28 December 2016

The Promise of the Cross and the Hope of the Resurrection for You and for Your Children

This particular story, this series of events, boggles our finite human understanding.  You cannot fathom such events as these, except by the Word and Spirit of God.

You cannot understand the purposes of God at work in the slaughter of innocent children, unless you have been given comprehension of the Cross and the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It is true that God the Father here spared His own Son, gave Him an escape to the safety of Egypt.  In your weaker moments you may be tempted to ask, “How is it that God spares His Son, but not the sons of those mothers and fathers in Bethlehem?”  This all seems terribly backwards.  Why is it that Jesus is saved and children are murdered in His stead?  Has He not come to save His people from their sins, from death, and from the power of the devil?

But God the Father spares His Son in this case.  Even this He does not do in the way that you or I might do it.  He does not exercise His irrefutable omnipotent authority and power, but rather speaks His Word and entrusts the task to a mortal man, a fallen sinful man like you or me.  It is given to Joseph to rescue the Holy Family, to stir them from sleep in the middle of the night, to take them away to Egypt.  It all seems rather precarious, and yet, this is how God works.

He rescues His Son now, in weakness and under duress, by the agency of Joseph, His faithful servant.  But this safety, this rescue, that is not forever.  God is biding His time.  The Savior’s time will come, when He voluntarily lays down His life for the sins of the world; when He sheds His blood to cleanse you and clothe you in righteousness.

What is perhaps both most shocking and most scandalous is that God does not spare the innocents.  He does not intervene to rescue the baby boys of Bethlehem.  Is there any question that He could have?  King Herod is not greater than God.  King Herod is not wiser than God.  And God is not caught by surprise by any of these events.  He has known from before the foundation of the world what would occur.  He has spoken concerning this very event by the mouth of His Holy Prophet.  All has transpired, not outside of His permissive will and providential care, but in accordance with His Holy Word.  And we wonder how this can be.

What father stands by and allows his sons to be slaughtered?  What father does not intervene at his own expense to save the helpless, the little ones who belong to him?  And yet, the Lord does not prevent the slaughter of the innocents.  He allows it to happen.  Not that He condones or authors evil, but He uses these wicked events according to His own divine purpose and holy will

Now, make no mistake.  Do not be so proud in your own sinful heart as to suppose that God has overlooked the little boys of Bethlehem or regarded their bodies and their lives of no account.  Not a sparrow falls from the sky apart from His knowledge and His tender loving care.  And those holy innocents are far more precious to Him than many sparrows.  Therefore, He does deliver them in His mercy.  But He does so, not for this world, but from this world.  He saves their life for eternity with Himself in the Resurrection, and not for the trials and tribulations of this vale of tears.

It is fine and good for those little boys.  They live and abide with the Lamb in His Kingdom and worship at His Throne.  They serve Him day and night in His Temple without fear.  Even better, they are served forever by Him, who shall raise their bodies from the dead in glory at the last.

But it was not so lovely on this occasion for their mommies and daddies.  When the soldiers came and ripped those infants and toddlers from the arms of their parents, and put them to the sword, and dashed them against the rock, that was not so easy to live with.

The Lord uses the suffering of this present age to call His people to repentance.  He allows you also to suffer affliction and hardship and loss, that you would be called to repent.  Not only for your active sins and for the evil that you do, but for your lack of faith, for your unbelief, and for your false belief and worship of this body and life on earth.  He would have you learn to view your life, not here, but in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus; not only for now, but for ever.

King Herod gets so angry.  He is trembling with rage.  He acts in violence.  All because he is so desperately clinging to his power and position in this world.  And for all his anger and might, he is afraid.  He’s scared to death of a little Baby.  He’s afraid that he’ll lose his place in the world.  And so he thrashes about, caring not who gets hurt, caring only for himself and his earthly power.

What is it that makes you angry?  What is it that makes you afraid?  What are you grasping for yourself and clinging to for dear life in this world, as though this body and life were all there is?

Rachel weeps for her children.  She is inconsolable.  She can’t stop crying.  She weeps, even though the Lord has spoken, “Cease your weeping, and stop your crying.”  She weeps because she clings to her children and their life in this world.  She thinks she wants what is best for them, but she does not know what is best for them.  She is selfish.  She wants her children for herself.  She does not want to give them up to the Lord.  She does not understand anything other than this life.

What is it that makes you weep?  What is it that brings tears to your eyes which will not cease?  What is it that makes you inconsolable, even when the Lord has spoken His Word of  consolation?

You must be catechized by the Word and Spirit of God to see not only this life and this world, but to fix your hope on Christ, to fix your hope on His Resurrection from the dead and on His Life.

Do not be so angry.  Do not be so afraid.  Do not be so sad.  The Lord has delivered you.  He has rescued you.  He has had mercy upon you.  He has brought you out of sin and death into life.  All of this He has done by His Exodus.  Not simply His infant return from Egypt, though this, too, is part of His fulfillment of all thing.  But by His greater Exodus, His innocent suffering and death, His Sacrifice upon the Cross as the Passover Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  By His passage through death and the grave into the Life everlasting, that is how He has delivered you from sin, death, and hell.  By the shedding of His holy and precious blood, He has saved you.

He has not been rescued from Herod that He should be spared sorrow.  He has been rescued now to carry the sorrows of the world in His own flesh; to bear the weight of the world upon His own aching bones and aching back; to suffer and die for all the children of men; and thus, by His Blood, to cover you, to shelter you, and to protect you from every evil of body and soul.

This promise is for you, and it is for your children, even your little children.  So do not withhold that Word of God from them.  And do not deprive yourself of that Word and promise.

Repent of your idolatrous love for this world.  Do not make gods out of that which does not last.  Do not bow down and worship in your heart or with your life that which perishes like the grass.

Repent of your anger and fear.  Repent of your inconsolable sorrow.  Repent also for your failure to care for your children in accordance with the Word of God.  Repent of your failure to provide for both their body and their soul, for the catechesis of the Word as well as their heath and safety.

Having brought your sons and daughters to Holy Baptism, take seriously the significance of that Holy Sacrament, both for them and for yourself.  Understand that by that washing of water with the Word, by that cleansing blood of the Lamb, you and your children have already died to this body and life.  You have been put to death with Christ, and your life is hidden with Him in God.

Live, therefore, not as though this world were your only hope and help and consolation.  Live, rather, as citizens of another Kingdom, as citizens of a City made without hands, as sons and daughters within the Household and Family of God — by faith in the flesh and blood of Christ.

Do not try to flee this world.  Do not take your own life.  Do not despair of that which God has given you to do here and now.  And do not bemoan how much or little He has entrusted to your care and keeping.  Receive and use what He gives in confident hope.  Bear the Cross patiently.

Rejoice, give thanks, and sing for the food and clothing which the Lord provides, for your house and home, for your wife or husband, for your children, and for all that you have.  And do not use any of it selfishly.  Use it rather to help and serve your neighbor, beginning with your own family.

Do not ask why God allows others to suffer, when you yourself do not help those who suffer.  Do not ask why God allows little children to be put to death, when you do not do all that you can to help protect those who cannot help or protect themselves.

Use what you have to provide for your neighbor’s needs, as the Magi did for the Holy Family by giving them gold and frankincense and myrrh, so that poor Joseph had the means to take his family into Egypt and to care for them while waiting on the Word of the Lord.

Do not try to flee this life.  But hold on to it loosely, and keep your feet firmly planted upon the Rock that is Christ, knowing that your life is in the Resurrection of His Body.  Knowing that, find your life here in His Body on earth, in the Church and Ministry of His Word and Sacraments.

Bring yourself and your children to and from the Altar of the Passover Lamb.  Eat His flesh in the faith that God will bring you in the Exodus out of Egypt into Life.  Take your shelter under His Blood, knowing that the Angel of Death must sheath his sword when you are covered by Christ.

Bring your children to and from this Altar by the catechesis of the Word of Christ.  Do that which God instructed His people of old.  It is no less important for you.  When you get up, and when you go to bed, and as you go about your day, have His Word always on your lips, on your forehead, on your heart, on the walls of your home, and on your gateposts.  Let your whole life be permeated with the Word of the Lord, that you and your children may be preserved in that which is forever.

Rest assured, the little boys of Bethlehem were not abandoned.  For the Lord their God gave them fathers and mothers to teach them His Word, to bring them to circumcision, to place them within the congregation of His people.  And by His catechesis, and by His Sacrament of Circumcision, they were brought into the Kingdom of God, both here in time and hereafter in eternity.

You also have been brought into the Kingdom of God by the Circumcision made without hands, by the washing of Holy Baptism, and by the precious Word of the Gospel that is spoken to you.  For all things have been fulfilled in Christ, and He has done it all for you, so that you may live.

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

27 December 2016

Living the Love Story of the Word Made Flesh

In a popular children’s book, which some of you have read, young Bastian Balthazar Bux is chased by bullies into an old and mysterious book store.  As he waits inside, hiding from those who pursue him, Bastian discovers an intriguing book: The Neverending Story.  On the cover is an oval, formed by two snakes, each swallowing the tail of the other.  After learning that this book is not for sale “at any price,” Bastian takes the book and runs without stopping all the way to school.  Instead of going to class, he hides in the attic and begins to read the book.

At first, The Neverending Story seems normal enough.  But as Bastian continues to read, he begins to notice the unusual intensity of the book: how gripping it is, and how realistic it seems.  At one point, startled by an event in the story, Bastian lets out an audible cry of fear — and the characters in the story hear his cry!  Gradually, Bastian begins to feel that he has somehow become a part of the story.  Then comes the turning point, when Bastian finds himself reading his own story in the pages of the book, and he realizes that he has become one of the characters:

As Bastian read [the details of his own story] and listened to the deep, dark voice of the Old Man of Wandering Mountain, a roaring started up in his ears and he saw spots before his eyes.

Why, this was all about him!  And it was the Neverending Story.  He, Bastian, was a character in the book which until now he had thought he was reading.  And heaven only knew who else might be reading it at the exact same time, also supposing himself to be just a reader.

After some initial fear and hesitation, Bastian plunges headlong into the story, and so it continues.  For the remainder of the book, he is no longer reading the story but living it for himself.  The Neverending Story has become the story of Bastian Balthazar Bux.

