3 June 2018 - Pentecost 2 - Genesis 3:8-15

Marriage and family are gifts from God. That’s the way it’s been since the original joy and harmony of the Garden of Eden, before sin entered the world. But even with the reality of sin in the world as it exists now, it is still God’s will to bring people great blessings through marriage and family.

If you think back on the happiest occasions in your life, I’ll bet that most of them involved events related to marriage and family: your wedding or the weddings of your children, the births of your children or grandchildren, buying your family home, or going on a particularly enjoyable family vacation.

And that’s also why the most painful memories in people’s lives tend to be of disappointments or betrayals within the context of marriage and family.

The people who are closest to you are the ones from whom you expect the most. And therefore they are the ones who are able to wound you most deeply. A spouse or a child, a sibling or a parent, can hurt you in ways that others can’t.

And, as you reflect on the sins of your own life that you regret the most, I’ll bet that most of them involve things you did or said that caused harm or pain to your family members.

Your brothers and sisters, your parents and children, had the right to expect better of you. But you let them down. And so you are deeply remorseful and ashamed when you think of these things.

This kind of disruption within human families also goes back to the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, in their sin, led each other astray, and then they turned on each other.

Eve misused the trust of her relationship with Adam, to tempt him into joining her in her rebellion against God, and in her succumbing to the temptations of Satan. And then, as today’s text from Genesis recounts, Adam blamed her for his failure to do the right thing, and for his failure to correct her when he saw that she was not doing the right thing.

The Lord God said to Adam, “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.”

Our first parents were now alienated from God because of their sin. And they were now alienated from each other as well, because of their sin.

They had been created to be partners and companions, and to build one another up in their mutual worship of God, and in their mutual service to God. But now they were dragging each other down, and were backing away from each other into the loneliness of self-justification and excuse-making.

Satan, who made himself an enemy of God by his own pride and rebellion, has also made himself an enemy of humanity. He hates what God loves. He hates most, what God loves most. And that is us.

It should not surprise us, then, that Satan is very active in trying to bring pain and suffering to people, precisely in the context of their marriage and their family. More generally, he also wants to undermine marriage and family as enduring institutions.

Marriage and family have the capacity to bring much godly happiness and contentment to people. But when the power and the promise of these institutions are betrayed, the worse kind of soul-destroying sin is the result.

It is the devil’s will that is being accomplished, in every case of abuse, neglect, and betrayal that takes place within a family. He’s behind it each time.

And when the larger society dissuades people from embracing and honoring the stability and fruitfulness of marriage as God instituted it - by glamorizing fornication and unnatural sexual relationships in movies and on TV, and by winking at adultery - the devil is behind that, too.

When the conception of a child - even if it takes place in difficult circumstances - is not seen most fundamentally as a gift from God, but is seen instead as a human failure that can be dealt with by killing the child, this is the darkest and most evil example of how the devil destroys souls by destroying families, and by poisoning the love and natural affection of family relationships.

Anything that contributes toward the weakening of marriage and family, contributes toward the fulfillment of Satan’s agenda: his agenda of separating people from supportive and enriching relationships with each other; and ultimately, his agenda of separating people from a saving relationship with God.

That’s the way he has operated, behind the scenes, throughout human history: beginning in Eden, and still today. And that’s what we can expect from him until judgment day.

We, according to our inherited sinful nature, so often have a perverse desire for things that will actually lead to pain and misery - for us and for those who are close to us. The devil amplifies these inner temptations.

And he manipulates us at the point of our greatest weakness - whatever that weakness may be in each individual - in order to prompt us to destroy ourselves and our families, through sins of short-sighted selfishness and callous pride.

In our own strength, it is difficult for us to resist these destructive impulses. In our human weakness, it is impossible to resist them completely.

Can God help us? Will God help us?

Jesus, the Son of God in human flesh, experienced many joys in his family life during his time on earth. His mother and step-father loved him deeply, and raised him in a pious and respectable home.

On at least one occasion, Jesus was called a carpenter. This means that, as a boy, he didn’t just watch Joseph work. He worked with Joseph, learning the carpenter’s trade from him, and in that process no doubt built a close relationship with him.

And we all remember the great love that Jesus showed for Mary when he was dying on the cross. Even in the midst of his great agony, he still thought of his mother’s needs, and entrusted her to his faithful disciple John, so that she would be properly cared for, for the rest of her time on earth. That degree of tenderness and affection on Jesus’ part no doubt arose from a lifetime of closeness to Mary.

But Jesus also experienced the kind of disappointments that often characterize family relationships in this sinful world. He grew up in a home with several brothers and sisters.

