Archive for December, 2011

Welcome home Tom Smith…

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

…and the rest of the BUSH Strike Group.

My brother, Tom, is home from deployment.  He was deployed with the USS H. W. BUSH CVN-77 with Carrier Strike Group 2 Staff.  You can get all the public information here.  Interesting tidbit to show you how small the Navy is.  Tom’s Admiral, RADML Tyson, became the skipper of the USS BATAAN LHD-5 sometime after I left the ship.

Good work, shipmates, welcome home, and thank you for your service to our country.

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Sermon for Advent 3

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

John 1:6-8, 19-28

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 04 Sermon for Advent 3.mp3

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

John came to bear witness, to be a witness of the Light, that is Jesus Christ, so that all people would believe that Jesus is the One God sent to take away the sins of the world.  This is the Good News God prophesied through Isaiah the prophet, realized in John the Baptist and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, the one who comes to take away the sins of the world.  It’s the very next verse on from our reading this morning that on the very next day from this John saw Jesus coming toward him and he said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29)  This is the Good News of the Gospel.

I say this because we have another reading today a wonderful reading from 1 Thessalonians that many people would confuse with the Gospel.  “Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.”  It is a wonderful reading but it’s not the Gospel.  It’s God’s Word but it’s not the Gospel.  We have a terrible problem in the Church that Christians can’t distinguish between the things that Christians are supposed to do and the things God has done for us in Christ.  It’s an important distinction as important as being able to tell the difference between life and death.

So God says through his messenger, Paul, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”  Who’s supposed to be doing these things?  Us or God?  Us.  This is the will of God for us to be doing something.  This is the Law of God.  “Rejoice always.”  How’s that working out for you especially during this time of year?  For some people the holidays are a wonderful time.  For others it’s a time when there’s more to do and not enough time or money to do it all.  So for some the instruction to rejoice is where we get stuck.  It’s hard to do.  For all you blissfully happy holiday people, it’s the always part.  Rejoice always, even if you can’t afford to rejoice in style, even if the end of the year reports still have to get done, even if.  Doesn’t seem fair does it?  Surely God will give me a break so I don’t have to rejoice always, but no.  The same holds true for the rest of the passage, “pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances… Abstain from every form of evil.”  All of this is the Law of God.  It is not the Gospel.  The Gospel is what God did for you, specifically in Christ Jesus.  The Gospel is what God did today for little Dakota.  “I forgive you all your sins.”  That’s Gospel.  God has done it for you.  Gospel.  Rejoice always.  That’s what you have to do.  That’s Law.

This is basic stuff, I realize but it seems like sometimes we Christians get a little unclear on the basics.  We read a passage like the one from the letter Paul writes to the Thessalonians and might begin to think that being a Christian has something to do with what we do.  It’s not hard from that passage to believe that there is a God who wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other.  This may be true, but again it is not the Gospel because the Gospel is not the same thing as taught by most world religions.  This is the thought behind the coexist bumper stickers we see more and more of.   The instructions to Christians in Thessalonica come as a result of the Gospel, they are not a path to the Gospel.  What is the Gospel, is the truth that Jesus came to die in the place of sinners, of you and me, and today, for little Dakota, now there is no doubt, Jesus died for him too.  He will grow up and be taught that truth.  He will grow up in that truth and learn to rejoice always, as a result of what Jesus has done for him.

This is why God sent a man to testify about Jesus.  What Jesus was sent by God the Father to do what unheard of, unimagined in the minds of people.  It was something so radically different Jesus needed a heard to come before Him and apostles He sent out after Him to proclaim the Gospel, the act of God to redeem people from sin and death and the power of the devil.  God sent us Jesus to that we would have a reason to rejoice always.  God sent Jesus so that we might be assured that when we pray without ceasing we are assured God the Father hears our prayers.  God sent Jesus so that we might be able to give thanks in all circumstances, because quite frankly, without Jesus we would very often not be all that thankful.  Hopefully by this point it is easy to see that the things we do come as a result of things that Jesus has done for us.  If not the whole next paragraph makes this point.  But before I get to that I want to ask a question.  “When good people die, do they go to heaven?”  Why?  Because they’re good?  Nope.  Sorry.  That’s not what the Bible says.  In fact it says quite the opposite.  It says bad people who believe in Jesus go to heaven when they die.  Sinners who trust in sacrificial Lamb of  God who takes away the sin of the world they are the ones who go to heaven when they die.  Plenty of God people don’t go to heaven when they die for a whole host of reasons but chiefly it’s because they don’t believe they need Jesus.  Now to that last bit from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians we have before this morning.

