A myHT Fortress

Monday, March 26, 2012

Christmas in Lent: A Homily for the Annunciation of Our Lord

Luke 1:26-38

Annunciation of Our Lord

25 March 2012

St. John's, Chicago, IL

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

"Wait! Am I missing something?" you ask. It's Lent. Why in the world did we just hear about the conception of Jesus? It's as if you are watching a film about Lent, and going into some major flashback. It just doesn't make sense, does it?

Well, actually it does. First of all, the Festival of the Annunciation is very ancient, and this is the fixed date chosen for it. This festival is older than Christmas, and in fact, if you count nine months from today, when we celebrate the conception of Jesus Christ, you will discover why the Church celebrates Christmas on December 25th.

But perhaps more profoundly, why would we celebrate the Lord God taking on flesh in the womb of His Blessed Mother, even while we ponder His suffering and death? It is for that very reason that the Word became flesh! Not just "born to die," but "conceived to die," as well. The entire purpose for Jesus becoming a baby, starting as a fertilized egg in the Virgin Mary, is that He would give His life as a ransom for the many.

In our day, a couple can find out amazingly soon after they have conceived. An ultrasound can reveal the sex of the baby at an early stage. And they enjoy the process of selecting a name for their child.

In this case, the Blessed Virgin found out sooner than anyone else; the Angel Gabriel proclaimed the conception as it happened. It was the Word of God issuing from his mouth that caused the conception. The Word of God does what it says! No guessing about the sex of this Baby, either. The Lord removes all the guesswork by declaring from the get-go that this is a Son. And the name? No normal circumstance there, either. The Lord Himself chose the Name, a Name that would declare who He is and what He does: "Jesus!" which means, "the Lord saves!"

No ordinary conception. No ordinary baby. The Lord God was entering time and space to take on flesh and become Man to be our Savior. The Seed of Woman, proclaimed and prophesied by God in the Garden, was now entering the world He would save.

Satan hates that, and wants to distract you from the Word made flesh. He would much rather you imagine a spiritual, distant Jesus who is not so real. And often, you get sucked into that deception.

If you cannot locate Jesus, and He is only with you "spiritually," and there is no certain tangible connection, it becomes a whole lot easier to forget Him and do what pleases you. If Jesus is simply "out there" somewhere, you are more prone to openly break every commandment, from misusing the Lord's Name, to hurting others in their bodies, to lusting or coveting. It all feels easier to you, and your attitude deepens the division between you and God. If you cannot locate Jesus, the devil enjoys that you feel divided, cut off from the Lord. Jesus seems like He is merely some ghostly apparition, or imaginary friend, and vanishes from reality, or rather, your twisted imagined version of reality.

The world encourages this too. And often you don't mind following their lead. It gets divided. Secular "science" and "objective facts," are for the study and discussion of everything else, while "religion" gets sequestered and quarantined, and you enter a condescending notion that when you discuss matters about God and sin and righteousness, you have entered "the neighborhood of make believe."

The division seems harmless enough, at first. "Separation of Church and state" you hear from others, and it seems to apply for categories in your own personal thinking too. Separate Jesus into His own place, and the stuff from the "real" world is different. But such division in your mind is not harmless. It is harmful.

If Jesus is merely imagined or spiritualized, then He is not the God-with-us Son of God and Son of Mary. And you are stuck in your sin. And you are lost forever. Condemned. Without hope.

But He is not. Jesus is not some spirit. He is not some fairy tale or myth. He is the flesh and blood King of kings and Lord of lords who has come into this world to save you. "Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see. Hail! The incarnate Deity!" the hymn exclaims. Jesus has veiled and hidden His amazing and indescribable glory as God, becoming Man for you. He has made it possible for that first generation of the Church to see and hear and touch Him.

He continues this miracle, now veiling Himself in the waters of Baptism, in the words of the preached Gospel and assuring absolution, and in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. In this seemingly ordinary things, your extraordinary Savior hides Himself, that He may deliver His forgiveness, life, and salvation to you.