Of course, this is a fictional children’s story; a wonderful story, nothing more.  But the Apostle and Evangelist, St. John, has written a real neverending story for you, which is not only historical non-fiction but the very Truth itself.  It is the “story” of the Holy Triune God in human flesh and blood.  For He who was, and is, and is to come, who was in the beginning with God, who is God, by whom all things are made, He has taken your life to be His own, so that you might receive His Life and partake of His divine nature by His grace through faith in His Word of the Gospel.

This is the divine Glory of the Holy Trinity, that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has given His only-begotten Son for you and all people; that the Son has come down from heaven, become flesh of the Virgin Mary, and humbled Himself as a Servant unto the death of His Cross; and that the Holy Spirit now reveals to you and shares with you the Love of God in Christ within His Holy Christian Church through the Holy Apostolic Ministry of preaching and the Sacraments.

It is that ongoing work of the Holy Spirit in making Christ known to you and sharing Him with you that we celebrate with thanksgiving in the Feast of St. John, the Apostle and Evangelist.  For it is by and through the ministry of St. John and the other Apostles that the “story” of Christ Jesus has been given to you, and is told to you in such a way that you may live that story in and with Him.

St. John was well-equipped to serve in this way by his close proximity to Jesus Christ, leaning on His bosom, for example, at the Holy Supper.  He is an eyewitness of Christ and His story, as he describes so eloquently in both his Gospel and Epistle.  Along with his brother James and Simon Peter, St. John is one of those “inner three” who were privy to the great catch of fish, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, the raising of Jairus’ daughter, the Transfiguration, and the agony of Jesus in the Garden.  As St. John writes concerning the incarnate Word, he heard it with his ears; he looked at it and saw it with his eyes; and he handled the very flesh and blood of God Himself.

Even prior to his Divine Call and Ordination to the Holy Office of Apostle and Evangelist, St. John was called to be a disciple of Christ Jesus.  And to be such a disciple, beloved of the Lord, is the way that you also are called to learn the story of Jesus, to receive His story as your own, and to enter into that story as your new and neverending real life in Him.

Recall that St. John scarcely ever refers to himself by name: never at all in his Gospel or Epistles, and only a few times in the Apocalypse.  Throughout the Holy Gospel, he describes himself simply as the “disciple whom Jesus loved.”  And as such, he provides a place for you to find yourself in the Gospel, that you also should be a recipient of Jesus’ love and follow after Him as a disciple.

Such words can make you wistful, though; they are so tender and seem almost too good to be true. So, for example, having heard that he would suffer and die for the glory of God, St. Peter turned to see “the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had leaned on His bosom at the Supper.”  And you know already in your heart how Peter must have been feeling, and what he ached for in himself.

Do you not long for such genuine intimacy and real friendship in your own life?  And does it not often seem so elusive and beyond your reach?  Everyone is so afraid and guarded, so focused on the self and so wary of others, that camaraderie and companionship are rare.  Too many men are locked away in the self-made prisons of their own private pursuits and a splendid isolationism which is far more selfish than splendid.  And too many women have taught themselves to hide and protect their feelings, and not to entrust their hearts to anyone, lest they be hurt yet again.

But you have been created by the Holy Triune God to be loved by Him, and to love one another in His divine Image and Likeness.  It never has been good for the man to be alone, nor the woman, either.  Even in your selfishness and sin, you still know that, and you retain some sense of your need to live in a fellowship of love with God and with your neighbors.  To love and to be loved.

Knowing your need for love is one thing.  But of course, love is one thing in particular that you cannot find or manage on your own.  And left to yourself, you will not find the love that you need because your sins and unbelief have separated you from the Lord your God and from each other.

The remedy and the solution, and the Love that you need, are found only in Christ Jesus, in being “the disciple whom He loves.”  But what does that even mean?  And how does that happen?

To begin with, understand that you are already loved by Jesus!  Not because of who you are, nor because of anything that you have done, but entirely because of who He is and all that He has done for you.  You are called to be His disciple, not to earn His love, but because He loves you; for His desire is that you should be with Him where He is, living with Him in the bosom of His Father.

The Christian author, C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful little book on the different kinds of love, suggests that you are not able to love, nor do you even know how to love, until you have learned to receive and rely upon the Love that God has for you in Christ Jesus.  As St. John the Apostle has also written, so simply and so well, “We love because He first loved us.”  For God is Love.

That very Love which defines the Holy Trinity — the divine, eternal Love between the Father and His Son in the Holy Spirit — has been lived and written for you, as the most perfect Love Story of all, in the flesh-and-blood story of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became flesh and suffered death for you and your salvation.  It is written for you in His Flesh and with His Blood: In His Incarnation and Holy Nativity, upon His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  It is written for you in the Holy Scriptures, as by St. John and the other Apostles and Evangelists.  And it is written for you in the ministry and preaching of the Holy Gospel, in the means of grace, as you are baptized into Christ, absolved in His Name, and given to eat His Body and to drink His Blood.

To be loved by the Lord in this way is how and why you love Him in return; and you learn from Him, as a beloved disciple, to live and love as He does; to love your neighbor as Jesus loves you.

To be a disciple is far more than learning rules and regulations; and it is far more than memorizing facts and information.  To be a disciple is a way of life, a way of living in the world as a child of God in Christ; so that, whoever you are, whatever you do, you live as Jesus for your neighbor.

As C. S. Lewis goes on to say: “Our imitation of God [and His Love] in this life . . . must be an imitation of God incarnate: our model is the Jesus, not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions.  For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.”

You live and love as a disciple within your own particular place in life.  It is not the same for Peter as it is for John.  One will suffer and die for the glory of God, the other will live to be an old man to the glory of God.  Likewise, it is not the same for you as it is for your neighbor.  But, oh, how hard it is to live content and happy with what you have been given and what you are called to do.

To say “the grass is always greener,” is simply to admit that you make a habit of coveting your neighbor’s life, his house, spouse, and reputation.  Instead of giving thanks to God for all that He has given you and called you to be and do, you crave and you resent what He has given to others.

Although it is so commonplace, and you cannot deny that it is always lurking in the depths of your heart and the back of your mind, such envy and jealousy and covetous desire is idolatrous and the root of all temptation and sin.  It is the polar opposite of love for God and for your neighbor!  And it goes to show how impossible it is for you to live and to love as a disciple of Jesus by your own effort.  You cannot live in faith and love, except that He comes to love you with His forgiveness and to give you Life in His own flesh and blood.  For He is the Image of God in whom you live.

It is for this reason, and to this purpose, that St. John was called to his own office and station in life as an Apostle and Evangelist.  He was called, ordained, and sent to be a minister of Christ and a pastor of His Church.  Not of a single congregation, but of the whole Church on earth, as part of the foundation of Prophets and Apostles in Christ, especially through his recorded Word of the New Testament Scriptures — the Holy Gospel, three Epistles, and the Book of the Revelation.

It is by this Word of the Lord, which St. John and his fellows have written, that pastors to this day, and even to the close of the age, preach one and the same Lord Jesus Christ to His Church.  It is by this Word of the Lord that we pastors follow in the footsteps of the Apostles, baptizing and teaching the disciples of Christ Jesus, handing over His Body and pouring out His Blood for them to eat and to drink.  And St. John the Apostle has identified the lofty purpose and potential of this Word that he has written: “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ; and that, believing, you may have life in His Name; that you may have fellowship with the Father and His Son.”

This great gift of Life with the Lord your God is what your true Love gives to you on this Third Day of Christmas.  For it is by this Word of the Word-made-Flesh that His story is your story.

And this telling of His story — the preaching of His Gospel and the celebration of His Supper — these are the many other things which Jesus is still doing, here and now, and all over the world.

As for you, beloved disciple of Jesus, it is your single most important calling that you should hear His Word, receive His gifts, rely upon His Gospel, and thus abide in Him throughout your life on earth, unto the Resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul in Him.  You embrace Him, and you rest yourself in Him, and you cling to Him as your beloved Lord, by receiving and trusting and giving thanks for the Love that He lavishes upon you in His preaching of forgiveness, in the giving of His Body and His Blood for your life and your salvation.

Thus are you tenderly invited to recline here on the bosom of your dear Lord Jesus, here at His Holy Supper.  Here by the Atonement of His Cross and the Righteousness of His Resurrection from the dead, there are no doubts, denials, or questions of betrayal, but only the most precious Gifts of His divine and holy love, which are given and poured out for you and for the many.  So it is that, living and believing in Him, you shall never die.  For even though your body dies and is buried, yet shall you be raised to live with Christ Jesus in body and soul, evermore and evermore.

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

26 December 2016

Walter Lives in the Flesh and Blood of Christ

I would not describe Walter as a skeptical man, although I do know that he had his doubts and suspicions about the government and the state of the world.  He was certainly nobody’s fool, that is for sure.  He knew his own mind, and, let’s be honest, he could be rather stubborn about it.

But do not misunderstand.  If Walter could be stubbornly determined at times, he was even more sure and certain about his faith in Christ and his confession of the Gospel.  That is what he lived for, and that is what he trusted and relied upon throughout his life, through various illnesses along the way, even unto death.  There was hardly anything that could keep Walter away from church.

So, it might seem odd to hear about St. Thomas this morning at Walter’s funeral on this Second Day of Christmas.  Perhaps unfairly, Thomas is typically remembered for his doubts, and for the fact that he was missing on that first Easter Sunday.  That sure doesn’t sound like Walter, does it?  But there are several reasons for which we give attention to this Holy Gospel on this occasion.

I know the paper indicates that Walter died this past Thursday, the 22nd of December.  That was when Rob & Sandra discovered him at home, and I understand that he had enjoyed a good day on Wednesday, the day before.  But from what I’ve been told, he was putting himself to bed for the night when the number of his days in this life on earth were completed and he fell asleep in Jesus.  So, by my reckoning, it was on the evening of the 21st, the Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, when Walter laid down his labors for the last time and entered his Sabbath Rest in Christ.

