Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. Matthew 8:23-27
January 29, 2017
“The Captain of the Ship”
Jesus gets into a boat, and his disciples follow. Then a great storm arises. It must have been a really great storm. At least four of Jesus’ disciples are men who fished on this sea six days a week for years. They were familiar with the weather. They have been through storms before, and I’m certain that, being men who made a living with their hands and their back, they were not the type of men to show fear easily. But when they come to wake Jesus up, they cry like terrified children, they humiliate themselves: Lord, save us! We’re dying!
I’ve known Christian men who were dying. Men don’t want to admit fear of death and God’s judgment in front of another man even when death is imminent. Yet these fishermen in the boat cry out to Jesus in terror.
This must have been an incredible storm.
I am sure that you have had storms like this throughout your life, whether you are listening on the radio or here today. You may very well be in one right now. It may be that the doctor told you how many months he thinks you have left; it may be that the doctor isn’t sure what to tell you. Or it may not be a storm that threatens you with literal death, but it’s bad enough that it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning, or it’s hard to bring yourself through the doors of the church.
Then there’s the storms the Church goes through, which is really what this story is getting at. The boat that holds Jesus and the disciples is a picture of the Church. Look up there, at the ceiling; it kind of looks like the bottom of a boat. That’s why the Latin word for the part of the church on your side of the altar rail is called the nave; it comes from the navis, which means “ship”, which is also where we get the word “navy”. The Church of Jesus is a little boat or an ark. It sails through the rough waters of this world, the storms of persecution, the flood of God’s judgment, the depths of death and hell, and lets those inside out on the dry land of the new creation. And Jesus is in this boat with us. We aren’t sailing ourselves to heaven. He is the Captain of the ark of the Holy Christian Church.
But the whole way on this voyage the boat is hit by storms. And throughout the 2000 years since Jesus ascended to the Father, the Church has cried out in desperation, feeling like the ship was sure to sink, and the Christians inside would perish.
Anyone who’s a member of this congregation and cares about it at all, for whatever reason, knows this feeling. This Gospel reading today is your story, isn’t it?
And if the Church sinks, it’s far worse than when storms hit us individually. We come to the Divine Service, to other Christians, to the pastor, to find help when the storms hit us privately. We rely on the Church to be there when our child is going astray, when we are laid low with illness—to tell us what God says; to correct us when we live or believe contrary to His Word, and above all to proclaim to us the forgiveness of sins in His name. We come to the Church when our father or mother, husband or wife has died. We bring the bodies of the people we love most so that the Church—or rather Jesus through the Church—will preach to us that our loved one will rise again.
But if the Church goes under, destroyed by persecution or twisted and mutated so that it no longer proclaims God’s Word—who will bring us the Gospel of Christ crucified? Who will tell us that it applies to us too? Who will forgive our sins in Jesus’ name? Who will baptize our children? Who will give us the body and blood of Jesus? And not only us: if the Church goes under the waves, who will proclaim the coming judgment of God and the forgiveness of sins through Jesus to the world that falsely believes it has God already, without Christ?
+Our storms at St. Peter are not unique or new
–when all of Europe was supposedly Christian, a false gospel of salvation by human effort made the true Gospel for all intents and purposes unknown, until 500 years ago God worked through Martin Luther to restore it
–Since then the devil has worked to almost extinguish the pure Gospel again through luxury and wealth, through doctrinal indifference.
+Yet very few Christians realized that this was a storm that threatened to destroy the Church; very few even realize it today. We are only starting to realize in our Church that true faith in Christ was being eaten away for a long time; we started to realize it because this congregation is almost underwater.
We aren’t the whole Church; but what is happening here is happening all around us.
+So we go to Jesus, like disciples:
And notice: when the disciples wake Jesus up, they don’t have quiet confidence, fearlessness. That’s what firm faith brings. Instead they have terror and fear that Jesus is just going to sleep while they drown.
Their prayer comes from fear more than from faith. It seems to express anger at Jesus—“How can you not care that we are going to die? What are you doing, still sleeping?”
When a ship has no captain, or the sailors don’t trust the captain and they think the ship is going to sink, all hell breaks loose. Sailors stop working together and letting the captain direct; they all start trying to save the ship as individuals, which is absolutely not going to work, or maybe they try to mutiny and set up a new captain. And when all these things become hopeless, people start grabbing something that floats and taking their chances in the sea. When no one listens to the captain anymore, the ship is doomed.
But Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church; He will safely bring it through all storms into the eternal calm and peace of eternal life.
When Jesus gets up from sleeping, notice who He speaks to first—not the wind and the waves. Not to the thing the disciples think is the danger.
He speaks to them first, because the danger is not the storm. In our day, the danger is not the declining numbers in the Church, or declining bank accounts, declining prestige in our society.
The danger is within us—unbelief. That instead of Jesus, we trust in what we see and feel, in our own thoughts, in the wisdom of the world and the false religion pushed by the devil and the world.
Unbelief is the danger because it is idolatry: we think the storm is more powerful than God; we fear it more than God. The first commandment: You shall have no other gods—We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. The storm is more powerful than God, and we know better than God’s Word what is necessary to save ourselves or the Church.
So Jesus speaks first to the disciples, rebuking the storm in their hearts, the storm of unbelief and the cowardice that comes from it.
Why are you so cowardly, you of little faith?
Jesus understands why they are afraid. What He is telling them and us is that we don’t have anything to fear. Not if we have Him.
+Really? We have nothing to fear? Nothing. How can you say that, if the boat is about to sink and the disciples are going to perish?
Because Jesus rebukes the winds and the sea and there was a great calm. Not only does Jesus know how to steer the ship safely. He simply speaks and nature obeys. Who does that?
The answer is, only God does that. God was with the disciples in the boat, living with them, sharing their bread, sharing their storms, sharing their sins.
The prophet Jonah brought a great calm when he was thrown into the sea. The storm came because of Jonah’s rebellion against God, when Jonah ran away from the presence of God. It went away when the sailors handed over Jonah to certain death.
But God rescued Jonah from his rebellion and its punishment; from certain death, sending the fish, who vomited him onto dry land.
Jesus also brought great calm that lasts forever; He took on our rebellion against God as His own; He willingly was thrown into the boiling, angry flood of God’s wrath, making our sins His own and being nailed to the cross. Then He stepped out of the belly of death into the land of the living, having put our sins away forever. Now there is a great calm; peace with God.
That great peace comes rolling across the storms of this world to us from the eternal God in our flesh; not a temporary calm, like the one in Matthew 8, but an eternal one.
Jesus is the captain of the ship of the Church. He can be trusted to lead us safely through the storms of death and hell, because He has already gone through them and destroyed them.
Jesus will not fail to bring His church safely to land.
His Church includes the weak in faith.
But those who reject Jesus’ word are not Jesus’ Church; they are not in the boat where He is. They are mixed with the saints around the Word, but they don’t believe in Him. When storms come, they mutiny against Jesus, don’t listen to His Word. They try to take over the boat from Him, or jump overboard because they think it’s doomed.
Brothers, we are weak; we do this in spite of ourselves. But let us be comforted and listen to Jesus. He is worthy to be trusted. He isn’t a fool or a con artist. He tells us, “You have me in the boat in my preaching, in my pure doctrine, and my Sacraments. Hold on to me; you have nothing to fear.”
We have many sins, but He doesn’t cast away sinners who trust in Him, the Savior of sinners, the sin-bearer.
He will not let the floods overwhelm us or let His Church sink. Our traditions will perish, our will that contradicts the will of God will not be done. But Christ’s Church is more than that—it is the whole company of saints throughout the world, through time and eternity, who cling to Jesus alone.
It will never perish, and neither will those who trust Him. He cannot perish; He died, and He lives forevermore. And we who are baptized into Him have been joined with Him who joined Himself to us—we also have died and risen. The new creation that will appear on the last day has already begun in all who believe.
