Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Sermon: Wednesday of Holy Trinity

25 May 2005, Salem L.C., Gretna, LA

Text: John 3:1-17

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Today’s Gospel text is a favorite among Christians – as it should well be. In her collective wisdom, Mother Church has for centuries used this passage as the Gospel reading for the Feast of the Holy Trinity. And this passage is likewise the source of much of what is beloved (and also wrong) in our modern American religious culture.

Jesus tells Nicodemus that in order to be a part of the Kingdom of God, we must be “born again.” To our 21st century American ears, a certain image jumps immediately to mind. We must have a so-called “born again experience.” We must come to an “hour of decision” in our lives, we must ask the Lord Jesus to “come into our hearts,” and we must live a new life. Notice how many times I used the word “must.” “We must…” “We must…” We must…”

The media speaks of certain kinds of Christians as “born again” – as though one can be a Christian and not be “born again.” In our religious culture – fueled by a media that knows nothing about the true, ancient, apostolic, orthodox, catholic faith – “born again” means something very different than what our Lord speaks of. To them, a “born again” Christian is one who favors “deeds not creeds” (and would hardly be expected to recite the Athanasian Creed as we will do shortly). To them being “born again” means being emotional, raising one’s hands in the air, singing expressive, simple ditties, having no liturgy, and a pastor that likes to call attention to himself. To them, being “born again” typically means being “holier than thou” and often means being a hypocrite.

We Americans thrive on emotionalism. We love nothing more than when someone cries on Oprah, when a basketball player pumps his fist in triumph, or when a politician speaks to us “from the heart.” We love preachers that prance around and make faces and tell us how much they love Jesus. We love the rush of adrenaline that comes with an emotional high, and we confuse this short and passing feeling with the working of the Holy Spirit. Many Christians even go so far as to place this feeling over and above what Scripture teaches and what the Church confesses. After all, shouldn’t we always trust our heart? Shouldn’t we follow what our feelings tell us? Isn’t the warm emotional tingle a better guide to the working of the Spirit than an old, dusty book of Christian doctrine written by Germans 500 years ago?

And so, dear friends, thanks to this misunderstanding, many of those for whom our Lord suffered and died never hear the Gospel. They presume the Christian faith is all about being a nice, caring, touchy-feely person. And why do I need to go to church to be a nice person? We all know what we must do in order to be nice. “We must…” “We must…” “We must…”

Now, to be sure, we must be a kind and caring person. This is the Law. We must love our neighbor as ourselves. We must love God with all our heart and mind. But we don’t. And no amount of singing “And they’ll Know We Are Christians By Our Love” and waving our hands in the air with tears in our eyes will make it so.

And please, dear brothers and sisters, don’t misunderstand me. I am not against emotion. Why shouldn’t we get choked up when we again witness the miracle of our Lord coming to us in his Body and Blood, opening the gates of Heaven, and giving us eternal life? How else can a Christian respond to the unmerited gift, the infinite grace, of our Lord who suffered and died in our place? Of course, there is nothing un-Lutheran about reacting emotionally to the Gospel and to the Sacraments. But the emotion is only a reaction. It is not evidence of the Spirit any more than the rush of adrenaline that comes when our team wins in the final seconds, or when we emotionally enjoy committing a sin that so grieves our Lord. The problem is when the emotion becomes the “means of grace” and displaces the pulpit, the font, and the altar. And this is what most people think of when they hear “born again.”

It is also what comes to mind when people think about our Lord’s words at the end of our text in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Only a stone couldn’t react with emotion in the face of our Lord’s sacrifice, the Gospel, the eternal life given to us by grace. But the emotion is not where the rubber meets the road. The emotion is after the fact. Emotion doesn’t save us, but rather the sacrifice of the Son by the Father, which is grasped by faith given to us by the Spirit. The Holy Trinity’s action in redeeming us is what saves us – not our own tears, raised hands, and music designed to manipulate our emotions. Nor is God’s emotion what saves us. We often misunderstand the “so” in this verse to be a matter of quantity, often expressed emotionally. “God loved the world so, so, very much, that he sent his Son.” But this isn’t how the original text reads. The English word “so” used here really means “thus” or “in this way.” The love of God is demonstrated “in this way,” that God sent his only begotten Son to die for us.

