19 October 2014

Christ Is the Image & Inscription of God

There’s lots of worries in the air and in the news these days, and as many or more opinions as to what should be done about them: The Ebola virus is on everybody’s mind, and it has contributed to the ups and downs of a recently volatile Wall Street.  The threats and atrocities of ISIS against Christians and others in various parts of the world are likewise a clear and present danger.  Peace and safety seem increasingly precarious and volatile.  And all of this on top of more mundane but ongoing concerns of health care and its costs, and, yes, the burden of rising taxes.

There are those people who blame the government for these problems, or for making them worse, and plenty of others who expect the government to be the solution that makes it all better.  More laws and more taxes — or fewer laws and lower taxes — as I say, there are no lack of opinions.

So, what are your hopes and fears for tomorrow?  What is it that’s weighing heavy on your mind and worrying you this morning?  And what solution do you long for?  Where are you looking for help and rescue from all that threatens your life and your future?  In whom do you put your trust?

This isn’t a “political” sermon, leastwise not in the usual sense that one might think.  But I’ll tell you straight up what the Lord has commanded in His Word: Honor the governing authorities; submit to them, and pray for them; because they are God’s ministers for your good in this world.  But do not put your trust in them, and do not bow down before them, as though the presidents and princes of this mortal earth were gods.  For they, too, are men of flesh and blood.  They rise, and they shall fall, according to the Lord’s good pleasure.  They can do nothing at all apart from Him.

The one true God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is not compartmentalized.  He is not shelved or sidelined, regardless of what anybody says or thinks or does.  The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof.  The whole of creation exists by His Will and at His Word, and He governs the heavens and the earth and all that is in them in fulfillment of His own purposes.  This is true.

He gives and establishes parents and other authorities, not because He is powerless or helpless, but because He chooses to exercise His almighty power in this way, working in and with and through His creation: As He also serves you and His children on earth through His holy angels.  It is in the nature of His tender loving kindness that He privileges His creatures to participate in His works.

So, too, according to His steadfast love, He orders creation and governs all authority in heaven and on earth for the benefit of His Church.  All of this for the sake of Christ Jesus, the beloved Son.

Nations rise and fall at His command.  Kings and queens, czars and politicians of every sort, all come and go according to His Will.  And always He is moved by His love for you, who bear the Name of Christ, whom the Father has anointed with the Spirit for the salvation of the world.

Though you did not know Him, nor could you have come to Him on your own, He has known you in His grace, mercy, and peace, and He has revealed and given Himself to you, and for you, in the flesh and blood of this one Lord, Jesus Christ, the blessed and beloved Son of God.

Why, then, do bad things happen to you, and to Christians all over the world, both near and far?  Why do things go wrong, sometimes very badly indeed?  Why is it sometimes hard to find a job, or to make enough money to keep up with the cost of living, or to provide for your family?

Why do you suffer personally?  Why does our congregation struggle to make ends meet?  And why is our country so volatile, apparently ready to ignite or erupt with a growing number of tensions?  We’re hardly surprised, anymore, to read or hear of violence in almost every imaginable place.

If God loves you, and He is all-powerful and good, why is your life so often so difficult?  If you are a child of God, then why do you go hungry or disappointed?  And why does it so often seem as though all of this stuff happens by chance, by accident, or by coincidence, as though there were no God at all, but only luck, or fate, or karma, or simply the survival of the fittest?

Beloved of the Lord, take this to heart, that His grace and goodness are as sure and certain as His almighty power.  He is not arbitrary, capricious, or fickle in His dealings, but He does all things in holy love, and for your good, so that all things do work together for your salvation in Christ.

It is not true that anything happens randomly.  Despite the chaos of sin, death, and the devil, the Lord your God, He is the true and only God, and nothing from the highest heights to the deepest depths has slipped away from Him or gotten out of His control.  He upholds all that is by His Word, through Whom all things are made, and nothing is or happens apart from Him.

It is difficult, I realize, to reconcile this almighty power of God with your hurt and suffering, your sadness and fear.  It surely does not feel like divine providence, mercy, or love when you are in pain or struggling to survive.

But remember that your heart, mind, and spirit, your body and soul are sinful, and that you do not perceive the things of God, His Mind or Spirit, by any of your own wisdom, reason, or strength.

Although you are not God, but a creature — and a fallen creature at that — you suppose that your perceptions, your preferences, and your pride are good and right and as they should be.  Not so.  Nor is it to your advantage or benefit to persist in such sins (for that is what these attitudes are).

Thus, by the Cross, the Lord disciplines you unto repentance, away from sin and death unto life with Him; from pride and self-righteousness to fear, love, and trust in Him above all other gods; from covetous greed and lust and selfishness unto the genuine faith and love of Christ Jesus.

By what you suffer, and finally by your death, He would break the idolatry of this body and life, of this perishing world and its false belief and unbelief.  He puts to death what is dying, that you should henceforth live in Him by His grace alone, through faith in His Word and promises.

For you are His, both by His creation and by His redemption of your body, soul, and spirit.  You, and your whole life, all that you are and have, and your place in the world, all of it derives from Him and belongs to Him by right.  Not that He needs your help or anything from you, but that you are His workmanship, created to live with Him in His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

You are made in His Image; which is to say, that you are created in Christ Jesus, and recreated in Him by your Holy Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection. His Body of Flesh and Blood is the Model and the Mold in which you have been crafted by the hand of God in His infinite Wisdom.

