Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Sermon: Holy Innocents – 2016

28 December 2016

Text: Matt 2:13-18 (Jer 31:15-17, Rev 14:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

While the world has already moved on from Christmas – already looking forward to New Year’s Eve, and some even to the beginning of Carnival, many shops pushing Valentine’s Day, and sports fans to the college bowls and the Super Bowl, the Church, by contrast, has put on the brakes as we continue our 12-day celebration of Christmas.

Today’s celebration is one marked by darkness in the midst of light, and sadness in the midst of joy.  We celebrate the memory of the youngest saints in our calendar, put there by a monstrous act of evil.

In his desire to attack the Christ Child and a longshot attempt to upset the divine plan of redemption, Satan inspired one of his own to commit a heinous act – the Slaughter of the Innocents.  Knowing that the Christ was to be born in Bethlehem, the wicked King Herod ordered the young boys of this little village to be put to death.  It was a shocking act that demonstrated the depravity, perversity, and deeply-set malevolence that infests mankind.

The very thing Jesus came to seek and destroy.

And so a “voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping.  Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted.”  Only a mother who has lost a child – especially to violence – can really identify with this weeping of Rachel.

These innocent children gave their lives as an offering for the Innocent Lamb, who in turn was to die for them, as an offering that saves them and makes them worthy of eternal life.  The prophet Jeremiah was quoted by Matthew: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

“They are no more.” It sounds so stark and final, as unbending and as unresponsive as the grave itself.  

And yet, Jeremiah’s Word doesn’t stop with Matthew’s quotation.  He continues: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.  There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”

These little ones will “come back from the land of the enemy” – that is, the grave.  They will come back “to their own country” – that is, to their own people in the land of the living.  For in our weeping and lamentation, we dare not forget why our Lord came in the first place. He came to the manger to sojourn to the cross.  He was born in order to die.  And he was to die in order to conquer death.  He lives so that we shall also live.  That promise is for us and for our children, including the children slain that horrific day of holocaust in Bethlehem: a day that will be avenged in the fullness of time.

It is just this kind of evil lurking in the hearts of man that provoked the Lord’s rescue mission in the wasteland that we have made of creation.  He came in order to save the Blessed Innocents as well as to cure the cursed guilty, to remove evil and its effects “as far as the curse is found.”

The evil that infests our world also infests our hearts.  While it is easy to focus on Herod’s evil, and the wickedness of Hitler and Stalin and Mao and ISIS, we need to keep one eye looking in the mirror.

The great writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who was imprisoned in Soviet labor camps and wrote about the horrors he witnessed, said, “If only it were so simple!  If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them.  But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.  And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Dear friends, only One was willing, the only One completely on the good side of that dividing line, motivated by love for creation and obedience to the Father’s will, our Lord Jesus had his own heart punctured by evil, and out poured blood and water – blood shed for us and offered to us in the chalice; water given to us as a sacred cleansing and applied to us at the font.  The Lord’s heart was broken by the evil in the world, and allowed evil to break His heart for the sake of offering to all men – to all who bear the burden of sin, a redemption, a call to repentance, a second chance.

Scripture does not teach us that the various kings bearing the name Herod ever repented.  They continued to vex the people of God for their entire evil reign.  But their reign was to come to an end. 

The innocent boys of Bethlehem, however, were given that second chance according to the Scriptures.  And they “shall come back” – even as we and all the dead in Christ shall.

That is a Christmas present and a Christmas promise.  To defy Satan, to destroy death, to repair the damage done to creation, and make all things new is the very reason for the Christ’s child’s birth.  For even though all have sinned, and all bear the stain of evil – even the Holy Innocents who inherited the sinful nature from their parents – there is yet another promise and prophecy concerning the redeemed, those “who follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”

For “these have been redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God and the Lamb, and in their mouths no lie was found, for they are blameless.”

So, dear friends, let us celebrate.  It is a bittersweet Fourth Day of Christmas, but the bitterness of the weeping of Rachel will only sweeten the joy of eternity, when her children “come back” and the real meaning of Christmas is applied to the universe by the Lamb whose crucified body was earlier laid “away in a manger.”  Thus says the Lord, my brothers and sisters, Merry Christmas.  Amen.

