Monday, January 30, 2012

Sermon for 1/29/12--Transfiguration of Our Lord (LSB 1-year)

"Hear Him!"

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

It is a constant temptation to make faith into something all about ourselves, to measure and calculate it by what we get out of it. Does it make me feel good? Am I living a good enough life? Do I really love the Lord enough? Do I have enough faith? Do I tell enough people about Jesus? Does God love me because I try hard to be a good person? When we lose interest in church because we don't seem to get something out of it—because it doesn't strike an emotional chord, or because we just think it's boring—we have made religion and faith about us instead of what it really is about: Jesus. That is why the Transfiguration is so important in our time. Today we see Jesus shining in all His glory, and it reminds us that it's all about Him: who He is and what He has done for us.

When Jesus is transfigured, He talks with Moses and Elijah. Moses is the giver of the Law; Elijah is one of the great prophets. Moses and Elijah in their ministries pointed ahead to the coming Savior. To see Jesus with Moses and Elijah means that He is the One who is to fulfill all of Scriptures. And He will fulfill them by going all the way to the Jerusalem and the cross. Here on the mountain, Jesus is strengthened in His purpose of dying to save sinners. It's all in the balance. If Jesus doesn't go to Jerusalem, we're doomed. If He doesn't go to suffer and die, we have no hope. We can't hope in ourselves. Our hope and trust must be in the Son of God. If He doesn't fulfill what He came to do, there is nothing for us but to remain in our sins. But Jesus is strengthened for His mission. He is reminded once again by the Father's voice that He has come to do the will of the Father. It will be hard. It will kill Him. But He does it because He perfectly loves and obeys the Father. And He does it to rescue you from sin and death because He perfectly loves you, as well.

The Father’s voice says, “Hear Him!” Peter, ever the example of the kind of religion we like to have, wants to stay there with the shiny, happy Jesus. “Lord, let us make some shelters.” Peter wants to be where God's glory is evident and easy to see. Peter doesn't want the God who is dead on the cross; He wants the glorious one. So it is with so many Christians who worship by trying to have some feeling and somehow touch or experience God's “glory.” In many churches, worship is designed to bring about a powerful emotional experience and response. But in doing that, we've made religion about us, about how we can praise Him just a little bit better if we just feel it. But the Father corrects all that with these words: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!” Hear Him, because faith isn't about our emotions but about Jesus and His saving Word that gives life. So what does Jesus say? The Father says to listen to Him; and the very next words out of Jesus' mouth to the frightened disciples are, “Do not be afraid!”

When we make religion about ourselves, we're constantly trying to find a way to make ourselves feel good, worthy. But when faith is centered in Christ, His Word says, “Don't be afraid.” There is true comfort because it is the Lord who says it. He is the One who brings true peace to us by the forgiveness of sins that He accomplished for us on Calvary. This “don't be afraid” extends to the font, where the Word and water rescue us from death and the devil. It is heard in the Absolution, which tells us not to be afraid of our sins. It is spoken with the Words of Institution so that we don't fear death, for the body and blood of Jesus overcome death. It is no longer about what we can do and how we live and how we feel. It is about the promises of God Himself to be our God and defend us from all evil, even unto eternal life. The big deal isn't that we can feel good about Jesus but that Jesus saves us from sin, the world, death, and the devil’s power.

Now, after they come down from the mountain, Jesus tells His disciples not to tell anyone what they've seen until after He's been raised from the dead. But after that, Peter tells us that, because He was an eyewitness of the glory of Christ, the Word He preaches is sure. To hear St. Peter preach is to hear Christ. To hear called and ordained pastors preach is to hear Christ. The Transfiguration of Jesus means that, now that He has been raised from the dead, the Word that is preached has all of God Himself standing behind it. Peter's words in His epistle remind us that, unlike what the world would have us think, the Word we hear preached is not made up. Jesus was seen by eyewitnesses, and they have passed down His Word faithfully. “Hear Him” means to hear Jesus. And that's what the Bible is all about. That's what the Word preached in His church delivers to us.

