Monthly Archives: May 2018

First Sunday after Trinity – Luke 16:19-31

There’s no better way to consider how God works on us than to consider the parable par excellence that sets up the non-festival half of the church year. On the one hand we see the rich man, clothed in purple and faring sumptuously at every meal. On the other hand we see Lazarus, a poor man covered in sores who finds his only earthly comfort in dog spit that soothes his sores.

Jesus quickly upsets the apple cart when he shows us the eternal welfare of both men after their deaths. Lazarus was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. So far so good. We expect each to receive their eternal reward. The rich man’s reward is in Hades, being in torment.

Not much of a reward, eh? Then comes insult on top of injury, or so it seems. The rich man lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. The man he saw, or maybe perhaps tried not to see, lying at his gate every day now has a place of honor. The honorable rich man, having his necessary creature comforts during his life, now has a place of disgrace.

How can it be? It can be because we have it hard-wired into our brains that riches equal success. That success must necessarily carry over into eternity, or so we think. Jesus says otherwise. Perhaps we might consider the opposite true. If you’re poor and covered in sores, you get an automatic pass into eternal life because God loves the poor more than the rich. After all, riches get in the way of salvation. Plenty or want in earthly things do not matter to our heavenly Father. What matters is the condition of your heart.

We get a glimpse into the heart of the rich man as he says three things in order to redeem himself and, ultimately, his family. We might consider each statement under Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment: “We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” The rich man shows no love toward God and his neighbor as he attempts to use Lazarus to help him in the place of torment. Abraham reminds the rich man, Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. If that wasn’t enough, there is a great chasm fixed between Abraham’s side and Hades. There’s no way you can travel from here to there.

The impudence of the rich man makes us steam with anger. Look at yourself before you get too worked up. You also show no love to God and your neighbor when you use both to get what you want. You can’t manipulate God. He can’t be bribed. He won’t send a loved one back to you to help you or your family. When death comes your eternal lot is cast. Not even a word to the “man upstairs” from anyone, living or dead, can fix it.

The rich man also shows no fear of God when he begs Abraham to send Lazarus to my father’s house for I have five brothers so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment. The rich man did not fear what God says in the Scriptures. We have no evidence from Christ’s parable that he went to the synagogue, let alone the temple. Perhaps he had some head knowledge about the promise of salvation in Messiah, but Jesus doesn’t tell us. His family has every opportunity to hear Moses and the prophets.

You have every opportunity to hear Moses and the prophets, and especially Jesus Himself. Your family has that opportunity, too. Don’t rely on the faith of grandma and grandpa, or uncles and aunts, to suffice for other family members. You can’t ride through the pearly gates on someone else’s coattails. You enter through the narrow Door, Jesus Christ.

The rich man finally doesn’t trust God’s Word to work repentance and faith among his loved ones. No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. He supposes you have to see it to believe it. Reading the Bible isn’t enough. Hearing the Bible read and salvation proclaimed in church isn’t enough. You need to see someone rise from the dead and tell you to repent before it’s too late.

A Day is coming when many will rise from the dead. Some will receive eternal life in the New Creation. Others will receive what they wanted: eternal separation from Christ in the burning lake of fire. Oh, maybe they knew there was a Savior. Maybe they took a risk and figured that God will save everyone regardless if they believed in Jesus as Lord. Maybe they figured all the good things they did and their good behavior would be enough for salvation. When those who would not trust in Jesus Christ as Savior see Judgment Day, the great chasm will be fixed. There’s no more crossing over. There are no more deathbed conversions.

What the rich man forgot was what Lazarus’ name means. When you forget what Lazarus’ name means, you end up in the same place as the rich man. Lazarus means “God is my help.” God is your only help. God does not do some or most of the work, giving you a chance to give Him a hand. God is your help, period. God covers you in the blood of His Son Jesus. He does everything to save you, no matter if you’re filthy rich or gutbucket poor.

The chief concern of God is the condition of your heart. Consider Abram in today’s Old Testament reading. Abram believed the LORD, and the LORD counted it to him as righteousness. Abram didn’t have any special quality in him that made him more special than anyone else. God chose Abram as the father of the family whom God would make promises and keep every one of them. Like Abram, later Abraham, as we believe those promises, for they are ours not by blood but by faith in God’s only-begotten Son, it is also counted to us as righteousness.

