Third Sunday after The Epiphany – Matthew 8:1-13

This is the final sermon I preach as Pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Momence, IL.
            Only say the word.

            If anyone knows the authority of a word, it is a centurion. He tells Jesus I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it. When authority is given to you, you are able to say the word and things happen.

            You’ve seen this happen many times in your life. Sometimes it’s for good. You think something is impossible and then, someone says a word and the impossible becomes possible. Sometimes it’s for bad. We all know what “clouting” means. Mike Royko made it a household word in the 1960s when he described how knowing the right person in the Chicago political machine opens doors for opportunity, authority, power, and money. Someone had to “clout” for you to get it done.

            It’s the good kind of authority that Saint Matthew, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, focuses on in Matthew chapter eight. No one needs to clout for Jesus. Jesus doesn’t even need to go to the centurion’s home to heal his paralyzed servant. The centurion says to Jesus: Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.

            The centurion’s authority is earth bound. Even though his words have authority, his authority only goes so far. He is not able to heal. He believes, however, that Jesus’ authority is not earth bound. Jesus’ words are the heavenly Father’s words. They have an out of this world authority.

            When Jesus heard what the centurion says, Saint Matthew tells us He marveled. Let’s consider who the centurion is in order to see why Jesus marveled. The centurion is a Gentile, a Roman citizen, considered by others perhaps to be pagan, and yet He believes that Jesus has the authority to heal his paralyzed servant. All these factors line up for Jesus to marvel at what the centurion says. It can’t be possible. But it is possible because the centurion believes Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and by believing He has life in His name.

            Not only does Jesus marvel, He adds, truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Ouch! That’s quite a dig against our Lord’s own people. Yet many indeed will come from east and west and recline at table with the patriarchs. That’s the blessed promise of eternal life for the Gentiles, not by might, nor by power, nor even by blood, but by the Holy Spirit working in the Word proclaimed to the centurion.

            For nearly fifteen years I have stood in this pulpit and done what the Lord has told me to do when I was set apart by prayer and the laying on of hands: preach the Gospel. You called me here for one reason: only say the word. Someone has to stand in this chancel and say the word that is given him to say. Of the many choices placed before you fifteen years ago this month, the Lord saw fit that you chose me.

            When Pastor Koeppen, then circuit visitor, called me that Thursday night in January of 2007 to tell me I was called to serve as your pastor, I was afraid. Kankakee County was a long way from home. There were a lot of questions and not many answers. Yet in that process of discerning whether I should stay or I should go, I saw the Lord’s hand at work in that process. We couldn’t afford a home in Momence. You bent over backward to make the parsonage into a home again. Our family quickly outgrew the parsonage. You found a way to make our growing family fit in it. When there were financial problems, they were quickly solved. When we closed our doors for a time during the pandemic, the ministry of the Gospel continued and you supported it.

            Do I say these things because you need to pat yourselves on the back? No. I say these things because you responded to the word that was preached in your midst. It’s been my privilege to stand here and only say the word. Everything else is the Lord at work in you, taking care of my family and making sure the Gospel continues to be proclaimed in Momence. Next weekend, Pastor Stein will stand here and only say the word. Sins will be forgiven. Forgiveness and eternal life will be given out in the Gifts. Perhaps this summer you’ll have a new shepherd of the Good Shepherd’s flock who will only say the word. As you have filled me with joy in your response to the Gospel, so I know you will do the same for him.

            One more thing. The good news of the Gospel is that no goodbye is final. My Uncle Loren believed that when he insisted we never say goodbye in his presence. Instead we said, “See you at the next meeting.” Even if I never get to see you again this side of Paradise, the sure and certain hope we have because of Jesus Christ is that I will see you again at the next meeting. Maybe it’ll be this summer during the Gladiolus Festival. Maybe it’ll be on Judgment Day. The circle will never be unbroken for us Christians. Jesus has said the word and, like the centurion, we believe it because our Savior is the God-man with authority. His authority is to forgive our sins and raise us on the Last Day. Only say the word, dear Lord, and we, too, shall be healed. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

Second Sunday after The Epiphany – John 2:1-11

            We’ve all been to enough wedding receptions to think that Jesus would probably skip the reception and head right home after the ceremony. There’s too much drinking going on. Someone is going to overeat if there’s a buffet. At least there’s the bouquet toss but, really, removing the bride’s garter and flinging it into a crowd of bachelors? I don’t think our Lord needs to see that, let alone participate in the dollar dance or even the chicken dance.

            Yet Jesus doesn’t go home after the wedding ceremony in Cana. Granted the custom of the time is different than today and the party goes on for quite a while, but He’s there, enjoying Himself with His disciples and His mother. Jesus loves a party and this one is no exception.

