Second Sunday in Advent

~ Populus Zion ~

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

Text: Luke 21:25-36

Let’s be honest, the things described in the end times are scary!  They make even the worst terrorist attack seem like a hiccup, because it’s not just going to be in one city or a few cities.  It’s going to be worldwide, with even frightful signs in the heavens above.

Then, they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.  Game over.  No more second chances, no more putting off turning to Jesus.  For those who have despised the Lord Jesus as Savior, they will say to the mountains, “Cover us,” and to the hills, “Fall on us.”[1]  Yet, for those who love the Lord, “Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Fear about the Lord’s second coming is a real thing. It goes hand-in-hand with the end of our own life.   Here are some things we’re afraid of:

We want there to be a easier way.  When we go to Portland, and there’s a big line of cars backed up, we want to be in the car with that person who knows a back road.  If we’re buying a car or a TV, we want to be that guy who snags a great deal on it.  Perhaps the end times will really look like this.  Maybe there’s a secret code to unlock that will help us sail through without batting an eye.  What’s the significance of “the time of the Gentiles” in verse 24? Let us in on a secret, Pastors! Maybe there’s a special sign of the fig tree that other people will miss.  When it comes to tribulation and distress, we want to have an exempt card.  This is the method of the apocalyptic cults and Adventists groups who gather around their leader, hoping the Lord will notice how they “figured it out” while the rest of the world burns.

Well even if there isn’t a secret code of the end times to decrypt, we’re still afraid that faith won’t hold out.  After all, life is long and the end of the world seems so far off.  We’re also afraid for our children. We may not the first generation of Christian parents to cry bitter tears for our children and grandchildren, but it is a valid fear in this wicked world.

Everyone so far who has hoped for a short period until Jesus’ return has been disappointed.  In addition to fearing for our descendants, we grieve and fear for those who we know used to go to church but seem to be deceived that there are “more important” things than their Lord and Savior.  We fear for the countless numbers of souls who have never heard the Gospel—even in our own country.

It’s also possible you’re afraid you don’t “have what it takes” to make the grade in the end.  Are you afraid that faith is not enough?  It sounds too easy to say that a person is “saved by grace through faith and this is not our own doing; it is the gift of God.”[2]  It sounds too simple, too easy.  It must take something more!  After all, your eternal destiny rests on whether you’ve got this right.  Maybe we should take a popular vote, and see what the majority of people think (kind of like we depend on star ratings for buying products… although you should know that most of those are fake and boosted by AI bots).  The trouble you’ll find is the majority of humanity agrees faith isn’t enough.  The majority say you must add some effort of your own on the road to salvation.  But what could be better than a fellow sinner’s opinion?  God’s Word, and He would not and will not deceive us.

What would be most helpful is to read this Gospel as a believer and child of God.   Listen to how your Lord speaks of nearness: “Your redemption is drawing near…you know that the kingdom of God is near.”  The nearness of the Son of Man and His Kingdom is good news, right?  He is near, not necessarily in the sense of time or distance we measure by. He is near by His divine presence.  He is intimately joined to His people on earth: He shares your flesh and He knows your weakness.  He has made the all-atoning sacrifice on the cross, so that He, though holy and exalted, can dwell with you and bear you up.  The children of Israel in the wilderness had God’s presence in the glory cloud, but a believer has His very Spirit dwelling within their body!  He is near to you with His creative, renewing, and sanctifying Word.  He is near you with the assurance of grace and sonship that He made to you in Baptism, and He is near you when you eat and drink His Holy Body and Blood.  Truly his last words in Matthew’s Gospel were not a lie: “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”[3]

Here’s an interesting observation: Those who are most afraid and fixate the most on the End Times are usually those who are ignorant or reject the Sacraments.  Along with a futurist view of Revelation, they also don’t understand the efficacy of Baptism and the mystery of Christ’s presence.  Usually in rejection to the abuses of Rome, they shun the authority for the Church to forgive sins on earth.  There’s little understanding of the bodily presence of the risen and ascended Lord in the Sacrament—they call it metaphorical.  For many, the Bible is more information about God than the realized story of God dwelling with sinners and making them His children.  But where these sacred mysteries of Christ are taught and believed, there is the assurance of the divine presence of the Lord with His people.  And where the Lord is, there is freedom, and there is His abiding peace—even in the midst of turmoil in the world.

Nevertheless, there is a warning for believers, lest they wrap themselves up in a warm blanket of delusion34 “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.”  There is a very real danger for Christians to grow indifferent while we wait for the Lord’s return.

            Certainly, it could come in the form of drifting away from church and being deceived out of your faith.  That’s the obvious one that we can see with our eyes.  Plus, it makes us more comfortable to think that we can draw lines on where Jesus is going to find His sheep versus His goats.[4]

            But even more dangerous is the unbeliever who sits in the pew every Sunday!  This is the person who comes to church and goes to Bible study just out of habit.  They listen for the pastor to say the right things—Ah! There he talked about sin!  Wow! I’m glad he mentioned that one!  Oh good he ended by talking about Jesus, so I can go home with a happy heart. This secure churchgoer is more interested in the social benefits that church membership gives—familiar faces, group activities, and a discounted rental hall.

When the Lord comes back in glory, these people will be caught off-guard because it will become shockingly apparent that their “life” of repentance and faith was only lip service.  The Word of God did not touch their hearts so that they felt true terror over their sins and instead took the cross as God’s free pass.

If that scared you, Good!  It should.  Each of us, weak sinners we are, regularly need to look in the mirror of God’s Word and cry out to God because He is the only one who can preserve us in saving faith.  Remaining a Christian in these Last Days is no human accomplishment.  We cannot do it, but for God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.

 “36 Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

As we approach Christmas, we ought to all live in a healthy fear of God.  The God who came in the flesh is not the mild illustration which adorns our Christmas cards.  He is almighty!  He Is holy!   But it is His will for you to stand before Him redeemed on that Day.  Pray that your almighty, holy Savior would give you strength, purge away your sloth, and keep His Word in your heart throughout this life.  This is a prayer He delights to answer, because it is the very reason He came in the flesh.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Luke 23:30

[2] Ephesians 2:8-9

[3] Matthew 28:20

[4] Matthew 25:33

First Sunday in Advent

~ Ad Te Levavi ~

Readings: Jeremiah 23:5-8 | Romans 13:(8-10) 11-14 | Matthew 21:1-9

Text: Matthew 21:1-11

Advent, as you may remember, means “coming.” Every year, we rehearse the coming of our Lord. Again, you may be familiar with His first coming in the flesh at Christmas, and His second coming on the Last Day. Today, however, as we begin this holy season, I’d like to focus on all the meanings of His coming, as we pray for it in the Lord’s Prayer. Thy Kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven.