And that brings us full circle. Why should it make sense that we celebrate the Festival of the Annunciation during Lent? Jesus Christ became Man for you precisely to suffer and die on the cross. Lent reminds us even more strongly that Jesus is not some bodiless entity, or a result of the movie "magic" of special effects. Rather, He is the Lord God who has entered this world, the Creator becoming a Creature, so that He may bear your sin and be your Savior.

Conceived and born to suffer. Conceived and born to die. Conceived and born to rise. And He does it all for you! Amen.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Lifted Up: A Homily on John 3:14-21

St. John 3:14-21

4th Sunday in Lent

18 March 2012

St. John's, Chicago

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

The heavy stone cover was heaved to the side of the entrance to the underground chamber. The hero leaned in, peering into the darkness as he dropped his torch. When it hit the floor many feet below, the slithering, crawling forms of the cobras and various other deadly serpents became somewhat illuminated. Indiana Jones then lamented, "Snakes. Why'd it have to be snakes?"

His local guide nervously looked in. "Asps. Very dangerous. You go first."

The children of Israel had experienced this on a far greater scale, far more serious scale. They had been complaining against the Lord, and He sent venomous snakes among them. Many people were bitten and died. They cried out to Moses to ask God to take the snakes away. But do you remember what He actually did? Unlike the legend of St. Patrick, the Lord did not remove the snakes from that land. Instead of removing the deadly threat, He provided salvation from it.

Moses was to craft a snake out of bronze, and lift it up. When people were bitten, if they looked toward the bronze serpent, they would be saved and live. Such a bizarre thing, for God to command Moses to make an image of the very source of death, and then through it, save His people. But that is exactly what the Lord did.

The serpent had been possessed by Satan as he tempted and deceived our mother Eve, in the Garden of Eden. As he craftily persuaded her to defy God and eat the forbidden fruit, the snake brought death into the world.

Centuries later, the hundreds of thousands of Israelites were encamped in the wilderness, and as they defied God, He permitted these snakes to bring death to these people.

And now, the image of death became a picture of life! It still is that way. From the earliest times in the Church, the image of death on the cross has been a picture of life. Instead of the body of a snake on the pole, we behold the body of Jesus Christ on the cross. We see Him who gave up everything and suffered and died, so that we might live.

That is precisely what Jesus prepares His hearers for in this text. Not just a picture or sculpture, though, but the actual event; Jesus would be "lifted up" on the cross, and in His death, give life to us! "Lifted up" is a verb that was used by the people of that time, referring to those being crucified. Jesus makes it as plain as day that the bronze serpent was a foreshadowing of what God would do by "lifting up the Son of Man."

But "the world" -- those who complain against God and are the reason for death in the first place -- isn't just the children of Israel. It is not just the media, or the government, or some unnamed, unseen forces "out there." When God so loved the world, it isn't some generic group. It is you too.

You join in on the grumbling against God. He isn't fair. It feels like He picks on you. "Other people always have good stuff happening to them," you say, "Why is it always hard times and suffering for me?" And the devil delights in distracting you from the Lord, and discouraging you into doubt and despair. When you listen to him, you are straying from the promises of God, and forgetting His boundless love and mercy for you and, He desires, for all.

You get jealous of the supposed "good things" that happen to others, while bitterly complaining against God that He doesn't give you enough stuff in this world. Such ingratitude condemns you.

Yet Jesus has saved you with His amazing grace. You could never boast that your works had saved you, sin you were stuck in your judging of God and complaining against Him. But by His grace -- the undeserved, limitless love and mercy of God on account of Christ -- "you have been saved, through faith."

So today, the Church encourages you, the dear, rescued, saved, grace-given children of God. Christ's Church repeats her dear Lord's promises of forgiveness, life and salvation. The pastors of the Bride of Christ speak sweetly to her and say, "Rejoice!" While still in the midst of the purple season of repentance, your dear Father in heaven blesses you with a rosy day of rejoicing in Him who conquered the ancient serpent, Satan.

So in the midst of hardships and troubles, rejoice! Just like Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, Jesus, the Son of Man has been lifted up, taking away your sin.

As you are staring down the devil, who tries to conquer you with fear, just like Indiana Jones' enemies did with all those snakes, rejoice! Almighty God has sent His Son to be lifted up on the cross for you, conquering your fears and assuring you of His care and protection.