St. Peter Lutheran Church
Deuteronomy 8:1-10 (1 Timothy 2:1-4)
November 24, 2016
“Thanksgiving for the Lord’s Discipline”
Setting apart a day to give thanks to God has a long history in America. The Pilgrims didn’t invent it. The French and Spanish explorers are said to have had their own “thanksgivings” to give thanks to God for allowing them to arrive safely in the new world. A group of English settlers in Virginia wrote a constitution for their colony in 1619 that said “that the day of our ships arrival … in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of thanksgiving to Almighty God.” Both Catholics and Protestants set aside days of Thanksgiving because they recognized, or wanted people to recognize, that they didn’t get to America safely or accomplish anything here on their own. God enabled them and allowed them. Without His favor they would have died on the voyage, and without His favor they would not be able to succeed in anything once they arrived. So together, as a society, they gave thanks to God, recognizing His hand in the events of their lives, and thanking Him for the good He allowed them to receive in spite of their many sins against Him.
We aren’t like this anymore in America. We don’t recognize God’s hand in the things that happen to us as a nation. And imagine the President or Congress announcing a national day of thanksgiving, or a national day of supplication and prayer, in response to some great blessing received or tragedy experienced by the nation, announcing that schools and businesses and the stock exchange would be closed so that the nation might turn to God for a day!
Things are not much better in the Church among Christians. If we announced a special service of thanksgiving in response to a special blessing of God on a day that people are not accustomed to coming to church, I know very well what would happen. Even, say, if someone wrote a check to St. Peter for several hundred thousand dollars, covering the whole cost of our roof repairs. This is an indication that for many people worship is not the spontaneous, living response of their hearts to God’s love and gifts; for many people it is a formality, doing what they think is required and no more. Worship is on Sunday, period.
But God does not stop being our God at noon on Sundays. He doesn’t stop giving us gifts then or providing for our needs of body and soul. Every day He lets His sun shine on the just and the wicked alike. I believe that God has made me and all creatures, that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them [or preserves them] Luther’s Catechism teaches us to say. And it goes on to remind us of all the gifts He gives us, day in and day out, whether we please Him or not: He also gives me clothing and shoes, food and drink, house and home, wife and children, land, animals, and all I have. He richly and daily provides me with all that I need to support this body and life. He defends me against all danger and guards and protects me from all evil. For all this it is my duty to thank and praise, serve and obey Him.
Yes, as we sing in the communion liturgy each week, “It is truly good, right, and salutary that we should at all times and in all places give thanks to You, Holy Lord, Almighty Father, Everlasting God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s only right that we should recognize that God has given us our life and existence, and that He constantly provides for our lives to be sustained, whether we do good or evil. And recognizing this, it’s right that we should give thanks from our hearts to Him at all times. And when He shows us special kindness as a church or as a nation, it is right that we should publicly thank Him in the Church with a special service of thanksgiving.
This has immediate practical importance for your lives as individuals, this issue of recognizing God’s hand in your life and thanking Him. Because if we do not recognize God as the giver of the good things in our lives and give Him thanks—the things that we need and the people and things we love—we will not be able to recognize Him as the giver of the things that seem evil to us. When we get sick and when we suffer in various ways, we will feel ourselves abandoned or cursed by God, because we have not learned to recognize Him and His hand in all that we experience in life.
Consider the reading from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy chapter 8. You would think that the people of Israel would have no difficulty understanding that God was intimately involved with what happened to them. He had, after all, sent ten plagues on the Egyptians to make Pharaoh let them go; led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night in the wilderness; parted the Red Sea to bring Israel through in safety and then drowned Pharaoh and his mighty army. He had fed them with bread from heaven in the desert. He had come down on Mt. Sinai in fire and spoke the Ten Commandments to them. He had entered into a covenant with them there that they would be His people and He would be there God.
And yet they did not recognize that God was among them and leading them. At the beginning of their exodus, right after coming through the Red Sea, they went a few days without water and began to say, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Ex. 17:7) Then Moses struck a rock with his staff, and water came out for the whole congregation of 3 million. But after 40 years in the wilderness they had still not learned to recognize God’s presence among them and how He was providing for them and teaching Him the whole way. So Moses explains to them, not long before his death: You shall remember the whole way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord…Know then, that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. Deut. 8:2-3, 5
The Israelites did not understand the reason why they experienced the things they did, why after God gloriously led them out of Egypt, He allowed them to wander in circles in the desert for 40 years. Maybe many of them began to think that God’s promise that He loved them and had chosen them to be His own people out of all the nations on the earth was just religious talk that doesn’t actually have any significance in real life, because they seemed like they were going nowhere, and the promised land seemed a long way away.
But Moses explained that no, God did have a reason for their wandering in circles. As a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. A man disciplines his son because he loves his son. Kids with strict parents look at other kids whose parents let them do whatever they want and think those kids have it better. But as adults we understand that parents who let their kids do whatever they want on the internet without paying attention, who let their kids run around as teenagers without paying attention to what they’re doing are parents who don’t love their kids very much. Parents who love their kids allow their kids freedom when their kids have proven that they can handle the freedom without ruining themselves. They “test” their kids “to know what is in [their] hearts.”
This is why God led the Israelites in circles in the desert forty years, why He humbled them so that they had to rely on God to drop bread down from heaven if they were going to eat. He didn’t allow them much freedom at all, did He? It was to discipline them so that they worshipped Him—that is, so that they believed in Him, so that they trusted Him, so that they learned faith in Him. Then when they entered the promised land and suddenly had houses that other people built, and rich farmland that other people cultivated, they would not turn away from Him and think they had gotten all this for themselves, or worship the idols of the people who lived there before them. They would remember the Lord who brought them out of slavery and give Him thanks for the good land that He had given them.
Another amazing thing is hidden in that sentence: Know then in your heart, that, as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. It’s easy to focus on the word “discipline” and think of a dad in the old days taking his son behind the woodshed with a switch or something. But that is not the key word: the key word is “son.” I don’t think anywhere before the exodus of the people of Israel did God call any human being his “son,” not even Abraham or Noah or Enoch, who walked with God. But here Moses tells the people of Israel that God has been treating them like His Son. A man disciplines his son not only because he loves him but because the son is going to inherit everything that belongs to his father, and he needs to learn to be wise so that he will be capable of managing his inheritance instead of destroying it and himself. God is dealing with Israel, rebellious Israel, idol-worshipping Israel, as His own son, whom he is preparing to inherit everything that is His.
This would have little meaning for us as Gentiles, as non-Israelites. Our ancestors worshipped idols, and God did not discipline them and deal with them as His sons. But long ago someone came to them and taught them about Jesus and proclaimed Him as the Son of God. And our believing ancestors taught their children about Him until it came down to us.
We learned that Jesus, the Son of God from eternity, through whom God the Father created and preserves the world, became the son of Adam, one of us. He lived among us so that we might see in Him the exact image of God the Father. And being our brother, He died for our sins, was raised from the dead, and ascended with our human nature to the throne of God. Through His suffering the wrath of God for our sins, He caused human beings to be adopted by God as sons; and He received the inheritance of eternal glory in human flesh as a pledge of what is to come for all who believe in Him.
Because of Him, you have a certain pledge from God about what His heart is toward you and what He is doing in the events of your life.
They are not random, meaningless events, like the Israelites were tempted to think. God is dealing with you as sons. He is dealing with you like a father who loves his son and who wants to prepare him to inherit all that is his.
A father loves his son, so he provides for him; he gives him food, shelter, clothes, and defends him from danger. At the same time, because he loves his son, he also tests him and disciplines him. He humbles him so that he learns to be faithful and obedient when he is not entrusted with much freedom. He schools him so that when he grows to be a man and inherits his father’s house, he will not squander it and ruin himself.
Many of you are dealing with personal suffering that is hard to see as God’s love. You are sick or have constant pain. It may be that the doctor has told you you have a limited amount of time left on earth. Others are suffering from seeing their children or relatives in conflict or unforgiveness, or having abandoned God.