Herb Lindemann (1909-1995), a Lutheran pastor who wrote a series on the church year, writes that Advent can be described as a threefold coming:

“[1] The coming in the flesh, [2] the coming in glory and [3] the coming in grace. In Advent, the liturgy prepares for a worthy and proper commemoration of our Lord’s First Advent, the historical event that lies in the past. However, the church is not content to remind her children of only a past event that can be called to remembrance, but cannot be experienced in the first coming. She sees a picture of the invisible coming in grace, which can be and is experienced in the present, and of the visible coming in glory, which will be experienced in the future.”[1]

So, these are the three ways the Kingdom of God comes to us:

Our Lord comes in the flesh, entering the world He made (John 1:1-14). This is what Christmas celebrates, and the “reason for the season” as we say. We have reason to rejoice with everyone from angels to shepherds, and sing of this good news of great joy! Now, don’t get me wrong, but it’s in some ways unsatisfying. What I mean is, we commemorate the Lord’s birth, but it’s also an event that is disconnected from us by thousands of miles and by millennia of history. Over the centuries, Christians have tried to overcome that barrier by depicting Christ and the scenes of His birth in familiar settings, portraying him with familiar physical features. But it remains that the birth of Christ is a historical event. As the world gets further and further from that point (even to the point of writing His birth out of how we number years, preferring CE—common era—over anno Domini—in the year of our Lord), it takes more of an effort to have this history impact our present, day-to-day life.

His Kingdom also will come in glory. This is certain, and we look forward to it. But it will come when God the Father appoints. No man knows the day or the hour, although many have falsely claimed to pin down the date. We see the eagerness of believers for the end, when events in the world get really bad, or there is turmoil in the “Holy Land” (as Israel is called). Putting the best construction on people’s obsession with the Return of Christ, they are longing for eternity to break into the crumbling world. They want the doldrums of this futile life to be blown apart and something permanent to replace it. As Hebrews reminds us, “He has promised, ‘Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.’” (Hebrews 12:26, citing Haggai 2:6) But this, too, leaves us waiting. Not to sound impious, but where is the satisfaction from God now? Or, in the words of the faithful who have gone before us, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10)

What we have been given is the Kingdom of grace. The Kingdom of Grace is here with us now! Yes, we know that we have peace with God, forgiveness in Christ. There’s more than that, though. We suffer from a love of reason over revelation. Our reason tells us about the days and years, about the illnesses and pains of our life, about the turmoil in the world. So, we pray that God would take these things away—and do so quickly! We tell Him that if these things aren’t taken away quickly then we will certainly be driven to despair, beyond our ability to bear. It’s too much, God!

This is what our reason tells us, but God reveals a better reality. In this Kingdom of Grace, He Immanuel—God with us. Not just in the memory of the past, or the steadfast hope for the future. He is presently with us, just like He promised: “Behold [that is, pay attention!], I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

Our King comes to us, but it’s not in ways that reason can grasp. This is why Jesus said to His disciples before His passion,

18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” (John 14:18-21)

Jesus is saying that the way He is with us now (the Kingdom of Grace) is through His Word and the Holy Sacraments. The world does not see these. Instead, it hails reason as the measure of all truth and reality.

Our present age believes the promise that if we just have access to enough information, we will be able to overcome all obstacles. This is the pride of the worship of Science, which says if scientists are just given more time and money, and they will be able to solve all things, and unlock all mysteries.

But it is not information that our Lord gives us, but a Kingdom. It is a Kingdom built for faith. What He gives to His faithful is enough for the weariness of this age. The Father of Lies would like you to believe that the Christian faith is only adequate for simpler times and olden days. But the way that the Lord is present with us, in this Kingdom of Grace, it is enough.

The Lord adds more to His promise to be with us always—through this time—to the end of the age. He says that His Kingdom comes in Baptism—as surely as He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5) That’s personal and tangible. It happened on a certain date, in a place, by a certain servant of Christ. Imagine that: The Lord doesn’t just speak from heaven; He works here on earth, through human hands. It’s the same thing He was doing to preserve His Word to us, so should we be surprised? What better can we ask of the Kingdom of Grace than what He gives to us?

All of these modes of God’s Kingdom work together, and none is better or more necessary than the other. They all have their time. Coming in the flesh, “In the fulness of time, God sent for His Son, born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5) And the Coming in glory, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” (Matt. 24:44)  What we need now is the Kingdom of Grace. Now is the day in which God forgives our sins and strengthens us through His appointed means—the Sacrament of the Altar and the Absolution. Now is the time when He invites people into His Kingdom in the saving washing of Baptism (Titus 3:5-7).

So how can we remain in this Kingdom of Grace? By turning away from the deceit of our own hearts, the deceit of this present world. This is why we practice Advent. It is a necessary reminder of the proper order of His Kingdom coming. Yes, the Lord has brought His Kingdom among us in the flesh. Yes, the Lord will bring His glorious Kingdom when the Day is come. But most of all for us, we rest on the truth that His Kingdom of grace comes, just like we’ve prayed for.

Let us pray:

Worthy are You, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for You created all things, and by Your will they existed and were created. Give us the faith to behold the majesty of Your presence in simple words, simple water, and simple bread and wine, as You come to us in the very body and blood of Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. (16 December)

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Lindemann, Frederick, “Sermon and Propers” (vol. 1, page 29)

Seventh Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 2:7-17 | Romans 6:19-23 | Mark 8:1-9

Text: Mark 8:1-9

The Feeding of the 5,000 usually gets all the attention.  It’s recorded in all four Gospels.  It’s a spectacular miracle, feeding over 5,000 people with five loaves and two fish.  John’s account even ties it to the Lord’s Supper. But why is there also the feeding of the 4,000? 

Since Jesus has already fed 5,000, why is a lesser miracle necessary?

  • Was it to give another sign from heaven of who Jesus is? Immediately after this, the Pharisees are demanding such a sign, but the request doesn’t come from faith. There are plenty of signs that emphatically prove Jesus is the Messiah and Savior. (Matthew 12:1-42)
  • Was it just to “wow” the disciples and crowds with overwhelming numbers? Headlines are aimed to wow people with numbers: “A single Powerball ticket sold in Los Angeles matched all 6 numbers for the $1.08 billion jackpot.” (CNN) “New York City to pay $13M to Black Lives Matter protesters in historic class action.” (Syracuse NY). Magnitude speaks to people, but that’s not why Jesus feeds these 4,000.

He feeds them because they were people in need.  It’s because they’re hungry and Jesus has compassion on them and the ability to help them! He doesn’t close His heart against them and let them “faint on the way.”

And He is a God who has compassion in an amazing way: He shares our flesh.

Jesus is greater than us because He is God.  Our ability to help has limits: there’s only so much we can hand out, only so much in the charity fund at church. It’s frustrating, and crippling!

But as God, Jesus doesn’t just have head knowledge of hunger, thirst, weariness, or pain. He doesn’t impassively read the newspaper and click his tongue at the problem.  He experiences those very things in His own person as well.  “After fasting forty days and forty nights, He was hungry.”  In Gethsemane, “being in a great agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”  As He hung on the cross close to the end, He said, “I thirst”[1] 

The Apostle puts it, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.”[2] God knows our weakness in His very Flesh and for that He has compassion on us.

Martin Luther’s counsel to us is: “It is also useful that we form the habit of daily commending ourselves to God, with soul and body, wife, children, servants, and all that we have, against every need that may arise. So also the blessing and thanksgiving at meals and other prayers, morning and evening, have begun and remained in use.” Large Catechism, 2nd Commandment 73

This brings up a question for us as Christians today: Why do we pray for the things that we need?  It’s because God sympathizes with our weakness and neediness. (He doesn’t sympathize with our sins, but He atones for them).  And we go to Him because only He can deliver us. Truth be told, we daily find ourselves in a overwhelming situations, more than we can handle or answer. Our own futures are unknown, the stability of the economy unknown, our own safety is also unknown (if we’re honest). So, where can we truly look for confidence and peace? Nowhere, but the Lord!