The rich man had the opportunity to receive salvation. It was too late when he discovered his folly. In Christ you are Lazarus, for God is your help. He alone makes it possible for you to rest for all eternity with Him. As you stay connected to Jesus, trusting His Good News of forgiveness and life for you, living in your baptismal grace, partaking of His Supper, rejoicing in the restoration of the joy of His salvation, you will rise from the grave on Judgment Day not to condemnation, but to the bosom of Abraham with all those who have gone before you in the faith.

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Feast of the Holy Trinity – John 3:1-17

The phrase “born again” means different things depending on what you believe as a Christian. I grew up among Baptists, Methodists, and Oneness Pentecostals. When they asked this Lutheran boy if he was “born again”, the answer wasn’t what they wanted to hear. The answer is, “Yes, on June 18, 1972, the day of my baptism.” The usual response is that I was an infant. How could I make a rational, conscious decision to accept Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior when I couldn’t talk or didn’t understand what sin is? My response is that God chose me. I didn’t choose Him. God did all the heavy lifting to save me and make me His child.

Try as you might, you won’t find the phrase “born again” in the Bible. Granted the phrase is there in some English translations. It’s thought to be the best way to translate a word that is better translated “born from above”. Another way to translate it is “regenerated”. You might call it a second birth. What it is is a new birth, a new birth over which you have no control.

That’s what confounds Nicodemus, a leader of the Pharisees. Nicodemus is no dummy. He’s a classically trained teacher of Sacred Scripture. He’s well thought of among the Jews. Yet he can’t grasp that unless one is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God. So he asks Jesus the obvious question: How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?

We might laugh at Nicodemus’ question. If we do laugh, we also laugh at ourselves, for it is the same question we might ask. We also have no clue how one is born from above outside of what Scripture teaches us. It’s not possible for an adult to go up and down mom’s birth canal a second time. The new birth comes from outside in. Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.

A-ha! See, there it is! A birth by water and Spirit takes place, but you have to have a say in it, especially if you are an adult. If you’re an infant, someone else is forcing you to do something you may not want. You don’t have a say in it if you’re a baby. So let’s wait and let the child grow up and make up his or her own mind. Then you can choose whether or not this being born from above is something for you. You Lutherans and your radical monergism! You guys need to get with it and be like much of American Protestants and use a little bit, or a lot, of decision theology. I mean, look how those other churches are doing compared to yours. And yet you say you stand with Scripture and let God act through His Word and through stuff like water, bread, and wine. When will you get with it?

We are with it…with Scripture, that is. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. A birth according to the flesh brings life, but that life ends in death. Outside of the Spirit there’s nothing to look forward to when you die. The party’s over. You’re done.

When you receive the second birth, regeneration from the Holy Spirit working in water and the Word that comes down from above, you have something to look forward to when you die. You actually do not die when you die. You live. You live because Jesus lives. The Spirit puts the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus on you by virtue of your baptism. Though one common sin infects us all, in Christ, as we sing: “Now no more can death appall, Now no more the grave enthrall; You have opened paradise, And your saints in You shall rise. Alleluia!”

Okay, Pastor, yeah, second birth, born from above, I know that. Now explain it to me. We go right back to Nicodemus’ question to Jesus. The answer is that an explanation won’t do. The second birth happens to you when the Spirit connects you to Christ and keeps you connected to Him. In doing so, you are a child of the heavenly Father, safely gathered in His bosom. Attempts to explain it in a cold, calculated, and rational way does you no good. You are not so much taught in Christ as you are caught in Christ.

Let Jesus tell it to you plainly as He told Nicodemus: Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know, and bear witness to what we have seen, but you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things? So if you end up scratching your head a lot about how God saves you or how God acts to keep you connected to Him, that’s not a bad thing. The more you know about something, the more you don’t know about something. Humility is a good thing for Christians to appreciate.

What you do know is that God has acted in history in order to save you from everlasting death. Our heavenly Father sends His only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to bear your sin. When you hear the Good News that Jesus has forgiven your sins in His blood and given you life in His resurrection, you have what that Word says. The Holy Spirit works in that Word to create trust that God does you good and never bad. He will bring you life here and bring you into eternal life on Judgment Day.

So let’s get back to the question that confounds Lutherans everywhere: Are you “born again?” Your answer is “YES!” You didn’t choose to be born again. God chose you to be regenerated. God chose you to pour out His mercy, His love, and His joy over you. He is the actor. You receive all the benefits of His action on your behalf. The one who is born once, dies twice and forevermore. The one who is born twice, dies once, and lives forevermore.