Not only that, but He has written His Name upon you, the Inscription of His Word in your flesh and in your soul: He has signed you with the Sign of His Holy Cross upon your forehead and your heart, your mind, body, and spirit.  Not with pencil or pen, but with the precious Blood of Christ.

Therefore, render yourself and all that you are unto Him.  Not that you must buy Him off.  This is far more than tithes or taxes to which the Lord Jesus directs you when He instructs you to render unto God the things that are God’s.  It is a matter of faith.

Entrust yourself entirely to the Lord your God.  That is to live by faith in Christ Jesus.  Listen to His Word.  Confess His Holy Name.  Pray, praise, and give thanks always, at all times and in all places.  And, so also, honor your father and mother and the other authorities whom He has placed over you in life.  Love and cherish them, serve and obey them.  Only do not sin against His Word.

By the same standard, in whatever office He has given you, whatever governance or stewardship of His creation, honor that authority with which He has entrusted you by serving faithfully, that is to say, according to His Word, to the glory of His Name, and for the benefit of your neighbor.

Work and serve especially for the sake of His Church.  For the support of His Church on earth is not an afterthought or a secondary matter; it is to be the priority of your first fruits.  Again, not as though He needs your help, but because He gives you the privilege of participating in this best and most beautiful of all His good works, whereby He gives life and salvation to His creatures.

Like Cyrus and Caesar, you have no authority except what God the Lord has given you and permits you to exercise.  He can just as surely remove you from whatever place or position you presently occupy; for He will surely accomplish His own purposes, with or without you.

No matter the coin, no matter how few or many you may have in your hand and pocket, you are not your own but God’s.  Do not fret or worry, then, as to what you shall get and keep for yourself, but render Him His due, what is His by right: Not ten percent, but everything you are and have.

Render Him yourself and your all.  Turn away from idols, whether of wealth or whatever, and serve the true and living God.  Look unto Christ, the incarnate God, the Lord’s Anointed.  He is the Image of God in whom you are made; and He is the Word of God, inscribed in the flesh and blood of His Body, conceived and born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, and risen from the dead.

All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Him: for your sake, and for His Church.  The Authority of forgiveness, life, and salvation.

In Him, all that is sinful, and all that is dead and dying, has been put to death once and for all; and in His Resurrection from the dead, the faith and life of God have been established for all people.

This Lord Jesus Christ, true God and perfect Man, has rendered Himself entirely unto God by the Cross, in your own flesh and blood, in order to redeem you from sin, death, and hell, not with money, but with Himself; to reconcile you to God, and to raise you from the dead.  So does He now render Himself to you in love, to bring you to His own God and Father in faith and love.

See, here, the Coin of His realm, given for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.  Whose Image and Whose Inscription does it bear?  That of Christ, the Lamb of God, who was sacrificed for you.  In Him you are the Lord’s, and He is yours forever and ever.  Such are the “politics” of God.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

05 October 2014

The Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts

The Lord has established His Church on earth, and He has done everything for her, His beloved Vineyard: He has planted her upon a fertile hill, and dug all around to remove the stones from her soil, and planted her with the choicest Vine.  He has built a wall around her and a tower in her midst, to guard and keep her from all harm and danger.  And He has made a wine press for her fruits in due season, because He cares for her; He removes the briars and brings forth good grapes.

So, too, in calling you to faith and life in Christ Jesus, the Lord of Hosts has made you a member of His Church, a planting in His Vineyard, a branch of the true Vine.  And He does everything for you, as well, to give you His own life, in body and soul, both now and forever in His Kingdom.

As a Christian, you are a part of the Vineyard, tended by the Lord and His servants.  And, as you are a servant of the Lord, yourself, you are also responsible for a portion of the Vineyard, that you should care for it and keep it, protect it from danger, and nurture it to be healthy and fruitful.

According to your vocation as a disciple of Christ Jesus, within your own particular place in life, you are to bear and bring forth good grapes to the glory of God.

As pastors and teachers of the Church are responsible for the administration of the Gospel–Word and Sacraments, so are you accountable for your stewardship of the offices and stations in life that God has given you: Whether husband or wife, parent or child, brother or sister, worker or student; whether you are young or old, married or unmarried; whether a musician or mechanic, a merchant or marine.  Whatever God has called you to be, you have your own place and purpose in life.

The Lord has determined, defined, and described the fruits of faith and love, of righteousness and justice, which you are to cultivate and produce in your own context and circumstances.  His Law, especially as summarized in His Ten Commandments, seeks to find those fruits in you: In much the same way that we’ve been hearing and learning from Leviticus concerning the first fruits of the harvest, which were to be returned to the Lord with thanksgiving for His bountiful goodness.

Therefore, hear and heed, honor and obey those commands of the Lord your God, and teach them also to your children.  Receive the Law of the Lord from the mouth of His servants, and return to Him the fruits that are His due.  He is not out to rob you, nor does He leave you destitute, but He daily and richly provides for you, entirely by His grace, with fatherly divine goodness and mercy.

Do not respond with ingratitude, nor resort to self-preservation.  And do not do violence to the commandments of God by disobeying them, by refusing to listen to them, or by performing only perfunctory, outward service with a grudging heart, out of selfish self-righteousness.

