in the Pharisee’s house.  In formality, banquets had a protocol of where was proper to recline.  The host reclined in the center, and his guests around him. 

I. Men flaunt religion in their own house but leave God out in the cold night.

A. Is it possible that there is a worship of God without God?  Yes, when our own “devotion” forgets the God it claims. Like Cain who makes his offering to God and then is mad when God doesn’t accept it.

B. The Pharisees were so devoted to their “right” way, but they forgot the heart of God for this poor, sick man. Unfit for the temple meant unworthy of compassion—“am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen. 4:9)

C. Do we, as post-Reformation Christians use grace to as an excuse to ignore the people who are made in God’s image? There are droves of people in need, but we would rather leave the sick to the hospital, the mentally ill to their own delusions, the poor to handout programs.  Image of seeing the accident on the road and driving by because the police and ambulance could handle everything.

II. God’s Son entered the house—uninvited—and humbled Himself by taking the lowest place.

A. It’s a shameful thing when one’s devotion is shown to be a farce. So much zeal, so much effort. I’ve kept myself on the right path? I haven’t gotten my carpets dirty! Was the swollen man even allowed in the Pharisee’s house, or did Jesus go outside to him?

B. Jesus did for us what none of us were willing to do.  He took the lowest place. He bore the humiliation:

Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Phil. 2:5-8)

He even the taunts of the proud

“39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.” (Matt. 27:39-44)

C. By taking that humble place, He bore the fall that our pride deserves.

“Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Prov. 16:18)  How great the fall into destruction would be, if it were not for Jesus, our Savior!

III. Our houses are full of hypocrisy, but through His humiliation, God has welcomed us into His own house.

A. The truth is that our “house” is full of hypocrisy toward God and lies we tell ourselves.  Our house is “full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” (Matt. 23:27)

B. But by humbling us, showing us our sin, God actually exalts us.11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

C. He snatches us from the “outer darkness” through His Son, and welcomes us into His own house forever. 7But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you.” (Psalm 5:7)

The setting of His house is quite different: “Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27) Now come, as your gracious Host continues to exalt the humble by feeding them His own Body and Blood.

God’s Peace to You. Amen.

Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 17:17–24 | Ephesians 3:13–21 | Luke 7:11-17

Text: Luke 7:11-17

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

The name for the town of Nain probably comes from the Hebrew word, na`im, which means “lovely.”  It’s familiar to us in English as the woman’s name, Naomi (Ruth 1:2).  In God’s wisdom, there’s probably a connection between the widow, Naomi, and what transpired in this town.  The city of Nain was set on a hillside, and it was probably a name given by people who considered the scenic view of the Plain of Esdraelon below.[1]  In spite of this, there was nothing lovely about the events which dominated the town.

11 Soon afterward [Jesus] went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a great crowd went with him. 12 As he drew near to the gate of the town, behold, a man who had died was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow, and a considerable crowd from the town was with her.

Here comes a woman, twice touched by the finger of death—first her husband, and now her only son.  With her is a throng of people, completely powerless to do anything but weep with her.

For as long as anyone can remember, this is how life has been.  Over every moment, death broods silently.  The most joyous occasions can be dashed by its visitation. Even our sorrows can have still more grief added to them.  That is the way of the world under the power of death.

            But One is coming who has compassion on us.  He alone can help!  He is the Lord God, whom Psalm 68[:5] proclaims as a “father to the fatherless and protector of widows.”  Widows like the woman of Zarephath and like the one in Nain.

            Now why is the Lord called a protector of widows?  Certainly, it is because they are without support.  The ancient world was devoid of social security nets.  So, unless widows and orphans had someone to take them in, they were forsaken.  For this reason, God commanded Israel not to glean their harvest up to the edges and leave some for the fatherless and widow.[2]

            But here, Jesus reveals, in the flesh, even more about why He has compassion on widows.  They have been touched by the curse of death.  Their very flesh aches from the place where death wrenched away their spouse.  From the moment of the Fall, the Lord has had compassion for His creation under the reign of death.  “Dust you are and to dust you shall return”[3] but One is coming who will crush the Serpent’s head and loose the pangs of death. [Gen. 3:15-19]

            In this way, we have all been touched by death and share in the widow’s loss.  We too belong in that considerable crowd around the widow, because none of us have been spared, or likely will be spared, from death’s visitation. 