            But how can it be that someone as pious and holy as the very Son of God Himself would stoop so low as to participate in something so worldly as a wedding party? The reason why is the reason for the season of Epiphany. Jesus is among us not only as God, performing signs and wonders for people, but also as man, enjoying the company of His fellow human beings. Let this penetrate your mind as we draw closer to the season of Lent. It makes sense. The God-man, Jesus Christ, is both human and divine. He has feelings, just like you and me. He eats and drinks, just like you and me. He enjoys a party, just like you and me. He does not consider it above His raising to hang out with tax collectors, sinners, and the normal rabble of humanity, just like you and me.

            Well, that last one may be a bit of a stretch for you and me, but not so for Jesus. His pleasure is with the children of men. That’s why He was invited to the wedding. He gladly accepted the invitation. Jesus is there in times of joy. We believe He is present in times of suffering, but we forget that Jesus is present in happy days as well.

            The Juhl family started a tradition of having a family reunion when I was eight years old. It was a red-letter day for me because I would get to see cousins who lived in the Saint Louis and Chicago area. My Aunts Ruth and Alberta would fly in from suburban Los Angeles and San Francisco, respectively. Often it was the only time of the year I’d get to see them. My cousin Gary would be asked to offer a prayer at the reunion until I was older and the family let the preacher of the bunch offer a prayer. Not only was the food blessed, but the Lord was thanked and welcomed for blessing and keeping us together as a family.

            In times of joy there can also be times of suffering. Jesus knows that feeling, too. He is a human being. He cries upon hearing the news of the death of His friend Lazarus. At Cana, Jesus also knows that the guests are suffering because there is no more wine. Jesus doesn’t split the scene because there’s no wine. He stays at the feast, even when His mother tells Him, they have no wine.

            This is a scene familiar to us all. Jesus is present in sufferings, just as He is present in joys. Yet it seems as if His presence is more near to us when we suffer than when we have no sufferings. All sufferings, no matter the severity, cease to be sorrow when Jesus is with you. You now have confidence, boldness, and good courage…words that are not often associated with sufferings. Jesus Christ, the Helper, is right there, your friend in need, and we know that friends in need are friends indeed. Jesus proves Himself to be a friend indeed as He does something about the lack of wine.

            Jesus, the bringer of joy and the balm of sufferings, is both human and divine. He shows His omniscience and omnipotence at the wedding feast in Cana. Before Mary tells Him they have no wine, He knows the wine has been used up. He knows the proper time to help and He isn’t embarassed about helping. Yet there are times when that help comes later than you’d like. Remember that you are not in control of the Lord’s provision. He knows when to step in and provide what you need so that you look to Him for His help.

            For Lazarus, it seemed as if Jesus was too late in arriving. Dead four days, Jesus finally shows up and surprises everyone by raising Him from the dead. The wedding guests in Cana didn’t have to wait four days for wine. When the time is ripe, Jesus will help. Sometimes His help quickly arrives. Other times it may tarry for a while. When it comes, not if it comes, there is joy in His presence and aid.

            Joy comes in the nick of time when Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” So they took it. When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.”

            Jesus accomplishes an act of creation in their midst. Think about that for a moment. You’re at a wedding party and the wine runs out. All it takes is one man to take care of the problem. Not only is there no lack, there is the best wine being served when usually swill is served. You and I would know that as His beloved children but even we forget that Jesus is able to help in a remarkable way.

            His disciples believed in Him. They believed not merely because of the sign performed, but because Jesus manifested His glory. Rare are the times you find a friend who is willing to die for you. You have a friend who has died for you, and has risen from the dead for you as well. This friend, Jesus Christ, today brings joy to wedding guests in Cana by changing water into wine. This friend, Jesus Christ, brings joy to Momence in the forgiveness of sins through preaching and through His Supper. These holy things do not look like much, but they are the manifestation of His glory for your sake. Behold the glory of Jesus for your salvation, at a wedding, upon the cross, out of the tomb, and under bread and wine.

First Sunday after Epiphany – Luke 2:41-52

            The Lord saves, even as a 12-year-old boy. So often we focus on His passion that we do not consider the entirety of Christ’s life according to the flesh as one whole work of redemption for our sake. The Formula of Concord, one of our confessional documents, puts it this way: “Faith thus values Christ’s person because it was made under the Law for us and bore our sins, and, in His going to the Father, He offered to His heavenly Father for us poor sinners His entire, complete obedience. This extends from His holy birth even unto death. In this way, He has covered all our disobedience, which dwells in our nature, and its thoughts, words, and works. So disobedience is not charged against us for condemnation. It is pardoned and forgiven out of pure grace alone, for Christ’s sake.” (FC SD III:58)

            Do we believe it? Do we let our inner critic tell us that we must first own our repentance before God applies His righteousness on us? That voice is the voice of the devil, the great liar who tries to get you not to believe that Jesus loves you just the way you are, not the way He wants you to be. Even in His adolescence, the Lord Christ is our perfect and holy righteousness, with which we are able to stand before our heavenly Father in peace and joy.

