Monthly Archives: January 2017

When Every Earthly Prop Gives Way

It will therefore be no small gain to a penitent to remember above all his baptism, and, confidently calling to mind the divine promise which he has forsaken, acknowledge that promise before his Lord, rejoicing that he is still within the fortress of salvation because he has been baptized, and abhorring his wicked ingratitude in falling away from its faith and truth. His heart will find wonderful comfort and will be encouraged to hope for mercy when he considers that the promise which God made to him, which cannot possibly lie, is still unbroken and unchanged, and indeed, cannot be changed by sins, as Paul says (2 Timothy 2:13): “If we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.” This truth of God, I say, will sustain him, so that if all else should fail, this truth, if he believes in it, will not fail him. In it the penitent has a shield against all assaults of the scornful enemy, an answer to the sins that disturb his conscience, an antidote for the dread of death and judgment, and a comfort in every temptation—namely, this one truth—when he says: “God is faithful in his promises [Hebrews 10:23; 11:11], and I received his sign in baptism. If God is for me, who is against me?” [Romans 8:31].

– Martin Luther, “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church”, LW 36:59

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 8:23-27

Calm seas. Then a storm. Broken words: Lord, save, we die. We are perishing is polite. Then a word from Jesus that sounds like an insult, but is actually not an insult: Why are you afraid, O you of little faith. The word is actually one word in Greek: little faithers. Though their faith is weak, there is faith present. That is not an insult but the way things are.

Let’s consider that question: Why are you afraid? The “Doomsday Clock” moved thirty seconds toward doomsday this past week, the closest the clock has been to the end of the world in a long time. Say what you will about the state of our country, let alone the world, people are scared. There is uncertainty in the economy. There is uncertainty in foreign relations. There is uncertainty that our congregation, or any congregation in Momence, will be here into the next decade.

Where is Jesus in the midst of the uncertainty? He’s in the back of boat sleeping. It’s a good time to sleep. Jesus has preached an extended sermon and healed many people. The guy just wants to get a little rest. We all know what it’s like to sleep through a thunderstorm. Rain, hail, thunder, and lightning sound like doomsday outside. Yet we sleep soundly in our beds, oblivious to what’s happening. You wake up the next morning, discover twigs and limbs down in your yard, and can’t believe there was a thunderstorm. Even the tornado siren didn’t wake you up.

Your life is a dumpster fire, so to speak, and Jesus is fast asleep. You think He can’t, or won’t, hear your prayers. You see no visible evidence of Him caring for you. You’ve stuck with Him through it all and He’s snoring when you need Him most. Your prayers now take the shape of the disciples in the boat: one word imperatives. Lord, help, I die. Lord, help, my job. Lord, help, no friends. Lord, help, marriage. Lord, help, children.

Why are you afraid, O you of little faith? Jesus may seem asleep, but He hears you. He helps you. Do you not believe it? Or is your faith weak? Weak faith does not mean no faith. Weak faith means an opportunity to strengthen it, especially in times of trial. As we prayed in today’s collect, He knows that we live in the midst of so many dangers that in our frailty we cannot stand upright. When we are weak, Jesus is strong. He stands up in the hour of need to hear your prayer. Though we are many times of little faith, there stands Jesus to strengthen us. He is listening. He will take care of your need in His way and according to His will.

Jesus’ question is followed by another question after He calms the storm: What sort of man is this? That’s the Epiphany question. What sort of man is this Who can sleep through a devastating storm, yet remain asleep until His disciples wake Him? What sort of man is this Who rebukes the winds and the sea? What sort of man is this Who brings great calm? This man is no ordinary man. He is also God incarnate.

The same voice that brought the heavens and the earth into existence is able to calm physical distress by opening His mouth and speaking to it. Winds and sea must hearken to His voice. How much more, then, is this man able to hear you and speak to your need?

Yet Jesus does not speak to each of us individually as if we are having a polite conversation. He speaks to us using earthly stuff. Jesus speaks His Word proclaimed from lectern and pulpit using pastors’ mouths to bring the peace and tranquility of forgiveness of sins. We daily sin much. God’s grace to us in Jesus Christ is more than enough to cover our multitude of sins.

