28 February 2020

By the Prayer and Fasting of Christ Jesus

God the Father in heaven has had mercy upon you, and has given His Son to die for you, and for His sake forgives you all your sins.

The Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, has come down from heaven for you and your salvation.  In flesh and blood like your own, He has come down from the majestic Mountain in order to go the way of the Cross — in order to save you and give you life with God in Himself.

He has thus confronted and contended with your enemies — with the demons that haunt you, with the world that taunts and harasses you, and with your own fallen and perverted flesh.  And by His Cross and Passion, He has conquered in the fight.  He has accomplished your salvation.

Against your unbelief, He has set His steadfast faith and faithfulness.  In the place of your illness, He has bestowed His own perfect health and strength.  Instead of your lunacy, He has brought divine wisdom and the peace that surpasses human understanding.

Here, then, is the God’s-honest Truth: The Lord has given Himself for you, and He gives Himself to you, along with every good and perfect gift, on earth as it is in heaven.

So, why do you persist in the futility of your sins, returning to the same bad habits over and over and over again?  Why must you keep throwing yourself back into the fire, from which the Lord has delivered you at the cost of His own body and life?  And why do you keep jumping off the deep end into water that’s way over your head, when you know that you can’t swim or pull yourself out?

You cannot fix yourself or make things better for yourself, not in the ways that matter before God forever.  You cannot pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  Whatever your weakness may be — a short temper, a gossiping tongue, gambling with money, addictions (of whatever sort), lust or laziness, bitterness or envy — you won’t be able to master it and overcome it by your own abilities and efforts.  Yet, left unchecked, it will destroy you.  It is hurting you already, even now.

Pray that God the Lord will still have mercy upon you, and that He will come quickly and help you.  For you cannot save yourself — no more than you can save your family, friends, and neighbors in the world, except by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus.  But pray and confess His Word, and call upon His Name in the confidence that He will hear and answer, that He will save you by His grace.

Repent of your sins, and believe the Gospel.  Fear, love, and trust the Lord who loves you.  Take heart that Christ is here with you, and that He is for you, now and forever and always.

Exercise your little faith.  Discipline yourself to do without your legion of false gods, and discover that your life is in Christ Jesus.  Bring your loved ones, too, as others have brought you to Christ.

For you it is impossible, but not for Him.  You are powerless and helpless, but His almighty power is manifest for you in mercy and compassion, in free and full forgiveness of sins.  Not only that, but, ironically, His almighty power has been made perfect for you in His voluntary weakness.

He has humbled Himself and become obedient, even unto death upon the Cross.  He has prayed for you, and He ever lives to intercede for you.  He has fasted for you, for your faith and life and full salvation, even as He now and ever feeds and nourishes you with Himself.  He has suffered and died on your behalf — thrown Himself into your fire, drowned Himself in your flood — so that you are purified by the fire of His Holy Spirit and cleansed by the waters of His Baptism.

By His Word of the Gospel, He has brought the majestic Mountain to you, from heaven to earth.

That holy and glorious Mountaintop is here, centered in His Altar in His Church.  From Mount Calvary He feeds you with His Body and His Blood, so that, by faith, you ascend His holy Hill.

And when you are faithless and unbelieving, doubtful, and afraid, He remains faithful, steadfast, and sure.  He cannot deny Himself, and He will not deny the Word that He has spoken to you.

How long, then, shall He be with you?  And how long shall He put up with you?  For as long as He remains, risen from the dead, seated at the Right Hand of the Father, immortal, imperishable, victorious and glorious, your merciful and great High Priest, forever and forevermore.

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

26 February 2020

In Faith Toward God, in Love Toward One Another

Ash Wednesday and the sacred Season of Lent call you to examine yourself, your heart, and your life, in the light of God’s Word; to repent of your sins, and to live in faith toward God and in love for your neighbors in the world; to be turned away from evil, and to begin doing what is good and right.  Not for the sake of any fame or fortune, but from a heart full of faith and love in Christ.

To examine yourself rightly, then, is to ask yourself, not only what you are doing or how you are doing, but, Why do you do whatever it is that you do?  And why do you not do what you should?

What is it that motivates and drives you?  What is it that you dream about at night, and what is it that gets you up and out of bed in the morning?  What are you after?  And what is that you love?  That is to say, where do you invest yourself in the hopes of finding life and peace and happiness?  Where do you spend your money, your time, and your energy?  What occupies your attention?

The truth is that your only true and lasting life — your only real hope for genuine life and peace and happiness, now and forever — is found not with man on earth but only with God in heaven.

Only with God do you have life forever: Not by your own reason and strength, and not by your own works or efforts, but solely by His grace, by His divine charity in Jesus Christ, your Savior.

Of course, you know that to be true.  For so you have been taught by the preaching of God’s Word, and so do you confess by His Holy Spirit.  But what does it mean for you?  What does it look like to live by grace through faith in Christ?  And how shall you not receive this grace of God in vain?

St. Paul the Apostle has admonished you not to receive this grace of God in vain.  But what does that entail?  How do you receive, embrace, and exercise the grace of God according to His will?

The starting point and the bottom line is this: The Lord is after your heart.  That is what He wants.  That is what He requires from you.  He doesn’t need your stuff; it’s already His to begin with.  And He doesn’t need your help, either; for all that you are and all that you have comes from Him and depends upon Him.  No, He’s after your heart — that you should fear, love, and trust in Him above everything else; and that you should live by faith in Him, in His Word, in His Gospel, in His Gifts.