For the Vineyard is the Lord’s, and your place and purpose in His Kingdom are under His authority, dependent on His mercy.

Incredibly, and marvelously, the Lord in His mercy does not simply command and forbid you with His Law.  Nor does He quickly punish you as you deserve for your failure and refusal to bring forth the good grapes that are His due.

Rather, in long-suffering patience and steadfast love, He sends to you His own dearly beloved Son: in person, in the flesh.  He comes to you, not merely to reiterate the Law and the Prophets, but as their perfect fulfillment.  He comes to obtain the fruits of righteousness in you by calling you to repentance and faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.

He justifies you with His own righteousness, and raises you from death to life in His Resurrection.  Indeed, He makes all things brand new in His own Body.  So are all things possible in Him.

Honor Him, serve and obey Him, love and cherish Him.  Respect Him with the reverence that is due the very Son of God, who is the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of the Vineyard.

Do not do violence to this dear Lord Jesus Christ by refusing to receive Him, by taking His gifts for granted and continuing to sin, or by presuming upon Him, as though He were your slave to order and command according to your own whims.

What madness! To suppose that by seizing the Son of God and violating Him, you should storm the Kingdom of heaven and take it for yourself by force!

What shall the Lord your God do to such a wretch?  Do you imagine that He is powerless to act?

But, then again, what greater madness is this at work?  That God the Lord, the Almighty, should willingly send His beloved Son and hand Him over to the violence of sinful men?  And that He, the Son, should voluntarily suffer such violence, shame, and death, for the sake of His Vineyard?

Then it first of all appears that all has been lost; as though the Vineyard Owner has lost His mind, forfeited His honor and His reputation, and relinquished His Vineyard and His Son to the wicked.

But, no, that is not the case.  Nothing is as it appears.

This very Stone rejected by men is established by God as the Head of the corner.  The Cross and Passion of the Christ have become foundational and definitive for His Holy Christian Church.

For He is the choice Vine that is planted by death, so that in His Resurrection the Vineyard is reborn, enlivened, and fruitful: Justified by His Blood, redeemed and reconciled to God, alive and sanctified by His Holy Spirit, and all of this by His grace alone.

His Vineyard shall not be taken from Him.  Yet, He gives it freely to disciples of all nations, to as many as He shall call to Himself by the Gospel of His Cross, who shall then also bear the fruits of His Cross in their own lives, by faith in Christ the Crucified.

Now, therefore, you shall not escape His Cross.  You will be broken into pieces by it.  Indeed, you must be broken.  But, what then?  Shall you be scattered like the dust?  Or, will you be gathered unto God the Father in heaven through the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead?

Take heart, dear child of God.  It is that old serpent, the devil, not you, who is crushed under the heal of the Crucified One.  You are crucified and broken by the Cross, that is true, but for life, and not for death; in order that you should be raised up and healed in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus.  You are united with Him in His Cross and Passion, in order to receive and participate with Him in the power of His Resurrection and His Life.

By your Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection, you are grafted into this true Vine, in whom you have the life everlasting of God in your own flesh and blood, heart and mind, body and soul.

And He who has redeemed you, purchased and won you for His own, by His holy and precious Blood, by His innocent suffering and death — He also bears good fruits in you after His own kind: fruits of repentance, of faith and love, of righteousness and justice; the good grapes of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness for those who trespass against you, as God in Christ forgives you.

Only hear and heed His Word to you.  Not only His Word of the Law, which commands you, but His life-giving Gospel of Peace, which rescues you from every evil and keeps you safe with God.

Instead of striving to seize what has not been given, receive from His hand the gifts of His grace.

There is nothing lacking in Him.  Whatever else you may have wanted to have, relied upon and counted upon, or striven for — all of that is merely rubbish.  But Christ is your everything.

Here, then, eat the Fruit of this Vineyard, which is the Body of Christ Jesus.  And drink the Blood of this true Vine.  As He pours Himself out for you, and as He gives Himself into your body, so does He bear and bring forth good fruits in you at the proper times and seasons.

This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes!

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

29 September 2014

The Pastoral Care of Catechumens and Communicants (St. Michael's Conference)

Here are links to the paper I presented to the St. Michael's Conference at Zion, Detroit, on September the 29th, A.D. 2014, the working bibliography I prepared for the paper, and an audio recording of the presentation itself.  Other things from the conference are also available on Zion's website.


28 September 2014

The Author and Giver of Life

It is by and through, and in and with the Word of God that all things are made, and you cannot separate the true divine Authority of God from His Word.  The Father speaks His Son, and so breathes His Spirit, and so does the Holy Triune God create and give life.  All Authority is His, because He is the Author of all things and the Giver of Life to all of His Creation.  To man, in particular, He gives Himself in Christ Jesus.  He shares His Life and His Love by His Word.

To live according to the Word of God, therefore, is Life.  And to disregard and disobey His Word, to depart from it, is death.  At its heart, that is what all sin is: a departure from the Word of God.  The outcome is death: not so much as punishment as the inevitable consequence of sin, because departing from the Word of God is a departure from His Life.

Repent, therefore, and live.

Why should you pursue death, and die, when the Lord who created you in love still speaks to you in mercy, to give you life with Himself, and health and strength and every good?

