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Your Brother in the Flesh Stands Up for You

Acts 6:8 - 7:2a; 7:51-60
St. Stephen’s Day

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

It really is a little bit jarring to hear readings like those appointed for this day, St. Stephen’s Day.  In a season normally associated with merriment and good cheer, in the midst of our specially decorated churches, it seems strange at first that this 2nd day of Christmas, the season marking Christ’s birth, should be devoted to meditating on a martyr’s death.  The message of the angels was, “Peace on earth, good will toward men.”  There doesn’t appear to be either peace or good will in Stephen’s bloody murder.

The holy Child Jesus has indeed brought peace between God and man.  For God and man have been brought together again quite literally in Jesus.  That’s why He is the only Way for you to be reconciled to God; He alone bridges and rejoins heaven and earth in Himself.  But Christ Jesus was delivered and born of woman in order that He might be delivered into the hands of sinful men; God’s good will toward men is manifested in how He was willing to be despised and rejected by men to win our forgiveness.  The wisdom of the church’s calendar reminds us today that those who follow and cling to this Jesus can expect the possibility of similar despising and rejection in this world.  Our Lord said in Luke 12, “Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division.”  How’s that for an inspirational message from Jesus!  Peace with God means enmity with the world.  The righteousness of Christ given as a free gift will always be at odds with the righteousness that man tries to achieve for Himself through his own spirituality.

We see this division, this enmity very clearly as Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin.  Stephen speaks the truth to them, the truth of how they resist the Holy Spirit, who calls them to repentance, to turn from their works to Christ’s that they might be saved.  Earlier at Pentecost, the hearers of Peter’s preaching were cut and pierced to the heart, and they said, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”  They were brought to repentance and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.  Now, these members of the Sanhedrin are also cut to the heart it says by Stephen’s preaching.  But a different word is used here showing that their stony hearts were not pierced–like seed on the hardened path.  For it says they gnashed their teeth at him–gritting their teeth and growling like the beasts their sin had reduced them to.  One cannot help but think about our Lord’s words regarding those who reject Him in unbelief–for them there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth forever.

Stephen also testified to the truth of what he saw in that moment: the heavens were opened and Jesus was standing at God’s right hand.  The Sanhedrin–the same council that had condemned our Lord–when they heard Stephen say this, they stopped their ears, literally putting their hands to the sides of their heads, and they rushed at him with one accord, cast him out of the city, and stoned him to death.

There are several things we should learn from this.  To begin with, we must confess that we also don’t like it when our sin is laid before our eyes and we are called to turn from it.  Our old Adam is a one-man Sanhedrin, who tries to silence the ones calling us to repentance–either by verbally stoning them and attacking them or just by covering our ears, so to speak, ignoring the truth.  God grant that when you are confronted with His Word of truth and cut to the heart, you will be pierced and given repentance, that He will unclench your jaw and unstop your ears, and create in you a clean heart and renew a right spirit within you.

Most clearly, though, we learn from Stephen’s martyrdom how this fallen world, with the powers that uphold its false spiritualities, is a Sanhedrin to Christ’s church.  The world does not want to hear the words of God and wants to silence the voice of those who confess the Christian faith and the saving name of Jesus.  Whether it’s in matters of the teaching on creation, or sexuality and marriage or, above all, in matters of salvation by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, the world stops its ears to the truth, it mocks and marginalizes the faithful, and where possible it tries to cast them out as hateful blasphemers of the cultural dogma and underminers of society.  We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve yet been persecuted in any way approaching that of the early church.  But many of you have been given to glimpse and to experience not just disagreement but the utter disdain the world has for you and your beliefs and your Lord Jesus who said, “If the world hates you, know that it hated Me before it hated you” (John 15:18).

So let us take to heart the words of 1 Peter 4, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.  But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”  

Stephen was blessed by God in this way, rejoicing even in the face of his mortal enemies.  It is written that his face was like the face of an angel.  What does that mean?  Well, where are the angels’ faces turned?  Jesus said that they always see the face of His Father in heaven.  The angels reflect His glory.  So it is also with Stephen.  His face reflects the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  We become like that which we fix our eyes on.  Wasn’t Stephen like Jesus here, asking forgiveness for his enemies, commending his spirit into God’s hands?  We have the sure promise of Scripture, “When [Jesus] is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Stephen speaks as one baptized.  For He saw the heavens opened, as they were at Jesus’ baptism.  The heavens are opened for all who are baptized into Him, for you.  And in these opened heavens, what does Stephen see but Jesus standing at God’s right hand.  Ordinarily, we use the language of the creed, that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, the position of ruling and reigning.  But here He is standing.  This is important to note.  For consider that Stephen is on trial here.  This is a courtroom scene.  Though he is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin, there is One who stands in his defense, who intercedes and speaks on His behalf before the court of the Most High, and who will deliver Stephen from the judgment of ungodly men.

And so it is also for you.  Jesus stood in for you in death as your substitute, and now He stands up for you as your Intercessor and Advocate and Defender.  It is written in Romans 8, “Who shall bring a charge against God’s chosen ones? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: ‘For Your sake we are killed all day long; We are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.’  Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”  Sin and Satan and the world may condemn and attack you, but you have a mighty Defender and Advocate before the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous.  He Himself was cut to the heart for you, pierced with a spear, and the blood and water that flowed cleanses you and protects you.  It is good that we stand up for Jesus and confess our faith in Him as Stephen certainly did here.  But what finally counts in the end is that Jesus stands up for you, the incarnate and risen Lord, who has human feet and legs to stand with, your blood Brother, the Almighty Son of God.  