We grieve over what our nation has become, many of us, since many of our people have forgotten right and wrong, forgotten what is decent and good. Most have also forgotten God and seem to be past repentance.
And then for many of us there is the grief at the state of the church—especially our own congregation, but also the Christian church more generally in our country….
How can we give thanks?
God has not stopped being kind, gracious, and merciful. See how freely Jesus heals the lepers of their diseases, even though 9 out of 10 are unthankful. He continues to provide us with wealth, peace, safety.
But when we suffer He is dealing with us as sons. See how His only begotten Son was chastened with the lash for your sins, how He hung on the cross, suspended by nails in His hands and feet, crowned with a curse, abandoned by God. Did the Father love Jesus? He did. Yet Jesus, though He was a son, was made perfect through suffering.
God is dealing with you as sons, preparing you to inherit glory with Jesus.
Do not lose heart. Go against your heart and praise Him “at all times and in all places.” Recognize His love not only in your daily bread, in the turkey on the table and the family gathered around it, but also in your afflictions.
Twenty-Second Sunday after Trinity
St. Peter Lutheran Church
October 23, 2016
“Letting Jesus In; Letting Jesus Out—Witnessing”
Lutherans are not known for being fanatical. No one faints from emotion in our Divine Services like they sometimes do in worship in other churches. We aren’t known for looking for every opportunity to turn conversations toward spiritual matters or for peppering our speech with “God-talk.”
As a result, we may get the impression that as Lutherans we believe in moderation in spiritual matters or religion. Yes, we believe that Jesus is our Savior. But everything has its place. We shouldn’t get too carried away with religion and end up making a spectacle of ourselves.
But that conclusion would be a mistake. Emotional excesses in worship can be bad; it can also be bad to be preachy and act hyper-spiritual in your daily life. Martin Luther criticized the “fanatics” or “enthusiasts” of his day for these things. But Divine Service in his church in Wittenberg was not an emotionless formality, even though the congregation was made up entirely of normally stoic Germans.
An example of this: toward the end of his life, Luther was distributing the blood of Christ at Holy Communion. He was old, and his hands shook. As a result of his trembling, he spilled some of the precious blood on the stone floor near the altar. The person who wrote down the story said that Luther’s eyes filled with tears at the dishonor he had inadvertently done to the Lord’s blood, and he said, “O Lord Jesus, help!” Then he got down on his old hands and knees and sucked the consecrated blood of Christ from the stone floor, lest someone step on it. And the congregation, instead of laughing or being disgusted at Luther’s piety toward the consecrated wine of the Lord’s Supper, toward the blood of Jesus, broke into sobs, seeing the old reformer do this.
Quite a bit of emotion, quite a visible display of zeal in practice for something Luther had taught people so zealously—that the Sacrament of the Altar is “the true body and blood of Christ, under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.”
Lutherans are, or should be, against making laws about the proper amount of emotion or the proper amount a Christian should display his faith in Christ in public. A person may have true, living faith in Jesus and yet not talk about it a lot in public or display a lot of emotion at church. Some of that has to do with a person’s temperament, some of it with the strength of his or her faith. Some of it has to do with the fact that genuine faith is not a matter of outward display.
We make those allowances, yet we should never make the mistake of thinking that moderation in Christianity is good or even possible for a genuine Christian. A Christian cannot be “lukewarm”, as the Lord tells the church in Laodicea that they are. A Christian cannot be “neither cold nor hot.” And a church that has become “neither cold nor hot” is one in which the cold and dead members have mixed to such a degree with the living, believing members that the entire church has become nauseating to the risen Lord Jesus. “So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit (or vomit) you out of my mouth.” (Rev. 3:16)
Why does lack of zeal, “moderate Christianity”, “reasonable Christianity”, lukewarmness make Jesus sick? We forget that Jesus Himself was not “moderate.” He was (and is), we might say, a zealot, a radical. Yes, He is amazingly gentle and patient with the weak, the sinful, and the fallen, so that He didn’t speak a harsh word to those crushed and overwhelmed by their sins, cast off by their society as “deplorable” and “irredeemable.” Yet His graciousness toward sinners was never grace toward sin itself. He “gave Himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). He was so committed, so passionate in His hatred of sin that He gave His life not only to forgive and cover sin but also to remove and destroy it. He was so passionate in His opposition to false and hypocritical worship that He went into the temple and threw down the tables of the money changers. He was so zealous in opposing the false teaching of the Pharisees, scribes, and chief priests that He continued to preach and teach the Gospel of grace in opposition to them, and to denounce them, until they connived to have Him crucified. Jesus was and is not cool and moderate. He is fiery. His feet gleam like gold coming out of a fire. His face shines like the sun. His eyes are like flames. He is hot and burning with love for His Father and for you.
Because He burns with charity He is infinitely gentle with the weak, but He is nauseated by lukewarmness. When people and churches claim to be Christian but are moderate and reasonable in their love for God, His good news of grace, and for other sinners, when they are lukewarm, self-satisfied, content, and unwilling to do anything that might risk their comfort, it makes our Lord ill. He can’t stand it. He will spit such Christianity, such so-called “Christians”, such churches out of His mouth. That, says the Lord of the Church to the congregation is Laodicea, is the kind of church you are.
How did the church in Laodicea become this way—lukewarm, neither cold nor hot, disgusting to its Lord? He tells them: You say, I am rich, I have prospered, I need nothing…(Rev. 3:17) The church in Laodicea had become wealthy and prosperous in earthly goods. But this wasn’t the cause of their lukewarmness. They were lukewarm because they were not “rich toward God” (Luke 12:21). They foolishly believed that since they had earthly wealth they “lacked nothing.” We can draw this conclusion as well—their wealth indicated that the church in Laodicea had not had to endure the persecution we saw in the other churches. Persecuted Christians are typically denied the opportunities available to the rest of society. High positions are often denied them.
It may also be that the church in Laodicea had made a practice of compromising with the pagan world around them. Back a few generations ago lots of people belonged to secret societies like the Freemasons or the other lodges, but it was forbidden in the Missouri Synod, because the members of those societies took part in religious rites and confessions of faith that were contrary to the confession of faith they made as members of the Lutheran Church. Today people are often offended by the practice of “closed communion” which is the practice and teaching of the Missouri Synod. By practicing “closed communion” we are saying that communing at a church is tied to confessing faith in that church’s teaching. As a result those who believe another doctrine, or who are in fellowship with those who teach another doctrine, should not commune at LCMS altars, nor should those who confess our doctrine commune at a church with another doctrine. That teaching offends people today; but for a century and a few decades, the LCMS’ teaching about lodge membership was an offensive teaching to many (even inside the LCMS).
People typically belonged to lodges or to the Masons—at least, this is what most people said—for the sake of business. Lodge members helped each other out and sent business one another’s way. Not being a member of a lodge could hurt people financially. It was this way for people in the early church too. If you wouldn’t step foot in the temple of an idol or burn incense to Caesar, it could hurt your business opportunities. Yet the church in Laodicea was prosperous. It’s quite possible they had become this way by compromising their witness to Christ by engaging in the worship of idols, or giving the appearance of this being possible for a faithful Christian.
The church in Laodicea put its trust in its earthly wealth and in the freedom from persecution it had experienced. Since it had those things, it didn’t think it needed anything else. It became a church where Jesus was left outside in the cold, knocking on the door to be let in. But the Laodiceans wouldn’t let Jesus in. Jesus was sure to take away their prosperity and their seeming peace and security. He would bring with Him white robes to put on—His innocence and righteousness before God. But He would also rub eye salve on their eyes and make them see that they were really wretched, pitiful, impoverished, and naked before God. And He would bring gold refined in the fire—that is, faith in Him instead of in earthly prosperity and security, and the fire of persecution, of suffering and trial that purifies our faith in Christ. That true gold from Jesus very probably would mean the loss of the perishable gold that they had come to trust in and see as a sign that God was pleased with them.