When you find yourself confronted by death, whether the possibility of your own, or the death of loved ones, in the depths of your sorrow, you can rejoice. That doesn't mean you put on some phony smile and pretend to be happy. No. Remember, even Jesus Himself wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. It means that as deeply as you hurt, your loving Savior is your Good Shepherd who comforts and cares for you. He is the source of true and deep and lasting joy -- a firm, sure, and certain hope and confidence in your Risen Lord -- a gift that comes through faith in Him.

Yes, dear friends in Christ, rejoice! Your encampment in this sanctuary is not overrun with snakes. And even in the earthly "worst case scenario," no matter what may happen to your body, no matter how the devil may attack you, you belong to the One foreshadowed by the bronze serpent. Christ Jesus has endured death so that it is no longer a overwhelming threat. Yes, it is the enemy. It is at odds with you. But your Jesus has conquered it decisively. He crushed the serpent's head as it bit His heel. Death is still the enemy, but an impotent enemy. Fear not, but rejoice!

Rejoice, you have received God's grace and been saved. Rejoice, you are forgiven. Rejoice, death will not win. Rejoice, you don't have to track down some bronze sculpture of a serpent that foreshadowed Christ; Jesus Himself comes to you in His Word and Holy Sacraments, delivering these gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation for you! Amen.

Nailing the Commandments: A Homily for Lent 3 on the Ten Commandments

Exodus 20:1-17

Wednesday of Lent 3

14 March 2012

St. Johns, Chicago, IL

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

For anyone over forty, the memory is burned into your mind. Every year, one Sunday evening in the spring -- often Palm Sunday -- one of the television networks aired Cecil B. DeMil's The Ten Commandments. When the climactic moment came, Moses stood on the mountainside, and the deep, resonating voice of God thundered each commandment. When each was spoken, a whirlwind of fire crashed into the stone, carving out the letters that wrote the commandment.

No matter how it actually sounded or looked, the Lord God gave His commandments to Moses to give to the Old Testament Church. The Law of God is clear, and in these "Ten Words" perfect love toward God and neighbor is demanded. He speaks, and expects that you will follow through, keeping His commands 100 percent.

And how well did that go? As soon as Moses came down the mountain, he discovered a drunken orgy of false worship of a false god, already in progress. Wow! First, second, third, sixth, and tenth commandments all together. And that is just glancing around. You would find all the others broken, as well. In fact, not only would you find that, but you would be giving in to temptation and joining in all the wickedness.

The Pharisees and scribes and local rabbis had noticed this over the years, so they thought they would help. In addition to the Ten Commandments and the expounded Law in the Books of Moses, they came up with additional commentary and piled on traditions that were intended to be helpful in keeping it. Law upon law. It ended up not making it easier, but far worse. And then there is the breaking of the "first table of the law" in not thinking the Word of God was sufficient.

When you stop and the about it, basically you are breaking God's commands almost nonstop. That means that you are having other gods before the Lord. That means you are on the path to hell.

But the Lord God does not want you in hell. He wants to raise your body and perfect you and glorify you, and welcome you into life everlasting. He desires you to walk in His ways, and knows that this will not happen on your part. Jesus alone can keep those commands and remain perfect. He is the Word of God who perfectly keeps the Word of God.

And having kept the commandments without failure, Jesus should have had a free pass on death. He could live forever, untainted by sin. Yet He was arrested and tried. He was convicted of the crimes of blasphemy and treason that He did not commit.

However, when you step back and look at what happened, you see that at His Baptism, Jesus assumed the guilt of every man, woman, and child on Himself. He who knew no sin, became sin for us, ...so that we might have the righteousness of God! The breaking of every commandment in every lifetime was upon Jesus, and there He was: Christ became the worst offender, the most heinous sinner ever, nailed to the cross.

Now that Jesus Christ has taken your sin and guilt and paid the price for the broken Law, you are freed. You no longer live under the weight of His Law. You are released and given the sweet reward of life and salvation that come through Christ alone.

