31 December 2011

Entering the Eternal Eighth Day by the Name & Circumcision of Jesus

Some days are longer than others; but that can mean very different things. Most of us prefer the long sunny days of summer to the short dark days of winter. But when we talk about a “long day,” we usually mean one that has been difficult and tedious. Such “long days,” when they pile up, become long weeks, long months, and sometimes long hard years.

There is, however, yet another Day, which actually goes on forever: one that is not “long,” but eternal. Not difficult, tedious or painful, but full of light and life and love and peace. A Day that never ends, in which there is no more night, nor darkness anymore; nor hurt, nor fear, nor sadness.

Your days on earth can be long and hard, and often are, because they are burdened by sin and death. Since everything is dying, and there are limited hours of daylight, there is a constant battle to grow and gather food while you can, and to shore up life against the encroaching night.

But now, the Circumcision of our Lord Jesus points you to the Eighth Day: not the beginning of another week, another month, or another year, but the never-ending Day beyond all blood, sweat and tears. The eternal Day of life with God in the New Creation of the Lord’s Resurrection. The dawning of the new heavens and the new earth, in which there is no more night; no more darkness or death. The Day that doesn’t require any alarm clocks or time clocks, or watches or schedules, because work is no more cursed by sin, nor is it a battle to the death, but work and play alike are simply part of living the Life that is yours by the grace of God in Christ Jesus.

Because He, Christ Jesus, has redeemed and sanctified all of creation — and man, in particular — by His becoming flesh of our flesh, by His innocent death and holy bloodshed. And, behold, all things are made brand new in His risen Body. For He has taken your flesh to be His own, and He has taken your sin and death upon Himself, to bear it in His Body to the Cross. So, then, in His Resurrection from the dead, your sin and death are left behind, and He enters heaven in your flesh.

As He has thus entered upon the eternal Eighth Day on your behalf, by His Cross & Resurrection, so have you entered upon that Eighth Day by your Baptism into Him (into His dying and rising).

In his Epistle to the Colossians, St. Paul describes that Holy Baptism as a “circumcision made without hands.” In doing so, he identifies your connection to the Circumcision of Jesus, and to the fulfillment of the Covenant of Circumcision that the Lord God made with Abraham and his Seed.

Circumcision was both the Law and the Gospel for Abraham and his heirs. It was commanded and required, and there were serious consequences for males who were not circumcised: without this cutting of the flesh, they were cut off from the communion of Israel. But circumcision itself was indeed a cutting. It was painful and bloody. For adult men, it was debilitating for several days.

Yet, however odd or embarrassing it might be, circumcision was God’s Covenant with Abraham, and a promise that was given to father Abraham and all his children. Not the cutting in and of itself, but the cutting included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word. Thus, it was a divine promise signed and sealed in the very flesh of the Patriarch and his sons. For the Seed of Abraham would inherit the earth, and in that Seed of Abraham all the nations would be blessed; for in Him, Abraham would become the father of many nations, according to the promise of God.

Now that Covenant and its promise have been fulfilled in Christ Jesus. In submitting to the Law of Circumcision, He has taken the burden of the entire Law of God upon Himself, as well as the curse and consequences of sin and death. So has He also received the inheritance of Abraham, that is, the blessing promised to his Seed forever. For the Son of Mary, Jesus, is the Seed of Abraham. His holy Body is of the flesh and blood of Abraham, and in that Body of His, in His own flesh, He bears — and bears away — all the sin and death of all mankind.

His Circumcision signifies all of these things, and so does it mark His Body for all of these things.

So does the Name that He is given signify and mark His identity and His vocation as the promised Seed — of Abraham, of Judah and David, of the Woman Eve, and of the Blessed Virgin, St. Mary.

To be named “Jesus” is to be called the Son of the Most High. Indeed, it is to be the true God, Yahweh, in the flesh, who saves His people from their sins. For He is Immanuel, God with us. He is the Everlasting Father, the Patriarch of a new Israel, who surpasses even the great father Abraham. He is the true Prince of Peace, surpassing even the great kings David and Solomon.

He is the Joshua, named by God, who truly fulfills what the Lord promised through Moses, but which Moses himself could not do or accomplish.

The Law was a custodian and a tutor, leading the people out of Egypt, by the staff of Moses, through the Red Sea and the wilderness, to and from Mt. Sinai, to the border of the promised land.

But now this Joshua has come, who goes ahead of the people into the waters of the Jordan River; and He brings them, one and all, into Canaan, into the good land, flowing with milk and honey.

That is what this little Lord Jesus has done for you, and for all, by receiving Circumcision in His flesh, and by receiving the Name with which His God and Father has named Him from heaven.

He has gone the full distance — from the waters of His Baptism in the Jordan River (such as we shall hear and celebrate next Sunday), even unto His death upon the Cross. And so also, in His Resurrection from the dead, you are brought into the true and everlasting Promised Land, which God swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and to all who share the faith of Abraham.

He brings you into that good land through the waters of your Baptism: not as a slave or a captive, but as a beloved son — a son of Abraham by faith, but so also a son of God in Christ Jesus.

Whether you are male or female, young or old, rich or poor, Jewish or Gentile, employed or un-employed, a student or retired, still very young, or already very old — you, dear Christian, are a son of God in Christ, by virtue of your Baptism into Him.

For by your Baptism into Christ Jesus, His Circumcision and all that it signified avails for you, for the removal of sin and death from your flesh and blood, from your heart and mind, body and soul; and for your resurrection to newness of life, as a new creature living in the New Creation.

So, too, your Baptism has also named you with the Name of Jesus. Not that each and all of you are called “Joshua.” (How confusing would that be!?) But that everything the Name of Jesus testifies concerning Him, is now yours. That you are saved by Him, who is your own true God; and that you are His very own dear child. That He is your Father forever, and your true King, whose reign is one of peace and love, of joy and gladness.

With His Name, which He has invoked on you and given to you, He binds Himself to you and blesses you. He has done this for you in your Holy Baptism, and that is permanent. But so does He do it, daily, and throughout your life on earth (unto the life everlasting), by the speaking of His Word, by the preaching of His Gospel, by His absolving of your sins, and by the giving of Himself to you, the Word-made-Flesh, for you to eat and drink.

As a father first begets a child, and a mother once gives birth, but then both parents continue to “name” their children with loving care for them, by teaching them, by conversations with them, by forgiving them, by praying and confessing the Word of God with them (and for them). Each time a father calls his child by name, by the name that he has given, he calls that child his own.

So does the Lord continue to name you, by the speaking of His Word; and with that Word He blesses you with the gift of His Spirit, who is life and health, and peace and strength, and love.

Naming you with His Name, by His Word, He guards and keeps you in body and soul; in this life, yes, but also for the life everlasting — for the eternal Eighth Day of life with Himself in heaven. For with His Name, He claims you as His own, and He identifies you with Himself, as His own beloved child and heir. He is gracious toward you, compassionate and patient, because He loves you. He delights in you. He smiles upon you, and His countenance is bright with joy over you.

As you are named with the Name of Christ Jesus, anointed by His Spirit as a Christian, the Lord your God, your dear Father in heaven, is pleased with you and proud of you. He is not angry or unhappy with you; far from it. He reigns over you with grace and mercy and never-ending love.

That is your peace, through Jesus, your Savior. It is solid, sure and certain in His Body, in His flesh and blood, in His already-accomplished and completed-once-for-all Cross and Resurrection.

And this is already yours, here and now; as Christ is yours, even now, in your Baptism (which has left its indelible mark on you), and in this preaching of the Gospel, and in this Holy Communion.

By this grace of God in the Gospel, by this flesh and blood of Jesus, you already live and abide with Him in the eternal Eighth Day. It is not a long hard day, but a brilliant and beautiful Day of light and life and love.

For now, it is by faith, and not by sight. There are still days and nights, some longer than others. But the Eighth Day has already dawned for you, and for all, in the Incarnation of the Son of God, and in His bodily Resurrection from the dead. So shall you also rise, and live forever in body and soul, immortal, imperishable, and glorious, like Jesus.

Then shall there be no more days and nights, no more weeks and months and years, but only one great and glorious Day, and only the Light of Christ Jesus, your Savior, shining upon you forever.

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

28 December 2011

Called unto God by the Cross of Christ

Despite its familiarity, the story of the Holy Innocents still has the power to shock and even scandalize. It assaults your sensibilities, your convictions of right and wrong, your knowledge of good and evil. It can certainly threaten your safety and security, and scare you, with the sort of things that give a parent nightmares.