The churches in the nations that have had Christianity for centuries have a lot in common with the church in Laodicea. Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe for almost 2000 years in the south, and by about 1000 A.D. it had travelled to the northernmost reaches of Europe. From there it spread to every continent that Europeans colonized or settled. And for most of that time the churches did not experience persecution in an overt way. There was persecution of faithful Christians, but it was always by others who also claimed to be Christians; in Europe and America no one persecuted the church with the open admission that it was Christianity they were attacking. Only in the French Revolution in 1789 did we see the first explicit persecution of Christians by non-Christians. It happened again in Russia and other places where communism took hold. But in America the church has never experienced that. On the contrary, up until recently the churches experienced peace. They were large and prosperous, and its members became wealthy.
And as a result many people came to expect earthly peace and prosperity. They saw full pews not with suspicion, as a sign perhaps that the church had compromised with the world, but as a sign of the church’s success, perhaps even of its godliness. They became content.
And now that the pews are emptying in many churches, and the heat is being turned on by forces that oppose Christianity’s formerly dominant position in our country, we see many churches and Christians scrambling to find ways to fill the pews up again, to regain our former position of cultural dominance.
Why? Because the churches have come to trust in earthly peace, freedom from persecution, and earthly prosperity. They think that when they have those things “they need nothing,” but if those things are gone, they have lost everything.
But a church that trusts in earthly peace and prosperity is a church that leaves Jesus outside in the cold, knocking to be let in. A church like this can’t witness to Jesus. Their witness will not be faithful and true (Rev. 3:14); they may preach and talk about Jesus, who was crucified. But if their trust is in the earthly peace and security that comes from large numbers and cultural dominance, when the fire and heat of persecution comes to purify them, they will cast Jesus aside. Witness to Jesus means faithfully teaching His Word, but it also includes the witness of suffering for that Word. That is the way the devil is conquered, just as Jesus conquered Satan not by gaining the whole world but giving His life on the cursed, shameful cross.
During this fall series we have heard with our ears “what the Spirit says to the churches.” I pray that God also gives us ears to hear with repentance and faith. What does the Spirit say to this church, St. Peter, in the letter to the church in Laodicea?
It is a hard question to face willingly. Are we also “lukewarm, neither hot nor cold”, about to be spit out of the mouth of our Lord? And if so, what should we do?
If I say “Yes,” how easy it will be simply to get angry at me, and reject my answer as my opinion, not Christ’s. How easy it will be also, if you accept the judgment, to simply put your head down like a beaten dog and say, “It’s impossible to please God.”
But that isn’t why Jesus speaks this way to the church in Laodicea. He didn’t write them off as hopeless. He came as a petitioner, knocking on the door, calling to them to let them in to His house. He does the same with all churches that have become lukewarm, just as He once called out to Adam when he was hiding in the garden, running away from his Lord because he had sinned and was afraid of the punishment.
Idolizing the earthly prominence we once enjoyed
That prominence was not evil, but we have something better than that—Jesus, who was crucified for us, Jesus, the risen Lord of the church and of the world
That idolizing has kept us from witnessing to Him in a community where we have great opportunity.
Jesus not only knocks on the door to come into the Church, but He wants to go out in us to extend His kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel which He has given to us.
+Let Jesus in
-recognize our sin in clinging to earthly security, peace, prosperity
-desire to bear “faithful and true witness” to Him in our families, to our friends and neighbors, as a church in our community.
–believe the Gospel: His zeal covers our natural lukewarmness; His love our lovelessness; His willingness to suffer for others our self-seeking
–your lukewarmness which you will struggle with till the day you die is covered, cleansed, forgiven
–this repentance and faith is the work of the Holy Spirit alone
–but it has begun where there is the desire to change and be forgiven.
+Let Jesus out
–witnessing to Jesus: two parts. Proclaiming His Word faithfully, and standing fast under the hardship and even persecution that comes because of His Word.
–proclaiming the Word—both law and gospel
Sin and righteousness
–as a church: planning, going into the community and inviting them in. Welcoming those who come.
–Suffering and persecution:
This comes by itself
Enduring it, and continuing to be faithful and true witnesses to Christ, is witnessing embodied, not simply in talk
There we give a picture in our lives of the Christ who suffered to save sinners.
+Jesus comes in to us
This is “dining with Jesus” having fellowship and communion with Him
By faith we cling to Him, are joined with Him. We share His grace and His suffering.
Sharing with Him in suffering is followed by sharing with Him in glory.
May we go out with Him, even if these are the final years of our congregation’s life, so that we may rejoice forever in our fellowship with Him.
Soli Deo Gloria
17th Sunday after Trinity (First Sunday of Fall Series)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
September 18, 2016
“What the Spirit Says to the Churches about the Lord of the Church”
Six things—Divine Service. Scripture. Prayer. Giving. Serving. Witnessing. A person who is growing in faith in Christ through His pure Word also grows in these six things. That’s why for the last nine years I’ve taught about those six things every fall, and urged you to work to grow in them.
And so we can easily evaluate right here this morning, in the quiet of our hearts, whether we can say of ourselves that we have grown in these six things in the past nine years. Whether we have made a serious effort to do so. Not in order to make ourselves feel guilty—or proud—but realizing that whether or not I am growing in faith is a serious thing for which I will one day give an account to God; realizing that our growth or decline in faith and its fruits has consequences not only for ourselves, but for this congregation’s health.
Those six things—attending Divine Service, reading Scripture, praying, giving, serving, witnessing—are all gifts from God. And yet a person could easily look at them and think that they are all things that we have to do.
But there is one other thing in the fall series that is not something we do in any respect. It is something we can only receive from God. And without it our efforts to grow in the other six will be in vain. We can only rightly do and grow in them if we first receive this first thing.
That thing is Christ.
That is so basic that it may seem insulting for me to mention Him. Of course we’ve received Christ! We’ve been coming to church for decades!
And I’m certainly not disputing that you have received Christ. I’m a Lutheran pastor, not a Baptist. So I preach and believe that when you as a little baby were baptized you received Christ—or He received you.
Yet many people receive Christ and then lose Him again. It’s easy for the real Christ to be replaced by a false Christ in the preaching of the Church and even in the hearts of Christians. Again, if I was a Baptist or a Calvinist pastor I would deny that it’s possible for a true Christian to ever lose Christ. If you lost Him, they say, you never really had Him to begin with. But Scripture teaches: “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for awhile, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word, immediately he falls away.” (Matthew 13:20-21)
Christians are led away to false Christs. In the Catholic Church the Jesus who atoned for our sins with His death and gives us the forgiveness of sins freely, only through faith, is replaced with a Jesus who came to give us a new law to fulfill. But for many Christians the false Jesus that replaces the true one is a “tame” Jesus. It is a Jesus who is gracious and forgives us and may even help us when we die. He makes few demands on us and He is kind. He makes us feel comfortable and peaceful when we are able to get away from all the irritations and stresses we have to deal with in this life. He certainly doesn’t do anything that scares us or terrifies us or causes conflict. And people usually divorce this Jesus from the suffering in our lives. He doesn’t have anything to do with that, because He loves us and doesn’t want us to feel pain.
The problem with this false Jesus is that He is impotent. He comforts you when you die and any time you happen to really feel guilty about your sins. But since He has nothing to do with pain and suffering, when we experience pain and suffering we are, in essence, dealing with something beyond Jesus’ control. He doesn’t want us to suffer, and yet we do—all of us—and some of us a lot. He never does anything that makes us uncomfortable or afraid, and so—in spite of ourselves—we sometimes get bored with Jesus. We know what He’s going to say before we walk in the doors of the church.
This may be a little bit of a caricature, but isn’t it at least a partially accurate description of the way people think about Jesus?
That is the problem with idols, though—they are often boring. They’re boring because we have them under control. They can’t hurt us or scare us. But they can’t help us either. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see. They have ears, but do not hear…feet, but do not walk; and they do not make a sound in their throat. Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 115:4-8) Idols are perfectly safe—but boring. And if we worship an idol we will probably be boring also.
