Monday, January 29, 2007

A Time to Be Sullen?

Hey Folks! Lent is just around the corner!! It begins February 21, Ash Wednesday. Another round of gloom and moroseness in which we Lutherans give ourselves permission to spend six weeks where we don’t have to be joyful and upbeat! Yippee!

All joking aside (and hopefully without too much irreverence), what is the deal with Lent anyway? Why do we Lutherans go through that period of Lent when we live on this side of the resurrection? Why do we allow ourselves to become characterized by gloom when we believe that Christ has saved us from doom and gloom?

Shouldn’t we be happy all the time?

This is actually a serious matter, because we don’t want to spend six weeks of our year, and for that matter our entire lives, in a way that is not God-pleasing.

Okay, so we do Lent. How do we observe it in a God-pleasing way? There is a phrase in the Prayer of Thanksgiving which we pray before receiving the Lord’s Supper: “repentant joy”. These two things seem to be the opposite of each, don’t they?

Repentance we associate with moroseness, sorrowing over our sin. Joy of course is the opposite, celebration of the love of God! What in the world is repentant joy?

God actually loves to deal in opposites. Yes, we sorrow over our sin and that is God-pleasing. And yes, we rejoice in His favor, grace, mercy, and eternal love. That too is God-pleasing.

Jesus is actually referred to in the Bible as the “man of sorrows” [Isaiah 53:3]. He suffered beyond what we can imagine, bearing our guilt and sin and punishment. But does that mean that He walked around all the time gloomily? Nope. His life was characterized by joy. Specifically joy for you and me and every person who has walked this earth. He rejoiced in His living on this earth to save mankind.

We indeed repent. We sorrow over our sins. That doesn’t mean we’re depressed about it. It doesn’t mean we have to walk around everywhere as if we ourselves are a man of sorrows. It does mean that we take seriously that we don’t deserve God’s love. That we do deserve hell for our sinning against God.

But repentance is more than just sorrow. It’s also “repentant joy”. It’s looking to that event where the Man of Sorrows exhibited His greatest joy—in dying on the cross to save the world from sin. Is there greater joy than this?

This is the purpose of Lent. It’s the purpose of life. Repent of your sullenness! Repent of your sin! Rejoice in God’s abounding mercy and love in Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant, the Savior of the World, the One in whom is eternal joy! Happy Lent!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Destructive Work of Jesus

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, January 28, 2007
Luke 4:31-44

We’re so accustomed to hearing about Jesus’ saving work that we might not see it for what it really is. That Jesus saves means that there is something in need of saving. Jesus saves us. That means we need saving. Sometimes the way to save something is to destroy it.

That’s what we see Jesus doing here. The thing is, the people don’t see it coming. We never do. We generally don’t want to think about being in need of being saved. And who likes to think about destruction? Well both are here. And at first it’s striking to the people. They’re amazed. They’re excited. They like what they see.

But that’s because they don’t understand what’s going on. They don’t see what Jesus is really doing. The funny thing is, the demons do. They know who Jesus is. They understand exactly why He has come. He has come to save; which, again, means that there is need for salvation.

What the demons understand is that Jesus has come to save by destroying. And nobody wants that, including the demons. The demons are unwitting spokesmen for regular old people like us.

“Leave us alone.” “Don’t destroy us.” “Don’t change the way things are for us, they’re fine the way they are.” They aren’t, of course. But at least they’re such that we have some control in matters.

Of course, we don’t like some of the things that go with it. Who wants there to be demon possession as the unfortunate man experienced? Who likes sickness as Peter’s mother-in-law suffered? So of course when those things are dealt with swiftly and with power we latch on to them. Jesus has come for that? Yeah, I’ll sign on.

But you know how everything looks good at first? And then when you come to see what’s really going on, you’re not so thrilled about what’s happening to you. It’s not what it at first seems. That’s why we really need to listen to those demons. They had it right.

Not that they were right. But they show us what Jesus is really all about. Whereas we’re like all those people taking in the scene—we don’t have a clue. But the demons weren’t right in that, as James says, the demons believe all right, but they shudder. They know better than we do who Jesus is but they don’t believe in Him.

That’s because they don’t want God’s salvation. And they don’t want it because they don’t want to be destroyed. You have to be destroyed in order to be saved. And we have to ask ourselves, do we want this? To be destroyed? Do we want Jesus to come in to our lives and destroy all that is evil to make room for Him?

The way we react toward what happens to us suggests otherwise. We are often like the people in the Gospel reading. We’re astounded by the power of God. We rejoice in His miraculous works. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. It is astounding and something to be grateful for.

