Homily for the 100th Anniversary of St. Matthew Lutheran Church, Appleton, WI — In Appreciation of Called Workers

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Last weekend I was privileged to preach for the 100th anniversary of the congregation I grew up in, St. Matthew Lutheran Church in Appleton, WI. They have been having anniversary services all year long, one a month, and I got to be the penultimate guest preacher. (Rev. Mark Schroeder, our synod’s president, is up in November, so I reckon I’m in good company.) A lot has changed at St. Matthew since I went there, but a lot is still the same. God’s people still gather around His Word and His sacraments, and where that is, there the Body of Christ is living and active. The focus of the service I preached for was giving thanks for called workers. I was honored to be asked and to get to serve God’s people. (My sermon starts about 28:00 or so.)

Just One? (a Homily for the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist)

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Whenever the topic of a person’s life work comes up, or the good that each of us hopes to accomplish before we leave this world, inevitably someone says, “Oh, if only I can help one person — just reach one person! If only I tell one person about Jesus and that person is saved, or my sufferings and my sacrifices can benefit just one person, then my life will have been worthwhile! Then everything I’ve gone through will not be in vain!”

Being the contrarian that I am, whenever I heard those sorts of statements, my first thought immediately is: “What if you don’t help one person?”

What then?

What if you go through your entire lifetime, and not one single other person ever benefits from your experiences, your kindness, your compassion, your witness or testimony? It’s unlikely, but given how often I’ve heard people say similar things to the above, it bears asking: What if nobody at all listens or believes what you say? Will it have been a waste then?

Today the Christian Church commemorates the Martyrdom of St. John the Baptist. By all appearances, his life was worthlessly given. He was the foremost of the prophets, occupying a unique place in salvation history: summing up the Old Testament prophets, while inaugurating the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which the apostles were soon to take out into the world. He was the Forerunnner. Jesus said that there was no one born of women that was greater than John the Baptist — and this is how he dies?

He didn’t die making a great heroic stand. He didn’t die in the arena, torn by the lions, or run through by the sword of a frustrated, angry pagan soldier. He didn’t give his life saving anyone from a burning building, or jumping on a grenade to save his buddies in battle.

John the Baptist was beheaded because he rebuked the wrong, powerful, person, and he incurred the anger of wicked, conniving people. You can read about it in St. Mark 6:14-29. Herod the king had married his brother’s wife — stolen her, in fact. John had rebuked him, and Salome, the brother’s wife (now Herod’s wife) in question, plus her mother, wanted revenge. So when Salome danced for Herod’s birthday party, and he being in an expansive move, he promised her anything, up to half his kingdom. Bad idea. She asked for John the Baptist’s head, and Herod, though he enjoyed listening to John and was afraid to do anything against him, was afraid of looking like a fool in front of the high rollers and power brokers — so he had John beheaded in prison. As one professor I heard years ago put it, John the Baptist died because of a bimbo. Put that together with a weak and scared ruler, and John looks like he was in the wrong place at the wrong time — and his head ends up on a platter.

Someone might well say, “Why did you speak up, John? It wasn’t your business! It didn’t bother or hurt you at all that Herod married his brother’s wife! Why provoke powerful people and make them not like you? Just let it go — it’s not your problem anyway.” That’s the voice of fear. That cowardice manages to silence Christians all over the world every day, because at the least hint of trouble — even before anything actually happens! — we’re running up the white flag in our minds. What if someone gets mad at me! — what if I lose my job! — what if I lose my friends! — what if my family member won’t speak to me! – what if, what if, what if! And we are intimidated and shamed into silence by our ungodly fear and cowardice.

John the Baptist spoke up because he didn’t care what happened to himself. All he cared about was God’s Word. His death was one that had no honor in the eyes of the world, but it was an honorable death and a good death in the eyes of God, for he died rebuking sin and speaking God’s truth. That reckless consistency of conviction, that fearless confession, unheeding of what may happen to one’s own life or livelihood, is part and parcel of bearing the cross. Without sin being rebuked, how will anyone know or care that they are wrong? How will they be moved to search anxiously for a solution, for a Savior, if they don’t know they’ve done wrong, or they’re accustomed to silencing or placating their conscience? How will they find peace and salvation, if they don’t encounter the Word from us that gives life?

