Sunday, May 21, 2017

Rogate - The Sixth Sunday of Easter (Easter 6)

John 16:23-33; James 1:22-27; Numbers 21:4-9

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“In that day you will ask nothing of Me,” says Jesus. Now, what on earth could He possibly mean? What Jesus means is that, because of His death and resurrection in your place and for your sake, He has, literally, given Himself to you. You are He, and He is you, flesh of His flesh, bone of His bones. He is your holy Bridegroom, and you, the Church, are His holy Bride. Therefore, all that belongs to Jesus belongs also to you, for you are His body, and He is your head. Remember Jesus’ words that you heard in last Sunday’s Gospel? “All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that [the Holy Spirit] will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” There is nothing that you could possibly ask the Father to give you that is not already yours in Jesus Christ. Therefore, Jesus says, “You will ask nothing of Me,” but “Whatever you ask of the Father in My Name, He will give it to you.”
“In My Name” is key, however. The Name of Jesus includes everything that is godly and good, everything that is in accordance with God’s Word, His Will, and His Commands, everything that your God and Father would want you to have and readily gives you whether you pray to Him or not. Are new cars, expensive college educations, and winning lottery tickets in the Name of Jesus? Perhaps, but not likely. Are healings, recoveries, and protections from evil in the Name of Jesus? Most definitely, but they are not promised to be granted at all times, or in any particular time frame. What “In My Name” most certainly is not is a magical incantation that you simply tack on to the end of your prayers to make God answer them in the affirmative and as you desire. That would be to make God like unto some divine vending machine: Insert coin, pull lever, dispense gift. Thank you Jesus! No, but the Name of Jesus is Jesus Himself, indeed, the entire Godhead of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As we heard from St. James last week, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Jesus Himself is, first and foremost, that good and perfect gift of the Father, and whatever you ask of the Father that is in Jesus’ Name, that is, that is in Jesus, He will surely give you – in His time, in His way, according to His will and knowledge of what is best and good.
Therefore, we must examine what true prayer is and what it is not, for there is surely much confusion among Christians today concerning prayer. First, prayer is not an option, but you are commanded to pray. Thus, to pray is to obey. This is truly nothing more or less than obedience to the Frist Commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” for, when you pray, you pray to God, you acknowledge Him to be God and consequently confess that you are not god. This, in itself, is good for you, for it is the proper order of things, realignment between Creator and creature. Prayer is a return to God, your Father, much as the prodigal son returned to His gracious, loving, and forgiving father. God is there for you always, watching, waiting, and calling for your return, no matter how long and how far you have strayed, no matter how hatefully and wickedly you have treated Him, rebelled against Him, and considered Him an enemy. Pray to Him because He is good, and He is God, regardless of any expectation of whether He will grant you what you ask. That simply is not the point. Pray. That is the point. Just pray. It’s good for you, it glorifies God, and He has promised to hear and answer your prayers in Jesus’ Name.
But, what should you pray for? Truly, there is no better instruction and guidance in this matter than the very prayer our Lord Jesus taught us to pray. We should pray that God’s Name would be hallowed, that it would be received, confessed, and called upon as holy among us, His children, in our lives, words, and deeds. We should pray that His kingdom would come among us, that we would desire its coming and recognize and confess its presence among us in how we worship Him and live our lives to His glory in our God-given vocations in the world, but not of the world. We should pray that His will be done, not our own will, and that we would “think those things that are right” and “by [His] merciful guiding accomplish them,” as we prayed in today’s Collect. We should pray for Him to provide us daily bread, that is, everything that we need and require for our bodies and our lives in this world, and for our immortal souls. We should pray that He would enable and inspire us to forgive others with His forgiveness poured out upon us in Jesus Christ, that others would know the love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness of God and glorify His Name with us. We should pray that He would lead us not unto temptation, but deliver us from the evil one; that is to say, that He would protect us from the temptations and assaults of the devil, the world, and our own fallen flesh and reason. Do you not see how all of these petitions are necessarily and absolutely in Jesus’ Name?
