Tis the Season – Sermon for November 29

Tis the Season
Luke 19:28-40
First Sunday in Advent
November 29, 2015
Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church, Detroit, MI
Installation of Rev. John Carrier

            “Tis the Season.” Tis the season for anticipation and excitement. Yes, the liturgical Christmas season may still be a few weeks away, but now that Thanksgiving 2015 is a memory, let the cultural celebration of Advent commence. Yes, I said Advent, for while the world around us may not consciously observe Advent by name, December in America is absolutely a season of anticipation. The holiday commercials have been playing for a good month already. 100.3 is a month into its Christmas playlist. The lights and decorations that haven’t been put up already will be out before you know it. And in my house filled with girls, the Christmas movies have already staked their claim to the throne of television PeaceonEarth9x16JPG_lgsupremecy. I guess it’s good that college football is basically done for a while. I find all of this excitement intriguing, because it demonstrates that even though our culture may not observe Advent on purpose or treat it as a season of repentance like we do in our Lord’s Church, much of November and December in our world is spent looking forward to the celebration of Christmas. Tis the season for anticipation indeed.

Tis definitely the season in our Lord’s church. Today marks the beginning of Advent, the season for anticipation and excitement, which is why the Gospel for today fits perfectly. It might strike us as odd at first glance, this Palm Sunday reading as we decorate for Christmas. We typically (and rightly) associate this reading with Easter and springtime, not with Christmas or Advent. And yet, the emotion of anticipation in this text is so thick that you could scoop it out with a spoon.  Consider the ministry of Jesus up to this point. For three years Jesus has journeyed throughout the countryside healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, even raising the dead. After almost every healing he looked those people in the eye and said, “Tell no one what you have seen.” Jesus traveled the regions and in every one of them instructed people to remain silent about his miracles. He understood that the healing granted through these miraculous acts was short lived. Every person he healed got sick later with something else. Every dead person he restored to life later died again. Lazarus, the widow’s son, the centurion’s servant, the paralytic lowered through the roof and laid at the feet of Jesus, where are they today? Which of them has survived this past 2000 years?

No, Jesus did not want people to consider him according to his acts of earthly power. He had something more in mind. He had the cross in mind. He was always journeying to the cross. He was always a lamb being led to the slaughter, the lamb of God sent to take away the sin of the world. And so for three years, he tried to silence any attempt to paint his mission or ministry in another light. “Tell no one what you have seen.”

But not today. Not Palm Sunday. No, the triumphal entry is different. The Messiah is on his way to the Temple to reconcile God and humanity. Sure, he may not actually die for a few more days, but this is the home stretch. This is his final journey to Jerusalem. This is the season for anticipation.  And so with each step toward the holy city, the anticipation snowballs, building like air in a balloon until it finally cannot hold any more, and with a loud pop the mass of people cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in Jesusheaven and glory in the highest!” And this time Jesus does not silence them. Not only does he let them cry out, but when the Pharisees try to silence the crowd Jesus informs them that even if the people were silent, the stones themselves would cry out. No longer is Jesus trying to contain the excitement of the masses. Tis the season for anticipation. The day of the Lord is here.

What anticipation is bubbling under the surface in your life this morning? There are probably some visions of sugar plums with the holidays on the horizon, but what else is part of that stew? Do the holidays fill you with stress as you dread what might happen when your whole family gets together this year? Who will fight with whom? Will so-and-so bring that girlfriend that nobody likes? Will cousin Eddie show up unannounced?  Are you filled with dread at the thought of trying to celebrate without someone? Is this the first Christmas without mom or dad, without a brother or sister, without a husband or wife? Maybe it’s the 10th or 20th Christmas without that loved one, but they just get harder and harder each year. Are you fearful of what you can’t afford? The holidays are an expensive time, and there’s no shortage of opportunities to spend, spend, spend. But what if you’ve nothing to spend? What if you’re just trying to keep the lights and heat on for another month? What if your cancer isn’t getting any better? What if you are fearful of what the future might look like if something doesn’t change soon? Tis the season for anticipation. But as life so coldly reminds us, not all anticipation is good. Some anticipation fills us with far more dread than joy.

You know, if you were to continue reading beyond where today’s Gospel reading ends, you would find that after Jesus tells the Pharisees that the stones would cry out in praise, he looked out over the city of Jerusalem and broke down into tears. Did you know that Jesus cried on Palm Sunday?  Jesus wept over Jerusalem, for he knew the destruction it would endure at the hands of the Romans in a few short years. He knew the suffering and heartache that this city would endure. He wept because he knew that the shouts of praise announcing his triumphal entry would turn to shouts crying for execution in less than a week. He knew the people of Jerusalem did not understand his mission, did not understand why he visited the city at all. And so he wept. He wept over the suffering that the people of Jerusalem would have to endure. He weeps for our suffering too. His eyes fill with tears of compassion for you. But he did not allow his tears to blur his vision – he remained focused on the cross. He marched faithfully to that cross for those very people who wanted him dead. He stayed on that cross for you, and for me. And on that cross, he jesus-died-for-you2did what he was sent to do: he reconciled God and man.