However the safe, tame picture of Jesus that interferes with faith in the real Jesus and that sometimes replaces it is not the Jesus who stands before us in the reading from Revelation. Spiritual health begins with receiving Jesus—the true Jesus. Not just one facet of His character or person isolated from the rest of Him. If we want Jesus, we have to receive also the beautiful yet terrible Christ who appeared to St. John. But this Christ many of us have forgotten. He is not merely the friend of the church, but the church’s Lord.
In the reading, St. John is on Patmos, a small island off the coast of modern-day Turkey. He has been imprisoned there for preaching the word of God, bearing witness that Jesus is Lord. And one “Lord’s Day”, one Sunday, the Holy Spirit comes upon him, and he has a vision. He hears a voice behind him that sounds like a trumpet blast, telling him to write down what he sees in a book and to send it to seven churches on the mainland of modern-day Turkey.
Imagine if someone came up behind you and blew a trumpet, how startling that would be! So when John turns around to “see the voice”, he suddenly sees seven golden lampstands, “and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man (Rev. 1:13).” And this person who is “like a son of man” has hair as white as snow, eyes like a flame of fire, feet that gleam like burnished bronze. His voice is like the roar of many waters. He holds seven stars in His right hand. Out of His mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword, and his face is like staring into the sun.
The phrase “son of man” we recognize, because it’s what Jesus always called Himself. But the rest is alien to us. We’re used to thinking of Jesus’ voice as a comforting sound, like the sound of a shepherd’s voice is to a sheep—but here it sounds like the roar of an ocean; and the word that comes out of His mouth is not a collection of comforting truths but a weapon of war. His eyes are a flame—suggesting zeal and passion or jealousy and anger. The light that shines from His face is like the sun shining in full strength, threatening to burn our eyes.
We know that people outside the church today have false ideas about who Jesus is. Some people claim that He is a myth, a person who never existed. Others say that He was simply a man who thought He was the Messiah and was proved not to be when He died on a cross. Many others think Jesus was a prophet, a great religious teacher who taught the same thing as all the other so-called great teachers, like Buddha or Muhammad.
But what about us? Haven’t we forgotten this side of Jesus? That in Him all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col. 2)? That He is the first and the last (Rev. 1:17), the Creator of the World, and also the one who will end it—its judge? Have we forgotten the flame of His eyes, His jealousy that hates sin with a passion more hot than any human love? Have we forgotten the power of His voice, roaring like the ocean, that swept the world into being in the beginning and will sweep it away in the end? That His Word, His doctrine, is not a safe, tame philosophy that we can master in a few months or years, but a divine weapon that maims those who handle it clumsily, and that He uses to kill His enemies?
When we are dealing with Jesus, we are dealing with the eternal God in human flesh, to whom all glory belongs, who is coming to judge the living and the dead. He is not a god that we have made and that we can control. He startles John in this reading and causes him to fall down at His feet as though dead. Jesus is the Lord of the world and most especially the Lord of the Church. He doesn’t exist to fit into our lives the way that we think He should. The church answers to Him. We exist for Him.
And we have forgotten where the Lord Jesus is. We would expect that when John sees this vision of Jesus’ glory that he had been transported to heaven. But Jesus is in the midst of the lampstands (Rev. 1:13). Jesus is in the midst of the churches. He is not somewhere else, far away, in His power and glory. He is here, in the midst of the congregation of people who bear His name.
Which means that His omnipotent power is in the midst of us. Yet so often Christians behave and talk as if Jesus has left us to build the church and govern the church. And when a church becomes weak or is dying we say, “What can we do when the society we live in no longer is interested in church, and nobody wants to come to the neighborhood we’re in, and we don’t offer the types of programs that attract new people to the church?” The creator of the world stands in the midst of the churches with omnipotent power, and we say, “Yeah, that’s nice, but without a better zip code, how can we make it?”
We have forgotten what our Lord has. He says, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. (Rev. 1:18) He has all of history under His control—He is the first and last. He was there before we existed and He knows how all things will end—for you individually, for this church, for the whole world. For him it is not a question waiting to be answered; it is done, and He knows the ending. He has everlasting life, into endless eternities. Death and destruction have no power over Him. And He also holds the keys to death and hell. He has the power to unlock its prisoners, and the power to keep them bound.
To receive Christ means first of all to receive the Lord of all the earth. But our flesh cannot bear to face Him in His glory. When we see Him, we see the God we have rejected and despised since our childhood. Every time we inwardly groaned at the thought of listening to a sermon or going to Sunday School we were despising Him. Every time we declined to serve in the church or put less than our best into serving the church, we turned our back on the one who spoke to John. Whenever we have neglected to learn and continue to grow in His Word we pushed the Lord of the Church into the background, tried to steal His church and remake it according to human wisdom, as though it was ours.
The first part of receiving Christ is receiving Him as our judge. And to do that is to die, like John fell at his feet as though dead. (Rev. 1: 17)
Only then do we receive Christ as our Savior. Because He comes to those who are dead and lays His right hand on them, the hand of His power, and says, “Do not be afraid.” That’s what He says to all of us this morning who realize that we have not borne the fruit of those whose faith in Him is growing and increasing. The voice like the roar of many waters tells you not to fear Him; and His right hand of power raises you up to live not by your own strength, but His.
He is the first and the last. Long before you were created He knew you and He knew this church. And He is the One who will bring about the end of your story. The end of our story is in front of His eyes of flame as though it has already happened. Yet He says, Do not be afraid.
It is not the ending we fear or that we deserve; our ending is tied to the end of His story. I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold, I am alive for eternity of eternities, and I have the keys of Death and hell. He is the living One. He is the life, and endless life was in Him before the world began. Yet the living One died. He entered our flesh, our nature. He suffered the curse that had come upon us. The living one died, bearing the penalty of sin; He was forsaken by God. The mighty judge was judged as having committed Adam’s sin and all its offspring—all the sins that flowered in His children. Yet behold, He lives for endless eternities; He was stronger than sin and death. He passed through them like a spider’s web. And the end that He sees for you, terrified sinner is life to eternity of eternities in Him.
And He doesn’t have life merely for Himself. When He died He took the keys to Death and hell. And now the Lord who is in the midst of the lampstands is here to use those keys. He does what no human power could dream of doing. He unlocks the door of Death and hell and lets its prisoners out.
That is what is happening when He sends His messenger, His angel, to say, “I forgive you all your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.” Death and hell is opened, no matter how many times you seem to have gone back to your cell.
It’s what happens when the word of Christ is proclaimed. It’s not merely that a man is talking. The key of death and hell in the Lord Christ’s hand is inserted into the lock of your cell, and the lock clicks open, that you may enter into endless life and freedom—that you may enter into Jesus by faith.
Only when this happens do the other six things—divine service, scripture, prayer, giving, serving, witnessing—become possible. Until then they are just ways that we are trying to escape from the prison of death and hell. But for one set free they are the new life of freedom, an endless life.
Write therefore Jesus tells John. Because I have raised you by my power and freed you from death and hell, bear witness to me. Not to by your own power, to build your own church, bearing witness to me, the Lord of the Church. I build it. I wish to speak to the Church and to the world that I purchased with my blood. Your calling is merely to testify to me with your words and your life.
Soli Deo Gloria
Advent 4 Midweek (Vespers)
St. Peter Lutheran Church
December 21, 2016
The Regime of the King of Peace—adapted from Stoeckhardt’s Adventspredigten, “Siebzehnte Predigt”
Jesus is a King. That is what His name means: “Christ”—anointed one. King.
But where is Jesus’ kingdom? Do you know? Even those who can tell you the right answer are often embarrassed to say it, because it seems so impossible.
Yet there is nothing greater that a person could desire than the Kingdom of Jesus. Isaiah just pictured Jesus’ kingdom for us in the reading—as Paradise. And that is what it is to be part of Jesus’ Kingdom—Paradise. To be in Jesus’ Kingdom is to be in God’s gracious presence; and it is to have—peace.