Yet, Jesus is a God who desires more than to fill our bellies and dole out goodies.  He desires us to know Him.  That’s why the unbelief of the disciples is especially poignant.  Jesus has compassion on the crowd, but only in a way that God can do.  He wants the disciples and us to see that.

We struggle in our own unbelief of this truth.  Later in the Sermon on the Mount (which we heard the first part of last week), Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat, drink, or wear…but we do!  He tells us not to fear those who can kill the body but afterward can do nothing more, but we do fear them (Matt. 10:28).  He tells us that if we had faith like a grain of mustard seed, we could command mountains to move,[3] but our faith is weak.  Therefore, we cry out, “I believe, help my unbelief!”[4] and He gladly answers our prayer.

That way, when we are in need, what choice do we have but to call upon our God and Savior who is united in one-flesh with us? There is no want or pain which your Lord doesn’t empathize with.

  • Are you are tortured in your flesh with temptation?
  • Are you are in agony from a body broken by disease—arthritis, diabetes, or COPD?
  • Are you hurt for lack of work and poverty?
  • Jesus is the One who can truly say, “I know your pain.” He is your God and Savior!

Whatever the need, this miracle shows us that He is ready and willing to help with all His divine power. If you are in need, look to Jesus.  He is your God and Savior for all things from daily necessities to freedom from the grave.

If you have prayed again and again for relief, wait on Him.  He knows what He is doing.  “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?”[5]This He truly does. Whatever need you are in, look to Him and His compassion will be near to you. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Matthew 4:2; Luke 22:44; John 19:28;

[2] Hebrews 4:15

[3] Matthew 6:25-34; Luke 12:4-5; Matthew 17:19-21

[4] Mark 9:24

[5] Romans 8:32

Sixth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17 | Romans 6:1-11 | Matthew 5:17-26

Text: Matthew 5:21-37

Our Lord Jesus cuts to the chase.  He doesn’t sugar coat His message to lure people in with fluffy words, only to hook them.  Right away, He gets to the heart of what needs to be said to the crowds, and it happens also needs to be said to us. He starts with the Ten Commandments, the same way the Lord spoke to His people who were gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 19-20).

But He doesn’t quite follow the order given on Sinai (Exodus 20:1-20)—first our duty toward God, and then our duty to our neighbor.  He starts with what we’re familiar with as the Fifth Commandment—“You shall not murder.”  But so that we wouldn’t miss how devastating our sin is, He applies it in terms of the greatest amount of damage we can cause by breaking them.

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’” This was the very one committed by Cain when the world was newly infected with sin.  But the murder of Abel didn’t just come out of nowhere.  As James says, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.” (James 1:14-15)  Jealousy over Abel’s offering sprouted into hatred for his brother, and blossomed into Cain raising his hand against him.

The commandment forbids more than ending someone’s life.  It always begins with a devaluing of the other person and a justification for wrath.  That anger could be well-deserved (being cheated out of money, betrayed by family, etc.)  Yet in our anger, we rise up to the position of God and execute judgment: First of the person (“You fool!”) and then carry out sentence (“You must die!”)

Now, it doesn’t always get to the severity of shedding blood, but it is the same root sin in the heart.  And this should scare us, that we have this vile potential within us—that we would remove the dignity given by God to other human beings.  It should also humble us because that very person we would write off as an idiot, God valued them so much that He gave the price of His only Son’s blood to save them.

Next, Jesus addresses sins against our nearest neighbor—our spouse (or future spouse): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” This is about breaking or cheapening the one-flesh union of husband and wife.  If you thought it was just about deed, then there are plenty of couples who have stayed together for years.  The Sixth Commandment takes aim at breaking that union in the heart.

If you think Jesus isn’t wise to our modern technology, you’d be dead wrong.  More than ever, this application of the Sixth Commandment is relevant because of the prevalence of pornography—the objectifying of people (usually women) for selfish enjoyment.  The unchurched world talks about this plague only when it reaches the level of addiction—when its negative consequences get out of control—but Jesus doesn’t give it such latitude.  He says very clearly that every instance of enticement by someone who is not your wife or husband is really adultery. Certainly there used to be more shame of this, but by force these evil behaviors are being inculcated into young and old—through school libraries, online media, and envelope-pushing streaming services. And despite the excuses we make, the damage caused by inviting and permitting erotic content into our lives or our marriage does real damage to us and our spouse.

Certainly, it can destroy you on a psychological and emotional level, because men objectify women’s bodies and women dream of the man who can satisfy them in ways their husband cannot.  The whole transgender fad is no more than a monetized version of this.[1]

But it’s even worse for the Christian who indulges in this supposedly private adultery because of the damage it does to their soul.  Their conscience is at odds with the Word of God.  The weak and wicked flesh tries to justify itself, tries to make excuses.  And the danger is real: if you are lured into living by the flesh, you will fall under the same condemnation, “neither the sexually immoral…will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).

Just as not all anger necessarily leads to murder, not all adultery of the heart leads to divorce, but the immorality is all too real.  The one-flesh bond which God made man and woman for is assaulted and—if left unchecked—rent asunder.  ““It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”  Here is another place where our modern way of thinking is at odds with God’s ways.  Whether we are looking for loopholes to get rid of a troublesome spouse, or trying to quiet our conscience after the papers are signed, we can’t deny God’s intent for marriage: He desires husband and wife to live in lifelong commitment, loving and honoring each other.  Divorce is the consequence of our hardness of heart—his and hers.  And here even the “innocent” party can come guilty of adultery.

The Lord chose these sins to open up His preaching because they are the ones which have the most collateral damage to our faith and for our neighbor.  Their consequences can be felt.  Some can’t be taken back.  Others take years to rebuild trust.  These are the things which hold our sins up before our eyes, and we cannot make excuses for ourselves.  We can’t pay God back for what we’ve done.

Where does that leave us?  All of us are found to be sinners, and it’s disturbing how comfortable we’ve been with that.  We have zero merit to bring to God. Yet, as we are emptied of our own righteousness, our faith brings us to the Lord.

