Love the Truth, Disregard the Consequences: Sermon for the Nativity of St. John the Baptizer, 24 June 18

 

57 When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. 58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.

59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise   the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, 60 but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”

61 They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”

62 Then they made signs   to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. 63 He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak,   praising God. 65 The neighbors were all filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea   people were talking about all these things. 66 Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.

— St. Luke 1:57-66

When families get together, they tell stories, and sometimes those stories come from the time before you can remember. On the day my brother was baptized, the wind chill was -30 below. The pastor, my family, and a few others were just about the only ones who made it to church that day. Only a few got to witness his rebirth through water and the Word. I don’t know that because I remember it. I was two when it happened. I know that story because my parents told me after I grew up.

John the Baptist would have heard such stories about himself as well. His birth had been announced by the angel Gabriel as his father, Zechariah, took his turn serving in the temple. Only a few people in Scripture have ever had their births announced by angels. Samson was one. Jesus was another – and that’s about it. That must have made for a great story as John was growing up.

His father’s being struck dumb for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy would have been another story John heard. Zechariah didn’t believe the Word of God through the angel at first. He asked, “How can this be?” and to teach him not to doubt what God says, he lost the power of speech until John was born. Husbands, imagine not being able to talk for the entire nine months your wife is pregnant. You can decide for yourself whether that would be a good thing or not.

John would have also heard about the story recorded in our Gospel for today. Zechariah had lost the ability to talk before John was born, but it didn’t stay lost. When it came time to name the child, their relatives wanted to do what was customary – name the child after his father. Elizabeth insisted, “No, his name is John!” This was what the angel said his name should be, so that‘s what they were going to do. They turn to Zechariah and start to motion to ask him what he thinks, and he makes writing motions with his hand so they give him a writing tablet. They watch as he scratches out on the tablet, “His name is John,” then to their astonishment, he opens his mouth and words start coming out! This man whom everyone assumed would never talk again is praising God at the top of his voice! That’s the sort of thing that makes people sit up and take notice! By this miracle God was signifying that this child would grow up to speak His Word as a prophet, that by his speaking he would lead many to righteousness, and that many would open their own mouths to confess the true faith – based on what John taught.

It was a miracle that Zechariah could talk again after nine months of silence. But there’s a miracle behind the miracle: that Zechariah finally believed the word spoken through the angel. It took nine months to accomplish, but Zechariah finally believed what he’d been told. His heart had accepted that God was right, that God could do anything, and that He was going to save His people – that every word of His is true. God had predicted through the angel that Zechariah would be unable to talk until John was born, and because God said it, it came true, because everything God says comes true. That’s just the way it is – things happen, promises are kept, deliverance comes, because God says so.

God had said that Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to have a son, even though she was barren and they were well past the point where that was a possibility – and bingo! It came to pass, even though Zechariah had doubted. His doubts didn’t stop God – because God said it and that was how it was going to be!

Zechariah’s inability to talk until John was born shows us something else, too: this child was going to be no ordinary man. This child was going to grow up and be the Elijah that was to come that was spoken of by the prophet Malachi. This child was going to go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah. He was going to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. He was going to prepare the people for the great and dreadful day of the Lord, when God became man and walked among His people. That was John’s life’s work, to prepare the way for the Messiah, and that’s what he did – because God said it and that’s the way it was.

Not even Zechariah and Elizabeth understood it fully at the time, but the question asked by all their friends and neighbors – “What then is this child going to be?” – was going to be answered in spectacular fashion. Jesus called John a “burning and a shining light,” and that’s exactly what John was. He grew up to be someone it was impossible to ignore. If he lived today, those who didn’t like him or who lacked faith would call him ‘polarizing.’ This boy, John, was going to grow up to be someone who would look the rich, the powerful, and the influential right in the eye – didn’t matter who it was – and tell them like it is. He was going to tell them, “This is what the Lord says,” because God said so and that was that. Even if it was someone like King Herod, who was one of history’s greatest builders and who ordered the murders of dozens of people at the drop of a hat, sometimes before breakfast – even if it was someone like King Herod, John would still look them in the eye and say, “What you’re doing is not right. No, you cannot steal your brother’s wife. Repent!” He’d look the Pharisees in the eye, the rich, arrogant religious elite of his day, and tell them, “Repent, you brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” These were the people that everybody else kowtowed to, and John was not afraid to poke them in the eye with God’s law – because God said it and that’s the way it is, even if they didn’t like it.

John also grew up to preach Christ just as uncompromisingly. The Lord through the prophet Isaiah spoke beforehand about John the Baptist: “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” That was what John preached. John was the voice calling in the wilderness who revealed the glory of the Lord. To those with ears to hear and hearts to repent, His message was simple: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Him, not me! He is your forgiveness, your mercy, your surety before God! Look to Him for forgiveness and grace, and you will never be put to shame! There comes One after me, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. I’m not even worthy to scrape the mud off His boots – yet here He is, knocking at the door, coming as a lowly, humble carpenter’s son. He will not turn you away. He accepts you just as you are – a sinner, yes, warts and all – so put your trust in the One whom God has sent, His only Son, and produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Turn your heart to Him and clean up your life, and you will be saved – because God says so, His only Son says so, He came to make it so, and that’s the way it is!”

That message that this baby boy, John, would grow up to preach is why we celebrate this day. That message still applies to us, because John’s message wasn’t about John, it was about Christ, and it’s for you. That message about Christ makes you bold enough to speak up when you should, because it’s God’s message, and it’s saving. Even though you don’t have the same office and calling as John did, you can still trust in that message and live it like John did. Like he did, you can look people in the eye and say what God says, because God says it and that’s the way it is. How else will the people around you know what God says, if not through you?

