3 January 2016 - Christmas 2 - 1 Kings 3:4-15

People do not become important to God only in adulthood. He establishes relationships also with children - indeed, even with children still in their mother’s wombs. He knows about them, and cares about them.

Today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings, concerning young Solomon at the beginning of his reign over Israel, is an illustration of this truth. At this early stage of his life, Solomon had a simple yet firm faith in his Lord.

And in this faith, he had an intimate and comforting knowledge of God, and of God’s wisdom and goodness. This is most admirable.

We are touched to read about Solomon’s desire to serve his nation faithfully, so that he asked God to give him the wisdom that he needed to fulfill this calling: “O Lord my God, ... Give your understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?”

And we are then told that “it pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.” Solomon did not ask for power and riches, or for anything that would add personal prestige to himself.

Before God, at this time in his life, Solomon’s wishes for his own future, and for Israel’s future, were not shaped by selfishness or pride, by ambition or a craving for glory. With a recognition of his duty before God, and with a humble faith, he asked for gifts that would be to the benefit of others, so that he could be an instrument of service to others.

But the blessed faith that prompted Solomon to think these godly thoughts, and to speak these godly words, did not endure throughout Solomon’s life. It may surprise us that someone who trusted so strongly and undistractedly in God and in God’s goodness in early life, would depart from this trust in his later years.

But, unfortunately, Solomon did depart. We are told, later on in First Kings, that Solomon disobeyed the Lord in a significant way, and that this set in motion an ongoing and ever-worsening spiritual disaster for Solomon’s soul. With great sadness, we read:

“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, ... from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, ‘You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.’ Solomon clung to these [women] in love.”

“He had 700 wives, princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.”

“For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done.”

“Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab; and for Molech, the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel...”

Now, if Solomon had abided in the Lord’s Word, and if he had made decisions about marriage and alliances that were in accord with the Lord’s Word, this falling away would not have happened. But it did happen, because in his later years Solomon decided to follow a pathway different from the one that God had laid out before him in his youth.

Solomon began by ignoring God’s Word. And then, after he had gotten used to that, he started to test God by compromising his Word.

And then, after he had gotten used to that, he flagrantly violated God’s Word, by allowing the worship of Satanic idols, and ultimately by participating in that worship himself. And so, before both God and man, Solomon disgraced himself, and called down the Lord’s judgment upon himself.

Solomon’s weakness was his wrong attachment to the wrong women. His father David’s weakness was very similar. The devil always finds a person’s weak spot, and tries to insert himself into a person’s life through that weak spot, whatever it is.

But when David was rebuked for his adultery, he repented of it, and was restored to the Lord’s grace, through forgiveness. And so, even with that grievous moral failure as a part of his past, David was still described by God as a man whose heart had been true to the Lord his God.

But at every step of the pathway to apostasy that the older Solomon was on, when his conscience testified to him that what he was doing and condoning was wrong, he did not listen, and he did not repent. He did not return to the Lord.

He kept moving down that pathway of spiritual death, farther and farther away from God. And he ever more callously, and ever more willfully, indulged his sin, rather than repenting of his sin.

Can something like this happen to you, or to me? The sobering answer is yes. Hypothetically, it can.

If we were to follow the pathway of King Solomon in his later years, and allow the devil to have an entrance into our lives through whatever our personal weakness may be, we would end up in a similar place. We could cease to be Christians. We could cease to be forgiven children of God.

We could cease to have the hope of everlasting life, or even to care about everlasting life. The Holy Spirit can be pushed out of our lives by hardened unbelief, and by a stubborn rejection of the gospel. We can become reprobate and damned.

If it happened to Solomon, it can happen to you. But also, the way in which this could have been avoided in Solomon’s life, is the way in which this can be, and will be, avoided in your life.

You are not saved from your sin, and preserved in your relationship with God, by a remembrance of a faith that was yours in your youth. You are saved from your sin today, and are preserved in your relationship with God today, by a faith that is yours today.

But it is not the presence in you of faith, as a thing, that saves you. Faith saves you - your faith today saves you - because of the promises from God that faith receives and embraces.

That’s why even a weak and struggling faith can save us. Faith saves because of who faith is attached to - namely Christ and his grace - and not because of what that faith is in itself.

And a faith that does cling to Christ, is a faith that is a gift of Christ, worked in us by his Word and sacrament, and sustained in us by his Word and sacrament.

We don’t simply say that we have “faith,” with the idea that we have thereby said something important and comforting. Solomon, after he had fallen away from the Lord, still had faith. But it was a faith in the false gods Ashtoreth and Milcom!

The kind of humility before God that was exemplified by the faith of Solomon’s youth, is a humility that accepts as true everything that the true God tells us.

We humbly admit to our sins, when God’s law shines a light on our wrong thoughts, words, and actions, and brings conviction. And, we humbly rejoice in the free and liberating gift of forgiveness, when God’s gospel shines a light on the cross of Christ - where all of our sins were atoned for; and where our peace with God was established for time and eternity.

The kind of humility before God that was exemplified by the faith of Solomon’s youth, is likewise a humility that heeds the warnings that God gives us; and that admits that God knows better than we do, what is really good for us. We humbly and thankfully recognize that the good life is a godly life - as God’s Spirit bears within us the fruits of godliness.

And so, if you begin slipping into something that is wrong, admit it. And let God extract you from it.

If you begin slipping away from God, acknowledge this as the problem that it is. And let God carry you back - as the Good Shepherd carries the wandering lamb back into the fold.

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, after Mary and Joseph had looked frantically for Jesus, and finally found him in the temple, they were surprised to find Jesus in such a calm state, sitting among the teachers, asking questions, and discussing the Scriptures.

“His mother said to him, ‘Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.’ And he said to them, ‘Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them.”

Mary and Joseph did not understand this, at least not at the time. I’m quite certain, though, that Mary later came to understand. And we, too, now understand.

