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

07 September 2014

The Greatness of Forgiveness

Jesus calls the little child to Himself, and sets him in the midst of His disciples.  And He calls you, as well, to become like such a child in the humility of repentance, in the discipline of faith.

It is by the Cross of Christ that you are thus born again as a child of God the Father, as a little one of the Lord: By your Baptism into His death, which is not simply a one-shot deal that you outgrow, but a decisive beginning with an ongoing, lifelong, daily significance.  As the Son of God Himself became a little Child, conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary; and the same Lord Jesus humbled Himself, taking the form of a servant, and became obedient, even to the point of death.

The greatness of the little child in the Kingdom of Heaven, therefore, is the greatness of humility before God, like that of Christ the Crucified.  Not just modesty, but genuine dependence and need, as well as confident trust in the Father’s gracious providence.

In point of fact, everyone alike has such dependence and need, but the humility of repentant faith recognizes and acknowledges that need.  And where there is such humility before God, which fears the Lord and also loves and trusts in Him, there is also love for the neighbor.

Outwardly speaking, insofar as life on earth is concerned, little children in particular have an utter dependency and need that adults generally do not have.  Not only for their bodily well-being, food and clothing, shelter and protection, but also for discipline, instruction, and training; for correction and guidance in the way they should go; and for mercy and forgiveness wherever they go wrong.

To live as a child of God in Christ, in His Kingdom, is to live by faith in His gracious forgiveness of sins, and so also to learn from Him, from His paternal correction and loving discipline: All of which flows from and with and in His love, and aims at your life and salvation in Christ forever.

Within the Kingdom of God, within His household and family, you and your brothers and sisters in Christ are all alike in your need for His mercy, and in His grace toward you in Christ Jesus.  For there is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all Christians, one Holy Spirit poured out upon you in Christ, and one divine Name with which you are named; and so do one and all depend upon one and the same forgiveness of sins, obtained by one and the same Cross.

Therefore, love and care for each other.  Not only as you love and care for yourselves, and as you all desire to be loved and cared for, but as your dear Father in heaven loves you and cares for you.

Fundamental to the loving care of God the Father, and of His children for each other, is the free and full forgiveness of sins; which belongs to the way He has taught you to pray, and to live.

To be sure, such forgiveness does not excuse, ignore, or make light of sin.  It rather confronts sin head on, and removes it by the Cross of Christ, by the repentance of His atoning sacrifice: As a father disciplines his son in love; as the governing authorities punish crimes for the protection of all the citizens; and as a doctor cuts out a cancer, or amputates a gangrenous limb, to save the body.

So the humility of repentance is both a contrite turning away from sin and every evil, because these are deadly and damnable, and a turning to the forgiveness of sins by faith in the Gospel of Christ.

In this life on earth — even for the Church, living under the cross — and for each and every Christian in the frailty of mortal flesh — there is inevitable stumbling, falling, and going astray.  Love does not excuse or rationalize such errors and sins.  But neither does love grow weary of seeking out, raising up, bringing back, and reconciling the lost, by calling to repentance and forgiving sins.  Just as a parent does not tire to the point of giving up in the training of the toddler, the two-year-old, or even the teenager, but continues to love and serve and care for the child.

You discipline your own heart and mind and flesh, or you certainly should, with self-examination, repentance, and confession, in order to lay hold of life and love in the Gospel of Christ Jesus.

In the same Spirit, and with similar care, call your brother or sister to repentance, in order that your brother or sister may live by the same grace as yourself, in the same Body of Christ, as a member of the same household and family, as a beloved child of the same God and Father.

Learn to see the face of your God and Father in your brother or sister; which is really to see Christ Jesus, the only-begotten Son, the Image and Likeness of the Father, in your brother or sister: As our Father in heaven sees Christ Jesus, His beloved Son, in you and in all your fellow Christians.

Because Christ has taken His stand with sinners, especially by His Baptism in the Jordan River, and He has united Himself and bound Himself to His Bride, the Church; not because she was so pure and holy and faultless, but so that she by grace receives and shares His purity and holiness, His righteousness and innocence and blessedness, in the outpouring of His love for her.