When Jesus speaks to them, the disciples look up and see Jesus only. What a picture of our faith! Jesus only. The Transfiguration is written down for us to rescue us from a religion that is all about ourselves, to turn our hearts in faith to “see Jesus only.” Only in Him do we have the truest comfort and the voice of God Himself telling us not to be afraid. With such a Savior who is God and man, we have the unshakable promise that now, in Christ, we too are God's beloved sons. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

On the Radio (whoa)

On Monday afternoon, Jeff Schwarz, the producer from Issues, Etc., sent me an e-mail to ask if I'd be interested in appearing on the show. This is not the first time he's asked, and I've been on the show before. But last time I was part of a roundtable discussion on the Fifth Commandment (right click to save and listen). This time I'd be on my own, and I'd be discussing a topic about which I'd written an article for Higher Things Magazine but am no expert: Christian stewardship concerning the environment. Neither factor was particularly encouraging, but Jeff is quite persistent. So I agreed.

Though I was quite nervous--I started shaking a half-hour before and didn't stop until about an hour after--I enjoyed myself. Pastor Todd Wilken, the host, is experienced in leading his guests fairly gently, and Jeff edits segments after the fact so that guests like me son't sound too much like an idiot. I had a bunch of resources in front of me--printed passages from the Bible and Catechism, a copy of my article, and a few other useful notes and facts--so I could fall back on notes if my mind blanked. All in all, it's one of the few things I've done outside of my comfort zone that I've really enjoyed.

If you'd like to listen, right-click this link to save the audio to your computer:

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Sermon for 1/22/12--Third Sunday After Epiphany (LSB 1-year)



Jesus Under Authority

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

When a congregation installs a new pastor, they expect certain things from him. Listen again to these vows which a pastor makes at his ordination. “Do you promise that you will perform the duties of your office in accordance with these Confessions and that all your preaching and teaching and your administration of the Sacraments will be in conformity with Holy Scripture and with these Confessions?” “Will you faithfully instruct both young and old in the chief articles of Christian doctrine, will you forgive the sins of those who repent, and will you promise never to divulge the sins confessed to you? Will you minister faithfully to the sick and dying? Will you demonstrate to the Church a constant and ready ministry centered in the Gospel? Will you admonish and encourage the people to a lively confidence in Christ and in holy living?” “Finally, will you honor and adorn the office of the holy ministry with a holy life? Will you be diligent in the study of Holy Scripture and the Confessions? And will you be constant in prayer for those under your pastoral care?” And with the help of God, the pastor answers, “I will.” These are weighty promises, and while Christians understand that their pastors are sinful men and thus will not always perfectly keep the promises they have made, they rightly expect their pastor to hold his life and his doctrine and practice to a high standard.

Like the centurion, a pastor has to understand authority. On the one hand he is called upon to speak in the stead of Christ when it comes to the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments. Your pastor speaks; and with the authority of Christ in his hands and mouth, sin and death and the power of the devil have no choice but to depart. On the other hand he is a servant of the congregation when it comes to temporal matters. When a member is sick and in the hospital, your pastor is duty-bound to visit that member and pray for him and bring him the comfort of the Word.

Whether you like it or not, your pastor is required to remain faithful to the Word. He is under the authority of the congregation, surely; but he also speaks with the authority of Christ when it comes to His Word and Sacraments. He cannot deviate from that message. He must not drift with the currents of popularity. You may roll your eyes when, for example, your pastor harps on the frequency of Holy Communion or your daily return to Holy Baptism through repentance and faith; but when he does so, he is only doing what you have Called him to do: to speak of the gifts of God to you, to teach you regarding the benefits of those gifts, and to exhort you to the frequent reception of those gifts. You don’t like to hear that you’re a sinner, do you? You don’t like to hear that you need something you cannot get on your own. You don’t like to be convicted of your sinfulness. The preaching of the law is not a popular message; but that’s precisely why Christian congregations extend the divine call to a man whom Christ has set apart as His hands and mouth: so that he may say the unpopular thing, so he may tell you that you are a sinner, so that he may tell you of your need for the gifts of God. He has no choice. But then, when you approach in repentance and faith, it is also his duty to administer to you the forgiveness of your sins.