More importantly — how will a sinner be saved if God’s Word is never brought to bear on his or her heart? Maybe the person we’re rebuking or correcting will hear and take it to heart; maybe they won’t. But whatever happens after we confess and proclaim God’s Word is His business, not ours. He doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Let me repeat that again, loud and clear, so you can hear it over our “leadership”-saturated, overly pragmatic, manager culture: God doesn’t ask us for results. He asks us to be faithful. Once you grasp the difference, John the Baptist’s death becomes more glorious, a death full of honor. We could all use a dose of John the Baptist’s don’t-give-a-hoot, unfailingly upfront confession of God’s Word. Speak God’s Word the way John the Baptist did — with a bracing, straightedge moxie, but also never without love for the other person. Regardless of the consequences. Never backing down from God’s truth. It scares the enemies of the gospel and it encourages the fainthearted, and it glorifies the Lord, to whom be all power, glory, honor, and strength, for ever and ever. Amen.

Preached at the nursing home in Morgan, MN, for the feast of the Beheading of St. John the Baptist, 2014.

 But when Herod heard thereof, he said, It is John, whom I beheaded: he is risen from the dead.

17 For Herod himself had sent forth and laid hold upon John, and bound him in prison for Herodias’ sake, his brother Philip’s wife: for he had married her.

18 For John had said unto Herod, It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife.

19 Therefore Herodias had a quarrel against him, and would have killed him; but she could not:

20 For Herod feared John, knowing that he was a just man and an holy, and observed him; and when he heard him, he did many things, and heard him gladly.

21 And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee;

22 And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee.

23 And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom.

24 And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.

25 And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist.

26 And the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath’s sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her.

27 And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison,

28 And brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.

29 And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.

– St. Mark 6:16-29

An answer, any answer

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It may seem paradoxical to the reason of the flesh to pray for an answer to prayer, to pray, “God, please give me an answer, any answer” — but pious Christian hearts understand that request very well. Sometimes all that is needed is an answer, any answer, from the Lord — for then we know that He hears us, which is the most wonderful comfort and consolation, and we are content, knowing that whatever He sends will be good.

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Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.

– Jesus (in St. Mark 11:24)

Loud chaff and powerful Word

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How long shall this be in the heart of the prophets that prophesy lies? yea, they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart… The prophet that hath a dream, let him tell a dream; and he that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord.

– Jeremiah 23:26,28

Here, the Lord through Jeremiah reminds us that we aren’t meant to shut up or silence the unbelieving world. Don’t think that it’s your job to silence everyone who’s wrong. It won’t work anyway. There are too many who reject His Word, and they shout, scream, and yammer too loudly for us to drown them out on their own. “Let him tell his dream,” the Lord says.

But you — since you have His Word, you proclaim it as hard as you can, as often as you can, as far and wide as you can. Broadcast it, make it known, declare it at the top of your voice, with all the life and energy He gives you — as if souls depend on that Word. Because they do. You, child of God, have been given the precious, nourishing Word that lives and gives life. Proclaim it with every ounce of strength in your body, to your last breath.

Special thanks to my brothers in the Summer Hebrew Institute, among whom I was given this insight.

 

A few thoughts on the Rich Man & Poor Lazarus (St. Luke 16:19-31)

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Lazarus is known by name to the Lord, for he was called to faith by the Lord (cf. Isa 43:1). The Lord knew him and cared for him, even when those around him didn’t. The rich man’s situation in eternity, by contrast, is the reverse of his life on earth: on earth everyone knew who he was, but in eternity in hell, he is unknown — “Depart from Me, I never knew you,” the Lord will say to those on His left on the Last Day. The rich man’s name was not written in the book of life, and consequently he is namelessly condemned for his refusal to believe the word of Moses and the prophets.

What our fathers have taught us

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Or, “my other white shirt is a dress shirt with short sleeves.”

My father is an electrical engineer. He’s quite competent at his job — been doing it for a long time. I can recall conversations I had with him, when I was in high school and younger, where we’d get talking and he would start explaining things about electricity and his job to me. I didn’t get all of it. In fact, I can recall at least a few times where it went clean over my head. This doesn’t mean that I didn’t appreciate what he was trying to tell me, or that I wasn’t glad he took the time to sit and talk with me; it’s just that I wasn’t ready at that time to absorb all of it, or even some of it. Dad, if you’re reading this, thank you for wanting to tell me. A lot of it makes more sense now. Sometimes just sitting and talking can be good, even if a person doesn’t get everything out of it he could.

The reason I thought of this was an occasion where I did the same thing the other day, with one of my own offspring. We were all hanging out on my day off; I was cleaning the kitchen, the girls were coloring or looking at books, the baby was sleeping, Christi was doing something — we were all just kind of around and quiet. I’d put on Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, which is a great album, and I stopped to ask Adah if she liked it. She said yeah, and then said she’d heard him mention snow. I said, “Yes, the singer did; in fact, Justin Vernon, that’s his name, he moved into a log cabin in northern Wisconsin and spent all winter by himself, writing songs, and this is what he came up with. Pretty neat, huh?” Then I left off my happy tirade to draw breath, and realized Adah had gone back to her coloring about a minute and a half ago. It was then that I realized I had done it, too: I’d dumped a bucket of facts over her head when all that was really needed was a cup of conversation. My topic was music, but the outcome was the same. It made me shake my head at myself, and maybe feel a little embarrassment. (Some refer to that urge to over-explain as ‘mansplaining’…you can see how they’d coin such a word.)