You aren’t called to save them or to fix their lives or make them better – those things are God’s business. But you are called to be faithful with the message He’s given you, just as John the Baptist was. There’s a world of difference between confessing your faith and trying to sell someone something spiritual or trying to convert someone all on your own by arguing them logically into the kingdom of heaven. We don’t sell, we don’t argue, we don’t use trickery; we confess our faith boldly and live it uncompromisingly, and let God handle what happens after that. We look people in the eye and say, “This is what the Lord says.” May God make us all faithful confessors of His Word in the world. Amen.

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A Feast for the Faithful — a Sermon on Luke 14:16-24 (2nd Sunday after Trinity)

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Jesus replied: “A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. 17 At the time of the banquet he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘Come, for everything is now ready.’

18 “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, ‘I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.’

19 “Another said, ‘I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.’

20 “Still another said, ‘I just got married, so I can’t come.’

21 “The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’

22 “‘Sir,’ the servant said, ‘what you ordered has been done, but there is still room.’

23 “Then the master told his servant, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and compel them to come in, so that my house will be full. 24 I tell you, not one of those who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.’

–       St. Luke 14.16-24 (NIV)

 

In the Holy + Name of Jesus. Amen

applesauceWhen I was a child, on occasion, I would have to take some medicine. When you’re small, those pill can be awful big. Sometimes they can be dry on the outside and stick to the back of your throat and make you gag. It can be hard to take a pill like that. But my mother had a good trick for that. She’d take a spoonful of applesauce or if it was an especially bad pill, chocolate pudding, and she’d push the pill into the applesauce. Then I’d happily slurp up the applesauce and the pill would go down. Then I’d go away and feel better because the medicine would work. That was my mother’s way of dealing with a hard pill to swallow.

Today, Jesus gives us a hard pill to swallow, but there’s no applesauce with it. First of all, what Jesus says in this parable is something that sounds really wonderful. He says, “a certain man was preparing a banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet, he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, ‘come because everything is now ready.’” So here’s this big, beautiful party, free of charge and the invitation is at their doorstep. Now this would not have been the only time that these people had heard about the invitation because in the ancient world, they did not click ‘going’ to a facebook invite or check a box on a little card and drop it back in the mailbox. The way it worked in the ancient world is that you would be told in a week or two weeks or a month that there would be a party and you were invited so you could have it on your mental calendar. And then on the day of, the person who was giving the party would send their servants around to tell everyone the party was starting: ‘As soon as you get here, we’re going to eat. It’s time to have fun and celebrate together.’ So this would not have been the first time the people had heard this invitation.

That’s you and me. We’ve heard God’s invitation many times. How many Sundays are there in the life you’ve already lived? How many will you have in a lifetime? How many days? As many days as there are in your life, that’s how many times God has given you His invitation. And He continues to hold that invitation out to you every day: ‘Come be with me. Come celebrate. Come love me and be with me, for I want to be your God and I want you to be my people and I want to bless you, give you forgiveness. I want to give you grace and shower you with blessings” That’s God’s invitation.

But in this parable, how do people respond? Do they say, ‘oh! My goodness! The party’s today? OK. I will drop what I’m doing and go right away!” No. “But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said, I have just bought a field and i must go and see it. Please excuse me. Another said, I just bought 5 yoke of oxen and am on my way to try them out. Please excuse me. Still another said, I just got married, so I can’t come.” Really? Those are the best excuses these people can come up with? I just bought a field and I have to go look at it–if you buy land without looking at it, I have beachfront property in Arizona I’d sell you. I’ll give you a good deal. I promise. The second excuse, I’ve bought oxen and am on my way to try them out–that’s like saying I just bought a car and now I need to go sit in it and see if it turns on and see if it drives. No one would do that! The third excuse, I just got married so I can’t come, sounds a little more legitimate, but you’d be tempted to ask, then why aren’t you with your spouse right now?

Obviously, this party was not high on these people’s list and if it had been, they would have gone. This invitation simply did not matter to these people.

letter-mail-envelopeAnd this is something we need to watch out for ourselves. Because we have gotten the invitation many times. And yet all the reasons that we come up with for not taking God up on His invitation are excuses, aren’t they? They’re not even good excuses. What is possibly more important or precious than spending time with Jesus and hearing His Word? A dance competition? A volleyball tournament? A softball game? Family reunion? What’s more important than your Lord? And if you don’t like that, remember what we heard in our reading from Proverbs: “Whoever corrects mockers invites insults. Whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you. Rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will become wiser still. Teach the righteous and they will add to their learning.”

So if you look in your heart, and you realize that you have made excuses, as I have, as we all have–we’ve all found things that are more important or that we like better than God’s word–the important thing is how you react to that realization. Do you admit it and say yes, I have made excuses, but I don’t want to be that way in the future or will you get angry at the message?

The messenger’s job is simply to tell the message. That’s all he does. He shows up and says, hey! The party’s on! All is now ready! Come to the party! And the master gives him another job, after the people reject and push away and disdain the message. The next job is to go out and tell more people the message. It doesn’t matter what songs we sing. It doesn’t matter what musical styles we choose. Or how the pastor dresses or if you personally like the messenger. The only thing that makes a difference is the message–the invitation. Because I can’t save you. And you can’t save yourself.

The only Savior is Jesus Christ. Who gave His life for you. Who is a faithful and true witness. Who shed His blood for you. Even though you want to make excuses sometimes, He still stood in your place under the wrath of God. He never made excuses. He could’ve said–you know what, I’m God’s son. I don’t have to do this. You’re on your own–but He never did that. Jesus willingly took the sinner’s place and He paid for your punishment. That is the basis of the celebration! That Jesus gave Himself for you and not only that, but that He rose from the dead to prove your sins are forgiven. He was given over to death for our sins and He was raised to life because of our justification. Because you are right with God when you trust in His payment for your sins. That’s what it takes to throw this party–the death and resurrection of the Son of God. And He has accomplished it.