            Today Jesus Christ fulfills the third and fourth commandment for you. First let’s look at our Lord’s fulfillment of the third commandment. His family goes to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. Their trip from Nazareth to Jerusalem is not about checking boxes and completing a list. They join their fellow Jews in celebrating their redemption from the Egyptians through the blood of a lamb that covered their doorposts and protected them from the angel of death. They celebrate their exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea on dry ground with a wall of water to their left and right. This is the feast of feasts for the Jews. As much as you are able, you celebrate corporately with your fellow Jews in Jerusalem every year.

            We learn in Luther’s explanation of the third commandment that remembering the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy is about not despising preaching and the Word, but holding it sacred, gladly hearing and learning it. Not only does Jesus go to Jerusalem with His parents, He also stays in the temple for an extended period of time in order to hear, remember, and talk about God’s Word. Although Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, His real home is the place where God reveals Himself through His word.

            One of the most popular secular Christmas songs of the last eighty years is “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”. It became a popular song during World War Two, when so many families weren’t together at Christmas time. Although not appropriate for singing in church, the sentiment in the song is worth exploring. The Divine Service, where God meets man in preaching and the Lord’s Supper, is our home not only for Christmas, but for every feast of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is where God reveals and applies His righteousness on sinners.

            Jesus also keeps the fourth commandment, honoring His father and mother by returning to Nazareth with them and was submissive to them.

            But what about the moments where Jesus evaded His parents? Doesn’t He break the fourth commandment by being disobedient to them when they were ready to go home and He stayed behind? Not so. Jesus was drawing His parents to Himself when Mary and Joseph thought He was lost. Even His mother said to Him: Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress. Jesus said to them: Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? There is a time when Jesus is obedient to His earthly parents. There is also a time when Jesus is obedient to His Father in heaven. Jesus draws His parents to Himself in the temple so they are able to hear and to see for themselves that He is their Savior as well as their son.

            Jesus’ fulfilling the third and fourth commandment for our sake brings peace to our soul, especially when we consider ourselves in the light of these two commandments. When we consider how we have fallen short of holding preaching and Word sacred, and how we have despised both secular and sacred authority, our consciences may be tormented to the point of despair. This especially happens on a Christian’s deathbed, where pet sins tend to hold our attention. We hate our pet sins, yet they are so common that it feels good not to hate our pet sins.

            Where is our hope either on our deathbed or in the very midst of life? Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Jesus’ words to Mary today: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house, are spoken to ease our conscience as much as to remind Christ’s parents where He is to be found doing the work of His heavenly Father.

            Although we want to seek the Savior, the Savior seeks us and finds us where He promises to be found. Hearing His Word read and applied to your situation in life, eating and drinking His true Body and true Blood, rejoicing in your baptism, your incorporation into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, here is where Jesus finds you and declares you to be His precious child. These holy things for holy ones are not a mere ticking of boxes on the road to salvation. These holy things for holy ones both create and sustain faith in Jesus Christ unto life everlasting. They also soothe our conscience and direct us to a merciful heavenly Father Who loves to give good things to His children and loves to hear them talk to Him in prayer.

            We say with Saint Peter, Lord, it is good that we are here. Yet we also know there are times when we wish we were anywhere but here. That’s the way it is this side of Paradise. There will always be a struggle to be found by Jesus, and also to get lost so He cannot find us. Our Lord is relentless in seeking lost sheep. He is relentless because He loves you and wants you to stay close to Him in times both bad and good. Even at the age of twelve Jesus is seeking you and drawing you to His house as He did Mary and Joseph. Within the Father’s house the Son has found His home. Within the Father’s house, you have found your home of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Savior of the Nations, Jesus Christ.

Christmas Eve – Luke 2:1-20

            “It is what it is.” I don’t know who popularized that phrase, but it has become part of our national conversation. Nothing is good, but nothing is bad. You can’t change anything and even if you could, what good would it do. It is what it is.

            Might this feeling of “meh” be turned into joy again? Once upon a time the world was on the move at Christmastime, giving unconscious testimony that this is a special time of the year. Even if the birth of Christ was removed from the season for happy thoughts and good feelings of surviving another year, at least the world knew something special was happening. Those days, for now, maybe forever, are past. Yes, many people are hurting this time of year and would rather not be festive. Let’s be cognizant about other people’s hesitancy for celebration. Yes, the economy is mired in the mud, spinning its wheels. Yes, other people do not have the means to celebrate as you and I celebrate. But if we allow ourselves to make these the most important things about December 25th, then no wonder it seems as if we live in a hopeless time.

            Like last year, maybe this is the year that we see Christmas for what it is, not what we want it to be. Maybe this is the year when the hymns “Now Sing We, Now Rejoice”, “Let Us All with Gladsome Voice”, and “Oh, Rejoice, Ye Christians Loudly”, among the usual carols of the season, strike us in a way we have not felt in a long time. Maybe Christmas is what it is.