Tis the season for anticipation. Actually, each day of our lives is lived in anticipation, caught between the reality of what Jesus did for us on the cross on the one side, and on the other, our continued daily struggle in this life. The life of a Christian is one of waiting, one of trusting, one of hoping. As the writer of Hebrews so memorably put it, faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. It is being sure of our hope for resurrection, and certain that we are reconciled with God, despite what struggles we might see in our daily lives that would tell us otherwise. As the Apostle Peter says, we are born to a living hope. But hope, like anticipation, has a shelf-life. It will expire one day. Faith, hope, and love are three great gifts from God, but faith and hope serve a limited purpose. They look forward to the promises of God, but once those promises are fulfilled, there is nothing left to hope in. Your anticipation for Christmas, whether that anticipation is joy or dread, will end once Christmas gets here. Faith, hope, and love are certainly three great gifts, but the greatest of these is Love. For love is never ending. It has no shelf life. And the promise we have been given is that one day we will live in the love of our Father, free from any need to have faith or hope in promises of the future, for those promises will be fulfilled. We will simply live for eternity in the love of the Father.

But not yet. No, for us, life is anticipation. And so our Lord has left us gifts to help us in our wait.  The first and greatest of these gifts is his Word, where he gives us his promises and creates the faith in our hearts that would cling to these promises. Our Lord has given us food for our journey in the gift of his own body and blood for the strengthening of our souls. He has surrounded us with fellow hopers and believers so that in our moments of doubt and despair, we might find the encouragement of a brother or sister in Christ. As Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, we belong to Christ, we belong to the day, so we encourage one another and build one another up.

Tis the season of anticipation as Christians everywhere await the return of our King. Tis the season especially here at Mt. Calvary, for today you receive your new Pastor, the man appointed by God to keep Jesus’s words of hope and encouragement before you during the season of anticipation known as your life this side of heaven. He is the man who is called to bring God’s Word of hope into all circumstances of your life. When you dread who might or might not be at Christmas dinner this year, the voice of your pastor speaks God’s Word to you. When you worry about what disease might or might not do to your body, the voice of your pastor speaks God’s Word to you. When you are worried about what you can or can’t afford this Christmas, the voice of your pastor speaks God’s Word to you. We spend so much of our lives listening to the voices of the world around us, often without even realizing it. We listen to the radio, we listen to the television, we listen to the politicians, we listen to the celebrity activists, we listen to this voice and that voice. There are so many voices vying for our attention, so many who would try to shape us into something we are not.

In the midst of that deluge of voices stands your pastor speaking the Word of God, the word which is shaping you back in to the image of God in which our first parents were created. Here from this pulpit, the Word of God will whittle away Sunday after Sunday as you are shaped back into the image of God. In sickness or in health, in riches or poverty, in mourning or rejoicing, your pastor is here to speak God’s words of hope and promise. hopeHe is here to remind you of the truth of your sin. He is here to proclaim to you the truth of your salvation. And while he will certainly do more than that, he will not do less. For that is his primary responsibility – to preach the word in season and out. To see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human traditions or the elemental spirits of this world. For you are captive to Christ. You are his people. Already forgiven. Baptized into his family. Working to trust his promises as you struggle through the challenges of life this side of heaven. Anticipating the day of his return, awaiting the gift of life and the new creation.

Tis the season. The season for anticipation. The season for hope. But do not forget that your pastor needs to hear this message of hope too. As you are encouraging one another with the promises of God, encourage him too. Encourage his family. Whatever does or doesn’t happen in ministry here, whatever successes or failures you meet as you reach out to this community, whatever challenges or triumphs you have has a congregation, remember that you are first and foremost people of hope. You are the forgiven children of God awaiting his return. As your pastor reminds you of that, remind him too. Build one another up. Encourage one another with the promises of God. Embrace the joy of anticipation.

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Now Thank We All Our God – Sermon for Thanksgiving 2015

Now Thank We All Our God
Luke 17:1-11
Thanksgiving Services
November 25th/26th, 2015
Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

“Now Thank We All Our God.” Are there more appropriate words to sing during a celebration of Thanksgiving? We do indeed have much to be thankful for. As a congregation, we have been blessed in many ways. Our school remains strong even in uncertain times. We operate many wonderful ministries here on a bare-bones budget. Through our St John Logo - 150th & BEYOND - transparentBranching Out initiative we have been given the opportunity to invest in the future of our Church and School so that even as other Lutheran Schools in the area struggle, we can fill the need for Lutheran education for the entire southwest corner of Macomb County.  Worship attendance is up – we’ve been getting close to 600 people a weekend since school started. Our music program rivals what is heard at the colleges and seminaries of our church. This congregation has much to be thankful for.