JESUS_billboard_image_4Now the message goes out to the whole earth, to all people, every day. It’s better than writing it in the sky or taking out a flashing billboard or ads on the internet where people see it on the sidebar as they scroll to see the ESPN scores or the weather. Instead, He sends people with the message. He sends pastors, teachers–He sends you. Yes, you Christian. He sends you with His word. With word of His pardon. The invitation goes out to all the Earth.

As we look at this, we see the first group of people who rejected it, who pushed it away the invitation and didn’t really feel like comings and made excuses instead are God’s Old Testament people, the Jews. And that is what they did. They chose other things instead. They didn’t value God’s Word, so they lost it. What does God do with His anger over their refusal to listen? “The owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant: go quickly into the streets and bring in the poor, the cripple, the blind, and the lame” He sends his invitation out to other people. He sends it to the kind of people who wouldn’t normally be invited to this party.

And that’s you and me, my Christian friends. We are the gentiles. The ones who were not God’s people originally, but God has sent His invitation to us and gathered us into His church and made us His own, so we belong to Him. And that invitation is why you and I are here today. Because somewhere along the line, someone came along and told our ancestors about Jesus the Christ and invited us to feast with Him forever. That is why we are here. That also means we need to pay attention to this invitation. Take it seriously. When people say that God will accept you even if you don’t’ go to church every single Sunday and that God loves you no matter what, sometimes people misuse those kind of statements.  They use it as a reason to neglect God’s word rather than to come to the celebration. You shouldn’t use God’s grace as a license to ignore His grace. That’s not why He gave it to us.

This invitation is so very precious and it’s worth so much. There’s nothing else that can replace it in the human heart. Nothing at all. It’s worth asking why is the master so insistent that people come and celebrate? Why doesn’t he just do what the rest of us do? Stick the leftovers in the fridge and eat on them for the next week? Why is he so insistent that everyone come to his party? Jesus gives us an answer to this in John 17 where He says: “So that they may have the full measure of my joy within them.” Think about that. That you would have the full measure of Jesus’ joy in your heart. The joy of the Son of God, perfect and complete and holy in every regard, The joy and delight He had with the Father and the Holy Spirit before time began and that they still have today. That comes to you and moves into your heart and fills your whole life because Jesus is your Savior and He did everything for you. And in His grace, He invites you to share His joy, every day.

See, this is what people who miss out on the invitation and ignore it don’t understand and they never find it out. Because the reason the master is so insistent that the invitation is sent out is people share in his joy. Because he loves them and wants to give them his grace. That invitation is true whether you believe it or not, whether you follow it or not, God’s grace is real and is there for all people. And that invitation goes out to the whole world.

Just this past week I was in New Ulm for our synod’s district convention. Pastors and teachers and lay people, about 500 of us, from MN, IA, MS, and a sliver of western WI got together to hear reports and updates on what our synod is doing. You would not believe the amount of mission work we are getting to do!

One of the biggest areas of our mission work right now is VietNam. It’s still a communist country, but they are tolerant of religion. And there is a Hmong pastor in our synod who is posting his sermons on the internet for anyone to find and read. A group of Vietnamese believers, about 100,000 of them, found his sermons online and they said, this is what we are looking for! Thank God He gave us this teaching. So they contacted our Hmong pastor and he has made mission trips over there and the next thing you know, the Vietnamese government is asking our synod to build a Christian training center in the city of Hanoi. The lady in charge of vetting and making sure the churches do what they’re supposed to do according to the rules for the country of Vietnam, told our synod leaders they like what we teach. When we look at the Bible, you teach what the Bible teaches. You are honest  and your teaching is having a good effect on our people. We want you to come and teach all these people in our country. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham–you may have heard of him–went to Vietnam recently and had a rally event, seeing the potential for mission work in their country and he asked the vietnamese government to build a training center, but they told him no. Yet they told our synod to come to spread God’s word. This is something that our synod was not looking for. In fact, we’re struggling to keep up with the opportunities. God’s word simply grows and brings people in and the invitation goes out. It’s spreading like wildfire.

What about here at St John’s? This is a pivotal and exciting time for our congregation. I don’t know if you know this, but we are starting lots of new events, opportunities for fellowship, teaching God’s word, new ways to reach out using our school, and over the internet and in person in our community. We have the life-giving invitation. We are starting new worship opportunity every Monday night with different music and atmosphere. This is not the time to harp or criticize or say, I would do it differently. This is the time for us to pull together because this invitation is so precious and so many people need to hear it. We are the way that news gets out to the whole earth. So today if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts, but instead turn to Him and listen and accept the Word that is planted in your, which gives you life. Because it does give you life; it gives you eternal life. And it makes us alive. Amen.

marriage feast lamb

 

Loving Ascension Day

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The Lord tells us, “What is exalted among men is an abomination with God” (Luke 16:15). The reverse is also true. Following the lead of our Lord, who praised the widow for giving her mite and yet excoriated the outwardly righteous Pharisees, the Christian Church has always been fascinated with things the world dismisses. At her best, she does not care for the things the world has to offer; sad to say, the visible Church is not always at her best. But generally it is true: the Church pays attention to and loves things the world would just as soon cast aside.

ascension2Take the feast of Ascension. To the unbeliever’s eye, Ascension is a non-event. Jesus flies up into heaven, His disciples no longer see Him, and they go away rejoicing? What kind of a celebration is that? And yet Christians rightly celebrate and cherish Ascension day, for this day signifies that Christ has taken His power and begun to reign. Having finished His hard service of winning our salvation, He sat down at the right hand of God. He does not stand as the Old Testament priests did, day after day, performing sacrifices that can never really take away sins. No! He has given the ultimate sacrifice, the sacrifice above all other sacrifices: Himself. With His holy, precious blood and His bitter sufferings and death, He has purchased humanity once more for God. All is completed. Nothing more remains to give to God. Jesus has paid it all! Having destroyed death’s power, “on Christ’s ascension I now build the hope of mine ascension,” as we sing in the hymn. He has gone before us, to show us where one day we will go, and how: through faith in His blood.