Such moments are not without their redeeming value, however. They teach us that knowledge has value, even knowledge we don’t need right this second, even knowledge we don’t grasp at the time. Such moments teach us that even if we fall short of assimilating what we’re told today, in the future we might need that information, and at that time we’ll remember and be helped — because someone took the time to tell us something that happened to be beyond our grasp back then.

Thomas saith unto Him, Lord, we know not whither Thou goest; and how can we know the way?

– St. John 14:5

Apply this to Christian doctrine, and you re-discover a comforting truth. Every year, at least a few times during catechism instruction, I’m tempted to yank my hair out in despair and dejection, just at the sheer amount of doctrine our children need to know, even to grasp the most elementary basics. I’m not talking seminary-level instruction here — it’s the Small Catechism, folks. Seems pretty simple, right? Wrong. There’s always so much to teach, so much to learn, even out of the Small Catechism, and so little time, and I often tell my students that. At such times I am consoled that even if they don’t understand now, they may one day. The Spirit will keep the Son’s promise by calling to mind everything He said to us in the days of His flesh on earth (John 14:26). He would teach and instruct Jesus’ followers, and through that ongoing teaching they would be guided by God in their daily lives. Even if they don’t get it all right now, even if their attention is less than rapt some days, they are still hearing the Word which is powerful. That Word can and does routinely work miracles, so much so that we scarcely notice sometimes. Understanding, logical comprehension, is not required in all parts — but faith is. A living and active trust in Christ as your own Savior, the Lamb of God given for you, teaches far more than any voluminous set of facts ever could. Even if your children don’t grasp everything right now, don’t worry — they have time to grow. They will find out the value of what they have been taught, if they do not stray from it.

I’m glad my father explained things to me I still don’t understand. It shows love, and a care that estimates that one day such things may be useful. Never worry about stretching someone, giving them more than you think they can handle on occasion — give them a chance, and they just may surprise and shock you. Even if they don’t understand it all right away.

Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: Which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us.We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the Lord, and His strength, and His wonderful works that He hath done.For He established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children:That the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children:That they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments…

– Psalm 78:1-7

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Trinity: Isaiah 6:1-8

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In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly.And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory.And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar:And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.Also I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I; send me.

– Isaiah 6:1-8

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to see God? What would that sight be like? There was a song on the radio a few years ago called “I Can Only Imagine” that was based on that idea. It talked about all the different reactions a believer might have when face to face with God. It was a pretty good song. We have some descriptions in the Bible from those who were fortunate enough to be given visions of God or to get to see Him – Moses, Ezekiel, the apostle John, among others – but even what they’ve left for us hardly seems to help us understand, as we’ll see in a moment.

Today it’s Isaiah who gets to see into the throne room of heaven, and it is impressive. He saw the Lord, high and exalted, sitting on His throne, with the train of His robe filling the temple. He saw seraphs, angels, flying around Him, worshipping Him, singing His praises. They sing a majestic hymn – “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God almighty! The whole earth is full of His glory!” No wonder we still sing their song as part of our Communion liturgy, right before the Words of Institution. We’re in the Triune God’s presence then, just as Isaiah was. That threefold holy is a subtle but unmistakable teaching of the Trinity. God is three persons in one God, that’s why the seraphim sing what they do. Their praises are so loud that the ground underneath the temple is shaking. It’s a supernaturally strong, powerful shaking that seems to go right down to the earth’s core. The smoke that always hid God’s glory fills the temple, and Isaiah can’t even see the Lord.

So how does Isaiah react to this vision? Does he stand up, lift up his hands, and burst into a praise song? Does he start singing joyfully about how he just wants to praise God, He is worthy, He is holy, He is mighty, He is powerful, all those sorts of things? Does Isaiah close his eyes and wave his hands in the air? Hardly. He cries out, “Woe is me! I’m about to die! I’ve said many things I never should have about God, I’ve blasphemed His holy name, and the people that I live among have blasphemed Him too, and now I’m looking at Him as He sits on His throne! I’m sinful and deserve to die! I’m not going to survive this!” Isaiah is abjectly terrified because of his sin. He instantly realizes what sin is: a personal offense against the mightiest being in all creation, the Holy One of Israel. That’s who he has offended. That’s who he deserves to be punished by.