Your Father in heaven knows you as His child, and has gotten rid of the rebellious, law-breaking Old Adam, and from those baptismal waters raised up the Gospel-filled, forgiven new creature. The Good News of Jesus' death and resurrection for you gives His righteousness to you as a great gift -- a gift that no one can steal from you.

The commandments have been nailed to the cross, along with Christ who is guilty of them all, for you. Now that He is risen, they no longer have a death grip on you, but become a description of the life that He presents to you as a gift.

Enjoy the gift, dear friends in Christ. You are blessed with this gift of commandments kept, that your dear Father in heaven will gladly welcome you someday with the words, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into the pleasure of My Father." Amen.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Temple: The Chicago Way -- A Homily on John 2:13-22

John 2:13-22

3rd Sunday in Lent

11 March 2012

St. John's, Chicago, IL

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

Let's face it. You live in Chicago; you know what this is about. Or do you?

Yes, it is disrespectful for having the sales take place in the Temple courts, yet the very things they are selling are for worship. It might be compared to people having to purchase the bread and wine or water for the sacraments in the next service they attend. It is not the best choice, but perhaps not the terrible thing that sets ablaze Jesus' righteous wrath.

Nor is the money exchange. The Roman coins bore images of Caesar and his false gods, in whom the pagan empire trusted. This was offensive to the Jewish religious consciences, as God had forbidden such images. So they maintained their own shekel. No problem with currency exchange -- when it is fair. But here, the Temple money-changers added such extreme fees for the exchange, that they harmed their neighbors.

So what is so wrong? It's the Temple mob. The poor widower from Galilee who walks so far to the Temple would have a difficult time leading a single lamb on a hundred-mile trek. And he would risk the lamb being injured on the way, this making it disqualified for sacrifice. The impoverished couple who brings their pair of turtledoves, only to discover the Temple official declares some made-up defect. So, the Temple hierarchy developed a market to purchase sacrificial animals. And while they were at it, who knows how many people were told their lamb or doves have some fictitious or exaggerated blemish.

“But wait! We have just the solution! Right here, on the Temple premises, you can purchase a replacement!”

For centuries, the Lord God had railed against dishonesty in the marketplace, and those who sell there, preying upon the poor. Dishonesty, cheating, and price-rigging are not simply a modern problem; these men used phony weights and measures, and picked on simple people who did not know any better.

The Lord Jesus then comes into His Father's house, the ultimate house of prayer on earth, the location of God's glory, where He was handing out forgiveness through the sacrifices that anticipated the Lamb whom God would provide. But He finds His children harassed and cheated by these money changers.

And here you enter the picture. "Well, thank the Lord we don't sell our Sacraments, or purchase fundraising items in the sanctuary, or rent out our hymnals! Glad we are not like those mean, nasty, Temple money changers!" Are you so sure?

Those money changers did not really care for the people. They were there to simply gather in money and serve themselves. How often, when you think about this congregation, do you think in terms of the offerings and fund raising dollars coming in, and serving St. John's, rather than what you can be doing as a parish, in mercy to others. Too often your focus comes back to be self-centeredness, rather than reaching others with the love of Christ. Too often, the thought is that you have too many budget problems to think about increasing your giving to District and Synodical missions, and instead focus on yourselves.

Or worse yet, are there times when you do have your mind on others, buying a crafty way? Times when you are contemplating how you can cheat them, exaggerate or stretch the truth, and take advantage of them? Whether your victims are poor, or not, you transgress God's Law with your dishonesty and sneaky manipulations.

But in comes Jesus, and He overturns your tables. He deflects your inward gaze and crushes your self-studying with His Law. You have been stuck in your sin, and desperately need His release, as He brings you to behold the crowds of neighbors He would have you serve.

And released you He has! Christ Jesus, after turning those tables and driving out the money changers, went on to be both the Priest and the Sacrifice. No need to purchase the doves or lambs at inflated prices. Jesus IS the prefect Sacrifice who is given freely.

He is also the One who is Truth incarnate. So when you are full of sinful dishonesty and cheating others, Jesus steps in and carries away that sin, as always, and fills you with His Word of Truth.