We understand that Jesus was in this way gently correcting his mother, who had misidentified Joseph as his father. Of course, out of respect for her, he did this in the form of a question, and not a direct rebuke.

And we also understand that, for one who is the Son of God, the house of God is the most natural place to be. Learning from the Scriptures, discussing the Scriptures, and meditating on the Scriptures, was the most natural thing for Jesus to be doing.

The temple should have been the first place Mary and Joseph looked. And on any Sunday morning, this house of prayer, in which we are now gathered, should be the first place people would look, if they wanted to find you.

What was true of Jesus by nature, is true for us by adoption. St. Paul writes to the Romans, and to you: “You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’”

As God’s adopted children, you, too, must be in your Father’s house. This is the most natural place for you to be. You belong here. This is your spiritual home.

You, too, must be where God’s law is proclaimed - keeping you humble and honest about your need for Christ, and for the wisdom that Christ gives. You, too, must be where the good news of God’s love in Christ is proclaimed to you, and applied to you sacramentally.

As God’s Word in these ways lives in you, and as you live in God’s Word, the humble faith of your youth will remain, and will be the humble faith also of your adulthood.

In Christ, by the daily appropriation of his promises, you will not be fearful of an uncertain future. You will instead, every day, be confident of a Christ-filled future - as you call out in warm confidence to Jesus’ Father as your Father; as your “Abba.”

This doesn’t mean that you will never fall. But it does mean that when you do fall, you will admit it; and will not justify your sin, but instead will receive the Lord’s justification in Christ, through his absolution of your sin. Like David, but unlike Solomon, you will turn away from the sin, and turn to Christ for reconciliation.

And, it means that throughout life, when you daily hear the invitation of Christ, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” by faith you will come.

And when you hear the devil’s invitation, “Come to me” - mediated through tempters and temptresses, both foreign and domestic; or through any other forbidden but enticing thing - you will not come.

You will stay in your Father’s house. You will stay with Christ, your Savior and brother; your protector and friend.

Solomon did not stay in his heavenly Father’s house - even though he physically had built that temple, at the Lord’s direction. He did not stay in his heavenly Father’s Word - not heeding its warnings, accepting its rebukes, receiving its pardon, or walking in its light.

He cut himself off from that which would have preserved him, and saved him. That’s why he fell away.

But that’s also why you will not fall away - as you do stay where you belong, in heart, mind, and body. That’s why what happened to Solomon will not happen to you: as you abide in Christ, every day; and as Christ abides in you, ever day.

We are told in the Epistle to the Hebrews:

“Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. ... As it is said, ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts...’”

And then, a little further on - with reference to Christ, our Savior and guardian - that same epistle goes on to say:

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

Listen to these words every day. Be comforted and sustained by them every day. And, as it were, remain in your Father’s house - by faith in his Word - every day; because his Word is true.

It is always true, and will always be true, always, for you. Your faith will be safe. You will be safe. Amen.

6 January 2016 - Epiphany - Matthew 2:1-12

The Festival of the Epiphany of Our Lord is one of the four major festivals of Christ in the church year. The other three are Christmas, Easter, and Ascension.

The word “epiphany” means “manifestation.” The theme of the Festival of the Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi to the boy Jesus, is the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles.

Now, God had established his chosen nation - to which he had entrusted his written Word and his oracles - from the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But most of us are, according to our ethnicity and family heritage, gentiles. The patriarchs of Israel are not our ancestors.

Yet this does not mean that God forgot about our forbears, or about us. When the Messiah of Israel was finally sent, he was sent also for us.

Thirteen days ago, we heard in the Christmas Gospel from St. Luke that when Jesus was born, an angel announced to the Jewish shepherds outside of Bethlehem that their Savior had come. “Fear not,” he said, “for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

We are also told that “when the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”

They walked the few miles that they needed to traverse, to find their Lord, and to worship their Lord.

But Jesus came into the world not only for those who were close to him – religiously, culturally, and geographically. He came also for those who were far away. He came also for our ancestors, and for us.

The story of Epiphany is the story of the star announcing to the Magi in the East – many, many miles from Bethlehem – that also their Savior had been born. And so they launched out on a major trek, traversing deserts and plains, crossing rivers, and exposing themselves to all kinds of danger, so that they could find, and worship, the Redeemer of the entire human race.

St. Matthew reports in today’s Gospel that “after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’”

When these wise men had been told that, according to the Prophet Micah, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, they went there. And as Matthew goes on to report, “the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.”

Epiphany - which commemorates these events - is, in a sense, the Christmas of the gentiles. It is, in a sense, our Christmas.

Those in the world today, who are invited by the story of Epiphany to come and worship Christ today, are indeed often very far away from him when they receive that invitation.

Their hearts are enslaved by the fear of death. Their minds are darkened by the satanic lies they believe.

Their wills are perverted by a self-destructive yearning after sin. Their consciences are twisted by a hatred for that which is their only hope.

But these “gentiles” of today are nevertheless invited by the star of Bethlehem to come and find Jesus, and to worship Jesus, as he makes himself available to us today in his Word and sacraments. Even if they must come, as it were, from a great distance, they are still invited to come.

The star of the gospel draws them, and energizes them, to come. That star invites all gentiles – and all Jews as well! – to receive Christ into their hearts, minds, wills, and consciences. The star offers to all gentiles – and to all Jews! – the liberation, the enlightenment, the purification, and the peace that only Jesus can give.

The visit of the Magi was an important event in the life of Christ on earth. The Festival of the Epiphany is, accordingly, an important observance in the church year for us.

If your walk of faith has been blessed by God in such a way that you have remained close to Christ - dying to self in daily repentance, and rising in Christ by a daily embracing of his promises - you are still invited to come to Jesus today, yet again.

Like the shepherds, though, the “distance” you would need to travel to be blessed by him yet again, in Word and Sacrament, would be, as it were, a short distance - since by faith you are close to him already, believing his Word, accepting his guidance, bearing the fruit of his Spirit.