Our hope that we express through Jesus’ ascension is not only for the far-off future in heaven. It’s a right-now, every-day, day-in, day-out hope. We have a living reliance on Christ our perfect Savior, because He lives and longs to hear us pray. We can picture Him sitting at the Father’s right hand, bending down, just waiting for us to pray – intent only on us, that He might hear us when we call. Your prayers are never in vain! They accomplish far more than any earthly means. They give better protection than any AR-15 or police force. They provide far better than all the world’s stores of silver and gold. They are worth more than all the rich and powerful friends one could ever hope to have. Your Savior loves you and longs to hear you pray! That thought alone should move us to pray often.

Jesus also ascends into heaven to send us the Holy Spirit from heaven. He Himself tells us as much in John 16, from which a string of gospels for Eastertide are taken: ”But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (Jn 16:7,12,13). The Holy Spirit is our Helper – thus that word behind what some translations give as Advocate can be rendered. He helps us in whatever way we need help. He helps us with His sevenfold gifts. Above all, He helps us by strengthening our faith, without which we would be lost, both in this world and eternally. What a priceless gift!

Not for nothing did the Venerable Bede, a Christian monk and teacher in the 8th century, fill his great hymn on the Ascension “A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing” with alleluias – 42, if you’re scoring at home. When you consider all that Ascension signifies and gives us, that’s really the only word for it: Alleluia! Praise the risen and ascended Lord! Alleluia! Amen.

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Happy May Day!

springtime_flowers_by_infinityloopMay, glorious May! Was there ever a more welcome month of the year? January and February’s long, drawn-out winter is past, and April held the promise of spring — but alas, it proved only to be more of the same. More wind, more cold, more snow, and more gray skies. But now, May is here, and the sun shines, the warm breezes blow, and the earth grows green again.
The Christian hails the return of spring as evidence of our Lord’s faithfulness. Ever since Noah set foot off the ark on dry ground, God’s promise that “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, winter and summer, day and night will not cease” (Gen 8:22) has been kept. The Lord has decreed it to be so in His marvelous providence, and He has fully kept His promise, as indeed He has with all of His promises. We may grouse about the coming of winter or a rainy spring day, but it’s important to keep in mind that these are evidence of the Lord of creation’s faithfulness towards us, His creatures.
Springtime also puts the believer in mind of the Last Day. Our Lord Jesus uses the coming of spring as a metaphor for the Day of Judgment. After describing some of the signs of the end, He goes on, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. …Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that the kingdom of God is near” (Luke 21:28-30). The comparison is worth pondering. Winter can seem so cold, so dark, so impenetrable and endless, yet when the brightness and warmth of spring comes, it’s difficult even to remember what the winter was like. The welcome springtime banishes all thoughts of the winter that went before. In the same way, our Lord Jesus promises to renew all things by His resurrection from the dead. Through the forgiveness of our sins He has guaranteed to us that our redemption, the promised salvation, is coming, and it will not delay. Even though it may seem long and out of reach, He promises that when it comes, “the former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind” (Isa 65:17). The former things — pain, sorrow, sickness, guilt, and death — will fade away. “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isa 35:10). So Christians lift up their heads in all seasons, unafraid and filled with joy. We pray, as the Church always has, “Come, Lord Jesus.” Yes, come quickly, risen Lord. Amen.

Noble Fact and Pious Fiction — the Feast of St. George, Martyr

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Tonight my older boy, Mark, scratched his elbow while on the playground. It was a long scratch — probably 2 inches long — but not very deep. A scratch was preferable to a broken arm, which is what one of his older sisters did when she was 4.

At any rate, when we got home, I plunked him down on the bathroom counter and started soaking a washcloth in warm water to clean out the wound. Mark was already beginning to tense up and get ready to cry (because things hurt when you’re 4 and that’s what you do), so partly to distract him, I told him the story of St. George.

The Truth Behind the Legend: St George -- the Soldier Who Became a Saint

Today is St. George’s day. St. George was a Roman soldier of Greek extraction who served in the 3rd century. Perhaps the best-known story associated with him is how he killed a dragon. Once there was a dragon that was troubling a certain town. The townspeople gave it two sheep every day, so it would not destroy their town and kill them all. This worked fine, until they ran out of sheep. The townspeople resorted to human sacrifice. They drew lots and whoever was chosen had to go, unless someone else took their place. One day the king’s daughter was chosen by lot. Nobody volunteered to go, so she bravely went to her certain doom. St. George happened to be riding by, and when he saw the situation, he attacked the dragon, spearing it and pinning it to the ground, but not killing it. Then he used the princess’ girdle, or in some versions of the story, a ribbon from her hair, tied the dragon with it as with a leash, and the princess walked the dragon back to town. St. George said he would kill the dragon under the following conditions: that the people remember to care for the poor, that they all receive baptism, and that they faithfully attend worship. The people of course gladly agreed on the spot, and St. George finished the dragon off. Thus the town and the princess were safe, the dragon was dead, and God was glorified.

Can you see why I told my boys this story?

