Jesus makes us fearless in the face of death : Sermon for Judica (5th Sunday in Lent)


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3-Tissot The Pharisees Question Jesus

Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47 Whoever belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”

48 The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”

49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Very truly I tell you, whoever obeys my word will never see death.”

52 At this they exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that whoever obeys your word will never taste death. 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”

54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and obey his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”

57 “You are not yet fifty years old,” they said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”

58 “Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds. (St. John 8.46-59 niv)

What’s the worst name you’ve ever been called? The second-worst name I’ve ever been called was “chicken-faced monkey.” That one took me off guard. Just about the worst name you can call a pastor is “false teacher.” Of course, any pastor who takes his duty seriously, and who strives to be faithful to the Word of God, sooner or later will be called that, and I have been too. Maybe you’ve been called pushy or arrogant, timid or weak-minded. There are plenty of names people throw at each other, and it’s no surprise that Jesus was called names too. In our gospel for today, we hear Him called a Samaritan and demon-possessed. “Demon-possessed” is a pretty straightforward name. We heard about that one a few weeks ago, where Jesus was accused of being in league with Satan, driving out demons by the power of Beelzebub. In its own way, being called a Samaritan is just as bad.

Recall that the Samaritans were a nation comprised of people who had left their countrymen the Jews, and intermarried with the Canaanite people around them. They still retained some vestiges of Jewish worship and identity, but as the real “chosen people” the Jews were often irritated at the Samaritans’ claims to be just as much God’s people as they were. The Jews and Samaritans hated each other, very often. Thus when the Jews call Jesus a Samaritan, they’re insinuating that He is not part of God’s chosen people according to the flesh, the nation of the Jews – and that His Mother, the Virgin Mary, was a loose and immoral woman. That would make Jesus Himself the product of a sinful, illegitimate relationship. What a horrible thing to say about Jesus’ Mother, and about our Lord Himself!

Yet it’s not what other people said about Jesus that’s important. It’s what Jesus says about Himself: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” In the original Greek it’s much stronger. In this verse Jesus is saying, “If anyone keeps My word, he will never, ever, ever see death – forever!” That’s a pretty huge promise to make! It would be sheer lunacy for anyone to claim this, if they were not Jesus Christ. He proved that His Word is true, and to be believed without doubt or question, when He rose from the dead. His victory over death proves that what He says about death is the truth, and that His Word delivers from death.

People come up with all sorts of their own ways and methods to cheat death, or at least to push it off. “Let’s ban guns!” some crow. “No, we need more guns!” others shout. “Let’s get additives out of our food supply!” “No, we need to eat these special foods, or do these exercises! Avoid this, get more of that!” The recommendations are endless, and if you pay attention long enough, contradictory. And none of them work. None of them truly deliver from death, or cure death. Only Jesus, the sinless Son of God, and His Word that He gives us, truly saves you from death! Nothing else comes close – nothing else works!

Of course, in all fairness, the question can be asked: Why think about death at all? Why not simply push off the thought of death, and just focus on living life to the fullest? Enjoy all life has to offer, and not think about death? Someone asked me that question the other day, and I’ve thought about it every day since then. It’s a good question. What’s the point of focusing on death, anyway? Life is so vibrant and interesting. There’s so much to learn and do and experience – so much that God has put in creation, so much that’s worth seeking out and finding and savoring in life. Why even think of death?

That’s what the devil wants you to do. He wants you to drink deeply from life in this world. Go, have fun, enjoy! Seek out even more pleasures, even more new experiences! Find new ways to enjoy and amuse yourself! Explore, do, taste it all! And then when it comes time to die, you very well may be assaulted by doubts, wavering, and wondering: Is my faith in God misplaced? Was I right to trust Him for all these years? Did Jesus really do enough to save me? What really happens to me when I die – and after? In those last few moments, or hours, or days, the devil works his hardest on the child of God. Those are the critical times, because if he can get someone to stumble or to turn away, then perhaps he can snatch up their soul. Dying is hard work, and the devil knows – better than we do! – that “there is One who seeks and judges” (v.50). Christian, look to the fate of your soul! Do not blithely sail on, heedless of your last hour! Think about what the outcome of your way of life will be, and if you need to, change course! Repent! Jesus’ words still apply and are still true today.