In the Catechism’s explanation of the Second Commandment concerning the proper use of the Name of the LORD, Luther says that we should “call upon [God’s Name] in every trouble, pray, praise, and give thanks.” As is typical for Luther, particularly in the Catechism, in a few well-chosen words he communicates all that needs to be said: Pray for what you need and to glorify the LORD. There is no confusing and distracting talk of when to pray, or how to pray, what words to say when you pray, what posture you should adopt when you pray, where you should pray, etc. Luther simply says to pray. Likewise, St. Paul says that you are to pray without ceasing. Oh, the ink that has been spilt and the spiritual damage that has been wrought in misunderstanding and misinterpretation of these words! Why must every command be defined with a limit? “How many times must I forgive my brother who has sinned against me?” “When is it appropriate to not love?” “When is it appropriate to not give or help or pray?” Our sin-corrupted reason and flesh hates and despises and fears the LORD’s open-ended commands to pray, to love, to forgive, and to give. “When?” We want ask. “Always!” The Lord replies, “There is no limit!” “But, I can’t do that!” you protest. “Yes you can, and you must!” the preacher answers. After all, you manage to breathe without ceasing, isn’t that right? If you’re not breathing, you’re dead. For Christians, prayer should be like breathing. You do not have to think to breathe because the atmosphere exerts pressure on your lungs and essentially forces you to breathe. That is why it is more difficult to hold your breath than it is to breathe. Similarly, when we are born into the family of God, we enter into a spiritual atmosphere where God's presence and grace exert pressure, or influence, on our lives. Prayer is the normal response to that pressure. As believers, we have all entered the divine atmosphere to breathe the air of prayer. Unfortunately, many believers hold their “spiritual breath” for long periods, thinking brief moments with God are sufficient to allow them to survive. But such restricting of their spiritual intake is caused by sinful desires. The fact is that every believer must be continually in the presence of God, constantly breathing in His truths, to be fully functional. Thus, St. Paul exhorts you to pray without ceasing. Breathe, pray, and live.
For, your life is a prayer to God. Thus, St. James exhorts you to be “doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” As the air you breathe nourishes your body, enabling you to live, so does prayer nourish, enliven, and enable you to live both spiritually and physically. As the saying goes, “You are what you eat,” so you are what you breathe, you are what you pray, what you take into yourself, and what you give out in your lives, words, and deeds. Therefore, bridle your tongue and keep yourself unstained from the world and undefiled before God the Father. In this way you may have peace, the Peace of God which passes all human understanding, in Jesus Christ our Lord. “I have said these things to you,” says Jesus, “that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” Jesus is the good and perfect gift the Father gives to you. And, in Jesus you have everything you could possibly ask for that is in His Name: Righteousness and holiness, Sonship with the Father, a share in Jesus’ reign over the kingdom of heaven and earth, victory over sin, death, and the devil, everlasting life that can never die or fade. You do not have to ask of Jesus, but whatever you ask in Jesus’ Name His Father will give to you that your joy may be full, for the Father Himself loves you, because you love Jesus and are bone of His bones and flesh of His flesh. If your flesh and reason, the world, and the devil tempt you to doubt this, then know that this is a chief reason that your Lord Jesus left you this Sacrament, that you may, in a physical, visible, touchable, tasteable way, be reminded that you are in communion with Him, that you are His body and He is your head. He gives you His body to eat and His blood to drink for the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, to equip you and send you forth bearing His fruits, and to keep and to protect you from the assaults of the evil one. You are in Jesus, and Jesus is in you. Therefore, your prayers in Jesus’ Name are heard by the Father as Jesus’ own prayer. Rogate – ask, pray, in Jesus’ Name, that you may have peace, and that your joy may be full.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Cantate - The Fifth Sunday of Easter (Easter 5)

John 16:5-15; James 1:16-24; Isaiah 12:1-6

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord’s talk of leaving them and of going to His Father filled the hearts and the minds of His disciples with such great sorrow and fear that they could not be comforted by the good news of where He was going and why, but they were overcome by sorrow and fear of what might happen to them once He was gone. And, you are no different. Indeed, just like Jesus’ disciples, you are prone to fear, sorrow, hopelessness, and despair because, though you hear the LORD’s Words and Promises, you do not believe them, wholly, and you do not trust in them, but you believe that you are on your own and have to fend for yourselves. Therefore, Jesus’ Words to His disciples are also His Words to you this day: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you.” This Word is meant to direct you away from your fallen reason, wisdom, and deceptive emotions, to His sure and certain Word and promise. Jesus has not left you alone. There is no reason for fear and sorrow and despair. Jesus has sent you a Helper, His Holy Spirit, who “will guide you into all the truth.”