St. George was a real person, but the facts are nearly impossible to sift from the palaver, to put it politely. Even the facts of his martyrdom are freighted down with folderol. The Catholic Encyclopedia, at newadvent.org, notes that the many and varied accounts of St. George’s martyrdom are

full beyond belief of extravagances and of quite incredible marvels. Three times is George put to death—chopped into small pieces, buried deep in the earth and consumed by fire—but each time he is resuscitated by the power of God. Besides this we have dead men brought to life to be baptized, wholesale conversions, including that of “the Empress Alexandra”, armies and idols destroyed instantaneously, beams of timber suddenly bursting into leaf, and finally milk flowing instead of blood from the martyr’s severed head.

As we say in Minnesota: uff da. You know it’s bad if the Catholic Encyclopedia refers to it as “full beyond belief of extravagences.” That’s a whole lot of nonsense, if you ask me. Some might shake their heads and tut that all the baloney detracts from the real core of the story, and from the One who should be the hero; and they’d be right. All the same, these stories are part of our heritage as Christians. Previous generations have enjoyed telling and retelling these and similar stories, and what’s the harm in a bit of fun? The handsome but penniless young man who grows up to be an insurance salesman with a mortgage on a house in a subdivision identical to all the others, 2 highly average children, a spare tire, and acid reflux is not going to light anyone’s fire. Nor will it be the plot of Disney’s next blockbuster. It won’t hold little boys spellbound, either — but St. George did.

I didn’t only tell my boys about the dragon. I also told them how he gave his life for Christ. I made sure to emphasize that that part of the story was real. That’s something they need to hear, even more than stories about dragons and princesses — they need to hear what true bravery, true love, true sacrifice look like. I think of St. Stephen, praying for the enraged Jews who were flinging stones at him — and then looking up to heaven and seeing Jesus waiting to welcome him. “Then he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60). I think of St. Peter being sprung from prison by an angel in Acts 12, not a scratch on him — only to be crucified head down later on. The Lord Jesus’ prophecy about him came true: “When you are old, someone will dress you and take you by the hands, and lead you where you do not want to go.” I think of St. Polycarp, kneeling down in the arena as the crowds jeer at him. I think of Ignatius of Antioch, being taken on a long journey to Rome, and writing letters to the believers along the way — you can still read those letters for yourself today. I think of the hundreds and thousands, maybe millions, of Christians who died in the arenas of the Roman empire, and in Communist prisons, jungles, and all sorts of other places. Nobody makes a hue and cry over their mistreatment or their deaths. There is no outrage in the media, and you search the headlines in vain for even a mention. The news cycle rolls on without the death of Christ’s followers even meriting a notice. But there is One who sees and knows, and He promises to repay a hundredfold – and more! – what we give up for the sake of His name. That’s the real benefit to St. George, and to all other Christians martyrs. They encourage us, they give glory to God, and they frighten the enemies of the gospel, who hope they can buy us off or silence us with intimidation, coercion, blandishments, or violence. Get behind us, Satan! You’ve lost, and Christ, the Risen One, has won! Be bold, be brave in the face of that ancient serpent, the devil. That’s one dragon that will never harm God’s people again — not truly. He who stands firm to the end shall be saved! God grant it! (Amen.)

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It wasn’t a dream

At our house, I’m usually the one who lays the babies down for their naps, if I’m around and able to help. I don’t mind — in fact, I enjoy this duty of fatherhood. Plus, it allows me to catch a little shuteye myself. I’m one who can fall asleep at the drop of a hat. My technique for rocking the baby down (currently little Joey, who’s not quite a baby anymore), is to pace, then sit in the chair and rock. Then I doze off. He dozes off, I wake up, and lay him down, then go about my day, refreshed.

I must have been quite tired today — it is Easter, after all, with all the attendant hullabaloo, to say nothing of Lent which came before it — so when I dozed off this morning as I was rocking Joey, I dreamed. When I awoke, I had just one brief snippet of dream that I remembered.

I was standing in a room with the apostles when the women came back from Jesus’ tomb, and I heard them say, “He’s risen!” Then I awoke.

Now, it’s true what St. Basil the Great says, that “are not our dreams merely a reflection of our waking thoughts?” With celebrating Easter today, and preparing my Easter sermon this week, it’s natural that it would be on my mind.

And yet. I awoke, remembered the dream, then thought immediately, “But it’s not only a dream.”

It is most certainly not only a dream. His tomb stands empty — come and see! See where they laid Him, and now He is not here! Why look for the dead among the living? Behold, He is the Living One, forever and ever!

Like it or not, skeptic, saint, or somewhere in between — that tomb is empty. And it will remain empty to all eternity, because He will never more die! This is no dream. This is reality! God’s Son, with His real flesh and blood, today arose from the tomb — no longer cold, stiff, and bloody, but alive. And so will we live! One day yet to come, He who has destroyed death will call to us, and all who are in their graves will hear the voice of the Son of Man — and come out. That’s you! That’s me! Then heaven awaits for all those who trust in Christ, who put their faith in His imperishable resurrection from the dead.

How my heart yearns within me! This is no dream — it’s real, as real as real gets! Realer than death, because death one day will die. As real as God Himself, who exerted His mighty power when He raised Christ from the dead, and seated Him in the heavenly realms, and us with Him.

Jesus — my Jesus, and yours — lives. This is no dream. A blessed Easter to you, my Christian friends.

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10 minutes at a time

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early AM Bible rdgA friend shared on Facebook the other day her routine for catechizing her children and doing family devotions. I was struck by how similar it was to what we do at our house. Her method is almost the same as the one I’ve settled on, after a little trial and error. Her husband is a Lutheran pastor, and I’m sure he has his own things he does with their children, but this is what she does with them.