Now, when the Lord thus has your heart — and you thus have divine, eternal Life in Him — then He also has your body and soul, your reason and all your senses, your time, treasures, and talents, your home and family, and all your stuff besides.  It is already His to begin with, but He gives it to you in love.  He entrusts all these things to you because He loves you, and He delights to care for you.  And as you receive His good gifts, He would have you serve your neighbors with them.

When God has your heart, then your entire body and life are also offered up to Him as a living sacrifice of holy faith and love.  But that is exercised and offered to God chiefly by way of loving service to your neighbor.  You thereby practice the righteousness of faith in your heart in the presence of God at all times, while outwardly you pour yourself out in love for your neighbors — for your family and friends, and also for your foes, for all your neighbors.  You do not hold their sins against them, but you forgive them because the Lord forgives you.  You serve your neighbor without any expectation of reward or even thanks.  You do it out of love for the Lord your God.

So, that is how you live your life by faith.  You entrust yourself entirely to your God and Father.  Everything that you are and all that you have, you place into His hands, and you trust Him truly for everything that you need, body and soul, now and forever.  And trusting Him, you give yourself generously for others without counting the cost and without considering what’s in it for you.

It is in this way that you live with your heart already with God in heaven, by faith in Christ Jesus.  And hereafter your body and soul will follow, forever and ever.  For where your treasure is, there your heart is also; and where your heart is, there your body and soul shall likewise be, as well.

By contrast, when your heart, soul, mind, and strength are spent upon this world — and I mean that in terms of your time, in terms of your energy, and, yes, also in terms of your cash — when your heart, soul, mind, and strength are thus spent upon this world, invested in your mortal life on earth, and motivated by the kingdoms and the treasures of man, then your body and soul will perish, finally and forever, along with all the false gods and idols that you so highly prize and worship.

You may stockpile a real treasure trove here and now, but it will not last forever.  It will not survive.  If you’re honest with yourself, you already know that.  But what does your life confess?  What do your words and actions actually reveal about your heart and the treasures it clings to?

Yet, again, all of your false gods and idols — all of those things that you fear, love, and trust, other than the one true God — none of them will help you in the big picture and final outcome.  None of them can save you.  None of them are yours for very long, and you sure can’t take it with you.

Therefore, let go your heart of that which is not God.

Give up your adulterous love affair with all the idols of this world (for that is exactly what it is).

Repent of all your misplaced love and affection, and return with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength to the Lord your God, to your first Love, to your true and heavenly Bridegroom.

Stop stuffing your mouth and your stomach with that which will ultimately end up in the sewer.  And stop pampering your body with creature comforts as finite and as frail as you yourself are.  Labor not for the food that perishes, but avail yourself of the Food that endures unto eternal Life.

In short, do not look for life and love anywhere else but the Lord Jesus Christ, who is here with you in His Church on earth, in His Ministry of the Gospel, in His free forgiveness of all your sins.

It is sure and certain that He has reconciled Himself and His Father to you and all the world — by the way and means of His Cross, by His fulfillment of the whole Law in perfect faith and holy love.  All that you have failed to do, He has done for you, both in your stead and for your benefit.  And all that you have done wrong, He has paid the price for it.  He has made amends, and He has made Atonement for all your sins, by His suffering of the punishment that you and all have deserved.

He has reconciled Himself and His Father to you.  He has reconciled the whole world to Himself.  You, therefore, be reconciled to Him by faith.  Hear and trust His Word.  Rely upon His Gifts.  And live in the confidence of His Cross and Resurrection, His forgiveness, and His righteousness.

As you fear, love, and trust in Him, and as you rest yourself in the Sabbath Rest of His Gospel, you are set free from the bondage of your sins, from your debilitating fear and avoidance of death, and from all your desperate and futile attempts to justify and save yourself.  You are pulled out of your own head and heart, and turned toward the Lord your God in peace and joy and confidence.  And you are free and able, in Him, to be courageous and generous in love and care for your neighbors.

You have such freedom and certainty in the presence of God, your Father in heaven, because your standing before Him, your relationship with Him, and your place within His home and family, do not depend on you but entirely on Christ Jesus.  It is by His prayer, by His faith and by His fasting, by His agony and bloody sweat, by His holy Cross and Passion, and by His divine charity toward you, that you are presented to the Father in righteousness and holiness, even for Life everlasting.

And to that end, that you should ever live and abide with God in Him, behold, He has come to live and abide with you within His Church on earth.  Here among His own He has left behind a Grain Offering and a Drink Offering for you and all: the Bread and Wine which are His Body and Blood.  These are the acceptable Sacrifice which He has offered to the Father on your behalf, with which He now feeds you for the forgiveness of all your sins and for the nourishment of your faith and life.

Eat, therefore; and drink.  Here is your real Treasure.  Here is the Heart of Christ for you.  Here is your Foretaste of heaven, which shall never perish, and which shall not be taken away from you.

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

23 February 2020

Transfigured into the Glory of God by the Cross of Christ

What you find and receive at the top of the Mountain is Life with God: To eat and drink, to rest, and to live in His presence, reconciled and at peace with Him in the incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.

But for now it seems that you are far removed and far below the Lord your God.  What is more, you are afraid of Him and His Glory.  You’re afraid to get close to Him, as though you even could.

The Law of God with all its demands and punishments, with all its accusations and condemnations, is a consuming fire that threatens to destroy you.  And it surely would.  It’s not that the Law is evil.  Indeed, it is divinely good and wise, holy and right.  But it terrifies and threatens to consume you, because you are sinful and unrighteous.  You are not good and wise, but foolish and mortal.