Thus the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, eats with gentiles, tax collectors, prostitutes, and all manner of sinners, and in His mercy and forgiveness He calls them to become His disciples — to be the children of His own God and Father — and to eat with Him at His Table in Peace.

And here is the true divine greatness with which He has done all of this, also for you, and for all:

He has, in fact, become the little Child; and from infancy to adulthood, He has lived as the one true Man in perfect faith and holy love.

As a Child, He depended on His Mother Mary and His stepfather Joseph.  He also honored them, served and obeyed them, loved and cherished them.  He submitted Himself to His parents in all things.  And He received good things from them, as well; He learned from them!

And as true Man, in real flesh and blood like yours, He experienced hunger and thirst, tiredness, heat and cold, hurt and pain, and finally death upon the Cross under the judgment of the Law.

Though He had no sins of His own, He took upon Himself the sins of the whole world, and He bore the consequences, the guilt and shame, and the responsibility for all of them.  He bowed His head to wear around His neck the heavy millstone of the entire curse of all sins, and He submitted Himself to be drowned and die in the depths of the sea.  He thus made Himself dependent on His Father’s forgiveness of all those sins, trusting in the promise of His Baptism.

To such an extent did the Lord Jesus humble Himself like a child, unto His death on the Cross, in the confidence that His Father would justify Him and raise Him from the dead in righteousness.

So it is that His Cross and Passion are the way of repentance by which you are born again as a child of God and raised to newness of life in His Resurrection from the dead.

And so it is that real greatness is found in the Cross.  Not only by the humility and repentance that it works in you, but chiefly by way of the forgiveness of sins that it freely grants to you and to all.

For the Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, the beloved and well-pleasing Son of God, are the patience and persistence of your Father in heaven: These are the ways and means by which He recalls you, and reconciles you to Himself, and forgives you all your sins through the Gospel.

His good and gracious will for you is that you should not perish but live.  And it is for this reason that He rejoices over your forgiveness, your recovery and salvation, even more than He would rejoice over a hypothetical ninety-nine sheep who never strayed.  For in raising you from the dead, from the depths and damnation of your sin, He beholds in you His own dear Son, crucified and risen from the dead, and He calls you His dearly-beloved child and heir.

In His forgiveness of all your sins, in Jesus’ Name, His good and gracious Will is done: on earth, as it is in heaven.  And all the angels and archangels rejoice, give thanks, and sing with all of us.

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

31 August 2014

Die to Yourself and Live unto Christ

Forget about the Law of the Jungle.  It’s not the survival of the fittest.  It’s die or be dead.

The key to life is not that you should find yourself, or be yourself, or make a name for yourself.  If you would live, you must die to yourself; whereas, if you live for yourself, you will surely die.

That is the great irony and the profound paradox of Christianity, and that is also your dilemma.  Any sort of life that is taken, instead of being given and received, is no life at all, but sin and death.

Christianity is not simply one lifestyle choice among others.  It is the only way of life.  But it is life in Christ by the way of the Cross.  Everything depends on His Cross.  Your life depends upon it.

Christ Jesus, the Crucified One, is not a means to some other end.  He is your Life, your Light, and your Salvation.  He and His Word are the only true delight.  But the surprising thing about Him is that He must die (and rise again).  And if you would live, you must die with Him.

Deny yourself, therefore.  Take up the Cross, and follow after Christ.

If you would live, you must be His disciple.  You must be a Christian.  Not in name only, though that name is most precious and significant.  But you must be a Christian in deed and in truth.  For the Son of Man is coming in glory to judge and repay everyone according to his deeds.  Set your mind, therefore, on God’s interests, not your own.  Live as a Christian.  Die and rise with Christ.

Holy Baptism makes all the difference.  Because Baptism, along with catechesis, makes disciples.

It is in Holy Baptism that you have been named with the Name of God, that you have been given the Name and Spirit of Christ Jesus, and that you have thus become a Christian disciple of His.

Children are named by their fathers, and in time, God-willing, a woman may be named again by her husband.  But in Holy Baptism you are named by your God and Father in heaven, and by your heavenly Bridegroom, with His own name, which is alive and life-giving and stronger than death.