But the problem with us is that we now judge God by that standard. We expect Him to work in this way that we’re enamored with. God exhibited His power in Jesus driving the demon out of the man, why doesn’t He use His eternal power to help me in my difficulties? Jesus delivered Peter’s mother-in-law from sickness, why are there so many people suffering from illness today?

We should probably ask this question: what would happen if God did that? What would we do if God delivered us from all of our illnesses and trials? You know what would happen? We would hold Him to an even higher standard. Is that all you can do God? Isn’t there more? You know what we would see God as? A troubleshooter. A fix-it man.

But that’s not ultimate power. That’s not true authority. All that stuff we’re concerned with that we’re expecting Him to fix for us doesn’t compare to what we really need to be concerned about. And that is that we need to be saved. What we need is to be saved from ourselves. We need to not be concerned about all that stuff that seems important but about the sin that fills our heart.

This means war. It means that Jesus comes in in an assault. With His Word and His power He destroys us. He wipes us out. We have no chance. All our sins. The guilt that has piled up in our minds. Our lack of trust in a gracious and loving God. As the demon said to Jesus: “Have You come to destroy us?” Yup.

But you know why we need not tremble like the demons do? Jesus has come to destroy in order to save. He kills to make alive. He crushes to raise up. He wipes out all that we hold on to to give us new life. Free from the constraints of our notions of who God is. The true and ultimate God is the God who is free to work beyond our self-imposed constraints and save us from what we really need to be saved from.

That’s why power and authority will never do as we understand it or devise it to be. The true power of God is not seen in mere miracles of Jesus, as fantastic as those are. It is to be seen in what the demons point us to: the fact that Jesus is the Holy One of God and the Son of God. What this means is what nobody there knew or understood because Jesus had not yet done what He came to do in order to be the Holy One of God and the Son of God.

They had not yet known the God of the cross. The One who would not be speaking with appeal and displaying the power of healing people and driving out demons.

The one who was doing those things was really the One who came to do one thing. And that is the thing of eternal power. It’s the thing that seems the opposite of so much of what He did in healing people, vanquishing demons, raising people from the grave—His own life being snuffed out.

Where’s the power? The budding excitement that here is one who can do anything? Who will help us in whatever is our need? Who exhibits power and authority in everything He does?

It’s there. It cannot be noticed according to our standards we have set up for God. It can’t be seen except by faith. It can’t even be believed by us except for the strange thing the Holy Spirit does to us in our Baptism: He kills us. He destroys our sinful flesh that sees only what it wants to see. With new eyes we now see a God who loves us so much that He is willing to kill us along with Him in His death. In that merciful act we are raised to new life that needs no healing or exorcism.

It is healing of our soul. It is life in which our sins are wiped out. The slate is clean. The guilt vanquished like a demon who can no longer talk because Christ’s Word silences him. Jesus has come for one thing and that is to make alive. To save us in a way we would never know apart from His destroying us and our false notions. Jesus dares destroy us so that we may live with Him forever. Amen.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

John Chrysostom, Preacher

Given the added name of Chrysostom, which means "golden-mouthed" in Greek, Saint John was a dominant force in the fourth-century Christian church. Born in Antioch around the year 347, John was instructed in the Christian faith by his pious mother, Anthusa. After serving in a number of Christian offices, including acolyte and lector, John was ordained a presbyter and given preaching responsibilities. His simple but direct messages found an audience well beyond his home town. In 398, John Chrysostom was made Patriarch of Constantinople. His determination to reform the church, court, and city there brought him into conflict with established authorities. Eventually, he was exiled from his adopted city. Although removed from his parishes and people, he continued writing and preaching until the time of his death in 407. It is reported that his final words were: "Glory be to God for all things. Amen."

[From The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod Commission on Worship]

Friday, January 26, 2007

Titus, Pastor and Confessor

If you’re going to go into ministry what better way than in an exotic locale. And it doesn’t get more exotic than a Mediterranean island! Ah, such is the life of a pastor the apostle Paul sent to the island of Crete. Poor Titus. The burden he would have to bear in his service to the Lord.

Except, all that glitters is not gold. Paul in writing to Titus reminded him of what one of Crete’s own prophets had to say about those islanders: “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons” [Titus 1:12]. So much for the vacation!

