6 January 2018 - Epiphany - Isaiah 60:1-6

When I was growing up in rural New York State, the air would be filled with bugs of all varieties in the summertime. Some of these bugs were a minor nuisance, buzzing around your head and whining in your ear.

But others were more menacing, as they would bite or sting their human victims, and thereby make an evening outside to be a very unenjoyable experience.

To address this bug problem, a lot of people in my home town had a bug-zapper. These devices were comprised of an interior light, surrounded by an electrified metal screen. Their design took advantage of the compulsion of bugs to fly toward a bright light.

Now, light in general is usually associated with life and warmth. Just think of the sun, without which our world would not exist. But the light in the bug-zapper was certainly not associated with life.

As the pesky bugs in the air were irrationally drawn to the light of the bug-zapper, they were being drawn to their deaths. As soon as they flew into the electrified metal screen that surrounded the light that was drawing them, and touched it, they were electrocuted, and fried to a crisp.

St. Paul tells us in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians that “Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” Sinful humans - like bugs - are drawn to him, in his deceptive allurements. The fallen nature that is in all of us has a compulsion to fly, irrationally, toward that Satanic light.

Like insects flying toward a bug-zapper, people are often overwhelmed by a temptation, and surrender to it - with their minds darkened by the devil’s lies, and their hearts captivated by the devil’s false promises - so that they set out on what becomes an ever more dangerous pathway and lifestyle of habitual sin, leading to destruction.

Maybe this has happened to you. Maybe there was a time when you could not see - when you refused to see - that a pattern of improper behavior you had set out on, meant that you were being drawn by the pretended “angel of light” to your death - toward spiritual and eternal death.

There was something inside of you that, in a certain sense, made you do this. An inner compulsion had taken over. You were doomed, and would have been destroyed, if God in Christ had not intervened, and turned you off of that trajectory.

Maybe you are being drawn to something like this, in this way, even now. Maybe the allurements of Satan, who pretends to be an angel of light, are even now beckoning you toward a false light that is actually darkness - a deep and deadly darkness.

But there is another light on the horizons of our human existence, drawing you toward itself. This other light - this genuine and genuinely brilliant light - is a light of truth and life, and not of deception and death.

This purer light can be seen from wherever you are - regardless of how low and shadowy your existence has become. The wise men in today’s text from St. Matthew’s Gospel saw something of that light, and were drawn to that light. We read:

“Now 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.’”

They were, of course, externally being drawn by the light of a star in the sky. But in, with, and under that physical light - visible to the eye - they were being drawn mystically, by and to the one whom the star represented, and toward whom the star was leading them and pointing.

They were being drawn by Jesus, to Jesus - to the true light who was coming into the world. In the Book of Numbers it had been predicted: “A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel.” A gentile - Balaam - had said that.

And now these gentiles - these Magi from the east - were being drawn to this Judean King. They were being drawn to a Jewish King whom they knew, somehow, was a King and a divine Savior also for them.

This star - this light - is the Sun of Righteousness, who rises upon us, with divine healing in his wings. And this star - this light - does draw us, too. Jesus said: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”

Jesus himself draws you, through the gospel of Christ crucified for sinners. The light of the gospel extends down to your heart, and transforms your heart - just as starlight, from its source in the sky, extends down to your eyes as you look up at it.

Your old sinful nature does have a destructive compulsion to follow the lies and deceptions of Satan - like an insect flying into a bug-zapper. In a time of temptation, when you feel that powerful tug toward something that God forbids - that selfish, lustful, greedy tug - this is what is going on.

But the new nature that the gospel births in you turns all this around. In faith, you now see Christ. You are now drawn, in faith, to Christ and his light - and not to the prince of darkness disguised as an angel of light.

We are drawn to Christ on the cross: dying for our sins; redeeming us from death and the devil. We are drawn to Christ in his Word and Sacrament: forgiving our sins; restoring us to the life of God, and uniting us in a loving fellowship with the people of God.

Jesus says: “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

Jesus is the bright morning star, rising at the beginning of a new day of grace, calling all people to faith. And as St. Peter says in his Second Epistle:

“We have...the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.”

The wise men had to travel many miles, to a very distant place, to find the Light of Christ - as he drew them to himself by means of the star in the sky. But the light of Christ for you is right here - where the Word of Christ is proclaimed.

Jesus, the light of the world, draws you to himself in his Word, when he says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He draws you to his light, and fills you with his life, when he says: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”

The morning star from heaven - the heavenly source of life and immortality - is in the prophetic word: the inspired, infallible Word of God, which speaks of Christ, and of your salvation in Christ.

When you are drawn to that prophetic word - wherever it is, and in whatever way it comes to you - and when you hear it, ponder it, believe it, and receive it into your heart; then the morning star does rise in your heart.

The death-wish of your old nature is defeated. The light has overcome the darkness. He who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, has overcome the father of lies.

In the grace and strength of Christ, you are not zapped. You are not lured to condemnation through the compulsions of sin.

In Christ, you will live. You will live forever.

St. Paul writes in his Second Epistle to the Corinthians: “For God - who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ - has shone in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

With the wise men from the east, in joy you worship the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords - to whom you have been mystically drawn. You worship the Savior who has ransomed you and purchased you, and who has liberated you and lifted you up from the oppressive powers of darkness.

And as you, with all of God’s people, worship this King and Savior, you declare to him, in the words of Isaiah the prophet:

“Arise, shine; for your light has come... Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes all around, and see; they all gather together, they come to you.” Amen.