At the beginning of service, we confessed that in two verses from the Psalms:

“Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” (Ps. 124:8) and
“I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.” (Ps. 32:5)

Where is our help?  Not in what a good (or mediocre) job obeying we’ve done, or keeping ourselves free from public shame.  Our hope is not in getting it right next time.  Our help is in the Name of the Lord—in who He is as the Savior of sinners.  That is the Name which He put on you in your Baptism.  This is what’s so powerful about Baptism: He actually puts His Name on sinners, making former enemies and wicked people into children of God.  What could possibly make up for the sins which we’ve done?  Only the blood of Christ can pay so high a price to God.  Only being crucified with Christ can free our conscience from all guilt.  Only being raised with Him to newness of life and the help of the Holy Spirit can transform our desires away from dead works, into love for God and love for our neighbor. Our help in the Name of the Lord, in the death and resurrection of Christ is even more powerful than death: “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.  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.” (Rom. 6:4-5)

“I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”  Jesus puts real healing in confessing your sins.  Not just in the privacy of your own heart.  After all, you can see where privacy can lead you in gross sins and excuses for them.  He’s talking about confessing your sins out loud to another Christian.  Three places in the Gospels, Jesus attaches this promise to confessing your sins to another, usually your pastor: “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound on heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” and “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven him” (Matt. 16:19, 18:18; John 20:21-23)  This isn’t about power on the part of any man; it’s about you speaking the truth of your sin, exposing yourself before the Lord, and hearing His words of grace and peace. Truth be told, we’re more nervous about exposing our wickedness to another person, and we’d rather “deal with it” ourselves.  But the Lord knows this, and also knows what we need to truly heal our souls and bodies. So, He purposely tells us, “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” (James 5:16)

One thing different about Lutheran Christianity from others is the practice of Confession and Absolution. It’s different both from those who insist on the act at least once a year; and different from those who say a person doesn’t need any mediator with God besides Christ and their private prayer for forgiveness is enough. Both of these extremes miss the soul-healing benefit of confession. Christ gave Absolution to the Church for the special comfort of troubled sinners. The closer we come to the reality of our sins, the more we thirst for the comfort which only our real Savior can give through His atoning blood.

The Absolution is really the point of Confession. It’s the unexpected part, because if you exposed yourself any other place in life, you would be looked at differently and possibly ostracized—You sicko! You degenerate!  How could you!  But before the Lord and His minister, you hear, “God be merciful to you and strengthen your faith.”  Can you believe this?!  Then you hear a forgiveness that’s better than another person can give; it’s the Lord’s forgiveness—talking directly to you, who have just laid it all out there knowing that you only deserve temporal death and eternal punishment.  “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And He has forgiven you! Alleluia! Praise the Lord! 

Here in this place, what unites us is our common help in the Name of the Lord, so we support each other, looking not for how trouble-free our lives and others’ should be, but how Jesus, who saves us from our sins, is at work to restore fellowship with God and healing from our past (or present).  We’re here to support one another in the aftermath of sins we can’t erase from our past—murders, adulteries, divorces, oath-breaking—but we know that the Lord has taken the record of debt that stood against us and nailed it to Jesus’ cross.  So, with the help of God and His power to bring good out of evil, we care for each other and bind up each other’s wounds. Just as Jesus knows how real our sins are, may we all also know how real a Savior He is for us. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.


Fifth Sunday after Trinity

Readings: 1 Kings 19:11-21 | 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 | Luke 5:1-11

Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Persecution was a daily reality for third-century Christians in Rome. And in 258, the Emperor Valerian began another massive round. He issued an edict commanding that all bishops, priests, and deacons should be put to death, and he gave the Imperial treasury power to confiscate all money and possessions from Christians.

In light of the news, Pope Sixtus II quickly ordained a young Spanish theologian, Lawrence, to become archdeacon of Rome. The important position put Lawrence in charge of the Church’s riches, and it gave him responsibility for the Church’s outreach to the poor. The pope sensed his own days were numbered and therefore commissioned Lawrence to protect the Church’s treasure.

On August 6, 258, [Emperor] Valerian captured Pope Sixtus while he celebrated the liturgy, and had him beheaded. Afterwards, he set his sights on the pope’s young protégé, Lawrence. But before killing him, the Emperor demanded the archdeacon turn over all the riches of the Church. He gave Lawrence three days to round it up.

Lawrence worked swiftly. He sold the Church’s vessels and gave the money to widows and the sick. He distributed all the Church’s property to the poor. On the third day, the Emperor summoned Lawrence to his palace and asked for the treasure. With great aplomb [poise], Lawrence entered the palace, stopped, and then gestured back to the door where, streaming in behind him, poured crowds of poor, crippled, blind, and suffering people. “These are the true treasures of the Church,” he boldly proclaimed. One early account even has him adding, “The Church is truly rich, far richer than the Emperor.”

Unsurprisingly, Lawrence’s act of defiance infuriated the Emperor. Valerian ordered his death that same day via grilling on a rack.[1]

            To the unbelieving ear, it would sound as though Lawrence, featured on our bulletin cover today, was mocking the great Emperor. When he had demanded treasures, he was expecting to find gobs of money swindled from unsuspecting people in service to their foolish deity. But St. Lawrence made a “fool” out of Valerian by showing him that the foolishness of God is wiser than him.

            Who in our world have been the biggest fools for the longest time? Is there anyone else as foolish as a Christian who takes their faith seriously? We’re a punchline because of what we confess. We’re a bad joke that the world has long since gotten sick of, because we hold onto our Scripture. Our faith is a scandal of the highest order. And it always has been because of Jesus’ cross. “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

            When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the fact that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, died on a cross was absolutely crazy. He called that fact a stumbling block to the Jews. We actually might understand it better from the Greek word Paul used, σκάνδαλον (skandalon). It was scandalous that the most holy and perfect God, Creator of all things, would ever be found on a cross, because to be crucified meant that you had obviously done something so bad that you had been cursed by the Lord. After all, it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (Gal. 3:13) Even if it wasn’t what the Romans you were accused of, God still let it happen to you. So obviously, you must have done something terrible. To say that this was God hanging here? That was unthinkably scandalous. Blasphemous, in the worst of ways!

            Likewise, it was absolute foolishness to the Greeks. The Greeks had grown up with all the stories about Zeus and the like. And it wouldn’t be a big deal at all for a god to come down looking like a man, and do all kinds of amazing miracles. And it wasn’t even surprising that such a god could get into trouble as well. Those weren’t the problems they had with Jesus. The problem was that Jesus died. Our God died. Silly Christians! Gods can’t die! Whoever heard of something so foolish in all their life? At the point of death, the gods would pull the mask back and show who they really were. And their immorality and power would be on full display. If your God dies, then He can’t be much of a God now, can He?

            If you’re going to put the Messiah on the tree, then He’d better give a powerful sign, like coming down off of it, if you wants us to believe in him [Matt. 27:42]. If you’re going argue that God dies, then you’d better get some wisdom, and argue for something else. Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block [scandal] to Jews and folly to Gentiles.

            In two thousand years, some things have changed. And yet, nothing has changed. It may no longer be a scandal that Jesus was found in the place of sinners when He hung on a tree. But there is not much that is more scandalous than the Cross. The scandal now is that God would glorify such violence, and let His people celebrate it. If us Christians were truly good, we’d hide that cross away where no one would have to see it again.  Is that cross you wear around your neck beautiful because of the artist’s design or because it is where God shows His wisdom and love?

It may no longer be foolish to believe that God dies (after, think of Friedrich Nietzsche words, “God is dead…and we have killed him,” which have been used as a soundbite to justify and describe secular philosophy[2]) But the cross is still the height of folly. For only a great fool would believe that a man killed on such a cross could ever rise from the dead on the third day. The dead stay dead. Death is permanent. Everyone who knows anything knows that. And so, the world laughs at us. And when they’ve had their fill of it, they then get angry with us. Our belief, our confession, our faith in such a cross has gotten old. And it’s time to grow up.