Paul tells Titus why left him in Crete: to set things in order in the Church there, to speak the Word of God [Titus 1:5 and Titus 2:1]. It doesn’t really matter, after all, what the Cretans were like. It doesn’t matter in the end where one serves the Lord. Everywhere around the globe there is a need for the Gospel to be made known. We can be grateful we have that little letter Paul wrote to Titus encouraging him to continue proclaiming that eternal Word to the people on that island. It’s a reminder for us also that the Word still goes out today--here, over there, and everywhere.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Conversion of Paul

I don’t know if it’s because I was named after him, but I find myself, like Paul, kicking against the goads [Acts 26:14]. Now, unlike Paul, I am not a great man. Paul was a great man even before he was converted. Then when God converted him he was a brilliant light in the Christian Church. Not that he would have anything to do with such a statement about himself, preferring rather to acknowledge that he is the chief of sinners [1 Timothy 1:15]. But God knows how to use sinners, even the chief ones. And use Paul He did. He converted him, and wham, the world was on fire with a missionary that wouldn’t do anything but bring Christ to the fore.

But there was a time he was kicking against those goads. “Saul, why are you resisting Me?” “Why are you stubbornly going against Me?” Sound familiar? It does to me. I’m converted, but I find myself kicking against those goads. I find myself following in the train of St. Paul the chief of sinners rather than the one who “determines to nothing among others except Christ and Him crucified” [1 Corinthians 2:2].

That’s because I’m really unconverted. Or rather, in need of being converted daily. As Luther said so well, we are saints and sinners simultaneously. We keep kicking against those goads. But God keeps converting us. We stubbornly cling to our sinful flesh and its desires. But God stubbornly lavishes His grace upon us. Get down on your knees! Be blinded to your stubborn and foolish ways! Because when you get up you will walk in new life. You will see with new eyes. You will be My servant. My own child. My joy and delight forever! [Acts 9:1-22]

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Timothy, Pastor and Confessor

I’ll never forget it. When I was ordained and installed as a pastor I received a letter from “Pastor C”. He was writing to express his joy for the occasion and encourage me in my ministry. This was a special letter to me because if it weren’t for Pastor C (humanly speaking) I wouldn’t be a pastor. When I went to L.A. Lutheran High School as a sophomore Pastor C was beginning his first call at the same time as a teacher. What a great teacher! Smart, great speaker, funny. And I was fascinated with his knowledge of the Scriptures. About the same time my pastor accepted a call elsewhere and our congregation asked Pastor C to be our interim pastor. Now I got to hear him on Sunday mornings as well preaching the Word of God and leading us in worship. I wanted to be just like him when I grew up. So when I received that letter from him it was special.

I wonder if Timothy felt like that when Paul wrote to him. Here Timothy was a young pastor, newly ordained and installed, and Paul, his father in the faith [1 Timothy 1:1-2] was writing to him to express his joy and give him encouragement. I imagine that letter was very special to Timothy.

And the great thing about it all is that we get to be the recipients of it as well. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, is our father in the faith as well through his letter to Timothy and his other letters in the New Testament. God loves to send us people who have a passion for God’s Word. That’s why God placed Timothy where He did. Why he sent Paul to instill in him a passion for the same Word of God. Because it’s not only those people, like Paul, Timothy, Pastor C, that are so important to us but the Person they love to bring to us through their preaching, teaching, and living—Jesus Christ. May God use us in the same way for others.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Where Did It All Go Wrong?

Third Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, January 21, 2007
Luke 4:16-30

It’s nice to go back home. The memories come flooding back. You see old friends. You reminisce with your family. You worship once again in your hometown. It’s good to be home.

Things were going well with Jesus when He visited His hometown. He even put a wrinkle in His visit at the synagogue—He got up to read. The portion of Scripture He read was a powerful one. And then He went to the teaching position. All eyes were fixed on Him, as it should be. Everything is going well when our eyes are fixed on Jesus.

He then spoke. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What a moment! Here Jesus comes back home and makes quite a statement. Everyone thought it was wonderful. You know how it is when a local boy returns home and makes everyone proud. “I used to walk to school with Him.” “We were best friends growing up.”

And as they kept talking about how wonderful it was to have Him back home, it began to sink in. “Isn’t this Joe’s son?” “Wasn’t He the carpenter’s apprentice who lived down the street?” “Yeah, He made the coffee table for our living room. We love it.”

And can you hear the wheels begin to turn in their minds? Wait a minute, the carpenter’s son… Why is He getting up and reading Scripture to us? Why is He presuming to take the place of teaching? And why on earth is He saying the Scripture He just read is fulfilled in Him? Why does He presume to insinuate we’re in need of those things spoken of in the Scripture reading He read? Who does He think He is?

Well Jesus sure knows about the wheels turning in their heads. He answers them: “Doubtless you will quote to Me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard You did at Capernaum, do here in Your hometown as well.”