Pentecost Day – John 14:23-31

“The Spirit of the Lord fills the world.” The first words of the Introit summarize the Feast of Pentecost. So what does it mean? How does the Spirit of the Lord fill the world? What’s different now that Jesus has ascended to heaven and sent the Spirit of Truth to direct all the faithful back to where Jesus promises to be?

The answers to the questions are found not only among those gathered in one place when the Holy Spirit descended. The answers are found among us today. We are people in whose hearts it has become Pentecost through the Holy Spirit. Pentecost, you see, never ends. “The Spirit of the Lord fills the world.” He fills you. Me too. The Spirit fills us with Jesus.

Jesus says in John chapter fourteen, If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Pentecost people love Jesus. Pentecost people also keep Jesus’ word. Let’s take the easy one first. You love Jesus because Jesus loved you first…even before the foundation of the world did Jesus love you. Jesus puts His Word into your life when you hear His Good News preached. He waters that Word with baptismal water and says with water and Word: You are mine. All that I have is yours. I will never leave you. I will never forsake you. I will always do you good and never evil.

Keeping Jesus’ Word can be a tricky thing. You could say that keeping Jesus’ Word means to do everything He says to the letter. Thing is Jesus has already done it for you. He doesn’t need your help. As Jesus has put His life into your life a wonderful thing happens. You love what He says. You desire to hear more of what He says about His promises He makes to you. You trust that Jesus never lies.

Because Jesus puts Himself among you, you can’t help but treasure all He says to you. He says you love the Father because He sent Jesus. He says you love your neighbor, for your neighbor is a little Christ. He says take care of those who take care of your spiritual well-being. He says all that you have is His and you are a good steward, a good manager, of what you have been entrusted. The best thing about keeping Jesus’ Word is to take seriously what He says about His Supper that He instituted for the forgiveness of your sins. This is My Body. This is My Blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He also says where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Those who do not love Jesus or keep His Word find their heart elsewhere. Their treasure will be there, too. That’s a lonely place to be. There’s no certainty in keeping an idol’s word. Your treasure among idols will rust and decay. You can’t take it with you. There are no storage facilities in the New Creation. So you put what He gives to you to work in His kingdom. You struggle with His love and keeping His Word, but in the end you let Jesus win and watch what you give Him go to work for Him.

Think of the blessings you have in Christ. He gives you so many blessings that you are not able to count them. He blesses you like a father blesses his children, but even better than any earthly father. King David sings in Psalm 103: As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.

We are dust. Dust cannot redeem itself. Dust returns to dust. Yet the dust washed and made holy in the Word and in baptismal water will be raised a new creation on the Last Day. An earthly father cannot raise his children from the dead. Jesus Christ, Son of the Father in heaven, will do it. He blesses you with eternal life, something you can’t buy or earn, and you don’t deserve it, but it yours because Jesus gives it to you.

Saint Paul says at least twice in his epistles that you are a temple of God. Saint Peter calls God’s people living stones being built into a spiritual house. You are a dwelling place of God. Jesus dwells in you and you dwell in Him. Yes, Jesus is everywhere, but He is not everywhere for you. He is particular about where He dwells. That’s why He says Come to Me…I will give you rest. Jesus rests in you. He pitches His tent and hangs out with sinners who are made righteous in His blood and His innocence.

What is more, the Holy Spirit continues to point you to Jesus. He teaches you Jesus in His Word. This is why we gather each week for Scripture study. It’s one thing to learn by heart Luther’s Small Catechism and some Bible passages. It’s another thing to gather as living stones to be built up in Sacred Scripture that we may know our Savior better. Once the Spirit informs, literally forms you from the inside out in Sacred Scripture, you, like the disciples, will recall what Jesus says to you about many things, especially when you think Christ has left you an orphan.

What a blessing to be Pentecost people! “The Spirit of the Lord fills the world.” Today He fills His Church with the joy of forgiveness and eternal life. Today He calls out to His beloved bride that He loves them and will remain with them unto eternity. As He keeps Himself with you, so you keep His Word close, treasure it, and accordingly steward all that He gives you for your life and for your neighbor so that the world may know that I love the Father and that the Father loves you for Jesus’ sake.