Our problem is that we don’t actually believe it. We think there’s a catch, a trap, something along the way that doesn’t truly deliver what Jesus gives us. We spend more time looking for the exception rather than rejoicing in the norm. The norm for our Savior is to remember our sins no more. He has borne every last one of them in His body for our sake. He bleeds and dies for your sin. There is no sin that can cling to you. There is no sin that accuses you. The accuser, Satan, has nothing to say about it except empty bluster. Jesus has paid for them in full. No catch. No strings.

Saint Paul says in today’s Epistle that love is the fulfilling of the law. What great love the Father has shown us in His only-begotten Son! Jesus is the sort of man Who takes away sin and gives everlasting life. He calms storms. He heals lepers. He changes water into wine. He raises the dead. He speaks to your need for His aid in His Word. He delivers that aid by washing away your sin in Baptism and feeding you with His forgiveness in His Supper. That’s the sort of man Jesus is. You cry to the Lord in your trouble, and He delivers you from your distress. Believe it for His sake.

Third Sunday after Epiphany – Matthew 8:1-13

Perhaps you’ve heard stories about how people bought cars years ago. Perhaps you bought a car once this way. You found the car you liked, the dealer threw you the keys, you “test-drove” the car for a few days, then you came back either to buy the car or try another one. The dealer knew you wouldn’t drive the car 95 miles an hour on the Dan Ryan. You knew you’d get the best deal possible to buy the car. Both parties went home happy. The business principle then was your word. Only say the word and you could make a deal.

A person’s word goes far today, yet it doesn’t go as far. Politicians say a lot of words, but how many of them they can back up with action is a different story. We often write checks with our mouth that we know we’ll never cash. Or we, sinners that we are, play the hypocrite, put on the mask, and pretend to say one thing when we actually mean the other thing.

For Jesus Christ and for two men we meet in today’s Gospel, only say the word is all that’s needed. In the centurion’s case, Jesus is amazed that the centurion understands how words have authority, for the centurion is a man under authority. What’s even more amazing about both men is they aren’t Jews, but they believe Jesus’ Word has the authority to do what He says it will do. This is contrary to what our Lord’s own people say and believe about Him. The word they would rather say is “There’s no room for Gentiles to recline at table”.

Epiphany is a season that has a theme of the mission of God running through it. The eastern sages from afar are led to Jesus by a guiding star. The word they studied led them to worship the Christ Child. The word in a dream led them to go home another way in order to escape Herod’s rage.

Today we see the mission of God extend to two people who actually believe the Word spoken by Jesus will do what He says. Both are unwelcome visitors among Jews. One is a leper, unclean and separated from society. The other is a centurion, a Roman citizen, and a Gentile. He should be the absolute last person to believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Yet both men call Him Lord. That should be our first clue that something is different about both these men.

Jesus does say one chapter earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. The obvious way to do the will of the heavenly Father is to be circumcised or to be clean of all leprosy. Convert to the Jewish faith and then maybe, just maybe, if you’ve done the will of the heavenly Father just so, you will enter the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus takes that notion and stands it on its ear by allowing a leper to approach Him, kneel before Him (the word is actually fall down and worship Him) and say Lord, if You will, You can make me clean. The leper takes what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about prayer and puts it to use. Jesus taught the crowds to pray Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Another way of putting it is Let Thy will be done. The Lord will let His will happen. It’s a matter of when.

When is now for the leper. I will; be clean. The leper receives immediate cleansing. Then the leper gets another word. See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them. Why should he remain quiet? Why does Jesus seem to point the leper back to the Law of Moses after setting him free from leprosy? Jesus sends the leper to the priest for a proof to them. The leper gets to preach Who healed him to the priest, the one responsible for showing and teaching people Messiah from the Law and the prophets. The leper, as it were, is a missionary; proclaiming the power of the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ.

Then comes the centurion. Jesus is ready to go with him but the man won’t have it. Only say the word. The centurion knows the power of the word. When he says something, it is done. It is done because the centurion is a man under authority. You don’t get to take on authority, authority takes on you. The centurion holds an office. In that office there is authority given to him to say and do certain things in order to maintain authority and carry out his office.