It is in Holy Baptism, also, that you have been given to bear and carry the Cross of Christ Jesus.  And as a Christian disciple, you are crucified, dead, and buried with Him by His Cross, in order to rise with Him in His Resurrection unto life.  This is the first way that you take up His Cross, and the means by which you are able to take up the Cross and follow after Christ from day to day.

Taking up the Cross of Christ does not mean suffering for its own sake, like some kind of holy masochism.  As we’ve been learning from the Martyrdom of St. Polycarp in Bible Class these past few weeks, Christians do not go looking for trouble and death.  They do not throw themselves to the lions any more than they would throw themselves down from the pinnacle of the Temple.

Take up the Cross, rather, by exercising faith in God and love for your neighbor.  Receive from God whatever He gives you.  And share with your neighbor what you have received from God.  That’s what the Christian life looks like, and so, that’s where and how you take up the Cross.

Do what you are given to do.  Fulfill your vocations faithfully.  Within your vocations, serve your neighbor for Christ Jesus’ sake, whether you receive thanks or a slap in the face as your payment.

Bear your neighbor’s burdens in love, and bear with your neighbor in forgiveness.  If you suffer in doing so, and for doing so, bear that suffering patiently in faith and love.  In all that you do and suffer, glorify the Name of Christ that you bear, and so glorify your God and Father in heaven.

Trust the Lord, whom you follow, whose disciple you are.  If you lose your life for His sake, you’ve actually lost nothing; for you shall yet live with Him forever in His Kingdom.

But if you turn aside from Him and seek to avoid the Cross, in a futile effort to save yourself, then you really shall be lost.  Then you shall die, and not just once, but forever and ever.

So, then, do not guard and protect yourself, but get back in line behind Jesus.  Deny yourself, take up the Cross, and follow after Him.  Repent, and live, so that you not be lost and die eternally.

Return to your Baptism, to the Cross and to the Name that were given to you there by your Lord and God and Savior, Jesus Christ.  It’s all right there.  Your life is there — in the death of Christ, and in His Resurrection — in your Holy Baptism.  There’s no need to repeat it, for God’s Word and His gift are perfectly sufficient.  Just return to the significance of your one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins.  It remains sure and certain, as steadfast as the Cross and Resurrection are.

Die to yourself.  Die to the world.  Die to sin.  Die to the devil, all his works and all his ways. Die, not to atone for your sins or to redeem yourself, but because Christ, by His death, has atoned for all your sins and has redeemed you.  Live unto righteousness in Him, not to satisfy the Law, but because He has fulfilled the Law, and has risen from the dead, and lives and reigns forever.

The example that He has left for you to follow in His steps is the way of divine and everlasting life, which is by the way of His Cross.  Not that you must (nor that you ever could) save yourself by your own good deeds or by your suffering, but that He has saved you by His suffering and death.  He has taken up the Cross and carried it before you, in order to forgive you, and to give you life.

He who is coming in glory to be your Judge, has already come into His Kingdom in the glory of His Father.  Not to condemn you for what you have done wrong, but in the flesh and by His Cross, in order to reward you with His own righteousness according to His good deeds on your behalf.

He has redeemed you, purchased and won you, from all your sin, and from eternal death, and from the power of the devil.  He has given His life in exchange for your body and soul.  He has tasted death upon the Cross, so that you do not taste death forever, nor at all apart from His Resurrection.

Indeed, His Resurrection on the third day is your righteousness in the presence of God the Father, and therefore also the guarantee and the first fruits of your own resurrection from the dead.

Take and eat, therefore: Not death, but the Body of Christ Jesus, who suffered many things for your salvation.  And drink the Blood of Christ, who was crucified, died, and was buried in your stead, who has also risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.

Taste and see that He is good, and that, as He lives, so shall you.

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

29 August 2014

St. John the Baptist Is Risen from the Dead

You’re fascinated by St. John the Baptist.  Who’s to wonder?  He’s a fascinating guy.  But you’re also scared to death of him and of his preaching.

Oh, to be sure, you like to hear his fiery preaching well enough, especially when he’s pointing the finger at others.  But you don’t like it at all when he really turns the Law on you and on your sins, when he calls you to repent in heart and life, and to set aside your vices and change your behavior.

