Sermon for Transfiguration

Here is my sermon from this past Sunday. It addresses a lot of what is happening these days, and addresses it from the Word of God.

The events of our Gospel today happen we are told, “After six days”. Six days after what? It’s important. Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. It was Peter who made the bold confession – you are the Christ the Son of the living God. Each year the confession of Saint Peter is commemorated on January 18. Which is actually six days ago. It happens about 3 or 4 times a century that the schedule works out so exactly. But don’t hold your breath – it won’t happen again for 62 years.

The confession of Peter is important. Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ, the promised one whom the Father sent into the world to save us from our sins. After Peter makes that confession, Jesus blesses him, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in the heavens.”  The confession of Jesus as the Savior of the world is not our work. It is worked in us, as we confess in the third article, “I believe that I can not by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” The confession which saves us – saving faith – is given to us as a gift. Jesus also gives Peter the keys to heaven – to unlock heaven for the repentant sinner, who confesses his sin and looks to Jesus for salvation. To lock the gates of heaven for those who refuse to repent of their sin, who reject the salvation Jesus offers.

And then, Jesus tells the disciples what is coming – his death and resurrection for the salvation of the world. Peter objects. Jesus rebukes him. The same mouth that confessed so boldly, now tries to stop God’s plan of salvation. A plan that doesn’t involve earthly success, but does involve a cross.  Jesus doesn’t say “Your intentions may be good Peter, but you are mistaken.” No. “Get behind me Satan.” Those who would deny the person and work of Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins are working against God. They are tools of Satan, working to bring about the destruction of God’s kingdom. Jesus tells the disciples that some of them will still be alive when they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

And Then, after six days, the transfiguration. Well, this must be it! The moment they were promised. Jesus is coming in his kingdom. The heavens are split open, the prophets of old have already arrived, the angels will soon pour down the mountain and Jesus will be acknowledged as Lord of creation, the Son of God and Son of Man. Now, the world will bow down and truly serve him.

Peter wants to put up three tents. Just like Moses of old who established the tabernacle, they’ll start with tents. One for Jesus, one for Moses, one for Elijah. Eventually a more permanent structure will mark the place where the kingdom of Christ began in this world.

It was not to be. We’re told in Luke that Jesus talks to Moses and Elijah about his coming death. This isn’t strategy about how to build a kingdom, how to succeed in business, how to win friends and influence people, how to make the Gospel irresistible to the world, to draw huge crowds and build a huge congregational budget with lots of committees and boards and buzzwords. Jesus is talking to them about dying. It’s the same topic he had with the disciples six days ago. Moses and Elijah are offering him encouragement for the burden to come. Jesus will carry not only the burden of dying, he will carry the burden of the world’s sin into his death. He will carry the punishment of the Father against sin. He will carry the burden of hell itself.

That’s what Jesus kingdom is about. It’s easy to forget that. We have to live in the world, where moth and rust destroy where thieves break in and steal. Where wars and rumors of wars, where earthquake and famine and flood and fire cause fainting with fear and cause hearts to tremble. In Jesus none of that really matters. We are in the world, but not of the world. Let the world have it’s wars and corruptions. Let the world have its power games and sinful insanities. We don’t bow down to the gods of this world, regardless of how tempting they may, how powerful they look, how frightening the punishments for those who refuse. We worship the Lord our God, and him only do we serve. We confess God the Father almighty, Jesus Christ his only Son, and the Holy Spirit the comforter. We are baptized into that name, and, like Jesus, our kingdom is no longer of this world. As we sing in the great reformation hymn, “Take they our life, goods fame child and wife, let these all be gone, they yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”

(But) And what a kingdom it is. It’s a kingdom with the face of Jesus shining brightly, Moses and Elijah talking to him, and then, nothing. When we look up we see Jesus only. No bright light. No shining heavenly countenance. Just the same old thing that was there before. In our case, the word and promise of God. That’s what Peter talks about in the Epistle reading. The more sure prophetic word – that the apostles were themselves witnesses to the glory of Jesus on the mountain. And then, witnesses to his death on the cross. And greater than anything that came before: Witnesses to the resurrection, the life that is given to all who believe in his name. Peter will witness to that truth with his own blood. As will Paul, and all the martyrs.

Luther used to say that if there was medicine that could cure death, people would line up for miles, pay any price to have it. But the church, which offers immortality, is empty because it all appears so ordinary.

Luther wasn’t trying to be a prophet with his words. But this week, there were pictures in Europe of people lining up as far as the eye could see to get the COVID vaccine. And, because they needed a building that wasn’t really in use for anything important, the vaccination sites they used were churches – normally empty, but now with people lined up to get the medicine that would hopefully prevent death from that one disease.