            Here at Nain, however, the Lord demonstrates in clearest terms what He has come to achieve: “When the Lord saw [the widow], he had compassion on her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ 14 Then he came up and touched the bier, and the bearers stood still. And he said, ‘Young man, I say to you, arise.’ 15 And the dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”  Having compassion on us, He reaches down into the grave and brings the dead out from their tombs.  He restores what death has taken.

            Just as it was for the residents of Nain, so it is for us today.   Death looms over our daily existence.  It humbles the proud and threatens the weak.  It sets a limit on all our endeavors and gnaws away at the branches of our family tree behind us.  In our bodies, we are in slavery to death, but concerning the Lord Jesus, the Apostle writes, “He too shares in our humanity so that by His death, He might destroy him who holds the power of death—that is the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.”[4]  Though our bodies are held fast by the pangs of death, we are also free of death by the resurrection of Jesus: For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his… 11 So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 6:5, 11)

            Throughout our days, we’re told to think of death as natural.  With the overwhelming body of evidence, how could any reasonable person conclude otherwise?  But this is a lie that people contrived for themselves long ago, a kind of fatalism that can’t see any other choice.  They tell it to each other as shallow comfort when the biopsy results are malignant and a wife’s mind is too addled by Alzheimer’s to grieve her husband’s death.  Our conscience inside us screams out the contrary: Death is not natural!  It’s wrong and horrid and cruel!

And God must clarify what our hearts feel: Death is not natural because death belongs to sin.  It’s the sin of our first parents and our own sin. Scripture tells us, “All die because all have sinned.”[5]  Doubtful you will ever see that on the death certificate as the cause, but it is what Scripture teaches.  No, we rarely know the hidden wisdom of God and we certainly will not venture to say someone died because of a specific sin.  But because of our inherited sin, we are dying from the moment of our conception, and time only proves that more and more true.  Together with every other human being—are powerless to save ourselves.

But the Lord has compassion on us.  He came down from heaven and “has visited His people.”  He journeyed the way to the cross and there He offered Himself as the atonement for the world’s sins—even for your sins and mine.  Jesus was placed in the tomb and hallowed your grave.  He made it a place of sleep, not of abandonment.  God Himself has entered death, was buried, and rose on the third day—“never to die again” (Rom. 6:9).  By His death, the Lord Jesus broke the power of death over us.  The risen Jesus is our guarantee from the Father that this is true.

People still concern themselves that the world is too far corrupted.  Unless we take immediate action, all is lost.  Rather, it is God who will restore all that sin and death have destroyed.  At His return, the full magnitude of His redemption will be there for all to see.  Everyone who believes in Him will praise Him and live, raised in glorious bodies, in this new creation.

Therefore, we do not just walk hopelessly with the crowd around the widow.  We also walk with the Lord by faith.  He has raised us by faith to a living hope and He will raise us from our graves for all eternity.  Being part of the throng, the Church, which surrounds the Lord, we see our present world with a God-given hope.

We consider what death has done in our own lives: how death has taken spouses, parents, cousins, and friends.  We consider how death has touched our lives with debilitating diseases that no doctor can cure, and how death draws near as we age.

We consider what death looks like in our own city: how crime and drugs have ruined a once tight-knit community.  The abandoned buildings all around remind us of generations past and economic hardship.  We see funerals daily for people of all ages.

We also consider the toll death has taken on the world: wars and violent protests rise to the point that militaries must intervene.  Dreadful diseases rip through national borders.  Volcanoes and earthquakes take countless lives.

But as we consider all that death has done, rest assured that Jesus Christ has come.  From the cross He preaches repentance and forgiveness of sins.[6]  And to borrow a phrase from the Catechism, where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation[7].  Where sins are forgiven, the power of death is broken.

The Lord will come once more—once and for all—to raise up everything that is now destroyed and rotting.  Our grieving is not in vain.  The Lord still has compassion on us, and He will truly fulfill His Word—not just to a widow here and there—but to all who groan under death’s power.

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

[1] Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, and Trent C. Butler, eds. “Nain.” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.

[2] Deuteronomy 24:19

[3] Genesis 3:15-19

[4] Hebrews 2:14-15 NIV 1984

[5] Romans 5:12

[6] Luke 24:46-47

[7] Small Catechism VI, “What is the benefit of this eating and drinking?”