7 January 2018 - Baptism of Our Lord - Romans 6:1-11

The Bible often emphasizes the negative side of the gospel. The negative side of the gospel, you ask? Yes. From one angle, the message of the gospel is that God will not do certain things, because of Christ.

Those who repent of their sins and trust in Christ are assured that God will not hold their sins against them. Those who have been forgiven for the sake of Christ will not be damned.

This is an important part of the gospel. As St. Paul says, the wages of sin is death - physical, spiritual, and eternal death. But in Christ, and for the sake of Christ, our sins are forgiven. And therefore we will not, ultimately, die.

But there is also a positive side of the gospel. The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is that part of the gospel message that tells us what will happen now in the lives of those who have Jesus as their Savior. Will having Christ in your life - forgiving you, saving you, and living within you - make a difference in a positive way? Will things be better?

The answer is a resounding Yes! And in today’s text from his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul explains what that difference will be.

In all of our lessons and prayers today, we remember the baptism of our Lord. And in conjunction with our remembrance of his baptism, we think also of our own baptism.

Baptism should not be seen simply as one limited part of the Christian gospel among many other parts, or merely as a small piece of a larger whole. It is, rather, the whole reality, and the whole gospel, in a specific and special sacramental form.

Baptism does not give us only a part of Christ. It gives us the whole Christ. It does not forgive only some of our sins, or only certain aspects of our sins. It forgives 100% of all our sins.

In the way that Jesus set things up for his church, he layers his gospel on us over and over again. And so, it is the whole gospel that is bestowed on us, in a unique way, in the preaching of God’s Word.

The whole gospel is bestowed on us in another unique way in the administration and reception of the Lord’s Supper. And the whole gospel - in all of its benefits and all of its blessings - is bestowed on us in yet another unique way in Holy Baptism.

The saving power of Baptism does not reside merely in the external ritual of applying water as such, just as the saving power of preaching does not reside in the external act of orally articulating sounds.

Rather, Baptism has the ability to bring Christ to us, and to create and elicit faith in Christ, because it is “the washing of water with the Word” - as St. Paul describes it in his Epistle to the Ephesians. The saving promises of God are connected to Baptism, and through Baptism those promises become personally connected to us.

Baptism is what it is, and it has the power that it has, because Baptism is a special manifestation and bestowing of the gospel.

Jesus, who is without sin, was baptized in the place of sinners, as their substitute. Through his baptism he was also launched out into his public ministry of preaching and teaching, serving and suffering.

We, who have sinned, are in our baptism clothed with the sinlessness of Jesus, and forgiven. And through our baptism we, too, are launched out into a new life - a life that is shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.

Baptism, just as with the gospel in general, unites us to Christ. It unites us to his life. It united us to his death. And it unites us to his resurrection.

When Jesus emerged from his grave he was alive - fully and irreversibly alive. When we emerge from our baptism - our baptism into Christ - we too are now alive. We are alive with a different kind of life: a higher kind of life that in Christ will never end.

St. Paul explains it this way: “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. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

Unfortunately, some modern translations “dumb down” their rendering of an important phrase in the imagery that St. Paul deliberately chooses to use, in his description of the Christian life.

He does not simply say that we “live a new life” as a result of our baptism into Christ - as one popular translation puts it. But, more precisely, he says - as our translation correctly says - that we “walk in newness of life.”

The imagery of “walking” helps us to understand that, as Christians, we live in such a way that we are always moving and always active. And furthermore, this imagery shows us that we are being brought forward by God’s grace in a deliberate and steady way, and not in fits and starts.

We are walking, and not standing still. But we are walking - on a journey through life to a specific destination - and not running around in circles.

St. Paul connects the idea of “freedom” to this walking - to this way of living, and thinking: “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.”

Christ was set free from the bonds of death and the grave when he rose from the dead. We, too, are set free from the power of death and sin when we arise from our baptism.

Before Christ came to us in his gospel to set us free in this way, we were, as St. Paul says, enslaved to sin. Let’s think for a minute about what that means.

In the tragic history of the social and political institution of slavery in our nation’s past, the people of African heritage who were held in bondage were never content with their situation. They were never satisfied with their lives as slaves.

They wanted to be free. And they were willing to take great risks to try to break loose from their chains, to run away, and to become free.

The reason for this is because it was only their bodies that had been enslaved. Their minds were still free - free to dream about a better future, and free to figure out a way to try to escape from their unhappiness, and to find the liberty that they desired.

Their earthly masters might have been able to control their bodies, and force them to perform physical work against their will. But these masters could never control their minds. They could never make them like slavery.

But the slavery of sin is much worse than this, because it is a form of slavery that does affect our minds. Someone who is a slave of sin is a slave of sin precisely in his mind.

When the human race became spiritually enslaved through the fall of Adam, it lost much more than most people imagine. Not only did we lose our freedom from the power of sin, but we also lost our ability to be unhappy about it.

We lost our ability to think in a free way, and to want to be free from sin. The natural man, who knows neither Christ nor the Baptism of Christ, lives under a heavy cloud of deception. He thinks he is free, even when he is in the deepest state of subjugation to forces that are cutting him down more and more every day.

It is true, of course, that even unbelievers are able to dislike the overtly harmful consequences of sin. They don’t love the pain and suffering that come as a result of their spiritual slavery, and they try to avoid that pain and suffering.

But they cannot see the root cause of this misery. So, they continue to love their sin, to embrace it, and to walk in it, even as that sin continues to destroy them and their relationships more and more with each step they take.