In one respect, it is so simple and so obvious: Turn away from evil, and do good.  Turn away from sin and death, and live unto God in faith, unto righteousness.  Stop doing what He has forbidden, and do what He has commanded.  Use your freedom to pursue a greater knowledge, love, and understanding of His holy and precious, life-giving Word, and in all things live according to it.

Not only is this good and right: It is good for you.

It is the way of life, whereas the soul that sins shall die.

But of course, it isn’t obvious or simple at all.  Because your sin is more deeply rooted than even your thoughts and feelings.  It is deeper than your words and actions — deeper even than your intentions.  It is rooted in your ego and your will.  It permeates your heart and darkens your mind.  It’s got your tongue, your ears and eyes, your hands and feet, because it’s got you.  You’re not simply a person who sins, but you sin because you are a sinner.

You do not see things clearly.  You do not understand them.  Your perceptions, opinions, and conclusions are off; they are fallen, along with the rest of you.  Even your efforts to please God, to keep His Word and live according to it, are muddled and misguided.  The problem is not with His Word, but with your heart, mind and spirit.

Thus, instead of the righteousness of faith and the life of love, there reigns in you — apart from Christ and His Spirit — the selfishness of lust and the self-righteousness of pride (or else the despair of unbelief, which is nothing else but the flipside of pride).

It is for this reason that tax collectors and prostitutes enter the Kingdom of God ahead of the religious elite.  Not because their sins are acceptable or harmless — far less commendable — but because they are exposed for what they are, and broken and contrite, and called to repentance.

Ironically, their rescue is found and received, first of all, in the recognition of their helplessness and hopelessness.  Their life of selfishness and sin is laid bare for the foolishness and futility it really is — self-destructive, deadly, and damnable.  In this respect, the Word of God has not simply informed or educated them, but has convicted them and hastened their death: that is to say, it has put them to death to themselves, to their sins, to their idolatrous pursuits, and to the fallen world.

But the Word of God speaks more than condemnation.  It speaks life and light and love.  It shows not only sin, but salvation.

To those whom it convicts and crucifies, it grants the peace of forgiveness.  It pardons and spares.  It justifies the ungodly with a righteousness not of themselves.  It does not simply drive to despair, but raises from death and reconciles to God.  It not only speaks about life, but actually bestows life.  It enlightens the heart and mind with the Spirit of Christ Jesus.

The Lord, the Author and Giver of Life, takes no pleasure in the death of any sinner, be it publican or pharisee, but He desires all people to be saved.  That’s not just wishful thinking on His part, but He becomes the Author of Salvation: your Savior!  He not only calls you to repentance, but He Himself comes to save you, to bring you out of death and the grave into life in and with Himself.

The Lord Jesus Christ has divine Authority as the Son of God from all eternity, and as the Word by whom all things are made.  But now He has obtained and received a New Authority — in the flesh, “for us men and our salvation” — by authoring repentance, resurrection, reconciliation, and righteousness on behalf of the fallen and far off — for lost and condemned sinners like you.

He has done so by living as true Man, in your place, by faith and love.  From His conception in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, He does so.  From His holy Nativity, He does so.  From His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan River, He does so.  He takes upon Himself, not only human nature, flesh and blood just like yours, but also the fallen condition of all Adam’s children, and thus mortality like yours, the full curse and consequences of sin.

He humbles Himself, and submits Himself to the will of His God and Father (for the salvation of His creatures), and He becomes obedient, even unto death upon the Cross.  He does it voluntarily, in love for His Father and for you, with divine compassion and tender mercy.

It is not easy for Him, nor at all pleasant, but this is how He uses His strength, His almighty power, His divine Authority.  He subjects Himself to the judgment, condemnation and punishment of the Law for all your sins (for the sins of the whole world), in the confidence and hope, the trust and the prayer, that God His Father will raise Him up again, vindicate Him, exalt Him and glorify Him.

All of this He does so that you, also, in Him, should be raised up, justified, exalted and glorified; so that you should not perish, but be saved and have eternal life in Him.

By His Incarnation, by His Cross and Resurrection, He has become the Author of Salvation, and, as such, He has been given Authority to forgive sins, to save sinners, to rescue from death and the grave, to make disciples out of men and women from all nations, and to give them life with God.

Repent, therefore; trust Christ, and live.

As He has entered upon His story of salvation by the way of His Baptism, so then, you also be baptized, or return to your one Holy Baptism for the remission of sins.  That is to say, remember your Baptism, what it signifies and indicates.  Return to its cleansing, refreshing and life-giving waters by contrition for your sins, and by repentance.

Follow Christ Jesus to the Cross in the sure and certain hope of His Resurrection from the dead.

What does this mean but to renounce the devil, all his works and all his ways, and to seek and find your life in the Holy Triune God.  Stop trying to make a life for yourself, and receive the life that only He can give.  Turn away from your sin — from your lust, your pride, your selfishness, your false gods of whatever kind — away from your false belief, despair, and shame, and vice — and trust the Crucified and Risen Lord Jesus.

Flee to His forgiveness, lay hold of His Life, and seek His salvation where it may be found.

As the Gospel begins with the Baptism of St. John, the Forerunner of the Christ, so does the Gospel continue to the end of the age with Holy Baptism in the Name of the Holy Trinity, by the Authority of Christ the Crucified.