Under those prevailing circumstances, appearances are deceiving, misleading, and frightening.

The Law cannot save you from your predicament.  It cannot save you from yourself, nor from your sin and death.  But it does aim at your life and salvation, at your Life with God in faith and love.  It aims at that, points to that, and leads you to that Life in Christ Jesus, crucified and risen.

On the one hand, the Law sacrifices Him and sheds His blood for your atonement, redemption, and rescue (for your Exodus), in order to forgive you, and to establish and seal His Covenant with you.

And on the other hand, the very life of faith and love which the Law of God calls for and requires is realized and fulfilled in the same Lord Jesus Christ.  So He is the One who brings you into that divine and holy Life, as He has opened up the way for you in Himself — in His Incarnation, by His Life and Ministry, and from His Baptism in the Jordan River to His Cross and Resurrection.

As your merciful and great High Priest, Christ Jesus is the One who brings you up the Mountain to God in His own Body of flesh and blood.  In Him, your entire human nature is transfigured with the very glory of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Hence, your life is not simply with God, lived in His presence; your whole life is hidden with Christ in God, in personal communion with Him.

You are transfigured in and with Him, in His Body, in His Person, by way of His Cross and in His Resurrection from the dead.  For His Cross and Passion are the pinnacle of perfect faith and love.  His sacrificial death is atonement, redemption, and the means of your reconciliation with God.

He grapples with all the curse and consequences of your sin and death in His own Body on the Cross, and He heals all those ills, all those hurts and scars, all those frailties and weaknesses, all those griefs and sorrows, and your sickness unto death.  And so it is that, in His Resurrection, your human body is raised up, made brand new, and glorified — like unto His own glorious Body.

So, too, your heart and mind, your soul and spirit, your thoughts and feelings and emotions, all are healed and made whole in the Resurrection of Christ Jesus from the dead.

Though it does not yet appear what you shall be in glory at the last, already it is true for you in Him — even now, hidden under the Cross, subjected to death and the grave.

There are no short cuts up the Mountain, no way to bypass the Cross on your way to Glory.

The Apostles are not even to speak of the glorious vision until after the Cross and Resurrection are accomplished; because the Glory of the Transfiguration is the Glory of the Cross, which is then manifested in the Resurrection — and manifested in the preaching of the Gospel of the Cross.

So, too, the transfiguration of your body and of your whole human nature — in and with Christ Jesus — occurs by the ways and means of His Cross.  It happens by the preaching of His Cross unto repentance and faith in His forgiveness of all your sins.  And it is given to you in the Fruits of His Cross, in His holy Body and precious Blood, given and poured out for you to eat and drink.

It is for the sake of His Cross — for you and your salvation, in divine and holy love — that the Lord Jesus has come down from the Mountain.  And really, in Him, the Mountain Top itself has come down to you.  The Cloud of the Majestic Glory of God rests upon the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ, even to His sacrificial death on the Cross.  For He is the Ark of the New Testament; He is the Mercy Seat; He is the Holy of Holies; and He has come down to tabernacle with you here.

So, listen to Him.

Hear and receive His Gospel, His forgiveness, His perfect Peace and Sabbath Rest.

See how He stretches out His hand and lays it upon you, not to punish and destroy you, but to comfort, to heal, to raise you up from death to life, and to serve you in grace, mercy, and peace.

You do ascend the Mountain of God with Christ Jesus, and in the Resurrection you also shall be transfigured.  But already here and now, the Glory of God dwells with you on earth.  By His grace, He is here with you to save you, and His flesh and blood unite and seal you to His God and Father.

His Blood of the New Testament satisfies the Law of God and sanctifies you.  It makes satisfaction for your sins of thought, word, and deed, and it transfigures and transforms your heart and mind, your words and actions, your body, your lips, your hands and feet, to be glorious with His Glory.

So it is that, even under the Cross — and precisely by the bearing and sharing of His Cross — the Glory of God is manifested in you.  In the forgiveness of all your sins, and in your salvation by God’s grace through the Gospel.  Then also in your faith and love, in your forgiveness of those who sin against you, and in your self-sacrificing service for those neighbors God has given you.

Thus are you stunning and beautifully adorned in both your body and soul with the true beauty of Christ Jesus, and in Him you are the most handsome of men, the most gorgeous of godly brides.

Such a life is not found on some Himalayan peak, far and away beyond your reach.  It is already hidden with Christ in God, while it has also come down from heaven and drawn near to you here at the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley so low, the valley of the shadow of death.

That is where the Altar stands among the people of God, and where His Church stands firmly and rests upon the twelve pillars of the Lord’s holy Apostles, the eyewitnesses of His great Salvation.

And so it is that you live in the presence of God, because God has come to live with you in His own Body of flesh and blood, with His own Word.  In Him you have perfect Peace and Sabbath Rest, because He has reconciled you to Himself, and to His Father by His Spirit, with the Gospel.

Daily and richly He comes to abide with you in mercy, with His free and full forgiveness of sins.

In Christ Jesus — in His Cross — in His Word — and in His entire Ministry of the Gospel, you behold the Lord your God with the eyes of faith.  You recognize the glorious goodness of His grace; and you eat and drink — not only “with Him,” in His presence, and not only food and drink that He provides — but you eat and drink the incarnate God, and He makes His tabernacle in you.

Yes, He abides with you and dwells even within you, in spite of all your frailties and weaknesses.