But if your walk of faith has suffered of late - perhaps in ways that no one else knows about - through doubts and fears; through temptations to sin which you have not resisted, and to which you have succumbed; through human weakness and spiritual discouragement in general - then you may be feeling pretty far from Jesus.

But you, too - just as with the distant Magi - are invited to come to him today. Your longer pathway to Bethlehem is the pathway of a renewed repentance, and the pathway of a revitalized faith, which are being worked in you by the convicting and regenerating power of God’s Spirit even in this very moment.

And it is a pathway you are invited to traverse - a pathway on which the Holy Spirit himself will draw you and carry you, all the way to where Jesus is to be found for you today: in his Holy Absolution and in his Holy Supper, where he will cleanse you, and restore you.

Whether you are, in mind and conscience, the equivalent of the Jewish shepherds, who were close to Jesus; or the equivalent of the gentile wise men, who were far away, Jesus is here for you tonight.

Jesus beckons you to come to him tonight, so that he can give you grace and forgiveness, life and hope. Jesus brings you to himself tonight, so that you can know his love and salvation.

If you are like the shepherds, then today you can join them in saying: “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”

If you are like the magi, then today you can join them in saying: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” Amen.

10 January 2016 - The Baptism of Our Lord - Luke 3:15-22

Nobody enjoys the feeling of guilt. When someone does feel guilty, he tries - perhaps subconsciously - to figure out why he has this unwelcome feeling, and then to remedy the problem, once its source has been identified.

Most often, the condemning words of another person are identified as the source of the problem. I feel guilty because the criticisms of my mother make me feel guilty - or the criticisms of my father, my wife, my husband, my boss, my roommate.

So, the way to stop feeling guilty, is to stop listening to my mother - or my father, my wife, my husband, my boss, my roommate. That will make the guilty feelings go away.

For religious people, the sermons and teachings of a priest or minister are sometimes seen as the cause of these unwanted feelings of guilt. There are a couple options employed by religious people in dealing with that.

One of them is to switch to a different church, where the priest or minister will not preach about things that make me feel guilty. Over the past few decades there has been a boom in new churches that promise a guilt-free religion - with no preaching about sin or anything negative.

Another option is to stay where I am, but to try to silence the priest or minister whose rebukes I no longer want to hear - through threats or flattery; through politicking against the pastor; or through some other scheme. That, in essence, is what Herod did in today’s text from St. Luke.

“So with many other exhortations [John] preached good news to the people. But Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by him for Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for all the evil things that Herod had done, added this to them all, that he locked up John in prison.”

John had been criticizing Herod for his illicit, adulterous relationship with his brother Philip’s wife Herodias. Herod didn’t like it.

More than likely, John’s rebukes were beginning to make Herod feel guilty about the immorality of his lifestyle, and he didn’t like that feeling. But would Herod’s silencing of the Baptist’s testimony against his sin, through incarcerating him, really succeed in removing Herod’s feelings of guilt?

Do any of the supposed remedies to the feeling of guilt that we have been discussing - which involve silencing or ignoring those fellow humans who may be speaking critical words to us - actually succeed in making those feelings of guilt go away?

Do our feelings of guilt actually originate in the people who criticize our words and actions? Will silencing those people, deaden those feelings?

It is true, of course, that sometimes people are made to feel guilty over things that are actually not wrong - or over things for which they are not actually responsible. It is possible for me to be misguided by a false morality, or to be confused by a manipulative person, into thinking that I am responsible for something for which I am not really responsible.

But most of the time, the reason why I feel guilty, is because I am guilty. My conscience is under conviction before God, because I have sinned again God and his law.

At those times I cannot make those feelings of guilt go away by silencing or ignoring the people who are pointing my sins out to me - as Herod tried to do with John the Baptist.

In Herod’s case, he may have silenced one particularly outspoken messenger, by throwing John in jail. But he did not nullify or invalidate the message itself.

Herod’s conscience was still being impacted by John’s message, because John’s message was God’s message. Herod still stood as guilty before the law of the Lord, whether or not John the Baptist was the one pointing that out to him.

And that’s the way it is with us, too. If I am living in a state of sin against God, then relatives, friends, or pastors may very well be pricking my conscience by pointing that fact out to me, and by warning me of God’s judgment.

But their testimony on God’s behalf is not the ultimate cause of my feelings of guilt. Rather, my feelings of guilt are caused by my guilt.

No attempt to escape from the external reminders of this troubling truth will ultimately work. My conscience will still convict me, even if - for now - I might stop listening to those who are rebuking me for my sin.

My feelings of guilt will remain, because my guilt remains. The only way to stop feeling guilty, is to stop being guilty.

And the only way to stop being guilty before God - over the sins that I have committed against him - is for those sins to be lifted off of me, and carried away from me, by one who has the divine right, and the divine ability, to perform such a supernatural, saving work for me.

St. Luke reports: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.’”

Another Gospel writer - St. John the Apostle - reports that on the day after Jesus was baptized, John the Baptist once again “saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’”

As a part of his mission to take away human sin, and to erase human guilt before God, God’s Son himself identified with sinners by receiving a sinner’s baptism.

St. Luke had previously described the ministry of John the Baptist in this way: “And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

In his baptism, however, Jesus did not have sins taken off him, since Jesus had no sins. Instead, the sins of the world were, in that sacramental act, put upon him. In his case, the process was reversed.

And Jesus carried those sins - my sins, your sins, the sins of all - throughout a three-year public ministry, to the cross of Calvary. Martin Luther explains what this means for us, in time and eternity, in these words:

“In the life beyond, it will redound to our eternal joy and bliss that the Son of God abased Himself so and burdened Himself with my sins. Yes, He assumes not only my sins but also those of the whole world, from Adam down to the very last mortal.”

“These sins He takes upon Himself; for these He is willing to suffer and die, that our sins may be expunged, and we may attain eternal life and blessedness. ... Anyone who wishes to be saved must know that all his sins have been placed on the back of this Lamb!”