“All Authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me,” He says to the Apostles.  “Therefore, go, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them all of My Words.”

You come to that same Lord Jesus Christ, and you enter the Kingdom of God through Him — like tax collectors, prostitutes, and countless other sinners before you — by your Baptism into Him; by the preaching and teaching of His Word; and by the gathering of His disciples to His Table, to eat and drink His Body given and His Blood poured out for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.

By these ways and means, the Author of Salvation sets you free to live.

Now, then, use your freedom to love and to serve, to give life to your neighbor.

That is what the way of righteousness and the life of God in the flesh looks like: faith toward God in Christ, and love for one another (also in and through Christ Jesus).

That is what the scribes and pharisees, the chief priests and the elders of the people, by and large, did not get, despite their valiant and zealous efforts to keep the Law of God and to live according to it.  Lacking faith and love, they missed the heart of the matter, and the whole point eluded them.  They sought a righteousness of their own before God, and so they looked with contempt upon their neighbor.  They did not recognize their sin, and so they could not recognize their Savior.

But now the Author and Giver of Life and Salvation has written His story and revealed Himself to you, in the flesh, in the waters of your Holy Baptism.  For as that Sacrament is the fountain and source of your discipleship, so is it also the shape and pattern of your faith and life in Christ.  In it you have been recreated and reborn with a new heart of faith and love, endowed with the mind and the Spirit of Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God.

Your Holy Baptism has brought you into the Temple of God — into His Church, the Body of Christ, on earth as it is in heaven — and so into the Kingdom of God.  Here He is still preaching and teaching, and by this Word of Christ, the Father speaks to you by His Son, in order to give you life with Himself.  He enfolds you in His Love, and He enlightens you with the Holy Spirit.

Here you are seated with Christ in the heavenly places, and your life is hidden with Him in the bosom of the Father, as surely as He is here with you in this place, at this Altar.

Here you are fed with His Body and His Blood, which are your Meat and Drink indeed.  Do not doubt that He has the Authority to feed you in this way, but rejoice and delight in His grace, and give thanks and sing for what He says and does and gives to you here.

For He has tasted the sour grapes of your sin and death, with His own teeth, in His own Body of flesh and blood, so that you might drink freely the Choicest of Wines from His Chalice, from the Cup of Blessing which we bless, which is the Cup of Salvation.  It is for you, now and forever.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

21 September 2014

A Denarius for the Eternal Eighth Day of Christ

By what reckoning do you suppose that God owes you a salary?

The only wage that you have earned is death, now and forever, on account of your sin.

Thankfully, the Lord does not pay you the wage that you deserve.  Instead, according to the grace of God, solely because He is good and He desires to be generous, He grants to you the free and full forgiveness of all your sins.  And with forgiveness, He also gives you life and salvation.

The Lord reckons you righteous by His kind generosity for Jesus’ sake, and He provides for you a place in His Kingdom, before you have even begun to do any good work at all!

He surely does not “owe” you anything.  The Lord your God is not obliged to you, nor is He in your debt.  But He gives you everything by grace.

You live in His Vineyard by His grace, through faith in His Gospel.

Here, then, is the fruitful life to which He brings you in peace: He calls you to share in His Life and His Love, and He sends you to live in love within your own place.  Not because He needs your help, but because He loves you, and He delights to perfect the good work He has begun in you.

You thus share His life by way of discipleship and your Christian vocation.  Which is to say that you follow after Christ Jesus, and, in His Name and at His Word, you serve your neighbor in the place where the Lord has positioned you.  There you pursue the labor of faith and love, and in this way you offer the sacrifice of thanksgiving, which is the only thing you can give to God.

Before you ever begin to work or serve on behalf of others, you are first of all served by the Ministry and work of the Gospel, which is the Lord’s ongoing care of His own blessed Vineyard.  For He has hired others before you to work and serve on your behalf, that you might live with Him in His Kingdom in the righteousness of faith.

And then it also happens, within your own particular office and station in life, wherever you are called to be, that you care for that portion of the Vineyard, be it big or little.  Not for any wages earned, but in thanksgiving and at the Lord’s Word.  For love’s sake, you bear the Cross of Christ, the true Vine, for your neighbor; and you do so in the confidence of the Lord’s promise to you, for He is faithful and just, and He will do what He has spoken.

Although you exercise whatever wisdom, reason, strength, and talents the Lord has given you, and whatever resources He entrusts to your stewardship, you are not on your own to fend for yourself, to sink or swim by your own ingenuity and effort.

You are called to work and sweat, to bear the Cross, and to serve your neighbor in this world.  But you are sustained in that labor, in holy faith and Christian love, by what the Lord has done for you, and by what He continues to do and say and give to you by His grace and mercy.

It’s not “cheap grace,” as they say.  Not at all!  For Christ the Lord has borne the whole burden and the full heat of the day on your behalf.  Through the long dark night of His Passion; in the early morning hours at the rooster’s crow; at the third hour before Pilate, at the sixth hour on the Cross, and at the ninth hour when He cried out with a loud voice to bestow His Spirit; even to the final hour of the day, when He was laid to rest in the tomb — He has worked for you, in order to grant you His Peace and Rest.  As one of our shut-ins said it so well this past week, Jesus did the job!