The fact is, that St. John does call you to repent, and he’s deadly serious about it.  Not only that, but your life depends on it.  Because it is not lawful for you to think the things you think, to say the things you say, to do the things you do.  Your sins and your sinfulness are not lawful.

It is not lawful for you to compete with your brothers and sisters, nor to take away their stuff.

It is not lawful for you to lust after your neighbor’s wife, to crave her for yourself, to devise ways of enticing her away from your neighbor to yourself.  Nor his children, his friends, his workers.

Likewise, it is not lawful for you to covet the bodies and affections of young dancing girls, or any of the other provocative allurements of this world, which reign as idols in your heart and life.

All of your selfish, prideful kingdom building is wrong, presuming yourself a god and not a man.  Yet, fearing the opinions of man more than the one true God, you commit what amounts to murder in His eyes and in His judgment: By the hatred and enmity in your heart toward those beyond your reach, and by your hurt and hostility against those who are unable to protect or defend themselves.

It is not lawful for you to do any of these things, nor a thousand other similar sins that you commit.

But you add sin upon sin, and you make things far worse, when you shut up the preaching of the Law and presume to keep it on a leash, at arm’s length, or locked up in a cage, demanding that it speak only when spoken to, and only to the limit you permit.  Meanwhile, you suppose yourself to be the master of your own domain, the king of your own castle.  But you are not in control.

Repent!  Or you will lose more than half of your kingdom, and more than your head or your body.

In your confrontation with St. John the Baptist, it’s kill or be killed, at least for the time being.  There’s no two ways around it.  Neither of you can live while the other one survives in this life.

But here is the profound irony and paradox of the Cross: Those who save their life in this world will lose it forever in the dungeon prepared for the devil and his wicked angels, while those who lose their life for the sake of Christ and His Word of the Gospel will save it for eternal life.

To repent and to be baptized is to put your own head on the chopping block, and to bare your neck to the sword — the Sword of the Spirit and, as needs may be, the temporal sword of the king.

This isn’t fun and games.  It is a fearful and deadly encounter.  No one gets out alive.  One way or the other, you are called upon to die, whether for life in Christ, or for the second death forever.

But, now then, see and hear, not only St. John’s fearful preaching of the Law.  By all means, do hear and heed that preaching, and repent.  But, in repentance, see him point and give way to Christ Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sins, who submits Himself to death and the grave on your behalf, and who raises you up with Himself, in body and soul, unto newness of life.

St. John’s entire life and ministry, his preaching and baptism of repentance, his suffering, and finally his death are a witness and a proclamation of this one Lord Jesus Christ, of His Cross and Passion, and of His Resurrection from the dead.

Everything about St. John — from his miraculous conception and birth, from the waters of the Jordan River to the depths of Herod’s dungeon and, finally, to the tomb in which he is buried — everything about St. John is wrapped up in Jesus and points to the Lord Jesus.  For he is called by God to be the Forerunner of the Christ, to go before the face of the Lord to prepare His Way.

And, because the Way of the Lord is the way of the Cross, the way of suffering and death, that is where St. John the Baptist goes.

That is also the case for anyone else who preaches and baptizes in the Name of the Lord Jesus.

And it is no less so for those who are baptized into Him, who are given the Cross to bear and are called to follow after Him, even to the point of death and the grave.

The Lord’s people, His saints, are so wrapped up in Him, so identified with Him, and so also named by Him as Christians, that the world sees Christ Jesus in them.

So it is that Herod could not shake the impression that Jesus the Christ was St. John the Baptist risen from the dead.  And in a way, Herod was exactly right!

In the Word and works of Jesus are the first fruits of His Cross and Resurrection.  For His gracious miracles of healing and new life are a blessed foretaste of the neverending Feast that has come to fruition in the Resurrection of His Body, which is manifest around the world in His Holy Gospel.

And for those who die with Christ Jesus, like St. John and all the baptized, His Resurrection is their resurrection and their imperishable life.  His Resurrection is your resurrection and your life.