            Christmas is a fulfillment of a prophecy. In this case, it is the prophecy of Micah. But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days. For this to be fulfilled, the great and mighty decree of Caesar Augustus must go out. A migration of people must happen in the entire Roman Empire. Although neither Caesar Augustus nor the empire knew about it, they serve the Lord Christ at His birth. They give account that Christ is to be born in Bethlehem. Christmas is what it is, even if we don’t know about it.

            The birth of Jesus Christ according to the flesh takes place under the very lowest and humblest circumstances. There is a stable, with a feeding trough in it, and the Mother of God and Joseph is there, wrapping the newborn in swaddling clothes and laying Him in that feeding trough. All the while, angels proclaim Christ’s birth to mankind. The first audience is shepherds who come running to the stable to see this thing that has happened. Christmas is what it is, even if there aren’t fancy decorations, professional singers, and famous people hosting holiday specials.

            God makes Christmas important for us. When we hear the usual Bible readings, when we hear the usual Christmas hymns and carols, when we see the church building decorated for the season, even when we decorate our homes and buy gifts for our loved ones, all these things spiritually set us in motion to migrate in spirit to Bethlehem and stand with the shepherds, with Mary, and with Joseph to witness this wonder. The prophet Isaiah says, In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. Christmas is what it is because the resting place of God is with man.

            The resting place of God is a wonderful message. God’s Son appears in the flesh. He is born a man, born our brother, and born our Savior. When God appears to people in Scripture, He veils Himself in order that they do not die when they see the glory of God. The glory of God is now wrapped in flesh. Now we can see God and not be scared to die. We are instead filled with great joy because God’s Son appears as Savior to all people in order to save us from our sins. Christmas is what it is because God turns our fear into joy in the birth of His only-begotten Son.

            The song of the world this time of year is perhaps my favorite secular Christmas song: “If We Make It Through December” by Merle Haggard, the Poet of the Common Man. The song’s protagonist works hard at the factory. He wants a good Christmas for his daughter. Then he gets laid off from his job. He doesn’t know what to say to his daughter when he tells her that there is not going to be a Christmas this year. He wants the month to pass so that things will be better in the new year. Maybe they’ll move to someplace where he can get work and have Christmas in the future. The song was popular during Christmas of 1973 when our country was divided due to the Watergate scandal, the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and economic hardship.

            Merle’s sentiments still resonate almost fifty years later. Our country is divided, both politically and socially. The war is now between us. The crisis is over the intersection of the common good and individual liberty. The only thing in common between now and then is economic hardship. Maybe we just want to make it through December and forget about Christmas. As much as you and I want to do that, there is a part of each of us that won’t let it happen. Jesus Christ has appeared, bringing life and salvation for us with Him. God shows His good and gracious will and grants His peace, the world to fill—all strife at last has ended.

            You will make it through December. You will make it through the years you have left on earth. God has a heartfelt delight on us unworthy people for the sake of Christ. Christmas is what it is because Christ the Savior is born. The devil can’t make us so angry that he destroys our joy that we have through this Child. Believe it for Baby Jesus’ sake.

Fourth Sunday in Advent – John 1:19-28

            The great advent of the Old Testament is approaching its end. All of the prophecies about Messiah, the One Who is to come, are about to be fulfilled. Even the prologue to John’s gospel that we will hear on Christmas Day makes us think we will jump right in to the life and times of the Christ. All of a sudden, however, a man appears who attracts great attention.

            That man is the son of the high priest Zechariah, who saw the Light of the World under the most miraculous circumstances. On the Day of Atonement it was Zechariah’s turn to enter the Holy of Holies to sprinkle the blood on the Ark of the Covenant. There Zechariah saw the angel of the Lord who announced to him the birth of a son who would be the forerunner to Messiah. The son’s name would be John.

            It is John who emerges as a preacher of repentance with extraordinary power in the Jewish countryside. Many thousands of people were baptized by John in the Jordan for the remission of their sins. Now the high council sends a delegation to John to inquire about him. Who is John? Why is he here? John confessed, and did not deny, but confessed. The twofold testimony of John is our comfort as we approach the birth of Jesus according to the flesh.

            We are comforted by John’s testimony because he first confesses I am not the Christ. Saint Luke tells us that all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ. That is why John gives the definitive answer that he is not the Christ.

            If John is not the Christ, then who is he? Are you Elijah? He said, “I am not.” Here we recall the Old Testament reading from two weeks ago when Malachi says behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. John is not Elijah, yet John comes in the spirit and power of Elijah. John is the fulfillment of Malachi’s prophecy, yet John is not Elijah 2.0. Again John is correct to answer I am not.