Some things are sacred, surely, and ought to be left that way. Taking candy from a baby is the proverbial dirty trick, easy enough, but taking the baby from his mother is wicked. Even the world recoils at such horror, despite its own daily slaughter of the innocents. The whole country reeled at the news out of Penn State last month — horrible indeed — and today our own local paper describes the murder of a little girl who had been left in the care of a trusted family friend.

Such things are shocking and scary. They wake you up from your reverie, not only to righteous anger, but to repentance for your own sins, to cry out for mercy, forgiveness, deliverance and peace, from your God and Father. For you are His own dear child, and He is your only refuge.

But that is the very point at which the story of the Holy Innocents is most difficult and unsettling. Because it seems so backwards, and so wrong. As awful as King Herod and his actions are, you’re accustomed to the depravity of such tyrants. The Holy Scriptures and the history of the world are full of this kind of thing. What isn’t so normal or customary is the way the Lord responds and deals with the tyrant and his treachery in this case.

It is pivotal to the whole story of salvation, the very heart of the Gospel, that God gives His own dear Son to suffer and die in the place of fallen Adam and all the children of men. The Woman’s Seed is born to crush the serpent’s head. The Lamb of God is given as the Sacrifice, so that Abraham’s beloved Isaac is spared. The Passover is given so that the sons of Israel are not killed by the angel of death. The Son of David dies for His father’s sins. The little Lord Jesus is born to give His life as a Ransom for the many, in order to redeem the world.

Only, not this time. In this story, the little children are cruelly put to death, while Jesus gets away. It’s not just that people die — people die all the time. Pharaoh had how many babies killed before Moses grew up and came back to lead Israel out of Egypt? Christian martyrs still suffer and die, to this day, for the One who for their sake died and was raised. But the baby boys of Bethlehem get slaughtered so that Mary’s little Lamb can escape.

So, what has become of the Gospel? What is the point? Could the Lord not have dealt with this situation in some other way? Either without all the bloodshed, or by the shedding of the Christ Child’s Blood: the very purpose for which He is born!

Such thoughts and questions are almost inescapable in dealing with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Just as the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem could hardly help but wonder what was going on. Where was their God, while their babies were being murdered? Where was their Savior? Running away to Egypt? Seriously? Where is the future and the hope in that? Why should Rachel not weep and mourn for her children, who are no more?

Of course, you know the rest of the story, and, yes, it all makes sense in retrospect. With 20/20 hindsight you recognize that God surely has not spared His beloved Son, but has given Him up for us all. And we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, not to make light of their death, but to honor their martyrdom and to give thanks for their life and salvation. For Christ Jesus is their Savior and Redeemer, as He is also your Savior and Redeemer, and your children’s.

In the meantime, though, you are in the midst of living your own story, and you don’t yet know the rest of it. You know and confess the Resurrection and the Life everlasting, but you don’t know what will happen between now and then. You don’t know what tomorrow will hold, nor even what the middle of this very night may bring. Sometimes it all feels solid and sure, and then again, just like that, it can all be shaken to the core and leave you reeling.

Who are the soldiers that come crashing into your home in the dead of the night? The shrill ringing of the phone at an hour when you know it can’t be good. The urgent warning of your smoke alarms. The shattering of glass in your child’s room, or some other crash or cry in the dark. The blare of sirens racing past your home. Or maybe just the racing of your own heart.

What is it that snatches your babies from your arms? A miscarriage or stillbirth? A childhood illness or accident? Or maybe they don’t die, but they simply grow up and grow away from you. They have thoughts and ideas, hopes and dreams, interests and passions of their own — different from yours — and so you begin to recognize and feel the distance between yourself and your children. They make friends, they fall in love, they get married and have their own families. Or they go off to college and get jobs, and you’ve lost the babies they once were, no matter how desperately you try to cling to those bygone days and memories.

If you are still a little child, yourself, or still in the process of growing up, what is it that threatens you? What is it that tugs and pulls you away from your parents? What takes them away from you? Are you worried about your Mom and Dad, because they aren’t getting along so well, and you wonder if they’re going to get a divorce? Are you scared because they always seem to be so stressed about money, and it sounds like things might get pretty hard? But you’re too young, or too small, and there doesn’t seem to be anything you can do to help. What kinds of monsters are there in your closet, or under your bed?

You never know when Herod is going to get angry and strike. And then what? Where will you turn, and what will you do? If he takes and destroys what is most precious to you, how shall you go on? Or will you refuse to be comforted and succumb to despair? Will you abandon all hope? Will you harden your heart and become bitter, resentful, and angry, yourself?

Herod was enraged because he was afraid. He lashed out, not with true strength or power, but with violence born of desperation. To hurt and destroy those who are small and weak — to threaten or bully the helpless — that is not courageous, but cowardly. Herod was paranoid and terrified; he got so very angry, because he was so very afraid of losing his place and his position in the world. He murdered his neighbor in order to protect himself, in order to keep what he thought was his.

Do not allow your own fear to control you in that way. Rather, fear the Lord, and repent of both your hot temper and your inconsolable grief. You will not be able to protect or save yourself, in any case; but you do have a Savior who will save you. You are not in control, but neither is Herod. None of the tyrants of this world will have the last word. Their violence and destruction are wicked and devastating, but all of that will come to nothing in the end. For the Lord has set His true King upon His holy hill of Zion, and He shall reign forever and ever.

His almighty power has been perfected in His own voluntary weakness, and it is demonstrated chiefly in His compassion for you, in His tender mercy and loving-kindness. He has and shows true strength in His Self-sacrifice, in His Self-giving, in His love for those at enmity with Him, in His forgiveness of those who sin against Him.

The Father, in love, has handed over His Son — even unto death upon the Cross. He is rescued from Herod’s wrath, because no one takes His life from Him, but He will lay it down willingly when the Hour has come. For the Son submits Himself entirely to His Father’s will, in perfect faith and holy love. He makes Himself small and weak, not only becoming a little creature of flesh and blood, but subjecting Himself to the frailties and mortality of fallen man. Already as a newborn Infant at His Mother’s breast, He lives by faith, as you are also called to live.

At all times, and in all places, He commends Himself, His body and soul, into the hands of His Father in heaven. But that also means entrusting Himself to the hands of His father on earth.

It falls upon dear St. Joseph to care and provide for the Christ Child and His Mother Mary. And Joseph sets a good example of faith and love for his wife and her Son, by hearing and heeding the Word of the Lord in quiet obedience.

As Dr. Luther admonishes in his preaching on the Christmas story, we should not romanticize any of these things, nor suppose that Mary and Joseph were made of stone. They were people like you, called by God to faith in His Word, forgiven by His grace through the Gospel, and set upon a path of love, bearing the Cross in the hope of the Resurrection.

Thus are you catechized in faith and love by their godly example.

Fleeing to a foreign country in the middle of the night, with Herod’s hot anger roaring behind you, is hardly a fun family vacation. Living and providing for a wife and child in a strange land is no picnic either. It is Joseph in Egypt all over again. But the Lord was with His Joseph in both cases, and He is with you, too.

You also are a stranger in a strange land, and the Lord would catechize you to live as such. That is to live by faith in Him, to fix your hope on Him, to lift up your heart unto Him, in peace.

So, what does that mean, and what will that look like?

It means that you are never finally “at home” in this world, in this life on earth, and yet you are able to make yourself “at home” wherever the Lord may call you to live and abide for a time. You receive and accept and rely upon His gracious providence, whether it be a stable when there is no room in the inn, or the gifts of strangers from the East when your own ruler is out to kill you and your family, or a safe haven in the land of pagan Pharaohs. Behind each of these masks, you behold the hand of your God and Father. Just as St. Mary and the Baby Jesus saw the hand of God in the care provided by St. Joseph. So do you live by the means that God provides for you.

Yet, while you gladly and gratefully receive His providential care, your hope and trust remain in Him alone, and these do not shift to the good gifts of His creation. You trust and honor and love the Lord in your parents and your spouse; and you trust and honor and love Him still, when you are bereft, orphaned or widowed. You receive all things with thanksgiving, and you sanctify them to yourself, to use and enjoy them, by the Word of God and prayer. But so do you remain content in all circumstances, even when everything is taken away from you. As God remains, and His Christ, though He died, ever lives, so do you live and abide in Him, both now and forever.

That is why you neither despair nor become defensive and angry when your life on earth and all your worldly possessions are threatened.