stephen hawking.pngWhen I think of Jesus’ words here, that “whoever keeps My words will never see death,” I think of two men. One is Stephen Hawking. You might recognize him from his many guest appearances on shows like Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons, or Futurama. He was a brilliant physicist and mathematician, one of the finest minds of his generation – some might say ever. He made many valuable discoveries that advanced our knowledge of the universe God created. And he wrote books and made scientific discoveries while confined to a wheelchair for the majority of his life. Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in his early twenties. Doctors gave him only two or three years to live. Yet he lived for over fifty more years. He was also an atheist. Hawking stated publicly in interviews his views that death was no more and no less than powering down a computer – a moment of blackness, and then you cease to exist. That’s it. Sad to say, Stephen Hawking also had a weakness in the area of the Sixth Commandment. Sins of the flesh were something he found congenial and enjoyable, and he had a demonstrable weakness for them. So here you have someone who conscious that every day he received was a gift – from Whom, or to what purpose, he perhaps preferred not to examine too closely. His job was to study the cosmos in all their grandeur, the heavens that “proclaim the glory of God” (Ps 19). Yet he wanted to believe that God did not exist, that time and space were infinite, that matter and energy are all there is. It would be pretty convenient for one’s flesh if there were no God, wouldn’t it? Tragically, he has found the truth of Jesus’ words for himself: “if a man keeps My words, he will never see death.”


gpa laabs and mom on her wedding day.jpg

My mother’s father, Gilbert Laabs, and my mother, on her wedding day, 1976.

The other man I think of is my grandfather, Gilbert Laabs. He was a dairy farmer, one of those who never said a lot but you knew where he stood on things, and what he believed. About ten years ago, my grandmother went to town to get her hair done. My grandfather must have felt unwell briefly, because when my grandmother came home he was sitting on the couch with the phone in his hand. The Lord had called him home to heaven. You see, Jesus’ words here can also mean that the one who trusts in Him will not see death coming – that death will run up behind them and snatch them up, carry them off before they realize it, so to speak. When that happens, it’s a blessing of God. To be spared the agony of death is a special gift of God. But even when death is seen coming a long way off, as with cancer or other sickness, or some sort of accident, the child of God can still draw strength and courage from Jesus’ words. Those words deliver from death and guarantee us eternal life.


It’s a good thing that Jesus’ words deliver from death, because we’re surrounded by it every day. I’m sorry if you would prefer not to think about it, but it doesn’t change the reality of the fact. Do you know how many babies are murdered every hour? 157. In the time it takes us to have this worship service, 157 babies will have been killed. More babies are murdered in America every day than the grand total of casualties from the World Trade Center attacks on 9/11. If you’re in the womb, every day in America is worse than 9/11. Then, if you’re fortunate enough to be born, you grow to school age and one of your classmates brings a gun to school and shoots everyone. Or you’re at the mall, or out in public somewhere, and a Muslim terrorist attacks you. You could look both ways once before crossing County 4 or Highway 58 when you should have looked twice, and – POW! Car accident. Or you could choke to death on a chocolate donut in your kitchen! The point is, life is short and uncertain. So Jesus’ promise of life through His Word had better be true, because we need it!

Jesus can promise this because He says, “Before Abraham was born, I AM.” This means that He’s not just a man. He’s also true God – the God before whom Moses took off his sandals and fell on his face in abject fear; who split the Red Sea to bring His people out, but drowned Pharaoh and all his army; the God who brought His people Israel out of Egypt with an outstretched hand and a mighty arm – that God. His power is limitless, and His strength is only matched by His justice. He is the Holy One of Israel.

At the same time, He is true man. The writer to the Hebrews says, “Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels He helps, but Abraham’s descendants” (Heb. 2:14-16). You are free! Free of the chains of death! Your slavery is ended! One day, death will call for you, and you will have to answer. But it won’t be the end, because Jesus has defeated death for you! He went through death all on His own and rose from the dead to give us eternal life. He tore death apart from the inside on that first Easter morning. Now we can face our own deaths, calm and confident in Jesus’ victory. Death itself is not the end, for our Lord promises us it is so – and He backed it up by rising from the dead.


Do you see how vital knowing and believing Jesus’ words is? Keep them in your heart; treasure them, believe them, treat them as they really are – the words of God to you and for you. Keep it in your mouth; speak it to others, share it, tell others who fear death and need courage and hope. Keep it in your life; conform all your actions, your words, and your thoughts to it. Let it be not only something you profess with your lips but is absent from your life. Strive to mold everything you are and do to it. Plant it deep in the hearts of your children and grandchildren, because they will need it too. Jesus’ promises are true for them, no less than for you. Then, when you are gone and in your dust, and they themselves are grey and old – when it comes time for them to fight their own battle with death – they won’t be fighting alone. Jesus, the risen Lord, the Victor over death, will be right there beside them, keeping His promises to them too. To Him be all praise and honor and glory, both now and forevermore, Amen.