            The delegation asks John, “Are you the prophet?” We hear about this prophet in the Old Testament reading from Deuteronomy chapter 18: The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen. Although in a way Moses is speaking about John, as well as the many prophets who came before him, Moses is also speaking about Messiah, too. John is a prophet, but he is not the one whom Moses prophesies. John answers them “No“.

            Now that all possible options are exhausted, the delegation again asks their original question: Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?

            John is the one about whom Isaiah prophesied. We heard that prophecy last week. John is the voice crying in the wilderness. John is the preacher of repentance sent before Messiah to prepare the hearts and minds of God’s chosen people to receive their promised Savior.

            Like the Jews of that time, we let everything get in the way of the message of the season. We spend weeks preparing for one or two days that turn out to be a big sigh of relief rather than a time of joy. We lose the preparation in the midst of all the preparation. John the Baptist’s voice gets lost in the cacophony of voices screaming for our attention.

            We are also comforted by John’s testimony concerning Christ. What does John’s voice cry out? Make straight the way of the Lord. How is that way made straight? The way is made straight when John’s voice becomes the loudest voice we hear before December 25th. John’s loud voice says repent. Be turned back to the Lord your God. Let your sins be washed clean through baptism. Walk a new way prepared for you by John’s preaching, a way made straight so that the Lord Jesus comes to you anew this Christmas as your brother and your Redeemer.

            If you think John’s testimony is something else, wait until you hear the testimony of Messiah. By the time John is preaching in the wilderness, Jesus has come according to the flesh. He has grown into adulthood and already walks in their midst. The delegation sent by the High Council does not know who Jesus is, but they will know Him soon. After our Lord is baptized by John in the wilderness, Jesus begins His preaching of repentance toward the forgiveness of sins. Jesus will add signs to His preaching as well, signs of healing and raising from the dead, not to mention miraculous signs of water turned to wine.

            John tells the delegation, among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie. You know who John is because you learned about him in Sunday School or you heard about him in a Christmas program from days gone by. But do you know John the Baptist? Do you know his preaching? Are you ready to hear what he has to say to you? Listen to John. Messiah is here. Are you prepared? Has John’s bushhog of repentance been run through your life this season? Is every hill knocked flat and every plain raised up for the King of Kings to greet you?

            Advent is waiting for something to happen that has been prophesied about for centuries. For those of old, you know it’s gonna happen, but you don’t know exactly when. For us now, you know it’s happened, and it’s become routine. The routineness of this season becomes like days of old when you stop letting the voices of today dictate your preparation and let the voice of the Ancient of Days sound forth from Holy Scripture: Make straight the way of the Lord.

            This way of the Lord is not a way of looking busy so the Savior is pleased with your hard work and dedication. This way of the Lord is a way of standing still and listening to His voice. Jesus comes to find you. He is relentless in His searching for you. He comes to forgive your sins and give you everlasting life. Here He is, even now, present in His holy Word under bread and wine as you partake of His Supper. Here He is, even now, present in His holy Word sounding forth in your ears through the words of this sermon. Jesus is here, ready to meet you with joy, ready to be born a man for your sake, and ready to suffer all things, even death, for you. Oh, come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Third Sunday in Advent – Matthew 11:2-11

            We live in a time where churches, Christians, and especially pastors, receive at best a lot of criticism, and at worst ignorance from people who are offended at what Christianity has done to others. A group of sinful people who believe they are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ and His righteousness are going to continue to do sinful things. That’s the idea of being both justified and sinner at the same time. Yet there are those who have seen, heard, and experienced the damage Christians do to each other when they take their eyes, ears, and heart away from Christ’s saving word and instead trust in their own ways. Things can only get worse when a Christian congregation does not trust the Lord Jesus Christ, but trusts their pastor, thinking he is the only hope they have for salvation.

            You are not saved by your pastor’s faith. You are not saved by who your pastor is, or isn’t. You are saved by God’s grace through believing in Jesus Christ as Lord. That’s the message John the Baptist prepared people to hear in his preaching of repentance toward the forgiveness of sins. John’s time of preaching is about to end. Jesus is on the scene, giving the blind their sight, the lame the ability to walk, cleansing lepers, giving the deaf their hearing, raising the dead, and preaching Good News to the poor. John sends his disciples to Jesus so they, with others, may see the One for Whom they have been prepared.

            That’s one reason why we Lutherans cover up the pastor with vestments. I don’t have to wear these fancy things. I could stand here in my street clothes and preach the Gospel. But your eyes and ears would focus on my clothes, my body’s appearance, or other physical features. People focused on John’s appearance. He wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. There may have been some who couldn’t get past how John looked or what he ate. Others may have been drawn to his appearance. What mattered most for John, and for the Lord God, is what came out of John’s mouth: Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.