Luther was right. The world seeks after wealth, and health, and power and all of those things. Jesus says not to bother with them – seek after the kingdom of God and his righteousness. But the kingdom of God is so boring, so weak looking. We’re already heading to the cross again. When Jesus will say to Pilate, “You would have no authority if it were not given you from above.” He is such a pathetic figure that Pilate tries to release him as a beaten crazy man. Compare the power of Rome with the sad little figure of the man bloodied and beaten. No comparison. If that’s the kingdom of God coming on earth, someone goofed. This can’t be it. Even after hearing that Jesus was raised from the dead, the disciples on the road to Emaus are depressed because everything went so wrong. Thomas won’t believe until he actually sees and touches. Until then, his fellow disciples are just a bunch of crazies who wanted something so badly they lost their minds. It isn’t until a week later that Jesus appears to him and he believes. The church spends her first 300 years being persecuted as unpatriotic atheists who reject all common sense, and are a threat to public safety and the common good. It just never looks like the victory it is. Apostles who shed their own blood as witnesses of the hope that is in them. Churches that are emptier each year. And yet, in those churches, babies are still brought forward and have the name of God placed on them, and are brought up in the instruction and knowledge of the Lord in the church. Sinners are forgiven sins. Heaven is opened to sinners who repent, the poor have the good news preached to them. All of those things don’t look like they are happening. But they are. The kingdom of God still comes, even and especially when the world fights against it.

It’s easy, looking at headlines the last few weeks, to get anxious about the future, to get caught up in whatever is going wrong with the world. But we need not worry. The victory has already been won. The church continues to pray for kings and all those in authority as it always has. We know that no one is given authority unless God allows them to hold it. Even Pilate, who sentenced Jesus was only there because the authority was given to him from heaven. God is in control of this crazy mixed up out of control world. And Jesus has already won victory over this world. Not with banners and men at arms, but with his holy precious blood and his innocent suffering and death. He won victory over this world, and over death. When we talk about Transfiguration, we know it was a glorious day. And yet its the death of Jesus that brings the glory to earth, that splits the heavens, and makes Jesus face shine like the sun.

Last week, we heard about Jesus first miracle – turning water to wine at the wedding of Cana. John says that Jesus revealed his glory and his disciples believed in him. That was nothing compared to the glory revealed to Peter James and John this week. And yet John, the only Gospel writer to see Jesus transfigured on the mountain, doesn’t include it in his Gospel. Why doesn’t he include this glorious moment? John was given a special revelation by God. The book of revelation records it. And in that revelation, John talks about seeing Jesus enthroned in heaven. With eyes of fire, face like the sun, a sword in his mouth, and a voice like the roar of great water. John doesn’t fall down in fear to worship. He falls down as if dead.

Remember last week, when Moses was told by God “Man shall not see my face and live.” Well, John – the beloved disciple, the one who reclined with Jesus at the last supper, sees Jesus enthroned in the fullness of his glory, and it is so far beyond the Transfiguration that he is knocked down by the vision. Do not be fooled by the appearance of this world. Jesus does reign. But it is a kingdom of this world. Instead, with the psalmist, we let the kings of the earth rise up, we let the rulers take counsel together. Because we know that he that sitteth in the heavens laughs. The Lord holds them in derision. This kingdoms of this earth pass away – like a vapor, like grass that is here today, and tomorrow is withered.

The world doesn’t harm us, and it shouldn’t really bother us too much. Our sins are forgiven, our salvation is assured. There’s nothing more to worry about.

Instead, we gather to hear the testimony of the apostles – those eyewitnesses on the mountain, who have given us the more sure prophetic word, as Peter says in our epistle today. We have that word – and it saves. Not just vaccinated from from this particular disease, and then another comes along later and finishes us off. Instead we are saved from all forms of death. We are given eternal life.

That’s why the church – in good times and bad, in times of plenty or times of need, in times of popularity or persecution – the church in all of those times just continues to do what God has called us to do. To serve as witness to the truth of the Word and promise of God. To proclaim Christ Jesus who died and was raised for the forgiveness of your sins. And who now calls us to live lives as his forgiven servants. That is why the church does not change her teaching depending on the whims of the world. The church is not about opinions or our ideas, or what we want. Oh, the world will tell us it is: You have your belief, you have your truth, but you do not speak for all. We speak the word and promise of God. We are witnesses to the truth. Not a truth that may change like the tides or the weather or the fashions. But the eternal unchanging truth of the word of God. We do not speak our own thoughts. We speak the word of God, the promise of salvation for Jesus sake. And we speak nothing else. That’s what it means to be witness to the truth. We speak only what is given us to speak by God. We don’t change his word to suit our opinions. We subject our opinions and thoughts to his word and to the promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. We never do it the other way around. Because we have been given the more sure prophetic word. The death and resurrection of Jesus. One Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. The body and blood, given and shed so that you might have life, and have it to the full. Our opinions and ideas are less sure, less certain, and when we move to them we move from the unchangeable truth to the shifting sands of our sinful hearts.