And so now hear this as Paul speaking to forgiven sinners, not good people.  “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.”  Who’s doing these things?  Who is sanctifying you?  Are you sanctifying yourself by always rejoicing and always praying and always giving thanks?  Are you sanctifying yourself because you have abstained from every form of evil?  No.  The God of peace Himself sanctifies you completely.  Who keeps your whole spirit and soul blameless until the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ?  Is it you?  Do you keep yourself blameless?  No, you don’t.  The verb is passive, “be kept”, “may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless.”  Who’s doing the keeping?  God is, not you.  Why?  Because God is faithful, God who sent his only begotten Son into the world but to save the world.  Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  Behold the One who comes to sanctify you, to keep you blameless.  He is God’s faithful one.  He has come for Dakota.  He has come for you.  Amen.

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Sermon for Advent 2 — Vespers

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

“Waiting with Comfort”

Augustana, 2011

Note:  Sorry, there’s no audio for this sermon. Only the title and perhaps the first section of this sermon was inspired by material in Concordia Pulpit Resources.

       Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

    Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

and cry to her

       that her warfare is ended,

that her iniquity is pardoned,

       that she has received from the Lord’s hand

double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2, ESV)

We heard this morning how John the Baptist prepared the way of Lord by preaching repentance to God’s people.  The very beginning of Mark’s Gospel has this quote from the Old Testament prophet Isaiah.  I have a confession to make to you this evening.  For the longest time, I had just this sort of foggy notion that there were some specific prophecies in the OT about Jesus, this one and one about a virgin giving birth to a Son in Isaiah 7, and the one about “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities” in Isaiah 53.  There were others, but they were even foggier and then the rest of the OT was just sort of Bible stories, really not much more than background material and texture for some of these prophecies.  I looked at the OT like it was a big piece of burlap on which there had been stitched a few precious jewels here and there.  And I couldn’t have been more ignorant of the OT.  The entire OT is more like an ornately woven tapestry in which the threads of every single event, person and prophecy are connected to Jesus as pointing to and fulfilling God’s plan of salvation for His people and the redemption of the whole world in His Son.  That’s how the evangelists and the apostles can quote sometimes even random things from the Scriptures, and what I mean specifically by saying the Scriptures, I mean the OT, and they say those things point to Christ.  We just had an example in Wednesday Bible class this past week about John 10, the much loved Good Shepherd passage.  Yes, what Jesus says is truly profound:  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  It’s very comforting and we have this comforting picture in our minds of Jesus the Good Shepherd.  And we can even get a little doctrinal too.  So yes, when Jesus says, “I am” He’s claiming to be the God of the OT, Yahweh Himself.  It’s a beautiful passage, truly it is.  But if we look at it by itself, it appears to be some finely woven peacock ornament in a beautiful tapestry.  But Jesus was not speaking in isolation and the people weren’t hearing him in isolation.  He and they had the prophet Ezekiel chapter 34 running in the background.  Through Ezekiel, the Lord promised that He Himself would shepherd His people, lead them to fine pasture, and feed them on the holy mountains of Israel.  When we have Ezekiel 34 as a background to Jesus word’s in John 10, we see that John 10 are not just some nice words spoken by a great teacher, they are the revealing of the Creator’s plan for the redemption of His creation.  The entire tapestry is seen as a fully integrated, interwoven piece of art.