“Therefore John points this Lamb out to his disciples, saying: ‘Do you want to know where the sins of the world are placed for forgiveness? ... If you really want to find a place where the sins of the world are exterminated and deleted, then cast your gaze upon the cross. The Lord placed all our sins on the back of this Lamb.’”

So far Luther.

You cannot escape from the feeling of guilt for your sins, by silencing the voice of those who remind you of your sins. Even if you were able to clap everyone who rebukes you for your wrongdoing in jail - as Herod was able to do in the case of John the Baptist - the feeling of guilt would remain, because the guilt would remain.

But there is a way to be liberated from this guilt. There is a way for your guilt to be cleansed from you, and lifted off you.

It is the way of repentance, with an honest and humble admission of your failures. When others point out your sin, and warn you of the deadly consequences of your sin, accept the warning, and acknowledge the sin.

And, it is the way of faith. Believe the declaration of forgiveness for the sake of Christ that God continually declares to you in his absolution.

Indeed, you were baptized into this forgiveness, when you were baptized into Christ. Your sins can be and are forgiven today, because your sins were already exterminated and deleted when Jesus died in your place - and in the place of all men.

Herod refused to listen to John the Baptist, when John called upon Herod to turn away from his sin; and when John invited him - together with everyone else - to receive the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that God had commissioned John to administer.

Do not follow Herod’s example. Do not refuse to listen to John. Do not refuse to listen to anyone who, in God’s name, admonishes you on account of your sins.

Do not ignore them, and do not try to silence them, when what they say to you makes you feel guilty. Listen to those whom the Lord sends to you, to warn you and rebuke you when you have erred. Recognize that what they are saying is true, and that you are guilty.

And also, believe those who, in God’s name, announce to you that you are pardoned and absolved by God. That is also true. And that truly does remove your guilt.

Through the merits of Christ, which are now applied to you, you are acquitted in the courtroom of God’s justice. In and through Christ - your substitute and advocate - you are declared “not guilty.”

In the Jordan River, Christ truly shared in sinful humanity’s baptism - and thereby took humanity’s sins upon himself. On the day of your baptism - your baptism into Christ - Christ was truly there as well, to implement for you personally the removal of your own sins from you.

And you were, on that day, also set out on the pathway of a baptismal life: a life of daily repentance, and a life of daily faith; a life of daily dying to self, and of daily rising in Christ; a life of sober honesty about your guilt before God, and a life of deep rejoicing in the gracious lifting off of that guilt through God’s very real forgiveness.

As St. Paul teaches in today’s Epistle, all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”

The repentance and faith in which we walk, do result in some changes as we move forward from God’s forgiveness. We renounce for the future, the sins that we have admitted from the past.

With God’s help we seek to do better, and to make amends to those whom we have hurt. John the Baptist talks about that, too, when he speaks elsewhere in St. Luke’s Gospel of the fruits of repentance that those who are now at peace with God do bear.

But these changes - which God’s sanctifying grace works in you - do not remove your guilt. The cross of Jesus removes your guilt.

The empty tomb of Jesus removes your guilt. The gospel of divine forgiveness that is poured out upon you in Baptism, and that fills you up in the Lord’s Supper, removes your guilt.

Jesus Christ, and he alone, is able to remove from you the feelings of guilt that may plague you, because Jesus Christ, and he alone, can remove from you the guilt itself.

Christ, who offered his body into death for you, and who shed his blood for you, gives you peace today. He removes your sin, and he removes your guilt, today. Amen.

17 January 2016 - Epiphany 2 - John 2:1-11

If something is blessed by the presence and approval of Jesus, then that thing is - without a doubt - a good thing, to be enjoyed and celebrated.

Weddings are good. Marriages are good. Families are good. Or at least, they are supposed to be good.

But they are not always as good as they should be, or as good as God intended them to be. Sometimes, in fact, there are deep flaws and shortcomings in weddings, in marriages, and in families.

Today’s text from the Gospel of St. John recounts the familiar story of the wedding in Cana - at which Jesus, his mother, and his disciples were present at guests. This wedding started out as an unmitigatedly joyful occasion.

But then - as St. John reports - “the wine ran out.” This short statement indicates that there was now a deeply serious problem.

There was not a whole lot to celebrate in Galilee, in the first century. The people were poor, and oppressed by the corrupt government of the Herods.

But at a wedding - which was a multi-day affair - the friends and relatives of a bride and groom were able to forget about their troubles, even if just for a couple days. These were therapeutic and cathartic occasions. They were occasions for social healing and community rejoicing.

Hosting a wedding celebration at this time and place in history was, therefore, a great honor - and a great obligation. A lot of people would be counting on the host to make sure that there was plenty of music and singing, and plenty of food and drink.

A failure to provide enough of any of these things, would be a great failure indeed. It would “let down” a lot of people. And it would cause a level of embarrassment for the newly-married couple that they would have a hard time living down - especially in a small town - for months or even years.

The wedding in Cana that Jesus was attending, was accordingly facing a major problem, when it became known to a small number of people - including the Lord’s mother - that the wine had run out. Not enough of this staple for a Jewish wedding had been provided.

The hospitality that was being offered to the guests was inadequate. Someone was guilty of a major failure.

But Mary somehow knew that Jesus could do something about this problem, and that he would do something about it. And she was right.

“Now there were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them up to the brim. And he said to them, ‘Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it.”

In this, his first miracle, Jesus turned water into wine - good wine at that! - and saved the day. He saved the wedding celebration.

And at least in some respects, he saved the marriage. He protected this couple from the shame that would have come upon them, if this failure had become generally known, and if it has not been remedied by the Son of God.

Jesus did not draw any attention to this miracle as he performed it. Hardly anyone knew that it had happened. The master of the feast for sure, didn’t know that the original supply of wine had run out, and had been replenished in an extraordinary way.

Jesus had discreetly and graciously fixed the problem, without advertising that there had even been a problem.

“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the master of the feast called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.’”