Sin functions very much like a moral backhoe in our lives. It continually digs a deeper and deeper hole in our souls, and creates an ever increasing void within us. But sin never fills in that hole.

We might think that it will. We might think that if we continue to pursue our selfish way of living, and stick with it for a long enough period of time, we will eventually reach a point of feeling satisfied and content.

But that time will never come. The hole just keeps getting deeper and deeper. The void just keeps getting bigger and bigger.

But the gospel of Jesus Christ brings an end to all of that. It opens our eyes. It opens our minds. It sets our minds free from the deception of sin.

It allows us to see how foolish we have been. And it fills us to the brim with the resurrection life of Jesus.

To be sure, our baptism, and the gospel in Baptism, does not free us from temptations. But the gospel does free us from the deception that temptations are actually opportunities.

Our baptism gives us the ability to be honest about what we have been, and about what we have done. The freedom of the gospel opens the way for honest self-examination and reflection.

The gospel allows us the privilege of feeling miserable over how stupid we have been - but for just long enough to then see and appreciate the forgiveness that Christ has earned for us, and that Christ freely bestows on us.

With that forgiveness comes a chance for a new beginning - for a new life. This new beginning is shaped by Christ, who now indwells us, and by the new beginning for all humanity that he accomplished in his resurrection.

When the resurrection life of Jesus becomes a part of your life, the way you think about everything begins to change.

The often misguided opinions of other people about how you should conduct yourself become less and less important, and God’s opinion about such matters - as revealed in Scripture - becomes more and more important.

You become more secure in your sense of who you are. That is, you are less concerned about what you think you need to do to earn acceptance from other people, and instead you grow in your appreciation of the wonderful truth that in Christ God has already accepted you, and will continue to accept you.

You begin to understand more and more clearly that you don’t have to earn your way into God’s favor. Jesus has already done that for you. Your righteousness before God is an established fact - built on the immovable foundation of the Lord’s righteousness, and of the Lord’s righteous obedience.

In your baptism, Jesus has, in a sense, “transferred” to you - in a very personal way - the right standing with God that he has earned. And that changes the motivation for everything you do.

In Christ, our desire to achieve good and positive things is therefore not driven by a compulsion to try to become someone special in the eyes of others. We are already special, in the eyes of the one whose thoughts about us count the most: God himself.

So, in Christ, our desire to achieve good and positive things is not motivated by pride or personal insecurity. It is prompted instead by a selfless desire to meet the needs of others.

According to the new nature that God births in us through Baptism, we know that, in our individual vocations, God has called us to stations in life in which we have a responsibility for other people, and in which we are to serve other people: children, spouse, parents, fellow Christians, fellow citizens of our community.

Those are the people we are thinking about when we are working hard to accomplish something worthwhile. And the fact that we do what we do in order to help them, and not in order to prove something about ourselves, will give shape and direction to what we do, and to how we do it.

A Christian, as a Christian, is not consumed by his work. He knows that his work, whatever it may be, serves a higher purpose. Love for God, and love for the people whom God has brought into our lives, is to be what consumes us.

But even there, perhaps “consumes” is not the right word. Because when you live a life of love and service to others in the name of Christ, you don’t become consumed, or depleted. In Christ, as you are energized and led by his Spirit, you never run out of the love that you are continually giving away.

The more you give to others in the name of Jesus, the more you are continually filled and refilled with God’s grace. When you spend yourself for others in Christ, you never become spiritually bankrupt.

All of this is a part of what St. Paul is talking about when he says that, because of your baptism, you are now able to walk in newness of life. This is what happens to you when the power of the resurrection begins to work its way through you, and when it eventually seeps into every seam and crevice of your life.

Christ’s resurrection life works inside of you like leaven in rising dough. It transforms you, it heals you, and it recreates you in mind and heart.

If you ever find yourself slipping back into the old, backward way of thinking and living, or if you ever sense that you are once again falling in love with sin, catch yourself right away, and remember what you have become in your baptism.

That’s not who you are any more! It’s a deception - a demonic deception - when your old nature tries to woo you back to a life without Christ, with the false allurement that this is the better life. It is not!

You have been set free from that bondage of heart and mind. Your eyes have been opened. Don’t allow yourself to be enslaved, and blinded, once again.

You have become a new creature in Christ. Therefore renounce any thought, any word, and any action that would deny or ignore this fact.

In repentance and faith, receive the free and cleansing forgiveness that Jesus offers to you, for every blunder, for every misstep, and for every failure. And then press forward once again, with a thankful confidence in God’s goodness and faithfulness, to the life and freedom that he has given you.

And know that as you do press on, and live, in Christ, Christ is living in you. Christ is animating you, orienting you, and guiding your steps.

As St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” And again, as Paul says in today’s text from Romans:

“How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were 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.” Amen.

14 January 2018 - Epiphany 2 - 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

According to the way God created us, we need to eat. If you don’t eat, you won’t live. Our bodies therefore have a physiological mechanism - hunger - that give us a desire or impulse to eat when more nutrition is needed.

If an individual is to survive, eating is not optional. And sadly, there have been many cases in human history when a person’s cause of death was in fact starvation - that is, the lack of eating.

God created the human race also with another kind of craving - similar in some respects to the craving for food - namely the sexual attraction of a man toward a woman, and of a woman toward a man. This physiological mechanism, in its own way, is also for the sake of human survival.