Strictly speaking, they were either step-brothers and step-sisters, or half-brothers and half-sisters. But whatever the exact kinship was, during the time of his earthly ministry, his brothers did not believe in him. In today’s Gospel from St. Mark we see evidence of this:

“Then [Jesus] went home, and the crowd gathered again... And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, ‘He is out of his mind.’”

Jesus’ family members - excluding his mother, we assume - did not understand his mission on earth, or his true identity. They did not understand what it was about him, that elicited the admiration and devotion of so many people.

They did not understand what it was about him, that caused him to spend so much time with the poor and the downcast, the sick and the lame, the outcasts and the disgraced sinners. But instead of being humble about their lack of understanding, and giving themselves a chance to learn from their brother, they jumped to the quick and cruel conclusion that he was “out of his mind.”

Jesus certainly would have appreciated their support and encouragement. But that’s not what he got from them. Instead, they insulted him, and belittled him.

And in so doing, they were inadvertently making common cause with Jesus’ real enemies among the scribes, who weren’t just making fun of him, but who wanted him dead. These scribes, as tools of the devil, accused Jesus of being a tool of the devil.

Right after his description of the attitude of Jesus’ family members toward him, St. Mark reports: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem were saying, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.’”

The scribes didn’t want people to listen to Jesus. Satan didn’t want people to listen to Jesus, or to understand him. Satan didn’t want anyone to be able to receive from Jesus - through repentance and faith - the salvation from sin, and the enlightenment in God’s truth, that Jesus had come into the world to offer to all men.

As Jesus faced the attacks of the scribes - and through them, of the devil - his brothers abandoned him. They turned on him, when he needed them most.

But Jesus still loved them. He went on to die for them, and to atone for their sins. He went on to rise again for them, to open for them the way of everlasting life.

In regard to one of these brothers in particular - James - St. Paul tells us in his First Epistle to the Corinthians that Jesus appeared to him personally, after his resurrection. This James then ceased to be an unbeliever, and became instead the spiritual leader of the church in Jerusalem for the rest of his life.

James had accused Jesus of being crazy. But his brother - his Savior - forgave him.

And Jesus forgives you, too, for the cruelty, the insults, and the put-downs you have inflicted upon your brothers and sisters, and upon your parents and children. Jesus died as well for every unkind word that has ever passed between you and your spouse, and for every failure to love and honor the one whom you vowed to love and honor.

Christ, the promised Seed of the woman, bruised and crushed the head of your tempter and accuser, in his death and resurrection. He has taken away the devil’s power to control you with fear and guilt.

And in his resurrection, Jesus brings to you his deep, divine healing - his healing of all the emotional wounds that have ever been inflicted on you by other people, and especially by members of your family. Sometimes these wounds are very old, but still remain very painful.

The risen Christ heals them, with the salve of his limitless grace. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, takes away also the lingering sting of the sins that have been committed against you.

And the risen Christ is now the head of a new family - the family of his church. You have been incorporated into that family by his Spirit - the Spirit of adoption - by whom you now cry out to God, in faith and in love, “Abba, Father.” Jesus speaks also of these things in today’s Gospel:

“And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him, and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.’”

“And he answered them, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.’”

The devil is still active in this world, seeking to kill and destroy. He wants to destroy souls. He wants to destroy marriages and families, because he knows that God can do so much good through them.

But the Holy Spirit is also active in this world, through the Word and Sacraments of Christ: bringing forgiveness and healing to those who have been misled and harmed by the devil’s intrigues and lies; and bringing strength and wisdom to those who are still threatened by those intrigues and lies.

When you bring your earthly family into the larger family of God - so that spouses, parents, children, and siblings worship together, confess their sins together, and receive God’s grace together - the devil loses. God wins. You, and your family, win.

When you personally repent of your trespasses before the Lord, and receive his forgiveness for yourself, you thereby learn how to forgive others. When a husband and wife in a strained relationship pray together, from the heart, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,” important relationships, on two levels, are changed.

Their relationship with God is renewed, when God, in his absolution, breaks down all the barriers that their trespasses against his law had erected. And the barriers fed by stubbornness, anger, and resentment, that they had erected between each other, are, in that moment, also torn down by God. Jesus, who makes all things new, makes all things new for them.

When competitive brothers patch up their differences, and shake hands; and when feuding sisters embrace each other, and agree to a fresh start with each other, there is a return, in Christ, to the harmony that the first human family knew in Eden, before the fall.

And if someone who is all alone in this world - as far as family connections are concerned - is drawn by the gospel into the embrace of Christ, the church of Christ becomes his or her family: where love and encouragement are given and received, where burdens are borne together, and where joys and griefs are shared.