First, she reads a few verses of Luke 2. Then she and the children discuss the verses for a few minutes, not too terribly long because most of her children are small. Then she drills them on memorizing part of Luke 2. That’s it. It takes maybe ten minutes tops, she noted, and then the day goes on. That’s all. Ten minutes.

My method is remarkably similar. I read a few verses out of the New Testament. We had been rotating through the Gospels, but I sensed that my progeny were getting slightly bored (good — it means they’re recognizing and remembering what they’re hearing), so I switched it up and gave them something they haven’t heard yet. Right now we’re in Acts chapter 8. After reading the verses, we discuss for a few minutes. I ask a question or two, the children might ask a question (little ones practically catechize themselves sometimes, they can be so curious), and then we move on to Proverbs. I added a verse from Proverbs for every time we have our devotion, because I felt our children needed more guidance in godly living. I explain the verse, illustrating with examples from their everyday experience (parents, chores, siblings, etc.). They might ask a question or two, and I make sure to repeat the proverb a few times, just to give it another chance to sink in.

A lifelong Christian resource – WELS

Then it’s time to crack the catechism. I drill the children on a part of the catechism, making sure they do it word for word and that they memorize it reasonably well. We go through the day’s portion three times, tops. Their attention span starts to go downhill past that point. Usually twice through is fine if they play along and do a good job (which they usually do.) I don’t get too uptight about absolute memorization, because we’ll be coming back to that part of the catechism in the future anyway. Sometimes we merely introduce a section, and I have them repeat it back to me. Other times we drill. Right now we’re finishing up the First Article (again). Next week we’ll be on to the Second Article. I explain what they ask questions about, and then we have a cookie or a sucker. A treat at the end is key, because the children are more willing to play along if they know they’re going to get some sugar at the end of the process. They also enjoy the whole thing more if they associate drilling and memory work with sweets. (Thus the saying is true, “Sweeter than honey are Your words to my mouth.”) Read, discuss, drill, cookie. Repeat a few times per week. That’s it.

In less time than it takes to write about it, you can bring God’s powerful Word to bear on their little hearts, teach His lambs to see their Savior more clearly, and help shape them to live for Him. You are giving them the best possible head start on growing up to be active, committed Christians. The Holy Spirit builds them up in faith. Pretty good return on investment, wouldn’t you say?

Most people never find out that the natural setting for teaching the catechism is in the home. Nor do they find out how enjoyable it can be. Late afternoon in a church basement with the pastor is not the catechism’s natural setting, nor where it comes alive — not without a lot of extra effort. I know. I’ve done it both ways, and do it both ways, on a regular basis. The catechism is meant for the home. It’s very natural and easy to read part to your children and have them say it back to you. It’s also a lot of fun. Our boys are 3 and 2. They always want to climb on my lap for the catechism part. Our girls are 7 and 5, and they go to a Lutheran day school. I still drill them on their memory work. The 5 year old goes to kindergarten 3 days a week. When she’s home, she joins in the Bible reading & catechism time. She knows how it goes now, and she sets a good example for the younger ones. We have fun, together.

Sometimes I see what other pastors or other Lutheran parents do with their children, and I feel inferior, or like I’m slacking, when I feel like I’m barely getting by most days. We could add music, singing hymns for example; we could do more with memorizing Scripture… To be honest, that sort of comparison to other Christians is a trap of the devil. Ten minutes per time a few times per week makes a huge difference. It gives the Holy Spirit a whole lot to work with, and really the results are up to Him, aren’t they? It’s His Word. They’re His children, washed in baptism, held in Jesus’ heart of love that He laid open for us all on the cross. Trust Him. Trust His Word. Trust the process. Put in ten minutes at a time, and leave the rest to God. Give them the grounding they need to be strong and courageous in the Lord for their entire lives.

With the world the way it is – with how busy everyone is, making money and having fun – can you afford to take ten minutes and teach your children God’s Word?

How can you afford not to? 

Deuteronomy 6:7—Let’s Help Parents Do It! – Children's ...

Knowing people

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3-Tissot The Pharisees Question JesusI had an interesting insight the other day, during our faculty devotion. We’re reading through John’s Gospel together. At the end of John chapter 2, Jesus was involved in keeping the 8th Commandment. He did not entrust Himself to anyone else, because when you entrust yourself to someone, especially by listening to their gossip or the “news” they have to share, you give that person a measure of power or control over you. If you lend your ears to gossip, you take in what that other person tells you into your inmost parts, your heart of hearts — and that can be disastrous, especially since so much gossip is untrue or a twisting of the facts.

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
    they go down to the inmost parts. — Prov 18:8 

The words someone uses about another also reveal what that person is like. If someone runs down another person, or attacks their character, that shows that they are untrustworthy. Also, as our mothers correctly pointed out in the past, that means they will have the same treatment in store for you.

Jesus bypasses all of that, in the interest of the gospel. He did not need to consult with anyone else to make up His mind; He knew, simply and completely, what was in another person’s mind and heart. We might not have that same immediate depth of insight as Christ did — anyone who claims omniscience is usually humbled in a hurry — but God’s Word is a double edged sword that penetrates to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; divining the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Through the guidance of the Holy Spirit in Scripture, we have insight into those around us. Motives become clear, and thoughts are laid bare. We are as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves, and thus have no need of gossip or attacks on character.

Now when he was in Jerusalem at the Passover, in the feast day, many believed in his name, when they saw the miracles which he did. 24 But Jesus did not commit himself unto them, because he knew all men, 25 And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. — St. John 2:23-25

Better than You

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jar1Today the Christian Church commemorates Mary Magdalene. As sometimes happen with Biblical figures, at least half, if not more, of what’s said and repeated about her is bunk. Utter hogwash. Pure nonsense. Use whatever term you like, but not everything you hear associated with her name is true.  In addition to her cameo role in The Da Vinci Code (very convenient to make outlandish claims about those who are no longer here to defend themselves), there’s also a persistent tradition that Mary Magdalene is the nameless woman who was a sinner in Luke 7:36-50. In fact, that traditional (i.e. not satisfactorily substantiated by the Scriptures) claim is most likely why Luke 7:36-50 was appointed as the Gospel for her feast.