This Faithful Workman: Feast of St. Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Confessor


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stjosephtheworkerSt. Joseph tends to get lost in the background, unless it’s Advent. During Advent, we sometimes consider the “outcome of his faith and way of life”, as the writer to the Hebrews says, but the rest of the time, we don’t really notice him. We don’t even pay that much attention to him at Christmas — all the focus is on the Child in the manger and His virgin Mother, both of whom are signs that the Lord’s grace has now come to sinful man (cf. Isa 7).

It’s fitting, in a way. As husband and father, St. Joseph would have experienced what many Christian men do: that their lives become wrapped up in acts of service, big and small, to the woman God has put in his arms, and the children whom God has given him to raise. St. Joseph would have worked hard at his job, taught his Son the Scriptures, made sure that his family worshipped in the house of God regularly, and cared for his wife, in all the multitude of ways that married life offers. A lifetime — a very satisfying one, for the man who is a child of God — can be made out of such countless small acts of service.

elsheime flight into egyptAnd occasionally we husbands and fathers are called upon to do more. Imagine the shock and the stress, after the wonder of his adoptive Son’s birth, to find out that King Herod wanted to slaughter the Child. They had to rise up in the night, hastily pack a few things — and leave. St. Joseph, a man more used to the quiet routine of workshop, home, and synagogue, was forced to lead his family far away, down to Egypt. But he did it. He was not a military man, and may certainly have had his doubts about his ability to keep them safe, but he did his best — and in the Lord’s hands, it was enough. St. Joseph was the Lord’s chosen instrument to keep His Son safely through infancy and on into early adulthood.

St. Joseph is a worthy model for Christian husbands and fathers today. His life, as recorded in Scripture, offers much for us to reflect on and emulate.


Together again, one day


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luther-sealEvery year I am grateful that All Saints Day follows so closely on Reformation Day. With the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses last year, especially, but at other times, too, there’s always a lot of chest beating involved in Reformation. Sure, we are grateful for confessors and martyrs of past generations who stood up for the gospel. No question. Without them, humanly speaking, we wouldn’t have the truth of God’s Word today. Without people to confess it in our day, the Word won’t keep going to future generations (again, humanly speaking).


Part of what people are celebrating on Reformation Day, whether they like it or not, is a split, a rupture. It had to be and more would have been lost without it, but the fact remains, there is division in the outward Christian Church. If that doesn’t pain us, something’s wrong. If there’s division in the church, we need to root out the false doctrine that causes it. We need to banish the root of the division, and bring people back together around God’s Word again. Paradoxically, often that involves a split or a disagreement, a difference, to show who has God’s approval and who does not, by the doctrine they teach.

Really, this points us ahead to heaven, where there will only be one church and one church body — the Body of Christ, the Una Sancta, the one holy Christian Church of all believers from every time and place that we confess in the Creed. Until then, we keep working, we keep teaching, we keep reforming — until we all reach fullness in Christ, who is the Head of the Body, and who fills everything in every way. all-saints-day-011


Christian Metalcore Supremo


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And now for something completely different….

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Tommy Green of the Christian hardcore band Sleeping Giant connecting with fans in concert. 

If you are a regular reader here, you know of my love for the liturgy. The Western Rite needs music to go along with it, and that music is very often beautiful, enriching, and edifying. JS Bach and Gregorian chant come to mind, with pride of place. They fit with the church year like a hand in a glove. There’s no shortage of beautiful, historical music out there, just waiting to be picked up and put to use in Christ’s church.


I listen not only to church music, or church-y type music (this will shock some of you, I know.) I listen to LOTS of different types of music, and always have. Scroll through the music player on my phone, and you’ll see Johnny Cash next to The Clash next to Miles Davis next to Shostakovich next to…you get the idea. I like everything from old school, twangy country to modern metal, and everything in between. Music calms me. It helps me think. It gives me a way to express myself or a way to approach life. Music is a big deal for me.

A couple of years ago, I noticed something odd happening. A number of bands or artists that I had formerly followed and listened to, some rather avidly (Deftones, the Afghan Whigs, Lana Del Rey), were beginning to espouse occultic or pagan themes and imagery in their lyrics, artwork, and on social media. They had never done this before. This was distressing to me, but I decided I could no longer follow or listen to those artists as closely, or buy their music. It wouldn’t be worth it, frankly. My faith in Jesus is too precious for me to let it be eaten away at its foundations with music and ideas that are antagonistic to the gospel. That’s just a fact. Like the Apostle Paul in a different context, I too “have the Spirit of God” (I Cor 7:40, 11:16) and I hope that on this score, the Lord will make clear to you in time that we should fill ourselves with what is good, noble, right, and true, just as He urges (Phil 4:8), if indeed you think differently.