Indeed, even those who come to the Lord’s house with a family, find that they are all now a part of something bigger, something deeper, and something eternal.

Jesus instructs us that in the resurrection, people neither marry nor are given in marriage. In the resurrection, and in God’s eternal kingdom, husbands and wives, parents and children, will no longer relate to one another as they did in this life.

They are all one, in Christ. They are all brothers and sisters forever. God is their loving Father, and Jesus is their Elder Brother, forever. The fellowship of the church on earth, in view of our common baptism into Christ, gives us a taste of that heavenly reality.

Marriage and family are gifts of God. For that reason, they are under constant attack by the devil and his allies.

But God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, heals, restores, and protects marriages and families. God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, heals, restores, and protects you, within your marriage, and within your family.

And God, in the gospel of Jesus Christ, brings you into a new and eternal family - the family of his church. And in the church triumphant - in the family of God triumphant - Jesus wipes away all tears, and removes all sadness and disappointment. All sin is forgiven, and forgotten, in Christ. And the joy of God’s love will endure forever. Amen.

10 June 2018 - Pentecost 3 - 2 Corinthians 5:1-17

During this past week, we have heard news reports about the suicides of two prominent persons: one a famous fashion designer, and the other a famous chef and television travel show host. Because these people were well-known, their suicides made it to the national news.

But according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate in our country as a whole has increased more than 25% since 1999. More than half of those who died by suicide during these two decades had not previously been diagnosed with a mental health condition.

A C.D.C. spokesperson said: “These findings are disturbing. Suicide is one of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. right now... Our data show that the problem is getting worse.”

There is no doubt a unique story - a uniquely sad and disheartening story - connected to each case of someone taking his own life. Every suicide is its own individual tragedy.

We don’t know what kind of depression or confusion, pride or shame, drove each of these people toward these ultimate acts of self-destruction. But in each case, there was some kind of internal harmful impulse that led them to do this.

For whatever reason, they were “groaning” with despair, and felt greatly “burdened” in their bodily life in this world. And so they desired to be “unclothed,” as it were, and to cast off this bodily life, with the false belief that the killing of their bodies, in itself, would bring them some kind of peace.

And the cultural mechanisms and institutions of our society as a whole, seem to be making suicide a more plausible option than it ever was in the past, by strongly and persistently pushing a belief system that ignores the righteousness of God and the fear of God, and the reality of hell and an ultimate accounting.

Seldom heard in our land are any references to what St. Paul mentions in today’s text from his Second Epistle to the Corinthians, when he states that “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.”

According to natural law, and the natural knowledge of God, people should be expected to avoid murder - including self-murder - because of the inner knowledge that this is wrong.

We read in the Epistle to the Hebrews, especially in regard to Christians who have fallen away from their faith, that “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.”

Also, because of the unnaturalness of temporal death, and the linkage that exists between death and sin, we would expect people who have not been brainwashed by atheism or spiritism to see death as an enemy, and not as a friend.

In speaking of the final salvation from sin and its consequences that Christ will bestow upon his people, when he returns visibly on the last day, St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Paul also writes: “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

But for so many who embrace suicide today, their death is not expected to be a morally- or spiritually- painful “sting.” It is seen as something that will be a painless release from the sting of earthly suffering. But that is not what it is. This is all a great deception.

The truth about life in this world, with its trials and suffering; and the truth about a Christian’s yearning for the eternal life that our Savior has promised to those who love and trust in him, is explained with great clarity and comfort in today’s text.

St. Paul does speak about a “groaning,” under grief and suffering, that Christians do sometimes experience in this life. He also speaks of our willingness to undergo the destruction of the “tent” of our bodily life in this world, when the time appointed for our temporal death does come.

But he is very emphatic in adding this necessary and distinctly Christian thought: “For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened - not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.”

We who know God as our benevolent creator, do not despise the earthly life that God has given us - even if God’s blessings of daily bread must coexist with the machinations of the devil, due to the fact that the world is now fallen and corrupt. Our God-given willingness to depart from this world - at whatever time God may call us out of it - is therefore not a desire to depart from the good gifts of God.

Rather, it is a willingness to transition from a lesser life to a greater life - both of which are gifts of God. And the reason why we have this willingness - that is, a desire to be released from mortality and to be clothed with immortality - is because Jesus our Savior, who died for our sins, returned from death, with the pledge and promise that those who die in him, also live in him, and will never truly die.

We do not embrace bodily death, when it does come to us, on the basis of a guess that what comes after death will likely be better than the anxieties of this life; or on the basis of a secular brainwashing that there is nothing to be feared after death.