What is true of your pastor is also true of Jesus. When he praises the faith of the centurion, Jesus is not just praising the man for understanding that He didn’t need to enter the man’s house to heal his servant. He was also praising the man for understanding that the One with the authority to heal from a distance, the One to whom will be given all authority in heaven and on earth, Jesus Himself, is also under authority. The Old Testament set forth the manner in which the Messiah would act. He would preach the Word. He would make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the lame to walk, the leper to be cleansed, and the dead to rise. The Messiah would be recognized by His actions. Jesus had no choice but to act as He did, for He had placed himself under the authority of His own Word!

What a blessing for you! For the obedience Messiah don’t stop with the blessings of the body. Hear what the Apostle Paul said to the Philippians: “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross.” Jesus was the One promised to Adam and Eve in the Garden, the One who would crush the head of the serpent, the One who would redeem fallen man. He allowed Himself to be bruised, to be crucified and put to death, bearing your sins to the death you deserved. And then, as the Old Testament foretold and even ordered, Jesus rose again, bearing you up with Him to new life in the waters of Holy Baptism.

This very day you approach the altar to receive the body and blood of the obedient Christ. Some of you may have learned during your catechism instruction to say this pray as you approach the altar: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Only say the word, and my soul shall be healed.” This is a salutary prayer, and it is one which Jesus delights to answer in the affirmative. And it is not only His delight to grant you that blessing; it is also His duty, for He can do nothing else but bless those who approach Him boldly in faith. Do not be afraid; ask, and He will give. And when He gives, your soul will be healed. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sermon for 1/15/12--Second Sunday After Epiphany (LSB 1-year)

My apologies for the lousy audio. This time it's because my voice was nearly gone!



Both Body and Soul

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Jesus turned water into wine. Why didn’t Jesus simply make wine out of nothing? Why did He take a substance that was already there and use it to make something new and different? Though it’s not easy to know the mind of God, God certainly knows the mind of man. If Jesus had created wine out of nothing, it would be all to easy for sinners to question whether or not He really had any authority over the created realm. Some might have questioned whether or not the substance was real. Others might have doubted that anything had been done at all, that it was all an illusion, or even a scam! But the unquestioned physical character of the water from which He made the wine meant that the wine itself was real. Why does it matter? It matters because Jesus here reveals that He has authority and power not only over spiritual things but over material things as well. His work is real; it involves real people and real things.

We are now in the season of the Epiphany, the time of the revealing of Jesus as the One who was promised, that One who would come to redeem this world from sin and death, and all of their consequences. Epiphany and Christmas, just past, fit together like a hand and glove. The baby born in Bethlehem was a real, live, baby boy. He did not just “appear” to be human, as one of the ancient heresies of the Church claimed. He did not come merely in the guise of a man. Remember what John wrote: “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory.

God has become a Man--a real flesh and blood Man. He has taken our poor human flesh from the womb of His virgin mother and has filled it with His glorious divinity. Just as He did with the water, so has He done with our flesh. The glory that is truly His is something we will here about again, in a few weeks, on the Sunday of the Transfiguration. But do not forget this: the body that He took to Himself, the flesh that He made His own from the womb of Mary, that same body, although purified and glorified, is still a real, human body. Our salvation is not just “spiritual.” The salvation our Lord Jesus has won for us will affect our bodies as well.

To be a human being is to be a person who exists as both soul and body. Jesus did not come merely to save “souls.” He came to save persons, those who are both soul and body. Jesus Christ took upon Himself real, live, genuine human flesh from His virgin mother. In Jesus Christ, God the Word united Himself with our flesh, becoming one flesh with us. This is very much like the union that occurs when a bridegroom unites himself with his bride and becomes one with her. For Christ Himself has a Bride, one which He has purchased with His own blood, one to whom He has given His Holy Spirit as a pledge of His faithfulness, a gift of His love. For God the Son is the Bridegroom, and we who are flesh, freed from all sin through Him, are His Bride. And both together are united in Him.