Let us stay firmly established on the word and promise of our Lord Jesus Christ. His word has power. Even though the world can not see, will not acknowledge, does not care, despises his word. We know it is the power and wisdom of God, that it makes us wise unto salvation. That is saves our bodies and souls from hell itself.

The disciples looked up and saw Jesus only. May we be granted such grace that we never look elsewhere.


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Quia, always and only Quia

A few years ago, there was a theological kerfuffle regarding fellowship in the church. It was suggested that I read a famous book by a famous theologian. I was assured that he would clear up the whole matter and then it would be butterflies and rainbows as far as the eye could see.

I made it as far as the introduction. Right at the point when he said “And this is why the Large Catechism is wrong…” I not only lost interest in the book, I realized how dangerous the book was. If such thoughts as “Our confessions are wrong” are required to get the benefits of the blue pill, I will sadly have to take the red one. I never finished the book, because it was clear to me that the book was not only poisonous, it was alluring poison. When I mentioned to the man who suggested it to me (a man whom I respect) that it was problematic for rejecting our confession, the objection was dismissed. Oh no, I was told, it was not a problem at all. Our confession wasn’t at its best at that particular point.

I can’t help but think I dodged a bullet. Once upon a time, in my youth and arrogance, I might have joined him in saying our confession is short-sighted. It doesn’t understand the full breadth and depth of theology. We need to move beyond it. We need to recognize the historical situation they were in, and admit that sometimes our confessions leave much to be desired.

Or some such similar youthful nonsense.

These days, with a couple of decades experience seeing what happens when people step outside our confessional commitments, I’m less eager to mock my theological fathers. In my youth they were uncool, they wore goofy clothing, and tended to say embarrassing things in front of my friends.

But each year I realize more and more how wise they were. And if Luther deviates from the cool kids on this one, then I guess I’m a nerd about it. Or, given my advancing years, an old fogey. I’ll be that fogey. Because a Quia subscription to the Confessions (We confess them BECAUSE they are correct) is more important to me than fitting in with the kids at the cool lunch table.

They will object, of course. “This is not a quaetanus subscription!” (We confess INSOFAR as they are correct). It’s “historical detail”, or “exegetical conclusion” or “some other excuse that sounds really smart” and we aren’t bound to that! This is usually followed with the coup de grace, “Are you saying you agree about the garlic? Bwah-hah-hah!”

Well, if it takes agreeing about the garlic to have a proper quia subscription, then get me a clove. Because quia means quia.

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Praying for “Kings and all Those in Authority”

The church has always prayed for civil rulers.

When Nero was persecuting the church – killing Saints Peter and Paul – the church prayed for him. When his successor Galba was killed by Otho, the church prayed for the new Emperor, Otho. And then Vitellius. And then Vespasian. And so on down through the years.

The church prays for kings and all those in authority – that they be given wisdom, that they rule justly, and – if they be outside the church – that they repent of their sin and turn to Christ and receive the promised salvation.

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Who Writes History?

The politics of power says “History is written by the winners.” But I don’t believe it. God is the author of history. He causes empires to rise and fall. He executes judgment on the nations.

I’ve been thinking about a prophetic view of history for a long time. Pastors used to tell me “You can’t know what God is up to. You don’t know that he’s judging us.” They aren’t saying that anymore. I’m hearing from more and more pastors that God is bringing judgment through one or another means.

One of the strange effects of COVID for me has been vivid awakenings. By that I mean that I wake up in the morning with vivid images, ideas, thoughts. It’s been happening pretty much every day for the last few weeks. This was a few days back, but it recurred this morning. I wrote it out, and then… well I wrote it before Washington turned into whatever it has turned into. I didn’t have rebellion or rioting in mind when I wrote it down. I still don’t. Exactly what the judgment may be, I don’t presume to know. I think it is still out there, whatever it is. And I think we are rushing toward it in our hubris. It won’t be pretty. I used to say we were “late stage republic.” I think even that has now passed us by. I think the events of today are still warning, symptom. I think Judgment will, in the end, be more than anything we’ve seen so far. I have ideas. But I am not a prophet in that sense. And so I leave it nebulous, as it is. Eventually, we will be able to write that part. Hopefully in humble repentance, and with a happy ending where we return to the Lord and are spared.