Isaiah 40 is another passage from the Scriptures that must be seen in this light.  It simply will not do to see this passage a jewel on the otherwise burlap cloth of the OT.  It is part of the promise of God to rescue the world from sin and its punishment.  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

It is difficult for us to hear these words in their original context.  Things could not have gotten any worse for Judah.  The king had been led off in chains.  The city walls had been leveled.  The temple was in ruins.  The best and the brightest had been led off in chains to Babylon.  Those left were the poorest of the poor.  The destruction was so total, so systematic, it is hard to find any historical precedent we could identify with.  Maybe Berlin after the allied bombing.  Maybe Atlanta after Sherman.  It was just utter desolation.  But it was really worse than that.  The worst was that the glory of the Lord departed from the temple.  The divine presence of Yahweh, the glory of the Lord, the Kavod Yahweh, which had filled the temple like thick smoke in Isaiah’s vision in Chapter 6, was gone.  The people had no access to God.  They had no place to receive the forgiveness and favor of God.  The Lord had left them.  This is the context in which the people heard the words from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”

“Comfort, comfort my people.”  The Lord repeats himself.  He’s not being redundant; the Lord is now pouring out double blessing.  He is pouring out the Gospel in double measure because the Lord always gives more than we expect, desire, or deserve.  Double comfort is the language of the Gospel.  Double blessing on the people of God in forgiveness of sins, double the blessing in the place of the punishment that was deserved.  “Comfort, comfort my people.”

Isaiah then goes on to record the prophecy of the Lord concerning the victory of the king returning from battle.  Heralds are sent ahead of the returning king to spread the good news of the king’s victory.  The people should turn out and prepare to celebrate the return of the victorious king.  I remember seeing movies of the tickertape parades down Broadway in New York City after World War II.  We’re getting close to understanding the return of the king.  All is set right.  The valleys are raised, the mountains are made low, the rough places leveled.  This returning king is not some earthly monarch; it is the Lord God Himself returning to Zion.  Even the glory of the Lord which had departed returns.  “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”  And truly, after Israel’s captivity in Babylon, the Lord restored His people.  They returned to Jerusalem.  The walls were rebuilt and even the temple was rebuilt and the temple worship was restored.  But the glory of the Lord did not return.  There is no account of the return of the glory of the Lord, the Kavod Yahweh, to the rebuilt temple, to what we call the second temple.  The glory of the Lord did not return to Jerusalem until he walked in on two feet in the flesh of Jesus, God’s Christ.  Thus St. John tells us, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (Jn 1:14)  This is the ultimate understanding of Isaiah’s prophecy, “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

It is a great blessing to be able to see something as beautiful as a tapestry and to understand its beauty.  The human spirit is buoyed by such encounters with true beauty.  How much greater it is to behold the Word of God, to grasp not just with the mind but with the heart and the soul the beauty of the plan of God’s rescue for His people through His Christ.  For the life of me, I am truly stunned at my own ignorance of the Scriptures.  As much as I have learned over the years, I feel like I keep learning more about what I don’t know.  And I repent, truly.  But I must repent of more than just my ignorance.  I must repent of my sloth.  One of the prayers I pray on Saturday evening in preparation for preaching on the Lord’s day reads, something like, forgive my sloth, the wasted time in seminary and the wasted time in preparation for the great task before me.”   And so I repent, truly.  And we must truly repent of our not just our ignorance but our unwillingness to seriously study the Word of God.  God reveals Himself through His Word.  So when we reject the study of God’s Word it is sinful because we reject God Himself.  We cannot reject the Scriptures because they tell us of God’s Christ.  We’re not studying to to become Bible trivia champs.  When we study the Word of God we are in the presence of the Holy Spirit who gives true understanding and strengthens faith.  The Scriptures reveal the Glory of God because they reveal not just the person of Christ but His work.  The Glory of the Lord became flesh and dwelled among so that He might climb a humble mountain called Calvary.  Jesus knew He came to die.  He knew He was born to be lifted up on the cross in the place of sinners.  He knew that when He would be lifted up on the cross on that mountain, the glory of the Lord would be revealed to all people and that by being lifted up He would draw all people to Himself.  “Comfort, comfort, my people.”  The Lord pours out forgiveness double the punishment for sin.  He pours it out for you.