According to God’s design, physical intimacy between a man and a woman is the method that God uses for procreation - that is, for the bringing forth of each new generation of the human race. If that process were to stop, the human race would come to an end.

But according to the way God created us, there is a major difference between this attraction between the sexes, and the need to eat food. If an individual doesn’t eat, he will die. But in all of human history, there has never been a death certificate that listed “sexual deprivation” as the cause of death.

It is true, of course, that animals have an uncontrollable compulsion to mate, in the spring of the year when the females of the various animal species are in heat. But human beings, who were created in the image of God, have the ability to control those feelings and attractions.

Adam and Eve were created to have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the heavens, and over the livestock - as the Book of Genesis tells us. They were not created to be on the same level as fish and birds, living and acting only in the basis of impulse and instinct. Humans were not made to act like livestock in regard to their reproductive behavior.

God did not create the world and everything in it on an impulse or in a haphazard way, but he created it according to a definite plan and order, in six days. Humans likewise were designed by their creator in such a way, that they would not act impetuously or rashly, when they engage in procreative or potentially-procreative behavior, or when they enter into a procreative or potentially-procreative relationship.

According to his plan and will, God uses such relationships to establish and maintain stable human families. And when married couples are so blessed, it is God’s plan and will to use such relationships to bring children into existence, and to provide for their upbringing and nurture - within the safety and security of their respective families.

Through these relationships people are therefore invited to participate, in a sense, as “junior partners” in God’s own creative activity. And so, in matters of human sexuality, we are called by our creator to discipline ourselves, in modesty and restraint; and to imitate the orderliness and thoughtfulness of God’s own way of acting.

A proper relationship of physical intimacy - that is, a marriage relationship - is to be entered into, if and when it is entered into, on the basis of clear thinking and planning. It is to be entered into with moral reflection on the divine purpose for such a relationship, and with a commitment to the permanence of such a relationship.

And it is to be entered into with an expectation of divine blessing, since “the marriage bed is undefiled.”

That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But because of human sin, and because of the way in which sin has corrupted our minds and wills, this is now often not the way things are.

Fornication and adultery, and today even homosexuality, are becoming ever more rampant. These behaviors are the “new normal,” in our profoundly abnormal society. And those who try to live a chaste life are now the “weird” ones.

As reflected in today’s lesson from St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, people in their depraved ignorance and ethical blindness often assume that their sex drive is on the same level as their drive to eat: that it is something that cannot ever be restrained, but must at all times be indulged and satisfied.

In today’s text, Paul quotes the slogans that the immoral people of his day used to justify their lifestyle. But he then adds a word of divine judgment on those slogans, and on the people who would presume to live by them:

“‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”

“‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’ - and God will destroy both one and the other. The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body.”

And please don’t fail to notice that Paul is writing these words of warning and admonition to the Corinthian congregation. Such carnal and presumptuous attitudes can and do creep into the church. And it is therefore often within the church that God’s judgment against sins of this kind will begin.

When sin entered the human race through Adam’s rebellion and fall, it disconnected man from the spiritual union with God that all people were meant to have.

In our sinfulness we have indeed fallen. We have fallen very far from the dignified way of thinking and acting that creatures made in the image of God would be expected to follow.

Humanity as a whole, in its moral decadence, has exchanged the exalted image of God, for the debased “image” of animals. In matters of physical intimacy, people so often now think and act like animals, and not like God.

This is not a new problem. St. Paul’s letter, in which he addressed this issue head-on, was written 2,000 years ago. The immoral corruptions in the ancient city of Sodom, about which the book of Genesis speaks, happened a very long time before that.

More recently - but not that much more recently - Luther’s Large Catechism also had much to say about the problem of immoral behavior in the sixteenth century. After commenting on various applications of the Sixth Commandment, Luther wrote:

“I say these things in order that our young people may be led to acquire a desire for married life and know that it is a blessed and God-pleasing walk of life. Thus it may in due time regain its proper honor, and there may be less of the filthy, dissolute, disorderly conduct that is now so rampant everywhere in public prostitution and other shameful vices resulting from contempt of married life.”

But I think we can also see that in our particular society, there has indeed been an intensification of this problem within the past few decades. The popular culture bombards us with images and messages that are constantly pushing us further and further away from God’s design and purpose.

Movies and television, music and magazines, and especially the Internet, all seem to be working in collusion with each other to destroy our human dignity and self-respect, and to turn us into animals. The result is the moral and physical destruction of individuals, the destruction of marriages and families, and ultimately it will be the destruction of society in general.

Christians live in the presence of the sin of this world. And it is inevitable that we will be affected by the sin of this world, as it tempts us and entices us. But we cannot - we absolutely must not - allow ourselves to be drawn back into the mire of this sin, and back into the spiritual death of this sin.

That’s where we used to be, before we were rescued from that chaos by the gospel of Jesus Christ. As members of the fallen human race, and as individual offenders, we used to be covered in the filth of that degradation - before the waters of our baptism washed all of our sins away, and restored us to a union with God that was previously lost through the fall.

Jesus, as your Redeemer, has purchased you with the price of his own blood. You belong to him now. And even now, God’s absolving grace in Christ continues to wash your sins off of you, and to scrub them out of you.

He forgives the sins of the recent past, including also the sinful thoughts of this very day and moment. He forgives the sins of the distant past, that still haunt you and weigh you down.

Jesus, the Son of God and the son of Mary, has lifted you out of the mentality and lifestyle of an animal. And as the restorer of humanity, he has made you, in him, to be a true man or woman once again.