            John repeatedly testified that he was not the Christ. Yet people probably attributed this testimony as modesty and humility. John’s preaching was persuasive as many repented of sin and believed in the coming of Messiah. Many were baptized by John in the wilderness, too. John received the honor of being the only prophet who was able to point his finger to Messiah in the flesh, Jesus Christ. Yet John did not preach John. He preached Christ. No one could come to salvation simply by believing in John the Baptist. No one is able to come to salvation by believing in me or in any other preacher, thanks be to God.

            I recall when my mentor in ministry took a call to another congregation after almost nine years as pastor at my home congregation. A number of families would not come to Divine Service once he left because the pastor left the congregation. “Church just isn’t church anymore without him.” That pastor worked very hard before he left to remind us that the work of the Lord will go on without him and that a new shepherd would take his place to preach Christ crucified. Yet a few families couldn’t deal with not seeing him there every Sunday.

            It’s going to take some time for both you and me to get over the fact that our relationship as preacher and hearers is going to change. The future of Our Savior Lutheran Church is not in my hands, thanks be to God. If it was, I would have long since ruined it. The future of this congregation is also not in your hands for the same reason. The future of the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments is in the Lord’s hands. This is His Church; always has been and always will be. No pastor, no congregation, controls the Lord’s work among His people. He allows both preacher and hearers to see what He does here in His handing over the gifts of forgiveness of sins and eternal life in Word and Sacrament.

            What John wanted his disciples to see, what Jesus wants both you and me to see from His holy Word, is that God saves you through the ministry of the Gospel. This ministry, this giving out His gifts in Word, water, bread, and wine, is necessary in the Christian church. What is not necessary is the man who gives the Gifts. Someone else is going to stand here in a few weeks and continue to tell you that Jesus saves you from death and hell. God willing, the Lord will provide a new shepherd for this flock. He will look, talk, and act differently than I do. One thing is for certain about the new guy: he will, like John the Baptist and like me, point His finger to Jesus and show you your Savior. His ministry of the Good News is your focus, not his personality or his family or what vestments he wears or anything else. Listen to him, for he brings you the Good News.

            Jesus asks the crowds concerning John: What then did you go out to see? They went out to see the man who prepares the royal highway for the King of Kings. What then did you go out to the corner of Second and Pine Streets in Momence, Illinois to see? You went to see not the Dave Juhl show, but the King of Kings coming to you in preaching, in absolution, in your baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. You went to see Jesus Christ, present in His holy Word for you. You came to see the glory of the Lord revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. What has the mouth of the Lord spoken? Her warfare is ended,her iniquity is pardoned,she has received from the Lord‘s hand double for all her sins. In a word: comfort.

Second Sunday in Advent – Luke 21:25-36

            I can still hear the voice of my health coach Tammy tell me when I am down about something to “Look up!” Literally. Look up! Raise up your head and focus on Jesus Christ, Who is seated at the right hand of the Father.

            She’s on to something because Jesus tells us to do the same thing in Luke chapter 21. When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near. What things are drawing near? Signs. Distress of nations. People fainting with fear and foreboding. This world ending.

            That’s a hard pill to swallow for many people, Christians included. All the beautiful things in this world, whether naturally created like the Grand Canyon or built by man like a Frank Lloyd Wright home, will turn to ashes on the Last Day. You cannot take with you all the possessions you treasure. The only possession that matters to our heavenly Father is saving faith in Jesus Christ, our Redeemer.

            If you think Christ’s words here are rough, take a look at Isaiah chapter 24. The prophet, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, paints a picture of destruction rivaling any 1970s Hollywood disaster movies. The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws,violated the statutes,broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse devours the earth,and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt;therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched,and few men are left. Do you want to live for all eternity in a defiled place that lies under a curse? That’s how God sees this world. Sin covers the face of the earth like an out of control oil spill. Transgression spreads like quicksilver and we all suffer for it.

            There is an end to the suffering: the return of Jesus Christ in the flesh to judge the living and the dead. Unlike last time when Jesus returned to Jerusalem on a colt, the foal of a donkey, Jesus will return with power and great glory. When the earth’s inhabitants raise up their heads, many will not like what they see when Christ returns. Our Lord’s visitation of grace among us will end. No longer will the preaching of the Gospel sound among the people. Earth will receive her King, and there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Preachers and preaching will no longer be considered by many as lies and liars spreading lies. Judgment Day has come.

            That is why Jesus tells us to watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. You should expect Jesus to return at any moment. What happens, though, is our growing fat and sassy, thinking Jesus won’t return anytime soon. Then, according to Isaiah, He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit,and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.