At first, you rightly hear Jesus say His Father's house is a house of prayer, and hear God's Law. You have not kept it holy as such, playing with your phone, or peek a boo with the baby a couple rows in front of you, or sipping your Starbucks. And it hurts. You have not given the Lord respect.

But then, you also hear this as Gospel. Jesus makes this house a house of prayer, for you! He draws you here, that you may be forgiven by His Gospel, and given life and salvation through His Holy Sacrament. He establishes and maintains this house of prayer that you may be constantly brought to His holy gifts, and be blessed as Christ Jesus restores and renews you. He rescues you from all cheating or lack of mercy. And He completely changes your life and gives you true and sure and certain hope, on account of His perfect sacrifice -- for you! Amen.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Who Do You Say That I Am: A Homily for Lent 2

Mark 8:27-38

2nd Sunday in Lent

4 March 2012

St. John's, Chicago, IL

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

Who do people say that I am? Imagine Bruce Wayne asking that question. Some say a billionaire playboy. Some say a spoiled orphan. Some say a great philanthropist. "But who do you say that I am?" he asks Commissioner Gordon. "You are Batman, the Dark Knight."

"Who do people say that I am?" This time, and infinitely more importantly, it is Jesus who asks. Some say John the Baptizer. Some say Elijah. Some say one of the other prophets. "But who do you say that I am?"

"You are the Christ, of God!" St. Peter is quick and bold to confess. This is no ordinary Man before him. Not just some great prophet either. Jesus of Nazareth is the Savior. God-in-the-flesh, having come for you! The Son of David and Son of God.

Simon Peter could not just make this up, or come up with that answer himself. God the Father revealed it to him -- gave him the knowledge and wisdom to declare that great statement of faith. Human knowledge, human strength, and human courage would not have been so bold, or even so correct, for that matter.

And yet, look and listen. No sooner does St. Peter declare that this is God he is speaking with, face to face, than he tells Jesus, "You don't know what You're talking about!" "Jesus, what do you mean, You are going to be arrested, and suffer and die?! No way! You can't do that? Are you insane?!" Now let that sink in some more. Peter has just admitted that Jesus is Christ --God--and the he turns around and tells Him that He doesn't know what He is talking about. Seriously?! Do you see how ridiculous that is?

"You are the Christ, of God!" When it comes down to it, this confession flows right out of the very purpose of building and maintaining Lutheran schools. God blesses us to have a school in which many children and youth are brought to the saving knowledge of Jesus, being taught and formed in faith the Holy Spirit to believe and confess that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed "the Christ, of God!"

Yes, we are blessed with rigorous academics that exceed most elementary schools around. And yes, most of our students end up in the high schools of their choice. Many will even tell you that their freshman year was easy, after eighth grade at St. John's. But if that is why we exist, simply to be an academically excellent school, we have abandoned our purpose.

Yes, this is a safe environment for our students. A caring faculty and staff that know the students, with everyone promising to work together in a bully-free zone, is a marvelous thing. And it is a blessing. Yet if the reason we are here is safety, in and of itself, we turn our backs on the Lord.

Yes, this school is an enriching place, nurturing talent, honing skills, and supporting a desire to dabble in a great many things. Having so many and various clubs, athletic activities, and enrichment opportunities at an elementary level is almost unheard of. That is a tremendous blessing too. Yet, again, if that is the main reason we exist, we have missed the point, and we grieve our Lord.

All of these are indeed blessings, but they are results of the true purpose for which this and other Lutheran schools exist: to teach and proclaim Jesus, the Christ, of God! When He is central to all that is taught and learned and experienced in a Lutheran school, many other blessings follow.

National Lutheran Schools Week is a brief time to pause and reflect, and thank God for this precious gift -- the gift of a school in which Jesus is clearly proclaimed and taught to be who He is: the Christ, of God!

Do not reject your Lord and demote Him to a good and loving Rabbi. Do not dismiss Jesus as some great prophet. Stop hearing Him, and then turning around like Peter and saying that He doesn't know what He is talking about. When you do this, you reject God and refuse His forgiveness and salvation.

But thanks be to God, for your sake, He who IS the Christ, of God, takes away the sin of the world. He removes your guilt and looses you from your sin. As the Christ, He is anointed to bear your sin and be your Savior. God in the flesh, making you righteous!