How appropriate that he should pass from this fallen world of darkness, death, and doubt, into the marvelous Light of Christ on the night of the Winter Solstice.  For the darkest days are now behind us, and the Light of the Revelation of the Glory of God now shines upon us in the Gospel of Christ Jesus, our Savior.  As Walter knew that Light by faith under the Cross here on earth, so does he now live and abide in that Light within the neverending Eighth Day of the Lord’s Resurrection.

That’s another thing about this St. Thomas Day Gospel: Not only is it heard just a few days before Christmas, but then again, every year, throughout the whole Church, on the Second Sunday of Easter.  And it really ties together so beautifully the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the Son of God, conceived and born of St. Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate, dead and buried for three days, but risen from the dead in His own glorified Body of flesh and blood, never to die again, but living and reigning forever at the Right Hand of His Father.

It is surely in that hope, in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus, that Walter lived and died, and that we remember and give thanks for him today in the confidence and confession of the Resurrection.  For the Word became Flesh, true God became true Man, that He might gather up the children of men into Himself as members of His Body, and bring them with Himself through death into life, into the Glory of His God and Father.

Not that we yet see it.  For now we live by faith under the Cross in the midst of sin and death.  And even Walter’s eyes await the final Resurrection of all flesh, when he shall behold his Lord and his God face to face.  But by the grace of God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, Walter believed and confessed, as we also believe and confess, that our Redeemer lives.  Against all the apparent evidence of this fallen and perishing world, and despite the frailty of our own dying bodies of flesh and blood, we trust and rejoice in the promise of the Lord’s Resurrection.

Which is no doubt why Walter requested the Old Testament Reading from Job 19 that we have heard this morning, and the glorious Easter hymn based on that Holy Scripture: “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.”  For at the last, it is written — as though in rock by an iron stylus — He shall stand upon the earth, and from our own risen flesh, with our own eyes, we shall see Him as He is.  The very thing that St. Thomas desired, which he and the other Apostles of the Lamb were granted, that we who have not yet seen might believe by the Word of their eye-witness testimony; and that we, believing that Holy Gospel, might have life in Christ, in both body and soul.

So that is why our hearts and minds are turned to the testimony and example of St. Thomas on this day.  That we should find and receive the blessed comfort, peace, and rest that both St. Thomas and our dear brother Walter were granted in the flesh and blood of Christ Jesus.  That in the face of doubt and fear we should be not faithless but believing; and, in the face of death and the grave, we should have the glorious life for which the Lord our God created us in His own divine Image.

Not that any of this is easy for this little while that we spend on earth.  Let’s not kid ourselves.  It was not easy for St. Thomas, who, like all but one of the Holy Apostles, was martyred for the Name of Christ.  And it was not easy for Walter, either, though you might not have guessed it from his positive attitude and generally cheerful outlook.  He was always doing “pretty good for an older man,” moving forward and persevering in the faith and confession of Christ.  But he had his hurts and suffered some painful losses on his sojourn.

If there was one thing in particular that troubled Walter and weighed so heavily upon him, it was estrangement within families.  I gather that went back to his own father leaving his family, when Walter was just a little boy, too young to understand the whys and wherefores, but only that his Dad was gone and his Mom was left to deal with things on her own.  But there were similar such departures and losses in Walter’s adult life, as well, and even this past year.  He simply could not understand how anyone could turn his back on his own family.  But I expect that he had regrets of his own, too, for the fact is that we are fallen and fallible creatures.

The question is whether those sins and uncertainties of life will drive you away from Christ and His Church, or closer to the Lord in the Ministry of His Gospel.  For Thomas, who was at first absent from the gathering of disciples, he found peace when he returned to the place where Christ is present.  And for Walter, too, his peace was found in the faith and life of the Body of Christ.

It was the Body of Christ that sustained him when he was hit with the double loss of his son David and his daughter Linda within months of each other five years ago.

It is a terrible thing for any parent to bury his own children, and the seemingly insurmountable finality of death could hardly be more stark.  So Walter grieved, to be sure, and he carried the burden of that sorrow for the remainder of his own life.  But not as though without hope, for his hope remained in Christ, in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus.  For that One is the Son whom God the Father gave to save us, handing Him over to death and the grave.  He is the Child born of Mary, whom she saw crucified, dead, and buried.  And He is the One who has conquered death and risen from the dead for the righteousness and salvation of all the sons and daughters of men.

You, then, be where that Lord Jesus Christ is found.  Not as though to earn or merit anything, but to receive everything by the grace of God in the Body of His Son.  If you have wandered away, as Thomas did for awhile, then come back as he did on that Eighth Day of Easter.  Follow the good and faithful example that Walter has set for all these past many years in coming to church.  For it is in the congregation of His Church on earth, in the gathering of His disciples in His Name, that Christ Jesus is Immanuel, God With Us, even to the close of the age.

That is particularly clear in this Holy Gospel, in which the Liturgy and Ministry of Christ are set before you in His Word and works of grace, mercy, and peace.  Not because those first disciples and Apostles were so courageous and strong, but despite the fact that they were not.  Beset by fear and sadness, hiding away from the world in a locked room, nevertheless, the Lord comes to them, and takes His stand in their midst, and grants to them His Peace.

His Word to them is a liturgical greeting, such as you hear in the Divine Service when the Lord Jesus has consecrated bread and wine to be His Body and His Blood, given and poured out for His Christians to eat and to drink.  Thus taking His stand in the midst of His disciples, He declares that His Peace is with you always.  That is the true and lasting Peace of forgiveness, of rescue from death and the devil, of reconciliation with God, and of righteousness, life, and salvation.  It is such a Peace which the world can neither give nor take away, because it is yours in Christ alone.

His Peace is given to you, first of all, as it was given to the disciples then, and as it has been given to Walter for these past 92 years, by the Word and Spirit of Christ, especially His Word of Holy Absolution, that is, the forgiveness of sins in His Name.  For when the called Ministers of Christ deal with you by His divine command, it is valid and certain, in heaven also, as the way and the means by which Christ your dear Lord deals with you Himself.  And by that Word of forgiveness, He breathes His Spirit upon you, into your ears, your heart and mind, your body and soul.

So it is that you, a child of Adam, mortal and returning to the dirt, are raised again from the dust of the earth to be and remain a living, breathing son of God in Christ Jesus.  As surely as Walter has received that same Word and Spirt of forgiveness and life, and even though he has died, yet shall he rise and live forevermore.

I have no doubt that it was for the sake of that Ministry of the Gospel, in loving gratitude to Christ Jesus, that Walter was always so respectful and supportive of his pastors.  He put his trust, not in the flesh and blood of mortal men, but in the Word and Spirit of the Living God, who has chosen in His mercy to speak and act through men.

And as the same Lord God did for St. Thomas, so He has done for Walter, and so He does for you.  From His wounded side He has poured out the cleansing and refreshing water of Holy Baptism, so that you are forgiven all your sins, grafted into the Body of Christ, anointed by His Holy Spirit, and named by God the Father with His own Name.  Here, then, is a Father who will never abandon His children or His family.  Here, too, is a Bridegroom who will never leave you nor forsake you.

As He took Walter to be His own dear child by the washing of the water with His Word and Spirit on the same day he was born, on the 23rd of May in 1924, so did He remain faithful to this dear son of God, our brother in Christ, until the day of his death last week.  And by His faithfulness, He preserved and strengthened Walter in the one true faith, even unto the life everlasting.

From His wounded hands and side, Christ Jesus has also poured out His holy and precious Blood to fill His Chalice of Salvation, so that Walter was able to receive this great mercy, no less than St. Thomas.  Forgiveness and Life and Salvation in both body and soul.  From his confirmation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Frazee, Minnesota, in May of 1938, until his final Sunday on earth, the Fourth Sunday in Advent, Walter was given to eat and to drink the Body and Blood of Mary’s little Lamb, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

From the Manger of Bethlehem to the Cross and Resurrection, to the Breaking of the Bread at Emmaus, Walter was fed and cared for by the Lamb who is also the great Good Shepherd of the sheep.  Though he could not yet see it with his eyes, he shared the faith of Job in the Resurrection and the Life of his Redeemer, Jesus Christ.  And because St. Thomas and the other Apostles have seen the crucified and risen Lord, so by their Word of the Gospel did Walter receive and trust, believe and confess the same Lord, the Son of God and of St. Mary.

In the Sacrament of the Altar, the Body of Christ was given to Walter, and the Blood of Christ was poured out for Walter, that he should thus recognize and worship his own dear Savior by receiving His Salvation.  The Church on earth, from Frazee to South Bend, was Walter’s Bethlehem.  And the Altar of his Lord was the Manger from which he fed upon the Christ, even when that Altar had to come to his own home, to his hospital room, or to a rehabilitation center.  That was Walter’s Paradise, even in the face of sadness, sickness, sin, and death.

And even now, though Walter’s body begins returning to the dust from which it was taken, yet shall he be raised and glorified in his body, like unto the glorious Body of Christ.  And in that final Resurrection of all flesh — for which we and all the faithful wait, and watch, and pray — then shall Walter see with his own two eyes, from his own flesh, the great Redeemer who loves him, in whom he lives forever and ever.

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

25 December 2016

The Word of the Lord Is the Light of the World

You probably know what it’s like to wake up in the darkness, in the middle of the night, shaken out of your sleep by a disturbing dream, perhaps a real nightmare.  It’s a bit chaotic at first, but to calm yourself down you begin to think logically.  You talk yourself through it, whether out loud or in your head.  You speak words against the chaos and restore order to the night.

There is hardly anything about you more personal or powerful than your words.  You found that out already at an early age, when you learned to assert your will against people much larger than yourself with even a single word: “No.”  With words you’re able to express yourself, your ideas and identity, your wants and needs, your purpose and intentions.

Your words are the primary way that you share yourself with others and establish a relationship with others outside of yourself.  But even within yourself, you give shape to your thoughts and feelings and make sense of them through words.  You gather all the clutter of ideas that roam around inside your head into actual plans and possibilities.  And as you express those proposals with words that you speak aloud or put into writing, you not only stake your place in the world, but you carve out your space and your purpose alongside or in competition with your neighbors.

There is a certain violence to that process, because your words and the you they reveal, the ideas and propositions they articulate, differ from others and challenge them.  There is a risk involved, both to you and your neighbor, when you speak, because you do reveal yourself and make yourself vulnerable, but you also press your neighbor with your words to respond in some way: To agree or disagree, to do something, or to stop doing something.