Ultimately, this is just an exercise. I wanted to know what it would look like if our history was written in the style of the Old Testament scriptures – a prophetic reading of our own history. Here is my take on the last three or so generations. If you don’t like it, feel free to chalk it up to “one man’s opinion.” That’s what always happens anyway. But here it is, for better or worse.

The recent history of our nation, as it might have been recorded in Holy Scripture:

And after the Lord had given the nation a great victory in the war, the fathers forgot the Lord, and did not raise their children in the knowledge of the Lord. And their children did not fear the Lord, nor did they worship him. Instead, they sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play as the people of ancient Israel did, on the day when the Lord brought them out of Egypt to Sinai. And instead of golden calves, they worshiped themselves and their own pleasures, with all manner of intoxicating drink and intoxicating herbs.

And the ruling council of the people decreed that mothers be allowed to sacrifice their unborn children to Molech. And the kings of the people were weak, and did nothing to stop this abomination. And the Lord saw it, and was displeased. And the Lord gave victory to the nation’s enemies in a time of war. And the people wondered over this. But they did not return to the Lord, nor did they repent.

And there arose a new king, and the people feasted sumptuously every day, but they did not fear the Lord. And there was peace in the land. But the people did not honor the Lord. Instead, they backslid in a great backsliding. And the Lord sent fearsome fighters from abroad to tear down their greatest buildings, and 3000 died on that day. And the people did not repent. And the Lord gave their enemies victories in the wars. And the people did not repent.

And then, the Lord took from them a man on the ruling council, who was righteous in his days, who had not consented to the sacrifices to Molech. And the people feared greatly, and there was upheaval in those days among the kings. And the Lord was gracious, and allowed the people a chance to repent. But the people did not repent. And it was revealed that the kings and scribes and rulers of the people for many years had been abusing even the children with their perversions. And there was no outcry, and the people did not repent.

And so the Lord prepared a judgement against the people. A plague was sent from the Lord. And the people did fear greatly, though the Lord stayed his hand, and not many of the people died. But they did not repent or return to the Lord. Instead, they hardened their hearts, and worship of the Lord was forbidden among the people. And the sacrifices to Molech were commanded among the people. And the high priests agreed to stop worshiping the Lord. And this thing displeased the Lord. And the Lord prepared a great judgment from among the enemies of the people to conquer and subdue and subjugate the people, and to overthrow them in their arrogant presumption against the Lord and against his commandments, which he commanded for all the people. And there was upheaval, and there was rioting. And there was outcry against mothers and fathers, and the leaders demanded an end even to that which the Lord created in the beginning: Male and female joined together until death do part them. And the people continued to cry out against the Lord and his commandments. And the people did not repent, but their hearts were hardened against the Lord and his commandment. And they rushed headlong into the judgment which the Lord prepared.

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The Small Catechism as Defense

No matter how sophisticated the theological controversy, by turning to the small catechism and looking at the language and teachings in it, you can boil a controversy down to its essence. Often, it will also help you in another way – to ask the question is already to answer it.

So, the Arian controversy, which covered hundreds of years, with thousands of pages written about it, is really the question “Is Jesus Christ true God, begotten of the Father from eternity?” The challenge with using this method is that your opponents will often claim you are being unfair.

For example, back during the battle for the bible, the members of my congregation had an unfaithful pastor. He spoke very eloquently and cleverly about the Gospel not being bound by human rules, etc. And he certainly did not like it when the members looked to their catechisms and realized the question was “Is the Bible true?” He would have argued for hours that they were not being fair, or course he thought the bible was truth, and they had missed the point of the controversy entirely. They were just too simple.

And then he would have denied the resurrection of Jesus.


So there are rumblings in the church these days from time to time on a different topic. And there are a lot of ways to make it very subtle and sophisticated. But applying the catechism treatment to it, you come up with a really simple question – and it pretty much answers itself once you ask it.

How much is the church required/supposed to cooperate in her work with those who do not teach the Word of God in its truth and purity? (To use the language of the 2 Petition).

If we transfer from the realm of prayer, to an equivalent question from the commandments (#2), it’s even more direct:

How much is the church required/supposed to cooperate in her work with those who lie or deceive in God’s name?

Which brings us to the first commandment, the root of it all, and the most obvious answer:

How much is the church required/supposed to cooperate in her work with idolaters?

To ask it is to answer it. And though I’ll probably be accused of misunderstanding or misstating the question, or of being uncharitable, unless someone can phrase it differently for me using the Small Catechism as the basis for clarifying and showing I am wrong, I’m sticking with the Small Catechism test on this one, as I tend to do on all questions in the church.

It turns out, the Small Catechism isn’t just a handbook for laymen, it’s also pretty handy for pastors. At least simple ones like me.