Then He really stoked the fire: “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” “You remember what God did in Israel in the days of Elijah? There was a famine and yet even though there were many widows God sent him to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”

“And what about all the lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha? God didn’t cleanse any of them, only Naaman the Syrian.”

Everything had been going so well. Now this. Jesus, warmly received, now being driven out of the synagogue and taken to a cliff to be thrown off. Everyone had been speaking well of Him, now they were filled with wrath at Him. Where did it all go wrong?

And how many times have you said that in your own life? Things were going well. You were high as a kite. But then things went south. Where did it all go wrong?

Your loved one was responding to medicine, improving, healing. Then suddenly they deteriorated and never recovered. What went wrong? Why wasn’t God performing miracles?

Your marriage was a picture of contentment. You were in love, you felt like the luckiest person in the world. Then the bills began piling up. Stresses at work got worse and you were unable to leave them at work. Your relationship with your spouse suddenly didn’t feel all that fresh and magical. Everything was going well. Where did it all go wrong?

And what about all those time we had glowing words about our Savior? We speak highly of Him. We share our willingness to follow Him, only to take His name in vain; if not in our words, in our actions. We complain if someone has made a mess and we’re left to clean it up. We get impatient if someone is a burden on our time and energy.

We talk a good game about God and being a Christian, but we’re no better than Abraham and Sarah who laughed at the ridiculous proposition of God that they would conceive of a child when they had long passed the age they could conceive. We question God like Zechariah did when the angel gave him the same promise that Abraham and Sarah were given. We are so often like Peter who put the things of men ahead of the things of God when we He rebuked Jesus for telling him that He would suffer and die.

Where did it all go wrong? Why do we treat God like the people of His hometown treated Jesus? We don’t like to think about it much but we carry around with us the Old Adam. Our sinful nature wins out at times when Jesus seems to be different from the kind of God we want Him to be.

Why weren’t the people of Nazareth able to throw Jesus off the cliff? He was outnumbered. He was at the edge. There was no way out for Him. The answer is simple, of course—He’s God. He can do anything. And so He passed right through them.

He knew what He had told His mother at the wedding of Cana: “My hour has not yet come.” And yet, what kind of God do we have? What kind of God is Jesus? One who is led from a place of prayer and meditation by soldiers to a mock trial of religious hypocrites only to then stand before a wicked king and a pagan governor and be sentenced to the brutal punishment of crucifixion.

This was Nazareth at the brow of the cliff all over again. Why didn’t Jesus just pass through them all? Why didn’t He do as He said He could and send armies of angels to wipe out these men who were forcing Him to be crucified? Because this now was His hour. This is why He came. We can’t say “where did it all go wrong” because in God’s infinite love and mercy this was His will. It was the desire to save us from our sins.

Yes, even those who in wrath, in a house of worship no less, dragged Jesus out to the edge of a cliff to throw Him down. Even those soldiers. Even the hypocritical religious leaders. Even Pilate and Herod. Even the disciples who scrammed when Jesus was delivered into the hands of the soldiers. Even you.

Where did it all go wrong? It always goes wrong with us when we act on our sinful nature. When we do as was described when Jesus had read the scripture and all eyes were fixed on Him, then everything is well. Not because everything will be easy or go the way we want it to. But we because we will see a God who comes to us in a way in which He is saving us: as a suffering Savior. As one who washes away our sins in Baptism. As the one who comes to us yet again physically with His Body and Blood in the very Supper we are about to partake of here at His altar.

We’d never imagine it, but in these things He gives to us the very gift of eternal life and the promise that we will reign with Him in heaven forever, feasting in His glorious presence. Amen.

Saturday, January 20, 2007


We learn from the saints that have gone before us. There have been many who have provided examples of great faith, an encouragement to us to stand strong when things seem impossible. When Sarah was made aware she would give birth even though she was beyond childbearing age, did she rejoice? Did she believe the impossible and give glory to God who could make it possible?

No. She laughed [Genesis 18:9-12]. It was preposterous. She giving birth after all those years of not being able to? Was this some kind of joke on God’s part?

Sarah was definitely not acting in faith. Certainly not as an example of a great saint for us to follow. And there’s no question she was wrong in it. That was made clear to her [Genesis 18:13-15].

But God kept His promise. And He did that despite Sarah’s lack of faith. What we may forget is that God kept His promise also despite the great patriarch Abraham’s lack of faith. He in fact thought God’s promise preposterous even before Sarah did, laughing himself at the thought [Genesis 17:17].