“Now Thank We All Our God.” Thanksgiving is a chance to set aside time to reflect on life and consider what we have to be thankful for. We as a congregation have much to be thankful for.  I don’t know what you have to be thankful for in your personal lives. Maybe you are thankful for your family and the opportunity to gather together with them for a meal of celebration. Maybe you are thankful for your job and the fulfillment it gives you. Maybe you are thankful for your health. Maybe you are thankful for your home or for this country. Whatever it is that you’re thankful for, the words we just sang a few moments ago, “Now thank we all our God,” are appropriate. God is indeed the one to whom we owe our thanks. He indeed is the one who has blessed us with the good things of this life. As James says, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”[1]

The leper in today’s Gospel reading certainly had reason to thank God. After all, he was cleansed of his leprosy. Think of all that Jesus had given to this man by taking away his disease. He gave him back his family, a family he would not have been able to see while he lived in exile in the leper colony. He gave him back hope and friendship, because no matter who lived in the leper colony, it was a hopeless place, filled with people O Give Thank unto the Lordwho were awaiting their own death. And Jesus gave him back his religion. Even though the man was not an Israelite, the Samaritan temples would have declared him unclean just like the Temple in Jerusalem did.  He would have been prohibited from sacrifice. Yes, this man certainly had much to be thankful for. “Now Thank We All Our God.”

But what if he didn’t? What if you don’t? What if Jesus had never healed this man? Would he still cry out in thanksgiving to the God who said “no”?  Would you? Maybe you aren’t feeling particularly thankful this year. Maybe your health isn’t good. Maybe you are mourning a seat at your table that will be empty for the first time. Heaven may have gained a saint, but the holiday celebrations here lost a mom or dad, grandma or grandpa, brother or sister. Maybe it’s nothing personal, but simply an overall frustration at the suffering in the world around us: refugees that no one wants, terrorist attacks around the world, Christians executed for confessing Christ, disease that strikes the youngest and oldest alike. The world is full of death and sadness; maybe you’re just not feeling particularly thankful this year.

If that’s the case for you, the words we sang just a few moments ago are even more appropriate.

Now thank we all our God, With hearts and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, In whom His world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love And still is ours today.[2]

What makes these words so appropriate for times of frustration or sadness or grief is the story behind them.  These beautiful words of thanksgiving were written under some of the most horrifying conditions ever.  They were written in the year 1636 at the height of 30 Years War, which was one of the most devastating and bloody wars in history.  In certain parts of Germany, over 70% of the male population was killed.  Think about that: 70%.  What if 70% of the men you know were killed?  According to the last census, if 70% of American men died today you would need about 106 Million graves to bury them.[3]  To put that number in perspective, think about it like this. If you add together every single American Soldier killed in combat in any war in our Nation’s 240 years, the number is about 1.4 Million. To match the devastation of the 30 Years War, 106 Million would have to die in a single generation. Are we to be thankful even then?  One historian describes the state of Germany after the war this way:

The population of Hesse had shrunk to a fourth of its former number. Augsburg was reduced from 80,000 to 18,000; Frankenthal, from 18,000 to 324; Wurtemberg, from 400,000 to 48,000. . . . In Ummerstadt, near Coburg, which before the war had a population of 800, so great was the reduction that in two years not one child was born. It is a bloody history which these facts record.[4]

Based on those numbers alone, the population of these towns went from a combined 500,000 to a combined 66,000.  The country was devastated, lying in ruins, boasting a population of corpses that outnumbered its living bodies.  How could such a joyful hymn of thanksgiving be written in such a terrible time?

Because our life in the Lord is one of thanksgiving regardless of the circumstances.  Our thanksgiving is a fruit of faith that pours forth from the new hearts our Lord has given us. Our life is one of thankfulness regardless of circumstances because we know that this life is fickle. We know that this world with its bountious blessings and its copious curses does not define who we are as children of Jesus.  We have been reconciled to God and clothed with the righteousness of Christs.  As the Prophet Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.”[5] We are given to rejoice in the Lord because of this reconciliation, because we have been declared righteous before God.  As baptized children of the Lord, we no longer regard ourselves according to what we see, as Paul says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. . . . if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”[6]  We see ourselves for who we really are: children of the heavenly Father, baptized into the name of Jesus.

It is indeed a good practice to take a step back and evaluate our lives, to see what we have to be thankful for. But as the baptized family of God, we do so not according to worldly standards of success and failure, but according to the word of forgiveness and cleansing spoken to us by our Lord.  Even if Jesus had not healed that leper, the sick man would still have much cause to thank God, for Jesus was working something bigger than a cure for any earthly disease. That leper, even though he was healed by Jesus, later died from something else. So did every other person Jesus healed as he walked this earth. The temporary blessings of God in this life are worthy of thanks, but they pale in comparison to the eternal life he won for us on Calvary’s Cross.

Seeing the world through the lens of the cross opens our eyes to all we have to be thankful for. We know that we are forgiven.  We have eternal life.  When all hope seems lost, when we are surrounded only by despair, we cling to the hope of the Gospel and the promises of God.  We cling to the eternal life that we have been given by the death of Jesus.  We cling to the body and blood of our Savior given for us to eat and drink. We cling to the clear teaching of God’s Word and the promise of salvation. We rejoice in God’s gifts of life and forgiveness, and are ever thankful for them.

And so even in the midst of a terrible and bloody war, the hymnist was able to write a beautiful hymn of thanksgiving because he knew where his true citizenship lay: not in a Germany which was devastated by the ResizedImage228250-giving-thanks2ravages of war, but in the kingdom of heaven as a forgiven child of God.  So we too are thankful even if we lose everything we own in this body and life.  For we do not regard ourselves according to the flesh, but according to the new creation given to us in Holy Baptism.