In today’s Gospel, your Lord Jesus provides you the clearest, most direct and forthright description of the Holy Spirit’s work in all of Scripture: The Holy Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” That word convict, in this usage, means to expose, to prove, or to convince of the Truth. Hence Jesus proclaims, “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the Truth, for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak, [….] He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” However, men do not often like to hear the Truth. Indeed, today people are want to believe that there is no such thing as Truth, but only human constructs, opinions, identities, and beliefs. Therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit is a much resisted and rejected work. What the Holy Spirit exposes and proves and convinces of is denied and rejected and covered up by people who prefer the darkness to the Light of Truth.
The Spirit of Truth will convict the world concerning sin. He will expose, convince, and prove to us that we are all sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. Now, no one likes to have their imperfections and failings exposed, how much less to be shown that they have sinned and are sinners throughout. We often react in anger and self-defense when someone tells us that we are wrong. However, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is much more serious than the conviction of men. Those who accuse us and expose our failings eventually go away. Not so the Spirit of Truth, but He is always with us, always convicting, always, exposing, always proving to us that we have sinned and that we are sinners. We experience this work of the Holy Spirit as conscience, and it makes us feel guilty, because we are guilty and are stained by sin. Surely this is an uncomfortable and unpleasant feeling. We do not like it, and, generally, there are two likely reactions: Deny the accusation, justify ourselves and insist that we are correct and not wrong, and convict, judge, and condemn those who convict us. However, when the one who convicts us is the Holy Spirit, to convict, judge, and condemn Him is to call good evil and evil good – which is nothing less than the unforgiveable sin against the Holy Spirit and unbelief. And, ultimately, that is precisely what the Spirit of Truth has been sent to expose. The proper response, of course, is to accept the conviction, to repent and humble oneself before the mercy of the LORD. For, the purpose of the Spirit’s conviction is not to drive you into unbelief, but to drive you to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ that you may receive forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life. Needless to say, this is an extremely important and necessary work of the Holy Spirit, for, as we confess in the Catechism, in the Explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” We need the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin, that we may repent and be forgiven and live. This work of the Holy Spirit is a precious and vital gift of the LORD for which we must be thankful and praise His grace and mercy, and glorify Him in repentance and humility, faith, and love.
The Spirit of Truth will also convict the world concerning righteousness. He will expose, convince, and prove to us that there is no one who is righteous except the LORD. Once again, this is not something that our sinful nature likes to hear or wants to believe. We like to think that we are good people, at least better than most. After all, we go to church, we are generally kind to others, we give to charity if sometimes grudgingly, we often let someone merging into traffic pass in front of us, but two is enough, after that no one’s getting in, etc. Ha! Do you see how absurd our justifications and self-reassurances of our goodness and righteousness are? Even the things we boast of doing that are good have extremely low limits and thresholds before we consider that we are right in withholding from others. Our self-righteousness is a lie perpetuated by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, a lie that can keep us from repenting and seeking forgiveness in Jesus. After all, if you are alright on your own, then what do you need Jesus for? That’s what Satan wants for you. He doesn’t need to terrify you and tempt you to worship him. No, he doesn’t need to do anything that obvious and flamboyant. All he needs to do is to get you to believe that you are alright, just the way you are. And, he accomplishes this by tempting you to have an eagle eye for the sins and failings of others, but to be virtually blind to those of your own. Indeed, Jesus teaches us not to judge others, not because judging itself is bad, but because when you judge others for their sins and failings you are unable to see those of your own. “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Jesus has gone to His Father and is no longer with us to teach us about the dangers of self-righteousness, therefore He has sent the Spirit of Truth to expose, prove, and convince you of your own unrighteousness that you might place your fear, love, and trust in the righteousness of God revealed in His Son Jesus Christ and receive His righteousness as your own, even as your brother and sister in Christ, your neighbor, the stranger, and even your enemy must receive their righteousness. Once again, this work of the Holy Spirit is a precious and vital gift of the LORD for which we should be thankful and praise and glorify Him.