And if I may carry this one final step further: standing is also a sign of honor.  Jesus here is honoring Stephen; He stands as if to receive Stephen out of this world and unto Himself.  The psalmist prays, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.”  So it is for you.  Jesus honors you.  He stands for you, as a Gentleman for His elect Lady, His holy Church.

This is where we find our strength to confess the faith boldly as Stephen did, whether it affects our social standing or our economic standing or our very lives.  We confess Jesus before men in the sure confidence that He will rise to His feet and confess us before His Father in heaven.  

Though it may not appear so, Stephen was granted a blessed end.  Though it was not painless, it was blessed, for he fell asleep in Christ, looking to Him who is the Victor over death.  God grant that whether our end is violent or peaceful, that we may die as Stephen did, with our eyes fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.  He is your Brother in the flesh who stands up for you.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Christmas is a New Genesis

Titus 3

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  You know the account in Genesis.  Everything was good.  Then everything went wrong.  Man, wanting to like God, rebelled against God.  Man fell.  With him all creation fell.  Now, because of sin, man dies.  In the end this creation, too, will die and pass away.

We are not mere victims of that past event in the garden, for we have been participants in the rebellion of Adam and Eve; we have shared in the same deeds.  Titus 3 says,“We ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful.”  

We would be destined to perish eternally, except for the fact that the kindness and love for mankind of God our Savior has appeared in the person of Jesus Christ.  Instead of simply erasing this creation and destroying us fallen creatures, God has set out to redeem and recreate us through His Son.  Christmas is about God inaugurating a new creation in Jesus.  That’s why John’s Gospel starts out, “In the beginning was the Word . . .  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”  In the flesh of Jesus God has made a new beginning, a new world, a new creation that is not subject to decay and death.  Christ’s death and resurrection in the flesh broke the curse of sin and brought life and immortality to light.  

Christmas, then, is like a second Genesis.  It is as if the very first day were happening all over again.  God said, “Let there be light.”  And the Light of the world was born.  Before the old creation passes away, God the Son has entered into this world in order to make a new Genesis that will never pass away.  He has done this so that we who are subject to the old order of things might be released from it and made to be participants in the new and eternal order of things.  And it is only through the body of Jesus that this takes place, He who once was laid in a manger.  He is the point of contact between the old and the new.  He is the only portal, the only passageway from this fallen creation into the everlasting creation.

So how do we pass through that portal?  How are we made to be participants in this new creation?  Paul answers that question in Titus 3 when he says, “God saved us through the washing of regeneration.”  That last word, regeneration, is especially significant.  In the Greek “regeneration” literally means “genesis again,” “a new genesis.”  Do you see?  Through baptism we are recreated, given a new life in Christ.  We are made to share in the eternal blessings of the new world that Christ brings into being.  Even as Christmas is a Genesis event, so also Baptism is a Genesis event.  For God’s creative power is at work–not only to wash away our sins, but also to join us to Christ, who gives us entrance to the new heavens and the new earth.  It is just as Jesus said in John 3, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”  Just as the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the first genesis, so also He hovers over the waters of baptism to bring about the second genesis, the new birth into the kingdom of God.

Christmas continues to happen, then, every time someone is baptized.  For what takes place in the water but that someone is born as a member of the body of Christ?  So in a very real way, the Word is still becoming flesh as He draws more and more people to Himself by water and the Spirit, those who have their life in Him.  

In this present age between Christ’s first and second comings, the old creation of Genesis and the new creation of Christmas overlap.  We still live in this fallen world of tragedy and pain and disease and death.  And yet we are also given entrance into the new world by our baptism into Christ’s body.  Both are now going on at once, and we feel that conflict.  But on the Last Day the old order of things will utterly and completely pass away, and the full glory of the new will be revealed forever.

And please note that all of this creating and saving work is entirely God’s doing.  Paul makes this clear when he says here, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us.”  It’s not our merits, it’s the merits of Christ by which we have forgiveness and life.  It’s not because we climbed up to heaven by our superior spirituality, it’s because the Son of God came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.  Christmas is the paradigm and pattern of our salvation.  God comes right down to where we’re at in order to save us.  He doesn’t do part and then require us to do the rest.  He goes all the way, 100%, even to the point of becoming one of us.  He descended to us in order that we may ascend with Him.

It’s all God’s doing.  The first creation was made by His power alone.  Christ’s coming at Christmas to inaugurate the new creation occurred without our help.  And even our entering into that new life through baptism is entirely by the Lord’s action.  When it comes to the Gospel, God is the one who does all the verbs.  “He saved . . .”  “He poured out . . .”  And when the verbs are applied to us, they’re in the passive voice, “We have been justified by His grace.”  God has justified us, He has declared us righteous through Christ, the righteous one.  He has made us His heirs having the hope of eternal life.  All this purely as a gift of His grace.  Only by this grace are we able to do as Paul says here and “maintain good works” for the good of our fellow man.

So then, as Paul reminds Titus here, don’t engage in useless discussion with those who deny this, who enjoy religious debate simply for the sake of hearing themselves talk.  After admonishing such people the first and second time, reject them, he says.  They are self condemned.  Don’t get drawn in to all their contentions and strivings about the Law.