But the problem with Jesus’ kingdom is that we can’t see it. He said this a long time ago to some fools who thought it was impossible that the Kingdom of God could come without them seeing it a long way off. The Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you—or perhaps within you (Luke 17:20-21).
The Kingdom of God can only be seen through the Word of God. Otherwise we will see it and despise it. Isaiah prophesied 700 years before Jesus about this Kingdom and its King. He describes Jesus as the King of Peace and Jesus’ Kingdom as a Reign of Peace.
Unless a person has eyes to see, he will laugh at Jesus’ Kingdom.. Isaiah foretold that this is how it would be. Jesus’ Kingdom looks like nothing in our eyes because its king looks like nothing in our eyes.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Isaiah wrote: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. Jesse was King David’s father. David became the King of Israel, and God promised that one of David’s descendants would sit on his throne and reign forever. Yet Isaiah says that David’s house would be torn down and left desolate, like a stump in the ground.
Imagine a big, five-hundred year old oak tree. It’s beautiful. Its branches spread far and wide; it give shade in the summertime. Someone ties a rope to a branch with a tire on the other end. Kids swing on it and laugh. When they get thirsty they run to the porch and their mom gives them a Dixie cup of Kool-Ade.
Then one dark day the family gets evicted and someone comes with a chainsaw and cuts that big tree down. What is left? Only a stump. Now when you go out to see that big old tree that you loved all that’s left is the stump. If it ever grows back, it won’t be in your lifetime. That tree is gone, along with the tire swing, the Kool-Ade, and the happy memories.
That is what happened to David’s house. The house of David was a big beautiful tree that had been cut down. And the Son of David that brings peace never came.
But Isaiah says: There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. A little branch came up from the stump of David’s house. If you came out to see the tree that had been there before, you wouldn’t even look at it. You’d say, “If only we could have the old oak tree whose shade we played in as children.” You wouldn’t even see the twig sprouting from its roots.
That little twig was Jesus. His mother Mary and his stepfather Joseph were from the house of David. They weren’t kings and queens anymore. The glory of David’s house was a thing in the history books; nobody remembered. Nobody cared.
When they went to Bethlehem to be taxed by a foreign king there wasn’t even a place for them to stay. Mary gave birth to Jesus in a barn or maybe a cave where they kept animals. Jesus was just a little twig growing from the stump of a once great tree.
But Isaiah prophesied that this branch from Jesse’s roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him—the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. (Is. 11:1-2) Jesus would “bear fruit” because He had something that the great branches of David’s house that had been before Him did not have. The Spirit of the Lord rested on Him. The same Spirit that hovered over the empty waters at creation, in which there was no life, the same Spirit who caused order to come out of the chaos and life to spring forth out of barren darkness—rested on this little branch.
Though He was small and unimpressive as humans see things, in this little shoot was all the glory and power of God. “In Him all the fullness of [God] dwells bodily”, St. Paul wrote in the epistle to the Colossians [2:9]. “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…all things were created through Him and in Him all things hold together…” [Col 1:15-17].
This twig is the living God in our flesh, the God of abundant life in the body of a newborn. And so this little branch that seemed like nothing bore fruit that the great tree of the house of David, with all its grandeur, had not been able to bear.
The fruit Jesus bore was a life of complete obedience to God, of utter purity, a life that earned God’s seal of approval, His honor. And this priceless gem, never before seen by the world—a human life lived in unity with God—Jesus gave away. He offered up this precious life on behalf of those who had sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. He offered it in exchange for the lives of all who had rebelled against God, of whatever stripe… He laid that life aside as though it were not His, and took up the guilty verdict that belonged to all of His brothers, and was condemned for our unfaithfulness. He endured the agony of body and the anguish of soul that was the just reward for the lives we have lived. In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether in earth or heaven, making peace through the blood of His cross. (Col. 1:19-20)
That is how Jesus is the king of Peace. He made peace for us with God. It is a perfect peace that cannot be added to or undone by you or me. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed, Isaiah prophesied in a later chapter [Is. 53:5].
If you’ve lived long enough, I am sure that there has been a time when you longed for peace—when your heart was full of anger or anguish or fear. Many of us have repeatedly cried out to God for peace. And some of you have probably had the experience of longing to feel that you were at peace with God.
That longing need no longer gnaw at you. This King, this little shoot from the stump of Jesse, has made peace with God for all people.
Your sentence has been served in full by this strange king of peace, when He was forsaken by God for your sins, and when He shouted in victory “It is finished.” [John 19:30] God is reconciled to you by this King, and desires you to no longer hide from Him, flinch at His presence—but be reconciled and enter back into Paradise through the gift of His Son.
That is how Jesus won His Kingdom of Peace. After He conquered in the battle with Satan, He ascended to His Father’s throne and began to reign.
But of course we don’t see Jesus reigning. What we see is those who refuse to accept Him as King behaving as though the world was theirs. How is Jesus reigning?
Isaiah says: He shall not judge by what His eyes see, or decide by what His ears hear, but with righteousness He shall judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and He shall strike the earth with the rod of His mouth and with the breath of His lips He shall kill the wicked. [Is. 11:3-4]
In paintings a king often holds a scepter or a staff in his hand. It symbolizes the power by which a king maintains justice, defending the innocent and punishing those who oppress the weak.
Jesus does not hold a staff in His hand. His scepter comes from His mouth. The rod of His mouth by which He reigns in justice is His Word.
That sounds like a joke to the world and even to our own flesh. We know very well that evil is not restrained with words—it takes guns, tanks, missiles, armies.
But the rod of [Jesus’] mouth and the breath of His lips are not like everyone else’s words. With the rod of His mouth He laid the foundations of the earth; by the breath of His lips He stretched out the heavens. By the breath of His mouth He breathed into Adam’s nostrils and the man of dust became a living being. He speaks and it comes to be. His Words spoken in time are reality now and forever. Whether people listen or refuse to hear, the judgment Jesus pronounces through the Scriptures, through His preachers, will endure until it becomes visible on judgment day. The one who rejects me and does not receive My Words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day, he said in the gospel of John [12:48].
Jesus reigns. When He condemns the evil one, the demons, false teachers, unbelievers, it is not just an opinion. He slays the wicked with the breath of His mouth; the reality of His judgment will appear on the last day, In the same way, He gives justice to the poor by the rod of His mouth. Poor sinners who come desire relief from the oppression of sin and the devil receive a favorable decision from the King of Peace. He finds in their favor. He declares them innocent of all Satan’s accusation, free from condemnation and sin. From heaven Jesus extends the scepter of His Word and justifies us, the ungodly. When you hear this happening, you can be sure that you are in the presence of the King of Peace as He reigns. And when you believe His judgment, you know that you are in His Kingdom. And though His Word seems insubstantial to our eyes, be sure that it is more powerful and more real than the barrel of a gun, than an open grave. This Word is the power of the living God. What it declares, happens. When it justifies you and says you have peace, rejoice! It is more sure than the ground beneath your feet.
Soli Deo Gloria
Fourth Sunday in Advent—Rorate Coeli
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:19-28
December 18, 2016
“The Mighty One Comes to You”
O come, O come, Thou Lord of might,
Who to Thy tribes on Sinai’s height
In ancient times didst give the Law
In cloud and majesty and awe.
God is omniscient, all-knowing. He is wise and knows the right way. God is omnipotent. He has all power. He is mighty. He not only knows what needs to be done but is able to do it. But we are not mighty. How often have you sat down and said to yourself, “I can’t do this anymore,” found your strength insufficient for the difficulties you had to face in your life? How often have you become tired, exhausted by life?
If we get exhausted and confused when it comes to the things of this life, how much less is our knowledge and strength sufficient for the things of God! We know God’s commandments, but often we don’t know how to apply them. And even when we do know, we don’t fulfill them. Not well enough to be able to rest easy at night and know that we have done God’s will without leaving anything out.