To that end, I’ve been refurbishing my music collection, with the help of the Internet. Like most people in their early (ok, mid) 30s, I haven’t added much music beyond my college years. Life happened, and I didn’t really pay a lot of attention to popular culture anymore. (Still don’t, unless someone shows me something or I get asked about it as a pastor.) As a consequence, there are huge swaths of the music universe that are terra incognita to me, and I’m just starting to explore again.

One particular strain of hard rock that I didn’t even know was out there is metalcore. It takes the harsh guitars of metal and crosses it with the rampaging tempos and screamed/shouted vocals of hardcore punk. (If that sounds at all appealing to you, you’ll want to keep reading. If not…you can browse through my posts on the sanctoral calendar, or wait for the next time I post a sermon.)  Apparently there’s a fairly enormous explicitly Christian metalcore scene out there. It sprang up after I drifted away from following new music and became an adult (well, got older, anyway.) Christian rock used to be embarrassing — preachy, mushy, out of date, out of touch…soft. You can still find plenty of that, but the bands on the following list are anything but soft.

At the extreme end, there’s Christian black metal, or unblack metal, as it’s sometimes known. This can sound like a car crashing into a brick wall at 60 mph over and over, with nigh-undecipherable vocals screamed, shouted, rasped, or grunted, but even within that musical style, the lyrical content can either be for Christ or against Christ. The black metal scene is notoriously satanic and anti-religion, but some artists have chosen to subvert that template by borrowing the musical style while taking the lyrics 180 degrees in the opposite direction, to honor Christ. One might debate the effectiveness or the impact of this, but there’s no denying that these artists are using everything they have to try and serve their Lord Jesus.


These bands have Christian names, their artwork and presentation are suffused with Biblical imagery, they talk with honesty and intensity about issues real Christians face. Some of their lyrics consist of actual quotes from Scripture. And they’re not only for Christians. Some — admittedly not a majority, but more than you might think — have crossed over and have appeal and cachet among secular metalheads, as well. They play festivals alongside non-Christian (sometimes unchristian) bands. They carry the light of Christ into dark places where the stereotypical middle-class American Christian might not be welcomed, or feel welcome. They are salt and light in a segment of society that a lot of Christians, rightly or wrongly, would be inclined to write off as the devil’s domain. In that regard, we can approve of Christian rock bands, because they follow the Lord’s example and reach out to those whom their society disregards or disdains.

What follows is a list of the bands I’ve discovered who play aggressive hard rock, of varying genres, and are Christian. This list is by no means exhaustive. You’re encouraged to do your own reseach if you like this stuff. As with everything except the Scriptures, read and listen with your filters intact and functioning. “Test everything.” The bands below are not uniform in the way they voice their Christian convictions, nor are they in lockstep with the extent that their Christianity influences their art. Be discerning, but make sure you support the Christian artists whose work you appreciate, so they can keep making it.  I’ll give you the list first, and in a future post I’ll give my comments on a number of bands whom you might start with, if you’re interested in getting into this music. Maybe this list can help you, or a friend, child, or grandchild.

There’s such an enormous variety of music in the world, and so much worthwhile Christian music being made — including really abrasive, preternaturally aggressive rock music – that there’s no point in insisting on something anti-Christian or opposed to the Bible when you can have a similar sound with God-honoring content. I still listen to music that isn’t explicitly Christian, and contemporary Christian may very well never be my favorite. But of the music I do listen to, a much higher percentage of it is Christian now than formerly. That’s just because there’s so much good stuff out there. This list is alphabetical, so you can make your own judgment about the artistic merits of each one. Enjoy the list, and let me know what bands you’ve discovered and like.

  1. A Plea for Purging
  2. Alstadt (unblack metal)
  3. Ark of the Covenant
  4. August Burns Red
  5. Becoming the Archetype
  6. Bloodlines
  7. Convictions
  8. Corpus Christi
  9. Death Therapy (industrial/dance metal)
  10. Demon Hunter
  11. Destroy the Runner
  12. Drottnar (unblack/martial metal)
  13. Earth Groans
  14. Extol
  15. Fit for a King
  16. For Today
  17. Gideon
  18. HaShem
  19. Holy Blood (folk/Viking metal sound)
  20. Hope for the Dying
  21. Impending Doom
  22. In the Midst of Lions
  23. I, the Breather
  24. Mychildren Mybride
  25. Oh, Sleeper
  26. Phineas
  27. Ritual Servant (vintage thrash sound)
  28. Saving Grace
  29. Silent Planet
  30. Sleeping Giant
  31. Suspiria Profundis
  32. Texas in July
  33. The Ascendicate
  34. The Devil Wears Prada
  35. Vials of Wrath
  36. War of Ages
  37. Wolves at the Gate
  38. Wovenwar
  39. Your Memorial




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.


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.


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, 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.)






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.