Rather, we are able to live and die in peace, and with confidence in God’s mercy and forgiveness in this world and the next, because by faith we know that Jesus has won the victory over sin and death for us; and that he, by his atoning sacrifice and resurrection, has established a perfect fellowship between us and God.

St. Paul explains that God has indeed “prepared us for this very thing,” in that he “has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.” And the Spirit whom God has given to us as a guarantee of our eternal destiny in Christ, is the same Spirit who has bestowed upon us even now an adoption as children of God, by whom we cry out: “Abba, Father.”

This crying out to God while we remain on earth, is an important thing to ponder. The Lord gives us this invitation in Psalm 50: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

And a man in ancient times who did believe the Lord’s promise, and who did call upon him in a time of turmoil and fear, was able to say in Psalm 3: “You O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. I cried aloud to the Lord, and he answered me...”

Many of us, perhaps at a particularly discouraging time in life, have in the past had a passing thought of suicide - or at least have briefly wished for an ending to our life, to escape from some kind of severe emotional distress. Some of us may have had thoughts about this sort of thing for more than a passing moment.

But whenever a dark day like this comes upon us - accompanied by despair or remorse - we must remember that such temptations always have their origin in the perverse will and lies of the devil.

And as St. John’s Gospel reports, Jesus teaches us that the devil has been “a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

Our sinful human flesh and our deceptive human emotions likewise cannot be relied upon to be accurate sources of information about what God really thinks of us, in and because of his Son; or about what God really wants for us, according to his good and gracious will.

Regardless of how you feel, your life will never be without value and purpose. God will never stop loving you and caring about you. If you feel otherwise, your feelings are lying to you.

What the Lord said through the Prophet Jeremiah to his ancient people, he says also to his New Testament church, and to each baptized member of his church, on whom he has placed his claim:

“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me, and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me, and find me...”

And if you have sinned - even if you have sinned grievously, and the guilt of your sin is bearing down upon you and crushing you - your own death is not the price to be paid as an atonement and a punishment. The death of Christ, in your place, was that price. And that price has already been paid.

A full and complete forgiveness is now yours in him. Acceptance by God, a new beginning with God, and a new beginning in this world - for as long as God keeps you in this world - are the result.

“For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God; and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood - to be received by faith.”

You will never become so weak or distant from God, that God will not be able to reach you, and to give you the faith you need to believe these words about your Savior - from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. God will give you that faith.

Suicide is often the act of someone with an essentially sound yet rebellious mind, who has made a willful decision to “play God” in and over his own life, and to defy whatever is left of the voice of his conscience.

On other occasions, however, suicide is the act of someone who has lost his ability to think clearly, and to distinguish between right and wrong, because of mental illness, chemical addiction, or some other debilitating disorder of the mind. This is why Martin Luther, in describing his pastoral approach in dealing with such cases, writes as follows:

“I don’t share the opinion that suicides are certainly to be damned. My reason is that they do not wish to kill themselves, but are overcome by the power of the devil. ... It is not plain that their souls are damned. However, they are examples by which our Lord God wishes to show that the devil is powerful, and also that we should be diligent in prayer.”

God, of course, is the ultimate judge. He knows what is in the mind and heart of all of us, at all times.

He knows if someone has departed from this world as an impenitent and unbelieving murderer, with his own blood on his hands; or if someone has departed from this world with a weak yet genuine faith - a faith that is, however, buried under the blinding power of depression, and overwhelmed by emotional confusion.

Whenever you are afraid or weighed down, frazzled or upset; or whenever you feel condemned by your conscience: pray. Go to your knees, and pray. Pray as our Lord has taught us.

Pray: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

And talk also with a fellow human being whom you trust. Talk with your pastor, who is called by God to be the guardian of your soul. Talk with a trusted Christian friend.

Now, even when the trials of this world do not drive us to the point of thinking about hurting ourselves, those trials can be of such a nature that they do prompt us to think earnestly about eternity; and about the promises God makes to us in his Son Jesus Christ, concerning the eternity that he wants to spend with us as his redeemed and reconciled children.

But because of Christ, and because of the healing and strengthening power of the gospel of Christ, we need never slip into despair or hopelessness, even in the midst of these earnest thoughts; and we must never entertain the idea that God has abandoned us. As St. Paul writes elsewhere in his Epistle to the Romans:

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

And as Paul writes in today’s text:

“So we are always of good courage. ... For we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.

Paul explains what it is that pleases the Lord, when he goes on to write that “he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves, but for him who for their sake died and was raised.”

So, if you think that your life has no purpose, look around you, and see the people who need your love and service. If you think that your life has no meaning, think of the people who care about you, and whose lives you enrich in simple yet important ways.