Such communication can be dangerous, emotionally or otherwise, yet it is fundamental to being a human being, created in the Image of God to live in relationship with other people.  For among the various ways that God has made you like Himself, there is this fact, that words are integral to who you are and how you relate to those around you and even far beyond.

Words are dangerous because they are powerful for good or ill.  They have the potential to defend, to uphold, to strengthen and encourage, or to hurt and harm your neighbor.  A simple word of kindness or praise, a compliment or thank you, can make your day, whereas a word of criticism or ridicule or mockery can leave your entire week in ruins.

For all their power and potential, though, your words are limited.  Like you, they are finite, fallible, and subject to the curse of the fall into sin.  They are not always honest, true, or correct.  They do not always express what you intend, nor are they always understood even when you speak clearly and precisely.  They are not always heeded, nor do they necessarily accomplish what you want.  As often as you insist on your adamant “Yes” or “No,” others may oppose your words and your will with their own.  At other times you run out of words and out of breath and are left speechless.

Not only that, but once you do speak, your words become separate from you and beyond your control.  They take on a life of their own, one that you might not like or want to acknowledge.  But once they leave your lips, once you hit send or post, there’s no getting your words back.  Promises you can’t keep will only come back to bite you.  The lies you tell, the angry words you hurl at your neighbors, the gossip that you spread, the confidence you break, or the foolish nonsense that you spew — it exposes your frailty and weaknesses, your sinfulness, and your encroaching death.

The Word of God is both alike and different from your words.  It is by His Word that He identifies, reveals, and shares Himself with His creatures.  He speaks, and by His speaking He establishes and enters into a relationship with you and all others outside of Himself.  And His Word brings logic, order, structure, and beauty where there is otherwise chaos and confusion.  It replaces foolishness and ignorance with knowledge and wisdom.  It shines true Light into deep darkness.

But God’s Word is not limited, as your words are, for He Himself is not limited.  His Word does and gives whatever He says.  It never returns empty or fruitless but always accomplishes the purpose for which He speaks.  And though it goes out from Him, His Word is never separate from Him.  For the Word of God is both divine and personal; so is the Breath or Spirit by which God speaks, and which He breathes by the speaking of His Word.  The Father speaks to you by His own Son, and He pours out the Spirit generously upon you through the same Son, Jesus Christ.

So it is that whatever God does, He does by His Word.  And whatever the Father speaks, whatever Word He utters, it is very good.  It is a Life-giving Word.  It is a Word of divine Love.  For the Father loves His Son, the Son loves His Father, and the Spirit of God is that same divine Love.  Therefore, all that He says, and all that He does by His speaking, it is all for the sake of His Love.

From the beginning He creates, and by His Word all things come into being, for the sake of Love.  You also exist to be loved by God.  You are here for the sake of being loved and loving in return.

God’s creation is good because it is His creation.  Whatever He speaks, He Himself has declared, it is very good.  And yet, your experience of creation, and your experience of your own flesh, doesn’t seem very good, does it?  There’s a frailty to it.  Your body gets hurt.  Your feelings get hurt.  Your relationships are damaged.  The whole world is falling apart, just like all of your stuff is falling apart.  Sometimes more slowly, sometimes more quickly, but sooner or later it wears out.

If you look around at God’s good creation, and if you consider your own created flesh, all that you perceive is death.  That is the dark word that sums up the fallenness of creation.  There is this deep darkness, and so you cannot see the goodness that God intends.  Nor does God’s Word sound all that good to you, in any case, because His Word speaks of a goodness that you have not known.

His Word brings order out of chaos, and so the chaos of your life is constrained and constricted by His Word.  God speaks of things as they are to be, but you are not as you ought to be.  So His Will presses upon you, and your own will presses back like a stubborn, self-centered toddler: “No!”  “I don’t want to!”  “It’s mine!”  “He started it.”  “She started it.”  “The snake started it.”

This fallenness of the creation, such as you experience in the world and in your own flesh, does not originate with God but belongs to the separation of creation from His Word.  The dying of your flesh is what you get when your flesh is separated from the Word of God.  The dying of creation is what happens because the King and the Queen of creation did not receive and use the good gifts of God according to His Word but contrary to His Word.

When you speak words of hostility; when you speak words that do not build up but tear down; when you criticize and complain and grumble — all of that darkness and death flow, not from God, but from your fallen will.  For God has given you a freedom to speak, and He does not force you.  He has not made you to be a tape recorder or a digital recorder.  He has created you to live and to speak in love, and real love requires real freedom.  Such freedom means that you are able to speak and to assert your will even against the purposes of your Creator.

There are those words, therefore, which bring darkness and destruction into God’s good creation, into your life in the world, and into your neighbor’s life, as well.  Yet, there is also still that Word who was in the beginning with God.  That Word who is God.  That Word by whom all things come into existence, apart from whom there is nothing.  He is your Life, your Light, and your Salvation.  For He shines in the darkness, and He restores creation to the good and gracious will of God.

The Word of God has entered into His creation and has become a part of it, in order to heal it from within.  He has taken for Himself a genuine life in the flesh, even at its frailest and in its most finite conditions, as an Infant and in death.  He has made Himself dependent on His own creatures.  And by His Life in flesh and blood like yours, you see the goodness of God’s creation fully restored.  For His truly human flesh, conceived and born of the Woman, is indeed the very Flesh of God.

So has the Word of God entered the darkness to shine His Light upon you, and to enlighten you with His Wisdom and His Spirit.  That is how the early church identified the newly baptized.  They were enlightened.  They were given the Light of the radiance of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  They were given the Light of His Righteousness by their Baptism into His Cross and Resurrection.

So are you enlightened by your Holy Baptism, by the preaching of the Gospel, and by the eating and drinking of the Word made Flesh in His Supper.  That is the true Christ Mass all year long.

The Word of God reveals God Himself and gives you God Himself.  He has drawn near to you.  He has become like you.  He has entered into a relationship with you by the speaking of His Word.

He takes the first step of reconciliation, to draw you to Himself in peace, though you have been at enmity with Him and estranged from Him by your own rebellious sin and stubborn unbelief.  The Father speaks to you by His Son, and the Son speaks His Life and Light and Love into the midst of your darkness and death.  Thus it happens that God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, from the womb outward, even to the ends of the earth.  All created things are made brand new by the conception and birth of God the Word in human flesh.  Mankind has a new and better Adam.  Creation has a new King, who is Jesus Christ, the Son of God and of St. Mary.

He is the Word and Wisdom of God, but He does not simply instruct you with information.  No, the enlightenment of the Word of God is the enlightenment of His Self-giving.  That is to say, He gives to you His own divine, eternal Life through His Word of forgiveness and by the preaching of Himself into your body and your soul.  And this extraordinary work He does by the foolishness of preaching, by the speaking of human words.  Not thunder from heaven, but the words of men whom He calls into existence to testify concerning the Light, so that all might believe in Him

You can wonder why, but this is how God works.  This is how He chooses to do things.  As the Word becomes Flesh and dwells among us, so does He speak His Word through flesh and blood.

So does He serve you through those particular neighbors whom God has created and called and sent to speak the special Word of His Gospel, and to preach His Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins.  So it is that, by water with the Word and Spirit of God, He makes a new creation out of you.  In Holy Baptism the One who is both true God and true Man, the divine Word with His own human Flesh, unites Himself to you, and you to Him, in both body and soul.

That is why death does not get to have you, even though it still feels like it does.  It is true that your flesh will turn back into dirt.  You’ll be worm food, or a maggot sack, as Dr. Luther liked to say.  And yet, because God the Word has united Himself to you, death and dirt and worms and maggots cannot destroy you.  They do not get to have the last word concerning you.  The darkness cannot overcome you.  For God has drawn near to dwell with you with His Light in the midst of your deep darkness.  That is why they call Him Immanuel.

You know that God is with you in Christ Jesus.  He is with you here in His own Flesh and Blood.  He makes the Father known to you.  This incarnate God, this only-begotten Son of God, He makes a new begetting of you by the preaching of His Word.  Thus are you a son of God in Christ Jesus.  And, as He draws near to you here and now, so does He bring you near to the Father in heaven.  That is, not only do you know Him, but you actually abide with Him.  For the One who has come from the bosom of the Father brings you in and with Himself to the bosom of His God and Father.

As you eat and drink the Body and Blood of Christ here at His Altar, as you take His Flesh and Blood into your own body, you live and abide with the one true God.  For in this Holy Sacrament, grace and truth are realized for you in Christ Jesus.  You know creation as it is meant to be.  You know the goodness of the Lord who loves you.  And as you are enlightened by Him, so do you live in Him.  So also are your words and your speaking enlightened by the Word and Spirit of God, that you might confess and call upon His Name and glorify His Holy Name in all that you say and do.

That is why and how we sing and rejoice this day.  That is why and how we give to Him all thanks and praise.  That is why you are here, and that is why and how your life in the world is meaningful and important.  You bear in your own body, no less than St. Mary did, the same Word of God, the same Flesh and Blood, the same Jesus Christ.  This is most certainly true, and it is very good.

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

24 December 2016

A Light in the Darkness for You

You may not be a shepherd, but you do have your own watch to keep: your own flock to guard and protect, to feed and care for, and your own field in which to abide.  You have the duties of your office, the responsibilities of your particular station in life.

But whether you work the day shift or at night, evenings and weekends, or on call 24/7, you live and work in the midst of a deep darkness.  It is the darkness of sin and death, of sickness and sadness, of violence and hate.  The pitch black darkness of unbelief, idolatry, ungodliness, and lust.

Sometimes the darkness looms and grows and thickens to the point that it threatens to swallow you up completely.  Left alone and afraid in the darkness, unable to see which way to turn, neither do you see any hope for tomorrow.  In the dead of the night, when you cannot sleep, or when your sleep is assailed with nightmares, it does not appear that the sun will ever shine on you again.  No matter how many lights you turn on, no matter how many watts you burn, the darkness crowds upon you, and you can’t turn back the night.