You are now a forgiven and restored child of God. You have now put on the mind of Christ.

Through Christ, and through the righteousness of Christ that has been placed upon you, the image of God has been restored in you. You are different.

The world, the sinful flesh, and the devil, all continually tell you that you are not different. In regard to your sexuality, and also in regard to the other arenas of life that require clear thinking and moral reflection, they are continually telling you that you are still like an animal, and should think and act like an animal.

But this is a lie. Don’t believe it. Listen instead to what God has to say to you in today’s text, through his apostle:

Flee from sexual immorality. ... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”

You belong to God. Your body belongs to God. Your thoughts, your words, and your actions all belong to God.

With the price of his own innocent death on your behalf, and through his glorious resurrection, Jesus has atoned for all your sins, and has given you eternal life.

He has set you free from the slavery of sin, and from the fear of death. He has ransomed you from the dominion of sin and from the power death.

And he has lifted you up to a higher life: to a pure and holy life; to a joyous and fulfilling life; to a truly human life.

Especially in the Lord’s Supper, where he feeds us bodily with his own body and blood, Jesus very vividly renews his claim on us - in soul and body. Because this sacrament does touch and heal us in such a physical way, it has the ability to seal to us - most comfortingly - the truth of God’s forgiveness of the sins that we have committed against our own bodies, and against the bodies of others.

In his Holy Supper, he forgives all sins, of soul and body. And from his Holy Supper, he then sends us forth into the world, once again to be the different kind of people that we are - to be the moral, thoughtful, and genuinely human people that his saving grace has caused us to become.

If you are unmarried, God has called you to a life of continence. He will help and guide you, through daily repentance and faith, to be what he has made you to be.

As you show forth in your single life the respect for yourself and for others that God’s Word instills in you, your life will be a testimony to the world, of the better way that God desires, and that God gives.

If you are married, God has called you to a life of loving faithfulness, and selfless devotion, to the spouse to whom he has joined you. In his strength he will help and guide you, through daily repentance and faith, to be what he has made you to be.

As you show forth in your wedded life the respect for yourself and for others that God’s Word instills in you, your life, too, will be a testimony to the world, of the better way that God desires, and that God gives.

In Christ God has elevated all of us - single and married, young and old - into a new kind of human community. The gospel of Jesus Christ has transported us into his church: a community of faith and love that reflects the image of God; that fulfills the purposes of God; and that glorifies the name of God.

God’s forgiveness of our sins - our sexual sins and all other sins - has made us to be a part of this community. God’s forgiveness of our sins - our sexual sins and all other sins - keeps and preserves us in this community.

St. John writes in his First Epistle:

“If we say we have fellowship with [God] while we walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.”

“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

Dear friends: We belong to Christ. By faith we are in Christ. With the power and guidance of his Spirit, Christ is in us.

Jesus was and is the chaste friend and brother of redeemed humanity. Jesus was and is the faithful bridegroom of his church.

It is our deepest desire to be like him: to love what he loves, and to want what he wants. And so in his name we pray to our Father in heaven - and we close with this prayer:

Destroy in me the lust of sin, From all impureness make me clean.
Oh, grant me power and strength, my God, To strive against my flesh and blood!

Create in me a new heart, Lord, That gladly I obey Thy Word,
And naught but what Thou wilt, desire; With such new life my soul inspire. Amen.

21 January 2018 - Epiphany 3 - Mark 1:14-20

In one of the most significant statements that he ever uttered, Jesus said: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” This sentence, as recorded in today’s text from St. Mark’s Gospel, established the trajectory of our Lord’s whole public ministry, and it succinctly summarized his entire public doctrine.

Each phrase in this sentence is filled with meaning. Let us, therefore, consider what Jesus is telling us here, as we hear and ponder these powerful words.

“The time is fulfilled.” The original Greek uses a special word for “time,” “kairos,” which carries with it the idea of a unique moment or season in which a unique occurrence of some kind can and will happen.

The text does not use the more ordinary word for “time,” “khronos,” from which the English word “chronology” is derived - which would call to mind the continuous passing of minutes, days, weeks, years, and centuries. Rather, the text indicates to us that Jesus wants his listeners to know that a unique opportunity, not previously available, is now presenting itself to them.

This special moment or season was long in coming, and faithful people in the past - in the Old Testament era - could see it coming. But it had not yet actually arrived - until now. Now it “is fulfilled.”

Another connotation of the Greek word that is used here, is that this unique moment or season, with its unique opportunity, will not always be there. A special time to act, or be acted upon, has arrived, but this special time will at some point in the future come to an end.

This is, on the one hand, a warning: “Don’t delay, and don’t miss the opportunity you now have.”

But on the other hand, this is also an invitation: “All is now ready. The heavenly blessings you need are now available to you. The season of the revelation of God’s love for you has come.”

And what exactly has come? “The kingdom of God is at hand.” That’s what our Lord is talking about.

It has been said that “the kingdom of God” is “the supreme concept of the New Testament.” That’s quite a claim.

But it is borne out when we see how often Jesus speaks of this kingdom in his sermons and parables. And among the relatively few petitions that Jesus teaches us to offer in the Lord’s Prayer, he includes one in which we are to ask that God’s “kingdom” will come.

Jesus makes it clear that this divine kingdom is wholly unlike other kingdoms with which we may be familiar. As he testified before Pontius Pilate, recorded in John 18:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

While misguided Christians through the centuries, and at the present time, have sometimes forgotten this, the kingdom of Christ and of God is not a kingdom of bodily violence, external coercion, or emotional manipulation. We cannot force or bait someone, by worldly means, into God’s kingdom.