For St. Paul concludes, “This is a faithful saying.”  Our salvation and re-creation by God’s grace alone in Christ is trustworthy, rock solid, reliable.  The same God who kept His promise to send a Savior will surely keep the promises that He made to you in your baptism.  The Lord is faithful, and He will do it.  Trust solely in Him.  Grace be with you all.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Repent, For the Kingdom of Heaven is at Hand

Isaiah 40:1-8; Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 3

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

We fallen human beings instinctively go at life backwards. We listen to those who preach that we should believe in ourselves, when in truth we should believe only in God. We fear crime, loss of income and benefits, illness, or some big tragedy, when we should really fear nothing except the Lord and losing life with Him. And we focus on the things this world gives—things that easily break or get used up, pleasures that quickly fade away, experiences whose glory and benefit are fleeting—when we should really focus on nothing other than attaining the kingdom of heaven.

So during the four weeks of Advent, through prophets and apostles and preachers and hymns and prayers and liturgy, God pleads with us to get our thinking straight. And not just our thinking, but also our believing. And not just our believing, but also our behaving. And not just our behaving, but also our entire being. A change of mind, a change of heart, a change of how we see ourselves and the world, a change of all we are and all we hope to be—that is the Church’s plea; and her prayer; and her heartfelt invitation. And that invitation is summed up in one word: Repent.

St. John the Baptizer prepares the way of the Lord by preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  “The kingdom is near, for Jesus the King is near.  So turn away from your worldly loves, the things that keep you from devoting yourself to His Word, the stuff and the activities that you let take precedence over His divine service.  No longer live for yourself.  No longer live controlled by your fears or your appetites.  No longer live pushing your agenda, making things happen, and acting as if it all depends on you.  Instead, live for the kingdom of heaven.  Live within the Life of God, and the Life that God wants to live in you and through you.  Live for unending communion with God.  For nothing else matters.  Everything else is expendable.  So discipline your body, reform your habits, put to death your inborn tendencies, change your hopes and prayers, and stop obsessing about the things you think matter so much.  For you don’t want to miss this.  You don’t want to miss out on the kingdom of God, which is so close you can taste it.”

And yet, even in this, we sometimes hear things backwards.  We hear St John say, “Repent,” and we say, “I can’t” or “that’s not realistic” or “I’ll think about it.”  Or we hear St John say, “Repent,” and we say, “Alright, let’s roll.” “I’ll do that right now”—and then get frustrated when things don’t change overnight.  What we forget is what fuels St John’s preaching, what it is that gives legs to true repentance.

And that is Mercy, the Lord’s mercy, the Lord’s never-ending, constantly renewing, life-preserving mercy.  That’s what’s imbedded in the word “Repent.”  It is the mercy that moves the Lord to say, “You are worth redeeming, worth saving, worth loving, worth transforming.”  Mercy that transfigures you so that you no longer live your old life, but now live the Life of the Lord Jesus, the Life that He freely gives to you.  Mercy that pulls you out of the pits you have dug, away from the messes you’ve made of life.  Mercy that calls you from death to life.

So behind and within St John’s “Repent,” is Our Lord Jesus saying, “Come.  Come, live life not on your terms, but the way I give it.  Come, not with conditions attached, but trusting that my promise is good, that my kingdom is yours.  Come unto Me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

That is how John’s ultimate message is summarized in the OT reading: “Comfort, yes comfort My people!”  Speak tenderly and lovingly to the Church, speak to the heart of my bride, and preach kind words to her.  Tell her that she is forgiven.  Your exile is nearly over.  The end of all things is close at hand.  The Day of the Lord is coming soon. The Law no longer condemns you. Your iniquity is paid for and pardoned.  For you have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins.  John consoles you by always pointing to Christ and saying, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

Notice that our Lord’s mercy doesn’t provide just enough forgiveness, but double forgiveness.  That’s how it is with the Gospel–the Lord lavishes on you more forgiveness than you have sins to forgive.  It’s not as if the Lord is miserly with His mercy, giving you just barely enough to cover your need.  No, the Lord is marvelously redundant and wonderfully excessive in His grace, so that you may know that there is no sin so great that Jesus didn’t atone for it on the cross, no life so messed-up that He could not redeem it.  You have been given twice as much forgiveness as you need.  Your cup runs over.  No matter what is there in your past, or in your present, there is more than enough mercy in Jesus to restore you and save you.  Your debt has been paid.  You have been set free.  How can you be certain of this?  Because it is written, “the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.”  And what He speaks is done and delivered for sure.

That is real peace that will not pass away, even when Christmas is long over with.  All that burdens you, all that saddens you, all that dries the life out of your bodies and souls, Jesus took upon Himself and suffered to death.  Through the risen Christ you are now released from the power of the grave; you are restored to God the Father in Him who is the Prince of Peace.  Trusting in the merits of Christ alone, being baptized into Him who is fully human and fully divine, you are brought into communion and fellowship with God.  

At this time of year, you know that there are all sorts of folks in the media giving their version of the “real meaning” of Christmas.  They talk about togetherness and family, giving and sharing and love–all good things.  But Christmas is about a whole lot more than that.  It’s ultimately about the fact that the Word became flesh, God became man.  The Lord literally became one of us in order to restore us to the image of God and make us holy.  He came down to rescue us and raise us up to everlasting life.  That’s what Christmas is all about.  Christ took on our flesh and blood in order that He might die in the flesh as our substitute and shed His blood as our ransom price.  The true wonder and mystery that we should meditate on is this: that the baby in the manger is the Lord of the universe, that He created the mother who gave Him birth, that He redeemed your humanity by sharing in it fully.  All the other stuff is just withering grass compared to Christ.