So enjoy today. Enjoy sitting with family or friends around a good meal and a day off, either laughing or cursing as you watch the Lions be the Lions. Be thankful for the good gifts of this life.  It is good to give thanks unto the Lord for all he has given us: for house and family and health.  It is right and proper to thank the Lord for these things; they are blessings from him.  But such blessings are temporary. They will all end one day. Yet even if we lost them all tomorrow, or if we never had them, never had a family that loved us, never had health to be thankful for, even if life this side of heaven has been one struggle after another, we still have much to be thankful for, for we know that the greatest blessing our Lord has ever given us is the forgiveness of sins won for us by his Son.  He has clothed us with the garments of salvation, and has covered us with the robe of his own righteousness. He has prepared a room for each of us in the Father’s mansion. So:

All praise and thanks to God The Father now be given,
The Son, and Him who reins With them in highest heaven,
The one eternal God, Whom earth and heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, And shall be evermore.

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[1] James 1:17

[2] LSB 895 st. 1

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_military_casualties_of_war

[4] The History of Protestantism by J. A. Wylie: http://www.whatsaiththescripture.com/Voice/History.Protestant.v3.b21.html#3-21-11-5

[5] Isaiah 61:10a

[6] 2 Corinthians 5:16-17

Walk Worthy – Sermon for November 15/16, 2015

Walk Worthy
Colossians 1:9-14
24th Sunday After Trinity
November 15th/16th, 2015
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

There are certain sections of Scripture that can be confusing to read, none more so than the book of Revelation. Dragon, beasts covered in eyes, bowls of God’s wrath, symbolic trumpet blasts, and the rest of the imagery found within the book can be overwhelming and intimidating. But there is an incredible scene described near the beginning of the book, a scene I’d like to try to paint for you today.[1] John was given a glimpse into the drama of heaven, allowed to see an event of cosmic significance that had taken place before the throne of God. Yes, there’s some confusing language about the 24 elders and an emerald rainbow and 4 living creatures covered with eyes and wings. But the drama, the plot, of what happens is what is so beautiful. You see, John is allowed to see into the heavenly throne room, and when he looks in he sees God on his throne holding a scroll, a parchment of paper. The scroll is sealed, unable to be opened. Now, we know that Revelation is a highly symbolic book, and in this particular case the scroll is the story of salvation. You might say that if the scroll were to be opened, on it would be a single word: forgiven. Or maybe: reconciled.

The point is, the scroll needs to be opened for the forgiveness or reconciliation to be released. It’s like a group of treasure hunters who have finally found the location of the treasure, but they can’t open the door to the treasure room. They need someone to crack the code, to figure out where to put the key, to open the safe so that the vastness of the treasure may be revealed. But who will open the door? Imagine the frustration and disappointment of being so close to your treasure, but having no one who could open the door. That is what is described in this scene from the book of Revelation: no one in heaven is able to open the scroll. No one is worthy. God wants to be reconciled to his people, but no one is able to make that happen, not the 24 elders, not the eye-covered creatures, not the angels around his throne.

2dacb47881342008963acca81e075787Except just at that moment where John is crying out in disappointment, his angelic tour guide tells him to dry his tears. “Behold,” he says, “here comes the one who can open the scroll!” And John raises his eyes and sees on the throne the Lamb who had been slain, still bearing in his body the marks of sacrifice. When the bloody Lamb walks over and takes the scroll and opens it for all to see, releasing the treasure of reconciliation, heaven cannot contain its joy. The whole company breaks forth into song: “Worthy is Christ the Lamb who was slain! By his blood he ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation and made them into a kingdom for God!” The death and resurrection of Jesus made him and him alone worthy to open the scroll, to reveal to us the story of our salvation, to give us the treasures of God. And heaven and earth rejoice.

It’s an interesting word, “worthy.”  It has the same root as our English word “worth.” “What’s it worth to you?” means “What would you consider an appropriate cost for this thing?” Worthiness has to do with what’s appropriate, or with what’s deserving of something. Are you worthy to open the scroll? Are you worthy to win salvation for yourself or anyone else? No, only Christ is worthy for that. But just because we’re unworthy to open the scroll of salvation doesn’t mean we’re totally worthless. So what are you worthy for? What am I worthy for? In today’s epistle reading Paul encourages us to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”[2] What does it mean to be “worthy of the Lord?”  Where do we find and how do we get this worthiness that Paul encourages from us?

If we are going to attempt to understand worthiness, we must first note what Paul says about the source of this worthiness. In verse 9 of today’s reading he writes that he had been praying for the Colossians so that they would be “filled with the knowledge of [God’s] will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”[3] with the result that they would walk in a manner worthy of the Lord. Paul says that we are worthy when we know God’s will. God’s will, simply put, is that people would go to heaven. We live amid much confusion regarding the will of God. People are constantly trying to decode God’s will for their lives. But the confusion often comes from a faulty understanding of what exactly we do or don’t know about God’s will. Here’s what we know for certain: God desires that all would be saved and would come to the knowledge of the truth.[4] We often run into problems when we try to figure out God’s will for our career, or what college we should go to, or whom we should marry. We often treat God’s will as if our Heavenly Father holds in his hand a checklist for our lives on which he has predetermined which choices he will bless and which he will not.