Again, weddings are good. The wedding at Cana was good.

But the wedding at Cana was a lot better than it would have been, if Jesus had not been a part of it; and if Jesus had not covered over the shame, and filled in the gaps, of the human failures that otherwise would have marred and ruined that wedding.

If you are married, your wedding was a good thing, and your marriage today is still a good thing. The joining together a man and a woman in a life-long committed relationship of close companionship and deep friendship - of shared love and mutual service - is an institution of God, to which he attaches the promise of many blessings.

And the family that arises from a marriage is also a good thing - in which parents and children, brothers and sisters, can build each other up, encourage each other, and show support and love for each other in many positive ways.

So, even if someone is not married, he, too, can - in most cases - still know and enjoy the blessings of God’s institution of marriage. In the case of a single person, it would be the blessings of his parents’ marriage - and of the family of brothers and sisters to which he belongs - which can be an enduring conduit of blessing to him.

And so, regardless of the role we may play in a family, our family, and the marriage that our family is based on, are things to be celebrated.

But just as was the case with the wedding in Cana, our weddings today - our marriages, and our families - fall short of what they are supposed to be.

Marriage itself is indeed a divine institution. But ever since the fall of our first parents - the first married couple - those who get married, and who form families, are fallen, sinful humans.

We fail - we always fail - to live up to our wedding vows, fully and completely. And sometimes we fail abysmally.

We also fail in our responsibilities to others in our families - children and parents; brothers and sisters. And from within our families, we fail those who are outside of our families, but who had the right to expect more from us than they got .

Our “wine” runs out. Our supply of devotion and loyalty, of faithfulness and patience, runs dry, before our obligations to others are satisfied.

And so we come up short in what we offer to a spouse or another family member. And we come up short in what we receive from them too.

Within the fallen families of our fallen race, we are all cheated. We are all disappointed. And we are humiliated and embarrassed by these shortcomings.

We are ashamed before others when our inherent human weaknesses manifest themselves in these ways. And even if people outside the inner circle of our household are not aware of these failures - if we have succeeded in hiding some or all of these flaws - we are still ashamed, in our conscience, before God.

We know that we have not fulfilled the duties that we own to each other within his institution. We know that we have broken his law.

And so, a wedding, a marriage, or a family, which are supposed to be occasions and settings for rejoicing and celebration, so often become, instead, occasions and settings for sadness and grief, for remorse and regret.

We have failed and fallen short. And by our own abilities and inner resources, we cannot fix what we have broken.

But that’s where the presence of Jesus in your life - at your wedding, in your marriage - makes a very big difference.

Because Jesus had been invited to the wedding at Cana, he was available and able to save that wedding, and that marriage. And in love, he was willing to do so - intervening miraculously, yet discreetly, to make up for the shortcomings of those who were in charge of the hospitality that day.

Jesus graciously covered over the shame, and filled in the gaps, of the human failures that were evident on that occasion. And if Jesus is a part of your life - if he is actively present in your family - he will graciously cover over the shame, and fill in the gaps, of your human failures.

Yes, he will. If you have hurt or failed your husband or wife - your son or daughter, your father or mother - Jesus will forgive you; and he will cover over your shame before him, on account of that sin, with his own righteousness.

And, he will comfort the one you have hurt, or let down, or disappointed. He will fill in the deficit of the love that your spouse or children expected from you, with his own perfect love.

If you have been wounded by the shortcomings or betrayals of your parents or siblings, your husband or wife, the grace of Christ takes away that hurt.

Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. On the cross, where he atoned for all human sin, he took away that sin.

This means, as far as your standing with God is concerned, that he takes away the sins you have committed: against others, and against God.

But this also means that if you have been the victim of sin, and if sins that have been committed against you weigh down on you, and make you feel humiliated and dirty, Jesus - as the Lamb of God - takes those sins away, too.

He lifts from your conscience, and cleanses from your emotions, the burden of your disappointments in others; and the burden of the pain that has been inflicted upon you by others.

But Jesus helps, forgives, and heals, not only with respect to such major failures in your relationships. He helps also with the little things - the small irritants, the minor shortcomings, the relatively unimportant personal faults.

These things can wear down a marriage, though. They can, over time, poison a relationship. They can erode respect, and dampen affection.

When Jesus is a guest at your wedding - and when he is present in your marriage and family every day thereafter - he helps you, every day. Jesus helps, by showing you how to love as he does, with patience and forbearance.

And he helps you through teaching you, by his Word and Spirit. He teaches husband and wife, parents and children, brothers and sisters: to repent together; to pray together; to believe together; and to forgive together.

But you know, when Jesus is a “guest” in your life, what that really means is that he is in charge of your life. And that is a good thing.

Jesus came to be in charge of the wine supply at the wedding of Cana. If he had not been, there would have been no wine.

And he comes to be in charge of fixing what you have broken in your relationships. He is in charge of saving you and your marriage. He is in charge of forgiving you, and healing you.

And he does not fail, or fall short, in what he does. Your sins really are removed from you as far as the east is from the west. And Jesus really does give you rest, when you are heavy-laden.

He fixes what you have broken in your family, and among your friends. Where you fail and fall short, he, as your perfect Savior, “does all things well.” And he make all things new.

And he is discreet. He will help you in ways that most people do not know about.

Perhaps a pastor, or a small number of trusted Christian friends, might know about the struggles that a couple is going through. But a lot of people wouldn’t know. And a lot of people wouldn’t need to know.

But Jesus knows. Jesus cares.

And by the power of his gospel - in sermon and Supper - Jesus turns water into wine for you. Jesus takes care of your problem, and prevents the embarrassment that would otherwise come to you, if he had not taken care of it.

If need be, he renews a lost love. He restores a lost trust. He reestablishes a lost peace.

If your family life is currently under the strain of failures or shortcomings for which you are responsible - or of failures or shortcomings for which someone you love is responsible - invite Jesus to come to your wedding.