The Scriptures declare the works of God.  They are a complete whole, a finely woven tapestry of immense complexity and sheer beauty.  Through the Scriptures we learn of God’s great plan to rescue all people from sin, death and the power of the old adversary, the devil.  “Comfort, comfort, you my people.”  Tracing the promise from Isaiah to John the Baptist to Jesus the glory of the Lord Himself is to trace but one golden thread among so many.  Dear Christian friends, behold your God, your King, your Good Shepherd who comes to you to rescue you from sin death and the power of the devil.  This is your God who comes this Advent night to deliver to you these words, “Be comforted; be comforted, my people.”  Amen.

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Sermon for Advent 2 — Mark 1:1-8

December 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 03 Sermon for Advent 2.mp3

The new Church Year begins at the beginning.  The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ here in Mark chapter 1.  At the beginning is the forerunner, the one who points to the one who is to come, John the Baptizer.  Mark doesn’t tell us much about John.  For him, it is enough to say John is the one foretold by Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”  Surely that should be enough.  Should it not?  This is he whom the greatest prophet, Isaiah, foretold of some 600 hundred years ago.  Here he is just as Isaiah promised, a voice crying in the wilderness.  “Prepare the way of the Lord.  Make his paths straight.”

Mark continues, “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  And John wasn’t preaching the Gospel either.  He was preaching the Law. He was preaching a baptism of repentance.  He was a forerunner. There was someone coming after him.  The mighty one is coming.  “Prepare the way of the Lord!”  It’s as if he said, “The Lord is coming.  Here’s your chance to get right before He comes.  He is coming soon, and, trust me, you aren’t ready.  Repent.  Confess your sins and repent.  When he comes, you won’t want to be one of those who haven’t confessed their sins.”

Luther writes (SA III 5) that John is called a preacher of repentance because he was called by God to preach repentance to prepare for the coming one.  This is a repentance that is not just concerned about feeling bad about past sins but truly a repentance that leads to the forgiveness of sins.  John was sent by God to accuse and convict all of their sin and to preach repentance.  Preaching repentance sounds like a harsh thing.  It is certainly often heard that way.  But think on your God who loves you so much that he sent someone to preach to you that you are sinner and stand lacking in the presence of the holy God.  God sends prophets and preachers to urge you to understand how desperately you need what Jesus came to bring, forgiveness of sin, life and salvation.  Isaiah told us God would send such a messenger, a voice in the wilderness.  Mark tells us that voice sent by God was John.  God sent the voice.

In his commentary on Isaiah, Luther has choice words for those who would despise the preaching of the Word while they sit in corners waiting for the Spirit’s revelation, apart from the voice of the Word! (AE 17:8) As we were reminded Wednesday at the commemoration of St. Andrew, Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God.  “How are they to believe … without a preacher?” (Rom 10:14) (AE 17:8)  John tells us that the Lord is breaking into history to come to the aid of His people, and not just His people but all people. (v. 5)  But in order to be helped, you need to know how you need helping.

When we go to the doctor and complain of some ailment, the doctor is listening and performing the art of diagnosis.  He’s trying to sort out the difference in our cough from bronchitis to pneumonia or something even worse.  Sometimes tests are ordered, they can help tell what’s wrong.  Typically the doctor will say, “Yep, sounds like sinus infection.”  A diagnosis is made.  A cure is proposed.  Rarely do we receive the cure without knowing what’s wrong.  A patient should be involved in his own care.  It’s hard to keep taking a pill when you don’t know why or what it’s helping.  This is the way it is supposed to work with God too.

Increasingly, though, we would prefer a cure from the Great Physician without really facing what truly wrong with us.  Oh we complain of the illness’ effects.  I don’t have peace in my life.  We can’t seem to be forgiving toward others.  Our children and grandchildren have despised the Word of God and the preaching of it.  We sure would like it if all the effects of our sins were soothed away but we can’t bear the diagnosis.  We don’t want to be reminded of our shame.  We would rather just come to church and feel better about these things and ourselves.  Just take the cure without knowing the disease.  But that is not proper care.  We must face the diagnosis.  We must listen to John and his descendants, the preachers who preach the Word of God.