            And you know what? We want to follow the wise. We want to be written about by their scribes. We want the debater of this age to debate on our behalf instead of against us. We want to be where they are. We crave their approval. And to get that approval, we must stop with the scandal and the folly. We must stop with this Cross. Only then will the world finally recognize us. Only then will the world finally pay attention. Only then will we get the world to come through our doors and hear us.

            The cruel irony is that those who gave up that cross in order to get the world’s approval, never actually got it. Instead, they lost their very reason for even existing. It turns out you don’t actually need to go to Church to be a nice person. You don’t need to go to Church in order to help people in your community. You don’t need to go to Church to sing your favorite music. You don’t need to go to Church to feel good about yourself. And you certainly don’t need to go to Church to be spiritual.

            However, there is only one place on the whole earth that preaches Christ crucified for you. And that is the Church, wherever she is found. And to us who are being saved [that Word of the cross] is the power of God. In fact, that’s how you know where the Church is. We confess that “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” (Augsburg Confession, Article VII) It’s the Gospel itself which delivers to us that immense foolishness of God that is His cross.

Listen to how the Church father, Origen, explains it:

The name of the cross is thought to be a stumbling block. But if someone opens his ears to the word of God and to grace, he will see that this too is a great mystery [Eph. 5:32]. Even the Gentiles hand on traditions that severe plagues or heavy rains or droughts often ceased when a person sacrificed himself for the sake of the community. Why, then, does it cause amazement that, when the whole world was suffering a plague of error, it was necessary for one man to die [John 18:14] in order to end this plague of ignorance, darkness and destruction? But who could undergo this sacrifice? Not a prophet, not an apostle, not any other righteous person. It was necessary for a divine power to descend from heaven, a power capable of taking upon itself to die on behalf of all [2 Cor. 5:15] in a way that involved public shame, so that through that death a victory over the devil might be won. And in fact, worldly victors who lead their enemies in triumphal procession (see Col. 2:14-18) are accustomed to set up trophies of victory over the defeated in the form of a cross. The cross, then, is a sign of victory over Satan.[3]

            There is no other worldly way to describe the actions of Christ except as utter folly. Who would ever leave a perfect heaven in order to take part in my suffering? Who would surrender perfect holiness in order to bear my sin? Who would think that taking nails in His spotless hands and feet would ever rescue me from the hell I’ve earned for myself? Who would ever exchange His eternal life for my death? Who would ever believe that the sheer proclamation of these events to me could ever save me from my fate? Jesus has indeed come down from heaven. Incarnate by the Holy Spirit. Born of the Virgin Mary. Was made man. All for you. Jesus has indeed left His holiness behind in order to become sin on your behalf—to become your sin. And as such, He endured hell itself on that cross for you. Jesus has indeed taken those nails in His hands and feet for you. And by them, He has pulled you out of the depths of hell itself.

            And even though those scars will remain on him forever, so you will remain forever with Him. Jesus has indeed sacrificed His life in order to put an end to death forever. Death is beaten. It cannot hold anyone for long, even though it does its very worst. Yet, it cannot stop the resurrection on the Last Day from coming. And He is indeed on His way with it soon. But here is the most foolish promise of all: That simply by speaking the report of these events to you, you actually receive them in their fulness.

            And in this way, God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. The foolishness of a cross. God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. the weakness of a man nailed to a tree. God chose what is low and despised in the world. A man condemned to death. Even things that are not, like a dead God, to bring to nothing things that are. Sin brought to nothing. Death brought to nothing. Hell brought to nothing. All througph the utter folly of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus…. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Brandon Vogt, “St. Lawrence and the True Treasures of the Church.” Word on Fire, August 10, 2016. (accessed 5 Jul 2023)

[2] The context of the quote is a lament where Nietzsche is reflecting on our common denial of God, on the lips of a man who is dubbed mad for calling people to account for this: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” (The Parable of the Madman, 1882)

[3] Claude Jenkins. “Origen on I Corinthians.” Journal of Theological Studies 9 (Jan 1908): 235.

The Feast of the Visitation

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-5 | Romans 12:9-16 | Luke 1:39-56

Text: Luke 1:35-46

God has created each of us in His Image and Likeness to live by His grace through faith in His incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. He was conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Because of this, your entire life in body and soul—both now and forever—depends entirely on Him, on His Word and Holy Spirit. This is what you and I were created for.

But our sin at its root is a matter of self-worship and selfishness, whereby we make a god out of ourselves, we rely upon ourselves, and we love and serve the Unholy Trinity: Me, Myself, and I above all.  All of your sinful thoughts, words, and actions flow out of that underlying cesspool of self-worship.

And the consequence of that is: the more we try to make a life for ourselves and to “live for yourself,” the more you are actually killing yourself.  This is what our Lord is warning about in John 12: “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also.” Your sin is deadly and damnable, not so much because it is “naughty,” but because it turns you away from the only True and Living God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It cuts you off from Him who is your Life and your Salvation.  When you reject and disobey the Word of God, you reject and spurn the Holy Spirit, the Author and Giver of Life.  And the more you persist in your sin, the more dead you become, and the further removed from Life.

How, then, shall we be saved and live?  How shall you receive and bear the Spirit of God in your fallen and perishing flesh, in your hostile mind and hardened heart? 

Everything depends entirely on God.  It is not for you to save yourself from sin and death.  Indeed, left to yourself, apart from the Word and Spirit of God, you are at the heart of the problem and your own worst enemy.  But the Lord who loves you, who created you in love, has taken every initiative to save you and redeem you.  He seeks you out and comes to you, heals you from the inside out, and gives you His own Life.

God the Father bestows the Holy Spirit upon you by the preaching of the Gospel.  He calls and brings you to repentance by and with His Word, and He breathes the Spirit into your heart, mind, body, and soul by the forgiving of your sins.  He recreates you in the Image and Likeness of Jesus Christ [Colossians 3:10], and raises you up from death to Life in His Body.

By this work of God, the Lord turns you away from yourself, away from your self-idolatry, and away from your helpless captivity to sin and death, and He brings you to Himself, to the true worship of faith, and to eternal Life with Jesus.

This Way of repentance, faith, and Life with God has been opened to you and to all in Christ Jesus, your Savior, conceived and born of St. Mary, condemned and crucified under Pontius Pilate, put to death and buried, risen and ascended, now given and poured out for you and for all.

He has fought sin, death, and devil, and He has won for you!  He bears your sins in His Body to take them away from you; He is the true Scapegoat who takes your sins away [Lev. 16:7-10].  He also bears the Holy Spirit in His Body in order to bestow the Spirit upon you.  He has not been ashamed to become your Brother, in order to not just save you from your sin, but also to share His divine Life with you.

That is the very thing we celebrate with joy and thanksgiving at the Feast of the Visitation.  His visitation in the womb of the Blessed Virgin is a pattern for how He comes to His Church even to this day and to this place.  The Lord Himself comes to visit you here with His Word and Spirit, Flesh and Blood.

St. Mary is a living icon of the Lord’s Church, because she hears the Word of God, she is anointed by the Spirit of God, and she receives the very Son of God in the Flesh.  He is received within His Holy Church on earth by the same Word and Holy Spirit, so that each of us, with faith created in us by the Spirit say, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me according to Your Word.” (Luke 1:38).  Through this powerful Word, Mary became the Mother of God in the Flesh. That flesh was conceived and born for you and is now “for you” in the Sacrament of the Altar.