We cannot compel someone to enter God’s kingdom against his will, or entice someone into entering God’s kingdom by appealing to the “felt needs” of his selfish sinful nature. An entirely different set of rules and norms applies in Christ’s kingdom. Luther explains this very nicely in his Large Catechism:

“What is the kingdom of God? ... That God sent his Son, Christ our Lord, into the world, to redeem and deliver us from the power of the devil; to bring us to himself; and to rule us as a king of righteousness, life, and salvation; against sin, death, and an evil conscience. To this end he also gave his Holy Spirit, to deliver this to us through his holy Word; and to enlighten and strengthen us in faith, by his power.”

This hidden yet very real reign of God, among and within men, is indeed now very near. As Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is at hand.” On another occasion, as recorded in Luke 17, when Jesus was conversing with a group of Pharisees, he said:

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”

And who was in the midst of those Pharisees when Jesus uttered these words? Jesus was! The kingdom of God is at hand because Jesus is at hand.

The kingdom of God is at hand because Christ, the incarnate Son of God and the Savior of men, has now become a part of our human story, and will remain a part of it until the consummation of this age.

In his very person, he embodies the kingdom for which he stands, and in which he reigns. He is the king - the king of kings - and where the king is, so too is the kingdom. That’s not the way it is with earthly kingdoms.

The claimants to the thrones of various European nations that have now become republics, live in exile, without any regal power, in a host of other countries. At one time the Queen of Hungary was living in Chicago, and the Czar of Russia was living somewhere in Florida.

But with the kingdom of Christ, Jesus makes his kingdom to be present by the power of his Word, whenever and wherever his Word is proclaimed and believed.

It might be observed, though, that, from our human perspective, Jesus doesn’t seem to be projecting his kingly influence and authority into our world very effectively. Human suffering remains. Injustice prevails.

The wicked prosper, and the poor are crushed down. Is Christ really a king, reigning within a kingdom, if things like this, which are clearly against his will, unrelentingly go on?

But remember, the kingdom of Christ is “not of this world.” And, accordingly, its influence is projected among men in ways that are different than the ways in which we experience the influence of other kingdoms.

In the kingdoms of this world there is much suffering and injustice. But in the kingdom of God, in which we live by faith, we know that Christ has suffered for us, once and for all time.

Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom - even in the midst of the suffering and injustice that we experience in this world - we are filled with the joy and peace of the salvation that is ours in him.

In the kingdoms of this world there is much poverty and despair. But In the kingdom of God, in which we live by faith, we know that Christ, the friend of the poor who himself had no place to lay his head, has been resurrected to a full use of all of his divine prerogatives.

In his ascended glory at the right hand of the Father, he now controls and governs all things for the benefit of his church. Therefore, as citizens of his kingdom - even in the midst of the poverty and despair that we experience in this world - we are filled with the riches of God’s grace, and with an eternal hope that looks beyond the horizons of this life, to the life to come.

This divine kingdom - which offers such mercy and such marvels to humanity - truly is “at hand.” But how do we become a part of it?

How do we enter it? How does it envelope and embrace us? Jesus says: “Repent and believe in the gospel.” So, we don’t buy our way in. We don’t talk our way in.

Rather, we “get in,” as it were, when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about us and our sin is true; and when we acknowledge and believe that what God says about himself and his grace is true.

To “repent” means to change or turn the mind - that is, to change one’s way of thinking, of processing ideas, and of making decisions. It means that we turn away from the sins and sinfulness of the past and the present, and embrace something else for the future.

Human feelings are certainly involved in repentance - feelings of guilt, regret, and sorrow. But human feelings do not exhaust the meaning or application of the word “repent.”

When Jesus says, “Repent,” he’s not just addressing your feelings. He’s addressing the totality of your being: your mind, your will, your conscience.

He calls upon you to think different thoughts - or as St. Paul says in First Corinthians, to put on “the mind of Christ.” He calls upon you to wish for different things - or as St. Paul says in Second Timothy, to “desire to live a godly life.”

And the Spirit of Christ, who indwells you and regenerates you, works and instills within you - by his convicting and transforming power - those changes for which Christ calls.

And Jesus says, “Believe in the gospel.” The word “gospel” means “glad tidings” or “good news.” It is indeed good news to a sinner, to be told that God is at peace with him, and will not punish him for his transgressions.

The pathway into God’s kingdom is the pathway of believing that Jesus has the authority to say to people, “Your sins are forgiven”; and of believing that Jesus is therefore speaking the truth when he says to you, “Your sins are forgiven.”

And he does say this to you, in your baptism, in Holy Absolution, and in his Holy Supper. He says it, and he means it.

This gospel of forgiveness in Christ is the gateway and the portal into the kingdom of God. It is also the foundation and source of every other spiritual blessing, and of every spiritual gift, for those who are citizens of that kingdom.

It is, as St. Paul says in Romans, “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Dear friends in Christ: You are citizens of God’s kingdom, which is “at hand,” here, for you. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to repent. Now is the time - the moment or season appointed by God - for you to believe in the gospel.

The words that Jesus once addressed to the paralytic man, and that he once addressed to the sinful woman, are words that he addresses to you right now: “Your sins are forgiven.” By his suffering you are redeemed. By his atoning death you are justified. By his resurrection you are enriched and enlivened.