It’s no wonder the centurion amazes Jesus. You would think Jesus’ own people, many of whom did not know Him when He came to them, would see that He has authority through His preaching and now through miracles like healing. Many of them believed. Many more doubted. Still more wanted Jesus out of the way. Their places are filled by those who will come from eat and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven.

That’s scandalous. Jesus utters the names of three patriarchs, even the father of all patriarchs himself, and in the same breath says many not from that bloodline will be welcomed at table to eat with them. You can tell a lot about a person in the time of Christ by whom they invited for meals. Table fellowship shows an intimacy that is almost as close as family. No wonder restaurants like Olive Garden use a slogan like, “When you’re here, you’re family.” They get table fellowship.

Jesus draws the family circle much wider with these healings. His words echo the prophet Isaiah, who says behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene…. So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun; for he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the Lord drives. Sadly, though, the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. That light is for them as much as it is for God’s chosen people.

All we have in the Christian Church to bring people from darkness into light is the Word. As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation of the Church, we note that Martin Luther and his comrades knew this well. The pulpit and the printing press were the two most powerful weapons in their struggle. The Holy Spirit went with the Word spoken and the Word printed in Bibles and other pieces of literature. The Good News of forgiveness in Jesus Christ for all was proclaimed far and wide.

As it was for Luther and his ilk, so it is for us today. All we have is the Word proclaimed from this pulpit, the Word joined with water in the font, and the Word under bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper. There Jesus is at work, bringing the lost to recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The patriarchs, you, and me, too, all cling to the Word spoken to us about the Savior, His cleansing blood shed for your sins, and the reign of heaven He brings with Him. Only say the word and watch lepers cleansed, a centurion’s servant healed, and Gentiles come to the brightness of His light.

Rejoice in the Lord, O you righteous ones, and give thanks to His holy Name!

Second Sunday after Epiphany – John 2:1-11

With God nothing is impossible. Yet timing is everything. God willing, next week we will hear about a leper being healed and a centurion begging Jesus to heal His servant. Jesus is ready at that moment to heal the leper and the servant. In the centurion’s case, Jesus need not be present to heal his servant.

This week, however, we hear of a seemingly patient, even grouchy Jesus at a wedding in Cana. When Mary said to Him they have no wine, Jesus seems quick to put on the brakes. Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come. Why is Jesus so quick to heal in two cases, yet seemingly so slow to help a bride and groom out of an embarrassing situation right now?

Jesus is a guest among other guests at this wedding. But wouldn’t you know it, the wine runs out. Wedding feasts used to run multiple days when our Lord Jesus walked the earth. It was the custom, as we heard, to serve the Montrachet and other high-dollar wines first, and then switch to three-buck Chuck once everyone had their share. So you would think Jesus Christ, Almighty God in flesh, the supreme benefactor of every blessing Whose fountain never runs dry, would step up right away with a fresh supply of wine.

You would be wrong. The impossible is taking place. Jesus doesn’t have any reserve on hand. No one has reserve wine. That’s the host’s responsibility. Mary wants to spare the couple from the shame of not having enough hospitality on hand. So she tells Him, they have no wine. She knows He is able to take care of the problem. Yet this hint, an eloquent and succinct request, gave Jesus an opportunity: My hour has not yet come.

We suffer much worse indignity than running out of wine. The Lord still seems to speak the same words in our house as He spoke at Cana. Lack, distress, embarrassment, fear, and other temptations occur despite what we believe and our piety in believing. The way to heaven is the way of the cross. If we expect Jesus to speak these words in our time of need, then why are we surprised that He also speaks them in a time of joy? How can there be lack of anything at a wedding, at any joyful gathering, or even when we pray for what seems mundane? Hard is the fall when our Lord’s response sounds like what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.

That’s where we would quit. Prayer falls silent. Faith waxes dim. Yet for Mary there is an opportunity. She interprets this seemingly harsh response in a crazy way: the way of believing that her Son actually will do something about it. Mary, with sharp eyes, saw a promise in His words to her. Saint John never tells us why Jesus speaks this way to His mother. We might dare to see in her words, though, her strong faith in her Savior in action here. She took apparent rejection as an assent, as a promise, and said to the servants, do whatever He tells you.