            Advent’s focus is not merely on the coming of Jesus according to the flesh. Advent also focuses our eyes and our hearts on the second coming of Christ. Watch yourselves, Jesus says. Don’t get caught in the mousetrap of this life, lest the trigger falls and you be caught in the snare. Prepare yourselves not merely for Christ’s first coming in Bethlehem, but also for His coming to usher in the new creation won for you in His saving death and triumphant resurrection from the dead. As the hymn “The Bridegroom Soon Will Call Us” says: “There God shall from all evil forever make us free, From sin and from the devil, from all adversity, From sickness, pain, and sadness, from troubles, cares, and fears, And grant us heavenly gladness and wipe away our tears.”

            How do I watch? How am I prepared? You watch by staying vigilant for His final appearance through welcoming Christ’s coming among us now in His holy Word and His holy Sacraments. Eat His body. Drink His blood. Listen to His preaching. Listen to Him absolve your sins. Spend time in His Word every day and read what the Lord has to say to you about your salvation. Above all, stay close to Jesus and trust that the promises He makes to you will never be taken away. Clinging to Jesus and His forgiveness, you are well prepared to face the violent end of all things and welcome the new age of eternal gladness.

            Look up! The end of all things is at hand. Look up! Jesus is coming to judge the living and the dead. Look up! A new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness, is on its way. Look up! No sin, no death, no devil, and no hell. Look up! Redemption is near. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

First Sunday in Advent – Matthew 21:1-9

            “Then stepped forth the Lord of all From His pure and kingly hall; God of God, yet fully man, His heroic course began” (Lutheran Service Book 332:4). One year of grace has ended. Another begins today. The world celebrates a new year with great joy, but doesn’t know how the year will go. Christians, too, celebrate a new year with great joy, but we know how the year will go. We know the Lord Jesus Christ will bring us peace and blessings in His time and according to His good and gracious will. We may not receive everything we want, but we will receive all that we need: God’s grace and salvation for us in the Gifts Jesus gives His church.

            Today we consider the words that Jesus fulfills in Matthew chapter 21: Behold, your king is coming to you. These words inspired by the Holy Spirit through the prophet Zechariah are certain because they are not merely promised to the Jews. This message is for us Gentiles, too. The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah: I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth. When prophets like Isaiah and Zechariah prophesy for God’s chosen people, they also speak about you and me, a people grafted into the Vine of Righteousness.

            Jesus coming among us shouldn’t be a surprise. He enters our midst each week in the proclaimed Word and in His true Body and true Blood. We hear His entrance into Jerusalem today as a word picture of His entrance among us in the Divine Service. Jesus does not enter Jerusalem as a worldly king with royal glory, but humbly on a borrowed donkey. Jesus is not surrounded by worldly authorities, but by His disciples and a bunch of people gathered together for whom He will be a spiritual King. So it is again today as Jesus comes to join together in grace among us in the preaching of His Good News for sinners and in His gifts of Baptism, Absolution, and Communion.

            The words of Zechariah quoted by Saint Matthew are also comforting. Jesus comes as our King, but not in the way of earthly kings in splendor and dignity. He comes humbly. He comes to rule us with gentleness and patience, protecting us against all our enemies. His humble entrance into Jerusalem fits with His humble suffering and death for our sins. Humility turns to exaltation as Jesus rises from the grave, giving us victory over our grave. Jesus casts away all fear in His resurrection. We are safe, free, and redeemed under His protection as we wait for the Day of Resurrection when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead.

            When you glance at Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it’s hard to see Him as a King. When you look closely at His entrance on a donkey with clothes strewn in His way, it’s not so hard to see our Savior as a gracious King. There will be new sins in a new church year. One thing is not new: your sins, both new and old, are covered in Christ’s all-sufficient merit as He sheds His blood for your sake. Instead of exhorting you to forgive yourself, He forgives you with pity and compassion. Remember that Jesus is “God of God, yet fully man”. He knows what you need for your salvation. He knows that you cannot save yourself, let alone forgive yourself. That is why He applies His death and resurrection as your death and resurrection.

            The message from the prophet Zechariah is also encouraging. How must the hearts of the people of Old Testament times have been encouraged when they heard a prophet speak of the promise of Messiah! Like us today, they had times of doubt and even unbelief. It had been thousands of years since God the Father promised the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. When would the fullness of time come? When would the Seed step forth from His kingly hall to fulfill the prophecy?

            Old Testament believers hung by a promise concealed. From God’s mouth through the prophets to their ears, they clinged to the Word proclaimed to them in good times and in hard times. God’s people were awakened with the promise of a Savior until the day came when God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to fulfill the law.

            The season of Advent awakens us from dull sloth to the fresh hope of a promised fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ according to the flesh. These four weeks serve as preparation for Christ’s nativity, His tent-pitching among us as the One Who will stomp Satan’s head and undo all that was done in Eden. No wonder the crowds shout out: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest! David’s Son is David’s Lord. David’s Lord has come to put all His enemies, all our enemies, under His feet.