And if you think that you are unacceptable to God because of your past mistakes and old flaws, and that God is either unwilling or unable to give you a fresh start, and to lead you into a bright future with him, then listen to these words from the apostle:

“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

And as St. Paul writes in his First Epistle to the Corinthians: “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.”

“What we are, is known to God,” Paul also says. And what you are - as God knows and loves you, in the Savior who died and rose again for you - is a lamb of his flock, a citizen of his kingdom, and an heir of his heaven.

By Thy good counsel lead me, O Son of God, my Stay;
In each perplexing trial Help me, O Lord, I pray.
Mine hour of sorrow shorten, Support my fainting heart,
From every cross deliver, The crown of life impart. Amen.

17 June 2018 - Pentecost 4 - Mark 4:35-41

The story that we heard in today’s Gospel from St. Mark is very familiar to us. The account of the storm on the sea, and of Jesus’ calming of the storm, has always been taken as an illustration of the way in which Jesus takes care of us and protects us through the many storms and trials that we face in this world.

The imagery of today’s story does indeed lend itself to such general applications. But imbedded within today’s account are a couple details that may not often be noticed, and that can help us to be comforted and instructed by this text in even deeper ways.

The first thing to notice, is that the reason why the disciples set out to sail across the lake on that day, is because Jesus specifically directed them to do so: “On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat...”

So, the storms of life - in which Jesus does protects us - are not just the storms that we happen to stumble across because of bad luck. Often, the vocations that we are given by Jesus - that is, the duties that he entrusts to us, and the tasks that he asks us to perform - deliberately take us into such turbulence.

Sometimes we even know that a storm is coming, when we step forward to fulfill such duties. But that doesn’t give us the right to run away from those duties.

If God has indeed commissioned us to perform a difficult task, in a difficult circumstance, then we are obligated to do so, regardless of the outward strain and stress that we may experience in the process.

I was acquainted with a woman many years ago, who in middle-age had been diagnosed with a degenerative neurological disorder. When she received this diagnosis, she knew that she was going to face a long and difficult journey into increasing weakness and immobility, until this affliction would eventually cause her death.

But she didn’t expect to face this alone. She was married.

She and her husband were regular worshipers at the Lutheran church in which they had exchanged their vows of lifelong, mutual love and faithfulness - “in sickness and in health” - many years earlier. God had united them in holy wedlock - “til death us do part” - and had called them to be faithful and supportive to each other in all eventualities.

But my friend’s husband sinned grievously: against her, and against God. He divorced his wife because of her health condition. And before long he was remarried to a younger, healthy woman, while his true bride and life-companion languished, alone and forsaken, in a nursing home.

Jesus had, in effect, told this man to cross over to the other side of a stormy sea with him. Jesus had promised to remain with him - in the “boat” of his life and of his marriage - through all the emotional turbulence that would certainly come upon him as he supported and served his ailing and suffering wife.

Jesus had pledged that he would keep him safe in his faith, and strong in his love for God and for his wife. But this man refused to heed the Lord’s calling.

He abandoned the duties that God had entrusted to him in his vocation. He shirked his marital responsibilities. He did not fear, love, and trust in God above all things. He loved, and sought to serve, himself.

He avoided that storm. But he brought upon himself, I fear, a darker and more dangerous storm - a storm of unbelief, and of rebellion against the good and gracious will of God - a storm that knows no peace, in this world or in the next.

In your own life, you may never have done something as horrible and crummy as what my friend’s husband did. But I would bet that you surely can recall times in the past when you did turn away from something that you knew or sensed God wanted you to do, in a self-chosen effort to protect yourself from a trial or struggle that God was actually calling you to endure for his sake, and for the fulfillment of his purposes.

Jesus has, in effect, asked you at various times to cross a stormy sea with him, by laying before you difficult yet important tasks that needed to be done, and that you should have done. But sometimes you have refused.

You made excuses. You pretended not to know that this was your responsibility. You could see the upheaval that was likely to come as a consequence of your obedience, and you decided that you didn’t want it to come to you.

You knew what the right thing to do was. Yet you didn’t do the right thing, because you concluded that the right thing was the difficult thing.

Whenever you, in such a way, turned aside from a duty or a task that had been entrusted to you by God - whether from selfishness, or from fear, or from a combination of selfishness and fear - you sinned. And secretly, in your heart and mind, you may even now be running away from God’s will for you, as God is impressing his will upon your conscience.

As you think about your shirkings of duty in the past, and even more so as you think about the challenging callings and responsibilities that are upon you today, please do know that whenever Jesus asks you to cross a stormy sea, he always, always stays in the boat with you.

He does not remain in safety, while sending you forth into danger. He faces every danger with you. He is your companion in all trials.

By his word of forgiveness, he renews and strengthens you when you falter and stumble. By his word of comfort, he sustains you in all temptations to desert your true duty from God, whatever it may be.

He never sends you to a place to which he is not willing to go with you. And even if you do suffer in some way as a result of following his will - emotionally, physically, financially - he keeps your soul safe, in every way that really matters. And he allows you to have a clear conscience.

Christ the Lord is the almighty Son of God, and your Savior from sin and death. What we read in the Epistle to the Hebrews therefore certainly refers to him, and to his faithfulness:

“He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’”

And in the book of Deuteronomy, we read: “The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety. The High God surrounds him all day long, and dwells between his shoulders.”

In Christ, God surrounds you in all danger. In Christ, God dwells between your shoulders - that is, within your heart - and fills you with hope and faith.

And this brings us to another point in today’s text that we should make sure we don’t miss. We read that the disciples awakened Jesus - who had been sleeping peacefully in the midst of the crashing waves and howling wind.

They said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke, and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm. And then he said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Because Jesus was with them, they should have known that they would indeed make it to the far shore, in spite of the waves and the wind. The word of Christ is to be believed. When he says to us, “Let us go across to the other side,” we will get to the other side.

But as the disciples on this occasion were feeling the spray and gusts of the storm, and the violent rocking of the boat, their expectation of what was going to happen - or of what they feared would happen - was not being shaped and governed by faith in the word of Christ. It was being shaped governed instead by what they were seeing with their eyes, and feeling on their skin.

They were not walking - or sailing - by faith. They were sailing - and, it seemed, sinking - by sight.

I think it is fair to say that Jesus calmed the waves, and quieted the wind, because of the disciples weakness in faith, and not because they actually would have perished if he had not intervened in this way. With Jesus in the boat, that would not have happened.

Jesus was calmly sleeping, and was not worried, because he knew that they were indeed going to reach the other side of the lake. The disciples should have known this, too. But in their human weakness, they didn’t.

The Epistle to the Hebrews instructs us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Even in the midst of the storms of life that swirl around you, with God’s help you still strive to pursue your vocation under Christ, and to press forward to what God has called you to.

And as you do, the gospel of Christ - in Word and Sacrament - assures you that “for those who love God, all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” You believe this promise - which is recorded for you in the Epistle to the Romans - not because you can see a lot of outward evidence that it is so, but because God’s Word tells you that it is so.

And in the Epistle to the Romans we are also told that “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Christ is your companion in the storm - your vocal companion - by means of his Word.

In the boat in today’s story, the divine master of all wind and waves was hidden beneath the humble human form of the carpenter and rabbi from Nazareth, sleeping soundly in the stern. In the story of your personal storm - whatever it may be - the eternal truth and power of God is hidden beneath the humble forms of the texts of Sacred Scripture; of preaching and teaching; of water, bread, and wine.

In one sense, the Lord’s house - where we partake of the means of grace, and where we are gathered right now - is like a harbor from the storm. But in another sense, it is a place where you are renewed and strengthened - for your persevering struggle against the wind and waves of earthly stress and worldly trials - while still in the midst of the storm.

You don’t come here to escape from your calling in Christ - even temporarily. You come here, while still in the very midst also of that calling; and while still in the very midst of the emotional, physical, and financial turmoil that may be upon you because of that calling.

In the absolution of Christ, and in the sacrament of the Lord’s body and blood, you do not receive peace as a substitute for the storm that swirls around you. You receive peace - true, inner peace - in the midst of that storm.

All your sins of the past, and all your previous running away from God’s callings in your life, are forgiven and washed away in the blood of Christ. And, the living Savior is with you now, in the callings that are upon your life, now.

Perhaps Christ is, in a sense, “sleeping” in your life - as a sign of the calmness and rest that his Word also brings to your heart. But he is there nonetheless, even if seeming to sleep, never abandoning you or forsaking you.

And by his grace, you will get to the shore. In Christ you will live, and not die. For whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.

As you are reinvigorated in your willingness to serve God, and not just to serve and protect yourself; and as you are renewed in your desire to follow Christ’s lead wherever he takes you, the Holy Spirit gives you a trust in God’s providence and protection that enables you to say what the faithful people of the Prophet Jeremiah’s day were able to say: “Whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, we will obey the Lord our God.”

Be still, my soul; thy God doth undertake
To guide the future as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence, let nothing shake;
All now mysterious, shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul; the waves and winds still know
His voice, who ruled them while He dwelt below. Amen.

24 June 2018 - Nativity of St. John the Baptist

Today, in the church calendar, is the commemoration of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. On this day we recall the entrance into this world of the last and greatest of the prophets of the “Old Testament” era.

All the true prophets in Israel’s history were in one way or another forerunners of Christ. But John was his immediate forerunner, who did not merely point forward to the Christ who would come, but who pointed to the Christ who had come, and who declared concerning him: “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

In today’s lesson from the Book of Acts, St. Paul summarizes the way in which John the Baptist, during his ministry, sought to prepare the Jewish people to receive the Savior from sin, whose presence in this world was about to be made known to them. Paul says:

“Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel.”

On this day we honor this. On this day we honor him. And we are in awe of the prophetic words spoken of him by his father Zechariah when he was just a newborn baby, as today’s text from St. Luke’s Gospel reports those inspired and inspiring words:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we know who John was, and what his important role in salvation history was. We know that his ministry, even though it was a little rough around the edges, was the fulfillment of this prophecy - as well as of similar ancient prophecies.

But I wonder how receptive to John’s preaching, and to his invitation to receive baptism, we would have been, if we had been alive when he was alive. And the reason why I wonder about this, is because a lot of what John did back then, was something that people tend not to like, and to which people tend to be unreceptive.

When we read about John’s ministry later on in St. Luke, we see that John criticized people, and took them to task. He told lots of people that they were wrong in their attitudes and in their actions, and that they needed to change.

In his criticisms of people, John did not just speak in general terms, to people in general. His criticisms were also specific: with respect to the flaws and failings of specific categories of people, and sometimes with respect to the flaws and failings of certain individuals - whom he identified, and whose sins he identified.

John did implicitly criticize the selfishness of people in general, when he said to the crowds: “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”

John implicitly criticized any tax collectors - and other government workers - who misuse their public office for personal advantage and personal gain, when he said: “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”

John implicitly criticized any soldiers - and other armed representatives of the civil government - who misuse their lethal power for purposes of self-enriching intimidation, when he said: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

And John was much more explicit in his criticisms of religious and national pride, and of arrogant presumption regarding God and his judgments, in those who harbored these sinful attitudes. He said:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.”

“You brood of vipers!” A good way to begin a sermon!

John’s most notable criticism, however, was reserved for Herod Antipas, who was a cruel and callous man in general, and who was cohabiting in an adulterous relationship with his sister-in-law. And Herod responded to this criticism in the way we might expect a despotic ruler to respond.

St. Luke reports that “Herod the tetrarch, who had been reproved by [John] 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.”

As a rule, people don’t like criticism. The most common reaction to criticism is to bristle, to get angry and defensive, and to respond in some way that is calculated to hurt or silence the critic.

We don’t have recourse to a dungeon, where we can incarcerate those who point out our faults and failures, as Herod did. But we can attack our critics verbally, with our own criticisms of their faults and failures, either real or imagined; or, we can give our critics “the silent treatment.”

A lot of people didn’t like John’s criticisms. The Jewish religious leaders didn’t like them. The political leaders - Herod in particular - certainly didn’t like them.

And there was something in everyone who heard his preaching - something from the arrogant old Adam inside of them, and from their corrupted sinful flesh - that also bristled at his criticisms, at least at first. But many who came to hear John preach, when they gave themselves a little time to think about what he was saying, came around to admitting that he was right, and that his criticisms were valid.

Their lifestyle choices were often governed by greed and pride, rather than by humility before God and compassion for their fellow man. They did sometimes misuse their authority, if they had authority.

And they did sometimes behave in immoral and unethical ways, and needed some criticism from someone who cared enough about them to say something about it.

John’s authorization to articulate his criticisms of the attitudes and actions of the people who were around him, came from God, and from John’s divine vocation as a prophet. But the authority of the content of his criticisms went even deeper than that, since he was doing nothing more than applying the revealed, Scriptural law of God to their particular life choices and lifestyles.

John was not preaching his opinions. He was preaching the Lord’s own demands.

“You shall have no other gods before me” - and that includes the idol of self, as manifested in self-righteousness and self-satisfaction.

“You shall not steal” - and that includes cheating people, or extorting people with intimidation.

“You shall not commit adultery” - and that applies to everyone: to the lowly, and to the powerful. And even to a king.

But John was preaching the Lord’s demands, and voicing the Lord’s criticisms of the people, not as an end in itself, but in order to drive people to repentance, to draw them to faith, and to introduce to them a new life of real reliance upon God, and of a real spiritual union with God.

He called them to the baptism of repentance that God had sent him to administer to those who accepted his criticisms - or more precisely, God’s criticisms. And in God’s name he administered and applied God’s pardon and peace to them: through the absolving words that he spoke into their minds and hearts; and through the washing of water that they received from his hand, for the forgiveness of their sins.

Sometimes, when people criticize you, they are just expressing their opinions. Conservative Christians in our society are on the receiving end of a lot of criticism these days, because so many of our values and beliefs are out of step with the thinking of those who have embraced alternative anti-Christian worldviews, and who are now pushing those worldviews onto the larger culture.

People who criticize you specifically for your faithfulness to the teachings of Holy Scripture are certainly not speaking for God in those criticisms. You don’t have to listen to them.

At other times, people who may criticize you do not know as much about your life circumstances as they would need to know, to be able to offer a valid and helpful criticism. Those who offer baseless criticisms out of their ignorance are also not speaking for God in what they say. You don’t have to listen to them, either.

We shouldn’t respond to criticisms of our Christian faith and morals, or to criticisms that are offered in ignorance, in an angry or prideful way. But we also don’t have to accept the legitimacy of such criticisms.

However, when someone is functioning today in the place of John the Baptist - that is, when someone is functioning as an instrument and servant of God, by offering valid and loving criticisms of our sinful departures from the Biblically-based faith and morals that we profess - then we do need to listen.

Don’t bristle. Don’t get your back up. Such criticisms are really God’s own application of his commandments to your lives. They are God’s own voice speaking to your conscience.

So, when God does speak to you and warn you about a sinful intrusion into your life - through the words of a pastor or teacher, the words of a Christian friend, or maybe even the printed words of a book you are reading, or the recorded words of a podcast to which you are listening - humbly admit your fault. Confess your mistake.

And be thankful to the person who cared enough about your soul, about your relationship with God, and about your relationship with other people, to be willing to take the risk of approaching you, and talking to you about this problem - whatever it may be.

On a day when we honor the memory and ministry of John the Baptist - the critic of all critics - how could we have any other response to the same kind of godly criticisms that he offered to those who heard him?

But also on a day when we honor John’s memory, we know that neither God, nor those who speak for him, criticize us merely for criticism’s sake. God makes us admit our departures from him and his ways, so that we can return to him.

Remember that John’s full name and title, in the church’s memory of who he was and what he did, is John the Baptist. His hallowed name in the annals of Bible and Church history, is not John the critic!

He was a critic. But he was not primarily and ultimately a critic.

And so, when you, as an admirer of John the Baptist, accept the criticism of your sins as a valid criticism - measured by the norm of Holy Scripture, and by the authority of God’s Word in your life - accept also the baptism of repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, that is still available to you in Christian baptism.

And if you have been baptized, then return to the baptism that God already gave you, and let it be re-enacted, re-energized, and re-implemented in you: as you turn away from the sins that have been called to your attention by God’s law; and as you are turned by God’s Spirit toward Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away those sins.

John was indeed a critic. He was a critic of everyone who came to him, and whom he called to repentance. Everyone, that is, except for Jesus.

He did not criticize Jesus. Jesus alone was above criticism, because Jesus alone was without sin.

And in the presence of Jesus, John implicitly criticized himself. St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us what happened, and what was said, when Jesus came to John to be baptized:

“John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented.”

Jesus, as the righteous substitute for sinful humanity, identified with sinful humanity in his baptism.

He did not have any personal sins that needed to be washed away, or detached from him through God’s forgiveness in baptism. But in Jesus’ baptism, the sins of the world were in a sense attached to him, so that he could ultimately carry those sins to the cross and die for them in our place, under the judgment of the law against those sins.

This was all a part of God’s righteous plan, for the justification of sinners, or the accounting of sinners as righteous in and through Christ.

In the gospel, and in the baptism that Jesus has commanded us to administer in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the benefits of Jesus’ atoning death for the sins of the world are offered to penitent sinners - that is, to those who have accepted the validity of God’s criticisms of their misshaped thoughts, their misspoken words, and their misdirected deeds.

And by faith in the gospel, the benefits of Jesus’ atoning death are received, when the absolution of God, and the promises of God, are believed.

John needed the Lord’s grace, and he knew it. In his ministry of preaching the law to his hearers, he was firm and clear, but not hypocritical.

He told Jesus: “I need to be baptized by you. In his repentance for his own sins, and by faith, John the Baptist received the grace that he needed, and the eternal life that God’s grace brings.

We need the Lord’s grace. In our repentance for our sins, and by faith, we receive that grace.

And we receive, as God’s gift in his Son, the eternal life that is our certain hope, as we humble ourselves before God, so that God can raise us up in Christ.

We close with these words from John the Baptist’s father Zechariah:

“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved...”