Really, though, I’m not speaking so much about the natural darkness that comes with the setting of the sun at the end of each day.  Indeed, the darkest hours aren’t always at night.  Nor is the darkness only on the outside, surrounding you.  There is a deeper darkness within you, gnawing away and eating you up from the inside-out.  It is the native darkness of your fallen old man, the darkness of your heart and mind, beclouded by sin, ignorant of God, tempted to wickedness and evil on the one hand, but then also accused, ashamed, and afraid, on the other hand.

That is the darkness that blackens your thoughts and feelings and makes it impossible for you to see or perceive anything clearly, even at high noon.  You live, as it were, always at night, always in the dark.  You do your job and tend your sheep, but you do it like a hireling; you despise and resent the flock, you grumble and complain.  You run away and hide, on the inside at least, when push comes to shove.  You work without joy, because you have to, in order to make ends meet, and you count the hours, the days, the weeks, and the years until you can finally be done with it all.

When you care for the sheep with no other goal than caring for yourself and meeting your needs, then the darkness emerges from within you in the form of self-preservation and self-protection, and it descends upon your heart and mind in the form of fear, desperation, and finally despair.  That is the darkness which would eventually consume you altogether, and bring you into the long dark night of death and the grave and eternal damnation.

Except that, now, the true Light has come.  The same true God who caused the Light to shine out of the darkness in the beginning, has caused the Light of His Glory to shine upon you by His grace.  He’s doing it right now, as a matter of fact, in the middle of this night, in the midst of all the darkness in this fallen world.  As always, it is by and with His Word that His Light shines for you.  His Word is the Light, which is preached to you, that you might see God and have life in Him.

This Light of the revelation of the Glory of God is scary in its own way.  When you’ve been in the dark for so long, you know how it is; the light hurts your eyes.  And when you’ve been hiding in the darkness, doing what you should not and neglecting what you should, then having the lights suddenly flipped on might well freak you out and make you sore afraid.  For the Light exposes the deeds of darkness and makes it clear that you have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.

Then again, when you’re lost in the dark and looking for the light, it can seem like the Light of the Lord has been overcome by thick clouds and long shadows.  For the irony and paradox of the Cross, which is the Hour of God’s Glory in Christ Jesus, is that it appears completely otherwise.

Because it is the Light of the Cross that shines upon you in the Word of Christ, your life on earth is not all blue skies and sunshine, but overcast and overshadowed, maybe even dark and cold and rainy.  The days are short, your nights are long.  And when all the excitement and celebration of the holidays have come and gone, the presents have been opened and put away, the decorations taken down, and even the leftovers have all been eaten, there will still be your job to do, your studies to resume, and either the frenzy or the boredom, the loneliness or chaos of your life.

And the prospect that nothing will ever change or get any better may be your greatest fear of all.

But to each and all of you I say, Fear not.  For right here, right now, I bring to you good news of great joy.  This is a Word of Peace, not only for shepherds “once upon a time,” but for all people, and so also for you.  These glad tidings are preached to you, as you keep your watch, and tend your sheep, and abide in your field, by night as by day.  This message rings out to the ends of the earth, and so also here it is spoken and heard, confessed, prayed, and sung.  It is proclaimed for you, to be sure, but in such a way that you are also able to speak it and sing it for others.

This Word of the Gospel is full of great joy, because it meets your deepest needs, delivers you from death, and gives you life with God.  It is comfort and peace.  It is Light in the darkness.  It is rescue and relief, protection from danger, tender care, and free salvation.

It is unto you that a Savior has been born.  He is your Savior, and so He comes for you here and now, right where you are.  He is born “in the same country,” that is to say, not Palestine per se, nor the U.S.A.  Neither Canada, Honduras, Taiwan or Tanzania.  But all of the above, in the same country and commerce where you live and work: the world of men, of flesh and blood, of sunshine and rain, of eating and drinking, waking and sleeping.  He has been born for you into all of that.

He has come, not simply to be with you and keep you company as you go about your days and nights, but to be your Savior — to save you from all that darkens your world, and from all that brings death into your life.  He comes to do it by His Cross, by submitting Himself to the darkness of death and the grave, allowing Himself to be swallowed up by them — but then He is the One who triumphs and swallows them up, once and for all.  The darkness does not overcome Him — indeed, it cannot — and so it is dispersed by Him who is the Light.  Death and the grave cannot hold Him, but death is defeated by His death.  So He has risen, and He shall never die again.

As death no longer has any lordship over Him, neither shall it be allowed to rule over you.  For your Savior, Christ Jesus — born into the House and Lineage of David, a Man after His Father’s heart — He is your Shepherd and your King.

Even a little child knows that a Shepherd guards and protects His flock from danger, and also feeds and cares for His sheep, leading them into good green pastures and alongside cool clear waters.  That is what your Shepherd does for you, so that you have life, and death is kept at bay.

Because He is also your King, the government rests fully upon His shoulders, and not upon you.  He is not a tyrant, nor a cruel dictator, but an “everlasting Father” for His people.  That is to say, again, that He feeds and clothes you, shelters and protects you, teaches and trains you.  All of this by His grace, without any merit or worthiness in you, but with fatherly divine goodness and mercy.

King Jesus does not take a census of the people in order to tax the world.  He distributes His own wealth to you and all your fellow citizens of His Kingdom, so that you and your neighbor are well supplied and able to love and serve and care for each other with the good gifts of your King.

So consider how it is: You are saved by Him, and now you live by His grace and mercy, and you have Peace in the Light of His Gospel.  For He is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed, and having been anointed by the Spirit of His Father in His Body of flesh and blood, He pours out the Holy Spirit upon you through His forgiving of all your sins.  Indeed, He is the Lord Himself — the almighty and eternal Son of God, begotten of the Father from all eternity — but He has also become true Man, a human being like yourself, by His conception and birth of St. Mary.  In Him, God and Man are perfectly and permanently united.  So also, in Him, you are united with God in perfect Peace.

Come, then, avail yourself of these good things.  Seek and find your Savior in the place where He directs you to go; so that you might worship and adore Him, in the first place by hearing His Word and receiving His good gifts; and that you should then also return thanks, bend your knee and lift up your voice, and love and serve your neighbor in the Name and for the sake of your true King.

You find Him in the city of David, that is, in Bethlehem, the “House of Bread.”  Not by accident or coincidence is your Savior found in such a House, for He is the true and living Bread from heaven.  But His Bethlehem is not far away from you, on the other side of the planet.  It is found, and He is found, wherever His Church is gathered by and for the preaching of His Gospel and the giving of His Body in remembrance of Him.  The household and family of His Church, in which that Bread is administered with His Word, that is where you find the Son of David.

He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, in anticipation of the clothes that will wrap and swaddle His Body when He is taken down from the Cross and buried.  For He wraps Himself in your frailty and weakness, in your fallenness, in your mortality and death.  But so does He also burst the bonds of sin and death and set you free.  The swaddling clothes of His humble nativity and of His tomb are a sign of His Victory over death and the grave, which He has accomplished for you and for all, that He might wrap Himself up and give Himself to you under the Tree of His Cross.

So is He wrapped and swaddled now upon the Altar of His Church, in the Cup and on the Plate, reverently adorned with linens recalling both His burial and His Resurrection from the dead.

If you want to find Him, do so here at His Altar.  If the wood of the manger has given way to the wood of the Cross, so is the Cross set before you in the wood of this Altar.  And it is still a manger of sorts, that is, a feeding trough from which you eat and drink.  Here is where His sheep are fed with the Food and Drink that are His own holy Body and His own most precious Blood.

Little wonder, then, that angels and archangels and all the host of heaven are gathered here with you and join with you in praising God.  For wherever the Body and Blood of the incarnate Son of God are found, there all of heaven takes notice, pays devout attention, and sings with great joy and gladness to the glory, honor, thanks, and praise of the Holy Triune God.  All the saints and holy angels in heaven and on earth rejoice, give thanks, and sing, because the Lord our God has become Man, and He has saved the sons of men for the resurrection and the life everlasting.

The same Lord God in mercy sends His messengers to you, to shepherd you as His dear sheep by the preaching and teaching of His Word, in order to bring you these glad tidings.

Do keep these things, as St. Mary did, and ponder them both day and night in your heart and mind.  Savor these glad tidings in your words and actions.  For this Word of Christ is the Light that disperses the gloom and scatters the darkness.  So it does for you, as you hear it and remember it; and so it does for your neighbor, as you also speak it and share it with those you encounter.

With this Word, and by this Light, return to your own field and your own flock with thanksgiving to God, and be at Peace in the sure and certain hope of Christ.  His Incarnation and His Birth, His Cross and Resurrection, have already changed everything for the better.

Although it is still dark in this perishing world, and the night seems to reign without ending, in truth everything is just as it has been told to you.  Your Light has come in the flesh of Christ Jesus, and the Grace of God has appeared in the preaching of His Gospel.  The eternal Day has already dawned in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead, and as you are redeemed by His Cross, so shall you also rise and live forever in His Light.

What your eyes have not yet seen shall at last appear, suddenly bursting into the midst of this long dark night.  As surely as the Gospel is here preached and the Sacrament administered for the forgiveness of your sins, so surely does your Savior come to you, and His Glory shines upon you, and so surely will He bring you home rejoicing.  Then there shall be no more night anymore at all, but only the Light of the Word made Flesh, for evermore and evermore.

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

21 December 2016

The Peace of the Lord in the Body of Christ

As a disciple, Thomas should have believed the testimony of the other disciples who had seen the Lord.  And, as a disciple, he should have been there with them in the first place when Jesus came.  It is fundamental to the Christian faith and life to be gathered together with the other members of His Body, the Church, on the Lord’s Day.  For it is in the gathering of His disciples in His Name that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus comes and takes His stand, and speaks His Word, and grants His Peace, and bestows His Spirit, and gives Himself to you and to all His Christians.  It is in His Body that you find Him and have your Peace and Sabbath Rest.

Thomas should have been there with the disciples when Jesus came; and, having been absent, he should have believed their testimony.  But for his failure to believe the Word of the Gospel, he was called to repentance and brought to repentance, in order to receive the Lord Jesus, to be forgiven, and to be at peace, no longer faithless but believing.  The fruits of his repentance are found, even in the midst of his cynical doubts and skepticism, in the fact that he was with the disciples on the Eighth Day.  He was back in church.  He was where he belonged, where he needed to be.