So, likewise, it is in Christ that St. John and all the baptized are righteous and holy.  It is in Him that you are righteous and holy, blameless, innocent, and pure before God the Father in heaven.

It is in that sure and certain hope, in that confidence of Christ and His Gospel, that the disciples of St. John lay his body to rest in the grave, to await the resurrection of his body on the last day.

And already, the souls of those, including St. John the Baptist, who have been slain for the sake of the Word of God — and all those who have departed from this mortal life in the faith of Christ — now find their Peace and Sabbath Rest in Him, under His Altar in heaven.

But what does this mean?

It means that, baptized into Christ, you have died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.

In life and death, in body and soul, as you carry the Cross in your vocations and stations in life, and as your body shall be laid to rest in the dust of the earth, you are safe and secure in the Body and Blood of your crucified and risen Lord Jesus.

This true and everlasting King, who is both God and Man, prepares a Table before you in the presence of your enemies, each and all of whom He has defeated for you by His own Cross.  It is a Banquet, not for His own benefit — not that He be served, but that He serves you — to forgive you all your sins, to give you His own life, and to save both your body and soul forever and ever.

As your mortal body is here fed with His life-giving Body and Blood, it is enlivened, honored, and glorified by Christ, in preparation for and anticipation of the resurrection of your body at the last, when it shall be no longer mortal and perishable, but immortal, imperishable, and glorious.

Your soul, as well, both now and forever, has Peace and Sabbath Rest in Christ, who has given Himself for you, and who pours out His holy and precious Blood for you in this Holy Communion.  Whether for the first time, or for the millionth time, it is forever.  For with this Feast He gives you, not simply half His Kingdom, but Himself with all His gifts and benefits, in whom the Kingdom of God is at hand.  Therefore, you are His, and He is yours, forever and ever, world without end.

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

24 August 2014

The House That Jesus Built

He is the Son of a carpenter, after all.  So it’s no surprise that Jesus is a Builder, too.  His father on earth (His guardian), St. Joseph of Nazareth, is described as a carpenter, or, more precisely, a craftsman, a master workman; and this St. Joseph, son of David, is a builder, who makes a house and home for his wife, St. Mary, and for her Son, the Lord Jesus.

His ancestor, the great King David, had wanted to build a house for the Lord, but the Lord did not permit that; for God would be the One to build a house for David, and to establish his throne and his kingdom forever and ever.  David’s son, King Solomon, was permitted to build the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Lord in mercy caused His Name and His Glory to dwell among His people Israel.  But to St. Joseph was given the privilege of making a house and a home for the incarnate Son of God.  Like father, like son, you could say that being a builder runs in David’s family.

His father on earth is the builder of a house for Jesus, and the true God and Father of this same Lord, Jesus Christ, is the Builder of the universe.  For He is the true and living God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth; the Maker of all things, visible and invisible; the Author and Giver of Life.  Not only did He bring everything that is into existence out of nothing by His Word, but in Wisdom He has crafted His entire Creation as a magnificent work of art, structured and arranged in a beautiful order and perfect harmony.  He makes of it a House of Life, and Light, and Love.

All of this the Father does by and through His Son, and out of Love for His only-begotten Son, the almighty and eternal Word of God who has become Flesh and dwells among us in His own Body.

This incarnate Son of the Living God, great David’s greater Son, conceived and born of St. Mary — He is the One who has come down from heaven to establish and to build His House, His Church on earth, to be a place of safety, peace, and Sabbath rest for you, and for His people of all nations.

In order to do so, He has first of all established the Rock foundation for His Church in Himself, in His own Body, in His human flesh and blood, in which the Name and the Glory of God abide.

But, oddly enough from the perspective of human wisdom, the solid foundation of His Church is found in and with His Cross and Passion.  It is established by His death, by the shedding of His blood, and it is therefore hidden from the eyes of the world in His crucified flesh.  It appears to be foolish and scandalous, and is seemingly not a firm foundation at all, but an absolute catastrophe.

Here stands the Font before your eyes, the hymn has testified, and the Lord’s Altar here recalls the sacrifice of Christ; as we also confess and behold in the crucifix by the Font and above the Altar.  So, yes, you can see these things, but you cannot see the divine Truth that is hidden within them.