Consider, for example, where is it that Peter, James, and John are given to eat and to drink.  It is not high up on the mountain away from all the others, but in the Upper Room of the Church, in the Passover of the New Testament, in the gathered assembly of the disciples; and here also with you.

Here at His Altar, within His Church on earth, all the Law and the Prophets have been fulfilled in Christ Jesus; and here they are made sure and certain for you in the Ministry of His Gospel.

Here the Morning Star now rises in your heart and mind, in your body, soul, and spirit, by His gracious forgiveness of all your sins, and by the free gift of Himself, His Life, and His Salvation.

So it is that you shine like the stars with His righteousness, innocence, and blessedness; and so it shall be that you live with Him in His Resurrection from the dead, body and soul, forever and ever.

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

16 February 2020

The Holiness of Marriage and Life in the Righteousness of Christ

In His Word to you this morning from His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord Jesus addresses you with the clear meaning and significance of the Law, especially the Fifth and Sixth Commandments, whereby He guards and protects His good gifts of human life and holy marriage and teaches you to receive and sanctify these divine and sacred works in the righteousness of faith and love.

As He catechizes you in these Commandments of God, Jesus pushes you beyond the surface to the deeper intention and fundamental spirit of the Law, revealing that God is concerned not only with your outward behavior but with your heart and mind.  The anger and hatred that you harbor inside against your neighbor is already murder in the eyes of the Lord your God.  Likewise, the covetous lust and desire that you entertain and exercise for the bodies of other people is already adulterous.

This Word of our Lord could hardly be more timely and pertinent to our present day and culture, as the onslaught against human life and the perversion of human sexuality are rampant in the world around us.  Indeed, such sins are not only defended but increasingly celebrated, to such an extent that even many Christians have been numbed to the deadly seriousness of these matters.  Even so, the fact remains that these sins, in particular, are not only contrary to the Law of the Lord in the Holy Scriptures, but are diametrically opposed to the very nature and survival of the human race.

But lest you presume to hide behind the fact that you may not be guilty of doing this or that, it is again to the point at hand that the Lord aims at your heart and mind and cuts you to the quick.  Have you not gotten angry, lost your temper, and cursed your neighbor to his face and behind his back?  Have you not maintained grudges and nurtured bitter resentments against your neighbors, instead of seeking to be reconciled through mutual repentance and forgiveness of sins?  And have you not looked upon your neighbor’s spouse, marriage, and family with deep envy and jealousy?

It is sobering to consider how seriously the Lord describes the lust in your eyes and in your heart as adultery, justly deserving of temporal and eternal punishment.  Yet, lust pervades our culture as a basic marketing tool.  Adultery in all of its many and various forms is treated as the norm.  All manner of sexual confusion is glamorized and promoted.  And divorce is taken for granted, though anyone who has suffered through the breaking of a marriage knows well enough how painful and damaging it is, not only to the estranged husband and wife, but as much or more to their children.

What Jesus says concerning divorce may be especially difficult for many to hear and take to heart.  But His purpose is not to hurt or harm; it is to emphasize the importance and sanctity of marriage — and so also to signify His own marriage to the Church.  He thereby stresses the necessity of our faithfulness to Him as our true Bridegroom.  Even more to the point, though He would have the legal right to divorce us because of our unfaithfulness, He does not exercise that prerogative, but in His faithfulness, love, and mercy He lays down His Body and Life to reconcile us to Himself.

Later in St. Matthew, Jesus speaks again concerning marriage and divorce.  There He indicates that Moses permitted and made provisions for divorce because of the hardness of hearts.  Divorce thus belongs to the realm of sinful unbelief.  But God’s intentions were not so; and from the beginning His good creation included marriage as the union of one man and one woman as one flesh, joined together by God and not subject to human disruption.  Indeed, from the beginning man and woman were created in God’s own Image, and marriage as such was a reflection of Christ and His Bride, the Church.  So, for divorce to be tolerated and given a place within the Church is a contradiction at the most fundamental level.  It is a false confession of Christ and His Church, and therefore a denial of the Gospel itself.  That is why the Lord addresses it and deals with it so very seriously.

None of which is to say that divorce or any other sort of adultery cannot be forgiven.  Christ died also for these sins, and His Word of forgiveness absolves them.  But they are thereby dealt with precisely as sins, and not excused or rationalized as okay.  It must be so.  To treat them as anything else than sinful is to reject the very forgiveness they require, which is so freely offered in Christ.

The challenge is that even many Christians fail to consider and take to heart that all of us truly are sinners, not just in a general, abstract sort of way, but really and concretely in our thoughts, words, and deeds.  So, in exposing and condemning your sins for what they are, the Lord is not rejecting you; He is calling you to repentance, to fear, love, and trust in the one true God instead of yourself, and to find your righteousness by grace alone through faith alone in His Gospel of forgiveness.

Your only real life, which is your only real hope, is the life that Jesus Christ has lived for you and sacrificed for you — the life that Jesus Christ has given to you in your Baptism — the life you live in Him and He in you.  Every other sort of “life,” which is really only death in disguise, steeped in anger, hatred, and murder, lust, adultery, and divorce, must be repudiated.  The Church dare not tolerate these things as though they were innocent or harmless, but must condemn them for what they are, as sins leading to death; and daily call both you and all other sinners to repentance; and then speak and bestow the free and full forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Now, if you are divorced, you might be thinking that I am picking on you this morning; and if you’re not divorced, you might be thinking to yourself that I am really letting those “other folks” have it.  Either way, not only would you be forgetting that these are not my words but the Words of Christ Jesus; you would also be missing the whole point and not hearing what Jesus has to say.