That was John’s message.  Repent.  All of you.  You are like the Jews who attend the temple worship their hearts are far from God.  You go so that you can say you went but show no benefit of it.  It’s like sometimes when we’re reading a book and our minds wander and we realize we’ve “read” an entire paragraph without paying any attention to it.  Except that we go through church that way.  John preached that everything was not right with us.  We are like them, focused on the wrong things.  We stand in need of repentance.  Only in that way, do we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord and the forgiveness He comes to bring.

John prepared the people to receive the ministry of Jesus.  After John had prepared people for Jesus’ coming, people knew that the one John pointed to would be special.  The One coming after John would be significant.  He would be the One long promised and now arrived.  Jesus was all that and more.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit that Jesus brought was more than an act of repentance or even obedience.  The baptism of the Holy Spirit, such a tiny little phrase, but in that tiny little phrase is the riches of the entire kingdom of heaven all of it given to any who received it, to you, by water and the Word of Jesus.  The baptism Jesus brought has its true meaning only in His death on the cross and His resurrection from the grave.  What John began doing as a sign of repentance, Jesus turned into the way He would bestow on people the Holy Spirit.

Jesus came only for sinners, not for righteous people who did not need His forgiveness.  He came for those who were repentant, who faced the diagnosis of the Great Physician and said, “Yes, Lord, I am indeed a sinner.  Have mercy on me.”  And so when Luther encourages us to remember baptism, it is certainly not to encourage us to remember the event but to remember why we needed to be baptized.  You are a sinner.  That’s why you were baptized.  He has called you and made you His own child.  He came for you, to save you, to show you mercy, to hear your prayer and bring you healing, to give you peace, and to make you a hearer of His Word.  Jesus came for you.

Isaiah said the voice would cry out in the wilderness.  John the forerunner said the coming One was on His way.  He gave fair warning you weren’t ready.  Repent.  He’s right around the corner.  Behold, he has come.  Repent and be forgiven.  He has baptized you with His Holy Spirit.  Remember always what He did for you, how He came for you.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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Did you ever stop and think about the time frames involved?

December 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Another thought that just didn’t make the cut this week.

John the Baptist was the returning King’s herald, Mark explains by quoting Isaiah.  A thought made all the more remarkable when we understand that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 597 BC, some six hundred years before John arrived in the region of the Jordan preaching a message of repentance and proclaiming the return of the King.  Try to imagine someone in 1411 prophesying with such accuracy about anything happening today and it’s easy to see why some believe Isaiah could not have been so accurate. Isaiah is not Nostradamus; Isaiah is the prophet of the Lord.  He proclaims words of God’s comfort.  Double comfort.  He proclaims the return of the king.  He prophesies that a voice crying will come. He prophesies that it will be in Jerusalem that we shall again behold God.  “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  Jerusalem herself now becomes herald to announce the grace of God.  And thus the Good News of the salvation of all people worked by Christ was spread to the whole world beginning in Jerusalem.  Truly uncanny accuracy from 600 years prior to the event.

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A thought about heralds from the sermon cutting room floor

December 1, 2011 Leave a comment

John the Baptist was the returning King’s herald, Mark explains by quoting Isaiah.  What will the herald proclaim but the very Word of the King Himself.  But Isaiah the herald too, must speak to the people.  To Israel held captive by the most powerful nation on earth, Isaiah must speak a word from the Lord.  And the word is not very comforting: “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.”  We are all going to die.  This is a word of Law from the Lord.  No matter how powerful you are, no matter how wealthy, no matter how successful you are, like the grass of the field you will die.

Proclaiming the Word of the Lord is not really an enviable task.  It certainly wasn’t for Isaiah nor for John the Baptist.  And people today are no more kind to true preachers than their ancestors.  In our heart of hearts we want to listen to people who make us feel better about ourselves not worse.  And so the TV is filled with preachers like Joel Osteen and his ilk.  Like Robert Schuller and his Hour of Power, Osteen tells people to dream big because God fulfills our dreams.  That’s a different message than the message of the Scriptures.

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