“All flesh is grass, and all it’s loveliness is like the flower of the field. . .  The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.”  What Jesus says and promises endures.  And His Word has been spoken and applied to you, so that now, as I Peter says, “You have been born anew, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.”  By His words and sacraments Christ has planted new and everlasting life in you.  So even though you are nothing but withering grass by nature, just a fleeting mist, in Christ the Scriptures now call you “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified”  (Isaiah 61:3).  Though all flesh must die because of sin, yet through faith in Jesus you have the resurrection and the restoration of the body.  He has poured out on your dry bones the living water of His Spirit, so that you may have real life, the abundant life of Christ that never ends.

The spirit of Christmas, then, is the spirit of humble penitence before God which acknowledges our lost condition.  And it is the spirit of confident faith in Christ who seeks us out and saves us.  It is the same spirit that we shall again give voice to in preparation for Holy Communion, as we echo the words of John the Baptist, “O Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world, have mercy on us. . . grant us your peace.”  That prayer finds a rich answer in His very body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

So, enjoy all the stuff of this season; but don’t let it distract you from the heart of the Christ-mass or keep you from your Advent preparations for it.  Instead, let the evergreen of the Christmas trees remind you of the everlasting love of God for you.  Let the lights draw your attention to the true Light who conquers all the darkness of this world.  Let the presents be symbols of Him who is the perfect gift wrapped in swaddling clothes.  And remember, as always, that the only way to be close to the child in the manger is on your knees.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

(With thanks to John Fenton)

Adorning the Doctrine of God our Savior

Titus 2
Advent Midweek 2

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

At Christmas we celebrate the fact that the Word became flesh, God the Son took on our body and soul, true God became true man in our Savior Jesus Christ.  We know that this doctrine is at the very heart of our faith.  For apart from this incarnation of our Lord, He could not have taken our place under the Law; He could not have been our substitute in death to rescue us from our sins.

But even so, some might still fail to see how Christmas connects with their lives “out there” in the world.  You might ask, “What does Christ’s coming in the flesh mean for my day to day living?”  Titus 2 helps us to make that connection.  For it joins how we are given to conduct ourselves with the birth of Jesus.  St. Paul says, “The grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly in the present age.”

You see, the Word became flesh in order to redeem our lives in the flesh.  If our bodily, physical lives were not spiritually significant, if the material world was not good, then Jesus would not have spent nine months in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, nor slept in a dirty cattle feeder, nor suffered in the flesh on the cross, nor been bodily raised from the dead.  But the same God who pronounced the material creation “good” in the beginning confirmed that pronouncement at Christmas in the true humanity of Jesus.  Jesus came to restore our humanity that was lost in the fall, to lift us up again to what it means to be truly human.  He came to renew us–not just our spirits, but our entire beings–in His own sinless body.  Christmas tells us that our lives in the flesh matter.

That’s why Paul gives several specific instructions about how our life in Christ is to be conducted in the flesh.  First of all, he gives directions to the older men.  They are to be sober, ones who show restraint in indulging their desires.  The older men are also to be reverent and dignified in their conduct.  They are to be “sound in the faith.”  The word “sound” here literally means healthy.  It’s the same word that was used just the verse before in referring to “sound doctrine,” “healthy doctrine.”  In other words the older men are to hold firmly to the truth of God’s Word, not accepting even the smallest virus of false teaching, but holding to the true doctrine that brings eternal health in both body and soul.  Being mature in years, they are to be mature in faith and in understanding of the Scriptures, showing patience and love as an example to the whole congregation.

To the older women Paul gives these instructions.  They are likewise to be reverent in their behavior.  But the word that is used here for “reverent” is a special word meaning literally “temple-like.”  In other words, the older women are always to be conducting themselves in a manner suitable for a temple, worthy of holiness.  Their daily duties are to be carried out as a matter of sacred service towards God and towards those whom God has given them to serve.  Their entire life has been made like a holy temple by the sanctifying presence of Christ.  Therefore, they are not to be slanderers–gossips, rumor-mongers, back-biters.  Nor are they to be ones who drink too much.  Rather, they are to be ones who teach good things to others, both by their words and by their actions.

Specifically they are to be ones who direct and counsel the younger women in godly ways, whether they are daughters or granddaughters or simply another believer.  According to Titus 2 these younger women are to be taught to love their husbands and their children–that is, to be devoted and committed to their spouse and family as that which God has graciously given them, and not to neglect them for the sake of something they think will be better for themselves.  It is in that context of husband and children above all that they are to live out their life of Christian service.  This is emphasized by the fact that the young women are here directed to be homemakers–literally, ones working at home, tending to the many and varied needs of the household.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a sin for them to work outside the home.  But by God’s design their first calling is to be wives and mothers, exercising discretion, purity, goodness, and faithfulness to their husbands.  

So also, Paul directs Titus to exhort the young men to be sober-minded.  Like the younger women, they too are to practice discretion and sound-mindedness and self-control, not recklessly indulging every whim but showing sensibility in their behavior.  And Paul applies all of this especially to Titus.  For Titus himself was a young man–or at least young for his position as bishop of Crete–probably around 30 or so.  This may be why Paul tells him at the end of chapter 2, “Let no one despise you.”  Rather in all things, Titus was to be a pattern of good works to the church, showing integrity in his doctrine and teaching, not being corrupted by desire for worldly gain or respect, but conducting himself in such a way that his opponents are put to shame, because they have nothing evil to say of him.