Not that you have learned this on your own, nor taken any of this to heart by your own cleverness, wisdom, or resolve. You are catechized by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, by His preaching of repentance for the forgiveness of your sins. You are catechized by His Cross, as you are also baptized into His Cross.

Only by the Cross do you follow the Lamb wherever He goes — in and out of Egypt, through death and the grave, into the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting. Only by the Cross do you learn the new song — the song of God and the Lamb — the never-ending song of heaven — which is the song of the Gospel, and of faith in the Gospel. For only by the Cross of Christ are you purchased from the earth and presented to God, blameless before Him. You are bought by the Blood of the Lamb, and bathed in His Blood. How, then, shall your life on earth not be bloody?

You are being crucified and put to death in the world, not only because the world and the devil hate you, but because your God and Father loves you. He does not gladly cause you pain, nor does He rejoice in your death, but He permits such heartache and loss, suffering and death, that you might be His own and live forever in Him. Thereby all falsehood is put to death in you, and all covetousness is put to death in you; all false hope, all anger and despair, all greed and selfishness, and all idolatry is put to death in you. Thus does the Lord work repentance in you by the Cross.

Ironically, one of the most difficult and painful places at which the Cross must work repentance in you, is precisely in those most precious and holy relationships to which the Lord has called you in this life. There is a constant tension between loving your parents and your spouse, as you are given to do, and the temptation to idolize them in the place that belongs only to the Lord your God. To be orphaned or widowed is an exquisite loss, because it brings that tension to a crisis point. Of course you rightly mourn the loss, but you are also called and brought to repentance, lest you despair of all hope and refuse the comfort of Christ Jesus.

In some ways, the challenge is all the greater in the case of your children. Your parents and your spouse are each, in their own way, masks of God for you, in whom you behold your Father in heaven and your heavenly Bridegroom. But if you are a father or mother, yourself, then God has given you His own place for your children. In this you are tempted, not only to make idols of your sons and daughters, but to make a false god of yourself. Thus, when they are lost to you, in one way or the other, it is you who are crucified and put to death by the Cross. You are put to death, that the true God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ may raise you from the dead in Him. Thus does He call you to repentance, to fear, love and trust in Him, through His forgiveness of sins.

What, then, am I saying? That the Lord sacrifices your children in order to spare you and save you? That He slaughtered the Holy Innocents of Bethlehem in order to rescue their parents?

No, that is not quite right. Did the Lord not stay the hand of father Abraham from slaying Isaac? Did He not give Seth in place of Abel? And did He not raise the widow’s son and the daughter of Jairus? He does not willingly grieve the sons of men. Nor is He the Author of death, but life.

Nevertheless, He does bring good out of evil, and He raises life from out of death. He permits the curse and consequences of sin — and by His Law, He increases and exacerbates these things — for the sake of discipline, correction and reproof, catechesis and repentance. He allows the devil his little day, and despots on earth their little reign of terror, that He might strengthen faith, and sanctify His people by the Cross, and finally prove His own faithfulness by raising up His saints.

None of this at your expense, but at the cost of God’s own Son. He has not fled the Cross, but He has fully borne and suffered it for you and for all, for your children, and your children’s children. Even with the flight into Egypt, the Lord Jesus was not spared the Cross. He was taking it upon Himself and bearing it for all the people. All the sins of Adam and Eve and all their children, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of all the sons of Israel, He took upon Himself, in order to atone for everything and to redeem everyone. He gathered up into His own Body and Life, into His own flesh and blood, the whole history of man (from the beginning to the end of the world), in order to obtain a future and a hope for all mankind in His bodily Resurrection from the dead.

That is where the Creed crescendoes: with the Resurrection of the crucified Christ, and with the Resurrection of the body unto the life everlasting for all who believe and are baptized into Him.

That is your future and your hope. That is the country to which your children also are called, to which they are gathered in Christ Jesus. They were created for such life with God in the first place.

The tyranny of sinful men and women is inexcusable, but the Lord does not permit it to thwart His good and gracious will for the salvation of all whom He calls and gathers to Himself in love.

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His holy ones, who are blameless and innocent by the blood of the Lamb. He has not abandoned any one them, but He has brought them into Sabbath Rest, into endless joy and felicity, into eternal Peace.

He does not abandon you, either, who still live and work under the Cross. The life of faith and love is not easier than martyrdom, but neither is undertaken apart from Christ, who loves you. Whether you live or die, you are the Lord’s, and your life remains in and with Him forever and ever. When you mourn, He mourns with you, and just as surely will He turn your mourning into gladness and rejoicing. While you work and suffer, He works and suffers with you, and so shall your work be rewarded in His Resurrection from the dead. For if you are crucified with Him, so do you also rise with Him and live with Him.

You are a stranger in a strange land, on a pilgrimage in a foreign country. But you are not alone. You have not been forgotten, nor shall you be forsaken. Here, now, is Food for your journey. Open your mouth, and be fed. The Lord indeed is with you. And out of Egypt, at the last, He will surely call you, unto the true God who is your own dear Father in Him.

All glory, honor, thanks and praise be unto Him, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is one God, now and forever. Amen.

26 December 2011

The Crown of Life Is Yours in Christ Jesus

There’s a great scene in Walk the Line, the movie about Johnny Cash, in which Waylon Jennings is giving Luther Perkins grief about the way he picks his guitar. “How come you ain’t ever tried this kind of pickin’, Luther?” Perkins plays a bit, rattles off some tasty licks, and then he says, “Well, Waylon, whatever you’re lookin’ for, I’ve already found.”

It’s a great line, and one of my all time favorite scenes; not only because it involves guitars, but because it is so right. There is that kind of confidence and contentment when you know that you already have what you need. St. Paul describes much the same thing when he writes:

“Godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, and neither can we take anything out of it. But if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content . . . because we have fixed our hope on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, but especially of those who believe.”

St. Stephen had that godly contentment, because he had already found what everyone needs and most people are still looking for. He wasn’t searching for the meaning of life, which had already been made known to him by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. He wasn’t confused about his place and purpose in the world, because he knew himself to be a child of God in Christ. He wasn’t nervous or afraid about tomorrow or the next day, because he lived by the grace of his Father.

That explains the striking contrast that we find in the story of Stephen: On the one hand, his fierce and forthright preaching of the Law, and on the other hand, his gracious prayer of forgiveness for those to whom he preached, as they were stoning him to death. He demonstrates the bold courage that characterizes the martyrs of our Lord Jesus, but also the charity and compassion of Christ. He has the strong confidence and passionate conviction, not of harsh anger, but of faith in the Gospel.

In particular, Stephen knew and trusted that he had a dwelling place with God; because God had made His dwelling place with Stephen in Christ Jesus. The holy martyr knew that he would be with Christ, with the Father in heaven, because the same Lord Jesus Christ was with him in his suffering and death. Stephen wasn’t on his own. He wasn’t flying solo. He wasn’t flying without a parachute, nor walking the high wire without a net. He knew that heaven was his home, and that heaven had been fully opened to him by the Cross and Resurrection of the incarnate Son of God.

The Lord has just as surely done the same for you, as well. He has become flesh for you. He has given Himself for you, even unto death. He has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven for you, also. And yet, He also remains with you here, in His Church on earth, in His own flesh and blood, with His own Word and Holy Spirit. Behold, the Tabernacle of God is with you here.

What Moses was shown and what he saw on the Mountain was a Type of that incarnate Lord, Jesus Christ, and the tabernacle that Moses made by God’s direction was according to that holy pattern. It served the people of God in the wilderness as a means of grace, a proclamation of the Gospel, because it pointed to what has now been accomplished and fulfilled in the Son of Mary.

He is the new and better Joshua, who brings God’s people out of the wilderness into the good land that He has promised, defeating all their enemies before them. And He is the new and better David — the Son of David who is greater than Solomon — the true King of Peace, and holy Wisdom — whose own Body is raised and established as the true Temple of God. That is to say, not a house for God to live in, as though He were otherwise homeless, but a House in which you live with God.

In Him, by your Baptism into Him, His God and Father is your God and Father. You bear His own Name and Holy Spirit, because you are born of Him, and you have your life in Him, and you are a member of His family. Your house and home are with Him, safe and secure, now and forever.

For Christ Jesus, the beloved Son, has become your Brother in the flesh, and your Savior from sin, death, the devil, and hell. He is your merciful and great High Priest (in the order of Melchizedek). His sacrificial death is your Atonement and Redemption. His Resurrection from the dead is your reconciliation and your righteousness with God. And His Ascension to the Right Hand of the Father is your own happy homecoming, your peaceful resting place, and your salvation forever.