Jesus Christ has done all of this that He might take away the shame and stain of our sin, and present us to Himself as a glorious Bride, free of all spot and blemish. He has put away our sin, first, by His holy conception and birth, for the flesh of our Bridegroom, although it is fully and completely human, is also pure and unstained by any personal sin. Our Lord Jesus Christ is the perfect Bridegroom and Husband. He has laid down His life for the Church. And He has blessed the holy estate of marriage in this world as a sacramental picture of the mystery of the life of the world to come. Marriage is a divine institution into which God promises to pour His abundant blessing upon those who live in that state of marriage faithfully. St. Paul wrote, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave Himself for it, that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish… For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak concerning Christ and the Church.

It is right and proper, therefore, that Christian weddings be times of holy joy and celebration. A Christian wedding is a picture of the marriage feast of the Lamb! The Scriptures picture heaven as an ongoing feast. As Christians we gather at the altar for a feast given by God, a feast at which the Bridegroom Himself, the Lamb of God, is both the host and the food. It is a foretaste of the feast to come. This feast is the one our Bridegroom has given for our celebration now, as we await what He will yet give us.

Jesus turned water into wine. He took ordinary means and through His Word made that everyday substance into something extraordinary. He did the same thing in Holy Baptism, where He puts His Word in the water to make it a life-giving and life-sustaining flood to drown the old, sinful Adam and wash away your sins. Thanks be to God, for in His flesh Jesus reveals that He has power over all things—the spiritual and the physical—and in His miracle at Cana, He reveals that His love guides Him to use that power for the good of His people both now and forever. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Sermon for 1/8/12--Epiphany I/Baptism of Our Lord (LSB 1-year)

Audio (sorry about the distortion):


Christ Is in the Water

Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist had been sent from God to prepare the way of Christ. To do this, he was preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John said to those who were coming out to him, "Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance." Certainly not a very popular message, but it was one that needed to be spoken. Only through true repentance would the people be made ready to receive the Messiah. They were full of self-righteousness and worldliness and corruption. They needed to be brought to their knees through the preaching of wrath so that they might be lifted up through the preaching of the Gospel and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

John's message is also for you still today. The spiritual condition of mankind hasn't changed. At heart you are no different than those Israelites of old. You are by nature children of the evil one, filled with His poison. Now, your old Adam doesn't like to hear that sort of preaching. When your pastor speaks that way, your sinful nature says, "Come on, I'm not that bad. Sure, I'm not perfect, but who is? Compared to other people, I think I'm doing OK." Fallen man is so shrouded in deceit that God has to reveal the way things really are. And so John's message of repentance still rings out. "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!"

And, indeed, it is at hand, for the King of the kingdom of heaven reveals Himself at the Jordan River. The Messiah shows Himself publicly. But then He asks John to baptize Him! Now why would He do that? After all, John's baptism was for sinners, and Jesus is sinless. What’s going on here? The answer to that question comes from the exchange that is recorded between John and Jesus. John tried to stop Jesus by saying, "I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to Me?" But Jesus persuaded him: "Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness." In other words, Jesus was saying, "This is what must be done to fulfill the righteous plan of My Father who sent Me. I must be counted among the sinners and become one with them to make them holy."

At His baptism, then, Jesus was showing forth His unity with fallen man. Not only did our Lord humble Himself to take on your flesh and be born of a Virgin, but now He takes the next step. In the water He stands with you and absorbs into Himself the curse of your sin. He goes so far as to take your place and put Himself into your bondage so that He might burst the bars of your captivity and conquer your satanic captor. As Isaiah prophesied, God's Servant Jesus will "bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house." Thus, our Lord's Baptism and His holy cross are connected. He is there as your substitute. Your sin becomes His sin; His righteousness becomes your righteousness. He trades places with you to set you free from the power of death and to give you His everlasting life.