We may certainly suppose that the other disciples were instrumental in re-gathering their brother Thomas to their fellowship.  He doubted their word — and he basically called into question either their integrity or their sanity — but they did not shun him, shut him out, or spurn his presence.  Evidently, they encouraged him to be there with them, and they supported him with their company.  Precisely that kind of encouragement and support is part of what it means to be a congregation of the Church, to be members of one Body in Christ, to belong to the household and family of God.

You would notice and do something about it, if one of your children or siblings were absent from the gathering of your family at home.  You should be no less aware when your fellow disciples, your brothers and sisters in Christ, are absent from His Body; and then, seek them out in love and call them home by the confession of His Cross and Resurrection, by the testimony of His Gospel.

Whatever words and gestures the other disciples may have used, they had Thomas together with them again on the Eighth Day of Easter.  And there they were, that rag-tag group of guys, tossed about and torn by mixed emotions, anxieties and hurts, weariness and expectations.  One of their number, Judas, was already lost and gone, having hanged himself in despair.  Simon Peter was yet to be restored, after having denied Jesus on the eve of His Passion.  And despite the Resurrection appearances of the previous Sunday and several eyewitness reports, the disciples still struggled with doubt.  Their faith waxed and waned, and they were often more skeptical than confident.

That gathering of disciples was not unlike our own congregation with all its ups and downs, with all its strengths and weaknesses, all its doubts and fears and hopes and dreams, and all its hurts both new and old.  You bring all that with you into this gathering, and your neighbors do, too.

How is it that such fractured and fragmented people become whole?  How is it that disagreements and division are healed and give way to community?  Is it just that misery loves company, and so we get together to commiserate?  Is it a case of circling the wagons against the big bad world out there?  Or, what is it that brings you from being so afraid, so angry, so bitter and cynical, and so depressed, to being at peace — with God, with your neighbor, and with yourself?  How is it that you come to believe in Christ Jesus — that He was crucified for the forgiveness of all your sins, and that God the Father raised Him from the dead to be your righteousness, life, and salvation?

You have heard the answer in this Holy Gospel.  The Lord Jesus comes and stands in your midst, and He speaks, “Peace be with you!”  He calls you to repentance and thereby calls you to Himself.  For He has risen from the dead, and in His Resurrection He forgives you, He gives you life.  His Absolution raises you from the dead, as surely as He Himself has been raised.  That is what the preaching of His Gospel does, for His Word does and gives what it says: the forgiveness of sins.

That Word is preached to you now from the testimony of the Holy Apostles, including Thomas.  In this respect they differ from you, and from all other Christians.  They surpass the Prophets who came before them, and the pastors and teachers who follow after them.  Blessed are their eyes, Jesus says elsewhere, because they have seen what the righteous men of old longed to see.

It is what the Holy Apostles have seen with their eyes, what they heard with their ears, and what they touched and handled, which they in turn have spoken and written, testified and professed for the whole Church on earth, even to the end of the age.  What they believe, because they have seen, they give to you, who do not see, that you might believe by their proclamation of the Word.

In this regard, as an Apostle, as one of the Twelve, Thomas is exactly right to insist upon seeing.  It is necessary that he also be an eyewitness of the crucified and risen Jesus.  His apostolic office and vocation require it, just as a replacement for Judas will need to be an eyewitness of the Resurrection; just as Saul of Tarsus will behold the risen Lord Jesus on the Road to Damascus.

That same Lord Jesus has given His Apostles to His Church, as the first of all His gifts, that by their preaching and teaching, by their confession and their doctrine, you and others should believe in Him, and have life in Him, and share in the fellowship of the Holy Apostles — which is, in fact, to participate in the fellowship of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.

So, too, what St. Thomas the Apostle saw and touched and handled — the Body of the crucified and risen Christ Jesus — he has also handed over to the Church; and the Church has handed over the same Lord Jesus through all the generations ever since, even to this time and place.  For along with the confession of the Cross and Resurrection, there is also the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ, given first of all to the Twelve who ate and drank with Him both before and after His Passion; and what they received from Him, they delivered to His Church.  It is that apostolic tradition which continues to this day, and to this gathering of the disciples of Jesus in His Name.

In this Supper, Jesus does for you what He did for Thomas and the other disciples.  He opens Himself to you.  He entrusts Himself to you.  In a sense, He humbles Himself, and makes Himself weak and vulnerable, subjecting Himself to being handled, investigated, and scrutinized, as it were.  Not in the same way that He did for Thomas, obviously.  You cannot put the Sacrament under a microscope and see the wounded hands and feet and side of Jesus.  But your ears hear the Word of the same Lord, who says: “Take, eat; this is My Body. Drink of it, all of you; this is My Blood.”

With this Word of Christ, He gives to you the fruits of His Cross and Passion, in which His almighty power has been made perfect in His weakness.  It is with such strength that He entrusts Himself to you, and suffers Himself to be grasped and consumed; that He might lay hold of you in love, and heal you, and grant you peace, and feed and sustain you, and give you His own life.

Here then is the flesh of Christ which was nailed and pierced for you, the Body that was crucified for you.  Here is the holy and precious Blood which poured from His wounds on the Cross, which is now poured out from His Chalice for you and for the many, for the forgiveness of all your sins.

He comes to you in this way, and He shares Himself with you in this way, in voluntary weakness and humility, so that you, even in great weakness, may receive Him and hold Him and rest yourself in Him without fear.  He knows your hurts, your wounds and scars of heart, mind, body, and soul.  He is your faithful and merciful High Priest, who has suffered and been tempted in every way that you are.  In compassion He has borne your hurts, and He still bears your wounds and scars in His Body.  He is forever the Lamb who has been slain, who died for you, and yet, behold, He lives.

It is remarkable and significant that St. Thomas recognizes Jesus by the marks of His Passion, by His hands and side.   Those wounds identify Him as the Crucified One.  But that is not all.  What St. Thomas recognizes in the wounded Body of Jesus is the Lord, his God.  That is not a case of logic or reason or scientific proof.  That is the theology of the Cross.  That is the true greatness and glory of God, the grace of His Self-giving for the salvation of sinners.  That is divine compassion, which does not simply comfort, console, and commiserate, but comes down to relieve suffering, to rescue from all harm and danger, from hurt and pain, from doubt and fear, from sin and death.

How ironic is that?  Your Lord and your God is this Man of flesh and blood like your own, with evidently open wounds in His hands and feet and side.  That is what God’s Body is like.  For He has made Himself like you.  Not only flesh and blood, but wounded, as you are, by your sins and by your death.  As Thomas was, and as all your neighbors are, some of them in ways you can see, and others in ways that you may never know, or that you will only perceive by listening carefully.

Consider what that means!  In your wounded, weak, and weary neighbors, you are given to see your dear Lord Jesus Christ.  And, yes, you are given to care for His Body by caring for your neighbors.  So closely has He identified Himself with fallen man and joined Himself to fallen man.  So closely has He identified Himself with you and joined Himself to you.  No sooner should you be ashamed or afraid to reach out your hand to your wounded neighbor, to your hurting brother or sister, to your friend or foe in need, than to reach out your hand for the Holy Sacrament.

For all of that, you are not the Savior of His Body.  Neither was St. Thomas, nor were any of the Holy Apostles.  It is rather His Body that saves you and all of His disciples.  It is to His disciples that He gives His Body; and, as you eat, so you are.  As you drink His Blood, so do you have His Life and His Spirit in you, and the power of His Resurrection.  The wounds that He received upon His Cross have enabled you to enter into His Body by way of Holy Baptism, even as they now enable you to receive and to rest in His Body here at His Altar.  So it is that you are a member of His Body, the Church.  You belong to Him, and to one another in Him, and He belongs to you.

His Crucifixion embraces the wounded — all of them, everywhere, whatever their own wounds might be.  So His Crucifixion also fully embraces your woundedness, whatever it is.  He stretches forth His arms and He reaches out His hands to gather to Himself all the fractured and fragmented children of men, and by His grace He brings them into the fellowship of His own wounded Body.

He retains His wounds, even in His glorious Resurrection from the dead, in order to gather such disciples to Himself from all the nations, even to the close of the age.  So does He remain with you, a merciful and great High Priest, all the while you bear the Cross in this life, even unto death.

Yet, it is this wounded Lord who has been raised from the dead, never to die again.  This Lamb who has been slain is alive forevermore.  In His Body of flesh and blood, the curse of sin has been undone, death has been defeated, and Satan has been crushed along with all of his accusations.

Which is why the gathering of the disciples of Jesus is far more than a pity party or misery loving company.  It is a holy communion of men and women, boys and girls, united to one another within the one Body of Christ Jesus.  You are knitted and joined together by Him who is your Head.  Therefore, you share His life, and you live in Him, and together you are growing and maturing into the fullness of the stature that belongs to Christ.  You serve and support one another in and with His Love, and the whole Body is built up through mutual repentance and forgiveness.  Not by your own reason or strength, but by the apostolic ministry of the Gospel, by the apostolic doctrine of the Word of Christ, and by the apostolic fellowship of the Lord’s Altar.

Within this Body of Christ you share both His Cross and His Resurrection, and you are preserved by the power of His indestructible Life.  The wounded Body of Christ is risen from the dead, alive and glorified forever, and that is also true of you and your body and life in Him.  For as surely as the Body and Blood of Christ are given and poured out for you to eat and to drink, so surely shall your own body of flesh and blood be raised from the dead to life everlasting with the Holy Trinity.

Therefore, do not be afraid.  This Altar of the Lord is your Peace and Sabbath Rest, and here His Peace is with you, as He Himself is with you in body and soul.  So does He abide with you, and so shall you abide with Him forevermore in the never ending Eighth Day of His Resurrection.

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

14 December 2016

Living with Santa Lucia in the Light of Christ

Santa Lucia — St. Lucy — is an Italian saint, a martyr of the early fourth century.  She was put to death during the time of persecution under the Emperor Diocletian.  She has been especially well loved by Scandinavian Lutherans, perhaps because an emphasis on Light in the commemoration of St. Lucy is appreciated and welcome in those darker parts of the world.