These great saints of old aren’t so unlike us after all. They had times of doubting God’s Word even as we do. Also like us, they had a merciful God. In repentance we see that God’s greatest Word to us is His Word of forgiveness. We definitely need that as Sarah and Abraham did. He forgave them. He kept His promise of giving them a son, one who brought Sarah laughter again, this time of joy [Genesis 21:1-7].

God has kept His promise to us also in giving us His Son. In Him is the forgiveness we need and the laughter of eternal joy.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

From the Better Late Than Never Department:

[January 14, 2007]

In John 2:1-11 we are told that Jesus did the first of His signs (what we usually call miracles) at a wedding. His first sign wasn't to heal someone. Or bring a spiritual blessing to someone. It was to make wine.

That the Holy Spirit placed this event in the Holy Scriptures tells us there is something important for us in that action, that sign, of Jesus. And it's not just that wine is good or part of the enjoyment of celebrations like weddings.

In fact, it points us to a spiritual blessing Jesus brings about. It was another celebration at the end of His ministry that He also used wine. This time to bring to us not just the fruit of the vine but His very blood. And in His blood the forgiveness of sins.

The wedding at Cana was a foretaste of the feast to come, namely, His institution of His Holy Supper in which He gives us in bread and wine His body and His blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Just as there was celebration at the wedding in which Jesus accomplished His first sign, there is celebration when we recieve His Holy Supper. It is the feast He gives us for our blessing.

But it's even much more. It is also like the wedding at Cana in that it's also a foretaste of the Feast to come--that Feast of the Lamb in heaven in which we will be in the very presence of Christ face to face. In which we will dine with Him in glory.

Jesus' sign way back at that wedding in Cana points us to the eternal celebration He desires to share with us forever.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Confession of Peter

Can we confess what we don’t know? Peter’s confession (Mark 8:27-33) was a confession of faith. But after making that confession of faith he was in need of confessing his sin. Jesus spelled out what it meant that He is the Christ—and Peter rejected that. So much for his glorious confession of faith. We find that Peter didn’t really know what it meant for Jesus to be the Messiah. So how could Peter make that confession of faith? As Paul says it, no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the Holy Spirit. Peter did indeed make a true confession of faith. In time he learned that it was only through the suffering, death, and resurrection of the Christ that he confessed that He is indeed the Christ. Only in time did he learn that it is through the confession of sins and the receiving of forgiveness that we then make a confession of faith. It might take some time for us to get it through our thick skulls as well, but we stand with Peter ever in need of confessing our sins and always boldly confessing our faith in the one God who is our Lord and Savior.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

J. K. Wilhelm Loehe, Pastor

From the Better Late Than Never Department:

[January 2, 2007]

Although he never left Germany, Johann Konrad Wilhelm Loehe, born in Fuerth in 1808, had a profound impact on the development of Lutheranism in North America. Serving as pastor in the Bavarian village of Neuendettelsau, he recognized the need for workers in developing lands and assisted in training emergency helpers to be sent as missionary pastors to North America, Brazil, and Australia. A number of the men he sent to the United States became founders of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod. Through his financial support, a theological school was established in Fort Wayne, Ind., and a teachers' institute in Saginaw, Mich. Loehe was known for his confessional integrity and his interest in liturgy and catechetics. His devotion to works of Christian charity led to the establishment of a deaconess training house and homes for the aged.

[From The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod Commission on Worship]

Basil the Great of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa, Pastors and Confessors

Basil and the two Gregorys, collectively known as the Cappadocian Fathers, were leaders of Christian orthodoxy in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) in the later fourth century. Basil and Gregory of Nyssa were brothers; Gregory of Nazianzus was their friend. All three were influential in shaping the theology ratified by the Council of Constantinople of 381, which is expressed in the Nicene Creed. Their defense of the doctrines of the Holy Spirit and Holy Trinity, together with their contributions to the liturgy of the Eastern Church, make them among the most influential Christian teachers and theologians of their time.

[From The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod Commission on Worship]

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Getting the Job Done

The Baptism of Our Lord
First Sunday after the Epiphany
Sunday, January 7, 2006
Luke 3:15-22

It’s true there’s a lot of mindless entertainment on TV. But every so often there’s something worthwhile. Personally, I like the funny commercials. And sometimes they even point out things that are true about ourselves.