Lastly, the Spirit of Truth will convict the world concerning judgment. He will expose, convince, and prove to us that the ruler of this world, Satan, is judged. If the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to get us to believe that he doesn’t exist, a similar trick is to get us to believe that he has won, and therefore we should simply go along with the ways of the world as if nothing truly matters. St. Paul puts it this way: If Christ has not been raised, our faith is futile and we are still in our sins. We are of all people the most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, He will guide you into all the Truth, for He will not Speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak [….] He will glorify Me, for He will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine; therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and declare it to you.” In His death and resurrection, Jesus won the victory over sin, death, and the devil. When Satan sunk his venomous fangs into Jesus’ heal, the Son of Man crushed that serpent’s head and destroyed his power. Therefore, the last enemy, death, has been defeated and has lost its sting. Death and the grave could not hold Jesus, and they cannot hold you. Therefore, if even death and the grave cannot hold you, why do you live as though this mortal life is all there is? Why do you live each day in fearful selfishness, greed, and hatred, fearful of what you don’t have or of what you might lose? These are the chains of hell and Satan from which you have been freed. If you give yourself over to fear, selfishness, greed, and hatred, you willfully bind yourself with chains that Jesus died to set you free from.
Yes, the Spirit of Truth will make you uncomfortable. That’s a good thing! That discomfort is a gift from the LORD to remind you that this world and this flesh are not your home. You were created for full communion with your Holy, Righteous, and Just God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That communion has been damaged and destroyed by sin, the original sin of our First Parents, and your own personal and actual sins that you have committed and continue to commit daily in thought, word, and in deed. If Jesus had not sent you His Spirit, you could not know Him, come to Him, or believe in Him. But, the Spirit has come, and He is with you as a Helper, a Counselor, and a Guide that you may receive, believe, and trust in Jesus, and share in His Holiness, Righteousness, Justice, Life, and Sonship with His Father. And, the Spirit of Truth comes to you through the Word of the LORD, and though the Sacraments, which are the Word of the LORD made flesh, visible, hearable, touchable, and tasteable. Therefore, do not be deceived. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of Lights who never changes. Therefore, be quick to listen to His Word, and slow to speak in judgment and anger. And put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness as you receive the implanted Word of the Spirit of Truth, which is able to save your souls. This is the Holy Spirit’s work: To convict you, to expose to you, to prove to you, and to convince you concerning your sin, the righteousness of God revealed in Jesus, and the judgment of Satan.
Blessed Cantate! Sing to the LORD a new song. That is, sing a song of freedom in Christ to the praise and glory of God! Sing of His grace, mercy, and love shown to you in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Sing of His Spirit who testifies of Christ and His victory over sin, death, and Satan. Sing to the LORD a new song, for He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations. Alleluia!

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Jubilate - The Fourth Sunday of Easter (Easter 4)

John 16:16-22; 1 Peter 2:11-20; Isaiah 40:25-31

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last Sunday we sang, “The earth is full of the steadfast love of the LORD.” This is most certainly true! However, as good as this earth and life may be, for the LORD has truly blessed us richly in many and various ways, this earth is not our home. Therefore, we must not become too comfortable and complacent in it, nor complicit with it, but we must live our lives as pilgrims and sojourners, as though in a strange land. Thus, on the night in which He was betrayed, in midst of His Last Supper with His disciples before His suffering and death upon the cross, our Lord Jesus shared these words with them and with us, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.”