The strength and beauty of the Church’s one Foundation is apparent only to the eyes of faith, and only by the revelation of the Father through His Word and Spirit in the Ministry of the Gospel.

It is not unlike the way the same Lord God, Yahweh Sabaoth, once established a household and family and a people for Himself by calling Abraham and Sarah and starting with them, when they  were so very old.  Sarah’s womb and Abraham’s body were “as good as dead,” the Bible says.  And yet, the Lord did as He had sworn to do, even after many years of waiting, when it seemed as though He had forgotten or was failing to keep His promise.  In their old age, a son was born to Abraham and Sarah, and from him a family, a nation, a holy people, and a chosen generation.

In fact, the Son of God has taken His own flesh and blood precisely from that household and family of Abraham and Sarah.  And He has given Himself over to death and the grave, as Abraham was once prepared to sacrifice his own beloved son, Isaac, as the Lord commanded him to do.

So the Glory of God in Christ is deeply hidden and thoroughly foolish in the eyes of the world.  Not only that, but He and His Glory are hidden from your own outward perception, and are foolish to the reason and sensibilities of your fallen flesh.  But that hidden Glory of the Cross of Christ — the foolish preaching and ministry of this one thing, Christ the Crucified, for the forgiveness of sins — that is the firm foundation of the Church, established by God on earth as it is in heaven.

For this Jesus, the Son of Man, truly is the Son of God in the flesh: Begotten of the Father from all eternity, but conceived and born of the Blessed Virgin Mary in time, the Seed of the Woman.

And He is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed, because He has been anointed by the Father with the Holy Spirit, in His own Body of flesh and blood (just like yours), “for us men and our salvation.”  Anointed by the Spirit to go the way of the Cross for each and all of us, poor miserable sinners, the children of Adam, who are fallen, mortal creatures, subject to death and the grave because of our sins.  Anointed to bear all of your sins, and to suffer your death and damnation in your stead.

Thus, from the waters of His Baptism in the Jordan River to His death upon the Cross, He journeys in and out of Hades, into heaven.  In love, He voluntarily subjects Himself to humility, weakness, suffering, and death, and thereby offers Himself as the once-and-for-all Sacrifice of Atonement for the sins of the world.  And then, just as He trusted, He is raised up in Glory by His God and Father.

As He is the One who dies for you, bearing all your sins and death in His own flesh and blood, so it is that, in His bodily Resurrection from the dead, you also are raised from death to life in Him.

This Cross and Resurrection of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, is the Key to the Kingdom of Heaven, the Key that is given to His Church on earth by the Ministry of the Gospel in His Name and stead, which is to say, by His own all-encompassing authority in heaven and on earth.

In the preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in His Name; in the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism; in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution; and in the giving of His Body and the pouring out of His Blood in the Holy Communion — one-and-the-same Gospel of the Cross and Resurrection is the Key that opens the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers in Christ.

For the Lord your God is exceedingly rich in His grace and mercy toward you, and toward the entire household and family of His Church, in that He gives you the Gospel in each and all of these ways.  Each in its own unique way, these means of grace all give to you, and work in you, the life-giving fruits and benefits of the Cross of Christ, and so also raise you from death to life in Him.

This divine life that is yours in Christ Jesus is a hidden life, as surely as the divine Glory of His Cross is a hidden Glory.  You can’t see it or feel it in yourself, in your body and behavior, except by faith in the Word and promise of Christ; like Abraham and Sarah awaiting the promise of a son, while their already old and worn out bodies continued to age.

But as God Himself is true, and His Word is true, your newness of life in Christ Jesus is as sure and certain as your Holy Baptism, which is as sure and certain as His own Cross and Resurrection.  So is Holy Absolution in His Name, by His divine command, as sure and certain as the Lord your God Himself, because Christ your dear Lord thereby speaks to you and deals with you Himself.

And in the Holy Communion, the same Lord Jesus Christ gives to you His Body and His Blood, for the forgiveness of all your sins and the strengthening of your faith, yes, and so also for the new life of your body and your soul in Him, unto the Resurrection and the Life Everlasting.