But that’s not how God’s will works. Rather, God’s will for you is that you spend eternity with him in paradise.  In order to accomplish that, he sent his own Son to do for you what you could never do for yourself. That knowledge, according to Paul, is the first and most necessary step to walking in a manner worthy of the Lord. Knowledge of my sin as revealed to me in the Word of God silences any efforts on my part to justify or save myself. It stops me from trying to open the scroll for myself. No one is tumblr_ldcbxwQKQ91qes9ozo1_500worthy to open that scroll except the Lamb who was slain. I’m not worthy, and neither are you. None of us is. We are all unworthy. Knowing and trusting that particular Word from God is the first ingredient in worthiness, for when we confess our sin we receive the gift of forgiveness. Every time. It’s that simple. Christ has already died. Your salvation is already won. You were made right with God when you were baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. This knowledge and spiritual understanding are the foundation of walking in a manner worthy of the Lord.

But notice what comes next. Notice the way Paul defines this worthiness in verse 10. He says that this worthiness consists of being pleasing to God by increasing in knowledge of him, and bearing fruit in every good work. We already know what it means to increase in knowledge of God. It means to continually return to the knowledge that I am a sinner and God is my Savior. It is repentance and forgiveness. It is Law and Gospel. But what does it mean to bear fruit in every good work? This question takes us back to the will of God again. What is God’s will for your life? Where does he want you to go to college? What career does he want you to have? Whom does he want you to marry? The freedom of the Gospel is that we don’t have to be weighed down with questions like these. As the Apostle Paul says elsewhere, all things are lawful, but not all are helpful.[5] Or again Paul says: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”[6] How exactly did God create good works in advance for us to do? Does this refer again to some cosmic checklist?

No. Paul is writing here about the gift of vocation. When our Lord created this world, he created different vocations, callings, roles and relationships through which he would continue to uphold what he had made. He created the vocation of father and mother, of son and daughter, of employer and employee, of student and teacher. He created these different vocations beforehand, and each one serves a specific purpose in this world; each one carries with it specific responsibilities. The good works prepared in advance are the things we are called to do within the vocations God has given us. Are you a father or mother? Then provide for your children, raise them in the knowledge of the Lord and of his Word, and teach them how 140425-hsgraduation-stockto survive in this world. When done in faith, these are good works to our Father in Heaven. Are you a student? Then apply yourself to your studies that you may one day be a benefit to the society at large. When done in faith, these are good works to our Father in Heaven. Are you an employer? Then treat your employees well, pay them a fair wage, and see to it that the goods or services produced in your company are well made. When done in faith, these are good works to our Father in Heaven. Each vocation has a shape of its own; each one has built into it good works that God has prepared in advance for us to walk in them.

So what does this have to do with worthiness? To go back to the story from Revelation again, only Christ is worthy to open the scroll because only Jesus was given the vocation of Savior. Our vocations are different, but our worthiness is still found in them. To walk in a manner worthy of the Lord is to walk in our vocations. To be fully pleasing to God and bearing fruit in every good work is to live in the callings God has given us. Don’t try to figure out which specific job God wants you to have. Simply use the talents and abilities he has given you to serve others. The same is true for finding your soul-mate. Don’t wait for that one single person God has prepared for you from eternity. He has never promised that. Instead, find someone you can love, and then love that person. Sacrifice your wants and desires and devote yourself to them. Love them with the sacrificial love of Christ. Forgive them at all costs. Remain faithful to them in body and spirit. In these things we find a life worthy of the Lord.

Certainly living in our vocations is not easy. That’s why Paul prays that the Colossians would be “strengthened with all power…for endurance and patience.”[7] The temptation is always there to look at someone else’s vocation, to look at someone else’s life, to look at someone else’s spouse, or children, or car, or career and desire them for ourselves. We know firsthand the struggles of our own lives, but see only the outside layers of the lives around us. We might think we would be better off somewhere else, but we are called to endurance and patience. This is our worthiness before the Lord, bearing fruit by doing every good work he has built into our vocations. Increasing in knowledge of him through continued study of his Word, through which he shows us our sin and our salvation. Living in the gift of baptism by having our sins forgiven in the stead and by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ. Feasting on the body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our souls. And then stepping out into the vocations we have been given to love and serve God by loving and serving the people he puts in our lives.

And so with the Apostle Paul, my prayer for us is that we may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will for our salvation in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work of our vocations and increasing in the knowledge of God.  May we be strengthened for this task with the power of God given through his Word and Sacraments, to give us endurance and patience with joy, as we give thanks to the Father who has qualified us through his forgiveness to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For he has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. In this is our worthiness before him.