The love manifested “in this way” is true love, self-sacrificing love, love that is eternal and unconditional – not a love based on warm, fuzzy feelings and an emotional high. So what does it mean to be “born again” if it does not mean singing “praise songs” and swaying back and forth?

Fortunately for us, Nicodemus was confused, and our dear Lord, who is called “Rabbi” or “Teacher” explains his choice of words for us. And we do well to heed our Master’s instruction.

Jesus explains the entry into the Christian life not as a choice, not as an emotional act of will power, but rather as a second birth. Being born of the Spirit is similar to being born in the flesh. We are born weak, helpless, and dependent (something our Lord Jesus knows about himself). We are born without any will or decision on our part. We make no choice to be born. We don’t ask to be made alive – rather it just happens to us. And this is just like the Christian life. We are born spiritually with no decision on our part, without any strength of our own, totally dependent on our spiritual parents: the Church our Mother, who brings us to God our Father through Jesus Christ his Son, and the breath of the Holy Spirit gives us eternal life. And while the birth of a child is a deeply emotional experience, emotion does not bring a child into this world. It is rather a miracle, a divine act by our Triune Creator. The second birth is likewise an act of divine creation, a miracle wrought by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

And just as we are birthed from our fleshly mother’s womb, nourished by blood through a cord, surrounded by a bag of water, we receive our second birth, our spiritual birth, in a similar way. “Unless one is born by water and the Spirit…” says our Lord. We are born again in the womb of the baptismal font, nourished by water, and given new life by the shed blood of our Lord, given to us by our mother the Church. And what could be a better illustration of our Lord’s words than the baptism of an infant? He has no will of his own. He has no ability to decide for himself to be alive. He is completely dependent on mother, father, pastor, and fellow believers to bring him to the font, to birth him a second time.

And, dear Christian friends, look at how the “we musts” dissolve into nothing. To be born again, one need not do anything. The “wind (that is, the Spirit) blows where he wishes.” He gives a second birth to those whom he chooses. And instead of “we must,” we now have freedom. Instead of doing good works out of compulsion, trying to appease God, struggling to climb our way up to him, we are freed from the law. We are thus liberated and empowered to do good works out of love, out of gratitude, out of our new life that comes from the Spirit and water. It is no longer us, but Christ in us, who does good works. The good works, like emotion, come afterwards. They are a reaction, not a cause. And just as there is nothing wrong with good works (God forbid that we Lutherans should fall into that trap!), there is nothing wrong with emotion. The only problem with good works and emotion are when we begin to depend on them instead depending on our Lord.

There is no need ever to use the phrase “born again Christian,” for all Christians are born again. And in case your emotions let you down (as they often do), in case Satan ever manipulates your emotions to attack your faith (as the wicked old serpent so often does), we can do like Martin Luther and shake our fists at the devil, cross ourselves, and proclaim “I am baptized.” For as many of us as have been baptized have put on Christ, are a new creation, and have been born again, of water and Spirit. And whether we respond emotionally or not, this is reality. It is as real as the water that came streaming from the side of our Lord, the water that poured from your mother at your first birth, and the water that was applied to you at the baptismal font…

…in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the + Holy Spirit. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Sermon: Pentecost

15 May 2005 at Mt. Olive L.C., Metairie, LA

Text: John 16:5-11 (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:1-21) (3 Year)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Jesus sometimes says things that are hard to understand. And you can imagine how much harder it was for the disciples without having the advantage of hindsight! Jesus, the Messiah who has been promised and expected since God Himself told the devil that a descendant of Eve would crush the serpent’s head, is now telling his followers that he is going to leave them – and this is to their “advantage.”