He suffered the wages of your sin by His death, and He bore the good fruits of faith and love by His own hard labor, by His dreadful agony and bloody sweat.  All of this He does for the purpose of granting to you His own inheritance as the Son of God, as well as the righteousness, life, and salvation of His steadfast faith and perfect love.

Thus has He done and accomplished, for you and for all, throughout the long brutal day and the harsh punishing hours of His Passion, even unto death upon the Cross.

But that is not the end of the story.  For He continues to care for His vineyard, to give it life and sustain it, by those whom He sends in His Name to preach and administer the Gospel of His Cross.

According to His tender mercy, by His good and gracious will for you and your salvation, He provides for all your needs, and far more than you need in this body and life, and all the more so for your resurrection from the dead and your life everlasting in Him, in both body and soul.

It is for this reason, in Christ and for His sake, that your life, also, in the body, has meaning and purpose, significance, and value.

Do not suppose that the finished work of Christ has made the work He gives you to do pointless.  The fact that your forgiveness and salvation are by grace and not according to your merit does not cheapen but sanctifies your calling to cultivate and care for the Lord’s Vineyard.

The Kingdom of Heaven, which is the Kingdom of God in Christ Jesus, is not like the politics or economics of this world.

What you do in the Lord’s Name, according to His Word, is valuable and precious; not because you are earning a wage or making a profit; and whether or not you are productive and successful in the eyes of the world; but because you are the Lord’s and the Vineyard is His.

Consider the price that Christ has paid for you, in order to atone for all your sins, and to redeem you in body and soul from sin, death, the devil, and hell, for life with Himself.  So, too, rejoice in the good work and fruitful labor that Christ performs and accomplishes in you, and through you, as well, for the blessing and benefit of your neighbor, and for the care of His Church on earth, that is, for His royal Vineyard.  You already know that your labors are not in vain, because Christ is risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.

Go about your work, therefore, whatever it may be — big or small, much or little, for many years, or only for a short while — in the confidence of the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus.

Resist the temptation to compare and contrast, and to compete with others.  You and your place and your “pay” are not measured by your neighbor, but by your Lord.  Focus on His Word to you, and on the promise that He spoke to you when He called you by His Name to be His own.

According to His Word, do your job and perform your duties faithfully.  Not as though to “earn” what has already been given and promised, but in thanksgiving, peace, and hope, in faith and love.

Your labors will be rewarded, have no fear, for they are pleasing to the Lord, as you are pleasing to Him in the righteousness of Christ.  Not the death you deserve, but the life and wages that He has promised in His goodness and generosity, these shall be yours at the end of the day and always.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ has pledged Himself to you, with all His gifts and benefits.  By His Incarnation, by His Cross and Resurrection, He has made you equal — not only to the Prophets and Apostles, who labored long and hard before you — but equal to Himself: He has named you with His Name, anointed you with His Spirit, and made you a child of His own God and Father.

By virtue of your Baptism, you are a son of God in Christ, and, as such, you are an heir of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Beloved of the Lord, He does you no wrong, but He gives you every good thing.  Don’t worry.  You shall not be short-changed.  See here, how He presses into your hand the sovereign Coin of His Realm — a Denarius for the neverending Eighth Day — His own holy Body, given for you, and His holy, precious Blood, poured out for you, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

With such treasures, freely given to you by the Lord, you lack nothing at all.  For life and salvation with the true and only God are yours in Christ Jesus, that you may live with Him in His Kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

    In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

14 September 2014

This Voice Has Come for Your Sake

You did not choose Him, but Christ the Lord has chosen you; and He has called you to Himself by the preaching of His Holy Cross, that you should follow Him through death into life, in order to be with Him where He is, and that you should bear much fruit to the Glory of His Holy Name.

It is in Christ Jesus that you come up to worship at this Feast, that is, the Feast of His Holy Cross, the celebration of His servant Pastor Loughran’s anniversary, and the Eucharist of His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for you and for the many.  You come up to worship the Lord in this Feast by the way and the means of Christ the Crucified, as He, the incarnate Son of God, is glorified in His flesh and goes to the Father on your behalf by the way and means of His Cross.

Now is the Hour of His Glory, which here unfolds for you against the backdrop of this Feast in the Holy Gospel from St. John.  As per the Word of the Lord in Leviticus, the crowds have come up to Jerusalem for the Passover, and for the Feast of Unleavened Bread that follows immediately afterwards for a full week.  It is one of several pilgrim festivals, in which the people are gathered together in the place where the Lord has caused His Name and His Glory to dwell among them.

It is also during these celebrations, on the day following the Sabbath in the week of Unleavened Bread, that the first fruits of the year are offered and consecrated to the Lord on behalf of Israel.  If you do the math, you’ll realize that these first fruits are offered on that Easter Sunday when our Lord Jesus rises from the dead.  It involves the waving of a sheaf of grain before the Lord in His Temple, the sacrifice of a one-year-old male lamb without defect as a whole burnt offering, as well as a grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, and a quantity of wine as a drink offering. Until then, the people are not to eat anything made from the grain of the new year’s harvest; but after the harvest is dedicated to the Lord with this offering of the first fruits, then they are able to enjoy the produce of the good Land, which the Lord gives to His people according to His promise.