Do we have that same consciousness of sin? Do we perceive that our sins stink in the nostrils of the Almighty God and we deserve nothing but eternal death and punishment from Him? Are we sorry for our sins? Or do we deny that we even have sin – do we excuse it or even defend it? Would we react that way if we saw what Isaiah saw?

We don’t always think about God in that way. All of God’s attributes really are one, because God is one. He has no parts. We’re used to piecing and parceling out His various attributes – His love, His mercy, His holiness, and so on – and only thinking about a few of them or one of them at a time, but that’s not what God’s attributes are like in action, when you see Him in person. The thing about true holiness – the real deal, the genuine article, not the counterfeit kind we’re fond of – is that it burns. It destroys everything that isn’t as holy as itself, unless the Holy One actively wills it not to be so.

We have an example of this in the book of 2 Chronicles, chapter 26. King Uzziah was a godly king – in fact, it says, “As long as he sought the Lord, God gave him success” (v.5). But he became unfaithful. He thought that he should be able to offer incense at the altar, just like the priests did, even though God had not called him to do that. God had called him to be a king, but not a priest. Uzziah’s pride and arrogance led him to trespass into God’s presence. He attempted to offer incense at the altar in the temple, and the priests, the sons of Aaron, attempted to dissuade him. He became angry at them, and as he shouted at them, leprosy broke out on his forehead and quickly spread over all his skin. Appalled, he rushed out of the house of the Lord and never set foot in it ever again. King Uzziah found out the hard way that God’s holiness is not to be taken lightly.

We have each received what Isaiah did. The word of absolution – Jesus’ personal guarantee through His minister that your sins are forgiven – is the burning coal that touches our filthy mouths. It burns away the impurity of our lips. Its heat sears our foul, corrupt lips and burns away everything wrong, everything false, everything untrue to Him. We all need to have our lips touched by the coal – to have the sins of our mouths atoned for. “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of [us.]” Our mouths do not always sound like the mouths of Christians. “Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be.” Our lips are not worthy to speak of the wonders of God, and yet – oh wonder of wonders! – He forgives us! He atoned for the sins of our lips, because “never man spoke like this Man did.” Jesus always spoke faithfully about God. He proclaimed God’s kingdom unflinchingly – warmly, honestly, and directly, at times almost adversarial, yet never without love.

Now He has sent His ministers into all the world to proclaim forgiveness for these sins of the tongue – this lying, cursing, anger, dishonesty, the violence of our words and our hearts – and that forgiveness comes through the holy absolution. The announcement of Jesus’ forgiveness to the sinner is the loosing key that takes away your sins. It is the glowing coal that touches your lips and purifies them, even as it stings and sears. It’s painful and scorching to hear from God’s Word that you’re a sinner, but that same Word has a healing and a purifying heat. God’s law condemns our sins and it condemns us. It stings and burns as it sounds the death sentence over us, but His gospel also burns away the uncleanness and the impurity. It burns away all the guilt, the liability to punishment that we inherited and that we exercise every day. It leaves us with holy burns, the scars where our sin was. We are forgiven and healed. Nothing is hidden from its heat, because nothing has been left undone by Christ. He leaves no sin unsearched for or unforgiven in your heart by His Word. All is right now between you and God again, and we can call on Him as our heavenly Father once more.

Once I got poked in the eye playing basketball. It hurt a little at first, but later that day it really started to hurt. I went to the eye doctor, who took one look at my eye and pronounced it infected. He gave me some drops to put in it a few times per day. Those drops burned and stung my infected eye like nobody’s business! But it was a glad stinging and burning, because I could tell the eye drops were getting rid of the infection. I felt a rush of relief every time those eye drops began to sting and burn in my eye, because I knew it was a sign they were working and my eye was healing. So it is with God’s Word. Its message of law burns and stings when it’s applied to us. Nobody ever wants to hear exactly how they’ve sinned. Yet that harsh stinging message of law is part of the cure for sin when it’s followed by the gospel, which cleanses and absolves and heals us. The stinging law and the healing gospel are God’s way of bringing sinners back – of restoring them for service to the Triune God. Or think of it this way: Imagine taking a charcoal briquette that’s glowing cherry red out of your grill, and then holding that on your lips, which are among the most sensitive parts of your body. Ouch. That would not be pleasant, but for Isaiah here, and for us, it’s very necessary.

Isaiah doesn’t see the Lord’s form even then. He only hears a voice. This is consistent with Scripture’s teaching that no one has seen God in His open glory here on earth. (Even Moses only got to see God’s back.) If you want to see God walking on earth, look at Jesus Christ. The full vision of God’s glory is reserved for heaven, where “we will see Him as He is.”