The woman is not named. For reasons not revealed to us, St. Luke was not inspired to note down that woman’s name. And yet, it could have been Mary Magdalene who anointed the Lord’s feet in Luke 7. She is mentioned in the context, if one looks at the chapters before and after Luke 7. Also, Mark 16:9 references the fact that Jesus drove seven demons out of Mary Magdalene before she became His follower. It has been noted that demons will often drive those whom they possess to engage in grotesque or promiscuous sins against the Sixth Commandment, and when you pair that fact with the fact that the unnamed woman in Luke 7 is called a sinner, which seems to be a polite euphemism for prostitute, it seems possible that the unnamed woman could have been Mary Magdalene. Is it anything more than circumstantial evidence? Not really. Does anyone’s salvation hang in the balance? Nope. But it is interesting to think about, and another example of the push and pull between tradition (which can mean different things to different people) and the close reading and study of the Scriptures.

Because we really can’t nail down definitively who that unnamed woman was, it made sense to Lutherans to leave Luke 7:36-50 as the Gospel for this feast. In the absence of a sinful consequence from continuing to use the reading, as long as Christian love and concern for people’s consciences are never left out of the equation, Lutherans will tend to err on the side of keeping what’s been handed down to us. One never knows — there may be wisdom in choices that thousands of people, many of them smarter than you, made centuries before. Those choices continue to shape our worship and enrich our faith even today, and it would be foolish and short-sighted simply to discard whatever we do not understand or appreciate immediately. If we adopted that approach, where does it end?

Leaving aside those considerations of identity for a moment, just consider what Jesus is doing in Luke 7:36-50. With His little pointed parable about the two debtors, plus His simply noting aloud who did what — contrasting the actions of the Pharisee and the sinful woman — Jesus brings home who the “good” one, the righteous one, really is. It’s not the Pharisee. He thought he was, but he wasn’t. His lack of love betrayed his lack of faith, and his exalted position as a leader and teacher of Israel was no help in his standing with God, which is what mattered. By pointing out that “her many sins are forgiven, for she loved much, but he who is forgiven little loves little,” Jesus is pointing out that she is righteous. That righteousness is not caused by her love — that’s not the reason — but it is the proof; proof that was sorely lacking in Simon. Her trust in Jesus and His Word for forgiveness meant that she was forgiven, no matter what anyone said or thought.

We look so much at the outside. We focus on the things that the world praises and calls good: money, status, possessions, and what they say about us. We rarely consider ourselves the way God does: from the inside out. Or, at least we don’t as often as we should. Jesus scandalized those at the table with Him by absolving this sinful woman — just like that! But she understood His grace best of all. Mary Magdalene got to be one of the first witnesses to Christ’s resurrection, despite her sinfulness and despite having been plagued by foul demons. Not Simon, nor any of the other Pharisees or teachers of the law — but Mary Magdalene, a woman and a sinner, was given this honor.

So which one are you? Sinner, or Pharisee?

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The collect, or prayer, for this feast nicely ties in Mary Magdalene’s story with the greater significance of the resurrection, and has some beautiful phrases:

O Almighty God, whose blessed Son did sanctify Mary Magdalene, and grant her to be a witness to His Resurrection : Mercifully grant that by Thy grace we may be healed of all our infirmities, and serve Thee in the power of His endless life; who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost : ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Brotherhood Prayer Book, 2nd ed., 2007, p.519

“My burden is light” – a sermon for a young Christian’s suicide

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On April 30, a young man did the unthinkable and shocked our whole community. Nathan Kleinschmidt, 17 years old and the son of one of our members, committed suicide. The circumstances were such that they permitted me to officiate with a clear conscience and a clear confession. His funeral was the biggest service I’ve ever heard of in our church. To give you some idea of the scale of that day, over 600 people got to hear the resurrection gospel — in a town with a population of 900. This is the sermon that I preached for that funeral. God grant that another town, another family, another church, will never have to experience that sorrow.

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At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.

27 “All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:25-30)

 

Perhaps both the shortest and the longest question in the English language is: “Why?” It only takes a few letters, a little breath, to say, but there’s a multitude of thoughts, doubts, fears, conflicts behind it. It’s the question that’s on the minds and hearts of many. I’ve heard it from your lips and I’ve asked it myself. When confronted with circumstances like these, how can you help asking, “Why?”

You can twist yourself up in knots, and almost drive yourself crazy, looking for answers at a time like this. Far better, then, to focus on what we can know; what our God has revealed to us, and what we can know for certain. Jesus Himself points us to what God has revealed to us when He says, “I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because You have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was Your good pleasure” (vv.25-26)

Nathan knew the Lord. He knew the saving message of the gospel, what Jesus had done for him. He knew that Jesus had taken on human flesh in the Virgin’s womb for him, that Jesus lived His life under the crushing burden of God’s law because he could never keep that law. He knew that Jesus paid for all sins when He died on the cross, and His blood was shed to cover all sins – Nate’s too! He knew that Jesus rose from the dead to prove that all sins really, truly are paid for, and that all who trust in Him have eternal life. Nate knew that “old, familiar story”. He’d learned the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments, how to recite the Apostle’s Creed and what it meant, both at Sunday School and at home. Nate knew the Lord. On this day, we have that for our comfort.