By a penitent faith - with unpretentious honesty about your need, and with a God-given confidence that Jesus will meet that need - receive him as your guest. And ask him to help you. He will.

What Psalm 28 says about the Lord, you will be able to say about your Lord, Jesus Christ:

“Blessed be the Lord, for he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy. The Lord is my strength and my shield. In him my heart trusts, and I am helped.”

“My heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him. The Lord is the strength of his people. He is the saving refuge of his anointed.” Amen.

24 January 2016 - St. Timothy - 1 Timothy 6:11-16

St. Timothy was a companion of, and an assistant to, St. Paul, in the later years of Paul’s ministry. Paul was his mentor. He was in many ways like a father to him.

And Timothy was like a son to Paul. When Paul was in prison for the last time, and was awaiting martyrdom, he summoned his faithful friend, Timothy, for a last farewell. And when Paul did depart from this world, Timothy was one of his successors.

Timothy found himself in a position of leadership in the second generation of the church. He continued Paul’s mission of bringing the gospel to the gentile world.

We do not have any surviving writings or sermons of Timothy, although we are familiar with his name, because he was the recipient of two of St. Paul’s epistles. In these epistles, Paul gave Timothy directions regarding the organization of congregations, and regarding the training and appointing of ministers, that are still considered to be normative for the church today.

And in these epistles, Paul encouraged Timothy to remain firm in his faith and in his calling, even in the face of the many distractions, errors, and troubles that would surround him during his life in this world. These encouragements are of great value to us today as well, because they apply also to us, today; and speak to the circumstances in which we likewise find ourselves, today.

The appointed epistle text for the commemoration of St. Timothy, is from St. Paul’s first letter to his young colleague. Among the directives that are included in the appointed reading, is this one: “Fight the good fight of the faith.”

Our version of the English Bible does indeed have Paul saying to Timothy that he should “fight the good fight of the faith.” This is a good rendering of the original Greek, since the definite article is there in the Greek, attached to the word “faith.”

It is more accurate, then, to see that Timothy is being called upon to fight the good fight of the faith, rather than to fight the good fight of faith, which is what some of the other English versions say.

Our faith in the promises of God is not, in itself, a matter of fighting. It is, rather, a resting in the peace and reconciliation with God that the gospel reveals to faith, and that faith grasps with certainty and confidence.

But the phrase “the faith” is not a reference to this personal trusting in God’s promises - or at least not exclusively to that. It is, rather, a reference to the objectively-revealed doctrine of God in its entirety.

St. Jude, in his epistle, is using the phrase in this way when he writes: “I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

And in the address of St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy - from which today’s text quotes - at the beginning of the epistle, he says that he is writing “To Timothy, my true child in the faith.”

Elsewhere in this epistle, Paul writes these things regarding “the faith” that has been revealed by God through Scripture and the apostolic witness, and that Christians accept as divine truth:

“The Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons.”

“Deacons...must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience.”

“The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith...”

“If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

When Paul calls upon Timothy, his protege and student, to fight the good fight of “the faith,” he means, then, that Timothy - as a pastor and confessor of the church - is to defend and advance the revealed doctrine of the church, even in the face of hostility to that doctrine, and rejection of that doctrine.

Certainly a penitent believer’s personal trusting in the grace of God, for forgiveness and salvation, is a part of this. But the faith once for all delivered to the saints includes an entire worldview of convictions - regarding what God is like, what humanity is like, what the world is like, and what God’s love for humanity and the world is like.

The faith once for all delivered to the saints includes a body of revealed knowledge concerning the birth and life of Jesus, the death and resurrection of Jesus, his atonement for man, his justification of man, and his commission to his church to baptize and to teach all nations to observe everything that he has commanded. The “everything” in that command to “observe everything,” is “the faith.”

And St. Paul says to Timothy: “Fight the good fight of the faith.” Why is there a “fight” revolving around the faith?

Because the devil hates this revealed faith. He hates the truth about God’s authority over him, and God’s uncovering of his schemes, that the faith makes known to those who are instructed in it.

And the devil has a lot of friends in this world. Or more precisely, he has a lot of deceived and blinded slaves, who do not love God, or the things of God, or the people of God - that is, those people who have been embraced by the faith once for all delivered to the saints; and who themselves embrace this faith, confess this faith, and - with God’s help and guidance - live according to this faith.

That sets God’s people up for an attack. And that’s why there is a fight.

The devil likes to trap people in their own destructive passions. He likes to trip people up with their own pride and ambition.

Satan doesn’t want people to know that God’s law is “the law of liberty,” or that God gives to his people “a spirit not of fear, but of power and love and self-control.” Satan doesn’t want people to know that “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” or that those who humble themselves before the Lord will be lifted up.

In our time, we are all too familiar with a well-known world religion - or at least with a particularly regressive version of that religion - that takes the idea of fighting for the faith quite literally. There is quite a bit of literal killing of people, who do not adhere to this religion, going on - in the physical fighting for that faith that is now taking place in many corners of the world.

Is St. Paul talking about something like this, when he tells Timothy to fight the good fight of the faith? Absolutely not!

First of all, Jesus told his followers: “I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”

As Christians, we do not seek to inflict physical punishments upon those who insult the name of our Savior, or who impede the spreading of the Christian gospel. We love them. We pray for them. And we turn the other cheek.

Now, if anti-Christian fanatics of one kind or another break the civil law, by murdering Christians, or by burning down churches, the civil authorities certain may and should punish them for this. And insofar as Christians are also citizens of the civil realm, they may seek civil remedies to any illegal actions that are taken against them.

But Christians, as Christians, pray for the repentance and conversion of the enemies of the gospel. They bless those who curse them.

And at a deeper level, such people are not really our enemies, or God’s enemies. They are pathetically misguided people who have been deceived and blinded by our true enemies. The real enemies of God, of his church, and of the human race, are indeed supernatural.

St. Paul explains in his Epistle to the Ephesians that “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” - that is, in the realm of the supernatural.