All of this is an ongoing reality for us who are in God’s kingdom, and who live under the loving Lordship of Christ. The words “repent” and “believe” are both, grammatically speaking, in the present tense.

Repentance is not just something that we did in the past, because our need for repentance is not just in the past. In the very first of his famous Ninety-Five Theses of 1517, Luther said:

“When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

And believing in the gospel is likewise not just something that we did in the past, because our need for the gospel is not just in the past. The content of the gospel is Christ himself - his person and work, his obedience and love.

We never rise above, or move beyond, our need for Christ, in every moment of every day. And so we rejoice in the invitation that Jesus issues, and in the promise that Jesus makes, in John 14:

“If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.”

Repentance and faith are always the current marks of our current life in Christ. They are the respiration of the soul.

We continually breathe out our sins, and breathe in God’s forgiveness. This is going on constantly. And if it ever stopped, we would spiritually die.

But in Christ, and in the faith-creating and faith-sustaining ministry of the gospel that Christ continues to bring to us, it doesn’t stop. When we sin, we do repent. And when Christ forgives, we do believe.

Christ gives himself to us, and we receive him. And Christ draws us ever more deeply into the comfort of his embrace, and into the safety of his kingdom.

These things were true for, and available to, the people who were alive during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and who heard him preach in person. And these things are true for you and me, and are available to you and me - here and now - as we hear Jesus speak to us through the pages of Holy Scripture.

The special season of the revelation of God’s kingdom - the special season for repentance and faith - has not yet ended. God’s invitation is still in effect. God’s grace is still available, and in his grace he is still reaching out to you and to all people.

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” Amen.

28 January 2018 - Epiphany 4 - Mark 1:21-28

In the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, one of the official creedal statements of our church, we read:

“On account of original sin, ...human nature was not only subjected to death and other bodily ills, but also to the reign of the devil. ... This horrible sentence is pronounced: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers.’ ... Human nature is enslaved and held captive by the devil, who deceives it with ungodly opinions and errors and incites it to all sorts of sins. ...”

“We, by our own powers, are unable to free ourselves from that slavery. World history itself shows how great is the strength of the devil’s rule. Blasphemy and wicked teachings fill the world, and in these bonds the devil holds enthralled those who are wise and righteous in the eyes of the world. In others even greater vices appear.”

So far the Apology.

This is not a pretty picture. But it is an accurate picture of the condition of fallen man: of his internal condition, where he is lacking in righteousness and faith and is antagonistic toward God; and of his external condition, where he is under the thralldom of supernatural powers of which he is usually not even aware.

This realm of “powers and principalities” is a realm that self-styled “modern” and “enlightened” people usually have no interest in exploring. The materialist worldview that still dominates much of our society has dismissed these “archaic” beliefs as so much “mythology,” with no basis in reality.

There is, however, a growing number of people in our time who no longer believe that the natural world is the only real world. There is an ever-growing fascination with angels, spirits, and “new-age” mystical experiences, and a new openness to belief in a supernatural realm, inhabited by supernatural beings.

But even with this new interest in such things among twenty-first century people, those who naively ponder and probe these matters without the guidance of the Holy Scriptures, severely underestimate the seductive and deceptive power of Satan and of his minions, over the world, and over them.

Sometimes the devil, or the unclean spirits that serve him, operate in a more direct way in the lives of individuals. Today’s Gospel from St. Mark describes one such instance, in which a man was demonized, or under the control of such a spirit.

Taking into account the various New Testament examples of this kind of bodily obsession, the Lutheran theologian Francis Pieper writes that “By it the devil...takes possession of a man by personally dwelling in him, so that the demoniac, bereft of the use of his reason and will, becomes the involuntary instrument of Satan. The human personality no longer functions; the devil in person becomes the acting subject. The demoniac is no longer responsible for his actions.”

Most of the time, though, evil spirits are content to work indirectly and “behind the scenes,” exploiting their unholy alliance with humanity’s sinful nature, which is a willing accomplice with them. But whether the devil and his angels are working directly and perceptively, or indirectly and sneakily, they are always striving for the same goals, and are always working for the same results. Again, as Dr. Pieper goes on to explain,

“The activities of the evil angels are...evil throughout. Scripture describes them, for our information and warning, very clearly and in full detail. All endeavors of the wicked angels are aimed at harming man in his body..., in his temporal possessions..., and particularly in his soul...”

“The entire state of unbelief - among heathen nations as well as in external Christendom - is a work of the devil... All who do not believe the gospel are thinking and doing what the devil wills; they are completely in his power... And the fact that men do not know this, yes, even deny the existence of the devil, is likewise due to the operation of the devil.”

But why should this be of concern to us, who profess Christ? Haven’t we already been delivered from Satan’s dominion, so that we are no longer in spiritual danger?

Well, let’s not forget that the devil know what we too should know, namely, that it is possible for a believer in Christ to be lured away from his Savior, to renounce his faith and expel the Holy Spirit from his life, and to become once again an unbeliever.

Satan was no doubt paying close attention to Jesus when he warned, in his parable of the sower, and in his explanation of that parable, of the person “who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy,” but who “has no root in himself” and endures only “for a while,” so that “when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.”

The devil is very interested in those people whom he thinks may be in this category, and he is more than willing to bring into their lives the kind of tribulation or persecution that Jesus describes, and that can, as the devil would hope, topple a temporary faith.

And, this kind of tribulation or persecution can come to people in subtle ways. It can come to you in subtle ways.