But from the beginning of the Bible God has made a promise to weak and foolish human beings—that His wisdom and power would come to save us. A son would be born to a woman who would be wise and powerful, and His great wisdom and power would be our salvation. So God’s people before Christ’s coming and those after did not despair over their weakness, nor pretend that it didn’t exist. They prayed and cried out, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel! Come, mighty One, and save us!”
Out in the desert by the Jordan River, John the Baptist is preaching and immersing people in the dark water. Some men have come from Jerusalem to talk with him—priests and Levites, appointed by God to serve in His worship in the temple. They ask John, “Who are you? Which of the people that God told us would come are you that you are doing this new thing, washing the people of God, saying they are unclean and must repent? Are you Elijah? Are you the prophet that Moses said would come after him?”
John replies, “I am none of those.”
So the priests and Levites say, “Who are you then?” “I am the voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’, the one Isaiah talked about. I am not somebody that you expect; I am just a nameless voice that says “the Lord is coming.”
“If you aren’t anyone important, why are you doing this new thing that no one has ever heard of—baptism? Why are you washing God’s people, who are circumcised and marked with the seal of his covenant, telling us that we are unclean, even though we do not worship idols, even though we avoid unclean meat, even though we have God’s Law?”
John answers, “My baptism is only with water. It can’t make you clean to stand before God. It is only a picture. But there is one standing in the midst of you that you don’t know. You are looking for someone great and powerful. This one you don’t know is so mighty, so glorious, that I am not fit even to untie His shoe, much less take them off and wash His feet. I have come as a messenger so that when He begins to preach and reveal himself you will not miss Him. Even though you have God’s Law and His promise, you are unclean, just like the Gentiles who worship idols. But the One who is standing among you is powerful enough to make you clean before God.”
A great and mighty One is coming to you to make you clean.
It seems like the story from John’s gospel doesn’t have much to do with us today. The Messiah has come already. We all believe this in the Church. We look for Him to come again on the Last Day to save us.
But John’s preaching to the Jews is also a word for us. Among you stands one you do not know, he said.
Jesus is among us as He was among the Jews. St. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 13: You seek proof that Christ is speaking in me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you…do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? (v. 3, 5) Even though Jesus had already come and ascended into heaven, He was in the midst of the church in Ephesus. He still is among the gathered people of the Church. He is present in the church through the ministers of the Word when they preach His Word—present not in weakness, but in power. He is present in His Word when it is joined to water and to bread and wine—in the Sacraments. He is also present in those who believe the Word.
Among you stands one you do not know. Christians, of course, do know Jesus. Jesus is not unknown to you. And yet we don’t fully know Him. And what we do know, we often forget. The One who is among us in the preaching of His Word, in Baptism, in His Body and Blood, is so great that John the Baptist was not worthy to untie his shoe or unbuckle his sandal. He is great with a greatness that goes far beyond anything human beings recognize as great. He doesn’t have the honor of a great family name; He isn’t a powerful, effective leader; a moving speaker; a great organizer.
He is the eternal Son of the Father. The mighty One, God the Lord, whose word creates the earth, creates us. The all-knowing One, who by wisdom formed the heavens and laid the foundations of the world. That is who is in our midst.
But often we forget about Him. So easily He becomes a stranger to us. We don’t see His power and wisdom. We look at a preacher on television who fills a basketball stadium and say, “Surely that is a work of God.”
But this mighty One who is in our midst accomplishes a much greater work. I baptize with water, St. John said, I baptize only with water. You have God’s holy Law. You know His name. You have His covenant and promise that He has chosen you out of all the nations on the earth to be His own people. But despite this you are still as unclean as all the nations that worship idols. You fall short of the glory that God has promised you.
The One who is in our midst, Jesus, accomplishes something far greater than John, who was the greatest of all men who lived on earth and who had great crowds coming to hear him. The best John could do was preach repentance, show people that they were unclean, unable to be God’s people, unable to make themselves clean.
Jesus, however, who is in our midst, makes us clean, makes us holy, makes us God’s people and able to receive His glory.
He brought that about by shouldering our debt of sin and uncleanness. By His agony and suffering, He brought our uncleanness to an end. He blotted it out from before God’s sight by suffering God’s judgment against us. And now even though we feel and see this uncleanness, it has been brought to nothing. It does not stand against us. Nor does it rule us or define our lives.
God’s testimony that this is how it is is given to us in Jesus’ Baptism. The Baptism you have received is not merely water, an outward sign of something that still needs to be accomplished. Your Baptism is water joined with God’s Word, a life-giving water, a washing of new birth in the Holy Spirit, in which you were joined with Jesus’ death to sin and His resurrection to live before God.
Jesus, the mighty and wise, the eternal God comes and visits us. He comes to open our eyes to see Him in our midst when they so easily become closed to Him. And He is coming soon to finish what He began when, however many years ago, you were baptized, born again, and cleansed to be a Son of God. When He comes He will come not only to cover your uncleanness, as He has already done; He comes to cleanse and resurrect your body in the image of His glorious body.
A great and mighty one, Jesus, is coming to make you clean.
We know this. We know Him, and yet we don’t know Him. Our hearts are always closing up again so that we cannot see Him. We forget Him and go back to the old life of the flesh, the life that ends in death. And when the wages of that life come to us, when we are laid low and suffering, we make things worse by looking for another Savior. We think, “If Jesus and His Baptism was enough, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
So we look for something else to save our families, something else to deliver us from the destruction that falls on our churches, something else to save us from our wayward hearts that constantly lead us into sin.
The great and mighty one, Jesus, comes to make you clean.
But there is no one else to deliver and save us. Jesus comes to us. He will come soon and make us completely clean. But He comes to us week in, week out, Sunday in, Sunday out. And why does He come? He comes to put on us the white robe He gave us long ago in Baptism, and to open our eyes to see Him.
He is mighty, far stronger, far greater than your sin and uncleanness. He is wise. He knows what you need, what this Church needs. As foolish as we are, we are not more foolish than Jesus is wise. He is from of old. His eyes saw this day from eternity and planned how He would guide us through this valley of sorrows.
He comes again. He puts on you the garments of salvation, the robe of purity and righteousness without any spot that He prepared for you in His death on the cross. He leads you down the aisle to kneel and eat and drink the food of the wedding feast, the food that gives immortality and righteousness.
And though you cannot know Him perfectly in this life, know and trust this: He is powerful. He will not allow anything to harm you. He is wise; He is leading you and He knows where He is going and how best to lead you. John and all faithful preachers are no one—they are just a voice crying in the barren desert of this world, but the one who comes to you to help you is great, and comes to share His glory with you.
O Come, Thou Dayspring from on high
And cheer us by thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to Thee O Israel.
St. Bartholomew, Apostle (transferred)/ Altar Guild Opening Service
St. Peter Lutheran Church
St. John 1:43-51
August 25, 2016
“Come and See”
Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found Him of whom Moses in the Law and the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” John 1:45
“Wait a minute. Cut! I’d like to interject…” Philip and Nathanael (his mother calls him Bartholomew) swivel their black-bearded faces in the direction of the voice, which belongs to a gray-haired man walking toward them, dressed in a jacked with leather elbows and a bow tie. He speaks with a slight east coast accent, and as he talks he gestures with a pipe.
“I understand what you’re trying to do with this scene,” he says to Philip. “You want to tell a compelling story. I get it. But if it’s going to speak to people two thousand years from now, you’re going to have to revise the script. You sacrifice accuracy for the sake of rhetorical power and you’re going to lose your audience.”
Philip stares at the man, who goes on: “The thing about Moses. ‘Moses wrote about Him in the Law.’ Reputable scholarship stopped believing Moses wrote Genesis through Deuteronomy in the 19th century. Until relatively recently everyone agreed that these books were cut-and-pasted together from different sources by editors a thousand years after Moses was supposed to have lived. Everybody that’s educated knows this today, even the partially educated. So let’s try it again without Moses this time.” The bow tied man sits in a canvas chair and puts on sunglasses.