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[1] Revelation 4-5

[2] Colossians 1:10

[3] Colossians 1:9

[4] 1 Timothy 2:4

[5] 1 Corinthians 10:23

[6] Ephesians 2:10

[7] Colossians 1:11

Thou Shalt Not: God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized – 9th & 10th Commandments

Thou Shalt Not . . .
God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized
The Ninth & Tenth Commandments

We have all heard the story about the young puppy prancing to and fro with his precious bone when he happens upon a pond. He sees his reflection in the water, but doesn’t realize that the “other dog” is actually himself. Seeing the bone in the mouth of the other dog, the puppy decides it would be better to have two bones instead of one. When he opens out his mouth to try to take the second bone, the bone he already had tumbles into the water, and slowly fades from visibility as it sinks to the murky bottom of the pond. The poor puppy is forced to trek sadly back home with nothing.

Such a story illustrates the reality embedded in the 9th and 10th Commandments. These commandments forbid coveting the possessions (9th) or lifestyle (10th) of others; not only are we forbidden to covet another person’s house or car or private jet, we also are forbidden to covet their wife, family, relationships, etc.

Why does our Lord condemn coveting? Luther comments that because acts of theft and adultery have already been addressed by previous commandments, these last two commandments are addressed to those people “who wish to be commended as honest and virtuous because they have not offended the previous commandments” [LC.I.300].

While Luther’s words are true, there is more to be said.  As this whole series on the 10 Commandments has tried to show, there is more at play in the Moral Law than simply making sure every sinner is accused of something. While the Law after the Fall always accuses sin, the Moral Law itself existed before sin, and it will continue to exist after. Because the accusatory nature of the Moral Law will pass away in the New Heavens and the New Earth while the Law itself remains, accusation is secondary to what these Commandments  teach us about how God designed creation to work.

These commandments acknowledge that coveting always leaves people enslaved to anxiety, uncertainty, and a lack of perspective.  Coveting, at its root, is rejecting and despising the gifts of God. Any basketball coach knows the frustration of a tall player who wants to shoot only 3-pointers rather than using his or her height to play by the basket. Many of us go through life ignoring the unique talents and abilities God has blessed us with personally. Instead, we covetously focus on the talents and abilities of others: thinkers wish they were more artistic, musicians wish they were more athletic, and so on.

But what does such coveting get us except depressed at what we cannot do? The great gift of God is that he has created a world filled with a variety of gifts and abilities. “Woe to him who struggles against his Maker. Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles.’?” [Isaiah 45:9]. To take such a view of God’s gifts robs us of the opportunity to use those gifts in faith toward him and in service to others. The body of Christ, though one, has many diverse members. The foot is not useless simply because it is not a hand, and the eye is not useless due to the fact that it’s not a kidney [1 Corinthians 12]. The 10th Commandment expresses the reality that coveting or obsessing over the abilities and life of others while despising my own ends in anxiety as I try in futility to obtain something that was not given to me.

The 9th Commandment expresses the futility of coveting money or earthly objects. If your goal in life is simply to get more, then you will never have enough. Because there will always be one more thing to chase after and acquire, it is a life that must always end in failure. But our Lord did not create us to live lives perpetual failure. He created us to experience the joy of fulfillment, which comes through using our unique talents and abilities in service of others.

When considering coveting and finding fulfillment in the life God has given, we have to recognize that some lives include physical or mental handicaps, others have relationships are hurt by abuse, while still others struggle under the weight of poverty. But this is not the place to explore the sad ways that sin has corrupted God’s design for this once perfect creation. Rather, this is the place to recognize the original intent of God’s design as we see it through the Moral Law. For the Baptized child of God, the life, talents, interests, and very existence we enjoy are gifts from a God who loves us. To covet and obsess over someone else’s gifts and circumstances ignores the personal gifts each of us has been given and blinds us to the joy to be found in embracing those gifts by using them in service to others.

For All the Saints – Sermon for All Saints 2015

For All the Saints

1 John 3:1-3

All Saints’ Day

November 1st/2nd, 2015

Saint John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI

            Language is a funny thing, especially the English language. Take, for example, the sentence: “I cannot bear to bare the bare bear.” The word bear/bare means to tolerate, to carry, naked or uncovered, and a big animal with massive teeth. Yes, the spellings are different, but on dictionary.com the word bare/bear has over 30 meanings. Even more confusing is the way that words change their meaning over time. Take, for instance, the vocabulary of the internet. Web used to be where a spider lives; surf used to be word associated with beaches and waves, net used to be used for catching prey, cookies were 051745201fa17a6794186e41768ee87af99c75-wma snack food, and so on, and so on. Language changes over time, which can make reading older writings confusing. Like Juliet’s famous line, “Romeo, Romeo, Wherefore art thou Romeo?” I remember the first several times I read or heard that line I assumed Juliet simply didn’t know where Romeo was. After all, what else would the word “wherefore” mean? It’s got the word “where” in it, right? In reality, the word “wherefore” means “why,” not “where.” Juliet is not saying “Where are you Romeo,” but “Why are you Romeo,” meaning “Why are you a Montague? Why did you have to be my enemy?” Knowing what the word means helps the real meaning of the line become clear.

We deal with a similar word today, a word whose real meaning has been obscured and lost over the course of time. That word is: saint. Today is All Saints’ Day, or the Feast of All Saints. We just finished singing one of my favorite hymns: For All the Saints. But what does the word “saint” actually mean? What are we celebrating today? What are we commemorating?