This Holy Apostolic Ministry of the Gospel, which continues to this day and place, even here and now, exceeds that of the holy Prophets, and even that of St. John the Baptist, because Christ the Lord has come in the flesh, and has conquered the gates of Hades by His own Cross and Passion.

He has stormed the gates of Hades by His own death, and they have not prevailed against Him in His Resurrection from the dead.  Neither are they able to prevail against His Church, because it is founded on the Rock foundation of His Gospel.  Nor will the gates of Hades prevail against you, who live and abide within His House upon the Rock.  The box in which your dead body will be buried, the hole in the ground in which you will be laid to rest, will not be able to contain you or keep you from rising in glory on the day of the resurrection of all flesh.  For Christ has blown the gates of Hades off their hinges.  He has undone the grip of the grave from the inside out.

By His innocent suffering and death upon the Cross, and by the shedding of His holy and precious blood, Christ has atoned for the sins of the world.  Therefore, death is defeated, as the Resurrection of Christ Jesus has openly declared before the whole of creation.  Satan is stripped of his weapons against you, because the Law of sin and death has been fully satisfied by the righteous Son of God.  Indeed, the whole world is reconciled to God in Christ Jesus, and all of creation, the heavens and the earth, are not only restored but gloriously perfected in His crucified and risen Body.

So, death, take that!  You’re done.  You could not hold my Lord Jesus, and you shall not hold me.

In the Body of Christ Jesus, a new and better Garden of Eden has been planted and is cultivated.  His flesh and blood are the Paradise of God, His Cross the Tree of Life in the midst of the Garden.

In this Body of Christ, crucified and risen, the Kingdom of Heaven is established and built on earth in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, which is the household and family of God.  And now the Ministry of the Gospel — the Ministry of the Confession of Christ Jesus — gives to you a place in His House, in His Church, and in His Kingdom, here in time on earth, and hereafter for eternity in heaven.  From the one Man, Jesus Christ, who was crucified, dead, and buried, see how the Lord has filled the whole earth with His children: Not slaves, but sons of God in Christ!

It is because you are a child of God, a son of God in Christ by virtue of your Baptism, that you are free to give your body and life as a sacrifice of faith and love, as Christ has given Himself for you and for all people by His Sacrifice upon the Cross.

Even as you are poured out for others — and even if you perish from this world — your true and everlasting life and your permanent place remain safe and secure with Christ in God.  You remain “at home” with Him, even on that long, hard journey to the far country of death and the grave.

Hades cannot have you, no more than it could hold onto Christ, your Savior.  Whether you live, or whether you die, your life remains with God in the House that Jesus built.  The rains may fall, the floods may rise, and the winds may blow against that House, but it will not fall, for it is built upon the Rock.  Already here on earth, the forgiveness and life and salvation of Christ Jesus are given and done for you in heaven, and that shall not by any means be taken away from you.

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

17 August 2014

Pray Without Ceasing and Do Not Lose Heart

Do not let go of this fact: Jesus has come to you, and by His Gospel He calls you to Himself.  God the Father speaks to you by His Son, and He promises grace and every blessing to all who call upon Him.  He is not teasing you, nor toying with you.  His Word and promise are sincere.

In Holy Baptism, the Lord has bound Himself to you.  The Father has united you with Christ Jesus, the beloved Son.  He has named you with His own Name, and thereby adopted you as His own child.  He has given you His Holy Spirit and, with that, eternal life.  He forgives you all your sins; He justifies and sanctifies you.  He shall not withhold any good thing from you.

All of this is sure and certain; for His call and His gifts are irrevocable.  What He says to you is true, and He is faithful; He will do as He has promised.

Therefore, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.

In Christ Jesus, your God and Father has commanded you to pray, He has taught you to pray, and He has promised to hear you.  Therefore, pray at all times, and do not lose heart.  Pray without ceasing.  Pray with confidence, and say “Amen!”  Pray, praise and give thanks.

Pray, not only for yourself, but for your neighbor.

Pray, not only by yourself, but together with your brothers and sisters in Christ, in the company and fellowship of His Church.