This voice, this speaking of God, which Isaiah heard directly and which we hear through His Word, asks, “Whom will I send? And who will go for Us?” This is again a subtle but unmistakable teaching of the Trinity. These verses testify that there is more than one person in the one true God.

Note that God doesn’t order Isaiah to go. He doesn’t put on a frowny face as He sits on His sapphire throne and command the prophet, “Go, get going! People are dying everywhere, and you have the saving message! Only you can prevent people from heedlessly running into hell, and if they do go there it’s your fault! Time is wasting, move it! You don’t want to be the reason someone isn’t saved – do you??” The Father never speaks that way. People do, synods do, but never the Triune God. That’s not His way.

Instead, the Triune God looks at His redeemed, His chosen, His saved, His very own – you and me! along with Isaiah – and He asks for volunteers. He does this because He knows that His troops will be willing on the day of battle, as Psalm 110 teaches. God doesn’t have to force us, because we want to serve Him. We all cry out joyfully, “Pick me, Lord! Pick me! Here am I – send me!”

The Triune God needs bold confessors in a fallen world, especially in these grey and latter days, where literally anything goes and the only sin is to say that you have the truth and someone else might not. St. Anthony of Egypt, an early Christian teacher, once observed, “The time is coming when people will be insane, and when they see someone who is not insane, they will attack that person, saying: You are insane, because you are not like us.” That time is coming, and has now come. The world is sickeningly comfortable with a multiplicity of truths, a myriad of gods, a plethora of things to worship and serve – but never the true God. The Triune God is the only thing they can’t abide. His messengers and His Word are the one thing they can’t leave alone. They feel driven to lash out at the Trinity, to thumb their noses at Him, to flaunt their unbelief and to attack Him – yet He is the one thing they need. They can’t survive eternally without Him.
It will not be easy, pleasant, welcome, or always fun to witness to the Triune God. But it will be pleasing to Him, the Lord of heaven and earth who has sent us, and it will be saving for a few who will hear and believe – that’s His promise, and it’s far better than being liked or admired.

Look at Isaiah’s own ministry. The Lord commissions him in this grand and glorious vision, then He sends Isaiah to go and tell His people, “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving. Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Isaiah asks, “How long, Lord?” And the Lord answers, “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the Lord has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remain in the land, it will again be laid waste.” The Lord basically calls Isaiah to a mission that, by human standards, is destined to fail! Yet the Lord does not take back His promise of a Savior: “But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy Seed will be the stump in the land.” That same Savior is who we proclaim to an indifferent and hostile world, and He is the one who will take us to be with Him forever in the endless joys of heaven.

So speak up. Testify to the true God, the Triune God – who He is, what He says about sin and judgment and forgiveness. Speak of what you have seen and heard in the throne room of God Almighty. Rebuke sin openly, frankly, and without fear when it crosses your path – because it will, and heaven knows there’s enough of it these days. Endure opposition from sinful men and always hold fast to the truths of God, because this is what saves us and our hearers. Remember what you’ve witnessed in the throne room of the Triune God. His burning coal has touched your lips. Do not be afraid to speak all that He tells you. Amen.

Happiness isn’t the truth. Jesus is

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The new national anthem of the moment is “Happy”, by Pharrell Williams. Just saying the name of the song probably has made it march relentlessly across your cerebral cortex (and it will keep going for the rest of the night, I assure you), but for those of you living under a rock (presumably one without WiFi, because you’re reading this) here’s the song again:

Overall, it’s not a bad song. What’s not to like about a song about being happy? I’m glad for a song and a music video I can play in front of my kids. The simplistic, repetitive nature of the music might wear on some people faster than others (I’m done after hearing it about 4 times — and I’ve heard it many more times than that), but a lot of people like it a lot. I know for a fact many people start every day, at least for the foreseeable future, listening to this song in the car on the way to work or school, or while getting ready. It’s catchy, it’s positive, it’s fun.

So what’s the problem?

My beef with this song is the line, “Clap your hands if you feel that happiness is the truth”. One line out of one song, but that line just gets under my skin like glass splinters. In a single sentence, Pharrell has managed to capture a huge part of what’s wrong with America today, wrong with the Church today — wrong with us today.

Too often we think happiness is the truth — that if something makes me happy, it must be right, true, and good. We act and live as if our own personal happiness, at every single moment, is the most vital and pressing thing for the people around us, not just ourselves. And woe betide the poor soul that stands in the way of our happiness! Better for that chump if he had never been born! We make that person pay, because if we can’t be happy, then by golly nobody can! My rights are being abused! Isn’t that in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights or the Declaration of Independence, or something — that I’m guaranteed happiness?