            How shall we welcome our Savior according to the flesh? Take your cue from the crowds and cry “Hosanna!”, “Save us now, Lord!” Your cries are fulfilled today as He comes in our midst bringing forgiveness of sins. Your cries are fulfilled every time we gather in this holy house to receive the holy things the Lord Jesus Christ gives us here. This is the gate of heaven. This is the door of Zion. This is the place where Jesus meets us with joy, not merely a feeling but a state of being. You are rescued from the burning lake of fire and placed into His everlasting kingdom. The angels wonder at what Jesus has done for you, for He dies not for angels, but for mankind. Joy to the world, indeed, for the Lord has come. Let earth receive her King as He humbly comes to you with grace and peace.

Reception and Acceptance of Divine Call

In late October, I received a Divine Call to serve as Pastor of Saint Peter Lutheran Church, Arlington, Wisconsin, USA. Arlington is in southern Columbia County, Wisconsin, 23 miles (37 kilometers) north of Madison, the state capital. This past Sunday, I announced that I have accepted that call.

My final Sunday at Our Savior Lutheran Church, Momence, Illinois, USA, will be January 2nd. I hope to continue posting sermons and occasional writings here once my family and I move to Wisconsin.

Eve of The Day of National Thanksgiving – Philippians 4:6-20

            Tomorrow most of us will sit in a cozy home, eat a satisfying meal, try not to argue with other family members while eating said meal, and then retire to a comfy chair to let the tryptophan do what it does. Then we’ll rise from the comfy chair and eat what’s left of what we didn’t eat the first time. Maybe there’ll be a store or two open for an early Christmas shopping deal you can’t pass up. All in all, a good day; a day in which to be content, even when there’s not much to be content about.

            You probably won’t think much of Saint Paul’s situation while you’re sitting in a comfy chair. Paul’s in prison. He’s still concerned about the many churches that he planted. Others are now watering those plants, but God always gives the growth no matter who is in charge. Paul probably ate better than others in prison, but not as well as you and I will have it tomorrow. He had a company of friends and companions who regularly visited him and took care of his needs. All in all, Paul makes the best of a bad situation. He is content.

            Content, you say? In jail? No one should be content in confinement. Paul is content. In fact, Paul says, In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. What is that secret, Paul? We could use your knowledge today as we face many trials in an increasingly divided nation that is hostile to the Good News of Jesus Christ.

            Contentedness for Saint Paul is rooted in His Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Paul tells the church in Rome, we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. All things? Even bad things? Yes, even the worst of times brings forth much good. Hard times, difficult times, even times where it seems as if everyone is at war with one another, strips away all the creature comforts and gives us the opportunity to consider the one thing needful: the word of forgiveness and reconciliation that is ours because of Jesus Christ.

            Contentedness for you and for me is also rooted in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. When it seems as if nothing and no one wants to work together for good, we are surprised when we discover that our heavenly Father ultimately takes a bad situation and lets something good come from it. Sometimes it takes many years for us to see the benefit, but it is there.

            The situation is not as dire as it was one year ago. This time last year there were at least two families in our congregation suffering through the virus. You were probably scared that the virus would come looking for you next. Now we ride the roller coaster of sickness. The promise of better therapies are on the horizon. If anything, we have learned how best to take care of our health. We have learned to be content with what we have, for even that may be taken from us.

            What about the situation in our congregation? It’s hard to be content when you know your pastor soon will be leaving. The future is murky. It’s murky for my family and me as well. We will move to a place we’ve never lived. I will serve people I don’t know with the Good News of Jesus Christ. How can any of us be content with an unknown future? We listen to what the author of the epistle to the Hebrews says: let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

            We are comfortable carrying the weight that burdens us. We grow accustomed to our pet sins. We think we’re running a marathon when we’re sprinting for our lives and are out of breath. Our eyes are not on Jesus. Jesus’ eyes, however, are always focused on you and me. He finds us where we are and calls us in His Word to look at Him. Look at Him enduring the cross. Look at Him suffering death for your sin. Look at Him rise from the tomb triumphant over death and hell. Look at Him seated at God’s right hand, returning to us soon to judge the living and the dead. Jesus alone is the source of being content.

            That’s all Paul had for his hope, especially in prison for the sake of the gospel. In Paul’s need, the churches were there for him. He knew, though, that the hands of Jesus Christ were caring for him through the hands of the churches who were concerned for the one who preached Jesus Christ and Him crucified. That’s all we have for our hope today. We have a future because Jesus Christ has a future. In Him we have all satisfaction, contentedness, and every reason to be thankful. Though heaven and earth pass away, His Word shall never pass away. His Word declares you righteous, as it declared Paul to be righteous. His Father’s providential care has again seen you through this past year and will see you through to the end, when you fall asleep in Jesus and ultimately receive the crown of life that shall never fade away.

            I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. No matter what you have, or don’t have, you have Jesus Christ, His blood, and His righteousness. It is enough. O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, and His mercy endures forever.