And the weapon that we use for this fight, and for this struggle - against the devil and his minions - is the supernatural weapon with which God has equipped us. Again, in the Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul goes on to say:

“Take up the whole armor of God, ...having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”

Notice that the only offensive component of this soldier’s kit, is the sword. And it is not a literal sword. It is the Word of God.

The Epistle to the Hebrews elaborates on the power and force of the sword of the Spirit, when it states that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

St. Paul makes clear to Timothy what he has in mind when he tells him to fight the good fight of the faith, when - in his Second Epistle to Timothy - he writes: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

That’s what Timothy is called to do. That’s the battle he is called to wage.

In preaching the gospel, and in teaching the whole counsel of God, Timothy is bringing God’s truth to bear against the devil’s lies. He is delivering God’s liberation to those who are captive to the fear of death. He is shining God’s light upon those who are blinded by the darkness of the world.

He is announcing divine forgiveness and peace to poor, penitent sinners, whose consciences have been brought under the conviction of God’s law on account of their sins; but whose consciences are now cleansed by the blood of Christ, which was poured out for them on the cross.

As Paul the apostle prepares to lay down the mantle of his earthly ministry, and to go to his rest in Christ, he knows that Timothy - and many others along with him - will pick up that mantle. He knows that God will raise up and train a new generation of pastors and teachers, preachers and missionaries, in every generation - until this world comes to an end.

And Paul knows that all of those ministers of the gospel will be in need of the same kind of encouragement and instruction that he wanted Timothy to have. And so, as God’s Spirit guided him, and inspired his words, Paul wrote down those encouragements and instructions - for Timothy, and for us.

Through his words to Timothy, Paul tells the ministers of today what God expects of them. And through his words to Timothy, Paul tells the church of today what kind of public ministry it should pray for, welcome, and support.

God’s message to me - and to all Christian pastors - is that I am to fight the good fight of the faith: in my preaching and counsel; in my rebukes and admonition; in my comfort and encouragement.

And God’s message to you - and to all Christian congregations - is that you are to support your pastor in this fight, and accept what he says - when he speaks as a faithful soldier of Christ, in accord with the revealed doctrine of the Scriptures; and when he, with God’s Word, fights against the temptations or errors that the satanic enemy of God may have begun to insert into your life.

And remember that the forgiveness of Christ, as pronounced in Christ’s own absolution, is one of the most effective wieldings of the sword of the Spirit.

When God’s living and active, and absolving, Word, pierces down to the depths of your being, the accusing voice of Satan is silenced. The devil’s manipulative influence over your troubled and guilty conscience is vanquished.

Your sins are sliced and diced into oblivion before God. You are placed under the safety of God’s grace, and under the protection of his Son’s righteousness.

This kind of ministry - the proclamation of God’s law, to correct and convict; and the proclamation of God’s gospel, to sooth and to heal - was Timothy’s joy.

For as long as he lived - as a servant of Christ and of the church - he was a faithful soldier of the Lord: bringing this gospel to that part of the world in which the Lord had placed him; and fighting against the devilish enemies of that gospel by preaching it all the more boldly.

We honor him for this today. We remember him, and thank God for him and for his example - because in God’s strength, and with the courage that God’s Spirit gave him, St. Timothy heeded the fatherly counsel of his spiritual father Paul: “Fight the good fight of the faith.” Amen.

31 January 2016 - Epiphany 4 - Luke 4:31-44

Does Jesus want people to know that he is the Holy One of God - the personal fulfillment of all God’s promises? Does he want people to know that he is the Son of God - the Second Person of the Holy Trinity in human flesh?

Does he want people to know that he is the Christ - the anointed one, set apart to accomplish God’s will among men? I suppose we would all say “yes” to these questions without any hesitation.

Jesus wants people to know these things. That’s the whole point of the Great Commission: that we are to “go and make disciples of all nations,” by teaching all nations precisely these things about Jesus.

Some of what was said and done in today’s text from St. Luke, however, might give the impression that Jesus wants to keep all this a secret, and that he does not want people to know these things.

We read: “And in the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Ha! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are - the Holy One of God.’ But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent and come out of him!’”

Again: “And demons also came out of many, crying, ‘You are the Son of God!’ But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Christ.”

What is going on here? Why does he forbid the demons to declare, among the people of Capernaum, who he is?

Well, this is the reason: Jesus does not want people simply to be aware of these objectively true things about his identity. He wants people to know these things, only in such a way that this knowledge would be of saving benefit to them.

Jesus is not satisfied if you simply know that he is someone who makes promises. He wants you to have a personal confidence in his promises.

Jesus is not satisfied for you to know that he exists, and that he has done certain things. He wants you to have a deep assurance that Jesus is who he is for you; and that what he has done, he has done for you.

The Augsburg Confession explains it very well:

“We are not talking here about the faith possessed by the devil and the ungodly... But we are talking about true faith, which believes that we obtain grace and forgiveness of sin through Christ. ...”

“For the devil and the ungodly do not believe this article about the forgiveness of sin. That is why they are enemies of God, cannot call upon him, and cannot hope for anything good from him. ... Hebrews 11 teaches that faith is not only a matter of historical knowledge, but a matter of having confidence in God, to receive his promise.”

So far the Augustana.

Both demons and angels know exactly who Jesus is, and what he has done. As supernatural beings, they can see the supernatural aspects of Jesus’ life and identity.

They can see his divine nature. This is not a matter of faith for them - in the way that St. Paul talks about faith, when he writes in Second Corinthians that Christians “walk by faith, not by sight.”

The so-called “new atheists” of our time will not believe in God, or in Jesus as the Son of God, unless they can see God in some kind of empirical, tangible way. In other words, the “new atheists” assume that the only kind of faith in God that there can legitimately be, is the kind of “faith” that demons have.

But Jesus knows that in the last analysis, this kind of faith - if it can even be called “faith” - does no one any good. Unless our knowledge of Jesus’ existence and identity is accompanied by a knowledge of Jesus’ love and forgiveness, this knowledge - in itself - will not deliver us from our sins.