Finally, the Apostle teaches that bond-servants are to be obedient to their own masters.  In the first century in the Roman empire, slavery was still a very common practice.  But Paul does not encourage such bond-servants to assert their so-called “rights” and rebel against their masters and throw off their servitude.  For that is not the way of Christ, who has established earthly authorities to be honored, even the authority of a master over a servant, or in our case an employer over an employee. No, the way of the cross is patient endurance and a willingness to serve and to suffer if needs be until the deliverance of the Lord comes.  Therefore, bond-servants were exhorted to be well-pleasing to their masters in all things, not talking back to them, not stealing from them secretly, but being faithful to them.

Now, why does Paul give all these specific guidelines for how Christians are to live?  Why does he want believers to be zealous for good works?  Is it so that we can merit something from God by our goodness?  Is it so that we can earn for ourselves a special spot in heaven?  No, the Scriptures say the only wages we’ve earned for ourselves is death.  So why are we to conduct ourselves in this way?  Paul gives two answers: first, so that the word of God may not be blasphemed; and second, to adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in all things.  Do you see?  The motivation, the reason for good works in God’s sight is not to draw attention to ourselves or to win something for ourselves, but rather to draw attention to the Gospel by which all things have already been won for us in Christ, to decorate and ornament that saving doctrine of God.  We are to live this way in the flesh in order to bring glory to Christ, the Word made flesh. The way we live in the body bears witness to what Jesus did for us in His body and blood by His birth and death and resurrection.  For we have been baptized into His body.  It is as the Small Catechism confesses in the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “How is God’s name kept holy?  God’s name is kept holy when the Word of God is taught in its truth and purity, and we, as the children of God, also lead holy lives according to it.  Help us to do this dear Father in heaven!”  

This second chapter of Titus proclaims to you that Christ came into this world and gave Himself for you to redeem you from every lawless deed.  He bought you with the price of His precious blood to release you from the bondage of unholy living.  He has ransomed you by His holy cross and purified you by His Word and Spirit to be His own special people, set apart by His gracious forgiveness and mercy, called out of darkness into His marvelous light.  You belong to the Lord; you are holy in His sight.  God grant you to live in that holiness as you look for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ on the Last Day.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

There Will Be Signs

Luke 21:25-36

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

It’s interesting the way Jesus talks about signs in Scripture.  On the one hand, He says that it is an evil and adulterous generation that seeks a sign.  People that need signs to prove God’s existence or to verify the truth of His Word are only exhibiting their unbelief.  If you insist upon a sign or some special experience, if God has to jump through your hoops before you’ll trust Him or follow Him, that only reveals an absence of faith.  Faith is believing without seeing, knowing that you have a trustworthy Source who is speaking to you.  Sign-seeking is adulterous, going after what fulfills your spiritual lusts and desires.  To those who were seeking a sign, Jesus said that the only one they would be given was the sign of Jonah, a man “buried” in the watery depths but who comes forth to a new life on the third day.  Jonah points us to Jesus, whose death and resurrection is our true and ultimate sign, the sign that our sins have been fully paid for, that He has conquered the power of the grave and brings us resurrection and life immortal.  We need nothing more than that Word of good news, the Gospel, to bring us to faith and save us.

However, to Jesus’ disciples, to those who believe and don’t require signs, Jesus still actually gives many signs.  Not only did He perform a multitude of miracles in His ministry, signs that proved He truly was the Messiah, not only do we presently see many signs of His loving kindness toward us even in the midst of this fallen and broken world, but He also gives us an abundance of signs of His second coming and the end of this world.

In today’s Gospel Jesus speaks in particular about signs in creation, in the sun, moon, and stars, and even climate and weather-related signs.  After mentioning the fig tree and all the trees budding, Jesus speaks of the sea and the waves roaring, nations in distress, and people in perplexity as the powers of creation are shaken.  In other words, nature itself will give us signs that the return of Jesus is almost upon us.

The problem is that unbelief misreads the signs.  This happens all the time; people see the signs in creation, like earthquakes, like variations in climate and weather, like floods and fires and storms and droughts, and instead of reading these things as a call to repentance and to faithful watching for the Lord of creation to return, they see it as a call to preach the gospel of climate change  and to worship creation itself as their lord.  And so the signs don’t help them.  Signs only help the faithful.

The world misreads the signs, and so they have the wrong diagnosis of the situation.  They know that there’s a problem, that things aren’t right.  Even unbelievers sense that things are messed up in the world and need to be fixed.  But they misidentify the enemy and the source of the problem, and so they also misidentify the solution.  Virtually every political cause that is out there does this.  For environmentalists, the enemy is fossil fuels and overpopulation.  For feminists, it’s men and the patriarchy.  For socialists, it’s capitalism (and vice versa), for conservatives, it’s progressives (and vice versa), for those feeling oppressed, it’s racial privilege or gender conformity or big corporations or big government.  And the list goes on.  We have this intrinsic spiritual need to set up a system of good and evil that explains why reality is the way it is.  But when we do that apart from God’s Word, we end up with a system that is comprised of half truths (at best), and people end up embracing delusions and lies.  Scripture tells us that the real issue, the real enemies are the devil, the unbelieving world, and our own sinful nature.  But we don’t like that diagnosis.  Because it means that the problem is not just some neatly defined external system or group of people that we can blame.  It’s a deeper, spiritual matter, and it involves a sickness that is actually inside every one of us.  Worldly groups and causes only address symptoms and not the disease.  Only Jesus, our coming Lord, gets to the heart of the matter.

Jesus once commented on people misinterpreting the signs of the times in Luke 12.  He said, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?”