Jesus does not let anyone off the hook; and in that respect He is letting each and every one of you “have it” with both barrels.  His Sermon on the Mount exposes the roots of your sin already in your sinful heart, in your thoughts long before it ever gets into your words and actions.  He does so in order to contrast the death of your sin with the life and salvation of His mercy and forgiveness.  For in Him you are given a new life — one that is not characterized by murder, adultery, theft, false witness, and covetousness, as your so-called “life” apart from Christ is found to be; no, your life in Christ is characterized by His perfect righteousness, which is revealed above all and most clearly in His Cross and Resurrection, and which is credited to you by grace through faith in Him.

His Word against divorce is so serious and harsh, because divorce is the very opposite of the mercy and forgiveness and reconciliation of His Cross.  He thus condemns this sin and all your sins, that He might forgive your sins and reconcile you to Himself as a member of His Bride, the Church.

As we also heard from Jesus last week, He did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them — to bring them to perfect completion in His own life.  Everything that He calls for throughout His Sermon on the Mount, all that He calls you to be and to do, He Himself lives and fulfills in His own flesh, even to His death upon the Cross.  For as St. Paul writes to the Church at Rome, love is the fulfillment of the Law, because love does nothing to harm the neighbor but rather seeks to help and serve.  It is such love that you see in the Cross and Crucifixion of Christ.

Instead of taking revenge, “an eye for an eye,” “a tooth for a tooth,” the Lord God responded to those who sinned against Him with mercy and forgiveness, giving His own Son for the world.

All that you and this whole world of sinners deserve, the Son of God has suffered.  All the debt that you owe, the Son of God has paid with His own Body and Life.  And since the Lord your God has thereby reconciled the world to Himself in Christ Jesus, any and all claims of wrongdoing and revenge that people may have against each other are already satisfied and wiped out, null and void.  Of course, here we are not speaking about worldly economics, but of sins and forgiveness.

“Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” Jesus teaches you to pray in the Our Father.  Because Jesus has turned His cheek, surrendered His garments, and carried His Cross — for you and your salvation — you have no right to exact retribution from others.  Rather, you are to forgive, even at your own expense, as you are freely forgiven by God in Christ Jesus.

The perfection that is required of you — like that of your Father in heaven — is that righteousness of Christ which exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees — a righteousness defined and perfected by His mercy and forgiveness.  It is in the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus that His perfection is most clearly revealed and expressed.  It is perfected by our Lord upon the Cross, even as He declares that “It is finished.”  For there His mercy and forgiveness are accomplished for you.

As a beloved and well-pleasing child of God in Christ Jesus, you are here called to be “perfect” in this same sense, in this same way, that is, by loving your enemies, by showing mercy toward and forgiving those who sin against you, and by finding and living your life in the Cross of Christ.

That is the point to all of Jesus’ Words: To love your neighbor as yourself, even your enemies, for the sake of your Father in heaven.  To love and serve your spouse, and to respect your neighbor’s marriage; to refrain from revenge, and to forgive instead; to give freely at your own expense, even to those who are taking advantage of you; to love and pray for those who hate you and hurt you.  All of this the Lord has done and continues to do for you.  Not only that, but He credits His perfect life to your account, so that you are righteous by faith in Him.  And He now lives His life in you, and through you for your neighbors, so that your body and life are an “epiphany” of His Gospel.

To make this very concrete and particular, by way of a specific example, consider again the Word of the Lord concerning adultery and divorce.  In that light, the higher and perfect righteousness of Christ Jesus is demonstrated by the betrayed husband who does not divorce his unfaithful wife but rather forgives her and reconciles her to himself in love.  The letter of the Law does not require such mercy and forgiveness.  But this is an example of how and why this righteousness of God in Christ Jesus exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees — not only by degree, but also by kind.  For His righteousness is revealed and perfected precisely in His gracious mercy and free forgiveness.

So it is that He, your heavenly Bridegroom, did not divorce His people, though they have been so unfaithful and adulterous.  But from heaven He came and sought you and all the children of Adam and Eve to be His holy Bride.  With His own blood He bought you, and for your life He died.

That is the righteousness to which you are called, which you cannot earn or obtain for yourself, but which has been obtained for you and given to you by Christ.  Only by faith in Christ Jesus do you live as a perfect child of your Father in heaven; for it is only in Christ Jesus that His God and Father is your God and Father.  And so it is that, by His Holy Spirit, you love and forgive where you would otherwise hate and hurt; you give and sacrifice where you would otherwise covet and lust; you serve without any thanks where you would otherwise retaliate with anger and revenge.

In all this, it is the Gospel that is confessed, and the world sees in you the grace of God in Christ.

Instead of retaliating, seeking revenge, and refusing to forgive, the righteousness of faith in Christ suffers all things, bears all things, endures all things — for the sake of Him who suffered death upon the Cross in your stead, bearing all your sins and griefs and sorrows in His own Body; who endured the righteous wrath of God on your behalf, that you should be redeemed and reconciled.  Think of how He turned the other cheek to those who mocked and abused Him; and when He was reviled, He did not revile in return, but He kept on entrusting Himself to His Father in heaven.

By His stripes you are healed — so that, having died to sin, you might live unto righteousness.

You thus live by entrusting yourself to your God and Father in Christ, seeking not your own way but His way of mercy, peace, and love.  In any case, you have no need to seek revenge or justice for yourself, since the Lord your God Himself has redeemed you and declared you to be righteous.