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Festal Letter

One of the most enjoyable parts of being a Circuit Visitor is that the synod bylaws describe me as a “brotherly advisor” to the pastors of the circuit. From time to time I will offer advice in writing. This past week I sent a festal letter to the circuit as we prepare for the season of our Lord’s incarnation. Some of it was about matters that only interest the circuit, but I thought I would share some other more public portions of it here. Perhaps you will find it edifying.

Fellow bond-servants of our Lord Jesus Christ,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who was made flesh to redeem our flesh, and who has honored man even above the angels by his incarnation. The mystery which we celebrate at this time of year is profound – who can properly understand such love, who can grasp the true nature of God, and in the incarnation, the true nature of man? We are surrounded by such great blessings, but can see so little. Even those who live by faith, not sight, can only receive the word and believe the promise. We can never grasp fully in this world what lies behind it. Thanks be to God for his ineffable nature, and his unfailing love!

I have long desired to pen a festal letter to the circuit, but have been prevented until now by press of other duties. In my final year, this duty is now, I believe, most pressing. So I write to encourage you in your work for the Gospel, that despite the changes and chances of our lives in this veil of tears, that you not become downhearted, but rather remain joyful in the Lord in all circumstances – whether in a time of peace, health, and prosperity, or a time of disorder, pestilence, and privation. Paul reminds us that in Christ we are content if we have only food and clothing. Our Lord Jesus tells us that even bread is less important than every Word which proceeds from the mouth of God. That is our true food. Dear brothers, we have the privilege and duty to feed God’s flock with that Word and promise. It is the only food that can not spoil, and that will endure into eternity. I know this year has been a difficult one for you all, and I know that most of you are entering the new year, and the celebration of our Lord’s arrival on earth – O blessed event that caused even the heavens themselves to be torn open with the angelic song! – wearied and with many cares for both your family and your flock. Saint Paul wrote truly that the greatest burden on ministers of our Lord is the daily concern for the churches. Despite our weariness, we rely ever more on the grace and mercy of God alone – it is sufficient, and we must rely on his strength rather than ours.

However each of us may feel about the much discussed pestilence that now drives men mad with fear, no one can deny the terrible effects it is having on our nation and our flocks. In addition to this, civil disorder has been a way of life for many months, and even the foundations of our nation’s republic are being called into question on all sides and in many and various ways. While we are citizens first of heaven, and only pilgrims in this world. Yet we owe to our earthly authorities our honor, obedience, and (most significantly) our prayers.

In previous times of trouble – pestilence and famine, war and bloodshed, sedition and rebellion, lighting and tempest, or any other calamity – the church would pray first and foremost that the Lord would use this to bring about repentance, and that he would stay his hand of judgment. Merely as one example, the collect in TLH for a time of Great Sickness begins by confessing “that we have justly deserved the chastening which for our sins Thou hast sent upon us…” and the same can be found in collects for Unseasonable Weather, In Time of National Calamity, etc. While our new hymnal is a treasure for the church and I rejoice in the increasing unity it has brought to our worship and prayer life, it carried over one weakness of Lutheran Worship (and her progenitor LBW) which shows how uniquely prosperous and sumptuously well fed we truly are in our time: The calls for repentance are missing or reduced from such prayers, and even the propers for such an occasion have been renamed from “Humiliation and Prayer” (in accordance with the command of our Lord in James 4 and 1 Peter 5) to “Supplication and Prayer”. There is not even a prayer for repentance included in the collects of the hymnal. I don’t say this to condemn, or to belittle the work of that hymnal, any more than it is a condemnation to note that the fan on the couch is not fit to enter the ball game which he cheers on the television. I have often noted the ease and comfort to which we became accustomed over the years. It seems now that our world may be returning to its more normal state – one in which the church is actively rather than passively despised. One in which peace and prosperity are rarer, and we must trust ever more the word and promises of God rather than our own genius. (And yet we are assured repeatedly by our leaders in state and nation that it is our own genius that will save, not the providential hand of God!) It is no criticism of the past to note prosperity , and we have been blessed beyond imagining with worldly comforts. God is gracious.

In addition to the preaching which you already have planned, I urge you to add a special petition of repentance to the life of prayer in your congregation in each service this Adventtide. To aid you in this, here are some suggestions: add a collect before the collect of the day. I would suggest perhaps TLH collect 52 (For Penitence, p. 107), or Litany collects 1, 3, & 5 (p.112). If appropriate, they may be added instead to the prayer of the church. The Litany itself may also be added as a prayer to any prayer office, and in times of great distress, it may be prayed at the beginning of the Divine Service (either before or in place of the Confession/Absolution). I leave to you how best to add a prayer or repentance to your congregation’s pattern of worship, but I exhort you during the season of Advent to do so.