Christians know that when creation seems to be coming apart, that’s because it’s a fallen creation, in bondage to decay under the curse of sin.  Christians aren’t surprised by the upheavals of creation because they know that this creation is passing away, as Jesus said, “The heavens and the earth will pass away, but My words will by no means pass away.”  Just like us, creation is wearing down and wearing out.  It has to die in order to rise again as the new heavens and the new earth, which God is preparing to be our eternal dwelling with Him.  Romans 8 says, “the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God.”  Creation itself trembles with anticipation of Christ’s return, when the hidden things of our salvation will finally be uncovered and brought to fulfillment, and all things will be made new.  Until that day we cling to Jesus’ words, which endure forever, and which will surely deliver what they say.

So when we see the signs of the end, our reaction as Christians is different from the unbelieving world.  To the faithless, these signs bring pessimism and panic.  Jesus says here that men’s hearts will fail them from fear.  There will be a sense of retreat, that things are spiraling downward.  Our pop culture reflects this with the incredible number of movies and shows that focus on a dystopian future world, after some apocalypse occurs because of disease or war or climate catastrophe.  Creating these scenarios is almost like therapy to deal with this dread of what’s coming.

Of course, Jesus also warns against another way that people deal try to with this.  He says, “Take heed to yourselves, lest your hearts be weighed down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that Day come on you unexpectedly.”  Some people think to themselves, “Hey, everything’s going downhill; I might as well have some fun while I can.  Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”  Indulging in food and drink and pleasure, throwing yourself into your work or your hobby helps you to forget about this looming future.

But our reaction as believers is quite different.  For these signs are not just pointing to the end but to a new beginning.  And above all they are pointing to the return of our Savior.  Whereas the world is weighed down with anxiety as things come apart, Jesus tells you that when you see these signs, “look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”  These signs are actually good news in that they point us to Him.  We can have peace even in the midst of the chaos, because we know what this is all leading to.  We can deny ourselves the sinful pleasures of this world, because we know there is much greater joy and holy delight to come in the presence of our gracious Lord.  Your future is assured in Jesus.  Your merciful Lord is coming.  Your redemption draws near.

That’s really how we should think of the Last Day, not as doomsday, not only as Judgment day, but as Redemption Day.  It’s a good day that is coming, “the great and dreadful day of the Lord” as Malachi puts it–great for those who are in Christ, dreadful for those who aren’t.  Judgment day has already taken place for us.  For we are baptized into Christ, and He bore all of the judgment against our sin on the cross, on that great and dreadful day, Good Friday.  Remember that there were great signs in creation on that day: the sun was darkened for three hours, and the earth quaked at the death of the Son of God.  For the curse on this old creation was broken, and a new creation was dawning in Christ.  As a result of that, Romans 8 says that we are  “eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”  So the punishment and the condemnation is all done for you now.  It’s all taken care of.  You’re redeemed by the blood of Christ.  It’s just a matter of time before your Redeemer returns to reveal that truth before the world, so that you may enjoy it in all its fullness.  

Jesus urges you today in the Gospel, “Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”  Lift up your heads in watchfulness and prayer, keeping your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith.  For it is only through Him that you are worthy; it is only through Him that you can stand in the final Judgment without fear.  Psalm 130 prays, “If you, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?”  Not a single one of us could.  However, the psalm continues, “But with you, Lord, there is forgiveness.  Therefore you are revered.”  Jesus Himself makes you worthy to stand tall in His presence, not in pride because of your merits but because of His cleansing forgiveness, poured out upon you in your baptism.

So lift up your heads, then, and lift up your hearts to see the sign that the Lord is giving to you today, the holy Sacrament of the Altar.  To the unbeliever it seems like nothing all that important.  But to you who believe and are baptized, it is a marvelous sign.  For it assures you that the One who comes to you now hiddenly with His body and blood for your forgiveness will come again visibly on the clouds with power and great glory to deliver you.  It is written, “As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.”  And so the church continually prays, “Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit

God Has Manifested His Word Through Preaching

Titus 1
Advent 1 Midweek

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

It is written, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. . .  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”  Jesus is the Word of God.  Just as words are spoken to reveal and to communicate something, even so Christ is the One who reveals God to us, for He Himself is God the Son.  He is the One who communicates and gives to us the Father’s love.

In many and various ways God spoke in the Old Testament by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His eternal Son.  God the Father spoke His final Word into the womb of the blessed Virgin Mary.  The Word became flesh and blood, body and soul.

Jesus is the Father’s message to the world, a Word of divine grace, an expression of  how great His mercy is towards us–that He would humble Himself to literally become one of us, that He would sacrifice His flesh and shed His blood to set us free from our sins, that He would rise from the dead to raise us up to everlasting life.  God has manifested His Word in the coming of Jesus.

However, there is still more to the Gospel.  For even though Christ has won our salvation completely, from beginning to end, if that salvation were not revealed and given to us specifically, it would never benefit us.  We would still perish forever in our sins.  Therefore St. Paul says to Titus, “God has in due time manifested His word through preaching.”  What was promised by God before time began, what Jesus, the Word attained for us in time and history, is now manifested and bestowed to us through the preaching of the Word.  Even as God came into the world very concretely as a true man, so now He comes to us very concretely through men proclaiming Him with living mouths and tongues and speech.  The same God who revealed Himself in the flesh reveals Himself to us now in the fleshly speaking and the fleshly hearing of His Word.  Through preaching, the truth of Christmas remains an ongoing, living reality.  Jesus still manifests Himself tangibly and physically; for His own voice is still heard out loud in the Church.