Do you sometimes think up clever excuses - that you yourself don’t really believe - to avoid a God-given responsibility in your place of work, in your family, or in your church? This is a subtle but very real spiritual tribulation in your life - brought about by your own sinful flesh and its ally Satan - which weakens your connection with God, and threatens your faith.

Do you sometimes come up with what seem to you to be ingenious ways to rationalize your sins - sins of greed, of lust, or of pride - so that you can avoid thinking about those sins as sins, and dealing with them?

When you pray, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto Thee all my sins and iniquities,” do you really mean “all,” or do you mean “most?” This kind of self-deception is a persecution of your new nature by your own old nature - in cahoots with the devil.

Listen to the words of St. Paul, from his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.”

And listen to the warning of St. Peter’s First Epistle: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” He wants to devour you.

In today’s Gospel, the devil also wanted to devour the poor man who was possessed on that occasion by an unclean spirit. This spirit had taken control of his body, and no doubt wanted to take more and more control of every aspect of his life until he had completely destroyed him.

In the face of such diabolical power, what hope did this man have? What hope would any of us have? His hope, and our hope, is the man from Nazareth.

Satan fears very little in this world. He is especially not afraid of fallen humanity or of any resistence that we might feebly try to throw up against his wiles, by our own reason or strength. But Satan does fear, and cannot withstand, the word of this man.

The demon who inhabited the afflicted person in today’s text knew who Jesus was. He could see what the mortals there present could not see, namely that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity was standing in the midst of them. He saw, he shuddered, and he shrieked.

St. Mark tells us what happened:

“And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, ‘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!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him.”

“And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, ‘What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.’”

The word of Jesus was the word of him who had created all angelic spirits, including the ones who later fell from their pristine state. It was the word of him who upholds the universe. So, when this man from Nazareth - this man who speaks with authority - says to the forces of darkness, “Come out of him,” they come out.

This same kind of word, coming from this same man, was also spoken in regard to you, in your baptism. And since your baptism endures in your life as an ongoing testimony of God’s forgiveness and mercy toward you, the power of this authoritative word from Jesus continues to liberate you and protect you, in and through the continuing reality of your baptism.

The reason why a baptized person is asked to renounce the devil, and all his works, and all his ways, is because baptism, by virtue of the Word of God that is spoken within it and through it, has the power to vanquish the devil from the lives of those who are baptized, and who abide in their baptism in repentance and faith.

For you, therefore, who repent of your sins right now - who repent of all of your sins - I can assure you that the devil is vanquished, and that in Christ you are set free from his deadly grip.

Do not fear that he will overcome you, or that in your weakness he will overpower you. Christ your Lord, who speaks with authority, has told him to depart, and depart he must.

There are, sadly, some Christians who are only temporary believers. And the devil might be hoping that you are one of them, especially if he has seen you stumble. But as you cling each day to the mercy of Christ - as you cling today to that mercy - you will not be one of them.

The word that Jesus speaks to and against your Satanic foe on your behalf is a word that he speaks with authority. By his word he is able to cast the devil out of places where he does not belong.

And, the word that Jesus speaks to you - to your troubled conscience, to your struggling faith - is also a word that he speaks with authority. He speaks the devil out of your life, and he speaks himself into it.

He speaks his righteousness upon you. He speaks his regenerating Spirit into your mind and heart.

The devil, of course, doesn’t like this at all. He wants you to doubt Christ’s willingness always to forgive you and renew your faith. He wants you to be distracted from listening to this man from Nazareth, and to the marvelous things that he is saying to you.

But the word that Jesus speaks, he speaks with authority. And in spite of the devil’s attempts to trip you up, the authority of Christ’s word has the power to capture your attention, and to save you.

Dear friends, Jesus died for your sins, and in the shedding of his blood on the cross, he has reconciled you to your Father in heaven. This is the essential content of the word of salvation that Jesus speaks to you. Believe this word - believe it now - and the devil will flee.

On every Lord’s Day and festival here at Redeemer, in one form or another, we have an opportunity to hear Jesus speak some very specialized words, which he - as always - does speak with divine authority. The devil doesn’t like to hear those words either. And he doesn’t want you to hear them or to believe them.

But in our midst, through his called servant, Jesus nevertheless speaks those powerful words, which the devil cannot silence. And in the Large Catechism we can hear our church confess its faith in the man from Nazareth, and in what that man speaks at his altar - for us and to us - for our forgiveness, life, and salvation.

Listen to this confession. And as you listen to it, say a quiet “amen,” and by God’s grace embrace this confession as your own.

“With this Word you can strengthen your conscience and declare: ‘Let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, “How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?” ... Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in his littlest finger.”

“Here is Christ’s word: “Take, eat, this is my body.” “Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood.” ... Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken.”

“It is true, indeed, that if you take the Word away from the elements or view them apart from the Word, you have nothing but ordinary bread and wine. But if the words remain, as is right and necessary, then by virtue of them the elements are truly the body and blood of Christ. For as Christ’s lips speak and say, so it is; he cannot lie or deceive.’”

So far the Catechism.

In the joy of faith, when we hear and believe wonderful things like this, we too, like the crowds of old, are amazed at this man’s teaching. Christ’s body, given into death on the cross for our sins, is given now into our mouths. Christ’s blood, shed as the price of humanity’s redemption, is truly bestowed upon us at this altar for our forgiveness.

We are amazed, because Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority that the devil - with all of the frightful power that he has in this world - cannot endure. Jesus of Nazareth speaks with an authority against which the devil cannot, and will not, prevail. Amen.