That is why you can be strong and courageous, as St. Stephen was, in doing your job, in doing and saying forthrightly what is good and right and true; even when it is painfully difficult, woefully unpopular, and poorly received. You fear the Lord, because He alone is your true God and Father, but you need not be afraid of any mortal man. No one can rob you of your life with God in Christ.

Along with such courage and confidence, you are also able to be compassionate, kind, and patient, even when you deal with hurtful and unpleasant people. To be sure, your kind compassion may require the preaching of the Law and the call to repentance, according to your office and vocation. But such a preaching of repentance — as when the Lord persisted in sending the Prophets to His people of old, and in the case of St. Stephen — is neither vindictive nor mean-spirited, but aims at warning the neighbor of danger and calling him back to the Lord.

So, too, when you must warn your neighbor, do so in love — truly to rescue him from danger and lead him to life with yourself — and neither out of anger, defensiveness, fear, or vengeance.

After all, you know that you are safe. Your life is secure. You need not guard yourself so fiercely. God has opened His heaven to you in Christ Jesus, as fully and freely as He did for St. Stephen. Indeed, through your Holy Baptism, you have already died with Christ and entered into life with God in Him. That is how sure and certain your life and your eternal future are, and ever shall be.

Dear child of God, you know that, for Jesus’ sake, your true Father in heaven loves you; that He is pleased with you, and delights in you, regardless of what anyone else may think or say or do. And you know that all of this is solely by His grace and mercy; that He is compassionate, kind, and patient with you; long-suffering, slow to anger, and full of nothing but steadfast love for you.

Therefore, as Christ has given Himself for you, and has given you His own life by the Gospel, and He has become your Righteousness and your Salvation, so is He your Strength and your Song — your confidence and courage, on the one hand; your charity and compassion, on the other.

So it is that you become like Him. Which is also to become like St. Stephen, who was recreated in the Image of God, after the pattern of Christ Jesus, in his own Holy Baptism.

Therefore, you also live (you suffer, and you die) as Stephen did — like Christ — by grace through faith in the Gospel. That is the only power and poise that you will ever need. And it is already yours!

You have the tabernacle of the testimony here in the wilderness, that is to say, the preaching of the Gospel. That is the true wisdom and eloquence of the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus, calling you daily to repentance, unto faith, through the forgiveness of all your sins. It cleanses you and clothes you with the Blood of the Lamb; as in your Holy Baptism, so also in the Holy Communion.

The saints who have gone before you, especially the holy martyrs like St. Stephen, are another kind of “tabernacle of the testimony,” because they have lived in their own flesh and followed by faith the same pattern they were shown in Christ Jesus. And you, in turn, follow the same pattern as a living testimony to your neighbor, so that your neighbor is given to see the Son of Man in you.

Be Thou faithful unto death, and He will give you the crown of life. That was His sure and certain promise to St. Stephen (whose name means “crown”), and His promise to you is no less sure and certain. Indeed, it is already a “bird in the hand,” because your dear Lord Jesus Christ, the very King of heaven, has already crowned you with His own royalty and righteousness by the Gospel. He has crowned you with Himself and with His Glory, having made of you His royal Bride, His Queen. And as He spoke by the Prophet Isaiah, you are a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

You are another Stephen, by virtue of your Baptism into the Cross and Resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And as He did for that holy Stephen, for whom we give thanks and praise to God this day, He also brings you through those waters of your Baptism into the heaven He has opened by His own Baptism. He will bring you through death and the grave into the life everlasting, as even now He brings you through the great tribulation into His own Resurrection and Ascension.

Already you live with Him in God, by grace through faith in His Gospel, because God tabernacles here with you in Him, that is, in His flesh and blood, and in His Word of forgiveness. For that dear Lord Jesus binds together in Himself, forever, both God and Man, both heaven and earth.

Here at His Altar — and so also from this Altar into the world in your vocations, even through the wilderness — you live before the throne of God; you live and abide in His Temple.

Your sins are all forgiven. Forgive those, also, who trespass against you. For you are righteous and holy before God, and precious in His sight, for the sake of Christ Jesus. As He has risen from the dead, and lives and reigns forever at the Right Hand of His God and Father, so shall you not die, but live. Does He not feed you with His flesh, and pour out His Blood for you to drink? Yes, He does. He sees to it that neither His Word nor His Table are neglected in this place. Therefore, you lack nothing, nor shall you ever lack for what you need.

You’ve already found what you were looking for.
Or, rather, He has found you.

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

25 December 2011

Abiding with His Flock in Their Field at Night

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. Consider your place in the world according to God’s commandments, and you will know where you should be found, what you should be doing, and what you should not. You will know the sheep of the Good Shepherd whom you are given to love and to serve.

Whether you work the day shift or at night; whether evenings and weekends, or on call 24/7, you live and work in the midst of deep darkness. It is the darkness of sin and death, of sickness and sadness, of violence and hate, bullies and hazing; the pitch black darkness of unbelief and idolatry, ungodliness and worldly desire.

Sometimes the darkness looms and grows and thickens to the point that it threatens to swallow you up completely — like a living, breathing monster, some kind of wild beast, a roaring lion, seeking to devour you. 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.

And then, at other times, it might seem as though the darkness is simply overcome by the bright lights of man. Electricity is just one of many good gifts of God that we turn into an idol of self-sufficiency. Who needs the sun, when you can simply flip a switch? You can fill your house with light at any hour of the day or night. You can brighten your whole block with your colorful display of Christmas lights. You can travel anywhere, anytime, purchase anything you want around the clock, and find out anything you want to know in a moment.

But it’s all a charade. It’s not really day, no matter how many watts you burn. You can hide from the darkness and pretend, or cover it up with bright and shiny things; you can set your clocks forward in the spring, and turn them back in the fall, but the night still descends, and thick darkness covers you.

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. That is part of the Lord’s good creation, with which He also gives to His beloved sleep. Or so He intends and desires to do and to give, though you flee from His gentle darkness, from His peace and rest, to burn your candles at both ends in pursuit of your own good and evil. And that is so around the clock.

The darkest hours ain’t always at night. Nor is the darkness only on the outside, surrounding you. There is a deeper, darker darkness within you, gnawing away and eating you up from the inside-out. Not the natural darkness of God’s creation, but 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.

This is the darkness that blackens your thoughts and feelings, and makes it difficult, or, rather, 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 tend your sheep, yes, but like a hireling; you despise and resent them, and 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 years until you’re done.

When you take care of the sheep, only for the sake of taking care of yourself, then the darkness emerges from within you in the form of self-preservation and self-protection, and it descends upon you 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.

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 around you. As always, it is by and with His Word that His Light shines. 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 at times. When you’ve been in the dark for so long, well, you know how it is; the light hurts your eyes. And when you’ve been hiding away in the darkness, doing what you shouldn’t and neglecting what you should, then having the lights suddenly flipped on might well freak you out and make you sore afraid.

The Light first of all exposes the deeds of darkness, and it makes clear that you have sinned and fallen short of the Glory of God.

At other times — perhaps even most of the time — although your Light has come, and the grace of God has appeared, it may seem as though it were lost and overcome by thick clouds and long dark shadows. The irony and paradox of the Cross, which is the Hour of God’s great Glory in Christ Jesus, is that it appears completely otherwise. We do make crosses out of burnished metal, and we make them beautiful, as best we can, in order to confess the mysterious and hidden truth of the matter. But in this present age, the Cross of Christ is not bright and shiny; it is dark and foreboding. His Cross is a kind of black light, I suppose.

So, as 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 Christmas has 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.

For some of you, the fear that nothing will ever change or get any better may be the greatest fear and deepest dread 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, first of all, but in such a way that you, too, are able to speak it and sing it.

This Word 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.

Because it is unto you that a Savior has been born. He is your Savior, and so He comes for you here, 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, El Salvador or Kenya. But all of the above, in the same country and commerce in which 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 has He risen from the grave, 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 governments 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. As Dr. Luther describes a king as a father of his country, so is Jesus a fatherly King to you and all His people. So it is, again, that He feeds you and clothes you, shelters and protects you, teaches you and trains you, in body and soul. All by His grace, without any merit or worthiness in you, but with fatherly divine goodness and mercy.

The government of King Jesus is the true “welfare state.” He does not take your wealth to spread it around and share with others. He does not take a census of the people, in order to tax the world. But 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 well able to love and serve and care for each other with the good gifts of your King.