For thousands of years, the prophets have foretold the savior of Israel and the whole world whose kingdom would have no end. And finally, after so much misery – captivity in Babylon, the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple, occupation by the Persians, the Greeks, and now the Romans, at last, he is here! He was worshipped by the magi, he was declared to be the Messiah by John the Prophet, he did extraordinary miracles – including raising the dead. And now, as the time comes for him to take his throne, he tells everyone: “Well, I’m going away now. And this is to your advantage.” It is no wonder that everyone is too intimidated or afraid to ask him “where are you going?” Just as whenever Jesus started talking about his upcoming death on a cross, the room suddenly got quiet with everyone looking down at their sandals.

This is where faith comes in. This is the really hard part about the Christian life. When our reason tells us one thing, and when Jesus tells us something else, how do we override our reason? This is what it means to have faith – it is belief even when belief seems ridiculous. Such a faith cannot be cultivated by will power, by using reason against itself, nor by making some kind of “decision” to have faith. No, this kind of faith is purely a gift from God, completely by grace, and entirely the work of the Holy Spirit. It is a childlike trust that Father knows best – even when our rebellious egos think otherwise.

So Jesus really puts his hearers’ faith to the test. They don’t want to hear about him going away. Remember when Peter, James, and John witnessed our Lord in his transfiguration glory? Remember how Peter said: “Let’s stay here, build tents, and never leave this glorious place!” But Jesus said “No.” That may have been Peter’s selfish desire, but it was not God’s plan. There’s work to be done, and God has a plan to get it done.

This work is the salvation of mankind, the re-creation of the fallen universe, the reparation of what we have broken. God’s glorious plan is not only to save us from Hell (that alone would be sufficient), but also to re-make all of creation without the stain of sin and the misery of death. He “goes to prepare a place for us,” he said. But to do that, he has to go. Part of the plan of Jesus’ coming is for Jesus to return to his Father for the next phase of the battle plan. Satan is mortally wounded, and now we are in the endgame of the war that will see our final and complete liberation.

So, while Jesus returns to his Father, he needs his ministry to continue on earth. But how can this be done? How can Jesus leave the salvation of the world and the reclamation of the universe in the hands of eleven sinful men – all of whom abandoned him when he was arrested. How could the likes of Thomas the doubter, Peter the coward, and James and John who wanted to be considered better than the other disciples – carry out this work? Clearly, they needed some help – some divine help. They needed God himself.

So Jesus empowers his Church by sending the Holy Spirit to them. Our reading from Acts spells out in great detail how the tiny band of confused men in a very short time became the New Israel that today includes some one forth of the people on the planet. God the Father (the first person of the Trinity) and Jesus (the second person of the Trinity), sent the Holy Spirit (the third person of the Trinity) to continue the work and ministry of Jesus.

And like Jesus, the Spirit is humble. He doesn’t call attention to himself, but quietly carries out the will of the Father and the ministry of the Son. For Jesus tells us in our text that He, the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, doesn’t speak “on his own authority,” and that he “will glorify me” – that is, he glorifies Jesus, not himself. He takes what the Father has given to the Son, and what the Son has given to the Spirit, and the Spirit showers the Church with these gifts. His job is to guide the Church to truth. Like a rudder, the Holy Spirit keeps the Ark we call the Church pointing in the right direction. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is able to steer the ship.

How does this work?

We see in our Epistle text that when the Spirit came, the apostles were given the gift of boldness, the ability to communicate with preaching in such a way that the language barrier was overcome, and the Gospel might go forth unto all the world. In response, the apostles were mocked. They were accused of being drunks – the same thing Jesus was accused of. But they were not drunk with wine, but rather they were filled with the Holy Spirit, which gave them abilities that others did not have.

The language barrier – which came about at the Tower of Babel because of man’s sinfulness – had been overcome, as people of many different nationalities heard the Gospel proclaimed in their native tongues. The fear that once crippled these first pastors was gone. Jesus’ prophecy that it would be “an advantage” for Jesus to go away was being proven true. For instead of only having one Christ to contend with, one preacher of the Gospel, one mouth out of which flowed the Word of God, now the Devil must contend with an army of preachers – all empowered by the Holy Spirit himself, all bearing the Word of God himself, all baptizing, all handing out the Body and Blood of Christ himself – all at the same time, in every nation, and flooding the world with the Gospel in every tongue.