This is how God works.  This is how He comes to you—in this humble and hidden way. Recall the ways that the presence of the Almighty was visible for people before the Incarnation—in a pillar of fire and cloud, in glory so bright and so holy that no one can see His face and live [Exodus 33:20], as the Commander of the Lord’s army [Josh. 5:13-15]. Now this same Almighty Lord has humbled Himself to come to you, not in terrors, but in grace, mercy, and peace.

You cannot see Him, any more than Elizabeth could see Him when Mary, barely in her first trimester, came to visit her elderly cousin.  But Elizabeth saw Mary and heard her greeting, and by this Word of the servant of God, she believed.  Indeed, not only Elizabeth, but the babe in her womb believed.  She and her unborn son rejoiced in the Gospel and gave thanks to God for Mary, and with Mary.  And Elizabeth praised God for the Fruit of Mary’s womb, for the Child in her body, “How has it been given to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?”

We shouldn’t be jealous of the disciples and Apostles, that they got to see Jesus with their own eyes.  They were given no better Jesus than we are given!  Rejoice with Saints Mary and Elizabeth, that one and the same Lord Jesus Christ — in the same Flesh and Blood — is also here with you and given to you!  He visits you in hiddenness and humbleness within His Holy Church on earth.

Do not be ashamed of, or despise, the simple Means of Grace by which He visits you.  Do not be scandalized that He comes through the Cross [Rom. 6:3-4] and with the Fruits of His Cross.  Do not turn up your nose at His sacred Flesh and Blood.  Do not dismiss this Liturgy of the Gospel for its apparent foolishness.  It is never boring, unless we come in unbelief.  Rejoice because the Lord Himself comes to you within His Church to bless you with His Peace!

The Lord comes to you and deals with you in this way, that you should learn to live as a child of God the Father and as a member of the Bride of Christ.  God the Father trains you, not only to love and serve and care for others (as you are called and given to do within your own vocations) but He trains you first of all to be and to live as His own dear child, living by grace through faith within His own household and family. Likewise, He also teaches us each how to be living and thriving members of the Bride of Christ, hearing His Word and receiving the Holy Spirit.

The Lord your God thus catechizes you to live, not by your own works and efforts, as though you were your own god, but by His gracious providence, by the hearing and receiving of His Gifts.

Yet even in emphasizing this hearing and receiving is far from saying that we are not given anything to do. As you receive the Lord in His meekness and mercy, who comes in such humble and hidden ways within His Church, so welcome and receive Him and care for Him in His lowly ones.

Recognize and serve Him in the poor, despised, and afflicted, and in your brethren, who are the brothers and sisters of the same Lord Jesus Christ.  Receive Jesus in their needs and serve Him in their needs.  Provide for Him and love Him by providing for and loving His family, as Mary and Elizabeth loved and served each other and their infant sons.

Do unto others as Jesus does for you.  Do so for them, not because they have earned it or deserved it (they haven’t, any more than you have!).  Do it by the grace of God.  Do it for Jesus’ sake.  And know that, in loving your brother or sister, you are loving the Lord who is your very Life. And if your whole life is spent in doing so, yet shall you live.  You serve in the confidence of that great Salvation which God has gained for you and all people.

He will not send you away empty-handed.  He will not leave you unclothed or naked in the street.  He will not allow you to go hungry forever.  If you are despised by the world, you are honored and exalted by God in Christ Jesus, your crucified, risen, and ascended Lord.  If you are hated by others, you are loved by God.  If others do not forgive you, nevertheless, God has forgiven you all your sins and trespasses at the cost of His own Body and Life upon the Cross.  If others take your life, even so, God gives you Life.

Receive the Lord Jesus, who is here with you and for you with His Word and Holy Spirit.  Truly, He is here present in and with His very Flesh and Blood like your own, conceived and born of St. Mary, given and shed out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins, unto the Life everlasting for you—body, soul, and spirit.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Original sermon by Pastor Richard Stuckwisch, edited by Pastor Michael Miller.

The Presentation of the Augsburg Confession

Readings: Micha 7:18-20 | 1 Timothy 1:12-17 | Luke 15:1-10

Text: Luke 15:1-10

What God says about Himself makes all the difference. If we start with the idea of what we think God is like, or what we think He would or should do, we will quickly fall into error.

The Church is perpetually plagued by this. From the early errors of the Valentinians (Gnostics) who try to impose their mythology on the true God, the Arians and Muslims who deny that the Son can be true God, to the Pelagians who say that man is spiritually better and more capable than God says he is. During the Middle Ages in western Christendom, God’s teaching us had been covered over by doctrines of men, which said what the Son of God did on the cross wasn’t everything; you had to contribute your own works to really have assurance of salvation. Contrary to what God tells us in His Word, it was taught that man had some residual bit of good left in him, by which he could respond to God and cooperate in being saved.

The parables of Luke 15 show us plainly who God is and who we are in our sin. They show a God who “receives sinners and eats with them.” Manmade religions from around the world show that this is abhorrent: a holy God is angry with the sinner and rewards those who choose the path of obedience—sacrifices, karma, and holy works appease God and prove to Him that we are worthy.

This is not the true God. The true God is the one who seeks the lost sheep, who by its own foolishness has wandered, and who by its own feebleness cannot bring itself back. The sinner cannot find his way back to God, but must be brought by the Good Shepherd.

Mankind is thoroughly wicked in God’s sight, that “every intention of his heart is evil from his youth” (Gen. 8:21) and we “have all turned aside; together [we] have become corrupt” (Psalm 14:3). Nevertheless, as a woman who has 10 silver coins and has lost one, our lives are precious and valuable in His sight. He seeks us, He rejoices over us being brought to repentance and being restored to Him.

from Wikipedia

The Confession made at Augsburg in 1530 (493 years ago today) was a great reset on doctrines of men that had been formulated, codified, and even propped up by plausible quotes from Scripture and revered Fathers of the Church. That sort of reset is constantly needed, not because God’s Word doesn’t speak to people of our own generation. Instead, it’s because we sinners are constantly prone to disbelieve what God says, insert our own appealing thoughts, and wander off into myths about God above and ourselves.

Our own day is no exception in the history of God’s people. There are the gross errors of those who stand outside the faith, and teach that sinners have not sinned and so make God a liar. There are also subtle errors which hinder and poison faith: Repentance is our work to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and give Jesus our heart; that baptism is something we do to demonstrate how we have heard and obeyed; that correct doctrine isn’t important just so long as you feel love for Jesus; that the Lord’s Supper is a matter of our own personal interpretation and so everyone ought to be allowed to commune.

Reset and let God’s word be true—“that You may be justified in Your words and blameless in Your judgment” (Psalm 51:4) and “Let God be true, though every man were a liar.” (Rom. 3:4) And we will see the true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who loves and saves sinners like you and me, so that we may rejoice in Him and give Him glory forever.

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

Second Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Proverbs 9:1-10 | Ephesians 2:13-22 | Luke 14:15-24

Text: Luke 14:15-24

Lutherans are known for their potlucks (or “covered dish dinners” if you don’t want to mention luck). It brings people together at church. Eating is something we all have in common, regardless of differing opinions or backgrounds. In fact, it’s a widely-known church growth practice that handing out food will get people to come to your church…at least the building.