Our Lord may yet relent of the judgment which it seems is now being brought on our nation and world. Our Lord is slow to anger, and he does abound in steadfast love. The birth of His only Son in the manger is proof of that love, mercy, and good will toward men. Let us prepare our hearts to receive him, to hear again the blessed word of salvation which He gives us in this season of His Nativity.

+In the Precious name of Christ+


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Overheard at Church

Yesterday I was talking to a member about what might be coming – there is talk of national lock-downs or various mandates, perhaps active persecution of one type or another – it seems that our society is going for the ancient Roman “they hate humanity” line once again. I suggested that the church will do what the church does: We gather to hear and receive the gifts of God in His Word and Sacraments, and then show mercy to those around us. Followed by this, which seemed worth repeating here at least:

Secularists seem to think that this is the church’s first rodeo.

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A Place for “Weak” Hymns

What is a hymn? Properly, it is a sung confession of the faith. To confess the faith is to speak back to God what he has said about himself. By that standard, a lot of songs in churches aren’t really hymns, because they don’t actually confess anything. Worship itself is not our doing, but God doing for us. “God wishes us to believe Him, and to receive from Him blessings, and this He declares to be true worship.” (Apology, Art 5).

If we take this definition seriously, (and we must if we wish to be Lutheran), then our hymns are not a walk down memory lane; worship is not equated with nostalgia. The hymns of our youth – as well as any new hymns – must be evaluated according to this standard, “How well does it confess Christ and His work?” And the truth is, many hymns don’t really do that very well. Much of today’s hymnody is just repetition of random phrases, not really any sort of statement of who God is and what he has done for us. Much traditional American/English hymnody talks a lot about me, but little about our Lord. (One of the most egregious examples is verse after verse about how I love to tell the story, but never actually tells any story.)

The Hymnal (LSB) has a lot of great hymns. It also has a few absolute clunkers – hymns that really don’t belong in the Divine Service, and so most pastors try to avoid them. But there are a number of hymns that are best described as “weak”. They focus a bit too much on me instead of Christ’s work. (eg. Just as I am) Or they confess in only the most limited way. (eg. Beautiful Savior). But there is a place for these hymns. We don’t have to sing only 16th century Lutheran Chorales.

As an example. Beautiful Savior fits in on Exaudi Sunday – the Sunday after Ascension. It may confess little, but surrounded by the readings for that day, and with thoughts of the ascension and session at the right hand of the Father in mind, it just clicks into place. The lack of confession in the words themselves is provided by the greater context of the Sunday. Joining it to the words of the hymn makes for a confession greater than the hymn itself offers.

So also Just as I am. I used that as a communion hymn this past week. It was NOT written as a communion hymn. It was a personal reflection on our own frailty. But with the words “that they blood was shed for me…” and then the phrase, “O Lamb of God, I come”, it shines as a communion hymn. Because it confesses the truth (a truth the author denied) that as we approach the table in weakness, we are strengthened with the true blood of our Lord as we take drink. What a wonderful confession this is! And what a beautiful communion hymn – even though it was never intended as such.

So, what is a “Weak hymn”? I would say it’s a hymn that matches a certain point in the church’s life, if used properly, but isn’t a good hymn for general application at all times. (eg. A Mighty Fortress” which can be sung at Baptisms, Funerals, Reformation Day, the XX Sunday after Trinity, Easter, Christmas, etc.) And these weak hymns, if applied properly, can be useful in teaching and confessing the faith.

So, I give thanks for them, and use them, and appreciate the blessing God gives through them.

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Sermon for Trinity 23: Render Unto Caesar

Busy week, so I have not had time to get my sermon posted before today, now that we are almost to next Sunday.

But for those struggling with how to respond to strange government rules that keep changing, perhaps you will find this sermon instructive and of some comfort.

This is a timely Gospel reading, and has been for the last 8 months. What authority does Caesar really have over us, and how should we respond? That’s been on our minds since March. But now, 8 months in, we’ve had a chance to calm down, catch our breath, to think about things a little more carefully. And here we are, still facing potential pandemic – more cases are recorded,  Hospitals are filling. Relaxed rules are tightened again. And we hear the Word of the Lord about what we owe to our governing authorities. Perhaps this can clear some things up for us. But before we get to that, let’s look at the text itself – make sure we understand what is going on. Then we can apply it to our own day.