Pause for a moment and contemplate the wreckage that an idea such as “happiness is the truth” leaves in its wake. Broken homes. Addictions. Shattered relationships. Wasted money, time, energy, and emotional capital. An endless, curved-in spiral of selfishness and solipsism that can’t see past the end of its sinful nose, with no way out possible or in sight. Even — the biggest, saddest irony — a life of perpetual unhappiness.

Let me introduce you to the truth: Jesus Christ. He Himself says, “I am the way, the Truth, and the life”. He is the true God, and there is no lie in Him. When He promises that you will die in your sins if you do not repent — your self-engendered, self-centered, self-serving sins — He means it. You don’t need to wonder, because He cannot lie. When He says, “Whoever believes in Me has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the Last Day,” you don’t need to doubt Him, to double-check Him (although He certainly invites it! See how patient He is with all people, in His Word!), to debate and dither if He’ll come through. He will. Who else can tell us about heaven, but the One who came down from heaven? Who else can assure us that death one day will die, except the One who defeated death and hell for us? Who else can promise that our guilt and shame truly are gone — and have it become true! — except the Lamb of God, whose blood pays for the sins of the world? Recall Pontius Pilate’s overly casual attempt at an offhand question, “What is truth?” It shows both his inner disquiet at the situation on Good Friday and his profound ignorance. Truth stood right before his eyes, wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe…for those with eyes to see.

You know how you can be sure — absolutely sure, 110%, rock-bottom, iron-clad sure, that Jesus is the Truth? He rose from the dead. Just like He said He would. He told the truth, and He always tells the truth. He is the Truth — the ultimate ground for all reality. “In Him we live and move and have our being.” He sustains all things with His powerful Word, the Word of truth, and that same Word forgives our sins, drives out doubt, kindles faith, and delivers us to eternal life, where sin will be gone, the lies of the devil will cease and melt away, and the truth of all God has done for us will be seen with crystal clarity for all eternity.

How’s that for the truth? Ephemeral ditties have nothing on eternal verities. Do yourself a favor — do something eternity-changing. Pick up His Word of truth. Open it. Read it. Believe what it tells you, because He is the Truth.

Sanctify us by the truth; Your Word is Truth. Amen.

The fulfillment of prophecy on Golgotha: a sermon for Good Friday, 18 Apr 2014

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(Sermon on St John 19:17-30, broadcast on the Lutheran Chapel Service and delivered at Zion Lutheran Church, Morgan, MN, 18 Apr 14)

Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha). 18 Here they crucified him, and with him two others—one on each side and Jesus in the middle.

19 Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. 21 The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, “Do not write ‘The King of the Jews,’ but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.”

22 Pilate answered, “What I have written, I have written.”

23 When the soldiers crucified Jesus, they took his clothes, dividing them into four shares, one for each of them, with the undergarment remaining. This garment was seamless, woven in one piece from top to bottom.

24 “Let’s not tear it,” they said to one another. “Let’s decide by lot who will get it.”

This happened that the scripture might be fulfilled which said,

“They divided my garments among them

and cast lots for my clothing.”

So this is what the soldiers did.

25 Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus saw his mother there, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son,” 27 and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, this disciple took her into his home.

28 Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

 

nt_uses_otIf we were so inclined, we could go through our Lord’s Passion with our Old Testaments open, and find a prophecy, whether in words or in actions, for literally each and every last detail. Everything Jesus said, did, saw, or felt, everything He experienced or went through, was foretold in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms. We will see that again today as we turn our hearts to St. John chapter 19, and ponder again everything Jesus went through for our sakes, and how completely and perfectly it was all foretold, for the assurance of our faith and our comfort and strengthening.

Our text begins with Jesus carrying His own cross to the place of His execution. Here, as He is hoisted on the shameful deadly cross, He fulfills His own word, from St. John 12:32, that “I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to Myself.” He also fulfills the shadow cast by the bronze serpent on the pole, that Moses lifted up in the wilderness. Recall the story from Numbers 21 – whoever was bitten and looked to the bronze snake, lived. We look to Christ, hanging there on the cross for us, and we live. He is crucified between two others, malefactors or criminals, St. Luke calls them. This fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in 53:12 of his book, that, “He was numbered with the transgressors.” Jesus is on that middle cross because it should have been your cross. He’s dying the slow, agonizing death you should have died. He took on Himself the unimaginable agony of experiencing death forever in hell, so that you never would. How great is the love of our God!

Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross, which proclaimed Jesus to be the King of the Jews. St. John notes that many of the Jews read this sign. This is yet another testimony that Jesus is the Son of God and the only Savior. He is the eternal King that the Jews were expecting, based on Psalm 72, Psalm 45, Psalm 89, Psalm 8, to name just a few instances from only one book, the book of Psalms. Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Micah, to pick just a few names almost at random, also tell of what this King would be – and here He is. The sign over Christ’s head proclaims the truth: this Man hanging on the cross is the eternal King and Deliverer that they had been promised – yet His suffering and death don’t look very glorious or powerful at all. In this, and in the Jews’ reaction to Christ, there is a warning for us. Let us not turn away from the sufferings of Christ, nor think that He is altogether too insignificant or unpowerful of a Savior. Whether from boredom or despair, let no one think that this Jesus of Nazareth is lacking in any way as God’s appointed Deliverer. Pilate’s sign, which he wrote mainly to get back at the Jews and irritate them after they railroaded him into killing Christ, still stands true. This Jesus of Nazareth is the King of the Jews, for not all who are Israel according to the flesh, are Israel. God’s people now are those who trust in His Son.

The Roman soldiers passing the time below Jesus’ cross also fulfill a prophecy. They amuse themselves by throwing dice for Jesus’ clothing. The Romans customarily used knuckle bones from butchered animals as dice, or as counters in gambling, but throwing dice is the modern equivalent. Imagine being a condemned criminal crucified on a cross, looking down and seeing the soldiers who hung you there dividing up your clothing as if you’re already dead. Few things could bring home with more finality the irreducible fact that you’re going to die now. You won’t be needing those any more. The soldiers viewed this as part of their pay, one of the perks of boring duty, but there’s far more than that going on here. St. John explicitly draws our attention to Psalm 22, which says that, “They divided My garments among them and cast lots for My clothing.” With each throw of the dice, the Roman soldiers are unwittingly fulfilling prophecy. In fact, this – not any other reason, not their own profit or amusement, not the custom of the time – is the real reason they gamble for His clothes: because the Word of God said that they would. Therefore we see how God’s Word creates reality. It determines the course of history and guides events, even so small as four soldiers playing dice for Jesus’ clothing. God’s Word never fails. Its promises and its prophecies are always true, and will always be true to all eternity. Not one of them has ever fallen to the ground, so that you can be sure your sins are forgiven and heaven truly is yours when you leave this world.

The seamless garment that Christ wore reminds us of the garment of His righteousness that by faith in Him we all wear. All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus have put on Christ, St. Paul says, and thus we are clothed not just in Jesus’ garment, but in Jesus Himself as our righteousness before God. There is no seams in it because it was woven all of a piece by Christ – He made it complete and perfect all on His own. His garment of perfect holiness becomes the white robe of righteousness we wear in heaven before the Father’s throne. This is the garment dipped in blood worn by the One who treads the winepress of God’s wrath alone, in Isaiah 63. It’s His own blood, because the shedding of His blood was the result of the wrath of God, and also of His mercy. God did not want us sinners to die, so He provided the means for us to be free of our sin – by trusting in the blood of His only Son, shed for us. That painful scene, that gory yet very welcome sight, is what holds our eyes and our hearts this Good Friday.

After He commends His blessed Mother to St. John’s keeping – an event which shows His love and mercy, which misses no one, not even the most forgotten and overlooked – our Gospel says, “Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I thirst.” This was in fulfillment of Psalm 69, in which Christ says through the mouth of David that He will be given gall and vinegar for His thirst, which parches His throat, and also Psalm 22, which describes Christ’s tongue sticking to the roof of His mouth from thirst – an eerie level of detail, and one that can only be accounted for by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Once again, we see that not even one of His words falls to the ground unfulfilled. Every last detail is completed, so that you don’t have to wonder, “Was Jesus really the Christ? Did He really do everything necessary for me to be forgiven?” The answer is yes!

Earlier, in the upper room with His disciples shortly after the Last Supper, where Christ instituted His blessed Sacrament to nourish His people until His return, Jesus had promised very strongly that He would not partake of the “fruit of the vine”, that is, wine, until He drank it anew with His disciples in heaven – which includes us. Here we see Him keeping His word, even in such a seemingly small matter as this. Jesus accepts the wine vinegar, which is made from wine but is not the same product. This small sip is enough to wet His lips and moisten His mouth, so He can cry out, “It is finished!”