This is why we hold baptism in such high regard. This is why it is such a powerful act of God: our Lord Jesus has put Himself into it! He who paid the penalty for our sins on the cross has sanctified the water with His real presence. Christ is in the water to make baptism a fountain of grace and forgiveness and life. There are those who hold baptism in low esteem and consider it to be a mere ceremony or human act of dedication. And so the Small Catechism poses the question, "How can water do such great things?" The answer: "Certainly not just water, but the word of God in and with the water does these things, along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water." The presence of Jesus in the water makes baptism a life-giving, faith creating event. He who needed no baptism put Himself into the River in order that your baptism would be a holy cleansing.

Since Jesus stood with you in the Jordan, and since you are joined to Him by water and the Word, what took place here in the Gospel is true also for you. It is recorded that when Jesus had been baptized, He came up immediately from the water and the heavens were opened to Him. So also heaven has been opened to you who entered baptismal waters with Him. The pathway that once was closed has now been cleared for you through Christ the Mediator. For He said, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me." Just as Israel crossed the Jordan to enter into the Promised Land, so now you cross the Jordan with the Lord Jesus to enter the promised land of life with God in heaven.

When the Father saw His Son humbly and willingly taking on the task of becoming the Redeemer of the world, His voice came from heaven declaring, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." Meanwhile, the Spirit descended like a dove. All three persons of the Trinity were revealed at this momentous event. So also this same threefold God was present to put His name on you as you were baptized; and as you came out of the water, the Father's voice declared, "You are my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased." At the holy font you truly were incorporated into Christ's body, made to be the temple of His Spirit. Having been washed, you have become part of the divine family, children of the heavenly Father, with whom He is truly well-pleased. Paul wrote, "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ." No longer are you the offspring of the devil. You are sons of God in Christ, forgiven and redeemed and holy children.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the Jordan River is found for you in the holy font of baptism; and our Lord continues to dwell in those waters. Return daily to your baptism through repentance and faith in Christ. Do not stray far from these holy waters, for Jesus Christ is present there. And in these waters is the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Now available in print (aka BUY MY BOOK!!!)

I participated in National Novel Writing Month for the first time in 2007. I'd always wanted to write a novel, and I'd even made a few abortive attempts in my younger days. But if I was going to actually complete a novel, I knew I couldn't just sit down and write one. So I went into NaNoWriMo with a plan. I'd spent my free time the previous three months writing character profiles, making detailed setting descriptions and sketches, and formulating chapter lists and chapter outlines. Even with all that planning, it still surprised me when, at the end of November, I emerged with over 50,000 words and an almost-complete first draft of a novel.

I spent a lot of time over the next four years looking at a pile of papers. I would take a pen to it every so often to proofread and edit, but for long stretches it just sat there. I didn't really foresee a market for it, as the novel itself is very Lutheran, and the Lutheran publishing house associated with my church body doesn't really publish much in the way of fiction; and with all the Lutheran apologetics that made its way into the novel, I just didn't see anyone else wanting to publish it. I did some vague explorations into the realm of self-publishing, but I decided at first that I didn't want to go that route. I was worried about formatting the pages. I was worried about assembling the files. I was worried about a cover picture. And, to be honest, I was worried that it just plain sucked.

But when I once again successfully navigated NaNoWriMo this past November and wrote book two, a sequel to the 2007 novel, I decided it was time to give self-publishing another look. I took some preliminary steps, asked some proofreader friends to take a look at what I had, and gave the novel another long, hard look.

Today, for the first time, my novel is in print! Love Divine, book one in the "Thy Strong Word" trilogy, has been called a "reluctant love story". It is the tale of a single Lutheran pastor and a young widow who meet when neither of them is expecting a relationship. He's content with his life as it is; she has finally found peace nearly three years after the death of her husband. How will their lives and vocations be affected when God brings them together? How will Justin's congregation react to their pastor's new social life? How will Beth overcome the guilt she feels in moving on with her life?

If you would like to learn the answers to these questions, consider purchasing a copy by clicking on this link. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.