So, I want you to think about this Old Testament Feast with its God-given rites and ceremonies in light of the Word that Jesus speaks to you this morning: The grain that was buried in the ground has now, by the grace of God, brought forth a great harvest; and with the returning of the first fruits back to Him, He opens up His hand to satisfy His people with the bounty of the Land, flowing with its milk and honey, abundant with its bread and wine; so also to provide for the poor and needy, for the widows and orphans in distress, and for the strangers, as well, in order that all might feast.

Now, then, is the Hour when the Son of Man is to be glorified, when the Christ is to be lifted up as the Sacrifice of the Lord in fulfillment of the entire Feast.  He is the Passover Lamb, and He is the Whole Burnt Offering, the Grain and Drink Offering, and the First Fruits of the New Creation.  He is the Grain which is buried in the dust of the earth, who by the Tree of His Cross now bears much fruit after His own kind — fruits including you and your life, in, with, and under His Cross.

It is in and with Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, in His death upon the Cross, in His Body crucified and risen, that you are buried to this world and born again from death to a new life, and that you now bring forth the good fruits of His Cross within your own vocation and stations in life.

That Holy Cross of Christ, which you now bear and carry after Him as a disciple, is such a foolish and offensive scandal in the eyes of the world, and no less so in your own fallen and perishing flesh, in your native way of thinking, and in your feelings and emotions.  Even so, that scandalous Cross is the very power and wisdom of God for the reconciliation, resurrection, and righteousness of the whole world; and for your salvation, too; all because of the crucifixion of Christ.  It is His Body that sanctifies the Tree with its hard branches; His Blood that stains it a royal purple.

Pastor Loughran may recall from our days together in Fort Wayne, some twenty-four years ago now, that the children of the seminary students were given little ceramic crosses that a women’s group had made for them.  My daughter DoRena, who was three at the time, received one of those crosses, which featured spring flowers in the center, no doubt in celebration of the Resurrection.  Well, it was shortly after she received that gift, that she was with me shopping for a crucifix for our home.  As I was looking at the variety of crosses, she got my attention and pointed to one of them, telling me that she wanted one for herself.  When I pointed out that she had just gotten a new cross, she immediately answered, “That cross has flowers on it, Daddy.  But flowers didn’t die for me!  Jesus died for me!  I want a cross with Jesus on it.”  Needless to say, I got her one that day.

My three-year-old DoRena had it exactly right: It is the Body of Jesus, nothing else and nothing less, that makes the Cross holy.  Not suffering and death for its own sake, but the suffering and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in the flesh, His Cross and Passion, for your sake!  That is what sanctifies, not only His Cross then, but the Cross and suffering that you bear in His Name.

His Cross is the power and wisdom of God, and the Glory of God in Christ Jesus, because His death upon the Cross is the defeat of death and the devil, and the judgment of God for the salvation of sinners.  Because sin is condemned in the Body of Christ, and atonement is made by His Blood, so that man is reconciled to God and justified in the Resurrection of this same Lord Jesus Christ.

The Father is thus glorified in Christ, His beloved and well-pleasing Son, by the way and means of His Cross, by His obedience even unto death.  And the Father glorifies and honors His Son by raising Him from the dead and seating Him at His right hand in the heavenly places.  As the Son of God thus returns to the Father by the way of the Cross, so do all those who follow after Him.

The Father honors those disciples from all nations, whatever their genealogy may be, who follow Christ and serve Him in life and death, in faith and love.  The same is true for you, who have been called to repentance and faith, to take up the Cross and follow Jesus through the waters of your Holy Baptism, through death and the grave into the Resurrection and the Life.  Whereas clinging to your life in this world can only end in death, because the whole world is perishing, yet, dying with Christ Jesus brings you into life everlasting with Him in both body and soul.

This dying and rising of repentant faith in Christ is what it means to have the Lord as your God, and to worship Him above all other gods: Namely, that you look to Him and trust Him for all that you need and for every good thing; that you entrust yourself entirely to Him, to the point of death; and that you gladly receive all things from His hand, both the Cross and the Resurrection.

Dying to yourself and to all of your selfish ambitions, you live unto God and unto righteousness in Christ, and you bear much fruit for the benefit of others, to the Glory of His Holy Name.  Or, to say it better, it is Christ who bears the good fruits of His Cross in your body and life on earth.

They are the fruits of His Cross, because it is by His Cross, by the proclamation of His Cross, that Christ calls you to Himself, and draws you to Himself, and brings you to the Father in Himself.

There is this attractive power to His Cross.  Certainly not for those who are perishing in unbelief, but for all those who are being saved by grace through faith in Christ.  I’ve noticed this especially in the case of very small children, such as the Lord Jesus described in last Sunday’s Holy Gospel.

If you’ll indulge me another example from our bygone seminary days: I remember my eldest son, Zachary — he’s in his mid-twenties now, but he was just a little guy then, barely a toddler at the time I’m thinking of — whenever I’d have him with me on campus, each time we’d go in and out of the Seminary library, there was this large crucifix right by the door, and he’d make me stop and get close to it, so that he could lean forward in my arms to kiss Jesus’ ouchies.  Like his big sister, he recognized the power and significance of the Body of Jesus on the wood.  He was so drawn to that crucifix, so captivated by it, and so moved with love for his dear Lord Jesus on the Cross.