An accurate knowledge of God’s holiness, apart from a knowledge of God’s grace and forgiveness, will actually drive us to despair and fear. And that’s because God, in his holiness, cannot tolerate anything that is unholy, impure, and corrupted.

And we - by nature, and in our many failures to live up to God’s standards - are unholy, impure, and corrupt. And we cannot make ourselves holy and acceptable to him, either.

The point of the Christian gospel, then, is not only to make people aware of Jesus’ existence and identity. If that’s all that was involved, Jesus would have welcomed the help of the demons in spreading that information.

But the Christian gospel is more than this. It is the preaching of why Jesus has come among us.

It is the preaching of the meaning of his life, death, and resurrection. And the gospel alone has the ability to “reconnect” God and man, and to restore sinful humanity’s relationship with its holy creator, by virtue of the forgiveness of God that it bestows upon those who hear and believe it.

As in today’s text, the demons may be trying to reveal the identity of Jesus as divine Lord, in order to startle people. But the demons are not preaching the gospel of Jesus as Savior from sin and death.

In fact, they hate this gospel, because it liberates people from those fears that the devil uses to keep them in bondage to his deceptions.

Indeed, one of the reasons why demons may very well want people to know that there is a God - and to know that Jesus is the Son of God - is so that people who are conscious of their transgressions will be afraid of Jesus, and will be repelled from him.

But the gospel - the good news of divine mercy for the sake of Christ, and of divine pardon in Christ - does not repel penitent sinners. It offers them hope and life.

The gospel gives them the righteousness that they need before God, by giving them Christ, and his righteousness. And then it declares to them that God is pleased with them, and is totally accepting of them, because of Christ.

This is the essence of the supernaturally-powerful gospel that Jesus himself proclaimed. We get some hints of this in today’s text: “He was teaching them on the Sabbath, and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.”

Again: “The people sought him and came to him, ...but he said to them, ‘I must preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns as well; for I was sent for this purpose.’”

In Christ, God had come among men for a reason - a reason that the demons never would never have mentioned, in their unauthorized announcements of who Jesus was.

Jesus had come not just to announce his own identity, but to announce his kingdom, and to bring people into his kingdom by forgiving their sins, by regenerating them, and by reconciling them to God - all through the power of his word.

This is also the message that the apostles proclaimed, and that all faithful Christian preachers have always proclaimed - a message through which Jesus continues to work: forgiving, regenerating, reconciling.

Denying the existence of God, and of God’s Son, is absurd. The supernatural world is real, and those beings that inhabit that world - both demons and angels - are very much aware of God and of Christ.

But when someone simply affirms a belief in the existence of God, and of God’s Son - a belief which remains at the level of what the demons and angels already know - it is as if that person has been listening to the preaching of the demons, and not to the preaching of Christ. And simply affirming that Jesus is the Holy One of God - if it goes no further than that - is also not enough to get you beyond the faith of the demons.

Jesus does not want you to listen to these demons, and to their truncated and distorted message. That’s why he forbids them to speak of who he is.

Jesus wants you to know who he is, only in the context of knowing what he has done for you, and only in the context of knowing what he is still doing for you even now. Jesus wants you to know who he is, only as you also are brought to a knowledge of why he has come - and of why he still comes even now in his Word and Sacraments.

Jesus wants you to embrace his forgiveness of your sins, but only when you have been led - by the conviction of his Spirit - to repent of those sins, to turn away from them and renounce them.

Coming to know who Jesus is, is not something that happens as the result of a quest to satisfy a religious curiosity. It happens when God’s Spirit creates within you a desperate yearning for an inner peace, and for peace with God; and when that same Spirit draws you to Christ, as he says to you:

“My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”

The things of which we have been speaking, are also among the factors that communicants must take into account as they prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. First of all, a communicant must, of course, acknowledge from the heart the truth of the Real Presence of the true body and blood of Jesus Christ, under the form of bread and wine.

Because rationalistic denials of the Real Presence are so common in American Protestantism, we might think that our acceptance of this objective truth is the chief preparation we need to make, for our participation in the sacrament in a Lutheran church.

But acknowledging the Real Presence of Christ’s body and blood in the bread and wine of the sacrament, in itself, is nothing more than what the demons and angels know.

If a demon were here in our midst during the celebration of Holy Communion, he might even tell people this - in order to try to scare sinners like us away from the sacrament - just as the demons in Capernaum tried to tell people who the rabbi from Nazareth really was.

Simply believing in the Real Presence, as important and necessary as that is, is not enough. In his Words of Institution for this Supper, Jesus did not limit himself to telling the original disciples simply that his body and blood were miraculously there.

He also told them why his body and blood were there, and why he was giving his body and blood to them. We recall these familiar words of the Small Catechism:

“Who, then, receives this sacrament worthily? ...a person who has faith in these words, given for you and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, is really worthy and well prepared. However, a person who does not believe these words, or doubts them, is unworthy and unprepared, because the words for you require truly believing hearts.”

This is the gospel of God’s kingdom. This is a gospel that affirms not only that God’s Son came into the world, but that also declares why he came; why he lived, died, and rose again; and why he comes to people now - to reveal his forgiving love to them, and to claim and reclaim them as his own.

The demons absolutely do not believe this gospel. And they will not tell you about this gospel, either. But Jesus will.

Jesus does make this known to you. And he does renew your faith and confidence in his promises, whenever his forgiveness, life, and salvation are delivered to you, and implanted in you, through sermon or Supper.

When the Word of God reveals to your heart and mind that Jesus is the Holy One of God, that he is the Son of God, and that he is the Christ, believe it. It is important and necessary to know and believe these things.

But when the Word of God also reveals to your heart and mind that Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and to bring them into his kingdom, believe that too. Believe that he has come to save you, and to bring you into his kingdom.

Believe that especially, because that is the gospel. Amen.