There are a lot of traditions and legends concerning Santa Lucia, most of which could not possibly be true.  It does seem that she was a young girl, the daughter of a wealthy nobleman, whose father had died and whose mother may have been ill for a time.  In order to provide for her needs and for her future, Lucia was betrothed to a pagan.

St. Lucy, however, preferred not to be joined in marriage to an unbeliever.  Instead, she determined to give her dowry as alms for the poor.  Her mother protested that, even if she did not want to get married, at least the dowry would provide for her life on earth, and it could always be given to the Church later.  But Lucy insisted that it was better to do good and to serve the Lord in His people.

When her pagan fiancé learned that Lucy had found a better and more beloved Bridegroom in Christ Jesus, that she was not going to marry him after all, and that she was spending her dowry on the poor and needy, he turned her over to the authorities and accused her of being a Christian.  Which, of course, she was.  And in those days, that was a crime punishable by death.

The governor ordered Lucy to offer incense and sacrifice to the pagan gods, but she refused.  Her heart and her life belonged to Christ.  The governor threatened to have her hauled off to a brothel, and that her purity would be taken from her there.  She replied that, if they forced her hand to offer sacrifice and incense against her will, it would be their idolatry, not hers; and if they ravaged her body against her will, her purity and chastity would remain, while they would be guilty of a crime.

When the governor was finally fed up with this stubborn young woman, he sentenced her to die.

So how can Santa Lucia serve as an example for you?  Our Lutheran Confessions commend the remembrance of the saints because we are able to learn from their example and are encouraged in our own vocations and stations in life.  So what should you learn from the example of this young virgin martyr, who declined to be married and gave up her dowry to the poor?

If all Christians honored St. Lucy by following exactly in her path, then there would eventually be no more Christians.  But it is not to despise or forsake holy marriage that we remember her today.

Relatively few people are called to the vocation of celibacy, called to remain virgins dedicated to the Lord, committed with their whole heart, mind, body, and life to serving Christ, His Church on earth, and His people, without the comforts and benefits of a spouse and family.  There are those who are eunuchs for the Kingdom of God, our Lord Jesus says.  But they are few and far between.

Now, then, you have heard the Word of St. Paul the Apostle this evening.  Though what he says concerning virgins is not a command from the Lord, it is his apostolic counsel and advice, which we gladly receive from him as from one who is trustworthy and has the Spirit of God.

St. Paul cautions that marriage and family involve troubles and difficulties in this perishing world.  In contrast, he points to the benefits of celibacy, to the unmarried life, because of the opportunity and freedom that such a life allows for serving the Church and for serving the neighbor.  Even so,  he acknowledges that celibacy requires a special grace and dispensation of God, if one is going to attempt a celibate life and persevere within it without falling into sins of heart, mind, and flesh.

It is simply not possible to live a chaste and decent life outside of marriage without the special gift of God.  Therefore, so long as you are neither married nor given in marriage, rely upon the grace of God and on His Word to live a sexually pure and honorable life in all that you say and do.

Sadly, there is a perverse kind of “celibacy” in our world today.  That is to say, marriage is often despised, avoided, or delayed until a person has achieved his or her own self-chosen ambitions.  Yet, all the while, there is no longer even a pretense of chastity within our society.  All manner of sexual depravity is not only permitted, but tolerated, viewed as normal, and even celebrated.

On all sides, your eyes and ears are bombarded with ideas and images that should not even be mentioned.  Such things belong to the darkness of this present age.  It is a darkness that threatens to engulf you, as well.  A darkness that can frighten and dismay you, or else entice and snare you, so that your own heart and mind are darkened by it.

Sexual sins strike at the very core of your being as a creature of God.  They cut to the very heart of both your body and your soul.  Left unchecked, sexual sins will grow in strength and power.  They are a kind of spiritual, psychological, and physiological addiction by which many people are ensnared and badly hurt.  Often their lives are ruined, along with the lives of those around them.

Resist such temptations and flee from them.  Discipline your flesh and spirit, your body and soul.  Do not give yourself everything you want, whether it be excessive food and drink, entertainment, hobbies, pastimes, or whatever sort of pleasures you covet and crave and worship as your idols.

Discipline yourself.  Avert your eyes from sexual temptations and provocative immodesty.  Turn your attention instead to serving the people God has placed alongside you.  Work hard at your job.  Focus on what you are called to do.  Exercise your faith and love against covetous lust and greed, by occupying yourself with God’s Word and prayer, and by laying down your life in service.

To be sure, by no amount of effort will you save yourself, no more than Santa Lucia or any of the saints could rely upon their own righteousness to save themselves. You will not preserve your body and life, your chastity and purity, by the strength of your own determination.  Make the effort, yes, and steer yourself away from what is dark and evil to what is good and right.  Only do not rely on yourself.  Nor despise the body God has given you, which is His good creation.  But find your hope and life in the Light of Christ, which shines for you in the midst of deep darkness.

As already mentioned, Santa Lucia is commemorated with an emphasis on that Light of Christ.  For He rises like the sun and shines upon you by His Gospel, His forgiveness of your sins.  That is what saves you.  That is what snatches you out of the darkness.  That is what preserves your life.

It is by His forgiveness that you are rescued from your enemies, from your own sinful flesh, from the devil and the world.  It is by the forgiveness of Christ that you are delivered from the darkness of sin, death, and hell.  And it is by His forgiveness that you are cleansed and chaste, because you are clothed by Christ and His Righteousness, and your shame is fully covered by His holiness.

By this Light of the Gospel of Christ Jesus you live and work in this world at peace with God, and at peace with your neighbor.  Whether you are married or unmarried; whether you have children or none; whether you are orphaned or widowed — whatever your calling and station in life, you live by the peace of Christ, which is yours by faith in His free and full forgiveness of your sins.

If you are a Christian, then God is your Father, who has named you with His Word by His grace.  You are not an orphan, but a beloved and well-pleasing child of God in Christ Jesus.  And Christ is your Bridegroom, now and forever, to whom you have been given, and to whom you belong.

Whether or not you are joined to a husband or wife here on earth, you have been joined to Christ in the waters of your Holy Baptism, and you are knit together with Him as one flesh in the Holy Communion of His Body and His Blood.  Thus are your body and life redeemed and sanctified in His Body.  You live and die with Him who is your Savior and your Head.  And you confess Him with all of your words and actions as you go about your days and fulfill your duties here on earth.

In marriage, you confess Christ and His Bride by how you relate to your spouse.  You husbands, love your wives as Christ loves you and His whole Church; and you wives, submit to your own husbands in the fear and faith of God, for Christ Jesus’ sake.  That life of holy marriage is where most of you either live already or will live in the future.  It is a high and holy calling, by which you and your children and your neighbors in the world are given to learn of Christ and His Church.

By contrast, it is very possible that some of you may be called to live the unmarried life, perhaps not by your own decision or desire, but because the Lord so chooses and calls you in His mercy.  And if so — whether you are not yet married, or you are widowed, or you are called to a lifelong vocation of celibacy — you also confess Christ and His Bride, but in a different way than your married brothers and sisters.  You live faithfully unto Christ alone, your heavenly Bridegroom, as a member of His Church.  And as such, you confess that the form of this present world is passing away; that your attachments, your hope, your life, and your future are not found here on earth.

Times of persecution — such as St. Paul describes, and as when St. Lucy lived and died — teach much the same thing, that you might fix your hope on Christ.  When you know that your life may end at any moment; when you know that everything may quickly be taken away from you; when you know that your life is lived under the Cross — then you are prompted to cling to Christ Jesus alone, and you are far less inclined to rely upon the fleeting occupations of this perishing world.

Even when persecution is not so overt or obvious, it is still the case that every vocation, including both marriage and celibacy, bear the Cross and suffer temptations of heart, mind, body, and soul.  First of all, because this is a fallen world.  And because you are still a sinner, living in the midst of sinners.  And because your glory as a Christian is found, not in the escape of suffering, but in sharing the sufferings of Christ.  Suffering persecution sometimes, but also suffering the burden of care for your neighbors.  And suffering temptation within yourself, which you resist and fight by the work of the Holy Spirit, by the Word of Christ, by confession and Absolution.

Find your life in that Light of Christ.  It shines upon you with His Love in His Word of the Gospel, which He causes to be preached and spoken to you within His Church on earth.  And know that His Word is true.  It does what it says.  Your sins are forgiven.  They are not counted against you.

Where you are burdened and hard pressed, where you are weary and warn down by the cares of this life, and where you are pressured to conform to the wickedness of this world, take heart.  The Light of Christ continues to shine upon you, even in this present darkness.  Not only are your sins forgiven, but so are you raised up from the darkness of death to the Life and Light of Christ Jesus.

That sure and certain hope of the Resurrection is the hope in which Santa Lucia and all of the holy martyrs lived and died.  And that same sure and certain hope of the Resurrection is also yours, in which you also go about your life and serve your vocations in this world.  The promise of the Resurrection makes all the difference, as the example of St. Lucy teaches and encourages you.

You live not for this present age, but in the hope and promise of the age to come in the crucified and risen Body of Christ Jesus, your Savior.  Thus do you serve your station in life, whatever it may be, in love for God and for you neighbor, for however long you are given to live on earth.  And then you depart this mortal life in peace, whether quietly in your bed or on the battlefield.

For now, if you are free of the burdens and responsibilities of parents, spouse, and children, use your freedom to shine the Light of Christ upon His Church and upon your neighbors.  And if you are called to care for a husband or wife, for children or parents, do so in the joy and peace and confidence of the Gospel.  In every case, you belong to the household and family of God.

Though Santa Lucia lost her father and mother, and had no husband or children of her own, she belongs to that same household and family of God, and we remember her as our courageous sister in Christ Jesus.  Nothing has been lost, and no good thing is lacking to her or to any of us in Him.

Your Father in heaven has named you and made you His own dear child.  And your divine, eternal Bridegroom, Jesus Christ, has taken you to be His own dearly beloved.  He has wed you to Himself forever and ever.  Not even death shall be able to separate you from Him.  For all of your sins are forgiven by the Gospel of His Cross, and you are chaste and pure and holy in His Resurrection.