We must always remember that there are two aspects to the Gospel: the first is that Jesus has won for us forgiveness of sins and everlasting life; the second is that the Holy Spirit now gives us those gifts through the Word.  Martin Luther put it this way in the Large Catechism: “Neither you nor I could ever know anything of Christ, or believe on Him, and obtain Him for our Lord, unless it were offered to us and granted to our hearts by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel.  The work is done and accomplished; for Christ has acquired and gained the treasure for us by His suffering, death, and resurrection.  But if the work remained concealed so that no one knew of it, then it would be in vain and lost.  That this treasure, therefore, might not lie buried, but be appropriated and enjoyed, God has caused the Word to go forth and be proclaimed, in which he gives the Holy Spirit to bring this treasure home and appropriate it to us.”  This is what St. Paul is getting at when he says in Titus 1, “God has in due time manifested His word through preaching.”

So it is that Paul reminds Titus why he left him there in Crete–namely, to appoint pastors and preachers in all the cities where the church had been established.  For then the saving Word of Christ would sound forth to save sinners and to sustain believers in the one true faith. It is written in Romans, “How shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard?  And how shall they hear without a preacher?  And how shall they preach unless they are sent?”  Paul indicates here that the task of preaching was committed to him according to the commandment of God our Savior.  He was sent by Christ, even as Christ was sent by His Father in heaven.  And so it is for all who follow in the apostolic ministry.  For in commanding Titus to appoint preachers, Paul says that in so doing, Titus would be setting in order the things that were currently lacking.  This office of preaching, therefore, is not merely a human arrangement but a divine institution and mandate so that the Word of Christ might be made manifest.

To assist Titus in his task, Paul gives a series of qualifications for those to be selected as ministers.  These qualifications are given not to exalt the man but rather to be as sure as possible that nothing about the man draws attention away from the Gospel of Christ which he preaches.  Later in this Epistle Paul instructs the laity to adorn the Gospel with good works so that others might be drawn to believe it.  So also here he gives instructions for pastors so that nothing in their personal life will get in the way of the Gospel they proclaim.  They are to have an orderly household.  As stewards and managers of the mysteries of God, they must not be hot-headed, drunkards, violent, or greedy, but sober, hospitable, self-controlled, just, and lovers of what is good–all of this so that the man may not be a negative focus, but so that he may fade into the background and Christ may be all in all, as John the Baptizer said of Jesus, “He must increase, I must decrease.”

Finally, Paul describes to Titus what the preacher must do in his preaching.  He must hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught, as it has been handed down to him.  He is not in the business of coming up with new doctrines to proclaim to tickle the ears of the crowds, but must faithfully preach the sound doctrine that He has been given by God to preach.  With that Word of God the preacher must “convict those who contradict sound doctrine,” exposing and rejecting the false teaching of those who add man-made requirements to the faith, opposing those who advocate practices that draw attention away from Christ and His all-sufficient sacrifice on the cross.  Paul told Titus, “Rebuke such people sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.”

But above all, the preacher must set forth the Word of the Gospel in all its clarity and beauty and purity for our salvation.  Christ must be preached and made manifest in all His glory as our merciful Savior and Lord–He who did battle with the devil for us and emerged victorious, He who shared in our humanity in order that we might share forever in His divinity, He who descended to the womb of a Virgin in order that we might be raised to the heights of heaven.  

Since we have been given to know and believe this truth, let us not be like the defiled and unbelieving, who profess to know God but deny Him with their works.  For Titus 1 calls those who believe this Gospel pure.  You have been purified by Him who alone is pure, Jesus, the Holy One of God.  Believe that this is so for you.  You have truly been made clean and holy in God’s sight by the forgiving love of Christ.  Give thanks to God during this Advent season that He has manifested to you His Word, our Savior Jesus.

✠ In the name of Jesus ✠

Why Do You Want to Go to Heaven?

Matthew 25:1-13

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠

Why do you want to go to heaven?  Seriously.  You might say, “Well, obviously, I don’t want to go to hell, so heaven is clearly the better option.”  But what is it about heaven that makes you want to go there and to be there?  Far too many aren’t really sure about how to answer that.  There is this notion that it will be good and happy.  So that’s nice.  On the other hand, there’s also this notion that it may not be as exciting as some of the things we enjoy on this earth.  Heaven is all holy and stuff, so you better have your fun now while you’re still here.  Such foolish notions actually provide a helpful way to do a little spiritual self-diagnosis.  Whatever it is that makes you want to put off heaven or especially the second coming of Jesus, whatever it is that you think you’d enjoy more or that would make you want to tell God to hold off for a little bit–that’s an idol in your heart and a false god in your life.

But still, what’s going to make heaven so great?  Actually, the Bible never really talks about “going to heaven” as the primary goal of the Christian.  To be sure, God’s Word clearly teaches that the souls of those who die in the faith go to be with the Lord.  But there is still much more that God has prepared and planned.  The truth of Scripture is expressed in the Creed, when we say that we look for the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.”  Our real hope is tangible, fleshly, and focused on the Last Day.  On that final day, we won’t be going to heaven, heaven will be coming to us.  With the return of Christ, heaven and earth will be rejoined and all creation will be made new through Him.  What we set our hearts on is bodily resurrection.

It is as the Old Testament reading said, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth  . . .  No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . .  The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”  Notice there that eternity is described in physical terms, a new creation.  It will be a world where no family is ever gathered around a coffin again, a world where even in the animal kingdom there will be no more blood-red teeth or claws.  God’s plan for this creation will not be delayed forever.  It will become what He intended it to be in the beginning: a world without fear, without sin, without death.