A recent one has a supervisor holding an office meeting, and he says: “Okay, the presentation is tomorrow so let’s make sure we all know our usual responsibilities. Jeff, you keep feeding me old information. Dean, I need you to continue not living up to your resume. Sue, you’re in charge of waffling. Jerome, you’ll talk a big game and then do nothing. Rick, can you fold under pressure for me? And Ted, you just keep thinking everyone’s out to get you. I’ll be at FedEx Kinko’s, where they’ll help me design, print, copy, and finish the proposal.”

What makes it even funnier are their responses: Sue, says in response to You’re in charge of waffling— “Are you sure?” Jerome, you’ll talk a big game and then do nothing— “Let’s do it.” Rick, can you fold under pressure for me?— “Like a lawn chair.” And Ted, you just keep thinking everyone’s out to get you— “They are.”

Obviously, offices aren’t run that way, although it may seem like it at times. Like in an office, we all have our different roles and responsibilities. Also like an office we don’t always live up to expectations. It might sound appealing to be able to only meet the lowest common denominator, like in the commercial.

But what would happen if we were expected to meet the very highest standards? Not just at the office, but in our lives? Well, we are. It’s plain and simple. We’re Christians, right? Why should we settle for less than doing our very best in everything we do?

But our response usually is, “But we can’t do everything perfectly. We’re not perfect.” Part of the problem we run into is we tend to go to extremes when we try to determine these things. We either try our darndest to do our very best, only to end up failing. Or we settle for less than we should, rationalizing that we’re not perfect, so why should we try to be? And the problem really isn’t with either one of those two extremes, because there’s a lot of truth to both of them. The problem really is that they begin and end with us. The focus is entirely on ourselves.

But what does God do? He tells us in His Word that the beginning and ending of our lives revolve around Him. He shows us this by giving us Christ. Are we to do our very best? No doubt. Do we? Of course not. So God gives us Christ. And rather than focusing on what we are to do, He shows us who Christ is and what He has done.

John the Baptist is somewhat like the supervisor, laying out the responsibilities of the Messiah for the people:

“I Baptize you with water, but He who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will Baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, to clear His threshing floor and to gather the wheat into His barn, but the chaff He will burn with unquenchable fire.”

But the strange thing about Jesus when He came is He didn’t start Baptizing. He did just the opposite! He was Baptized. It’s almost like the commercial all over again: Okay, Jesus, I want you to come on the scene with fire in Your eyes and make a dynamite impression. Baptize people in a way they’ll never forget.

But instead, He didn’t do anything to anybody. He came up to John and said He needed to be Baptized by him. Just as the commercial put a twist on things—just keep doing what you’re doing, wallowing in mediocrity—God puts a twist on bringing salvation to the world by having His Messiah come in a very unlikely way. Further, if He’s here to save the world, why is He being Baptized?

Here is really the key to all of life; Christian life that is; eternal life. The key is not in what we do or don’t do; how well we do it, or how pathetically we try. The key is not in us. It is in Christ. It is in who He is. In what He does. In how He does it. He does it through a simple act of being Baptized. What did John say about Him? He would Baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. He does not do that without first being Baptized Himself with the Holy Sprit and fire.

The Holy Sprit part is plain to see, it’s here in our Gospel reading this morning. Upon being Baptized the Holy Spirit descended on Him in bodily from. This was His anointing, the sign of approval that He would serve as the Messiah, the Savior of the world. But how was He Baptized with fire?

To that we must look at the second thing that happened when He was Baptized. Not only did the Holy Spirit descend on Him, a voice came from heaven, “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” Okay, that sounds great and wonderful, but what does it have to do with fire? Actually, Jesus was Baptized twice. Once here at the beginning of His ministry and once at the end.

The first with the anointing of the Holy Spirit and the blessing of the Heavenly Father, the second with the removal of the Spirit and the forsaking of the Father. The first with water and the Holy Spirit in the Jordan, the second with the fire of scourging, crucifixion, and the cup of God’s wrath poured out upon Him. Jesus Himself underwent what He Himself set out to do, as John proclaimed it to the people.

But the twist is that when He Baptizes us with the Holy Spirit and fire He does it through the simple Baptism of water, not the punishment of wrath upon our sins. As the Heavenly Father sent the Holy Spirit to descend upon His beloved Son at His Baptism, so Jesus sends the Holy Spirit to descend upon His people at Pentecost in tongues of fire and a new Church is born. We are born into that Church in our Baptism. We receive not the fire of His judgment but of His love.

How else could God have made this promise from the Old Testament reading to His people but through Jesus:

But now thus says the Lord, He who created you, O Jacob, He who formed you, O Israel: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”

The commercial of the office may be funny and lighthearted, but there is nothing funny about our failing and lack of desire to follow God’s will. There is nothing lighthearted about the torments of judgment in the sight of the holy God who demands not just a good try on our part but perfection. Jesus has passed through every trial, the waters that seek to overwhelm, the fire that otherwise would destroy us. He has gone through it all without spot, or stain, or wrinkle. He was not unscathed, but He emerged victorious, not only on the cross with His cry of “It is finished” but with His glorious stepping forth from the tomb showing us once and for all why He went through all that He did.

He was Baptized for a purpose. It was for us. He suffered and died for a reason. You and me. The world. The Epistle reading shows us the fullness of God the Father’s blessings upon His only-begotten Son at His Baptism: “You are My beloved Son; with You I am well pleased.” These are the very words He speaks to us also in our Baptism. Because what happened to Jesus happens to us in Baptism:

Do you not know that all of us who have been Baptized into Christ Jesus were Baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by Baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His.

It’s unusual how He did it, but God gets the job done. He does it not by putting demands on you but by giving you Jesus. Amen.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

The Epiphany of Our Lord

A few things about Epiphany might be surprising at first when looking at Matthew says about the birth of Christ, the first of which is that the magi didn't come to the stable where Jesus was born. I always remember my mom setting up our nativity scene in our home for Christmas with the "wise men" at another part of the room, far away, traveling to Jesus. Then, twelve days after Christmas, on Epiphany, she would move the wise men over to the rest of the nativity scene. Matthew says that the magi came to "the house" (see Matthew 2:1-12, especially verses 1 and 11). So they came after his birth and after Joseph and Mary had taken Jesus to some house where they were able to stay.

Another is the notion of "three wise men". Not that there's anything wrong with saying that there were three, it's just that Matthew doesn't tell us how many. He simply tells us that the magi were looking for the Messiah and when they found Him they gave Him gifts. Since gold, frankincense, and myrrh were listed (three gifts) people have often referred to three wise men. But there could have been many of the magi and we don't know in what quantities they gave the gifts to Jesus.

At Epiphany the song of Simeon at the temple was already coming to fruition ("a light to lighten the Gentiles") as the gentile magi had been led by the light of the star to the Light of the World. If Mary and Joseph had been surprised about the statements of the shepherds and Simeon, imagine how they felt when they saw the magi bowing down before their Son, who is the very King of the universe and the Savior of the world.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Same ’Ol, Same ’Ol

Will the new year be just more of the same old thing? Do we keep making new year’s resolutions every year only to once more end up not keeping them? Will all of our hopes and dreams turn out to be nothing more than the same ’ol, same ’ol?

The new year always brings a new start. New opportunities. A fresh beginning. But doesn’t the passage of time end up leaving us feeling like we’re stuck in a rut? We end up making the same mistakes. The same old things still annoy us. We keep running into a lot of the same problems.

Are our lives nothing more than the same ’ol, same ’ol? How depressing, if so. Then what’s there to get excited about with the new year?

Or how about church? Do we come to worship looking for something new and exciting because our lives are filled so much with the same ’ol, same ’ol? And yet, what do we hear, Sunday in, Sunday out? The cross. Christ crucified for our sins. We do the same things over and over. The same liturgy, the same Lord’s Supper; like clockwork. The confession of sins is the same, and the same absolution is spoken without change.

We confess the same creeds over and over. We hear proclamation of the Word that never varies in the core message of salvation in Christ and Him crucified.

Is our worship nothing more than the same ’ol, same ’ol? Talk about depressing! Why would we want the time where we want to be spiritually refreshed to be a ho-hum experience? Does God want it to be this way for us?

So do we chuck what we do and come up with something new and exciting every week so that our worship can be more spiritually exuberant? Well, would we do that in our daily lives? Some do, of course. Some who go through a mid-life crisis chuck their responsibilities and act like they’re a teenager again.

We can agree that that’s not a good thing. Nor would it be in the church. If worship seems to us at times like it’s the same old thing, our sinful flesh is trying to convince us we’re going through a spiritual mid-life crisis and we need to get out of the rut! We need excitement! Thrills! Not the same ’ol, same ’ol.

And that Old Adam of ours is pretty persuasive. We don’t want to appear or feel like we’re not spiritually renewed. But there’s a reason God sticks with the “same ’ol, same ’ol”, so to speak. It’s because that’s how He delivers the goods. He doesn’t do it willy-nilly. He doesn’t do it in new and exciting ways. He doesn’t keep changing the rules on us.

With the means of grace He’s given to us—the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper—He delivers to us spiritual renewal. In these things He forgives our sins. Through these means He strengthens our faith and revitalizes us. Here, and no where else that we can be sure of, He raises us to new life and equips us to serve Him.