Jesus is in Jerusalem for the last time. This is Holy Week – he will be dead by Friday. The leaders of the people – the scribes and Pharisees, are hoping to destroy his reputation among the people first or have the romans do the dirty work for them, instead of being on the hook for his death. Neither of those will work. If you want to oppose God, that’s on you. And if you want to oppose God, you run the risk of playing right into his hands. Jesus was always required to die for the sins of the world. That his enemies among the Pharisees as well as Satan, work so hard to bring that about only reinforces for us how in control of things God really is, and how true it is when he says “All things work together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Even death has been robbed of its power, and so death becomes the path of Jesus – the path to resurrection and eternal life.

The Pharisees don’t attack Jesus. They send their disciples to do it. The next couple of sections after this will see the Sadducees and Pharisees take their turns. Eventually they are all put to shame, and they won’t try talking to him again. Just arrest and crucifixion. This first test – even though the people who ask the question mean it for evil, we give thanks to God, because it gives Jesus a chance to teach us how we should think of our place in this world.

Notice the lie before the question – “We know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.” This whole statement – which they knew was a lie, they didn’t believe any of that – is really an indictment of themselves. The Pharisees aren’t here – they want their own disciples to try first so they can stay in the background. Obviously they care a great deal about how it looks – they want their wickedness to appear righteous to the world. They don’t want to make fools of themselves or be shown up as the hypocrites they are. And so they come with pious words spoken by forked tongues.

The question – is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not. Every year when we hear this, we review the situation in Israel. The Herodians – who were part of the group asking this question –  were basically in league with the Romans. The Pharisees – as well as most of the people – didn’t like Rome.  God had promised to Abraham that the land would be his forever. Rome was getting in the way of that promise. So, the people figured that Rome would one day get theirs. The Messiah would come, get rid of the hated Romans, and once again they would have their nation back – like in the days of David or Solomon (The glory days.) Rome is trying to thwart God’s promise to his people. Clearly they are wicked as a matter of principle. So if Jesus says “pay taxes to Rome” the people will think he’s just some shill. Clearly not the Messiah. If he says, “Don’t pay taxes to Rome” the Romans will have something to say about that. They aren’t very kind to those who recommend rebellion – and that’s what it was to say “don’t pay taxes.” So Jesus would be arrested, his death would be his own fault. Problem solved. Either way he answers, they have him.

Except he doesn’t answer either way. He asks for a coin. Now this is interesting. Because the Jewish law said they couldn’t have images. And the Roman coin had the image of Caesar – who was considered a god – as well as an inscription that called him divine. This was idolatry plain and simple. The Jews did object officially to the coins – they were allowed to mint their own coins for use in the temple, so they could keep images out of the temple. They were also allowed to use smaller bronze coins to pay the tax – it took more of them, but they were able to avoid using the dreaded image. But when Jesus calls for the coin, it is immediately produced. So even if they symbolically use other coins for the tax, even if they used other coins for the temple, they still used this coin. It was easy enough to find and hand to him. If they were being true to what they believed, they would have said, “We don’t use that coin at all for anything. We would rather starve than break the commandment.” But they wouldn’t rather starve. They wanted to make a show of faithfulness, to make a big production of how faithful they were, as long as it didn’t inconvenience them too much. Jesus calls out the hypocrisy.

And whose  image & inscription is on the coin – Caesars. And so Jesus says, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Give back to God what is God’s.” So what is Caesar’s? The coin – it has his picture, his inscription. It’s his. The old school-yard taunt comes to mind – I don’t see your name on it. Even kids understand that if your name is on it, it’s yours. Caesar’s name and picture are on it. Must be his. Northing else to see here. Give it back to him. Who cares?

But then, what does he mean “Render to God the things that are God’s?” Everything belongs to God. What does that leave? God made the ore that was mined to make the coin. So isn’t it really his? Ah, but God places people in authority. Parents over children, government over citizens, teachers over students, employers over employees. So they work as God’s representatives. Paul explains this in Romans 13, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.” So we owe obedience to parents. We say this in the fourth commandment – honor your father and mother, what does this mean “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise or anger our parents and other authorities, but honor them, serve and obey them, love and cherish them.” God establishes the authority of parents in the home. And he established the authority of government between households to keep the peace, to defend against danger, to provide safety and security for families. And so we are subject to these governing authorities, just as children are subject to parents. Jesus himself says this – he tells Pilate at his trial – you would have no authority over me if it had not been given you from above. Jesus says that he – the creator and ruler of the universe – has been placed under this middle manager of government, this basically nobody in a backwater little province of Rome. And yet, Jesus is under him. Because God has made it so.

What do we owe to God and what should we render to him? We owe him worship, fear love and trust, we are to call on him in every trouble, pray praise and give thanks, we are to gladly hear and learn his word. That’s what the commandments teach us. So we owe respect, honor and obedience to the government, we owe faith and trust and worship to God.