But is even that really our ultimate goal, simply to have a pleasant place to exist for eternity?  No, what truly makes the life of the world to come so good–and this is what we often forget–is that there we will be in communion with God Himself, living forever in the overflow of His lovingkindness.   It is written in Revelation, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. . .  God Himself will be with them and be their God.”  Why do we want to have our share in the resurrection of the body to eternal life?  To be with Jesus, that’s why.  Being together with Him, sharing in the life of our Redeemer makes all the difference.  Only through Him is anything truly good and right.  Just beholding the glory of God face to face will far surpass any earthly experience.  In Him is perfect peace and contentment and gladness.  If your idea of heaven isn’t centered in life with Christ, if it’s primarily about a place that fulfills all your own personal pleasures and dreams, you’re missing the point.  What makes eternal life to be real life is the presence of your Creator and Savior and Lord.

  So it’s no wonder, then, that the final prayer in the Bible and the constant prayer of the church is “Come, Lord Jesus!”  That is our faith’s greatest desire, to be with Him, in an even greater way than we desire to be with loved ones for the holidays that we haven’t seen for a long time, or even to see loved ones who have died and are with Christ.  When the sorrows and the fears of this world press hard against us, and we don’t know if we can hold up much longer, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When change and decay in all around we see, and it seems as if the very foundations are being shaken, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When we feel the devastating effects of our own sinful flesh, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!  Come quickly to deliver us!”  Or as the Psalmist prayed, “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2)

By faith we long for that Day, but we know from Scripture that it will not be a day of joy for everyone. There are those who are unprepared for it, who really don’t welcome it.  Many would see Jesus’ return as an unwelcome disturbance of their plans, who love this world and don’t want to let go of it.  For them that Day will come like a thief in the night bringing sudden destruction, and there will be no escape. To meet that day without faith in the Savior and love for being with Him is to meet it as the Day of Doom.

What makes the wise virgins truly wise in this parable is that nothing was more important to them than being with the Bridegroom.  Everything else was secondary.  It was all about Him.  For the foolish, being with the Bridegroom was just another thing to squeeze in with the other priorities of life, if possible.  And so the wise were well prepared, while the foolish were unprepared.

Having faith in the Savior and wanting to be with Him is the main point of today’s Gospel parable.  Those who were wise staked everything on Him.  The lamp’s flame represents faith.  The lamp itself is the Word of God, as Psalm 119 says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.”  The oil in the lamp is the Holy Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments to create faith in Christ and keep the flame of faith burning brightly.  Because the foolish virgins gave little attention to the Word of God and the Sacraments, their flames went out.  And they ended up being shut of the wedding feast, shut out of life in the new creation forever, even hearing the Lord say those awful words, “I do not know you.”  That’s a description of hell right there–hearing Jesus say that He doesn’t know you and that you can’t be with Him; all that’s left is weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The five foolish ones did not endure in the faith to the end. They thought the bare minimum was enough; but tragically, it wasn’t.  It’s not God’s fault.  The doors are open.  And God eagerly and gladly supplies everything necessary–oil in abundance, free of charge, no strings attached, all paid for and provided by Christ.  There is not one soul for whom God’s Son did not shed His blood.  There is not one human life whose sins were not atoned for on Golgotha’s wood.  There is not one human being whose death wasn’t destroyed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of you are forgiven and redeemed entirely for the sake of Christ.  All of you are on the invitation list for the wedding feast.

Your heavenly Father longs to be with you.  Much more than our desire for God is His desire for us.  That’s really the whole point of being at church, isn’t it?–to be with God and He with you, concretely, tangibly, in the flesh.  He delights in you through Jesus and wants you to be with Him.  Christ shares in your humanity so that you may share in His divine glory.  By His external, preached Word, God keeps you in the faith, lamps burning brightly all the way through to the end.

To the foolish all the church stuff may seem unnecessary.  What's the point of having so much oil?  But in other matters this is exactly how the world would expect you to behave.  When taking an SAT test--at least the old fashioned way--you bring extra pencils just in case.  When going on a big cruise or a trip, you make sure that you arrive at the airport early.  Young brides-to-be will often spend countless hours shopping for dresses, trying on make-up, consulting with their hairstylist, deciding on menus and flowers preparing for a wedding.  Doesn’t it make perfect sense then to be even better prepared for the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb in His kingdom?  

The extra oil of the wise is a reminder that faith never thinks in the way of having the bare minimum, any more than you would want to spend the least amount of time possible with someone you love.  Why wouldn’t you want to receive communion every week?  Being with Christ in divine service and being with Christ in eternity go together, and the cause of joy is the same in both cases–His presence, His mercy.  This is what makes the wise so single-minded:  You know that the One who is coming is the true, heavenly Groom who is perfect love in the flesh, the One who “gave Himself up for His beloved church, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water and the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, . . . holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).  

We eagerly watch for the Last Day, for when St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he told them that God did not destine them for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with Him.  That holds true for you too who believe and are baptized.  You are not destined for wrath, but for life with Christ.  The Introit proclaims, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”  And Christ declares in the Old Testament reading, “I will joy in My people.”  That’s heaven, the Lord rejoicing in you.  Anyone who thinks that’s going to be boring, or that something else might be more important or exciting simply doesn’t have a clue.  The Lord’s passion and desire for you is that you may live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.

“Behold the Bridegroom is coming; go out to meet Him!”  Go out with the brightly burning lamps of faith in the present darkness of this world.  Be filled by the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ words and body and blood.  Possess these life-giving gifts in abundance from the Lord.  And as you go out to meet Jesus here in divine service week by week, then it will be no surprise at all but a most natural and joyous thing when you go out to meet Him on the Last Day.

✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