And a lot of the time we’ll be serving Him in the same old ways we’ve been doing. It won’t always seem exciting. But it will be new life in the very same God who loves us and who gave His Son for us at Calvary and who continues to bring Him to us in our Baptism and in Holy Communion.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The Elements of the Lord’s Supper

Usually in talking about the Lord’s Supper Lutherans focus on the purpose of it. Christ gives us this meal for the forgiveness of sins. But Lutherans have also seen how it is important to talk about what makes up this meal. The reason for this is the same as for why we emphasize the purpose—the Words of Christ Himself.

When God gives us His Word, we take it as the authority. Jesus’ Words of institution of His Holy Supper are found in Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:13-20; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. In these Words He gives us not only why we celebrate and receive this meal but what makes it His Holy Meal.

The Word of Christ
This is the speaking of the Words of Institution as found in the four passages noted above. Without the speaking of these words in the presence of the elements of bread and wine there is no Lord’s Supper.

Bread and Wine
Jesus instituted His Holy Supper while celebrating the Passover meal. What was used in that meal was bread and wine.

The Body and Blood of Christ
In giving the disciples the bread, He said “Take, this is My body” and in giving the wine, “Take, this is My blood”. Because of His words, His body and blood are present and given in His Holy Supper.

Let's take a closer look at the elements of bread and wine. Must bread and wine be used or may we use other elements, such as crackers or grape juice?

Unleavened bread was commanded and used in the Passover meal. However, Jesus in giving the disciples the bread uses the generic term for bread, not the term for unleavened bread. Thus, unleavened or leavened bread may be used. The key is that it must be bread. (See also 1 Corinthians 10:16 and Acts 2:42.)

Wine is said to be used in celebrations in the Old Testament and New: Genesis 14:18; Job 1:13; Isaiah 5:12; John 2:1-11. In fact, Jesus drank often enough that He was accused of being a drunkard (Luke 7:33-34).

How do we know wine was used in the Passover? Wine was an ordinary part of meals in Jesus’ day. Further, grape juice was not able to be used as there was no way to prevent fermentation.

So why does Jesus not say “wine” when referring to the liquid in the cup? Why does He say “fruit of the vine”? It was part of the regular blessing Jesus used:

What is the form of the Benediction over fruits? Over the fruits of trees a man says: “Thou that createst the fruit of the tree”; with the exception of wine, for over wine he says: “Thou that createst the fruit of the vine.” Over the fruits of the earth he says: “Thou that createst the fruit of the ground”; with the exception of a piece of bread, for over a piece of bread he says: “Thou that bringest forth bread from the earth.” Over vegetables he says: “Thou that createst the fruit of the ground.” [Mishnah Berakoth 6:1]

Thus, it was wine in the cup that Jesus blessed and gave to His disciples. Further, in 1 Corinthians 11:20-21 Paul rebukes the Christians for their abuse of the Lord’s Supper in that they were getting drunk (which could not have happened if they had been using grape juice).

What difference does it make? Why do Lutherans insist on bread and wine? For the same reason they insist on the purpose of the Holy Supper—the Words of Christ determine not only what His Supper is but what make it up. If we do not use bread and wine then we cannot be certain we are receiving the precious gifts He gives to us in His Meal He has prepared for us. Using the elements He instituted His Supper with we can be comforted in knowing that we receive what His Words say He gives: forgiveness of our sins.

Monday, January 1, 2007

The Circumcision of Our Lord

Today is New Year's Day, of course, so "Happy New Year!" The first day of the calendar year coincides with the festival in the Church Year of the Circumcision of Jesus. I don't imagine too many people are ringing in the new year thinking about Jesus being circumcised. But there aren't too many better things to think about, actually, at the beginning of a new year. The reason the festival falls on the first day of the year is because it's eight days after the celebration of Christ's birth and circumcision was performed on the eighth day.

The circumcision of Christ is similar to the Baptism of Christ. Jesus was not Baptized for Himself. He didn't need to be cleansed of sin, He is sinless. In the same way, He didn't need to be circumcised either. He underwent these things in fulfillment of God's Law, obeying the Law in perfection, unlike us. Jesus not only saved us by suffering our punishment for not obeying the Law, He also accomplished what we could not and have not: fulfilling God's Law.

At the same time, Jesus was also enduring the suffering for our sin, even as an infant. His blood was shed on the eight day of His life as He was circumcised. This points to the greater sacrifice He made when on the cross His blood was shed for the sins of the world.