And it was meant to be this way all along. For in our Old Testament reading, the prophet Joel gives us a glimpse into Acts 2 at least six centuries Before Christ. This was the master-plan. The Father would sacrifice his only begotten Son, who would rise from the dead and ascend to the right hand of the Father, and then the Work of salvation would be carried out by the Church with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. This work will continue until our Lord returns to bring history to a close.

And this is why Paul can say the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” She is guided by the Holy Spirit – whom Jesus calls the “Spirit of Truth.” The Lord himself promised that not even the gates of Hell would overcome the Church – and this is because of the work of the Spirit.

The work of the Spirit is often misunderstood. In the last 100 years – and especially in the last 40 years or so, people in many church bodies have tried to redefine the work of the Holy Spirit. Rather than seeing the Spirit as supporting the ministry of Jesus by empowering the Church to preach the Gospel, they set the work of the Spirit over and above Jesus’ ministry. Some Churches have replaced the cross with the dove. Some churches have turned the Trinity on its head by making the Holy Spirit into a false god to be worshipped apart from the other persons of the Trinity. Some Christians insist that baptism is incomplete without an additional “laying on of hands” that makes you jump up and down and jabber in baby talk. Such teachings don’t glorify Jesus, but rather call attention to oneself. “Look at me! I speak in tongues. I have ‘spiritual gifts,’ and you don’t. All you have is a pastor absolving you. You need more!” Such teachings are false, because they denigrate Holy Baptism and the simple preaching of the Gospel in search of bombastic signs, prophecies, and miraculous “healings.” Such teachings of the Holy Spirit are all about the sizzle and not about the steak, and are alarmingly close to those that are professed in various cults.

This is why the church fathers devoted so much time agonizing about the Trinity. This is why we confess the creeds. In fact, some of the exact wordings in the Nicene Creed were in direct response to a group of heretics called the Montanists – who stressed such a distorted view of the Holy Spirit and championed enthusiastic worship, babbling in nonsense, the claim to the gift of prophecy, and women’s ordination. As Solomon so wisely noted: “There is nothing new under the sun.”

The real work of the Holy Spirit may not be as extravagant as the televangelists and phony faith healers promote – but it is even more miraculous. In the laying on of hands by pastors, the Holy Spirit is given to men to preach, baptize, forgive sins, and feed God’s people with the very Body and Blood of Christ. That sinful men can do such mighty acts for the Kingdom is proof that the Spirit is at work, and Jesus is physically present. That’s the real miracle. In Mark 2, when Jesus forgives the sins of the paralytic, the Pharisees were outraged. Jesus cured him of his paralysis and told him to walk as a sign, as proof of the real miracle – the forgiveness of sins. While thousands of people pack stadiums to watch celebrity preachers strut and make a show of false miracles, the Holy Spirit works genuine miracles every day, in churches around the world like this one, as ordinary men, filled with the Holy Spirit, pronounce the forgiveness of sins in the Name of the Trinity before a handful of people – opening the gates of heaven to those who believe. That belief is indeed a miracle and a sign of the Holy Spirit’s work in the believer’s life.

Similar to when a pastor is ordained by the laying on of hands, when a Christian is baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, he is likewise given the gift of the Holy Spirit, who hovers over the waters as he did “in the beginning” and who guides the Christian into all truth. He is our helper, comforter, and advocate, the one who points us to Jesus and leads us where he may be found: the Church. It is this Holy Spirit that dwells in the temple of the Christian’s body, leads him to the Holy Sacraments, and draws him to where the Scriptures are read, where the Gospel is proclaimed, and where the Body and Blood of Jesus are distributed. He beckons us, woos us, calls us, and broods over us. He is the “Lord and giver of life.” And it is this Spirit’s work in our lives that attracts us to the faith, keeps us in the faith, and sanctifies us as we live out the faith.