Thankfully, it is not only little children who have been taught to love the Lord Jesus.  You also, by the grace of God, have become like a little child and are drawn to Christ the Crucified by the preaching of His Cross.  As He was lifted up and His Father was glorified in that Hour, so is He now lifted up and glorified through the Ministry of the Gospel of His Cross.  It is by that Ministry that He draws all people to Himself, even from the ends of the earth, and even you.  Which is how that one Grain which died and was buried now brings forth a great harvest from all the nations.

The Cross bears good fruits after its own kind, both for you and in you, in this life and in death, unto the Resurrection of your body and the Life everlasting of your body and soul in Christ Jesus.

That is true for every Christian within his own vocation and stations in life.  All the more so for those servants of the Word who follow in the footsteps of Christ and His Apostles, so that you may see Christ portrayed before your eyes as the Crucified One in the preaching of His Gospel.

The preaching of the Cross is not only news and information about the Cross.  It is itself the fruit of the Cross, and it bears the Cross in the world.  The preaching and the preacher alike suffer the ridicule and rejection of the world, even as the Word of the Cross calls the whole world of sinners to die the death of repentance.  The same preaching must put the preacher himself to death, as well.

So it is that your Pastor Loughran is a fruit of the Cross, in whom the Lord bears good fruits for your benefit, and through whom the Lord brings forth good fruits in you for the benefit of others.

He was and could have been a salesman.  Or a professional musician, perhaps, playing his trumpet in a metropolitan symphony somewhere.  Maybe even a golfer on the pro circuit.  The fact that you can’t  picture Pastor Loughran actually doing any of those things for a living is not due to a lack of ability or aptitude on his part; not really.  It is because you have learned to know the calling and compassion of his heart, which has been conformed to the Image of God by the Cross of Christ.

The truth is that Pastor Loughran has been called and ordained by God to preach and administer the Gospel of the Cross.  And that calling of the Lord, that ordering of this man’s life in the world, crucifies and puts to death the frailties of his flesh, and whatever other ambitions and aspirations would compete with the Ministry of the Gospel.  He is put to death and raised up to preach.

The Lord your God is thus glorified in the Ministry of your Pastor.  And the same Lord glorifies you by your Pastor’s preaching of the Gospel in the Name and stead of Christ Jesus.

This Voice is for your sake!  The rolling thunder of the Law and the sweet message of the Gospel are the ways and means of the Cross by which the Lord calls you to repentance and faith, that is, to die and to rise with Christ Jesus.  As Pastor Loughran preaches the crucified and risen Christ; as he serves the Lord by serving you with Holy Baptism and the ongoing catechesis of the Word of Christ, by hearing your confession and absolving you in Jesus’ Name; and as he celebrates the Sacrament of the Altar with praise and thanksgiving, for the remembrance of the Lord Jesus Christ and the proclamation of His death until He comes — by each and all of these fruits and benefits of the Cross (for that is what they are), sin and death are defeated; the devil with his assaults and accusations is cast out of your conscience; and you are drawn to Christ in faith, and to the Father in Him, in the Peace and reconciliation of His Spirit and the righteousness of His Resurrection.

For as surely as the Son of Man is now lifted up in the Ministry of His Gospel, so are you lifted up and exalted in Him, in His Body crucified and risen, by the life-giving fruits of His Holy Cross.

So does the Father glorify His Name in you.  And He glorifies you in Christ Jesus, wherever He has called you to be.  He does not promise to protect you from pain and suffering, nor to preserve your body and life in this perishing world.  But He does protect your faith and life in Christ, in order to preserve your body and soul for the Life everlasting with Him.  He draws you to His Son, and He brings you to Himself in Him, in the Body and the Blood that were given into death upon the Holy Cross for your atonement, which are also given and poured out for you here in this Feast for the forgiveness of all your sins, that you may see Jesus face to face, now and forevermore.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

08 September 2014

My Favorite Series of Juvenile Literature

I shared this on facebook earlier this year, but apparently didn't post it here.  Slightly updated since then, having now added the Ranger's Apprentice series by John Flanagan.  The list includes series of three or more books of juvenile literature: These are my favorites, based especially on my experience in reading them aloud to my children over the years.  I expect that the list will continue to be modified and to grow in the months and years ahead, but here is where it stands so far.  Enjoy, y'all.

Harry Potter, by J. K. Rowling

Gregor (Underland), by Suzanne Collins

Great Brain, by John D. Fitzgerald

Narnia, by C. S. Lewis

Prydain, by Lloyd Alexander

Beyonders, by Brandon Mull

Ranger's Apprentice, by John Flanagan

Mr. Benedict, by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Missing, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Tales of Magic, by Edward Eager

Fablehaven, by Brandon Mull

Percy Jackson, by Rick Riordan

Jimmy Coates, by Joe Craig

Jack Blank, by Matt Myklusch

Michael Vey, by Richard Paul Evans

Five Children and It (Psammead), by E. Nesbit

Shadow Children, by Margaret Peterson Haddix

Ordinary Boy, by William Boniface

Peter & the Starcatchers, by Dave Barry & Ridley Pearson

Tunnels, by Roderick Gordon and Brian Williams

Keys to the Kingdom, by Garth Nix

Edge Chronicles, by Paul Stewart & Chris Riddell

WondLa, by Tony DiTerlizzi

Redwall, by Brian Jacques