Most of the time we hear the word “saint” we think one of two things. Most commonly, we think of someone who has been canonized by the Roman Catholic Church: St. Luke, St. John, St. Christopher, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Benedict, etc. These “saints” are men and women who have met certain criteria, such as leading an especially godly life and being credited with documented miraculous acts. They are Christians who are held up as the most holy and virtuous followers of God. The other way we typically think of the word “saint” is in reference to anyone, Christian or not, who leads a virtuous life. “She’s a saint” we say about the inexhaustibly patient mother of 5 or about the person who volunteers countless hours at the homeless shelter. “She’s no saint” we say about the girl with a bit of a wild side. In both of these cases, the case of the especially faithful Christian and the case of the virtuous mother, we associate the word “saint” with actions. Those who live the right way we call “saints,” those who don’t get called something else.  But like Juliet’s “wherefore,” the word “saint” means something different in the Scriptures. And like knowing the right definition of “wherefore” sheds light on the true meaning of Juliet’s words, knowing the right definition of “saint” sheds light on what we are actually celebrating today.

The word saint is a translation of the Greek word that literally means “holy one.”  To be a saint is to be a holy person. We are often quick to associate holiness with behavior, which is why we are often quick to associate the word “saint” with behavior. We call a person “holier-than-thou” based on that person’s behavior and how they make us feel about ours. We tend to think of holiness as if a certain way of life is holier than another, which, to a certain extent, is true, but it is not holier because of the actions involved. No, in the Old Testament the word “holy” was applied to more than just behaviors. It was applied to furniture in the Temple, like tables and candle stands. It was applied to places, like holy-holy-holyJerusalem or Mount Zion. It was applied to things like oil or food or incense. That’s because holiness is not determined by actions, but by ownership. To be holy is to belong to God, to be set aside by him for his own use and his own purposes. And this holiness was not earned by acting or living in a certain way, as if a mountain or bottle of oil could behave in such a way as to make itself holy. No, something became holy only when it came into contact with the God who is holy. The Temple was holy because the holy God dwelled in it. Mount Zion was holy because the holy God dwelled there. Holy food and oil and candlesticks were holy because they had come into contact with the God who is holy.

In the Old Testament, holiness worked somewhat like the touch of King Midas. Like everything King Midas touched turned to gold, the touch of the holy God makes things holy. No one was holy until they were touched by the holy God: tag, you’re it. The holy God touched the holy altar and started a holy fire in his holy Temple. Then priests who had been made holy by the holy sacrifices would turn around and make Israelites holy by offering sacrifices for them on God’s holy altar. Holiness in the Old Testament, like real estate, was all about location, location, location. Those who were in the presence of God’s holiness were made holy by it. Those who were outside God’s holy presence were not holy. Those who were in Israel were a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God.

So what does that have to do with Juliet’s “wherefore”? What does that have to do with the meaning of the word “saint”? Everything. The word saint translated literally from the Greek means “holy one.” “One who has been made holy by being in the presence of the Holy God.” It has nothing to do with being more ethical or moral or virtuous that the next guy. It has nothing to do with our actions at all; it has everything to do with the God who makes us holy. The God who puts his holy name on us in baptism, adopting us into his holy family, giving us the gift of a new creation, one that shares in God’s holiness. Holiness comes through the actions of the holy God who gives you his holy body and blood to eat and drink from this very altar, literally filling you with his holiness in order that you might remain holy. Holiness comes through the proclamation of God’s holy Word spoken 29753through the mouth of a man who stands in the stead and, by the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, forgives us our sins in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – the holy name of God. Through these holy things, you are made holy; you are made saints.

If our holiness depended on our holy living, if it were somehow up to us and to our decision making to bring about holiness in our lives, we would be in rough shape. For our lives and our hearts are far from holy. We may sometimes do the right thing, but often it’s simply an attempt to cover our own backside or to preemptively paint ourselves in a more favorable light. We may sometimes say the right things, but often it is simply an attempt to make ourselves look better in the eyes of others. Our motivations are never totally pure, never fully selfless. And beyond that, we cannot control our thoughts or the secret desires that we may have learned to keep at bay during the day but which playfully and insidiously full our dreams. The lust we indulge while we sleep, the greed and hatred that season our daydreams, the excuses we bend over backward to make for ourselves while demanding absolute perfection from others. No, if our holiness was up to us to accomplish, all hope would be lost. None of us, no human being who ever lived, could live in such a way.

No human being, that is, except one. The holy one. Jesus himself. Today we celebrate All Saints’ Day, a day set aside to remember those who have gone before us in the faith. But their sainthood, their holiness, comes not from the things they did in their lives, but from what our Lord Jesus did for them on the cross, and what he continued to do for them through his Word and Sacraments all their days. Our holiness comes from the same place: Jesus himself.