How could our Lord Jesus speak of joy in the full knowledge of what He was about to suffer at the hands of sinful men, knowing that even His closest disciples and friends would betray and abandon Him? In a word: faith. Jesus had faith, which is trust, in His Father. Jesus’ faith was, as the Preacher to the Hebrews defines it, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Because He had faith and trust in His Father’s goodness, righteousness, and love, Jesus did not despair of what He was about to suffer but, “for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame.” What joy was that? It was the joy of returning to His Father in the full knowledge that He would fulfill His Father’s will to redeem and restore us to a right relationship with Him once again. In His ministry, Jesus taught that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents. Our justification, repentance, and restoration to the Father causes Jesus, and all the heavenly host, inexpressible joy, and for this reason He laid down His life for us, in love for His Father, and in love for us.
Out of love for His Father and for us, Jesus became the Prodigal Son and left His Father’s home in heaven to squander His love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness upon us. Though He was the Son of God, He did not consider His Father’s will to be a slight against Him, but He emptied himself, becoming a servant, born in the likeness of men. As a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. And, He counted it all joy. Jesus became the Prodigal, but you and I, we are the prodigal. All we sons and daughters of Adam are one, huge, rebellious, prodigal son. We have squandered our Father’s love and kindness on the idols of fleshly passions, desires, and lusts, material possessions, and the praise of our fellow men. In sinful rebellion, we disrespected our Father and treated Him as if He were dead or did not exist, and we lived for ourselves and for our own selfish pursuits. But, all the things we thought we wanted failed to satisfy. Their joy was fast, ephemeral, and fleeting. When spent, it was gone, and we had nothing. When we came to our senses we found we had no father, no family, no way to satisfy our hunger, our thirst, and our desire to be fulfilled. There was no joy, but only loneliness, emptiness, and the gnawing suspicion that we were meant for something better, but no longer remembered what that is.
Jesus compares the sorrows and sufferings of our lives to a woman in the throes of childbirth. When the pains of labor are upon her, they are all consuming, her only thought and concern. But, when they have passed and the child is born, she knows only joy – joy unlike anything one can imagine who has not suffered and labored through childbirth. “She no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world.” “So also you have sorrow now,” says our Lord, “but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Our Lord Jesus bids us to take up the crosses that have been appointed for each of us, and to follow Him in His cruciform way. The only way to life is through suffering and, ultimately, death. We cannot live forever in this flesh and this world – this is not our home! – anymore than the infant can live forever in his mother’s womb. The womb is not the infant’s home, though it is certainly comfortable; similarly this world is not our home, though creature comforts and pleasures tempt us to settle for slavery and for the food of pigs.
That is why we must be born again of water and spirit in Holy Baptism. We must die to this life and world, and we must die to this flesh with its fallen passions, lusts, and desires, and live to God in Jesus Christ. And so, our Father uses the crosses He gives us to chasten and to discipline us, to slough off the dross and burn off the chaff that keeps us impure. Though we cannot always see it, and often we do not feel it, our sorrows and sufferings are both necessary and good for us, just as the pains of labor are both necessary and good in bringing forth the joy of new life. Thus, St. James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” And so, we have sorrow now, but we will see our Savior Jesus again, and our hearts will rejoice, and no one will take our joy from us!
St. Peter urges us, as sojourners and exiles, to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls. Such things are food for swine; they may stave off hunger and thirst for a time, but they can sustain life neither temporally nor eternally. Rather, let us eat of the Bread of Life of which a man may eat and live, and let us drink deeply of the Spring of Living Water that, even though we die, we will live and never die. We will weep and lament while the world rejoices, but our sorrow will be turned into joy when the birth pangs have passed and we see our Lord again.