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

11 December 2016

Rejoice in the Lord at All Times and in All Circumstances

The Season of Advent awaits and anticipates the coming of Christ Jesus, whose Way St. John the Baptist prepares, calling sinners to repentance that they might escape the wrath to be revealed when the same Lord Jesus comes in Glory for the final Judgment.  It is a penitential time of patient perseverance in the confidence of the Cross and in the hope and promise of the Resurrection.

Advent prepares you to receive the coming Christ, now as then, by the preaching of the Law and the Gospel unto repentance and faith in the forgiveness of sins.  Such preaching returns you to the significance of your Holy Baptism.  It teaches you to confess your sins and to seek the Word of Holy Absolution.  And it leads you to the Body and Blood of the Lamb who saves you at His Altar.

Because He comes to save you, here and now, by the preaching of His Word and by His means of grace, your Advent repentance is not without rejoicing.  Especially this Third Sunday in Advent calls you to rejoice in the Lord, because He is at hand with His mercy and His great Salvation.

It is for the sake of this rejoicing that our Advent candle for this Sunday is rose-colored instead of purple.  It signifies that true Light that was coming into the world, like the rose-colored hews of an early morning sunrise.  It would have you look at life through the rose-colored glasses of faith, that you should remember the Incarnation of your Lord, receive His Body born of Mary and His Blood poured out for you from the Cross, and rejoice in the expectation of His glorious coming.

All of which is fine and good.  And of course, you might say, as Christians we rejoice in Christ.  Then again, you may not feel like rejoicing this morning or at many others times, especially in view of your own sins and the sins of others against you, and given the consequences of sin that dog you all year long and really never do let up in this mortal life.  The so-called holidays can be some of the most depressing and difficult days, because they aggravate your envy and jealousy of others, and they make all the more painful your loneliness and the absence of those you have lost.  So many expectations, as to what you must do to get ready for Christmas, it’s a struggle to rejoice when you’re stressed out and wondering how on earth you are going to meet all your expenses.

Despite the faith and life to which the Lord has called you by His Gospel, and notwithstanding your confession of His Word, there are days when He seems so far away, and you may wonder if your faith has been too optimistic.  Does Jesus really care?  Does He even know your name?  Or has He just given up on you and written you off altogether on account of your sins and failings?

Perhaps you would compare yourself to poor St. John the Baptist, imprisoned by King Herod, no doubt wondering what’s going to happen next, and probably tempted to question the glorious promises of God.  For there he sits, the Forerunner of the Lord Himself, but left to rot in prison; left to rot, that is, until his head will finally be removed by order of the king.  How about that?

As he waited in prison for death, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the Expected One, the Christ who is to come, or should we be watching and waiting for Another?”

Of course, St. John the Baptist knew that Jesus is the Christ, the Lord’s Anointed.  For even though Jesus, the Son of God, always possesses the Holy Spirit, He also received a special anointing of the Spirit at His Baptism by St. John in the Jordan, the inauguration of His own Ministry on earth.  The Holy Spirit came upon Him as a dove, and the Father declared Him to be His beloved Son.

St. John knew that Jesus is the Christ, because he had seen the Lord anointed with the Holy Spirit.  It was part of his own preaching to others, even as he pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  But for all of that, St. John also needed to hear the preaching of the Gospel for himself.  He needed Christ Jesus to set him free — not from Herod’s prison, nor even from his executioner — but from the dungeon of his own sin and its deadly consequences.

What are your expectations of the Lord Jesus Christ?  What are you watching for and waiting to receive from Him?  Is it rescue and redemption from your sins, from death and the damnation you deserve?  Or would you rather He fulfill your hopes and dreams for this body and life right now?

Bear in mind that the Son of God is not a means to some other end, as though He were coming to give you a leg up on your personal ambitions.  Neither is the salvation He brings a matter of facts in your head or feelings in your heart.  It’s not enough to know this or that about Jesus, and all the warm fuzzies in the world are not going to set you free from death and hell or bring you to God.

Like St. John, what you need is the Word of Christ Jesus: The Word that He speaks into your ears, into your heart, mind, and body.  The Word that forgives your sins, and gives you life, and fills you up with Christ and His Spirit, even in the midst of the most dire and desperate of circumstances.

That is what He does and gives by the preaching of His Word, beginning with St. John himself, the Forerunner of Christ who was sent to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in His Name.

And now in this case, in this Holy Gospel, the same Lord Jesus Christ does the same thing and provides the same help and comfort for His servant, St. John.  He preaches His Word to His preacher of repentance, that John be delivered from all doubts and fears and rejoice in the Lord.

As great as St. John was, and as much as he suffered for his faithfulness, even unto death, it is not John but Jesus Christ who gives to you divine, eternal Life in place of your death and damnation.  He is the almighty and eternal Son of the Living God, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who became flesh of your flesh and blood of your blood, conceived and born of the Woman; who then also made Himself least in the Kingdom of Heaven, so that He suffered and died in the stead and for the sake of sinners — for John the Baptist, for you, and for all people.  So it is not by your keeping of the Law, but by His, and not by your repentance, but by His Cross and Resurrection, that Christ Jesus has first of all obtained and now bestows the free forgiveness of all your sins.

He proceeds in every case by sending His messenger before His face to prepare His Way by the preaching of His Word with His own Voice, and to work His works of repentance and faith with His own authority: Isaiah the Prophet, and John the Baptist, who is more than a Prophet because he ushers in the Christ.  Then, in the footsteps of Christ Jesus come His Holy Apostles, who speak and act for Him as the shepherds of His Church on earth, and following after them, the pastors who feed and care for His lambs and sheep with His Holy Word and with His Holy Sacraments.

It is by this ongoing Ministry of His Gospel in every age that He brings forth streams of water in the desert and prospers His Church with milk and honey, bread and wine, and every good thing.

Even so, as beautiful and wonderful as this providence and promise of the Gospel is — that the Holy Triune God should send to you, as to His Church in every time and place, His messengers to speak with His Voice and to preach good news in answer to your every need — the fact is that your circumstances may not improve in this life.  They might just go from bad to even worse!

To frail flesh and blood there is an evident contradiction between the promises of God and your actual experience in the world; between the hope of the Resurrection and the present reality of the Cross that you bear and carry in this vale of tears.  It is especially hard when the wicked prevail and appear so powerful on earth, whereas the righteous of the Lord suffer and perish on the way.

Consider, for example, that St. John remained in the captivity of his prison until he was beheaded.  So, too, in this life, no matter how much you may receive and trust the Gospel — the forgiveness of your sins and the free gift of eternal life in Christ — you may yet suffer all manner of difficulties and atrocities, as do many of your fellow Christians throughout the world.  Sometimes you bear the temporal consequences of your own sins, that you should be disciplined in love by your dear Father and called to repentance by His Spirit.  But you are also given to bear and carry the Cross as a disciple of Christ Jesus, who was born of the Virgin Mary to suffer under Pontius Pilate.

It’s all too easy to be scandalized by this sort of Christ, who comes in such lowly meekness and humility, born in a stable, living homeless, riding on a donkey, and then condemned and put to death on the Cross.  Not exactly impressive credentials.  And His followers and supporters fare about as badly, beginning with St. John the Baptist, who was more than a Prophet and the greatest of those born of women, but who finishes his days on earth in Herod’s dungeon.  One might well expect more and better from the Savior of the world.  It’s no surprise that even John wondered and chose to ask:  Are You the One, Jesus, or not?  And, if so, where are You now when I need You?

It is only by the grace and blessing of God, by His Word and Holy Spirit, that you are not offended by Christ and His Cross, by His messengers and means of grace, and by the way that He rules and governs the Kingdom of His Church in this world, that is, in lowliness, meekness, and humility.  And it is only by the grace and blessing of Christ the Crucified — by the preaching of His Word, and by the administration of His Body and His Blood in remembrance of Him — that you believe and trust His promises, even while you sit and wait in your own dungeon for the final axe to fall.

Now take this to heart: Your God-given confidence in Christ, which is not offended by His Cross or scandalized by His Gospel, will not by any means be disappointed.  The suffering and death of His Cross is not the last and final Word for Him or you, but it is the end of sin, death, and the devil.  For by the Cross of Christ sin is forgiven, death is destroyed, and the devil’s kingdom is routed.

Satan still rages and taunts, he hinders and afflicts, not least of all through tyrants like Herod, but all to no avail.  Actually, the Lord your God uses even the devil’s wickedness, against the devil’s will, to call you and others to repentance and to drive you back to the Cross.  And as always, that old dragon, the devil or Satan, is defeated by the Cross.  Your salvation is made certain in Christ Jesus, who preaches the victory of His Cross and the righteousness of His Resurrection to you.

It is this profound privilege that I am given as your pastor, that is, to preach and teach the Word of Christ into your ears, knowing that His Word alone is steadfast, eternal, unchanging, and true.

I am sent to you — as St. John the Baptist was sent — to call you to repent and to forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Lord.  I am sent to announce and proclaim the presence of Christ and His Kingdom, here and now among you, in the very Word that I preach to you by His authority, and in His flesh and blood, given and poured out for you to eat and to drink unto the resurrection of your body and the life everlasting of your body and soul.

I do not speak and act for myself.  But with the Voice of Jesus — by virtue of my Office as a called and ordained servant of His Word — I declare to you that He is the Christ who is coming.  That blind unbelief is here replaced by the sight of holy faith.  That deaf ears are opened to hear the Word of God.  That the leprosy of your sin is cleansed by the waters of Holy Baptism.  That death has been destroyed by the death of Christ, and those who were dead in their trespasses and sin are raised up with Him by His Holy Absolution.  That for two-thousand-plus years the Gospel has never failed to be preached to the joy and edifying of Christ’s holy people, and so also to you and to your children, and to your children’s children.

So, then, while weeping and sadness remain for a night, rejoicing will yet come in the morning.

Rejoice, therefore!  Rejoice in the Lord at all times and in all circumstances.  Again I will say it, Rejoice!  Your own dear Lord is at hand.  He is a very present Help in times of trouble.  Be anxious for nothing, for He is faithful and just.  He will never leave you or forsake you.  And the Peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus.

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