And while the Holy Spirit is fully God, and while it is fitting that we pray to him, praise him, confess his divinity in the creed, acknowledge his miraculous works in our midst, and worship him - let us truly honor the Holy Spirit by honoring Jesus. For what pleases the Spirit is when we follow his lead – and that lead takes us to the crucified Jesus, where our sins are forgiven, where our bodies are made fitting temples of the Holy Spirit, and where we pray that the good and gracious will of our Father may be done.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Sermon: Thursday of Easter 6 (Exaudi)

12 May 2005 at Lutheran High School Chapel, Metairie, LA

Text: Luke 20:1-8

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Sometimes a question really isn’t a question. The enemies of Jesus – the chief priests, scribes, and elders – “ask” him a question: “Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who is it that gave you this authority?”

At first, it might seem rude that Jesus doesn’t answer their question. That is, until we realize the question is really not a question at all. It is a carefully crafted insult of our Lord, a denial of who he really is. The “question” is really a statement of unbelief in Jesus – which after all, is the unpardonable sin. Jesus could have answered their “question” – but it would have made no difference at all. Sometimes when people “ask” us a question, they already have the “answer.” This is certainly the case with Jesus in our text today.

His enemies ask him by what authority he “does such things.” What things? Jesus has just “cleansed the Temple” – that is, he has just run off the moneychangers and overturned their tables. Jesus had no permission from Herod, nor the priests, nor Pilate, nor the soldiers, nor anyone in charge. But Jesus is God, the Temple belongs to him, he needs no permission. Jesus has authority in himself to create the world, to destroy the world, to save us, to condemn us, to destroy the Temple and to raise it up again in three days – if he chooses. Jesus has authority to lay down his life and take it up again. Jesus is God, he is the Lord, he is Yahweh of the Old Testament. He is the Alpha and the Omega.

But his enemies don’t believe this. This is why they would like to see a note from somebody “in charge” – denying as they do that Jesus is “in charge.”

This is quite an illustration. These people know perfectly well who Jesus is. They know where he gets his authority. They know, but they don’t believe. We modern folks like to turn the word “know” and “believe” into the same thing. “Know Jesus, know peace” says the bumper sticker. But the chief priests, scribes, and elders knew all too well who Jesus was. They watched him perform miracles and preach with authority as they had never seen for three years. They saw him cure lepers before their eyes. And their response? They complained that he did it on the Sabbath.

Yes, these people knew who Jesus was, but they did not believe in him. The demons likewise knew Jesus, just as they know him today. They know, yet they don’t believe. They know Jesus is both God and man, they know he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. They know who his Father is, and from where he gets his authority. They know, and yet they remain condemned because they do not believe.

Knowledge and belief are two different things. This is why Jesus can refer to infants in Matthew 18 as “those who believe in me.” Infants do not “know” Jesus. They have no intellectual knowledge of him. And yet, unless Jesus is a liar, infants can indeed believe in him. They can indeed have faith. And yet grown men who watched Jesus raise people from the dead and multiply loaves and fishes, and cure the sick by the thousands, men whose lives were spent studying the Law and the Prophets, many of whom knew Jesus personally and intimately – did not believe.

Faith is indeed a great mystery. And Jesus exposes his enemies’ lack of faith by raising the issue they have raised to begin with: authority. Now, Jesus links “authority” to baptism. He asks them: “Is John’s baptism a divine sacrament from heaven, or is it only a symbolic human action?” The elders know perfectly well what John’s baptism is, but they do not believe in it. Instead of simply confessing what they believe, they manipulate an answer based on how their answer will be taken by the people. In other words, they don’t care for what is true, but rather only for what is popular. So they avoid all controversy by refusing to answer the question. Jesus cleverly responds by refusing to answer their question. They already know the answer, they just don’t believe.

But what does Jesus say about authority? First of all, what is “authority”? It’s different than “power.” Authority is delegated, that is, it is passed down the line. The President’s authority flows down from himself, through the generals, through the officers, through the non-coms, right down to the lowest-ranking private soldiers. Nobody gives orders by his own authority – everybody has a boss. If the police search a person’s home, they must have the authority to do so – granted by a judge via a warrant. If you leave the country, when you return, you must establish your authority as a citizen by producing some kind of proof. Even driving a car requires a license of authority.