The world hates us because we are in Jesus and Jesus is in us. Therefore, how we live in this world matters. Let us not be gloomy and despairing, for our hope is in the Lord of Heaven and Earth who has conquered death, who reigns now at the right hand of God the Father, who is returning to raise us up from death to life that cannot die. Let us heed the exhortation of St. Peter: “Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good.” “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly.” “This is a gracious thing in the sight of God.”
It is but a little while until we see Him again, until the sons of God are revealed in the sight of all the world. Already we are sons, adopted in Jesus Christ, but our glory has not yet been revealed. But, it is there, hidden in humility and lowliness, just as Jesus’ divinity was hidden in the humility of His human nature, just as the infant is hidden in his mother’s womb, just as Jesus is really and truly present with us now in His Word, Water, and Supper. But, when He comes, then every eye will see Him, and every knee will bow in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and confess Him as Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Then, our glory, too, will be revealed, and our hearts will rejoice, and no one will take that joy from us.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Monday, May 1, 2017

You are the salt, leaven, and light of the Lord

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)
There is no doubt in my mind and heart that the Christian faith and Church is under attack. The Church is being attacked from without by a sometimes apathetic, sometimes hostile, culture, by the government, by militant atheists, and by special interest lobbies whose social, moral, and ethical beliefs are fundamentally at odds with orthodox Christian faith and doctrine. However, I waver, at times, between thinking that theirs is the majority voice in our nation and that theirs is a small, but very loud voice, which is amplified by a sympathetic media, which craves blood more than it values objectivity and truth.
But, the Church also suffers attack from within, primarily the result of apathy amongst her members who simply do not care enough about their faith to study and take to heart what its beliefs and doctrines are, who attend worship for reasons other than a desire for forgiveness and a love for the Lord, who do not exhibit Christian love, compassion, and mercy in their lives, and who do not teach their children diligently in the faith and bring them to Church for worship and Christian education. Secondarily, the Church suffers attack from within because of self-righteousness and self-security amongst her members, which causes them to be prideful and unrepentant, hypocritical, and judgmental towards others.
Why do those outside often believe the Church to be irrelevant, or why do they often seem to be angry and hostile towards those of faith? Why do those inside of the Church often seem apathetic and lackadaisical about their faith, or self-secure, hypocritical, and unloving in their lives? Are the two related? How could they not be?
For, the Christian faith is not only something to know, but it is, and perhaps more importantly, something to be and to live. To be a Christian is to be a little Christ in the world, but not of the world. The answer to apathy within the Church is for Christians to actually believe what Jesus teaches and do it and live it in humility and repentance that you do not do it and live it as well as you should, but that you continue to sin, all the while trusting in God’s forgiveness and restoration in Jesus Christ. For, when you truly believe and live what Jesus teaches, then the apathetic souls, both inside and outside of the Church, will see, feel, hear, and experience the love of Jesus in and through you, and they may come to believe for themselves, when and where the Holy Spirit calls them.
And, the only answer to hatred and hostility outside of the Church is love. Love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you, just as Jesus teaches (Luke 6:27). But, do not judge others, for there is One who judges, and that One is God the Father (John 8:7). While you must not condone or bless sin – indeed, our Lord Jesus never condoned or blessed sin, but He said to those He forgave, “Go, and sin no more”(John 8:11)  – it is not for you to judge another, for we all stand in judgment for our sins (Luke 6:37), and God has forgiven us all in Jesus’ atoning death and resurrection so that all who believe will not perish, but will have eternal life (John 3:16).
The most effective way in which Christians can impact and change the world for the better is by simply being Christian – that is, by living the life of Christ in the world, but not of the world. Let our marriages be faithful and filled with patience, perseverance, forgiveness, and love. Let our families be little churches in which God’s Word is studied, spoken, prayed, and meditated upon and Christ’s life is lived out in mutual love and forgiveness between fathers, mothers, and children. Let our churches be places in which God’s people gather around His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation and go out into their God-given vocations bearing the grace, mercy, compassion, love, and forgiveness of God in Jesus Christ in our words and deeds to our neighbors in every walk of life. And, let us support faithful men and women in leadership roles at every level and office of society and culture and encourage them to remain steadfast in their convictions while serving the people under their charge in compassion and mercy to the glory of God. 