What is more — and most wonderful of all — wherever and however you have fallen short of His perfection, your merciful and great High Priest, the incarnate Son of God, Christ Jesus, avails for you unto repentance and faith in the atoning sacrifice of His Cross and the perfect righteousness of His Resurrection from the dead.  He is your Life and your Salvation.  In His crucified and risen Body, as a member of His Body and Bride, the Church, you are perfect, as He Himself is perfect.

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

15 February 2020

My Top Favorite Current Musical Acts and Artists by Genre

I've been working for a while now on narrowing down the number of musical acts and artists I follow, and, while the following is not an exhaustive list, it is a fairly comprehensive summary of where my focus is settling. Under each of fifteen musical "genres," I've listed my top twelve favorite current acts and artists. By "current" I refer to those who are still producing music in the present, though some of them are likely nearing the end of their careers. Beyond the acts and artists included here, there are probably another three or four dozen that I remain interested in and pay attention to. But for the purposes of this post, I was determined to limit myself to a dozen entries within each category. Some might quibble with my categorization, but it is my own.

I share this list, not only for the sake of disciplining myself and establishing a measure of public accountability for my goals, but also because I believe there's something of interest and enjoyment for almost anyone within these various musical categories, regardless of your own tastes in music. In any case, it is one of my greatest pleasures in life to share the things I love with my family & friends. So, see what you think, and maybe you'll discover something new.

Modern Mainline Country

Tim McGraw
Kenny Chesney
Keith Urban
Carrie Underwood
Brad Paisley
Lady Antebellum
Jason Aldean
Darius Rucker
Blake Shelton
Kacey Musgraves
Ashley McBryde
Dierks Bentley

Red Dirt, Retro, and (Neo-)Traditional Country

Cody Jinks
Trace Adkins
George Strait
Ronnie Dunn / Brooks & Dunn
Wade Bowen
Tyler Childers
Chris Stapleton
Casey Donahew (Band)
Cory Morrow
Cody Johnson
Randy Rogers (Band)
Vince Gill

Alternative & Edgy Country

Eric Church
Zac Brown Band
Sturgill Simpson
Miranda Lambert
Uncle Kracker
The Steel Woods
Brothers Osborne
Little Big Town
Paul Cauthen
Margo Price
Aubrie Sellers
Alex Williams

Folk & Americana

Lori McKenna
Brandi Carlile / The Highwomen
Allison Moorer
The Secret Sisters
Flatland Cavalry
Brandy Clark
The Waifs
Alison Krauss (and Union Station)
Dori Freeman
The Devil Makes Three
Mandolin Orange

Alternative & Progressive Folk

Parker Millsap
The Avett Brothers
The Decemberists
Mumford & Sons
The Head and the Heart
Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors
Amanda Shires / The Highwomen
Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters
The Lumineers / Neyla Pekarek
The Dustbowl Revival
Belle & Sebastian
Shovels & Rope

Heartland-Americana Pop-Rock

Will Hoge
Jason Isbell
Kid Rock
Sister Hazel
Jimmy Barnes
American Aquarium / BJ Barham
Green River Ordinance
The Band of Heathens
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real
Jamestown Revival
Reckless Kelly
Turnpike Troubadours

Singer-Songwriter Pop

Mat Kearney
Taylor Swift
Gavin DeGraw
Jason Mraz
Five For Fighting
John Mayer
Ben Rector
Sara Bareilles
Dan Layus / Augustana
Amos Lee

Alternative ~ Pop-Rock

Rob Thomas / Matchbox Twenty
Plain White T’s
Imagine Dragons
Rick Springfield
The Script
Grace Potter
American Authors
Better Than Ezra / Kevin Griffin
Weird Al Yankovic

Classic Rock

Black Country Communion
Brian Fallon / Gaslight Anthem
Black Star Riders
Rival Sons
Greta Van Fleet
Sammy Hagar / Chickenfoot / Van Halen
Beth Hart
Wolfmother / Andrew Stockdale

Modern Rock

Bon Jovi
Linkin Park
3 Doors Down
Revolution Saints / Night Ranger
Three Days Grace
Saint Asonia
Scott Stapp / Creed

Hard Rock ~ Heavy Metal

Alter Bridge / Tremonti / Myles Kennedy
Ozzy Osbourne
Black Stone Cherry
Saxon / Biff Byford
Pretty Maids

Progressive Rock & Metal

Dream Theater
Of Mice & Men
Sons of Apollo
Avenged Sevenfold
Within Temptation


Judas Priest
Black Veil Brides
All That Remains
Iron Maiden
Killswitch Engage / Times of Grace
Primal Fear / Magnus Karlsson

Ambiguous Alternatives

Andy Black
Breaking Benjamin
The Goo Goo Dolls
The Black Keys / Dan Auerbach
Good Charlotte
Mayday Parade
Sleeping with Sirens
Red Jumpsuit Apparatus
Need-to-Breathe / Wilder Woods


Joe Bonamassa
Slash / Myles Kennedy / Guns ‘n’ Roses
Joe Satriani — Chickenfoot
Paul Gilbert — Mr. Big
Michael Schenker
Gus G — Firewind
Zakk Wylde — Black Label Society
Tedeschi Trucks Band / Susan Tedeschi / Derek Trucks
Kenny Wayne Shepherd
Jack White — The Raconteurs / The Dead Weather
Joanne Shaw Taylor
Diana Rein

02 February 2020

Face to Face with God in Christ Jesus

Today we are diverted from the normal sequence of the Epiphany Season, as we take a giant step backward in the lifetime of our Lord.  Once more He is an Infant in the arms of His Mother, being brought to the Temple in Jerusalem, His Father’s House, on this Fortieth Day of the ChristMass.