Seventh Sunday of Easter – John 15:26-16:4

We could make a long list of “it used to bes.” It used to be that business closed at noon on Good Friday so you could go to church or perhaps take the afternoon to contemplate our Lord’s death before a church service at night. It used to be that businesses didn’t open on Sunday in order to give employees some family time and, yes, let them attend church. It used to be that the pastor was once one of the most educated people in a community. He received some privileges among businesses, and even in the public school. To this day I am asked each year to help choose scholarship winners at Momence High School.

It used to be that everyone in town had a church. They actually went to that church. Children attended Sunday School. Oh, sure, some parents dropped off and picked up their children rather than attend a Bible Study, but at least the children were there. It used to be that you knew where your friends went to church because nearly all of them went to church.

When it comes to the Christian faith, there are a lot of “it used to bes.” Many of them are now history. So it goes. Yet the Christian faith remains in our country even among churches once large but now small. What we notice among the fewer numbers is the greater hostility toward Christians. Granted the hostility isn’t overt and doesn’t involve shedding blood. Still, the world reward God’s charity and a Christian’s love with ingratitude. Here’s one more: it used to be that unbelievers had a grasp on what a Christian believed. You can’t assume that anymore. Many people misunderstand what the Christian faith confesses. Even Christians misunderstand their own confession of faith.

What does Jesus have to say about it all? They will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. I have said these things to you that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you. These things Jesus is talking about with His disciples are more than shops closing on Sunday and pastors being respected in the community. He’s talking about two things much worse: martyrdom and being kicked out of the synagogue.

For a Jew, being kicked out of a synagogue means you have all but lost your identity as one of God’s chosen people. Parents, as it were, have no son. Siblings have no brother or sister. You are an outcast, worse than a leper. All this will be done to you because you confess Jesus Christ as Lord. Jesus also mentions dying for the faith. Those who kill you actually think they worship God when killing you.

Some perhaps lose family and friends when they practice the Christian faith, or perhaps even when they leave one particular fellowship and join another. We’re blessed in our country not to have to face being killed by fellow Christians and have it considered a form of worship. Yet these things do happen elsewhere in the world and elsewhere in history.

So much for us being mad about losing little privileges in our country. Yet we panic every time we see what we think is the fabric of our life being unraveled in front of us. We hit the panic button. We think the Gospel of free grace for Christ’s sake for sinners will make others want to go rob a bank or change their sex. So let’s double down on preaching good behavior. Pretty soon the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes “try harder, do better, don’t do this, better do that, or you aren’t a Christian.” The it is finished of Jesus on the cross becomes a “well, not really, until…” in our hands.

Jesus sets a roadblock on our march to the panic button. The roadblock is the coming of the Helper, Whom He sends to us from the Father, the Spirit of truth. The Helper bears witness about Jesus. His witness is true. What is the witness of the Spirit? The water and the blood flowing from the side of Jesus. The words from the mouth of Jesus in His teaching. Where Spirit, water, and blood are, there is Jesus, forgiving sin and giving life to the dead.

That’s what Saint Peter is writing about in today’s Epistle: be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Do. Not. Panic. Your suffering, though perhaps not what others are suffering for Christ elsewhere, is bound up with the suffering of Jesus for your sake. When our Lord suffered upon the cross, He begged His Father to forgive those who put Him there. They didn’t know what they were doing. The same remains true today. Many misunderstand what a Christian believe. It’s not hard to see why because our minds, mouths, and hearts aren’t always in sync. That’s hypocrisy, something well practiced by sinners redeemed in Christ.

Peter continues, above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Notice Peter says one another, not just Christians only or unbelievers only. Love one another. Love those who despise you. Love those you despise. Even if the time comes when you must speak words that you know will anger your neighbor, do so with humility and, above all, love. Yes, Jesus showed anger, but His anger was directed at all the right people: those who despised Him.

Do. Not. Panic. Jesus tells you that you will suffer much this side of Paradise. You are not alone, though. Many fellow Christians suffer with you. Jesus Himself first suffered for your sake. What is more, the Helper has come, the Holy Spirit, Who keeps you connected to Jesus in His Gifts of life and forgiveness given in this holy house. Among all the “used to bes” one thing hasn’t changed. Jesus says, yes, there will be trouble, but “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places” with the joy of freedom in the blood of Christ that cleanses you from all sin.