For every time that you have thought you know better than God, He reaches out in love and releases you from that sin of arrogance. As you have heard or read His Word and then said, "He can't really mean that!" or "Well, that is only an opinion," you have joined the chief priests, the elders, and scribes in rejecting Him and killing Him. But He has called you to repentance and repeatedly pours out His forgiveness, erasing any marks of doubt or disparaging on your part. Why? Because He loves you!

The very death that He suffered at the hands of the chief priests and scribes is the cause of your forgiveness. The fact that He rose on the third day professes to the world that this death took care of it all, paying the price completely for your sin.

Jesus takes your mind off the things of man. He has made you His restored and renewed children, placing in your hearts and minds the things of God. And first and foremost of this things, is the gift of knowing that Jesus is indeed the Christ, of God! Amen.

Foreshadowings of Christ: A Homily on the Sacrifice of Isaac

Genesis 22: 1-18

29 February 2012

Midweek for Lent 1

St. Johns, Chicago, IL

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

But, God! You PROMISED! You made me wait 100 years for a son, and now this?! I am supposed to take him on that mountain, stretch him out on the wood that this only son had carried, and let him die!? By my own hands?! This is too much to bear!

You cant even imagine the horrible anxiety going through Abrahams mind, along with the shock. After all, the true God had never demanded human sacrifice. Yet here he was, having heard the Lord clearly. He was to sacrifice his son, his only son Isaac.

How many would be truly willing to give up a family member to the Lord? Not many. That hits very close to home for the people of St. John's Lutheran Church in Lanesville, Indiana, on this February 29th. Four years ago today, on the last Leap Day, Emma was on her way home on the interstate, when she suddenly found herself behind a broken down semi. The SUV in front of her had just swerved, and when she discovered the truck was not moving, it was too late. She braced for impact.

The Lord sent His holy angels, and spared Emma's life.

That night, when her husband retrieved their children from our home, he was "white as a ghost." The events of the day had sunk in, and he was overwhelmed -- and horrified. He had seen the remains of Emma's car and all he could say was, "By all rights, I should be a single dad right now."

The Lord worked through this to remind the congregation of God's precious gift of life. He showed His mercy in sparing her, just as he had spared Isaac. Just as He has spared each of you, with His own dear Son taking your place and paying the price of your sin, to release you and let you live in abundant forgiveness and mercy.

There is a death, though, that this gift of life due to God's free mercy and grace, which we also commemorate this day. About five hundred years ago, Patrick Hamilton was a professor at the University of St. Andrew's in Scotland, at the time of Luther. He became convinced of the rediscovery of the pure Gospel among Luther and his companions. Eventually, Patrick was arrested and tried for "the various heresies of Luther." Patrick was dragged out into a public square of the university, and burned at the stake.

A tragic end to an earthly life and ministry. Yet, for Patrick Hamilton, the 29th of February became his birthdate into heaven. God kept His promise of forgiveness and life for this faithful servant.

Yes, God! You PROMISED! You let the human race wait several thousand years for Your Son, and now this! They took Him up that mountain, stretched Him out on the wood of the cross that this only Son had carried, and let Him die!

That's right! The truth is, while God telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac and then stopping him is a true event in history, in the end it is not about Abraham and Isaac at all. It is about Jesus! It is the Lord God foreshadowing the sacrifice of His Son, His only Son, Jesus. The Father in heaven revealing to us that the Law demands our death, but that God Himself would provide the Lamb. Not just a ram caught in a thicket, but the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

How amazing! Not quite 2,000 years earlier, the Lord was teaching Abraham what He Himself would do to save Abraham and his descendantsin fact, all people. Christ endured being that Sacrifice and dying on the wood of that cross, so that He might rescue and deliver you. The only Son willingly shed His blood and gave Himself into death, to bring righteousness to you and all the world.

Dear friends in Christ, this evening you may go down from this mountain of the sacrifice, knowing that all is made right with God. Your sins are forgiven. The only Son has died and risen for you! And all the earth is blessed through this Seed of Abraham, who was sacrificed and now lives and reigns for you. Amen.