In short, let us not attempt to force the kingdom of God upon the world, but let us submit ourselves to our merciful Lord and King that He may work through us, as through leaven, salt, and light, to change the world for the better, that all may live in peace and quietness, receiving from the Lord His boundless gifts of grace and mercy, praising and glorifying Him by sharing these with our brothers, sisters, and neighbors.
In the Name of our crucified and risen Savior Jesus Christ.
+ Pastor Ellingworth

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Misericordias Domini - The Third Sunday of Easter (Easter 3)

John 10:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; Exodus 34:11-16

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd has suffered greatly in contemporary Christian imagination from an overly romantic sentimentalism and from Gospel-reductionist pietism. From the pastel-colored Precious Moments figurines of Christian kitsch to the airbrushed Sunday School and church bulletin artwork depicting a smiling Jesus holding a young lamb over His shoulder or surrounded by a flock of innocent enough seeming sheep, the popular Christian image of the Good Shepherd is a soft, gentle, kind, and often effeminate, young man who lives a happy, simple and pastoral life with His greatest joy being young children and social outcasts. Now, that image is not entirely wrong, mind you, but it is a far cry from the fullness of what it means that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and from the Church’s historic understanding of that office of Jesus Christ.
That Jesus is the Good Shepherd does not mean that He is kind, gentle, happy, loving, etc. any more than it means that He is merely a competent practitioner of animal husbandry. The adjective good here (kalos in the Greek) doesn’t mean that. Rather, Jesus is the Good Shepherd in the same way that God proclaimed each day of His creation and work to be good: Jesus is good in the sense that He knows the Father and the Father knows Him. He is in complete agreement and harmony with His Father’s will. He loves what His Father loves, and He does what his Father commands. Jesus’ goodness is an innate goodness. Therefore, in calling Himself the Good Shepherd, Jesus is referencing His inherent goodness, righteousness, beauty, and unity with His Father. Jesus conformed perfectly and completely to His Father’s will, even laying down His life unto death for His Father’s sheep. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep. He dies for them. For this reason the Father loves His Son Jesus, because He lays down His life for the sheep. Therefore, Jesus is the Good Shepherd because He saves us, not because He plays with us and rolls with us in the grass.
The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. He does not flee when the wolf comes, but He places Himself into the beast’s jaws and teeth that His sheep may live. This is the Father’s will, and the Father loves Him because of this, and the Son loves His Father and you in this way. This is the way in which the Father loves you, His sheep: God so loved the world in this way, He gave His only Son. The Good Shepherd protects and defends His sheep. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep. The Good Shepherd dies for His sheep. This is what it means for Jesus to be the Good Shepherd. In contrast to the Good Shepherd then is the hired hand. The hired hand is not a shepherd. The hired hand does not own the sheep, does not love the sheep, and most certainly will not die for the sheep. When he sees the wolf coming, the hired hand leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep. Not so the Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and they know Him, and He lays down His life for the sheep.
From man’s perspective Jesus is not a good shepherd, but a fool or a lunatic. From man’s perspective, a good shepherd raises his sheep for their wool or their meat. A good shepherd most certainly will not die for his sheep, but rather, he will raise his sheep so that they die for him, for his profit, benefit, and good. Not even faithful pastors are ultimately good in the sense that the Good Shepherd is good, but, despite their best intentions, they are still hirelings. Undoubtedly, however, Jesus had the scribes and the Pharisees in mind, who were the teachers and shepherds of Israel. Instead of leading the flock of Israel to the cool waters and wholesome food of Jesus, they slaughtered them with legalism and false teaching, directing them to works under the Law, rather than to the life-giving grace of the Gospel. And, sadly, too many hireling shepherd pastors continue to do the same today.