Mary displays the art of clinging to Jesus even when all hope seems lost. If the Lord seems to give a negative answer at times, if He seems to hear, if He seems to echo the words of Psalm 77: Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?, then faith says: take heart. Take heart even though He says My hour has not yet come. An hour is coming. His hour of help, of grace, of joy, is yours sooner than later. Jesus’ rebuke is actually a promise, words of comfort for you. The hour is coming. We wait for it in hope and patience. When it does arrive, there is help, and in that help the Lord reveals His glory.

The hour arrives with what looks like a whimper: fill the jars with water. The jars Jesus refers to are the six stone water jars for ritual purification. These jars were emptied every so often in order to keep the water pure and clean. So the servants fill up the jars without knowing what is going to happen next. Saint John reports 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.” Why would anyone want to bring water meant for ritual purification to the master of the feast? Remember what Mary told the servants: do whatever he tells you.

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.” This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. The hour has arrived. What joy there is once again as Jesus manifests His glory by restoring joy in the midst of sorrow.

John is also quick to mention that His disciples believed in Him. They were already believers before, but their faith receives such a powerful increase by this sign of Christ that their faith before this moment seemed like a faint glimmer. It was as if they got it at that moment. Scales fell from their eyes, so to speak. They saw their Savior at work. His Word was put into action and they believed.

Perhaps you have had moments like that in your life. It seemed as if help would never come. Then, when help came, it was as if help was always there. You forgot what you lacked. You cling to the One Who brought relief. The water of anxiety becomes the wine of joy. Now perhaps you see why the Psalms mention waiting so many times. Our Savior, Jesus Christ hears you. He answers you. His answer is always the best answer. With His answer comes joy, for His help is exactly what you need at the time you need it. Timing, indeed, is everything, and God’s time is always best.

First Sunday after Epiphany – Luke 2:41-52

As many times as Jesus says something profound, there are many times when those who hear Him say profound things have an “Oh, wow!” reaction.

Simon Peter answered Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. All spoke well of Jesus and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” These reactions are not exclusive to the four Gospels. Take for example this verse from Psalm 45: You are the most handsome of the sons of men; grace is poured upon your lips; therefore God has blessed you forever.

You might be able to come up with a short list of your favorite sayings of Jesus. Some you may know by heart, like John 3:16. Some you may know if I gave you a few words: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Some we get to work through every year, like our Lord’s farewell discourse in John chapter 14 through 16 that we hear midway through Easter to Pentecost.

Then there’s the underdog saying, the first words Saint Luke reports from the mouth of Jesus: Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? That’s good stuff, too. Those two simple interrogative statements show us Who Jesus is as a person. He is God. He is also man.

The season of Epiphany shows us Jesus according to His two natures. We see little peeks of His divinity working through His humanity. We’re blessed to have four Sundays of Epiphany this year, not including Transfiguration Day. This gives us the opportunity to hear four peeks of God working among His people in miraculous ways, capped off by the grandest manifestation of His divinity next to the Resurrection: His transfiguration.

Today we find the high mystery of the personal union of both natures in Christ. That’s the fifty dollar way to explain what’s going on when Jesus “gets lost” and “is found” by Mary and Joseph in Jerusalem. The fifty cent explanation is that this account shows us how Jesus’ divine and human natures work together, yet remain distinct. It’s hard to explain it any better lest we veer off into bad analogies that get us in trouble. So let’s stick with what we hear Saint Luke tell us.

Mary calls Jesus Son. Jesus lets that stand. Yes, He is Mary’s Son and Joseph’s Son according to the flesh. Yet our Lord responds to His mother: Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house? Jesus isn’t back in Nazareth helping Dad in the carpenter’s shop. He is the Son of God. Jesus is Mary’s Son and God’s Son.

This is a unique situation in which the child Jesus, our dear Lord God, wishes to let it be known that He was not subject to His mother by necessity or authority. What He did was done freely and with good intentions to show He was not under obligation. He was not only mother’s Son, but also her Lord and God.