But, see then 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.

Here, then, let me tell you where and how to find Him. To worship Him, yes, in His own flesh with your whole self, body and soul, heart and mind, words and actions. But to worship and adore Him, in the first place, by hearing His Word and receiving His good gifts — trusting Him, and living by His grace. And then also to return thanks, to bend your knee and lift up your voice, and to love and serve your neighbor in the name of your King.

You will find Him in the city of David, that is, Bethlehem, which is 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, is where you will 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. Because He wraps Himself in your frailty and weakness, in your fallen-ness, in your mortality and death. But so, again, does He burst the bonds of sin and death, and set you free. Thus, the swaddling clothes of His humble nativity, and of His tomb, are a sign of His Victory over death and the grave, as well as the means by which He wraps Himself up to give Himself to you (under His Tree). Thus, He is wrapped and swaddled now upon the Altar, in the Cup and on the Plate, reverently adorned with linens recalling both His burial and His Resurrection from the dead.

If you would find Him, find Him 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, round about, and join with you in praising God. For wherever the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus, the incarnate Son of God, are found, there all of heaven takes notice, pays devout attention, and sings with such great joy and gladness to the glory, honor, thanks and praise of the Holy Triune God. All saints and angels, in heaven and on earth, rejoice, give thanks, and sing, because the Lord our God has become Man, and has saved the sons of men for 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: which are for you.

Do keep these things, as St. Mary did, and ponder them daily (ponder them at night, too) 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, to your own flock, with thanksgiving to God, and 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.

Though it is still dark, and the night seems to reign without ending, in truth, everything is — and ever shall be — 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 from the dead, so that you who are redeemed by His Cross shall also rise and live forever in His Light.

What your eyes have not yet seen — what your heart cannot yet feel or comprehend, and your mind cannot yet picture or imagine — shall at last appear, suddenly bursting into the midst of this long dark night. As surely as the Gospel is here preached — and your sins are all forgiven by that Word of the Gospel — and the Sacrament is given to you in this present age — so surely does your dear Lord come to you, and His Glory shines upon you, and surely He will also bring you home with Himself, rejoicing. Then there shall be no more night forever, but only the Light of your great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, evermore and evermore.

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

18 December 2011

Unless the Lord Build the House

When you set out to make a name for yourself, and a life for yourself; when you strive to build and establish your own house and home, your own castle and tower — apart from the Word of God — you may or may not succeed for a time, but, like yourself and your mortal flesh, it will eventually crumble and fall back into dust. It will not last. It will not save you. It will not give you life.

There simply is no life without the Word of God; nothing that remains for long, far less forever. If the Lord your God is not with you, then you are lost, and everything you do is for nothing.

Do not suppose that you will rectify the situation and salvage your hopes and dreams by enlisting the Lord’s help with your own self-chosen projects and self-appointed pursuits. Attempting to include and incorporate the Lord into your own plans, in the hopes that He will help you achieve your personal goals and aspirations, is not to honor Him and serve Him as your King; nor is it to fear, love and trust in Him as your true and only God. It is, rather, to make a god of yourself, and to elevate yourself, and to make the Lord into your servant, your handyman, your gopher.

So, too, attempting to do your own thing, but “for Him,” to dedicate your achievements to Him, to create buildings and monuments ostensibly for Him, is really to erect monuments to yourself. As though, in this way, you would be able to preserve your legacy, your memory and your glory, even after you are dead and gone. At any rate, you know that you will die, as your fathers and mothers before you have died; but you cling to this false and misleading dream, that your works and accomplishments can somehow be secured, in order to remain and preserve “you.”

But, no, even the attempt to live your life, and work your works, and build your buildings for God is misguided and futile — apart from His Word. What would you do for Him, anyway? What would you give to Him, which is not already His to begin with?

What would you achieve without Him?

Unless the Lord build the house, you labor in vain to build it.
Unless the Lord guard and keep the city, in vain do you keep vigil.

It is not for you to build and achieve, but for the Lord to speak, and by His Word to give His good gifts, to accomplish His purposes for you, according to His good and gracious will. And He does.

He is the Builder of all things: God the Builder. He creates the heavens and the earth out of nothing — He speaks, and it is so. He establishes and upholds you and all creatures by His Word.

He calls Abram from the land of the Chaldeans; He brings him in, and He settles him, in Canaan. And He makes of that one old man (as good as dead), an Abraham, a father of many nations.

He brings the children of Abraham, Isaac and Israel out of Egypt, and He makes of them His own children, His people, His chosen nation, in order to bless all the nations of the earth. He sustains them through the wilderness, and brings them into the good land He has pledged. He defeats and drives out their enemies, granting them victory in battles they barely fight, wherever He directs. He gives them a safe place to call their own, a place of peace and rest. He shelters and protects them. He dwells among them with His Word, and He remembers His covenant with them.

Though the people are stubborn, frequently ungrateful, often rebellious, and resistant to His Word, He raises up a king for them, a ruler after His own heart. He finds and chooses David, He calls him and anoints him; He takes him from shepherding sheep to shepherding Israel. The Lord crowns David a prince among His people, giving him victory over all his enemies, and exalting his name.

It is the Lord who does all of this for David; the Lord who gives all of this to David; the Lord who builds up David’s house and blesses it. Not for David only, but for the blessing of all the people.

David is always at his best when he trusts that gracious providence of God, the Lord, and lives accordingly. Whenever he proceeds by faith in the Word of the Lord, he receives exactly what the Lord has promised, even against seemingly impossible odds.

But when David presumes to act apart from the Word of the Lord, there it all goes terribly wrong: not only for himself, his household and family, but for all of Israel. When he attempts to move the Ark of the Covenant, without following the Law of Moses in the way it should be done. When he decides to count the people, contrary to the Lord’s command. When he gets lazy and complacent in his duties, and then follows the lust of his eyes into adultery and murder. When he neglects his children, and he fails to protect them and discipline them, as a father should. At such times, the Lord must discipline David, bring him to repentance, and catechize him in the way he should go.

So, too, when David would do what seems to be a very good and noble work for God. The Prophet Nathan even gives him a thumbs-up at first, and Solomon will later declare that the Lord praised David’s good intentions. But, for all of that, it was not for David to build a house for God. He could draw up the plans and gather some of the materials, but he would not construct and dedicate the Temple he dreamed of building. His greatness and his glory were to receive all things by grace, and to live by faith in the Word and promises of God.

And of all those Words and promises, there is none greater than the one that David received in response to his proposal and plans for a temple. The Lord would build and establish the house of David, and raise up a Son of David to sit on his throne and reign forever; and that Son of David would build a house for God’s Name.

You’re well aware, of course, that Solomon would reign after his father David, and that he would build, with God’s approval, a great Temple in Jerusalem. There the Lord indeed caused His Name and His Glory to dwell among and with His people, hearing and receiving their prayers and their sacrifices, according to His Word; forgiving their sins, and bestowing His good and gracious gifts of body and soul upon them.

But neither Solomon nor his Temple were forever. In fact, both came to a rather disappointing end, subject to the judgment of God. Solomon was drawn away from the Lord by his numerous wives and their pagan gods. And over the ensuing years, the people regarded the Temple and their sacrifices as a guarantee against God’s wrath and punishment, even while they gave themselves over to false gods and the willful pursuits of their own flesh. Thus, after Solomon the kingdom was divided, and in time the Temple would be destroyed, Jerusalem laid waste, and the people taken into Babylonian captivity.

Such is life apart from the Word of God.

Yet, precisely because the Lord is gracious, and life and salvation are by His grace alone, He does not forget His promises, but He fulfills His Word, as He has spoken.

He is faithful, and He does it.

As always, it is also by His Word that He brings it about and accomplishes it: that is, the Word that He speaks and preaches — which Word, from the beginning, indeed, from all eternity, is the very Son of God — that same Word who has now become flesh and tabernacles among us.

The Lord sends His angel Gabriel to speak that Word to Mary — the blessed Virgin Mary — in Nazareth. He fulfills what He promised, at a point when no one would have dreamed that it could happen, when the once illustrious house of David was in disarray, decrepit, little more than a stump. But the Lord takes the initiative, and He does everything from the ground up, by His grace.

It is no son of David, nor any other man, who conceives the Son of God in St. Mary’s womb, but God does it by His Word and Spirit. And He does it in His own surprising way: not with worldly power, earthly strength, or human glory, but in quietness, humility, frailty and weakness. For the throne of David and the house of God will be established forever and ever by the holy Cross and Passion of St. Mary’s Son.