Does that all fit in with what we’ve been hearing all summer about loving our neighbor? Absolutely. We help our neighbor in every physical need, we help him in his marriage, we help him to improve and protect his possessions and income, we defend him, speak well of him and put the best construction on everything. All of this fits together, because we’re just summarizing the commandments.

Remember a couple of weeks ago when Jesus summarized the two tables of the law this way “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. And Love your neighbor as yourself.” Where do governing authorities fit into this, and how does that work for us? We owe them obedience and honor.

So, if we wanted to summarize this whole thing, it would go like this: Obey the ruling authorities, love your neighbor, worship the Lord.

But what of unjust laws? This law or that law that I find to be unfair, to be unpleasant, to be unjust. What do we do with those? Certainly we don’t owe obedience to laws that aren’t good?

But here’s a question that should help us to understand – do we owe love to our neighbor, even when he is unlovable or difficult? Yes. Do we owe trust and worship to God even when things look grim? Yes. Especially then. That’s when we prove that we do trust in him above all things. Otherwise, we are just paying him back for making life easy for us.

So we are to obey the ruling authorities even when they are unjust, love our neighbor even when he is unlovable, and worship and trust the Lord even when it seems as if we are forsaken.

One more thing about that – the order is really the other way around. We worship the Lord first and foremost. So if the ruling authorities tell us not to pray to him or not to worship him – as they did in the days of Daniel – we pray to him and worship him anyway. And if the ruling authorities tell us to bow down and worship the golden statue of the king or some other idol, we refuse as did Shadrach Meshach and Abednego. So also if the ruling authorities tell us to harm our neighbor, this we must not do either. Those are really the only limits on the authority of the government. Even when the government is being unreasonable or unjust – that’s their problem and they will answer to God for it. Our task is to honor and obey governing authorities. So where does that leave us in these strange times?

We worship the Lord God. We continue to hear and learn his word, to gather to receive the body and blood. And we don’t back down from that. That is what we do. Now sometimes circumstances get in the way. You are sick, or the snow is too deep, or some other problem arises where you are prevented from worship together. That happens. And those are acts of God. When we can’t gather to hear and learn because he has forbidden it, then we suffer under the cross he gives. Our homebound members know this burden only too well. And the line between active member and homebound can be a thin one indeed.

We are to love our neighbor and do what is best for them. If the authorities tell us to shoot our neighbor, then we do not do that. We try to help them as much as we are able. We show love in all things. That’s the real question in times of trial – how do I best show love to my neighbor? To help him in every bodily need, protect his possessions and income, and so on.

We are to be obedient, even when the rule is unjust toward us. We do not seek revenge or revolt against it. We obey the authorities God has placed over us, because they serve at his command. And if they make an rule that is unjust or unkind, or just plain stupid, that isn’t really our concern, unless following it would harm our neighbor, or prevent us from rendering to God the worship owed him.

See, here’s the thing. When Jesus is arrested, and he stands before Pilate, he says, “My kingdom is Not of this world.” Elsewhere scripture says we are strangers, foreigners, aliens.

Think of it this way – with Thanksgiving coming up, we can compare it to visiting someone else’s house. They have their own rules. Maybe they keep the TV volume all the way down so people can talk, but you can’t hear what the commentators are saying about the game, or they want to hear that, and turn it all the way up, and it’s WAY TOO LOUD. But you live with it – their house, their rules. Or they make the gravy too thin, or overcook the turkey. You live with it. You know you are going home to your own rules and your own way of doing things. So whatever rules are in place here, you can live with them for the afternoon.

We are not of this world. We are pilgrims in this world, journeying to the home that our Lord Jesus is preparing for us. And even though we are citizens of this nation, we are really just guests – we are citizens of our home country – the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will pass through this world, and then be taken to our home kingdom. Our home. To be with Jesus. So whatever rules this world has, as long as they don’t command us to stop worshipping God, or to worship idols, or to harm our neighbor, who cares. We can live with them for now, because soon – and very soon, our Lord will return. He will set all things to right. He will avenge every injustice. That isn’t our task. It is his. He will bring us out of this world into the light of the new creation.

So let Caesar be Caesar, let his image return to him. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, let us imprint his image in our hearts, in our minds, who for the joy set before him endured the cross – the greatest injustice for he was without sin and was made sin to pay for your sin – and now he reigns, and will return and then, the dead will be raised, the earth – and all authorities and powers of this world, will come to their final end.

Come quickly Lord Jesus. Amen.

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Requiescat in Pace

Roger Pittelko, Shepherd in Christ’s church, 1932-2020

“My father, my father, the chariot of Israel, and the horsemen thereof!”

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