Jesus is not being disobedient here. It’s as if He is teaching Mom and Dad that He has authority over them even as a twelve-year-old boy. Mary has treasured so many things in her heart over the course of the last twelve plus years. Our Lord’s two simple questions to His earthly parents serve as a reminder to remember what the angels, the shepherds, Simeon, and others had said about Him. Yes, they should have known better. Yet this is a teachable moment for them, and for us, that Jesus owes primary obedience to His heavenly Father.

Jesus must be found where His Father is found. He is sent to do His heavenly Father’s business: reconciling sinners to the Father. A three-day search for Jesus ends in the temple, the place where their search should have started in the first place. Yet when they find Him, His parents rejoice over a lost son found. They find Him in the temple sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.

Add Mary and Joseph to those who were amazed at His answers, or in this case, His questions. His Father’s house is the place where salvation is proclaimed. Week after week His parents went to the synagogue to hear the Law and the prophets proclaim the coming of One Who would be sent to save God’s chosen people from their sins. Jesus went with them, even though He is the Word made flesh. Even He heard what He is given to do as Messiah. As a twelve-year-old boy, Jesus does not shirk what is given Him to do. He listens to the teachers, and asks questions of what He hears.

There’s a lot of comfort for us finding Jesus in the temple with Mary and Joseph. Like them, the temple is probably the last place we’d find Him. It remains that way today. We try to find Jesus everywhere except where He promises to be. We think, well, He does say I am with you always. Yet He doesn’t give specifics on where He is with us. So I’ll find Him my own way.

Mary and Joseph know about finding their Son their own way. Three days later they find Him where He wants them to find Him. It’s not a cruel game. It’s a comforting thing to find Jesus being obedient to His Father in His Father’s house. Our obedience is actually disobedience. We’ll go anywhere but God’s house to find God. We’ll try to see Him everywhere except in preaching, in baptism, and in His Supper. Yet there He is, in His house, just where He said He will be when He institutes baptism, His Supper, and the preaching of His Good News for you.

As Jesus is in His Father’s house, so you let yourself be found there as well. Stick close to Jesus, for in Him there is forgiveness of your sins. His perfect obedience is cast upon you as you believe He saves you in the shedding of His blood for your sake. You can’t work harder or give it another go. Jesus has gone the distance, and then some, and given you all the spoils of His victory. He alone does wondrous things. Oh, wow, indeed.

The Inner Life of the Congregation

This is from Löhe’s Agenda, translated by David Ratke. This is the reading in Treasury of Daily Prayer for January 2, the commemoration of the falling asleep of J.K. Wilhelm Löhe on this date in 1872.

In worship the congregation experiences its Lord most intimately. Here it lives in nearest proximity to its Groom in a heavenly life on earth, an earthly life in heaven. Worship is the most beautiful flower of earthly life. Just like land in the middle of an ocean, the Word and the Sacraments stand in the inner life and worship of the congregation. You have one week behind you, a new week lies in front of you. Between these two weeks is the day of Communion Sunday. You desire to draw near to God with the congregation. What do you, whether you are a shepherd or a sheep, have to do first? You do what all religions say is necessary for the soul: you cleanse it like feet that have become dirty from the activity of daily life. In other words, you prepare yourself for worship by confessing your sins and receiving absolution. Being cleansed from sin, you enter into the joys of the particular festival day or Sunday. But the worshiper finds that earth still has other burdens and sorrows, both present and future. Life, death, and eternity, with all of their bitter fruits and consequences, threaten you as you journey to the heavenly kingdom. Worries burden you and keep burdening you. But no longer does sin torture you, no longer do you fear evil, no longer do you sigh longingly, but joyful confidence fills your soul. You sit beneath the face of the Lord. In the sermon you begin to experience the blessed communion of the saints who rejoice in the Lord. The worshiping congregation experiences itself as the Bride of the Lord, rich not only in and through Him but also in and through one another. The congregation, in its fullness, thinks of the special needs and miseries upon the earth, delights in all good things, and goes before the altar of the Lord with intercessions, petitions, and prayers. All worshipers are blessed and approach the throne of blessing knowing they are worthy. The worshipers realize that the Church is one unit both here and everywhere. Pilgrims are one in their prayers and are cleansed with all of the blessed saints in heaven.