The world doesn’t see us as saints. The world doesn’t understand us, but we should expect nothing less. The reason that the world does not know us is that it did not know him. It considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. It esteemed him not. But the world’s estimation of Jesus does not change who he is. It does not change what he does. My estimation of something doesn’t change the reality of that thing. How many times have you been convinced that someone was telling the truth only to find out later they had been lying all along. How many times have you been convinced that the rumors about a certain celebrity or coworker just simply had to be untrue, only to be disappointed when the truth comes out. The world then looked at Jesus and saw a failed messiah who couldn’t stop the soldiers from nailing him to the cross and who couldn’t get himself down once they did. The world today looks at Jesus and sees a moral teacher at best, one who Crucifixmight be worth including with the likes of Buddha, Confucius, Mohammad, or Gandhi. But the world’s opinion of Jesus doesn’t change the reality of who he is: the messiah of the holy God, the one sent to be the holy sacrifice to cover the sin of the world so that we might be made holy through him. It’s not about morality, it’s about being forgiven so that we can stand in the presence of the holy God.

The reason the world doesn’t know us is that it did not know him. The world doesn’t know God’s holiness. The world laughs at bread and wine, at water and word. The world calls them superstitions and us gullible. But take heart, dear saints. Behold the kind of love the Father has given unto us: he has made us holy, given us a share in his own holiness. Take heart, dear saints, for you have been touched by God, his name on your forehead with water. Take heart, dear saints, for though you are for a while struggling through this life, one day the world shall see you for who you truly are. One day you shall see yourself for who you truly are. One day you will see clearly the white robe of salvation, washed in the blood of the Lamb, that covers all your sin. One day you will be holding palm branches before the throne of our God, serving him day and night in his temple while the one who sits on that throne will shelter you with his presence. You will hunger no more, neither will you thirst. Neither the sun nor any striking heat will harm you, for the Lamb who sits on the throne is your shepherd who will guide you to springs of living water and wipe away every tear from your eyes. For you are the saints of God.  You are his holy ones.

+INJ+

God’s Law in the Life of the Baptized: The Eighth Commandment

c5eb77b68fc5ba622774b03443c36e9bI’m not rude, just honest.” Statements like this one are common. Their intention is to absolve the speaker from any wrongdoing and allow him or her to say hurtful things with a clear conscience. The idea is simple: I can call you names, so long as I’m being honest; I can spread gossip about you, so long as I’m being honest; I can destroy your reputation, so long as I’m being honest.

This is the attitude the Eighth Commandment addresses. Yes, the commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbors means that we should not tell lies about people. Certainly this commandment forbids telling blatant untruths that would do harm to our neighbor, like falsely accusing another person of assault. These types of lies are what Luther called deadly lies.[1]

However, this commandment also speaks to us in our everyday life that is often more complicated. Take, for instance, simple lies told by parents who tell their children that the tooth fairy put a quarter under their pillow or by actresses who make a living playing different characters on stage and screen. These may be examples of people being intentionally deceptive, but each is an example of what Luther termed a playful lie. The Eighth Commandment is not concerned with such situations.

      Beyond harmful or playful lies, there are even times in real life where a lie is not only allowed, but the right thing to do. Luther called this the obliging lie, like when a woman’s friend deceives an abusive husband about whether his battered wife is hiding at her place. Such a lie is told to protect a neighbor from harm.

While it is good to teach our children not to lie, Luther viewed the fundamental duty of loving your neighbor as more important.[2] It is in this light that the true purpose of the Eighth Commandment becomes clear to the baptized children of God. In the words of the Large Catechism, “No one shall use the tongue to harm a neighbor, whether friend or foe. No one should say anything evil of a neighbor, whether true or false … Rather, we should use our tongue to speak the best about all people” [LC, TC 285].

This is so important because, in Luther’s words again, “It is a common, pernicious plague that everyone would rather hear evil than good about their neighbors. Even though we ourselves are evil, we cannot tolerate it when anyone speaks evil of us; instead, we want to hear the whole world say golden things of us. Yet we cannot bear it when someone says the best things about others” [LC, TC 264]. Considering the ease with which we can instantly share our thoughts electronically, the effortlessness with which we can spread rumors and gossip electronically, and the joy that the sinful nature finds in sharing scandalous stories, the devastation that can result from breaking this commandment can be seen quite clearly in our world today.

But our call remains the same: defend your neighbors, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way possible. Or, if you prefer grandma’s wisdom, ‘If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ It doesn’t really matter if what you have to say is true. What matters is whether what you have to say is something that builds a person’s reputation up or tears it down. God’s children are called to build each other up.

Certain exceptions are of course made when it comes to positions of authority whose purpose is to investigate accusations, like police, parents, or the like. If we are called to testify in court, the Eighth Commandment requires that we tell the truth, regardless of whether it’s flattering or not. But in our personal relationships, in private conversations, in the school hallways and the coffee shops, we are called to turn our ears into a tomb [LC, TC 266]. In this way, no member of the body of Christ is dishonored. Our Lord created us to live in community, in relationships with him and with the people around us. The Eighth Commandment encourages us to value the reputation of the other people in the community, bearing with each other, making the body of Christ on earth a place of refuge.

[1] See Rev. Hans Fiene’s article in The Federalist “The Group Behind The Planned Parenthood Videos Was Right To Deceive”

[2] Robert Kolb, Teaching God’s Children His Teaching