Praise and worship the Lord your God: with heart and hand and voice — in prayer and confession — in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs — not only with thanksgiving for His good gifts and benefits, but also praise Him for who He is, for whom He has revealed Himself to be: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the one true God in three divine Persons.

And do give Him thanks for all His gracious gifts and generous benefits, above all for the forgiveness of sins and life and salvation in Christ Jesus.

Give thanks, not only for what you already see and hold in your hand, but in the hope of His mercy, in faith.  For prayer is the voice of faith, which is a confession of the Word of God.

To pray with such faith in the Word of God is the most decisive and definitive characteristic of Christian discipleship and life.  Christians pray.  It is that simple.

It is a matter of trust and confidence, by which you not only look to God in Christ for help, but you rely upon Him alone for all that you need, for both body and soul.

To pray with such faith depends entirely upon the Word of Christ.  Thus, true Christian prayer always begins with and continues to rest upon the hearing of His Word.  You cannot pray without it; but, if you would pray, open your ears before opening your mouth.

If you have not prayed as you should, repent.  Hear the Word of God, and pray.

If you have prayed only out of habit or superstition, without the fear, love and trust of God in your heart, repent.  Do not cease to pray, but pray with a right spirit.

If you have been lazy or distracted, so that you have not given your time and attention to the Word of God and prayer, repent, and pray in Jesus’ name.  Pray because you need Him above all else.

If you have neglected to pray with and for your family and your Church, repent, and fulfill your calling as a Christian.  To pray and intercede for your neighbor, and to offer the morning and evening sacrifice of thanksgiving, that is your royal priesthood as a baptized child of God.  Do it faithfully.  Where you have fallen short, do better.

If you have become discouraged, given up hope, and ceased to pray because the Lord seems neither to be listening or answering, repent, trust Christ, and live.

Do not despair, but continue crying out to the Lord Jesus.  He is not deaf to your pleas, nor blind to your tears.  Nor is He slow about keeping His promises, but patient with you and merciful.

The Lord’s desire is to save you.  If His help tarries for a night, a week, a month, a year, a lifetime, yet His joy will come in the morning.  Even if you go down to the grave in death, He shall raise you up to life.  It shall be done for you as you wish.

As often as His Law accuses you of sin, say “yes” to that.  His Word is truth.  You are a sinner.

But do not take that thundering “no” of the Law as the last word or the final answer to your prayer.  For Christ is the Savior of sinners.  He speaks to you another Word that satisfies His Law and rescues you from sin and death and all your demons of body and soul.  It is the Word that has been spoken by His Cross and in His Resurrection, and spoken also to you in Holy Baptism; therefore, the “Yes and Amen” of His Gospel stands fast, even through the long dark night of silence.

Do not despair, but pray.  His Word of mercy shall yet be heard.

If you suffer hardship, loss, pain, or grief, even all of this is for your good, for the strengthening of your faith.  It is a participation in the Cross of Christ, by which you enter into life with Him.  It is also an opportunity and blessed privilege to confess your hope in Christ, for the strengthening of your neighbor’s faith, unto life everlasting.

Trust your dear Father in heaven.  He knows what He is doing, and He does it all for the sake of love, out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.

Trust your gracious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who has not only taught you to pray; who not only hears and answers your prayer; but who also prays and intercedes for you.  His Spirit also helps you in your weakness and prays for you, even when you are reduced to groans of anguish.  Thus are you strengthened and sustained in faith and life.

For you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd’s pasture.  You were lost, but He has found you and brought you home, rejoicing.

You are not a dog, but a dear child, seated at your Father’s table.  You are no longer a stranger, an alien, a foreigner or outcast, but you are a beloved member of His own household and family.  This is where you live.  This is where you belong.

When you pray, you are not begging for table scraps, but asking your Father for the food He loves to give you, for the gifts Christ freely gives.  Ask Him, therefore, not as though He would otherwise withhold His generous hand, but in order to confess and give thanks for His mercy.  For here is the Bread of Life, which He bestows from His open hand to satisfy your deepest longing and your heart’s desire.

Open your ears to hear, and speak as you have heard.

Open your mouth to pray, and you have opened your mouth to be fed, to be healed, and to live.

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