Add to that something far greater: the Lord knew Nate. Jesus had washed Nate clean in holy baptism. He had given Nate a name and a heritage in heaven. He knew Nate personally as His own child, because he was baptized into Christ, so that when the Father looked at Nathan, He saw, not Nathan, but Christ – Jesus’ perfect righteousness covering Nathan’s sins. The promises God makes in baptism have no asterisks – the Bible does not say, “whoever believes and is baptized will be saved – EXCEPT…” , or, “baptism now saves you – UNLESS…” God does not simply yank those promises away with one foolish, sinful choice. He delights to show mercy and be faithful forever. The Lord knew Nathan.

Along with those comforts, Jesus gives us an invitation today. He says, “Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Rest feels like what we so desperately need at a time like this, and yet it’s hard to come by. We are accustomed to looking to different things for rest. There’s the kind of rest you get from taking a nap, or eating a good meal, or relaxing with friends; maybe surfing the Internet or watching TV. That’s not the kind of rest Jesus is talking about. The kind of rest Jesus is talking about is rest for your soul, true peace that can only come from the forgiveness of sins. The rest Jesus gives means that there’s nothing more to do to please God, no works left undone, no tears left left to cry or efforts that still need to be given – because Jesus has done it all. Simply trust that when He did it, He did it for you, and you have His peace. That rest is meant for each and every one of us here today. If you feel like you can’t go on, if you wonder how you’re going to make it through the day, if you feel weighed down and burdened, or simply numb – if you can’t even put words to everything you’re feeling – Jesus understands. He knows. And He wants to bless you with peace.

Jesus explains what His rest consists of. He says, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (vv.29-30) It may be a while since you’ve seen a yoke, or thought about one. That’s the harness used to hitch oxen to a plow or a wagon. It consisted of a crossbar or crosspiece that lay across the animals’ necks, and straps or chains or some sort of collar that attached the bar to the animal. If the animals were evenly matched in strength, they would pull equally and have an equal share of the work and the load. If one of the oxen was stronger, he’d end up doing more pulling and work harder.

Maybe we can picture this idea of a light yoke in a different way. Picture a little boy who wants to help Mom or Dad with moving something – a heavy box, say, or an overstuffed basket of laundry. He’s so determined to help, in fact, that he keeps scampering in front of Mom or Dad’s feet, and threatening to trip both of them. So Mom or Dad says, “Okay, you can help. Put your hand here.” The little guy lays his hand on the side of the box and walks the last few steps. Mom or Dad sets down the box, then Junior struts away, happy because he got to ‘help’. How much weight did he really carry? Very little – none, in fact. Who did all the work? Mom or Dad did. Yet he gets to feel that he helped. Jesus says something similar here. He says, “Let Me carry the heavy end, and I’ll give you the light end.” So when Jesus says His yoke is light, what He’s really saying is He gives us the light end. He Himself carries the heavy end.

Now, some of you might be tempted to say, “Am I really carrying the light end here, preacher? When I feel so shattered, so drained, so weighed down by grief and sorrow? This is the light end? How can that be?” If you have similar thoughts, remember how much Jesus has done for you. He’s taken all your sins on Himself. He went willingly through death and came back again, for you. When Jesus spread out His arms on the cross, it was so that God could load all of your pain, your sorrow, your grief, your anger, and your guilt – all of your sin – onto Him.

Because that’s the problem here. We search in vain for something that someone may have said, or not said, some reason, some cause for the choice that Nathan made. We don’t always know what people are struggling with, or how they chose to deal with their struggles, and mental illness can be a terrible burden – but at any rate, if we want to know what the real reason this happened is, it’s because of sin. Sin led Nate to do what he did. And what are we going to do about that? Nothing, on our own – the only cure for sin is Jesus Christ. Make no mistake, what Nathan did was a sin. He broke the Fifth Commandment. But Jesus paid the price for all sin. He alone bore the world’s sins, including Nathan’s, and He alone has the power and the love to deal with them, through His sacrifice of Himself and His resurrection from the dead.

Which brings me to something I want to say especially to you young people here today. Don’t look at this – at what Nate did – as any sort of solution. It’s not. You may be tempted to notice all the attention paid to Nathan’s death, in person and on social media too – I haven’t really looked too much, but even I have seen quite a bit of it – and want some of that for yourself. You may imagine that what you see here today – a community coming together to support this family, and to remember Nathan – will be the way things always are. It won’t be. What you might not know, but I and other adults have seen, is that the attention is there…for a while. But sooner than you might expect, the social media tributes dry up, and everyone gets on with their lives. After a while, it’s almost like you were never there. The ones who remember the most would be your family, because their pain would be the deepest. That never goes away, in a sense. Killing yourself doesn’t fix anything. All it does is hurt the people that you love, and who love you.

You might feel like you’re under intolerable pressure. I wouldn’t invalidate that. You students are growing up with things and dealing with things that even people my age, and certainly in your parents’ and grandparents’ generations, never dreamed of. But no matter what your problem is – mental illness, eating disorder, broken family, what have you – it’s never bigger than Jesus. Jesus is always greater than any problem you face. He conquered death for you, and His tomb stands empty to this day to prove that nothing will separate you from Him forever. If that’s true – if He really did rise, just as He said He would – what will keep you from Him? What is stronger than He is? Nothing, nothing at all.

You have people who love you. Even though they may not say it all the time, or even seem like they want to show it – you are surrounded by people who love you and care about you, a great deal. And even if they were all to go away – even if every last one of them turned their backs on you and refused to speak with you ever again – Jesus is still there. He still loves you. He still walks in when the entire world walks out on you. His love is so great that it conquered sin and death, and now He promises never to leave you nor forsake you. Nobody but Jesus can keep that promise, because nobody but Jesus has risen from the dead. To Him be all glory, praise, and honor, forever and ever, through all ages, with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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