As from the beginning, when God speaks His Word, it is so. As surely as all projects and pursuits without His Word shall fail, so surely does every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God accomplish His purposes. That is the answer to St. Mary’s question: “How can this be?” And it is the answer to all of your questions, too. For all things are accomplished by the Word of God.

Faith echoes His Word with its own, “Let it be!” Mother Mary does not presume, but she hears and professes what the Lord has spoken. “Let it be to me according to Your Word.” That is the voice of faith, the prayer of a faithful servant of the Lord. And with that prayer of faith proceeds the obedience of faith, as well. You see that in St. Mary, to be sure, who receives everything by grace, but who is also called to live and to work: to bear the Christ-Child in her womb, to bear reproach and suspicion from her fiancée and neighbors, to suffer hardship and loss, and to care for a Son whom she will see cruelly put to death in due time. She does not choose these works, nor does she offer them to God for the sake of gaining His favor. She already has His favor! But in faith she says “Yes” and “Amen” to His Word.

You see that same obedience of faith in her father David, at his best, and in her husband, Joseph, who quietly accepts and follows the Word of God at every step along the way.

But you see the obedience of faith especially in St. Mary’s Son, our dear Lord Jesus Christ. For He, the Word-of-God-made-Flesh, lives as perfect Man — your Brother! — by perfect faith in His God and Father. This is how closely, how deeply, how intimately the Lord has come and drawn near to you, to the extent that He lives your human life. He establishes the house of David, by establishing the house of God in His own flesh.

Or, rather, He establishes the house of David in Himself, in His own human flesh and blood, by trusting and relying on His Father to raise Him up and establish Him — by the way of the Cross!

Not only does He share your human flesh and blood and make it His own, by His conception and birth from St. Mary, but He also shares your sins and your stripes, and He makes those His own. He owns your sins, and the sins of all men and women, all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, as though He had committed every one of them Himself. And then He suffers the strokes of God and man in punishment for all those sins. So fully does He share your shame and sorrows, even unto death. So fully is He with you, every inch of the way, to the bitter end.

He submits to His Cross and Passion in the obedience of faith, in the confidence of the Word and promise given to His father David (and to His Mother Mary). Though He is punished with the rod of men, and with the strokes of the sons of men, the Lord does not remove His loving-kindness from Him, nor remove Him from His throne. Even from the dead, from the dust of the earth, He raises Him up and establishes the throne of His Kingdom forever. And in the process, the sins of His people are forgiven, and all their punishments are removed. Their enemies are all defeated.

Thus, the Lord your God is with you, not only as your Brother in the flesh, and as your sacrificial Substitute in death, but as your King, which is also to be your Good Shepherd. As you live under Him in His Kingdom, you share fully in His faithfulness and obedience, in His victory over sin and death, and in the Glory of His Name. For just as all the people suffer when their king is unfaithful, so do all the people benefit and prosper, together with their King, when He is faithful. That is why the sins of David and Solomon were so serious and detrimental, but so is the salvation of the Son of David that significant for you and for all who are ruled and shepherded by Him.

He shepherds and reigns over you in love, from His Cross, by His Word of the Gospel. He sends His messengers to you, to preach in His Name, as He sent Nathan to David and the angel Gabriel to Mary, and as He sent St. Paul to preach, even to Rome and beyond. By such preaching, you are established in His grace, in the household and family of His Church, and all the wealth and bounty of His Kingdom are given to you. Thus, you are rich in the midst of your poverty. You are alive, even in the face of your death. You are great and glorious before God, even though you suffer shame and sorrow on earth. And you are strong and steadfast, despite your frailty and weakness.

You live by faith in the Gospel, by which the Lord forgives your sins and declares you to be righteous, innocent and just. Your faith in this sure and certain Word of the Gospel is as much His good work in you, and His good gift to you, as the conception of the Son of God in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. But so does it also become your own faith, as surely as the Son of God became St. Mary’s own Son. Not only that, but her prayer and obedience of faith are likewise yours, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. So, that, not only do you say, “Yes” and “Amen,” and “Let it be,” to the Word and promises of God — which are spoken to you in the Gospel, and are for you — but you also live and walk according to the Word of the Lord within your calling.

And the Lord is with you in your calling, as He was with David and Mary in their callings. He is with you, and He is close to you, to strengthen and sustain you, to guard and keep you, in those duties He has given you to do. And whereas your self-chosen projects and self-appointed pursuits are bound to fail and collapse, your works undertaken in accordance with the Word of the Lord will accomplish His purposes. They shall not fail.

Not because you are so faithful or flawless, but because the Lord is faithful and gracious, because He loves you, because He forgives all your sins, and because He will never let the righteous fall.

Oh, to be sure, you’re going to make mistakes, mess things up, blow it badly at times, and continue to sin in your thoughts, words and deeds, up until the day you die. All the saints have been such sinners, but it is the Lord who builds the House and brings His people into it. So it is the Lord who delivers you from evil, who removes all your foes (within and without), and who grants you peace and rest in His House, by the forgiveness of all your sins.

It is already a done deal. For the dear Lord Jesus, the Son of David, St. Mary’s little Babe, has made your sins His own, and suffered all the punishments for them — so that by His stripes you are healed — and God has raised Him from the dead. That is your righteousness, and that is your resurrection, no matter how many times (or how far) you have fallen. Just as He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns eternally, so do you live in righteousness, innocence and blessedness.

Therefore, do not be afraid. The Lord is with you, and you have found favor in His sight. Behold, here is the House that He has built for you, that you may call upon His Name and be saved. Behold, here is the Body of Christ, which is the Temple of God; and here is the precious Blood, by which you are reconciled to God in Him.

His Peace be with you, according to His Word. For He speaks, and it is so.

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

13 December 2011

(Un)Like the Rolling Stone: Another R.S. List of 100+ Great Guitarists of Our Time

Several months ago, I mused about the difficulty of trying to identify "the best guitarist in the world," and offered some thoughts on serving our respective vocations and stations in life to the best of our ability. We are not called to compete with one another for personal greatness, but to live by the grace of God through faith in Christ, and to love one another, each of us from within his or her particular place in the world.

Even so, when it comes to artistic ability, creative expression and skilled performance, there are obvious differences to be noted, and I suppose it is inevitable that people are going to compare and contrast, weigh and measure, sift and sort; if for no other reason than the simple fact that none of us can give our time and attention to everything that's going on in the world around us. Anyway, beyond the duties and responsibilities of our vocations, we have the freedom to pick and choose between this and that, under the basic rubrics of faith and love. Such freedom also means that we are able to debate and discuss our considerations and conclusions, even in matters of personal preference and taste.

Which is to say that, despite my caveats in August, Rolling Stone has not sinned by publishing a list of the "100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time" (November 2011). Nor was it a sin the previous time (in 2003). I enjoy such lists and find them interesting, whether I agree with them or not. In this most recent case, both the list itself and the numerous reactions to it have prompted me to do some reading and research (so to speak) on "great guitarists," to see what I might discover. The process has been enlightening, especially as I have been making a list of guitarists that I will want to check out for myself, as time and opportunity permit. In the meantime, I've also been considering the place of my own favorite players within the hierarchy of the guitar universe.

I've aimed at coming up with my own list of "Great Guitarists," without presuming to say that these are the greatest guitarists of all time. My efforts have sought an intersection between my personal preferences and the acknowledged achievements of artists over the course of the past several decades. There is a sense in which music is both an art and a science; it has both objective and subjective qualities. Which suggests that "greatness" is found, not only in the fingers of the player, but also in the ears of the hearer. Beyond that, there are still such a plethora of criteria that one might take into account, there's plenty of room for gentlemanly argument and friendly debate. Even my own conclusions are subject to change, not only as I become more informed and knowledgeable and familiar with a wider ranger of guitarists, but as the circumstances of life are always unfolding and developing.

At any rate, it seems to me that a great guitarist will be inspiring and influential, but without really "trying too hard" to impress. He (or she) will make make music that is innovative and interesting, but also inviting and intelligible. A musician needs to be creative, yes, but truly good music also needs to be coherent and consistent, retaining some continuity with what has gone before. It should be entertaining and enjoyable, but also enduring in quality, and in some sense edifying (at least with respect to its artistry, beauty, and craftsmanship). Great guitar music will be mesmerizing at the moment one first hears it, but also memorable after the fact. Of course, you may or may not agree with my opinions in your own assessment and evaluation of any given guitarist, but these are the qualities and characteristics that I am considering and listening for.