In an effort to connect with people, many a church have fallen into a dependency on being a place that gives handouts. By itself, it’s a beautiful expression of the Lord’s command, “Freely have you received, freely shall you give.” (Matt. 10:8) But the other side of handouts is when they offer to people what they did not have to work for. This plagues Indian Reservations, DHS offices, and pandemic aid because people flock to it. They grow to rely on it. They rave when it’s threatened to be taken away.

Isn’t it interesting, however, that as soon as the Word of God says, “Come, for everything is now ready,” people begin to make excuses about why they can do without? “The first said to him, ‘I have bought a field, and I must go out and see it. Please have me excused.’ 19 And another said, ‘I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I go to examine them. Please have me excused.’ 20 And another said, ‘I have married a wife, and therefore I cannot come.’”

That’s when we realize it’s not just a matter of physical nourishment. Yes, people will flock to the earthly handouts because they satisfy the belly. But when the Gospel is freely given, then something else takes over: our sin.

Nonetheless, we can use the language of meals to understand what our Lord is teaching us here. What would cause someone pass up an invitation to a meal for which all that’s required of them is to be the recipient?

They’re not hungry – Who wants to go to an all-you-can-eat banquet on a full stomach? Similarly, a self-righteousness that fails to understand or acknowledge the darkness of one’s sin. What’s being offered on the menu—forgiveness, life, and salvation don’t taste good. Consider this analogy of Martin Luther in the Large Catechism:

Suppose there were a physician who had such skill that people would not die, or even though they died would afterward live forever. Just think how the world would snow and rain money upon him! Because of the pressing crowd of rich men no one else could get near him. Now, here in Baptism there is brought free to every man’s door just such a priceless medicine which swallows up death and saves the lives of all men. (Large Catechism, Article IV “Baptism” para. 43)

Taking a detour on the road of bodily health, consider what funds and sacrifice we pour into the medical complex. It promises to relieve our temporal suffering, and often doctors are successful. But the truth remains that no man can cure death. Only Christ can, and has done that for us! How do we receive such a healing? “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.” (Mark 16:16) “And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. 33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family.” (Acts 16:32-33) This perfect and eternal healing of body and soul was delivered in humble water, and the lips of the pastor—whoever he was: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” [Matt. 28:19] If you’re not hungry for forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation, it’s likely because you imagine your sin isn’t that serious, you’re not all that dead, and you think salvation comes to those who try hard enough.

They’ve got more appealing things – I have a wife and earthly affairs that need my attention more than my soul. In this case, it’s not necessarily that forgiveness doesn’t sound wonderful. It’s just that the things of this life sound more appealing and capture our time and attention. Someone from our congregation pointed out when Pop Warner Baseball started having games on Sunday, it made a change in the congregation. It’s not just that baseball games alone caused unbelief, but it allowed an outlet for those whose hearts were more devoted to the things of this life. Never underestimate our power to harden our hearts against God’s clear Word and even tangible evidence [Ex. 7:13].

What is offered doesn’t satisfy immediately – In the weakness of our mortal, sinful flesh, we are drawn toward what brings fulfillment here and now. How can I feel and touch the kingdom of God? Well, if it won’t come on my terms, then I’ll find assurance somewhere else that does. Be it popularity, or health, or a life free from struggle—these are the temptations we have to forsake the faith and turn toward the promise of immediate payout of the lies.

Back to the topic of handouts, there is a protest when people might lose these gratis benefits. And we know that our sin can cause an indifference to the gift of the Gospel. But where’s the protest when the Christian congregation is threatened? When the ministry of the Word falls into disuse, and the house of God is in disrepair? We are presently suffering some of the consequence of many who have “begun to make excuses.” But now that we’re here, shall we just throw up our hands, and say, “I guess that’s how it goes?” What has taken the fight out of us, the zeal, for the “food and drink” which truly satisfy, for our Lord says, “My flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55)

This parable a warning to us who are hearing this Word of Christ and holding fast to Him: Beware, lest we also miss the Kingdom of God in our midst, and give in to earthly things over heavenly. God’s Word will fill His banquet hall. God shows no favorites toward us or those who came before us. Apart from a steadfast faith, we have no promise of a place at His table.

It won’t be by our own strength that we remain steadfast in this faith until the end. It will be where our gracious Lord grants it to us. And where we find this spiritual zeal, let God the Holy Spirit do His good work! Do not let this vine which the Lord planted by the hand of our predecessors bear thorns or die out [Isa. 5:1-7]. Lord, let this congregation be roused from our complacency, our satiation to the hunger we’re supposed to have! Save us, Lord Jesus, from putting our hope and trust in the things of this life. Rather, let our fear, love, and trust, be in You alone. In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

First Sunday after Trinity

Readings: Genesis 15:1-6 | 1 John 4:16-21 | Luke 16:19-31

Text: Luke 16:19-31

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.

Last week, we confessed in the Athanasian Creed, “Whoever desires to be saved must, above all, hold the catholic faith.  Whoever does not keep it whole and undefiled will without doubt perish eternally.”  Today, we see the application of this biblical truth—The rich man is in hell, while Lazarus is comforted at Abraham’s side.

So, the biggest question from the Gospel reading today is: What shall we do, “lest we also come into this place of torment” where the rich man finds himself? At first glance, the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus seems to say that rich people go to hell and poor, sick people go to heaven. Wouldn’t that make it easy?  Then the Marxist ideology would be right which says struggling, disadvantaged people are more noble than “fat cat” CEO’s.  That’s the message we hear all the time, so much so that it seems to be evil simply to have money.  If you don’t believe me, just ask any Christian what kind of looks they got when they drove to church in a Tesla.

But it’s not that simple.  The point of this story isn’t found in purple robes and feasts or starvation and open sores.  In the Athanasian Creed and the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, we confess, “Those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”  What St. John says his first epistle is true, “whoever loves God must also love his brother.”[1] But there’s more to it than the outward actions.

Despite the first blush of this story, our lot in life doesn’t determine our place in heaven or hell.  If you’re young, healthy, and everything is going well, it doesn’t mean God loves you any more than a middle-aged woman who suffers with chronic pain.  If you can barely make ends meet and live with an endless stream of trouble, God’s love is undoubtedly yours because of Christ.  What you have or don’t have in this life where to look for God’s love.

The more important issue is, Where is your faith?  Jesus illustrates a rich man who believed in his material blessings and was comforted by them.  On the other hand, Lazarus despised his earthly life and looked only to God for comfort.  But it doesn’t have to be just deluded rich people and God-fearing poor people.  St. Paul writes to Timothy and to us, “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.”[2]  Yes, there are wealthy people who boast in the comfort of their wealth.  But there are also poor people who look to money as if it were their savior.  There are millionaires with messy divorce fights over property and there are poor people who scrape and fight to get every last dollar they think they’re entitled to.  But before God they are all alike: “Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.”[3]  Whether you’re comfortable or lacking, if you believe your help comes from the things of this life, your faith is in the wrong thing.

In Colossians 3, St. Paul writes, 1If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” (Colossians 3:1–2) This is where your Lord wants your faith to be: in Him, who made heaven and earth, who adopted you as His dear children, and who gladly and freely gives you all that you need to support this body and life.