As throughout Epiphany, so also in the Presentation of our Lord, the Almighty God here reveals Himself and His Glory in the flesh and blood of His incarnate Son, Christ Jesus.  In this little Babe, the Son of Mary, the Lord your God has burst upon the scene and confronts you face to face.

Now, if you consider what that entails, you realize that confrontation with God surely ought to be a terrible and frightening encounter for you, a poor, miserable sinner deserving of punishment.  If you’ve got your hand in the cookie jar, the last thing you want is to come face to face with your Mom.  And if you mess up on the job, you don’t look forward to a confrontation with the boss.

But here the one true God, the Lord Himself, who commands you to be holy and perfect, as He is holy and perfect, but who already knows that you are not — who knows all your sins of thought, word, and deed, past, present, and future — He comes to meet you face to face — the same One who comes to judge the living and the dead.  But are you ready to meet your Creator and Judge?

On your own and of yourself, no, you are not ready to face Him, nor would you be able to stand in His presence.  No more than Adam and Eve were ready, when they’d eaten the forbidden fruit.  Remember how they tried to hide from God among the trees of the Garden?  Whatever newfound knowledge of good and evil they might have gained was more than enough to tell our first parents that they had sinned against the Lord.  And like yourself, having disobeyed the Word of God, they knew what they deserved.  They could not bear to look God in the eye, to see Him face to face.

And yet, when God the Lord confronted them there in the Garden after the Fall — along with the cursing of the serpent and the punishment of pain in childbirth — side-by-side with the cursing of the soil and the decree that man would return to that soil in death — Adam and Eve also received the promise of the Savior.  Face to face with God, and they received His mercy and forgiveness.

That’s what happened again when the same Lord God revealed Himself to Abraham and promised that by his Seed the nations would be saved.  With Father Abraham God established His Covenant, sealed with the blood of circumcision as a sign of the Lord’s ongoing presence with His People.

Then again, the Lord our God came face to face with Jacob as a Man, and He wrestled with him through the night, thereby teaching him repentance and training him in the prayer and confession of faith.  Though putting his hip out of its socket (like the bones of Christ Jesus on His Cross), the Lord blessed Jacob and bestowed on him the name of Israel, that is, “he who strives with God.”

Remember Mt. Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses and through him established His Covenant with Israel — the Covenant fulfilled and perfected in the conception and birth of the Blessed Virgin Mary’s Son, Immanuel, who is indeed God-with-us in the Flesh.  As we celebrate throughout Christmas and Epiphany, the Lord God has come down from heaven to tabernacle with you and all in His own Flesh and Blood.  So is He with you today in this Temple of His Church.

And so it is that we rejoice and give thanks along with St. Simeon and St. Anna, two of God’s holy and righteous people who have gone before us in the one true faith, who came face to face with their Savior in His Holy Temple.  In the Face of the Infant Christ Jesus — the promised Seed of the Woman, the Seed of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — they beheld the Face of God Himself.

In that light, Simeon could not help but sing.  And his song of sweet salvation has gone out to all the ends of the earth, to every corner of the Church, and so also to you.  For the same Lord God comes to be with you in the Ministry of His Gospel.  Not with finger-shaking or scolding, but with tender mercy and forgiveness.  By faith you discern His great salvation in water, bread, and wine.  And in the Resurrection, with your own two eyes, you shall see Him face to face forevermore.

It was appropriate that Simeon should come face to face with God in the Temple, for he was no stranger to that sacred place.  Living in accordance with God’s Word and joining in the liturgical life of the Temple were an exercise of his faith and confidence in the coming Messiah.  The same thing is true for you.  In the Temple of the Lord, that is, within His Church of Word and Sacrament, Christ Jesus continues to manifest His divine glory in His forgiveness of sins and His gift of life.

The Prophetess Anna likewise clearly understood that blessing and benefit.  For St. Luke writes that she did not leave the Temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayers.

It’s not necessarily the case that Anna spent twenty-four hours a day at the Temple and never left, or that she lived in the building.  But it is certain that this devout woman of God faithfully took part in the worship life of Israel.  She was present for the daily services of the Temple, evening and morning, and for all the festivals and feast days of the Lord’s liturgical year.  She no doubt also used the Temple as a place of prayer, calling on the Name of the Lord to redeem His people.

St. Anna’s participation in the Temple’s worship and liturgy greatly increased her faith in the coming Messiah.  For there she heard the promises of God repeated daily from the Holy Scriptures.  There she sang with all the faithful the Psalms of promise and deliverance.  And in the sacrifices offered by the priests of God, St. Anna foresaw the Sacrifice of the Son of God for the forgiveness of all her sins.  So do you now hear and receive Christ Jesus in His Word and Sacrament here.

It was thus within the Lord’s Temple in Jerusalem — where they had for so long and so faithfully stood in the presence of God and availed themselves of His Word and promises — that Simeon and Anna were, in the fullness of time, brought face to face with the Word-of-God-made-Flesh, the fulfillment of all those promises, to whom their worship, prayers, and fasting had always pointed.