Philip keeps staring at him and finally utters, “Who are you?”
“I’m chair of New Testament at a top-tier divinity school in New England.” Then, in response to Philip’s blank stare, he says, “A scribe, of sorts. Okay, take two.”
Philip turns back to Nathanael. “So, like I was saying, ‘we have found the man who has been written about in the Law and the Prophets’—whoever wrote them—Jesus of Nazareth…”
“Cut!” the professor yells again. “Another thing: you really can’t say that Jesus is the one written about in the Law and the Prophets. The early New Testament community interpreted the Law and the Prophets as foretelling Jesus. Then they wrote the Gospels to show Jesus as the fulfillment of those passages. But to say the Law and the Prophets spoke about Jesus is a stretch, at best. Leaves us open to the charge of anti-semitism, too. Try it again. Take three.”
Philip stands there for a minute trying to figure out what to say. Then he looks at Nathanael and says, slowly, “We have found the man who isn’t really written about in the Law and the Prophets, probably. But there is a community of people who think that the Law and the Prophets wrote about Him. Or at least they want us to think that. It’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
“Cut!” the professor cries again. “You can’t say it like that! When you say it that way it sounds like a scam!”
What’s amazing is that so many people let themselves be scammed for so long. The professor in the story isn’t based on a real person, but he is doing what leading bible scholars have done for at least a hundred years. They have taught and written that the Bible is a literary construction made by men to advance certain beliefs, and then creatively interpreted by men to advance certain beliefs. But as far as being historically reliable and telling us about things that actually happened? The Bible doesn’t do that, they say. That’s not its point.
Did this conversation between Jesus, Nathanael, and Philip actually happen? We really can’t know, they say. The idea that the Bible is verbally inspirited by God, and therefore not only the final authority for truth about religious matters, but also true when it speaks about geography, history, or anything else—that has been regarded as “fundamentalism” by scholars for a long time—despite the fact that the authority and clarity of the Scriptures was foundational for the protestant reformation. And these scholars taught the ministers in mainline protestant churches—the Presbyterians, Episcopalians, United Methodists, some Baptists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America—since before I was born. This skeptical approach to the Bible has become normal in the Catholic Church too.
But laypeople in these churches don’t look at the Bible this way, right? The pastors don’t preach this way, do they? I don’t think they do, generally. It doesn’t work very well for preaching to have the professor bursting in every few verses to correct the Bible. But if this is the way you have been taught to view the Scripture during your training for the pastoral office, it is going to affect how you carry out the work of that office. If the Bible isn’t to be taken literally when it says Moses wrote the Penteteuch, or when it says that Jesus had a conversation with Nathanael, why should it be taken literally when Jesus forbids divorce in it, or when it says it’s immoral to have sex when you’re not married? So is it a surprise that the mainline protestant churches have approved homosexual “marriage” as pleasing to God? If the Bible was put together by human beings to teach what they wanted to teach, why can’t we just put a new spin on it to teach what we think is right now?
And this affects more than simply Christian morality. It attacks the Gospel itself. Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1); the healthy have no need of a physician, but those who are sick (Matthew 9). The result of treating the Scriptures as human productions is often revision of the Law of God; but the end result of revising God’s law is that pastors begin to preach to people that they, after all, are not sinners in need of saving. Perhaps we are in a general way—none of us love people as we should. But never in such a way that the specific forms our lovelessness takes are condemned; never in such a way that the sins that our time and place seeks to excuse are made to stand before the unchangeable judgment of the unchanging God. And so the churches, instead of proclaiming the Son of God incarnate and crucified to reconcile sinners to God, by degrees remove the offense of the cross (Galatians 5:11) and nullify the grace of God (Galatians 2:21). God’s grace in freely remitting sins for the sake of the bloody death of His Son on a cross is only necessary for those who are dead in their trespasses and sins and cannot raise themselves. It’s not necessary for those who have committed no grievous sins because there are no longer any grievous sins to commit.
And what have the laypeople done in response to this perversion of God’s Word in the mainline churches? Did they walk out when their pastors and teachers revised the ten commandments? Some did. Most didn’t care. They’d gotten used to re-interpreting the Bible when it said things they didn’t agree with a long time ago. When it forbade women from being ordained. When it forbade divorce. When it forbade intercommunion between those who were not united in the one faith and doctrine of Christ. When it forbade Christians to participate in the religious rites of secret societies. And so on, all the way back to the time of the Reformation, when people found the teaching that Christ’s true body and blood in the bread are present in and with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper an offense to reason.
But what does all this have to do with the altar guild? In the reading, Nathaniel (who is probably, but not certainly, Bartholomew the apostle, whose feast day was yesterday) expresses skepticism at what he hears from Philip—that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by Moses and the Prophets. He considers it unlikely that anything good could come from Nazareth. But Philip says, “Come and see.” Pretty confident, Philip is. He doesn’t try to argue with Nathanael about whether or not Nazareth is a dump. He invites him to come and see for himself whether Jesus is the one Moses and the Prophets talked about.
When we talk about Jesus to people who don’t believe in Him, say He is the Savior of the World, and our Savior, they will very likely be skeptical. What do we do then? Sure, you can debate with them if you’re equipped to do so. That has its place. But in the end, answering their objections won’t bring them to Jesus. The Holy Spirit must bring them. And that happens when they “come and see” Jesus.
But where do you go if you want to “come and see” Jesus? He is at the right hand of the Father, where we see Him no longer (John 16). Yet He promised that as His Church goes into the world to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and teaching them everything He commanded: and lo, I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt. 28:20) If anyone wants to come and see Jesus, we direct them to follow us to the place where His Word is being taught and His sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Supper are being administered. We say, “Come to church with me and see.”
And what will they see there? We hope that, by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, they will see Jesus, true God from eternity, who became human to live among us and fulfill the Law of God that we are unable to keep. Who became sin for us, bearing our offenses on the cross, and was raised from the dead for our justification. We hope that, being made to see Jesus by faith, they will also learn to see His presence with His Church in the Word and Sacraments, and learn to see the little congregation of sinners gathered around them as the community that has been declared righteous by God and adopted as His heirs.
But none of that is what they will see right away. What they will see is an altar with a cross above it. They will see a pulpit and a lectern and candles. They will see some stuff under a sheet in the middle of the altar. They will see pews, bulletins, hymnals, some men dressed in suits handing them pieces of paper and passing a plate. They will see a guy up front in a white robe with a piece of colored cloth around his neck. And the more years go by, the less familiar and comprehensible these sights will be.
And this is where you come in. Can you make people see Jesus by putting oil in the candles, arranging the fair linen just so, ironing the alb? No. Neither can I. A person sees Jesus, believes that He is the Son of God and our Savior, by the work of the Holy Spirit through the Word of God.
But by care and diligence in your work you can give a witness to what we confess. In fact you will give a witness one way or the other. By adorning the altar and chancel with care and beauty and precision you can testify to your faith and the faith of the church that “God Himself is present” in this place. By being careful, diligent, and scrupulous in your cleaning of the sacred vessels you can testify to our own members to the reality that Jesus has truly given us His sacred body and his redeeming blood in the wafers and wine. And as members of the altar guild you can be leaven in the congregation, instructing your brothers and sisters how in the Divine Service Christ Himself is present in flesh and blood, opening heaven to us each week, letting down Jacob’s ladder into this Nazareth called Joliet, where people wonder if there is anything good. You can say, Yes, Jesus visits Joliet; He visits us at 8 am and 10:45 each week. He speaks to us His good news that raises us up from sin and despair; He renews our souls with His crucified flesh and blood, and as He does so He brings with Him the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
And by that witness the church will be edified and perhaps visitors will come and say, “Surely God is in this place and I did not know it. Or at least if He isn’t, I am convinced that the people who care for the altar believe that He is.”
May God bless you and strengthen you, then, in your holy work this year, as you continue to make the sanctuary a place where we are proud to invite people to “come and see” our Lord Jesus.
In the Name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria