Funeral Rites

The most watched event in television history is a liturgical Christian funeral. The Queen’s funeral showed how nonsensical it is to complain about ceremony, or riff on funerals being too depressing. Four Billion people watched as a commonwealth honored her departed queen and laid her to rest. We should learn from that example, but her example is outside the mainstream. Not many serve as sovereign of so many nations. Not many serve so lofty or so long. Not many have the resources for such a grand affair.

That’s why my mind turned to a much more humble funeral. It was an imaginary one, but it has also been seen (in a sense) by many millions. It is Boromir’s in Tolkein’s The Two Towers. I ponder it because it was not planned over the course of many years. It was known only to three. It had to be fast, and of necessity, it was a river funeral rather than a burial.

What amazes me about it was that it was a funeral at all. No one would have blamed any of the three had they shouted, “There’s no time for a funeral!” and run off into the woods in pursuit of their enemies. The orcs had captured at least two hobbits. They only have about a 15 minute head start at this point. Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli could run after them and have a hope of catching up. It is not a large hope, and it likely would have ended in death had they succeeded. But their eventual quest is more hopeless: hours behind, stretching to days. As far as they know, the end will find the two in an impregnable tower. They will never so much as gain entrance, to say nothing of recovering friends.

The delay is caused by Boromir’s funeral. They have no shovels to dig. So they take the body to the river, place him in the boat with his sword at hand and the weapons of his fallen enemies at his feet. Then they paddle into the river to make sure it goes over the falls. As it does, appropriate Eulogies are spoken. Only when this is done do they return upriver and move on.

There is no thought of making a decision before their comrade’s remains are properly seen to. Honoring the dead was necessary for them.

How different things are in our own day. Funerals are delayed weeks or months until there is favorable weather or until airline tickets are cheap enough for Aunt Marge to fly in from the coast. And this assumes there is a funeral at all. Many are foregoing a funeral. Cremation and a box in a closet are all that await them.

The Church has always honored her dead. And (until recently) has never cremated them. The body of the departed was redeemed by Christ Jesus through his own bodily death and resurrection. The remains are therefore treated with honor. Cremation arises from pagan rites, which do not value the gift of creation or of the body. Modern cremation involves not only burning, but then grinding the bones. No matter how you think about it, it is not a respectful end.

Some will say, “Do what you want. I’m not there anymore.” True, the soul has separated from the body. But the body was something. No battle is fought now in Gettysburg. But we would not think of digging up the battlefield or cemetery to make it an amusement park. It is, as a wise man said, “hallowed ground”, and we can neither add nor detract from that. To attempt it would be to desecrate it. The tomb of the unknowns is the place of highest ceremony in our nation. The bodies rest there and are honored because they gave even their identity in service to something greater than themselves.

I understand how we arrived where we are. It was not a financial matter – although now that cremation is ubiquitous and accepted, it often is. It has become no more important than the debate between a regular or luxury car. It rests entirely on what the family can afford or is willing to pay. But there is much more at stake. And for this, Tolkein is a help to us.

He fought in the war to end all wars. Bodies were stacked like cordwood. The war after that incinerated and blasted them into such particles that many were never found. Early in my ministry, when the fighters from that war were still with us, many spoke of how they were planning cremation for themselves. Their own friends and comrades were not killed so much as obliterated from the earth. It was, in a sense, a way of honoring them. If the Lord promised to raise their bodies which were lost, so also their brothers would join them in death and destruction, with the hope of renewal and resurrection.

It was rarely said this explicitly. But it was made clear this was the intent and the desire. What these misguided saints did not understand – and Tolkein did – was that their sacrifice made proper memorial greater and more important, not less. The Fellowship suffered their first great loss when Gandalf falls into the abyss. There is no body to bury. The Orcs are close behind, there is no time to grieve properly. It seems as if the loss itself is less damaging than the circumstances which do not allow for proper grief and honor of the dead.

On their next outing, another falls. This time they disregard any remaining danger and take proper care for the body, seeing it laid to rest as best they can. They sing songs over him. It is a funeral that – given their sparse resources – is every bit as large a sacrifice for them as the one seen by so many this week in Westminster.

But why do they take so much time to honor the body, even at the potential cost of their still living comrades? Because we honor the fallen. It is erroneous to say, “Because my brother was not allowed a proper burial I will honor him by also having an improper one.” If we are to retain our humanity, we must say “My brother was not allowed a proper burial in order that I might be allowed one.” This is how we honor the dead. For the Christian, the apotheosis of our care for the body is not our brother’s unwilling example, but our Savior’s willing one. His body was abused in life, but cared for in death. He praised those who did the caring. They are honored and celebrated in the church. Especially honored is the woman who prepared his body while he was still living. Wherever the Gospel is preached in the world, her deed is told as a memorial of her.

That is why, even in extremis, Tolkein had the three take time to honor the blessed dead. Because it is what the church does. There is a reason the body is brought into the church one last time after death. It is the same body which bears the mark of Christ the crucified on forehead and breast. It is the same body which heard with ear and confessed with tongue the truth. It is the same body that was strengthened by the eating and drinking of the flesh and blood. And it is the same body we lay to rest in the hope of the resurrection of the flesh.

The church first honors and then buries her dead. We do so surrounded by the word of God and prayer. But we do it.

The secular and wicked denial of proper burial rites in the late pandemic was an aberration. The church must not be taken in again by such lies. We meet, we grieve, we honor. Cremation for the sake of saving a few dollars is also an aberration. We carry the body God gave him into the church one final time, place the Sword of the Spirit which is the Word of God over the body, and place the weapons of the defeated foe, sin and death, under their feet. We sing the songs of old, then carry him in honor to the place of rest.

It matters not what the world may do to us in this life. It matters less what it may do to our earthly remains after we die. But it matters a great deal what we do for and to our honored dead.

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Two years ago, in a paper to my district’s College of Visitors, I warned of “a cascade failure of synod structure.” Congregations declining in numbers, and the subsequent increased burden on pastors (multi-point parishes, worker priests) would result in fewer pastors able to serve on boards/commissions, etc.

The current structure of synod was really set in the 1950’s. (The deck chairs have been moved around a couple of times, but the Good Ship Missourah continued on her way.) Statistical analyses done at the time assured us that by the turn of the century the synod would have over 5 million members. So throughout the 50’s and 60’s, the synod adjusted its structure to handle the numbers: 10 shiny colleges to train teachers for our school system, 35 districts with full time executives to oversee all the program boards and experts, and eventually a Synod Office Building that any mid-level manager would be proud to drive to each day. All of this came just as the synod reached peak membership and began her slow decline. (The two are related, but that’s another story.)

For 40 years, the synod soldiered bravely on, supporting massive administrative overhead, almost all of it unnecessary. As one faithful district president in the 1980’s used to say, “Replace the entire executive staff of synod with an answering machine. In 3 years, see how many people have even noticed.” But, we were assured, it was all quite important work.

Now, the synod is being refined as if by fire. Most visibly, we have lost 3 of those 10 colleges. They were arguably the least Lutheran of the lot, so their loss hasn’t been noticed by the central core of the synod. But that was only prelude, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Less visibly but more importantly, congregations no longer have five figure surpluses to send on to the synod. Instead, they have five figure deficits as they try to support their pastor. Congregations are joining together. Or, if not, they are using worker-priests to provide the Gospel.

In the two decades I have served as a pastor, I have not seen such desperation in calling for nominations for synod office. They are all volunteer offices. So, it’s a thing you do in addition to your living. For laymen now in their late 70’s or early 80’s, the time is coming to pass the torch to the next generation. But there are few to receive it, fewer still who desire to spend their days in meetings away from family. Pastors who are serving two or three parishes (in addition to outside employment!) are lucky if they can attend a Winkel or District Pastor’s conference. They have not time or energy to devote to meetings-that-could-have-been-an-email.

I think in this cycle the posts will be filled. According to desperate email #1 that I received, the synod is running at about half the usual number of nominations. It is still enough to fill all offices. By the time they are done (the deadline is the end of the month) they will likely have enough nominations to put at least two names for each office. I think this convention will have all the regular sort of convention things. But it may be the last one to do so. There used to be people clamoring, even campaigning, to be nominated for these officious and lofty positions. We’re not seeing so much of that now.

I think that’s good news. We shouldn’t see that in the church. We were unwilling to stop it on our own for the sake of the Word of God and Love of Neighbor. Now, God is bringing that era to a close, whether we want it that way or not.

I expect filling offices to get exponentially harder moving forward. I think this is also a good thing. The closer the center of gravity in the church is to the pulpit and the pew, the better off we will be. It’s starting to move. Thanks be to God.

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Christianity is Necessary

I saw the original Lord of the Rings trilogy when it came out – years before reading the book, I must confess. Since then I have been through them 5 or 6 times. They are a masterpiece of Christian mythology. Yes, Christian Mythology.

They are unlike a classical pagan mythology: this is how the large mountain was formed by a bear. Instead, they explain the life and world of the Christian using another world. In this they are like Narnia. But Narnia never rises above the level of allegory. Lion=Jesus. White witch=Satan, etc. Visiting Narnia would be fun, a great adventure. But then we would return home.

Middle Earth, by comparison, is around us. We inhabit it, even though we have not and can not ever visit. We live in the age of men. We can live like men, free and willing to defend our homes, or we can become slaves, eventually corrupted until we are little more than barbarous orcs, trolls, goblins. There are a few happy Christians who spend their lives in Hobbiton. They enjoy good food, good friends, a good pipe, and the occasional fireworks. They are simple folk, but don’t be fooled. There is more in them than meets the eye. They have no interest in the wider goings on, but do not think that their actions will have no impact on great events. And even the most powerful would be wise to think twice before trying to subjugate them.

The elves (unlike Peter Jackson’s stern and frightening vision) are joyful, playful, solemn, eternal. They are the saints which surround the Christian. They inspire us, they are examples to us of what we can be and of where we will one day go. And, in times of dire need, we find that our path leads through their kingdom. We are fed with otherworldly food – food that gives more sustenance than we see on the surface. Lembas is baked only in the imagination of a man who believed the body and blood of the Lord are present when the church gathers.

The Ring Trilogy is a work of deep contemplation on the Christian mysteries. True, many fans are non-Christian. The myth of this Christian land is of such a depth that it draws in even those who reject the Christianity that forms its foundation. They can enjoy the legend and the mysteries even while rejecting the premise, just as a non-Christian can enjoy the grandeur of the cathedral in Chartres or Rheims while rejecting the hope that went into building it. But the non-Christian can not build – and would not spend the time trying to build – Chartres or Rheims. They barely have the cognizance to rebuild the Cathedral in Paris after a fire without adding monstrously modern elements. And let’s be honest, if not for the lure of tourist dollars, the rebuilding would have taken a decidedly uglier turn.

Someone who is not a Christian inventing tales of Middle Earth without the background of Christ and His Holy Bride the Church would be like someone writing a Gospel where Judas is the hero. It’s been tried. It is not good. The Gospel of Thomas is another non-Christian Christian writing. It is a mix of pithy sayings, plagiarized scripture, and utter nonsense. It never attempts to convey historical information. And it does not hold together as either literary work or ethical instruction. It is randomly chosen thoughts designed to fit the authors preconceptions, not an exposition of the Word of God. Early reviews of the new Amazon Ring Cycle indicate that it fits the same pattern.

How could this possibly be a surprise?

Middle Earth is special not because of the magical system, or the diverse races of man-like creatures, or the funny names and exotic locales. Middle Earth is special because it tells the story of the Christian on a mythic scale. It is Pilgrims Progress told by someone with a much greater imagination, and with a much greater scope. It is not the journey of one man through life and death. It is the journey of a an entire world into corruption and redemption. It is the ongoing struggle against evil. And this will neither be understood nor competently expounded by those who do not believe in the corruption which sin brings, nor in the redemption offered by the Son of God through the scandal of the cross.

The new series is not worth watching. I say this not by way of review, but by way of philosophical belief. The odds that a group of secular materialist hedonists managed to make up a story that captures even a spark of the original is the same as the odds of Adam and Eve sneaking past the angel and back into the garden. It would be as if the ancient myths of the Greeks told the tale of how Zeus and the gang suddenly decided that humanity was not a plaything with which to amuse themselves. Rather, the gods would show compassion, they would honor their own marriage vows as an example to humanity, they would help the helpless, stand up against injustice, and no longer commit wicked and petty acts. Which is to say, they would no longer be the thing they are – a product of fallen humanity’s imagination. They would become Christian.

In the same way, making Middle Earth suddenly a non-Christian affair will bear no resemblance to what it is. It will not accidentally remain the mythic place of the Christian imagination. So no, I will not watch it just to see if it is good. I need not examine it to make a judgment, any more than I need to walk across a horse pasture to know I should watch my step. It is a failure of concept. I no more care what the non-Christian thinks of Middle Earth, than the residents of Hobbiton care about the fishing prospects in the Ice Bay of Forochel. I live contentedly undisturbed by the terrible imaginings of the corruptions of our age, and desirous of nothing more than one day visiting and dwelling with the elves of Rivendell.

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Sermon for Trinity 10

The bible isn’t a history book. It records things that happened, and records them more accurately and objectively than a history book, but it wasn’t written as a textbook. The Bible isn’t a book of literature. The Classical Language used in Job and the Psalms is among the best in the history of the world, the book of Hebrews rivals the poems of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The King James translation of scripture did more to standardize the English language than the works of Shakespeare. But that’s not the purpose of any of it. The beauty is a reflection of the genius of the author. The Holy Spirit gives to men the words which they are to write. And the purpose of his inspiring men to record the words isn’t to make great literature, or to celebrate their artistic merit, or even to record the events of nations. The goal of all scripture is to teach us how it is that God has saved us from sin, death, and the devil.

The entirety of Scripture is the history of Salvation. How God first promised salvation to Adam and Eve in the garden after they sinned. How he preserved his people over the course of thousands of years as the arc of history moved toward the fulness of time – the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, and then how that Gospel went out from Jerusalem to ends of the earth.

Jesus is the central figure of scripture. He was with God in the beginning at the creation. He was prophesied as the one who would crush the serpent by his own death. His coming was foretold by Moses, David, Isaiah, Micah, Malachi, and the rest of the Old Testament authors and prophets. His life is recorded for us by the four evangelists. In today’s Gospel we pick up right after the triumphal entry; Jesus is days away from his death. He knows what is coming. He knows this is his final trip to Jerusalem. This will be the final rejection of God by the leaders of the people as they crucify the promised Messiah they have been seeking so long.

Jesus knows all of this. He knows how harshly the leaders will reject him. He knows the judgment that will fall on those who reject him. And so he weeps for them. He weeps for the city of Jerusalem – the holy city. The city where David and Solomon brought the Ark and built the temple, where the worship of the true God was centered for 1000 years. And yet, throughout even that time, the people turned to idols. They often abandoned God to chase after the idols of this world. It was no longer Solomon’s temple. That had been destroyed 500 years before. This was a new temple, it was inspired by a new orthodoxy, a new zeal for God. But it was a zeal without knowledge, without fear, love, and trust in God. It was a zeal born of their own ambition, and works, rather than the promises of the Lord.

And so the temple would fall. It had less than 40 years left before it would be destroyed so completely that not one stone would remain, so utterly, that even to this day, it has never been rebuilt. And yet, it is not needed. The temple finished its purpose. It’s work was fulfilled in Jesus, it has been surpassed. The sacrifice of bulls and goats is no longer needed. That system of constant death has been overthrown by the death of the Son of God. The promises attached to the blood of bulls and goats pointed in faith to the true sacrifice, but they were not the true sacrifice. The blood of bulls and goats can not take away sin. Forgiveness of sins comes to us in the blood of Jesus, the true lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

When Jesus sees them buying and selling in His Father’s house, he is angry. They are abusing the gift of the temple for their own profit. The temple had a number of different courtyards where different things would happen. The innermost courtyard was the court of the priests where the sacrifices were offered, the great altar and bronze basin. The court of men where Jewish men would go to pray. The court of the women, where Jewish women would go to pray. And then, the outermost court: The court of the Gentiles. It was there so the gentiles could also come to pray to the true God, without defiling the inner holy place by their uncircumcision. It was this courtyard that was used for the sale of animals and filled with the money changers. Mark’s Gospel records Jesus words with one addition to the other Gospels. “My house shall be a house of prayer for the nations.” It isn’t just that the temple was a place of prayer for the Jews, and no one else had access to our Father in heaven. Even the uncircumcised were called to worship the true God. Jesus doesn’t change the law when he comes. He fulfills it. He is the one promised. Even to Abraham the promise was made, “Through you, all nations of the earth will be blessed.” Salvation comes from the seed of Abraham, but the Lord is Lord of all. They weren’t just defiling the house of Jesus heavenly Father – although they were defiling the house of his heavenly Father. They were making it so the nations could no longer come to the temple and pray. Jesus is the Savior of the whole world. He has come to bring salvation to all. And all those who are called by him are his people. It isn’t about spilling the blood of a lamb or bull. It isn’t about obedience to the Law of Moses. It never was. Even Moses Law was about hearing and believing the promise of the Savior to come. The sacrifices were a sign of faith in that promise. The promise – and all of the sacrifices – were centered on and pointed to Jesus. That’s what the sacrifices were for.

Today God also works through means – the water and word of Baptism, where children are taken from Satan and made children of the most high God. God’s command and promised are attached to the holy water. Baptism does what God promises – saves us. But it does it because of the promise God attaches to it, because of the salvation of Jesus death that is tied to it. So also, the body and blood of the supper, where we take eat and drink and so are joined to Jesus in his flesh and blood which were shed for you. It is the true food. Jesus comes to us with his salvation through these most holy things. The promise of forgiveness of sins. And for those who hear and believe the word, the promise is sure and certain. Just as those who believed the word given to Moses in the Old Testament were saved by faith, not their works.

Jesus has harsh words for those who reject him in favor of works. The people would not see. They would not hear. The stones of the temple will be thrown down, the people will be cast out. George Stoeckhardt one of our synod’s early theologians puts it this way:

God does not force this Word, this salvation, on those who reject his Word about their deliverance and redemption through Christ. He does not want to have the reluctant, the unwilling in heaven, who endlessly reproach him for having delivered and saved out of grace. He wants to deliver and save sinners so that saved sinners will praise his mercy.

The Lord offers salvation freely through Jesus and his sacrifice. He does not want to throw down and destroy. But the people will not hear. Jesus weeps because they reject his word, they remain in and of the world, they want nothing to do with the salvation – the inheritance of eternal life – that he offers. And yet the Lord is gracious and merciful. He abounds in steadfast love. He wants nothing more than to gather all nations to himself as a hen gathers her chicks and protects them. Jesus patiently calls his people to himself, and promises that not one of those given to him is lost. That is why even today, as we get caught up in the things of this world, the lord patiently calls us to repent. When we doubt his goodness, he reminds us of it, so that we would not lose faith entirely. When institutions dedicated to his word are corrupted and turn away, the Lord patiently calls them back before they are brought to ruin. Jesus tells the disciples in John’s Gospel that those who are in him, are carefully pruned, so they bear more fruit. The dead and unfruitful parts are taken away, so that we would be and remain in him. This may not seem like a fun thing to us. But the Lord carefully keeps his children in his care. He calls his own to himself.

And so we see two groups – those who buy and sell and are driven out by Jesus. And the people, who hang on his words. Today, we pray the Lord would preserve us and keep us in his grace and mercy so that we would hang on his word, not be turned aside from it, but always hear and learn from him, even in the midst of our doubts and are weakness of faith.

We are cautioned in all three readings. In the Old Testament is it a warning against those who do not hear the Word, or rather those who hear and know it, but continually backslide away from it, rather than gladly hearing and learning and being instructed by the word. In the Epistle we are encouraged to remain in the Spirit, to continue in the good confession that “Jesus is Lord”, and to work with our brothers and sisters in the faith for the good of the kingdom of God, not putting ourselves forward – as did those selling in the temple – but rather seeking the kingdom of God, living in peace with all, working in the Spirit in prayer praise and thanksgiving to the Glory of God, and for the spread of the Gospel to all nations.

And in all this, we return again to the promise of our own salvation given in the death of our Lord, the death which saves you from eternal death. The loving hand of Jesus that says, “Given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins. Your sin is forgiven, your guilt atoned for.” Jesus death on the cross is your life, it is your hope and your salvation. There is no other.


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Sermon for Trinity 9

It’s the unjust steward this week. Perhaps the strangest parable of them all. But while the details may be obscure, the overall message from Jesus is clear. Read on to see how…

Jesus is teaching the people. The Scribes and Pharisees are grumbling that Jesus receives sinners. Bad company reflects badly. But the sinners listen to Jesus. They hear his words and repent of their sin. The Pharisees hear his words to try to find fault with him. They want to trap him in his words, they want to show him up, to prove they are more righteous than he.

Just before today’s parable, Jesus points out in the parables of the lost sheep, lost coin, and prodigal son that the purpose of his coming into the world is to seek and find the lost. He is not here to judge, but to suffer judgement, to bring mercy, to heal and bind up, and preach the good news of great joy – a Savior has come into the world to save sinners.

Our Gospel picks up right after Jesus talks about the brother of the prodigal son, who will not come into the house to rejoice that his brother has been found, but who stands bitterly in the fields, angry at the grace and mercy of his father. The brother excludes himself. He doesn’t want to be a part of the joy of reconciliation, he doesn’t want to have any part of the celebration of his brothers return, and so he is the one who now suffers.

The Scribes and Pharisees object to Jesus showing mercy to sinners. They think they are righteous in themselves. They do such good works. They work hard at it. The focus is on themselves and what they do. They seek their own glory, and their own advancement.

Jesus tells this parable, and instructs us immediately afterwards, about true riches. What is it that you really seek after? Where is your treasure? The Shepherd goes after the lost sheep, the woman after the coin, the father after his son, and the brother after revenge. Now, we have the unjust steward – who seeks a soft landing after losing his job. The idea of true riches is a theme we’ve heard a lot of, because as the summer goes on, we hear from God’s Word about the various temptations in the world, and we are warned to resist them in order to receive the crown of glory which God gives to all who believe in him.

Today we have Jesus warning against love of money – what used to be called mammon. Mammon is more than just love of wealth. Mammon can be any sort of thing in this world: wealth, power, ambition, fame, social standing. Those are the things this world has to offer, and they are all useless – they never last, they are always passing away. Trying to hold onto them is like trying to hold onto sand. The harder you hold it, the faster it slips through your fingers.

Do we seek after true wisdom, do we seek after the things of God, a heavenly home with Jesus when all is finished – that’s an eternal treasure. Jesus says, “The world knows how to go after what it wants. Do you?” The unfaithful steward was unfaithful. When he was called on the carpet about it, he was even more unfaithful. But now, he was unfaithful in pursuit of his goal – an easy life. The master doesn’t praise his actions. He praises his shrewdness. His cunning. As if to say, “I know you cheated me, but even I’ll admit that’s a good one.” There is no legal reason the master has to honor his servants dishonesty. By right, he could send a letter saying, “You still owe me a hundred measures of oil, you still owe me a hundred measures of wheat.” And the people would almost certainly pay with little griping.

But the steward is counting on his master’s integrity being greater than his own. He knows that he only has a few more minutes of being able to speak for his master. So he does, knowing the master will say, “They thought it was me speaking through you, so I will honor this.” He knows the people will be grateful for what he has done and will help him. He also knows the master is gracious and merciful, and won’t have him thrown into prison. He knows who his master is: Integrity, honor, mercy. And he knows when the chips are down, he will be that. The steward is wasteful of his masters things. He loses his job over it. So, when the chips are down, he wastes more.

Jesus says, “One who is faithful in little will be faithful in much. Dishonest in the little things, dishonest in much.” The steward is who he was, wasteful of his masters possessions, and when pressed was even moreso. The master was who he was – the opposite of the steward, honest and merciful. And when pressed is even moreso.

Our Lord is merciful. When pressed, he is even more merciful. We are sinners. When pressed, we sin. And yet, the Holy Spirit makes a beginning in us – a beginning of repentance, a beginning of a new heart and a new spirit. Scripture says a heart of flesh instead of a heart of stone. A right spirit, a spirit that loves the things of God, instead of a spirit that rebels against him and rejects his word. When the Spirit creates faith in our hearts, when he takes unwilling hearts and makes them willing through the preaching of the word, then a beginning of righteousness is made. Now we can love God, and trust in him, turn to him in every need. Jesus teaches us that we should approach our heavenly Father as dear children approach their dear father. As we heard last week, we cry out Abba, Father. And this is given to us where the word of salvation is preached, where the water is poured, where the Spirit gives us faith to believe the promise: That for Jesus sake, because of his sacrifice we are forgiven our sins. We are joined to his death which took away our sins, and so also joined to his resurrection where we are given the new life of righteousness.  So, when pressed, do we run to Jesus and his sacrifice for us, do we rely on the Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit, or do we turn back to our old way of living according to the flesh? Repentance is a turning away from the old way – the way of sin and death. And a turning to Christ and his work on our behalf.

Jesus calls it unrighteous mammon. Not that things themselves are wicked. An object is neither sinful nor righteous. It is an object. A hammer, a jar, a bit of food. It is the purpose we put it toward that makes it righteous or wicked.

Jesus says we should store up treasures in heaven. So the admonition today is to go after the things of God. No longer desire the rewards of this world, but seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. This the Pharisees thought they were doing. The people looked to them and said, “Who is more godly than they are?” But they were after the things of this world: Their own reputations, their own pleasure and comfort. They wanted everyone to know how righteous they were. They took great pains to appear righteous to others. So much so that they lost sight of the most important thing: Salvation is of the Lord, not of us. Their treasure was their own works, their own efforts. And so they cared more about the outward appearance than the condition of the heart. They cared more about the treasures of this world than the heavenly treasure which Jesus offers by his death and resurrection.

They looked to how they were doing in this world, rather than to the promises of God and to his word. That’s where we must set our hearts and our minds. On the things of God. Scripture tells us the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. The wisdom of this world is not true wisdom at all. It is a chasing after the wind.

Through the preaching of the Gospel and the work of the Spirit, our hearts have been made new in Christ Jesus. We know that there is an eternal dwelling for us, an everlasting home prepared by our Lord Jesus himself. The things of this world are short-term. We are ever on guard so that we don’t lose sight of the goal amid all the daily concerns, cares, trials of this world, that we don’t get so distracted and caught up in the moment that we lose sight of eternal things.

This was the problem of the Pharisees. They had a worldly wisdom. They had a goal and they sought it out. But their goal was their own enrichment in the world. Jesus tells us to seek after him instead of worldly things. If that is our treasure, our goal, then we will leave behind the things of this world. We will leave behind the pattern of living for worldly things, and seek after the wisdom that comes down from above. We will seek the simple truths of God’s word – Law (as we learn in the ten commandments) And Gospel, as we confess in the creed and as we receive it through preaching, absolution, and also through the sacraments as God’s chosen means to bring us salvation.

Those are the true riches which we have been given in Christ. Let us seek after them each day, humbly coming before the throne of God, seeking his mercy, receiving from our Lord Jesus the promised salvation in his church. Let us fix our eyes on heavenly things. Let us seek an eternal dwelling. In Jesus Name, and for his sake.


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Sermon for Trinity 7

The miraculous feeding of the 4000 is before us today. Joined with the Old Testament reading of the creation of the Garden of Eden for Adam and Eve, it is a good reminder that our Lord provides for us. At this time of year, the crops are either moving toward a good harvest, or we look out and see a wasted year. If it’s a good year, we need to be reminded that God is the giver, not our own hard work and genius. If it’s a bad year, it’s a good time to remember that God provides for us, even and especially in our need.

The feeding of the 4000 instructs us.  We are not instructed directly: the sermons of Jesus in the wilderness are not recorded for us. As with the calling of Peter James and John a couple weeks back, we don’t have the Sermon recorded. If only we did! But even the miraculous works of our Lord are instructive to us as we consider how we are to live out our new life in this world.

Paul admonishes us – don’t live according to the old way, the world’s way. You remember what that was like, and now you are ashamed of what you used to do. Instead, live according to the Spirit. And Jesus gives us an example of how to do that in the Gospel. So let’s consider the word and work of Jesus today.

As Jesus feeds the 4000 we learn a lot about how God would have us manage our lives in this world. Firstly, we need not worry. As we heard back in Lent: Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The fear of the Lord is beginning of wisdom. If we would be truly fed, it is not with bread for our mouths. Bread feeds our bodies in this world. But our bodies in this world – and the bread that feeds it – will all be brought to an end. The things we earn in this world will not matter when our Lord returns. On that day we will not be asked “How great was the bank account. How large were the fields” but “How did you attend to the word of the Lord.” To spend your life chasing after worldly things is to waste your time. To spend your time hearing and learning the Word of the Lord is to build an eternal treasure. Where is your heart, where is your treasure? It is in something that will pass away, or is it in eternal things? The best thing we can do with our time in this world is spend it on God’s Word – the promise of forgiveness life and eternal salvation given by Jesus through his suffering and death to all those who believe in his name. This will endure.

We do not let our bodies rule us, instead focusing on the Word and promise of God. But neither are we spirit-bodies. God gave us real flesh and blood bodies in this world. They are a gift from him. We do not despise them. They do need sustenance if we are to survive. This is why we pray in the Lord’s prayer “Give us this day our daily bread.” But notice – we pray God would give it to us. Daily bread is a gift of God. No rain, no grain, no bread. We think we have solved for God because we can ship grain around the world. Hunger is now more likely the result of political instability than famine. And yet, God can judge the nations by giving political instability to nations that forget him and despise his word. Wealth does not always stay. Technology is often forgotten. And if God wills it, we could be left scratching in the dust looking for food, and driven to pray once again “Give us this day our daily bread.” That is why, even in our great wealth, we must remember and acknowledge and thank God for his gift of daily bread. Without him giving it, it will not be there. And all the wealth we think we may have, all the security, can be taken in a moment. So our minds should always be directed toward God for our daily bread, and our thanks should always flow toward him.

And yet, while we should be in constant prayer, that does not mean that we do not also work and labor for our bread. Daily bread is consecrated through the Word of God and prayer. But Prayer does not make work unnecessary. True, with just a little bread and fish Jesus feeds the multitude. They don’t work for it. But he is feeding them because they have run out of food for the sake of hearing the Word of God. They were not concerned with earthly things when they went to hear him, as we so often are and are kept away from the Word of God and prayer.

They freely went to hear him, and stayed beyond all reasonableness to hear him speak. And so he miraculously feeds them, before sending them back on their way. God could have fed them with manna falling from heaven, as he did with ancient Israel. He could have changed stones to bread. But he takes from what was there – what little remains that was brought according to the regular pattern of life. That’s the food he multiplies.

The Old Testament reading is the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve were placed there to work and tend it, and so be fed by their labors. Their labors were light, their burden easy and delightful. It is only with sin that thorns, thistles, and heavy burdens come into the world. Now, our daily bread must be earned by the sweat of our brow. Weeds threaten the crop, weather threatens it, many thorns arise to make the work unpleasant. For farmers it is literal thorns. For others, difficult work, problems of every sort, conflicts and so on. All those things are a judgment against sin. And we must endure it if we will earn our daily bread. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still given by God in his mercy to us.

We are blessed to hear and be instructed in the truth: God the Father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, has given us body and soul, eyes ears, and all our members, he also gives us clothing and shoes, meat and rink, house and home, all that we need to support this body and life.

God created a wonderful order where we are fed by the work of our hands, and so learn and grow to depend on God even through our work and our labor, knowing that he gives the increase.

We are to trust in the Lord in every need. The world tells us we are foolish to do so. That we should abandon the Lord, not take time to worship. And yet we look at scripture and see that it does not lie to us. The Lord does provide for us. In the Law of Moses the people had to trust the Lord to provide. Last week we heard the third commandment, “Remember the sabbath Day to keep it holy. Six days shall you labor and work. The seventh is a sabbath – a rest.” In Exodus, it specifically mentions that this rule also and especially applies during harvest. Work six days, rest the seventh. And God did not mean one short hour to hear the Word and then return to what they were doing. He meant all 24 hours as a rest. It was a show of faith that God would take care of them. You can almost see the people watching the horizon anxiously on the sabbath day during harvest, praying that the weather holds so they can finish the seven days of work in six days, and the weather would not destroy their crop while they were idle. Today, our burden is lessened – we need not sit idle for an entire day. That command applied only in the Old Testament.  And yet we struggle even to trust God enough to take time for worship.

There is a great lesson for us in this. God gives times and places to hear and learn his word, and we should attend it. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “We must know that God insists upon a strict observance of this commandment, and will punish all who despise His Word and are not willing to hear and learn it, especially at the time appointed for the purpose.” The church gathers to receive the blessings of the Lord. But those who will not come because of the blessing offered here: Forgiveness, life, salvation, place themselves under the judgment of God. We must not despise his word, but gladly hear and learn it. That is the blessed path of Life that Paul talks about in the Epistle. To neglect the Word of God and the time of worship in favor of worldly pursuits – no matter how important – is dangerous and builds a foundation of sand. What we do will not prosper, even if we seem to have worldly success. It will not last. It will fade away. Our time is much better spent on the Lord’s day first and foremost in prayer and worship, gladly hearing and learning God’s Word and being instructed in the way we should go, humbly receiving the gift of salvation as we bow before the throne of the Lamb, as we approach the table of the Lord to receive his good gifts.

A few final notes. Jesus has the people sit down in groups. They are hungry, but he doesn’t have them rushing up like pigs at the trough. Instead, everything is done decently and in good order. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to behave that way in their church services. Beyond that, Paul encourages us to pray for kings and all in authority – all those to whom we owe obedience and respect in this world – so that as he says, “We may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” This is why Luther structures the day of the Christian to begin with prayer “I thank you my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ my dear Lord, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger…” and so on. We go to our work meditating on our duties in the Ten Commandments, we stop at meal time to give thanks to God for the food and drink, and when the day is over, we pray again, asking forgiveness for those areas where we sinned, and commending our lives to him as we rest. The next day, we get up and do it again. We live disciplined lives according to Christ, basking in the knowledge of salvation and the gift of forgiveness which we are given by the death of our Lord Jesus.

And we also see here Jesus concern for the hungry. We’ve talked a lot this Trinity season about caring for those in need, because scripture talks a lot about it. We do not live for ourselves and our own enrichment. Rather, we use the blessings we are given in this world as an opportunity to show love to our neighbor, and to tell him about the love of Jesus, who died for us so that we would have life. This is the Christian life in a nutshell: Trusting God for every good thing, placing our confidence in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and serving our neighbor according to our calling and vocation. And in this we rest.

May the Lord grant us wisdom to see this each day, grateful hearts to give thanks to him, and may he grant us the grace to abound in good works toward our neighbor according to his love and mercy. Amen.

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Continuing Education on a Budget

Actual photo of your pastor heading to a Continuing Education Class

Summer is when many pastors do a continuing education course of some sort. But in addition to a resident program at a local congregation, pastors can also read.

Today I recommend some books you might enjoy (And one class you can watch online):

Catechetics: Fixing Confirmation. The first comprehensive study of Catechesis in over a century. Biblical rationale, historical background, contemporary evaluation: This book has everything you need to understand and respond to the challenges that arise in teaching the faith.

Catechetics Master Class. Videos of the class I taught last summer on Catechesis. For those who have read Catechetics and want more. We take a look at the philosophy behind various educational methods. It’s Must-See TV for anyone who wants a thorough understanding of what we teach and why. As it’s now last year’s class, I’ve cut the price in half to $75. And as a loyal reader of the blog, enter discount code ContEd for another $25 off of that!

Evolution: A Defense Against. We live in the first society to try structure ourselves according to Epicurean ideals. It’s going poorly. How does the church respond to such nonsense? A look at the scientific process, and the philosophy behind it, this book provides a needed corrective.

Teach These Things: Catechesis for the Lutheran Church. If you are struggling to teach the catechism, try using Luther’s method. Teach These Things follows the ancient pattern of instruction (Scripture, catechism, hymnal), rather than the modern worksheet method. Buy once, no workbooks or student books to buy, ever. (Except the catechism!)

Footwashers: Following the Jesus Way. The textbook for the class “The Ethics of Jesus” taught by Dr. William Lehmann. A truly Lutheran look at philosophy, ethics, and scripture, all through the words of our Lord.


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Sermon for Pentecost

Here is my sermon for Pentecost Sunday, for those who were prevented from attending church.

3000 Baptized in a day. An amazing testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit working through the preaching of the Apostles. We don’t generally see such amazing results today. The apostle’s didn’t generally see those sorts of results in one day either. Pentecost was an especially miraculous day. But there was a significant difference between the apostles preaching in Jerusalem, and the church in our own day. In the apostles day the people of Jerusalem were generally God-fearing. They were waiting for the Messiah, expecting him to come any time. They read and studied the scriptures, eagerly waited to hear a word of the Lord taught to them. True the leaders had hardened their hearts. They hypocritically claimed they desired the Messiah, while worshipping their own works. But by and large the people wanted to hear the Word and promise of the Lord, they wanted to see the fulfillment of the prophecies of old.

The world outside of Israel was much like our own – people chasing their own pleasures and desires, wandering aimlessly looking for meaning. But the Jews read and studied the Word of God. They would have known that passage in Joel that Peter spoke of – your young men shall see visions, your old men shall dream dreams. They would have recognized that Joel promised the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. The sun had been blocked out 53 days earlier when Jesus hung on the cross. There had been an earthquake. The news would have still been on their lips when Peter explains what it all means. The sun turned to darkness as the Light of the World dies and by that death recreates and restores the world.

At the end of Peter’s sermon, the people are cut to the heart, and ask “Brothers, what must we do”. Peter goes right back to the line from Joel, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter explains how they go about calling on the name of the Lord, and receiving the promised salvation: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”

Peter directs them to what Jesus had told the apostles: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus gives us the name of the Lord we are to call on: Father, Son, Spirit. Jesus tells us that God places his name on us in Baptism. It is not our Baptism. It is God’s baptism. It is his name, his promise, his work in us.

Jesus promised the Holy Spirit back it the upper room. That’s our Gospel: Jesus going into death, returning to the Father; He does not abandon us. He promises to send the Holy Spirit. And he gives another name to the Holy Spirit: The Comforter. The Work of the Spirit is to comfort the disciples. Not as we think of comfort – full bellies, overstuffed chair. But real comfort – true consolation. The forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, the life of the world to come. This is our consolation. Jesus promises it will come to His church through the work of the Spirit. How? “He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The second part of that is a great comfort to us in our own day. The Spirit will bring to the remembrance of the apostles all that Jesus says. Jesus knows that eventually the hearts of man will grow cold and cynical. That those who call themselves bible scholars will mock and tear down the authority of the Word of God: claiming it does not tell us what really happened. But Jesus says that the Spirit will bring to their remembrance all that He says. When the apostles record the words and deeds of Jesus, they aren’t making things up. They aren’t filling in gaps of their memory with interesting or cleverly devised fables. They were eyewitnesses, and their record is accurate. Time and again scripture answers objections of the heretics centuries before they invent their false teachings. Here, Jesus comforts us with this: The record of Holy Scripture is a true record of what happened in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. The words the apostles write are not their own. The Spirit inspires them – breathes into them and causes them to write the words that are a true record, the words necessary for our salvation. And then the Spirit preserves that record. No document in history has been as studied as the history of Scripture. And no document in history has been preserved as faithfully or fully as holy scripture. And the Spirit preserved it, even amid the efforts of the world to wipe out the church, to destroy the scriptures and hide the truth. But the Word of God endures forever. It will not be removed from the earth, but will endure until our Lord returns.

And what amazing news is recorded in the scriptures for us? The comfort of the Gospel: Jesus Christ, true God begotten of the Father from Eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary has redeemed me a lost and condemned creature, by the shedding of his holy precious blood and with his innocent suffering and death. But he has also been raised from the dead, and now reigns at the right hand of the Father. This is what the Holy Spirit teaches us in Scripture. It is what we confess together as the church. It is what sponsors confess on behalf of the little ones even before they can speak the words themselves. It is the faith the Holy Spirit gives them in Baptism.

The question often arises among the doubters – and we are tempted to ask it ourselves in our weak moments – how do we know the teaching of scripture is true. Instead of a unified church as Jesus prayed his heavenly Father, we see a church divided. There are many sects, many heresies. How do we know we have THE truth?

It is a scandal that the church is divided. A scandal in it’s original sense, was a stumbling block. A rock in the road that causes people to trip and fall. And the divisions in the church are certainly that. Many have been tripped up by them. Many have fallen.

But we should not be surprised that Satan sows division where the Lord would have unity. Satan’s work, his goal, is to try and undo the work of our Father in heaven. To sow division, to bring in false doctrine, to lead astray from our Lord Jesus Christ.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this – we see it explicitly in Holy Scripture. Right after Jesus begins his ministry by being Baptized for us, he is tempted by Satan in the wilderness. Jesus is God – he can’t sin. And yet Satan tempts him right after the Spirit Descends as a dove on him in Baptism. This is a warning to us that Satan will not leave us alone either. Baptism doesn’t keep us from Satan and his temptations. If he tempted our Lord, he will certainly tempt us and try to lead us astray into all manner of false belief or into great shame and vice. That is why we pray God would deliver us from all temptation, from all evil. We are in danger each day, and must constantly watch our step. Prayer is a mighty defense, as we heard during Easter.

It has been truly said that when God builds a church, right next to it Satan builds a chapel. He doesn’t need to lead the world astray from God. The World is already corrupted. Instead he focuses his efforts to lead us astray from the truth of God’s Word, to lead us from repentance, the forgiveness of sins, from salvation.

In the third article we confess, “I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The work of the Spirit is to call us by the Gospel, because we can not believe at all on our own. Certainly, if our sinful nature will not let us believe at all, it will also try to lead us astray from the truth once we do believe. This is why Luther says the Old Adam in us must, by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires. It is why we must be in the word and prayer each day, why we must return to the church each week to hear and learn again, to receive again the forgiveness of sins, to once again drown that Old Adam so that a new man arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

It shouldn’t surprise us that the church is divided, that Satan brings in false doctrine, masquerading as an angel of light, as a sheep, when he is really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Scripture records first church council in Jerusalem, called by the Apostles to answer the question, “Can you be a Christian without first being circumcised?” The Judaizers claimed circumcision was necessary before Baptism. They could not accept the grace and mercy of Baptism without a work of their own. They wanted to add their own works to salvation.

Luther calls works the greatest idolatry. The history of the church proves this to be true. In Luther’s own day the merits of Jesus were not enough. Human works and merits had to be added for salvation. That’s the great idolatry of every age. Trying to turn God’s grace and mercy into our work. The people in Jesus day do it repeatedly. They try to stone Jesus over it.

Today there are those who would turn Baptism into our work, who would rob it of God’s promise and so deny it to little children. There are those who take away the forgiveness of sins from the Lord’s Supper and make forgiveness into our work as it was with the Pharisees. Or who deny the clear word of Jesus, “This is my body”. We must keep the Word of God intact. We must hold to the word of Jesus that whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, that Baptism now saves us. That the body and blood of Jesus are truly present distributed and received in the Holy Supper according to the word of Jesus, “This is my body.” We must never turn aside from the promise. We must never make salvation into our work.

We can’t save ourselves, we can not choose Jesus. This isn’t some strange Lutheran doctrine – we get it from the mouth of Jesus. “You did not choose me” he tells the apostles, “I chose you”. Certainly we are not better or holier or have a greater faith than the Apostles, who were eyewitnesses of the resurrection. And so we dare never turn the Gospel, the good news of salvation into our own work. We must leave the work to God. If it’s our work, it’s doomed to fail.

Consider the apostles before the Spirit descended and gave them boldness and confidence to speak the Word. They were hiding in the upper room. The doors were locked for fear of the Jews – and this after they had seen Jesus risen from the dead. Then, in an instant, they are filled with the Spirit, Peter begins to preach boldly of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. And 3000 are baptized, brought into the kingdom and they receive the Spirit according to the promise. These 3000 return home and speak the Word to those around them – bringing the Gospel to their own communities, starting churches. Before Paul or Peter can visit Rome, the church is already established there. Likely it is because of the witness of those on Pentecost. If not that day, certainly soon after. Some unknown person heard the Gospel, and carried it with them to Rome, where the good news spread. By the time Paul writes his letter to them, they have a congregation and a pastor, whose name is now lost to us. The Gospel was carried to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus had promised. And it was done anonymously. Paul only catches up to it years later. That’s ok. The Spirit works through each one of us according to our calling and station in life. We are each given opportunity to witness to others of the hope that is in us. That is the work of the Spirit. To comfort us in our afflictions by reminding us of the goodness of the Lord, of his mighty deeds for us. He has Created and preserves us in this world, but especially He redeems and calls us out of the world to be his own and live under him in his kingdom.

And he does the work – he does the dying on the cross, the rising from the dead, the ascending into heaven, the sending of the spirit to create faith in our hearts. We receive the gift given through his work when we hear and believe, when we take eat and take drink as he has promised.

We resist the temptation to deny the power of God working through the Word and Sacrament. We resist the temptation to make that work own. Instead, we let Jesus be our savior. We let the Spirit teach us all things. We let the Father save us through the promise he gives in the waters of Holy Baptism. We let Jesus merit plead for us. We let the Spirit join us to the promise as he creates faith in our hearts.

By the Word, The Spirit comforts us in all afflictions. Because it is Christ who works in us in all things. He redeems the time. He redeems our suffering. He redeems us body and soul and promises one day to return and take us – body and soul – to himself in heaven.

And until then he feeds us with his supper, he strengthens us and keeps us in the faith, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. And he gives us peace in this world. Oh, it’s true, things often happen to spoil the spirit of peace for us in this world. But no one is able to rob us of it, to rob us of the joy of the resurrection and of the new life in Jesus Christ. The promise is good. It is for you and your children. And for all who hear and believe the promise of the salvation given through Jesus Christ our Lord.



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Books for Seminaries

I had the joy of meeting with a missionary/seminary professor yesterday as he was passing through the area. The topic of books came up: what books are needed for teaching pastors. I offered him the use of Catechetics for his seminary, if he found it useful.

I realized that other professors at other seminaries might also find it useful. So I make this offer: If you are a professor at a seminary outside the US/Canada/Europe and you are interested in a textbook for Catechetics, give me a call or email. I will send you an e-copy of the book free of charge for review. If you like it, let me know, and I’ll give you very generous terms for re-printing all or part of it locally.

If that appeals to you, drop me a line. My goal in writing is to help the church. If I can help you in your own work, I want to know how.

PS. If you are a professor in the US/Canada/Europe and are interested, I can also offer favorable terms. Contact me anyway!


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Ascension Day Sermon

One of the challenges of a tri-point parish is getting everything to fit into a rather inflexible schedule. A change in one congregation means a lot of adjustments in the other two. Midweek feasts – even important ones like Ascension Day – end up moved to the next Sunday.

For those who couldn’t attend church this Sunday, here is the sermon for Ascension Day 2022.

The Epistle and Gospel reading cover the same thing today. That doesn’t happen very often. Only important festivals of our Lord get that treatment. Transfiguration is one: Peter talks about the Transfiguration, and we hear Matthew’s account of it. Maundy Thursday has both readings from the upper room – though from different times. Today both readings cover our Lord ascending – the same incident recorded. One from the disciples perspective, one from a more heavenly viewpoint. They both offer us comfort in their own way.

Mark records the Gospel read on Easter. It ends with the women fleeing from the tomb, astonished and afraid. He records the women telling the disciples what they saw, he records the disciples traveling (Luke tells us it was to Emmaus) and seeing the Lord, but doesn’t record what was said, only that the disciples didn’t believe them. For the early resurrection appearances of Jesus, we turn to the other Gospels: John records Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus at the tomb and talking to him. He also records Thomas’s unbelief: he wouldn’t believe until he saw Jesus hands and put his fingers in the marks of the nails. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Jesus tells him.

Today, we hear that Jesus rebuked the disciples. God had given witnesses – the women and the men on the road to Emmaus, and told them to tell the disciples. The messengers of the Lord whom he sends are not bringing his word for their own benefit and pleasure. They come proclaiming the Word of the Lord so that you would hear and believe the Word: Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and by his death and resurrection he has saved you from sin, from death, hell and the devil. In place of condemnation, he offers forgiveness life and salvation. This is the work of the church: Proclaiming the good news to all nations, so that all might believe and be saved. It isn’t just the work of pastors, but of every Christian according to their calling.

The Disciples reject the news. Only when Jesus appears to them directly do they believe. But then, they saw something with their eyes we have only seen with the eyes of faith: Jesus on the cross, dying, giving up his spirit, being laid into the tomb. We know how hard it is to believe the resurrection when we are surrounded by death. We’ve been to the graveside before. So Jesus may rebuke the disciples, but we pray we would not be found lacking in our own faith. We have no room to judge them. We are often reluctant or even unwilling to hear the promise of Salvation for Jesus sake. And yet this good news brings us faith in the promise it gives. Through the reading and preaching of the Word, God’s people are called to believe, faith is created, and salvation is given to the church.

Now, Jesus has overcome death and the grave. Those two old eternal enemies of humanity have lost the war. They will not hold us forever. Now Jesus reigns over all things. He ascends into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God. This isn’t a place like “the chair in the corner” where you sit there and are no longer other places. Jesus isn’t bound to just one location. He is in the position of power and authority at the right hand of the Father, and now reigns over all things. He tells us: “All authority in heaven and earth is given to me.” Nothing is out of his hands. That’s why we pray so diligently in his name, as we heard last week. Because he can and does protect and defend us from all danger. And he does help his church and keep it safe and secure in this world – though he doesn’t promise great worldly success. The world is filled with every kind of corruption and wickedness, and it is passing away. It does not want the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This is a strange duality: On the one hand he we have the Lord of Creation ruling over heaven and earth, and giving men on earth the authority to forgive sins as if Christ our dear Lord dealt with us himself. On the other hand, we live in a world of sin and death, a world that is hiding from God – even more than hiding, it is rapidly fleeing from him and his word. Seeking salvation outside of his promise, whether it be by outward idols, like the pagans of old, or by going after every fad of this world, chasing the world’s glory and honor instead of the pure word and promise of God. There is nothing beyond Jesus control, yet he allows us to choose to go away from him. So instead of the world he created for us – a world without sin – we live in a world of sin and death, a world of wickedness where people are allowed to choose demonic things and peruse them, destroying their lives and lives of those around them. We see this happen daily, and yet the world will not repent and return to the Lord, but is ever more hardened against our Lord Jesus and his word of forgiveness. Even the church struggles with this – we struggle to keep Christ as the head where he belongs. We want to tell him how to do things, we want to tell him how we are to bring up our children, how we are to serve and love our neighbor, how we will define marriage and family, and then we are shocked and appalled when it goes badly. The Lord reigns, but he allows us to live in any manner we choose. And our sinful nature always chooses to go against him, to live according to the flesh. It is only by the power of the Spirit – that’s next week for Pentecost – that we can hear and learn God’s Word, that we can fear love and trust in him above all things.

But our unbelief, our weakness, the wickedness of the world – none of that negates the promise. In this world of fleeting glory, of passing awayness, in this world that will melt away when the end of all things comes, even now, we have the assurance of the eternal Son of God that he is with us in every trouble. And we have a lot of those. If you don’t have a lot of troubles yet, just wait. This world of moth and rust and decay will catch up to you. The Lord Jesus offers a way out now: By his Gospel, the good news of his salvation which he gives freely to all who believe, we do not need to live as children of the world. We are still in it for a time. But in Christ we are not of it. We have a heavenly crown, an other-worldly reward that is beyond anything this world can offer. We have peace with Christ, not because of our work, but because of his. And the peace he gives is a peace that passes all understanding. It’s a peace that lets us sleep at night, that lets us leave this world in joy, and even face death with a serene and peaceful spirit. Because we know death is not the end.

And this is the comfort we have from our Epistle reading: Jesus will return. He was taken up and hidden from their sight by a cloud. The angels tell the apostles he will return in the same way they saw him go into heaven. The clouds will part, and Jesus will be there. He will be unhidden from our eyes. That’s the promise.

And what a glorious promise it is. With Christ reigning now and returning soon, we know that nothing can keep us from him. In this world, we have the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. They are the pledge and guarantee. But more than that, they are Jesus continuing his work among us, coming to us with himself, tearing us from Satan and bringing us into the kingdom of God by the washing, and then feeding us with the food that remains to eternal life.

Jesus is hidden from the eyes of the world. That’s what happened in the ascension. But he has by no means stopped his work among his people. Instead he works through hidden things. We may wonder why – why doesn’t he appear and do many wonders and miracles, heal the sick, raise the dead. And yet when he did walk the earth to do those things, the people rejected him, and nailed him to the cross. They will not hear because their hearts are hardened. And so now God works through hidden means. A simple splash of water, but behind it the entire majesty of the Divine. A man in a robe speaking ancient words of forgiveness that we can’t even believe on our own strength – and yet, it has effects even in the heavens. A little bite, and a sip, and it is the medicine that saves us from death, no matter how much the world ignores it and chases after one failed worldly cure after another.

We have the eternal power of almighty God in this place, and the world can not see it. The glory is hidden from their eyes. But to those whom God calls, who receive the gift of salvation humbly by faith, we are saved from all evil. There is nothing that can happen to us beyond our Lord and his great mercy. So that no matter how we may suffer in this world – and this world can produce a lot of suffering – we know we are safe and secure in the ark of the Holy Church. We are held in the palm of the hand of the great king who will not abandon us, who will love and care for us every day of our lives, and at the end, carry us into his heavenly kingdom. And at the end of all things, when time itself finds its end, Jesus will return, and reunite body and soul, to the praise of the glory of his grace, and then every knee will bow at his name, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

Our Lord ascends. It is the end of his redeeming work for us – that was ended on the cross at his command when he declared it finished and gave up his spirit. But his death and resurrection, even his ascension is not the end of his work. He continues working through his church. And he will return and then he will finish the work begun in you in baptism. The work for which you are fed in the supper: love of neighbor, praise of God, faith in the forgiveness of sins, and strength in this wearying world. May God preserve us in that faith, until he returns and we are taken into his kingdom, the eternal heavenly banquet of his love. Grant this Lord unto us all.


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