The problem with hireling shepherds and pastors is that they are afraid of the wolf and flee, or they do not believe that the wolf even exists. But, the wolf is real; Satan is real, and as St. Peter warns, he prowls this earth seeking sheep to devour. Satan prowls in the Church disguised as works righteousness, which falsely comforts the flock by causing them to put their trust in their works, in being good, fair, and tolerant people. Satan prowls in the Church tempting pastors and parishioners to misrepresent and misunderstand God’s Word and commands so that they do not fear His holiness and righteousness but minimize and deny their sins, believing that God only wants them to be happy and prosperous, but not obedient. Hireling shepherd pastors preach “Peace! Peace!” where there is no peace, because they do not preach repentance for the forgiveness of sins but exhort the flock to keep on doing as they are doing with the false assurance that God is love and doesn’t care about sins so long as you are loving and tolerant and kind. And so there are prosperity preachers teaching the power of positive thinking and self-improvement instead of repentance, humility, and true love, which is sacrifice and selflessness and service to your neighbor to the glory of God
Through His prophet Jeremiah the LORD has said, “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of My pasture!” “You have scattered My flock and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of My flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord.” “Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: The Lord is our righteousness’.” That is a direct messianic prophecy of the Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. “I Myself,” says the LORD, “will be the Shepherd of my sheep.”
Hence Jesus proclaims, “I am the Good Shepherd.” This is one of seven great “I AM” statements of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel. “I AM,” in Greek ego eimi, is a rendering of the LORD’s Name given to Moses in the burning bush. Thus, Jesus at once communicates that He is the LORD’s promised Good Shepherd, even the LORD Himself. Jesus is the fulfillment of the LORD’s prophetic promise to seek, gather, and rescue His lost sheep Himself from all the places they had been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. That dark day was, first, the day our Frist Parents fell in the Garden and, second, Good Friday, yet another instance in which good means something substantially other than pleasant, competent, or kind. In Jesus, God Himself sought and gathered and rescued His sheep from the Satanic wolf by laying down His life unto death. “The Good Shepherd lays down His life for His sheep.” By dying, He destroyed death and broke the wolf’s jaws so that now he is a toothless, wounded, defeated, but furious, dangerous, and still powerful enemy. No one took His life from Him – indeed, no one could possibly do that – but Jesus had authority from His Father to lay it down and authority to take it up again. Indeed, the Father loves Him because He laid down His life in love for His Father and for you.
This day in the Church’s Year of Grace is called Misericordias Domini, the merciful goodness of the LORD. No one made the LORD lay down His life for you. He did so because of who He is, not because of who you are. God is love. Love is sacrifice. And, God so loved you in this way: He died for you that you may live for Him and in Him, not for yourself. And, you honor, thank, praise, and obey Him by laying down your life in love for Him and for others. He promises, “I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.” Your pastor shepherds may be hirelings, they may be sinners themselves in need of mercy and forgiveness, but they are called and ordained by God through His Church for you and for your sake, that you may be fed and nourished, protected and defended from the attacks of the Satanic wolf and his demons. Follow where they lead you. Eat and drink what they feed you. Heed their warnings and exhortations, all the while listening for the voice of your Good Shepherd. They are called and placed under holy orders to care for you in the stead and by the command of Christ the Good Shepherd, and they will called to account for their shepherding.
However, you have a call as well: “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in His steps.” You are called to suffer, to lay down your lives for others as Christ suffered and laid down His life for you. “He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in His mouth. When He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but continued entrusting Himself to Him who judges justly.” You are not to fight with the weapons of men and with violence, but remain steadfast in His Word and in the confession of Christ crucified and risen. This may very well mean maintaining the good confession before family members, neighbors, your employer, lawyers, judges, and people who will revile you and mock you and curse you and hate you, even fine, imprison, torture, or kill you. “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Truly, this world is still very dark and dangerous, and the Satanic wolf still prowls, but, do not be discouraged, and do not be afraid. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!
The earth is full of the merciful goodness of the LORD! “Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him, on those who hope in His steadfast love, that He may deliver their soul from death and keep them alive in famine. Our soul waits for the LORD; He is our help and our shield.”

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.