So, I've arrived at the following list, and I'm mostly satisfied with my conclusions, such as they are. Some of the names will seem obvious enough, whereas others may seem oddly included. There are some "glaring" omissions, I must confess. There are some admittedly great guitarists who are just not familiar to me at this point, and others whom I simply haven't cared for that much. In other cases, I've included "the usual suspects" on my list, but at a much lower ranking than anyone might typically expect, and that, too, is due either to a lack of familiarity or a lack of interest on my part. These are examples of the subjective element kicking in. My personal biases also show up in the inclusion of guitarists that others might not even think to mention. My number one great guitarist is Joe Satriani (hands down, never a doubt), who was not even included in the top 100 on either of the Rolling Stone lists (although he is otherwise recognized and regarded as at least a "top ten" guitarist). But, along with my subjective tastes and personal preferences, I've also taken into account and weighted the informed opinions of many others, with respect to both inclusion and ranking on my list. And, with all of that in the works, here's what I've come up with:

A Gross of Great Guitarists

1. Joe Satriani (Chickenfoot)

2. Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin)

3. Randy Rhoads (Ozzy Osbourne)

4. Eric Clapton (Cream, etc.)

5. Jimi Hendrix

6. Paul Gilbert (Racer X, Mr. Big)

7. Eddie Van Halen

8. Marty Friedman (Cacophony, Megadeth)

9. Joe Bonamassa (Black Country Communion)

10. Tony Iommi (Black Sabbath, Heaven & Hell)

11. Glen Tipton & K.K. Downing (Judas Priest)

12. Gus G (Dream Evil, Firewind, Ozzy Osbourne)

13. Dave Mustaine (Megadeth)

14. Jeff Beck

15. John 5

16. Zakk Wylde (Ozzy Osbourne, Black Label Society)

17. John Petrucci (Dream Theater, Liquid Tension Experiment)

18. Brian May (Queen)

19. Ritchie Blackmore (Deep Purple, Rainbow)

20. Carlos Santana

21. Richie Sambora (Bon Jovi)

22. George Harrison & John Lennon (The Beatles)

23. Angus & Malcolm Young (AC/DC)

24. Dave Murray & Adrian Smith (Iron Maiden)

25. Chris Robertson & Ben Wells (Black Stone Cherry)

26. Slash (Guns ‘n’ Roses, Velvet Revolver)

27. Steve Clark & Phil Collen (Def Leppard)

28. Brian Robertson (Thin Lizzy)

29. Mark Tremonti (Creed, Alter Bridge)

30. Andy McKee

31. Yngwie Malmsteen

32. Chris Broderick (Jag Panzer, Nevermore, Megadeth)

33. Synyster Gates & Zacky Vengeance (Avenged Sevenfold)

34. Kirk Hammett & James Hetfield (Metallica)

35. Keith Richards (The Rolling Stones)

36. Joe Walsh (The Eagles)

37. B.B. King

38. Steve Vai

39. Eric Johnson

40. Ace Frehley & Paul Stanley (KISS)

41. Michael Schenker (Scorpions, UFO)

42. Peter Frampton (Humble Pie)

43. Stevie Ray Vaughan

44. Duane Allman

45. Joe Perry (Aerosmith)

46. Al Di Meola

47. Steve Howe (Yes, Asia, GTR)

48. Chuck Berry

49. Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi

50. The Edge (U2)

51. Chet Atkins

52. Gary Moore (Thin Lizzy)

53. Jack White (White Stripes, Raconteurs, Dead Weather)

54. Dimebag Darrell (Pantera)

55. Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley)

56. Neal Schon (Journey, Hardline)

57. Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Kansas, Deep Purple)

58. Brian Setzer (Stray Cats)

59. Rob Balducci

60. Rudolf Schenker & Matthias Jabs (Scorpions)

61. Paul Quinn & Doug Scarratt (Saxon)

62. Jerry Cantrell (Alice in Chains)

63. Antoine Dufour

64. Glen Drover (Megadeth)

65. Mick Jones (Foreigner)

66. Keith Urban

67. Dan Donegan (Disturbed)

68. Uli Jon Roth (Scorpions)

69. Mikael Åkerfeldt & Fredrick Åkesson (Opeth)

70. Herman Li & Sam Totman (Dragonforce)

71. Thomas Bredahl & Michael Poulsen (Volbeat)

72. Rich Eckhardt (Toby Keith)

73. John Sykes (Thin Lizzy, Whitesnake, Blue Murder)

74. Gary Rossington (Lynyrd Skynyrd)

75. Brent Hinds & Bill Kelliher (Mastodon)

76. Alvin Lee (Ten Years After)

77. Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top)

78. Brad Paisley

79. Steve Lukather (Toto)

80. Mike Campbell (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers)

81. Jake E. Lee (Ozzy Osbourne, Badlands)

82. Jeff Loomis (Nevermore)

83. Orianthi (Alice Cooper, et al.)

84. Chad Taylor (Live, The Gracious Few)

85. Mark Knopfler (Dire Straits)

86. Pete Townshend (The Who)

87. Buddy Holly

88. Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac)

89. Dave Davies (The Kinks)

90. Phil Keaggy

91. Tony MacAlpine

92. Alex Lifeson (Rush)

93. George Lynch (Dokken)

94. Michael Angelo Batio

95. Tommy Emmanuel

96. Andy Timmons

97. Bonnie Raitt

98. Tom Scholz (Boston)

99. Corey Beaulieu & Matt Heafy (Trivium)

100. Chris Poland (Megadeth, Ohm)

101. David Gilmour (Pink Floyd)

102. “Metal Mike” Chlasciak (Halford)

103. Dave Martone

104. Andy James

105. Luke Morley (Thunder, The Union)

106. Ronnie Wood (Jeff Beck, Faces, Rolling Stones)

107. Zac Brown

108. Philip Shouse (Bo Bice, et al)

109. Kenny Wayne Shepherd

110. Don Felder (The Eagles)

111. Joe Stump

112. Joanne Shaw Taylor

113. Stoney Curtis

114. Neil “Spyder” Giraldo (Pat Benatar)

115. Ben Moody (Evanesence, We Are the Fallen)

116. Matt Tuck & Michael Paget (Bullet for My Valentine)

117. Christian Muenzner (Obscura)

118. Michael Romeo (Symphony X)

119. Michael Harris

120. John Mayer

121. Lee Ritenour

122. Chris Henderson & Matt Roberts (3 Doors Down)

123. Prince

124. Tommy Shaw (Styx, Damn Yankees)

125. Gary Hoey

126. Josh Steely (Daughtry)

127. Austin Diaz & Gabriel Garcia (Black Tide)

128. Vivian Campbell (Dio, Whitesnake, Def Leppard, Thin Lizzy)

129. Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave)

130. Tosin Abasi & Javier Reyes (Animals as Leaders)

131. André Olbrich & Marcus Siepen (Blind Guardian)

132. Olavi Mikkonen & Johan Söderberg (Amon Amarth)

133. Vinnie Moore (UFO)

134. Nancy Wilson (Heart)

135. Sammy Hagar (Montrose, Van Halen, Chickenfoot)

136. Steve Wariner

137. Eric Gales

138. Leslie West (Mountain)

139. Rory Gallagher

140. John Fogerty (Creedence Clearwater Revival)

141. Robby Krieger (The Doors)

142. Roger McGuinn (The Byrds)

143. Stephen Stills (Crosby, Stills, and Nash)

144. Les Paul

Dr. Luther on Celibacy and Marriage

Dear boy, do not be at all ashamed that you desire a girl, or that a girl longs for a boy, but see to it that it leads to marriage, and not to fornication. Then there is nothing disgraceful about it — as little as eating and drinking is a disgrace. Celibacy is supposed to be a virtue, but it is a veritable miracle of God, just as if a person did not eat or drink. It is beyond the capacity of a healthy body, not to mention the incapability of sinful and depraved human nature.

There are not many virgins to whom God granted a long life; rather hurriedly He whisked them out of this world, like Cecilia, Agnes, Lucia, Agatha, and others like them.

I know full well how noble that treasure is, but also how difficult it is to preserve for any length of time. If in every town, there were five boys and five girls, all twenty years of age, completely pure, with no experience of natural discharge, then I would be right in saying that the state of Christianity was better than in the days of the Apostles and martyrs.