Jesus has every right to claim ultimate authority – and yet he chooses to act on his Father’s authority. He tells us before his ascension that “all authority” has been given him by the Father. This is precisely what Jesus’s enemies know, but don’t believe. Satan himself knows this, yet doesn’t believe. Jesus humbles himself to submit to the Father. And he passes this authority on to the Eleven disciples when he gives them the commission to baptize and preach. The apostles have passed that authority on through the centuries to bishops of the church today. A pastor doesn’t baptize or preach by his own authority, but only under the authority granted him by Jesus via his ordination.

Authority is the mechanism by which God gets things done. He delegates healing authority to doctors, he delegates teaching authority to educators, he delegates artistic authority to musicians, and grants police authority to secular governments. All authority ultimately flows from God.

As I told you juniors in the ring ceremony – you have authority as student leaders of Lutheran High. But this authority is for the purpose of God using you to get his work done. The purpose of authority is not to lord over people, not to wield authority just for its own sake. Authority is entrusted to us in order to use it wisely, to carry out the Lord’s will with it.

Jesus demonstrated the ultimate authority by laying down his life to take away our sins, and the taking up of his life again in order to become the “firstborn” of those who have conquered death. Jesus explained the true meaning of authority: for the greatest to become the lowliest, for the master to become the servant, for him who has been given much to do much. And he is precisely describing his own ministry here! Jesus, the King of the universe becomes the slave of all mankind. He who is perfect and exalted by angels becomes the carrier of all sin and is spat upon by criminals. He who is the author of all life himself tastes the most bitter death ever experienced. Authority is not about rights, privileges, and power, but rather about service, love, and sacrifice.

And this is precisely what the chief priests, scribes, and elders just don’t get. These are men with authority who abuse their authority to serve themselves. They are so blinded by their selfishness that they cannot see what is obvious: that Jesus has all authority – including the authority to forgive sins and free us from the tyranny of the devil.

They are asking a question that they already know the answer to. They know, but they do not believe.

May our Lord Jesus grant us all the grace to believe and the wisdom to use our God-granted authority to carry out the works the Lord gives us to do.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

Sermon: LHS Ring Ceremony

7 May 2005 at Mt. Olive L.C., Metairie, LA

Text: Genesis 41: 39-43

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

For as long as history records, rings have been symbols of power. They are worn by those who have authority over others. In our text, taken from the Book of Genesis, we find the patriarch Joseph, about 4,000 years ago, being involved of a ring ceremony of his own. The ring symbolized his status, his authority, his position. It also symbolized his loyalty to the Pharaoh, and his devotion to the people over which he had authority.

There is a rich symbolism in the ring. Rings are circles – no beginning and no end. Thus there is the symbolism of God. Rings are often used at weddings – symbolizing the lifelong unity of married couple. Rings are worn by kings, knights, judges, bishops, soldiers, and graduates of schools. Rings symbolize membership in a brotherhood. Rings are traditionally made of precious metals, and inlaid with rare gems – but often today they are made of less-costly substances. The real value in the ring is in the authority it represents.

In The Lord of the Rings, the ring was a symbol of ultimate power – a power that corrupted sinful men. A power that manifested itself as evil. And so a Fellowship of the Ring was forged, which united warriors from different backgrounds, whose aim was to destroy the ring and rid the world of the destructive power it represents.

You are today being inducted into a similar Fellowship of the Ring. You will wear the ring of Lutheran High School – and you will be united forever into a brotherhood and sisterhood with all of those who came before you, and all of those who will come after you – people from many backgrounds and from all walks of life. Like Joseph, you are being entrusted with authority. No, you may not ride in a chariot and order frightened freshmen to bow the knee to you. No, you won’t be able to bark orders to underclassmen and cut off their heads if they don’t obey. But you are being entrusted with authority.