This phrase – one word in the original Greek – was scrawled by merchants at the bottom of their bills: “Paid in Full.” No better description of Jesus’ atonement can be given than that. All sin has been paid in full – those sins for which your conscience torments you, as well as those of which you are scarcely aware, and those which you may even, heaven forbid, be indifferent to or over which you shrug. All sin of all people of all time was loaded onto Christ, and He bore the punishment for us all. Because of Him your sins are gone. You do not need to give God anything else; in fact, anything you try and give God on your own, apart from faith, will only serve to undercut that great gift. Let the great gift be what it is: nothing less than the complete blood-price for your sins, fully and freely given. Your sin was so great that it took nothing less than the death of God’s Son to atone for it, but the death of the God-man is infinitely great and precious in God’s sight, so that your sins truly are paid for. It is for this reason that Christ took on human flesh, and God became man. It is for this reason that He gasped and cried out and died. It is for this reason that He was anointed with the Spirit, which He then handed back in the moment of His death, only to send Him afresh into our hearts and renew the face of the earth. God has forgiven the offense of all the earth in a single day. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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True grit

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I’ve recently started playing pickup basketball again, and I’m remembering a lot of things I hadn’t know I had forgotten. One of them is the joys of defense. I would almost rather play defense than offense. I’ve always been that way, from when I first learned the game in grade school, through rec league basketball in high school (aka “church ball”, from where we drew our team members), and up till now.

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Not me (I usually have my back to the basket).

Defense doesn’t require any particular talent, unlike offense. All it requires is hard work and a readiness to sweat. The willingness to get physical, push and shove, bang, and generally run into people doesn’t hurt either. That hard-nosed, collide, mix-it-up, defend the basket aspect of the game appeals to me. I also like that there’s no breaks on defense — if you take a break, you usually get burned and your man scores on you. It’s a high level of effort, all the time, with occasional spurts of flat-out exertion. Part of me craves that chance to work hard.

In high school I played football, among other things I did. My position was lineman. This was due in part to my frame and heredity — bigger and not so fleet of foot as some (go figure) — but also due to what the position was like. As one coach I had described it, being a lineman is an every-down proposition. Linemen do not get snaps off, unless they’re on the bench. Every time, you have to be ready to blow out of your stance and hit the other guy — hard. And be ready to do that for as long as you’re in. It’s facemask-length, brute strength, mano a mano combat. Even if you win this down, you might not win the next — so you have to be ready every time. There’s no breaks. Crunch, crunch, crunch…repeat, for as long as you’re on the field. The idea of toiling away in the trenches made a lot of sense to me, so I gladly took up the challenges of the position. I like a good slog, I guess.

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Also not me…I was usually closer to, um, the sideline. Because I was often on it. (Still enjoyed football.)

So now it’s Lent, and maybe like me you’re finding Lent a bit of a slog at times. Part of the reason for this is that we were blessed with a baby boy in January (hi, Mark! Keep sleeping soundly! Daddy loves you!), and I could use a nap. Part of that is the fact that I am preaching my own midweek Lenten sermon series. I say this not to brag; it just is. Every pastor must figure out what works for him and his congregation in the area that they’re in, and this is what works best for me. To preach it any other way, whether using canned sermons or as part of a rotation with other area pastors, would almost be more work for me. It would be a different kind of slog — perhaps a less interesting one, more of a tiresome chore than the hard but interesting work that is preaching the Word. Every time I get to preach, I love it, but you understand how the flesh turns a duty that delights into a drag. I wasn’t interested in going down that road, so I do my own Lenten series.

ImageBut that’s not why Lent feels like a slog to me. It’s for a far more basic reason, one that any Christian — pastor or layperson — can appreciate. Every week I am confronted with my own weaknesses, my own sins of choice and convenience, as we ponder our Lord’s Passion in worship. Every week I have held up before me the results of my sin — you see Him, don’t you? See Him dying on the tree? That was for me. And you. That’s a hard fact to swallow at times, especially when it’s so inescapable, because we all like to pretend we’re good people — and the cross of Christ punctures that fond illusion of ourselves as good, moral people with emphatic finality. No, you’re not good. Neither am I. If we were, we wouldn’t be gathered at the foot of His cross, watching Him die in our place.
Lent can be a long slog for another reason. Contrition, repentance, sorrow over sin can seem tiresome after a while. It can seem like something you have to gin up in yourself before God will forgive you and love you — and frankly, we don’t care to go through all that effort. When we forget that true repentance is worked by God’s Word on us, just as faith is, then repentance becomes a chore — and not a particularly appetizing one.
Yet every year we take up the slog of Lent once again. Even if we don’t feel like it, we take up the Ten Commandments, or a passage from God’s Word, and we begin to probe our discontented hearts — listlessly at first, and then with real alarm and turning away from sin as the Word does its work. It always does. It always opens, lays bare our sin in all its malignant wretchedness — but it also shows us our Savior, the Savior who not only died for us, but did not stay dead. Instead, He rose back to life to grant us life and joy forever. Now we are in Holy Week, and the time of our rejoicing draws ever nearer…but first we have to slog the wrenching pathway through upper room, garden, judgment hall; Golgotha, and finally tomb — but not to remain there. He makes the journey sweet. He makes the slog a valuable one, as God’s work is done in us. May Jesus grant you a blessed Holy Week, friends.

 

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