O Lord God, I believe that unchastity would not have become so prevalent and spread in such a terrible way, if it had not been for this rule and vow of chastity [required of clergy and monastics]. What a Sodom and Gomorrah the devil has created through these rules and vows! How vulgar has he made this odd chastity, causing unspeakable anguish. No brothel stimulant is as dangerous as these rules and vows invented by the devil.

Furthermore, I say that those boys and girls who entered an order before they felt the stirrings of flesh and blood, that is, those who are fifteen or sixteen or twenty years of age, should be immediately released, if they so desire. Their vow after all is useless, just as if a child had taken it. Consecration is valueless in this case, nor does it matter whether he is a priest, a deacon, or has entered some other holy order. Those consecrations are frauds and have no validity in the eyes of God.
(Luther's Works, Vol. 52, p. 273)

In saying this I do not wish to disparage virginity, or entice anyone away from virginity into marriage. Let each one act as he is able, and as he feels it has been given to him by God. I simply wanted to check those scandalmongers who place marriage so far beneath virginity that they dare to say: "Even if the children should become holy, celibacy would still be better." One should not regard any estate as better in the sight of God than the estate of marriage. In a worldly sense celibacy is probably better, since it has fewer cares and anxieties. This is true, however, not for its own sake, but in order that the celibate may better be able to preach and care for God's Word, as St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7. It is God's Word and the preaching which make celibacy — such as that of Christ and of Paul — better than the estate of marriage. In itself, however, the celibate life is far inferior. . . .

He who would enter into wedlock as a Christian must not be ashamed of being poor and despised, and doing insignificant work. He should take satisfaction in this: first, that his status and occupation are pleasing to God; second, that God will most certainly provide for him if only he does his job to the best of his ability, and that, if he cannot be a squire or a prince, he is a manservant or a maidservant. . . .

To sum the matter up: whoever finds himself unsuited to the celibate life should see to it right away that he has something to do and to work at; then let him strike out in God's name and get married. A young man should marry at the age of twenty at the latest, a young woman at fifteen to eighteen; that's when they are still in good health and best suited for marriage. Let God worry about how they and their children are to be fed. God makes children; He will surely also feed them. Should He fail to exalt you and them here on earth, then take satisfaction in the fact that He has granted you a Christian marriage, and know that He will exalt you there; and be thankful to Him for His gifts and favors.
(Luther's Works, Vol. 45, pp. 46-49)

06 December 2011

Sketching Out Chapters: For All His Benefits

Introduction: The historical and theological place and importance of hymnals and service books in Lutheranism - from Luther to the 19th-century confessional revival - to the formation of the LCMS

1 - Hymnody and Liturgical Practice in the early LCMS

2 - Walther's Kirchengesangbuch and the accompanying Agende

3 - Coinciding and Subsequent Developments in American Lutheranism

4 - Development, Publication, and Reception of the ELHB (1922)

5 - Revision of ELHB and Publication of The Lutheran Hymnal (1941)

6 - Reception and Use of TLH and its accompanying Agenda

7 - The Work of the LCMS Worship Committee through the 1950s

8 - Coinciding and Subsequent Developments in American Lutheranism

9 - Work on the Proposed Revision of TLH (amid a "Pan-Lutheran" Push)

10 - Origins and Formation of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship

11 - The Preparation and Publication of the Worship Supplement (1969)

12 - Organization and Work of the Inter-Lutheran Commission on Worship

13 - The Pan-Lutheran Battle Over the Ecumenical ILCW Eucharist

14 - LCMS Assessment of the Proposed Lutheran Book of Worship (1978)

15 - The Work and Proposal of the Special Hymnal Review Committee

16 - LCMS Revision of LBW and Development of Lutheran Worship (1982)

17 - The Introduction, Adoption, Acceptance, and Aftermath of LW

18 - Division, Disarray, "Creative Worship," and Desk-Top Publishing

19 - Coinciding and Subsequent Developments among Other Lutherans

20 - Preparations for and Publication of the Hymnal Supplement 98

21 - The Organization and Work of the LCMS Lutheran Hymnal Project

22 - Coinciding and Subsequent Developments among Other Lutherans

23 - Proposal, Adoption, and Completion of Lutheran Service Book (2006)

24 - The Introduction and Reception of the LSB (from 2006 through 2011)

Conclusion: Where We Are Now, and Where We Ought to Go from Here

03 December 2011

The Feast of St. Andrew, the Apostle

In the beginning was the Word, by whom and for whom all things exist, and without whom there is nothing. He alone is your Light, your Life and your Salvation.

This same divine and living Word has become flesh and dwells with you in love.

He has become flesh to bear your sins in His own Body to the Cross, and to shed His holy, precious Blood for you, in order to atone for your sins and redeem you, to justify you with His righteousness and reconcile you unto God the Father, to sanctify you with His own Spirit, and to share His own divine life with you in peace.

He is the true Passover Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world — who takes upon Himself and takes away your sin — who covers you with His Blood and feeds you with His flesh.

In order that you may behold Him, and recognize Him, and receive Him as the Christ, your Savior and your God, the Lord has sent the Forerunner to preach repentance, to make a disciple of you by baptizing and catechizing you.

Apart from this Word and Sacrament (the Ministry of repentance for the forgiveness of sins) you cannot even see the Lord Jesus, much less believe in Him or follow Him.

It is by the Word and Spirit of Christ, by the preaching of Christ Jesus, that you are pointed to Him and brought to Him in faith. Whereas, without His Word, you remain utterly in the dark, subject to death and damnation. Thus, not only all of creation, but everything pertaining to faith and life and godliness, depends upon the preaching of the Word of Christ. Otherwise, you have nothing.

It is for your sake, for your life and salvation, that the one true God has opened His mouth in love and spoken His Word to you, and thereby breathed His Spirit into your body and soul. And with this divine and holy preaching of God Himself, He has established for you, and for His whole Christian Church on earth, a most sacred tradition of the Word: a handing over of the Son of God (from heaven to earth, from then till now, from the Father unto you).

The Father speaks forth His Son to make the heavens and the earth, and to create man in His Image. The Father speaks forth the same only-begotten Son in the flesh, to bear your sin and be your Savior. And as the Father has thus spoken, so does the Son speak His Word to you, which is Spirit and Life: He speaks to you by the ministers of His Word, called and sent in His Name.

And by that Word that is preached to you, far more than simple information is conveyed: indeed, the very Lamb of God is manifested to you, and you are called to repentance, to faith and life in Him, through the forgiveness of all your sins.

That is what this Word does: It forgives you. And by this Word of forgiveness, this Holy Abso-lution, you know the one true God as your own dear Father; you live and abide with Him in peace.

This God and Father still speaks His Son to you. He sends His man, John, to go before His face to prepare His way — to prepare you for His Advent (His coming) — and to point Him out to you: the Lamb of God, who saves you. And He sends His servants, Andrew and Simon Peter, His James and John and Paul, His Richard and Gifford, to preach the Christ to you — to bring you to Christ Jesus in faith, and to Himself in Christ.

Now, therefore, what is it that you seek? Is it not life, and a place to live, a place to call home?

That life and home are in Christ; and Christ is here for you in His Word of the Gospel: He is near to you, in your ears, in your heart, and even in your mouth. First of all as He speaks His forgiveness of your sins, and bestows His peace upon you, and feeds you, both body and soul, with His holy body and precious blood. And as He thus gives you life, by grace through faith in Him, so does He open your lips to declare His praise; and He opens your mouth to confess His Name.

You, then, carry on this sacred tradition of the Word: Speak as you are spoken to. As you have heard, so believe, and call upon the Name of the Lord. Pray and confess His Word. Speak Christ Jesus to your neighbors, beginning first of all with your own family, your spouse, your parents and your children, your brothers and sisters. And speak to the members of your true and permanent family, that is, to your brothers and sisters in Christ (as Brother Andrew spoke to Brother Simon). For you belong to them, and they to you, as belonging together to the one Body of Christ, His holy Church. Therefore, speak in holy love and with free and full forgiveness.

Do you find yourself speaking otherwise, and not with such grace and evangelical eloquence?

Hear and heed the Word of Christ to you: Repent of your sin, and follow Him. Come, hear and see where He lives, and how He lives. Receive His hospitality, and abide with Him. He is your Teacher, and He catechizes you unto life. He has died for you and shed His blood for you, but see, He has risen from the dead and lives for you, as well. The very blood that He has shed for you now anoints you with His Spirit and fills you with His righteousness and peace.

Taste and see that He is good — in Him is Life, and that Life is your Light and your Salvation. Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away your sins. You are forgiven. You are His own.

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