Sixth Sunday of Easter – John 16:23b-30

If there’s one thing that encourages a Christian to pray, it’s Christ’s words to His disciples in today’s Gospel: Truly, truly, I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Jesus makes a twofold oath with this encouragement. He’s not kidding. Whatever you ask the Father in Christ’s name, He will give it to you. Then comes another encouragement: Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. If it isn’t enough to have a promise that whatever you ask the Father in Jesus’ name He will give it to you, now you have an invitation to ask in order that your joy may be full.

So how come you don’t have everything you want, let alone everything you need? Where are the dream house, the dream car, and financial security? Where’s a lifetime of never being sick? Where’s the disappearance of cancer, especially among young children? Where are all the people you love who have died? Why haven’t they returned to life?

That’s what we might be thinking when Jesus encourages us to pray. Lost in the middle of all the things we’ve prayed for that never happened, or yet to happen, are these words from Jesus two chapters earlier in John’s Gospel: Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

The last clause is the heart of the matter. Does your desire of whatever earthly creature comforts you think are necessary glorify our heavenly Father in Jesus Christ? Raising someone from the dead certainly would, but we have no certain promise in Scripture that anyone will be raised from the dead before Judgment Day. Some types of cancer are treatable. Many cancer victims go into permanent remission. Yet other cancer sufferers die. It’s not as if the Father in heaven spins the roulette wheel of life to see who lives and who dies.

What, then, glorifies our heavenly Father in Jesus Christ? The epistle reading for today from James gives us a clue: Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. So how do you do the word? Better still, do you merely listen to the word, or do you do what the word says? What does the word say in the first place?

The word says believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. Your salvation is not your own work. God works salvation in His grace, His undeserved love for you, for the sake of what Jesus Christ does for you in His perfect life, His perfect death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead. Christ is at the center of everything your heart desires. He alone is the doer of the word; at least the doing that avails before His Father. To do the word is to believe in Jesus. To hear the word creates the desire to do the word. Yet the word is never done perfectly among us. All the more to cling to the word of Jesus, Who tells you plainly about the Father. You abide in Him and He abides in you. His word of reconciliation covers your sin and delivers life.

The disciples think they “get it” when Jesus promises to tell them plainly about the Father. Now we know that you know all things and do not need anyone to question you; this is why we believe that you came from God. It was naive at best for them to assume this about Jesus. They were about to see something that would change their lives. After Christ’s ascension to His Father, the Holy Spirit would descend upon them. Jesus also opened their minds to the Scriptures so that they could, as it were, see the top of the puzzle box and how all the pieces fit together. The word and the Spirit go together in the Christian Church, opening minds and hearts to hear salvation in Jesus Christ.

The joy that we have in Jesus is amplified in believing that whatever we ask the Father in Jesus’ name, specifically when we ask for matters pertaining to our life in Jesus Christ, He will give it to us. There are times when our trust in Jesus for eternal life wavers. Our sinful nature takes our eyes off Jesus and puts them on what we must do or have not done. The words of Jesus today come as a refreshing reminder that you shouldn’t be bashful to ask for stronger faith, a merry conscience, or renewed joy in believing that eternity is yours for Christ’s sake.

It’s a hard sell for a person who is both sinner and saint at the same time. Remember, you’re not so much asking for a five percent reduction in being sinner or a five percent increase in being a saint. You’re asking for a stronger confidence in Christ; a confidence that places all hope against hope in the Eternal Word born in the flesh as a carpenter’s Son from Nazareth Who gives His holiness and His righteousness to you as a gift.

If the twofold oath isn’t enough to convince you, then consider the simple request to Ask. Our ears hear this as a command, as if we had better do it or the boss will come along and scold us for not asking. The thrust of the request, though, is more like a reminder. Now that the Father is well-pleased with you because He is well-pleased with the aroma of His Son’s all-availing sacrifice on the cross, you get to ask Him in Christ’s name for those things that glorify His Son.

Maybe your earthly father hated it when you asked questions or made a request. Perhaps that makes you gun-shy to ask your heavenly Father for something. That’s why Jesus bids you to Ask…that your joy may be full. This Father cannot wait to hear your petitions. Don’t say no. Open up your treasure chest of questions and requests. He’s all ears. He has all the time in the world for you. In fact, He loves it when you ask Him. He’ll never get annoyed with all your pestering because you are not pestering Him. His joy is full because of Jesus.

The Ferrari, the mansion, or the windfall may not be yours, but so much more awaits you when you ask the Father in Jesus’ name. Salvation is yours. Eternity is yours. Ask in Jesus’ name. You will receive it or even something better. Believe it for Jesus’ sake.

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