This little Babe, just forty days old, is the very God who walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden, who spoke to Abraham concerning a son, who wrestled with Jacob through the night and gave to him the blessing of His Name, and who spoke face-to-face with Moses on the Mountain and wrote His Law on tablets of stone.  This little Lord Jesus is Immanuel, the God who is with His People.

St. Simeon was thus given the blessed privilege of taking the Christ Child into his arms, thereby cradling the flesh of His Creator to his own sinful flesh.  Looking into the eyes of Baby Jesus, he was face to face with God.  By this Child he would have life everlasting in body and soul.  Seized with joy and the passion of realized hope, that faithful man of God burst into song by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, thus giving to the Church that song or canticle we know as the Nunc Dimittis.

Yet, what Simeon perceived in his Savior was a fearful task.  “Behold,” he said to St. Mary, “this Child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a Sign that is spoken against.  A great sword will pierce your own soul, and the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.”

Christ Jesus is the Light of Revelation for the nations and the Glory of His People Israel, but His Peace and Salvation are costly beyond price — purchased not with perishable things like gold or silver, but with His own holy and precious Blood, and with His innocent suffering and death.

It is the Cross and Passion of the Christ that St. Simeon beholds and foretells.  For him, the joy that began in the Bethlehem manger would find its fulfillment on Calvary.  So do we also recall that the Salvation which first appeared at Christmas in the pains of Mary’s labor would be completed in the pains of her great loss.  For the joy of our salvation is found only in the grief of crucifixion — a grief St. Mary also suffered when she stood at the foot of the Cross witnessing her own dear Son die an agonizing death for us all, and the great sword of sorrow went ripping through her soul.

Gazing at the Baby Jesus, St. Simeon did not dwell on the color of His eyes or comment on how much hair He had.  He rather saw the shadow of the Cross, standing already above the horizon.  Even as an Infant, that cursed tree was the focus and goal of our Lord’s entire life.  For it is by the Sacrifice of His Cross that He redeems and liberates His people from sin, death, and hell.

For all that, St. Simeon speaks not only of the Cross, but also of the Resurrection.  For the Child, he says, is destined not only for the falling but also for the rising of many in Israel.  As He dies and rises for you, so are you put to death and raised to newness of life with Him, by way of Baptism in His Name, and by daily repentance and faith in His forgiveness of sins.  As you thus die with Christ Jesus, so do you also rise and live with Him, as well.  For Christ Jesus, having risen from the dead, will never die again.  And baptized into Christ, even though you die, yet shall you live!

In the meantime, it is true that you do not know the joy of holding Baby Jesus in your arms in the same way as Simeon and Anna.  But you do share with them the greater joy of forgiveness in the Cross of Christ.  And you join with them and all the saints of God in the Temple of the Church, in the Liturgy of the Gospel, week by week, year after year, awaiting the Resurrection of all flesh.

With St. Anna you gather day and night within the Temple to hear the Word and promises of God, to sing the ancient Psalms and hymns of faith, and to be presented with the Flesh and Blood of your Savior, Jesus — the same Flesh and Blood that St. Mary brought to the Temple in Jerusalem all those years ago, the same Flesh and Blood that were hung upon the Cross for your salvation.

And as surely as St. Simeon received the tiny Body of the Lord from the arms of His Mother, so do you also receive the Body of the same Christ Jesus from the hand of your pastors, and you are strengthened and sustained in peace and joy by that gift of the Word-made-Flesh.  Likewise, you drink the Blood of His forgiveness, which cleanses you from all your sins.  In the Lord’s Supper you come face to face with God, not for condemnation, but for everlasting life in body and soul.

Like Mary and Joseph, you will soon depart and leave for your own home.  But as you go your way, you do so with the Nunc Dimittis on your lips, as you also sing with faithful Simeon, “Lord, now let Your servant go in peace; Your Word has been fulfilled.”  For by faith you have seen the Salvation of God in the Light of Revelation which He shines upon you through the Holy Gospel.

You go home from this place as a beloved and well-pleasing child of God, holy and righteous in His sight, enlightened by the Glory of God in the Face of Jesus Christ.  And by His grace through faith in Him, you are clothed with compassion and kindness, humility and patience, and above all, clothed with love.  It is in your body and life, dear Christian, that God comes face to face with the world around you, as He enables you to be a light to those who yet live in the darkness of unbelief.  Above all, you live a life of forgiveness and love, as the Lord loves you and freely forgives you.

If you are married, show the face of God’s mercy and forgiveness to your husband or wife.  Be patient and long-suffering, and love your spouse, as Christ Jesus patiently and steadfastly loves you both.  If you are a father or mother, show the face of God’s love to your children; forgive them, as the Lord Jesus is daily forgiving your sins.  If you are a child, show the face of God’s love to your parents; honor your father and mother, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.  And all of you, show the face of God to everyone you meet — at work, at home, at school, and wherever.

Where does the strength to do it come from?  It is surely not from yourself.  The world comes face to face with God in you, because you come face to face with God in His Word and Sacraments, here within the Temple of the Lord, His Holy Church, which is the very gate of heaven on earth.

Earlier, I recalled how Jacob wrestled through the night with the Lord Himself.  Afterwards, he named the place of his confrontation, “Penuel,” which means, “the face of God.”  For, as he said, “I have seen God Face to Face, yet my life has been kept safe.”  I dare say it is no coincidence that the name of St. Anna’s father is that same word, Phanuel.  And so are you also given to approach and depart from the Lord’s Altar in this House of God with the same words of Jacob on your lips.  For this is your “Penuel.”  Here you come Face to Face with God, and here you are kept safe.

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