Today, you become the leaders of the school. You become the examples for the younger ones to follow. Today, you take your place in the history of Lutheran High School in the position of prominence among the student body. Next fall, you will become seniors, and will soon add your name to the ever-increasing list of those who will forever claim Lutheran High School as their Alma Mater, their “nourishing mother.” You are quickly moving from childhood to adulthood. You are being entrusted with this ring as a symbol of your responsibility, your ability to be trusted, your desire to serve your fellow students, and to be a man or woman – no longer a boy or girl.

Today, I’m wearing my own high school ring that was given to me 25 years ago. It’s still a powerful reminder of everything that my school did for me, to shape me into a man, to give me confidence, to challenge me to succeed, and most importantly, to teach me the Christian faith. I still wear my high school ring from time to time because it indeed represents a fellowship that unites me not only to my brothers from my student days, but also to my teachers – some of whom are no longer on this side of the grave. It is an awesome thing to wear this very same ring I wore as a high school student a quarter century ago. It is my prayer that you will put your class ring on in the year 2030 and have it mean the same to you.

For a ring is not only a symbol of power and prestige, it is more importantly a symbol of service, a reminder that authority is to be used for good, it is to be wielded with mercy, it is to be put to service for the benefit of your fellow students. When you wear your ring in public, you will reflect not only yourself, but also Lutheran High School, as well as your classmates. You will also reflect the underclassmen, as well as those who have graduated. Just as your behavior reflects upon your parents, how you carry yourself with this ring on your finger will reflect upon everyone else who likewise wear this ring, every other member of this fellowship. Use your authority wisely.

Perhaps it is for this reason that we bless these rings. It’s an ancient custom to have a pastor give a priestly blessing over rings before entrusting them to the wearer. I am not a wizard – I have no magical powers. But I am a Christian pastor – and I stand in an unbroken succession to Christ and the Apostles. Our Lord has placed me into a fellowship of sorts as well, and I have the authority to bless, sanctify, and set apart these rings for his use.

A blessed ring can’t magically make you score straight A’s on your exams, but your blessed ring can remind you that not only the ring, but the wearer of the ring, is set apart and holy. Let the hands who wear these rings wear them honorably – not for cheating, not for fighting, not for bringing destruction – but rather for honor and for duty. For you too have been blessed, sanctified, and set apart - by water combined with God’s Word – when you were baptized. You became a member of another fellowship – the fellowship of the forgiven sinner in the Holy Church. And this ring will remind you not only of your connection to Lutheran High, but your connection to Christ, the

Most High!

As far as we know, Jesus never wore a school ring. As a king, Jesus had symbols of his office – a throne (made of wood and shaped into a cross). He had a scepter (which was used to beat him). He had a purple robe (placed on him in mockery). The only ring scripture records our Lord ever wearing was a ring of thorns that was pressed upon his innocent head – his “sacred head now wounded” for all of us, bearing the ring of shame that was rightfully our own. Rings carry responsibility – and often indicate the need for us to sacrifice for those under our authority – just as our Lord gave himself for us.

In our text, Joseph was entrusted with his ring only after years of being treated unjustly. He served his masters well – no matter how poorly he was treated in return. He knew who his true master was, and his faith never wavered. He persevered, trusted in God’s plan, and eventually, by the grace of the Triune God, a ring was placed on his finger, and he was entrusted with authority. But even after his triumph, his authority did not exist to glorify himself – but rather to serve the people, to bring the Lord’s salvation to them.

And this, dear Christian friends, is the true meaning of authority. Not long before our Lord was crucified, the disciples got into a fight about who was the greatest. Jesus said: “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them and those in authority are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

Our Lord’s authority over us was best expressed when he took up his cross and laid down his life for us. He did not lord over us, gloat about his divinity, or treat us as inferior. Our Lord demonstrated his authority by becoming our slave. And by doing so, our Lord takes upon himself our own pride, our own selfishness, our own desire to wear gold rings and boss others around. In taking away our sins, our Lord has empowered us to take up our cross (even as we put on our rings) and follow him.

May this ring always be a reminder of the sacrifices made for you by your parents, your brothers and sisters, your classmates, your friends, your teachers, and most importantly, your Lord Jesus Christ. In this coming year, and forevermore, may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.