And if that’s where your faith is, what flows from that is contentment.  The unnamed rich man had faith in his prosperity. He was content with having everything his heart could desire—a fully belly, fine clothes, and people to wait on him.  Lazarus, though he had nothing, he was content with it.  That’s not to be confused with being happy about it.  But how can we make such a claim that he is content with his condition?  Because, in the Gospel, the Lord tells us something we don’t normally have knowledge of: Lazarus had faith in God, and thus went to paradise.

Faith in God brings about contentment with whatever your earthly lot gives you.  Again from Colossians 3: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” (Colossians 3:5)  The trouble really isn’t what stuff or how much stuff people have; it’s our earthly sinful hearts that are filled with jealousy and covet that Tesla that our brother or sister drove up in. 

But you have been crucified with Christ and were put to death with Him.  All that fills you with discontentment has died on the cross.  Your true God, the maker of heaven and earth, has given you a new heart and His Spirit, so that you trust in Him for all things.   With your faith you acknowledge Him as your loving Father who always and forever cares for you, His child.

Whether you have much or little—it is enough.  You might have good health or poor health—it is enough.  Your living situation might be ideal or lacking—it is enough. Whether He gives or He takes away—it is enough.  It is enough because it is what your Heavenly Father has given you for today.

With a right faith and contentment in Him, He sends each believer out to love His neighbor.   The faithful who are amply supplied now get to share in something amazing.  St. Paul writes to Timothy, 17 As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. 18 They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share”[4] He has freed His children from the “American Dream,” which is the pursuit of affluence that ensnares so many. In its place, whatever we have is a gift from Him for serving your family, your brother or sister, and whatever need He brings before you.

But on the other side, if you’re the one in need, your place in this economy is no less important.  While you might not be able to be generous the same way someone who has more can, God has also given you empty hands to lift up to Him.  Receive whatever good things God gives you by the hands of others, giving thanks and praise to Him.  The Holy Spirit who has been given to you also will guard you from trusting in and hoarding these gifts from God, delivered by the hands of His faithful.

            When our journey is over, and God brings us from this valley of sorrows to Himself, these differences will pass away.  In the Kingdom of God, none are lacking and all are fully comforted.  And this amazing inheritance is yours through God’s gift of faith.  Therefore, it is our duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him at all times.

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

[1] 1 John 4:21

[2] 1 Timothy 6:10

[3] Psalm 62:9

[4] 1 Timothy 6:17-18

The Holy Trinity

Readings: Isaiah 6:1-7 | Romans 11:33-36 | John 3:1-17

Text: John 3:1-17

You may think that faith is just a mental activity. It all happens in the mind, which assents to the proposition that there is a God, that this God is so favorably disposed toward us that He decided to send His Son into the world to seek out those who would agree to this eternal truth. Yes, we may allow this thought to seep into our emotions and evoke joy, happiness, and contentment. But at the end of the day, all of this takes place in the conscious mind.

This is Christianity according to modernism, the child of the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution. All that’s truly important can be grasped with the mind, measured by the caliper, and viewed by the microscope or telescope. But the modernist has a problem with the faith which clings to a God for whom “the whole three Persons are coeternal with each other and coequal, so that in all things, as has been stated above, the Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity is to be worshiped.” (Athanasian Creed) Again, when one approaches the one true God with the mind, he ends up saying with St. Paul,

“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33)

This leads many to despair of ever knowing the God who Created all things, who Redeemed the world, and who Sanctifies us and brings us out of sin and death into eternal life. They say maybe it’s an elaborate fabrication, or maybe such a complex deity has no interest in foolish little people like us.

But know that this God really does want to be known by us, and the proof is as close as our five senses.

I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
    “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
    the whole earth is full of his glory!”
        (Isa. 6:1-3)

Isaiah saw with his eyes the throne room of the Almighty. He heard the song of the angels proclaiming God thrice holy. But when he despaired of life because his eyes had seen the King, the Lord of Hosts, the seraphim touched his lips and spoke this word into his ears:

“Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

In the Holy Gospel, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the darkness of night, where shadows play and obscure the sense of vision. He came with the assumption that what his eyes and mind were perceiving were the whole truth of the Almighty.

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

The Son of God taught him that the Almighty makes Himself known in the sense of touch—the new birth of water and the Spirit. By this He also gives us perception in our vision, that we may see the Kingdom of God and where He is at work. Just as the wind rushes against the skin and makes its sound in our ears—not giving perception as to where it comes from—so the Spirit gives assurance that He has come near to bring His hearer into the Kingdom of God.

Again, the eyes are employed in the reminder of the serpents in the wilderness. After the people’s disobedience of the heart, grace and salvation were given to those who looked upon the serpent Moses fashioned at the Lord’s command (Number 21:4-9). Yet more potent is the gaze of faith upon the event where the Son of God Himself is lifted up. All future generations, who hear this news with their ears, whoever faithfully looks upon Him may not perish, but have eternal life.

Our God makes use of our senses so that we may perceive and believe. So far, we’ve seen how He has come in sight, in touch, in hearing. He doesn’t neglect our sense of smell and taste either. The sense of smell was in the sacrifices offered up to the Lord—a recognition of the deadly price of our sins. On earth, it is the smell of death, but before God, He calls it a pleasing aroma. Hear the account of Noah:

20 Then Noah built an altar to the Lord and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. 21 And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “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. 8:20-21)

Likewise, the sense of smell filled the worship of God’s people through the fragrant incense. This smell was to connect them to this place, where prayers ascended and were graciously heard by the Lord. Thus, David sung in Psalm 141:2, “Let my prayer be set before You as incense, The lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.” In many places where the faithful gather, incense marks the worship with this potent reminder of our fellowship with our Triune God. Yet, even our sanctuary has a smell imbued by the burning candles and the smell of Holy Communion.

The Lord also made Himself known through the taste. For His people in the wilderness who ate the manna, “the taste of it was like wafers made with honey.” (Exod. 16:31) In the sacrifices, the peace offering was eaten before the Lord, where that taste wasn’t just the savor of the roasted meat, but one of joy in having been reconciled to God (Leviticus 3).

As people living in the New Testament, the words of the Psalmist ring true, “Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!” (Ps. 34:8)  God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. The only-begotten Son says to the believer, “Take; eat. This is My Body given for you.” “Take; drink. This is My Blood of the new covenant, shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.”

So, you see that the Holy Trinity, which is too high for our minds to comprehend, descends to us so that faith may take hold of this mystery even with our lowly senses. Thanks be to the Triune God who makes these truths known to us in our bodies! This gives us so many opportunities to reminder His work:

  • With water, we remember our Baptism into the Name of the Holy Trinity.
  • With the hearing and reading of His Word, we embrace His speech to us with repentance for our sins and joy at how He restores and gives us new life.
  • With the smell of church—the burning of candles or incense—call us back to where He gathers us together around His cross
  • With touch, as for centuries, Christians have made the sign of the cross upon themselves in remembrance of Baptism.
  • And today, with the taste of Holy Communion. It’s not so much about the appeal of the simple bread and wine, but faith believing that this bread and wine are our Lord’s own Body and Blood for us.

In the Name + of Jesus. Amen.