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

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Sermon: Christmas – 2016

25 December 2016

Text: Titus 3:4-7

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

“When the goodness and the loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us.”

This line from St. Paul’s letter to Titus explains Christmas to a T, or should I say, to a cross.  For notice what word St. Paul opens with: “When.”

The word “when” means at a point in time, a specific point in time, a precise moment of God’s choosing.  God doesn’t deal with us as if by magic, but rather in the material manner of our existence – in space and in time.

And this “when” is why we commemorate this event each and every year at a point in time, a specific date of the feast of the Lord’s birth.  We celebrate today, the “when” in St. Paul’s proclamation of the “goodness and loving kindness” of God our Savior. 

The Lord does not show us goodness and loving kindness (which is literally: philanthropy – love toward humanity) in a vacuum.  But rather, in fulfillment of prophecy, when the time is right, God comes to us physically in space and temporally in time.  And He comes to us as a single fertilized human egg in a woman, a daughter of Eve, whose sin has been propagated to the human race – with the exception of the Son of Mary, who has come into our flesh as an act of kindness and philanthropy, as both our God and as our Savior.

Inside Mary’s womb came the one whom Mary would call her “God and Savior.”  For as St. Paul says, Jesus is “both” our God and our Savior.

And notice that He “appeared” per our text.  He didn’t remain hidden in Mary’s womb.  Rather He came as a blazing light into a dark world, calling sinners to repentance, and calling forth repentant sinners into salvation, calling them to gather as the Church, calling them to rise out of their graves, calling them to everlasting life by His Word.

He appeared at a specific point in time in kindness and philanthropy with a purpose, carrying out the eternal plan of the eternal Father, in order to save us, to rescue us from the death we deserve and the damnation we have earned, replacing it with the life He has by virtue of His divinity and with the salvation He gives us by virtue of His death upon the cross.

And He saves us, dear friends, “not because of works done for us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy.”  This is the very meaning of grace.  He saves us at a specific point in time, at a specific place, using human flesh, motivated by goodness and loving kindness as our God and Savior, and this salvation He accomplished by grace, by His love for us and certainly not because we deserve it, because, dear friends, most assuredly, we do not.

This is why we need a Savior to come and rescue us.  And this is what Christmas is all about!  Like a paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines, He has appeared in hostile territory to rescue us: His beloved people whom He refuses to abandon.  And He extends us His nail-scared hand, which we take by faith, holding on by means of the strength He Himself supplies, for He saves us “according to His own mercy” – not by anything in us.

St. Paul further explains how this happens: “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.”  We are washed clean in Holy Baptism, for this same Jesus whose birth we celebrate, was Himself baptized.  And He sent out His apostles with the great commission to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

God uses humble water to wash away sin.  God uses a humble baby to atone for sin.  God uses a humble mother to bring forth the Savior from sin. 

So much of this true message of Christmas is lost in the secularization and commercialization of Christmas, but also among us Christians as well, dear friends, when we sell Christmas short, and neglect the connection between our sin and our Savior, between the manger and the cross, between the Lord’s miraculous emergence from the virginal womb and from the virginal tomb.

All of this is packed into our celebration of the Lord’s birthday.  For we celebrate birthdays of our loved ones precisely because we are happy they were born.  We rejoice in their coming to our world and their existence among us.  We love them, and so we feast and rejoice. 

Let us, like the Blessed Virgin Mary, “rejoice in God my Savior,” in His timely and fleshly birth, in His goodness and loving kindness, in His being God and yet Savior, in His salvation of us not by our works, but by His grace and through the washing of regeneration of baptism,

For the one laid in the manger will be hanged upon the cross, and then once more laid down, this time in the tomb.  And the same divine love and power that rescued us from sin, raised Jesus from the dead, as the greatest Christmas gift of all: the very life of Christ, the life that brings us to eternal life.

That, dear friends, is the message of Christmas.  Our Lord took flesh and our Lord saved us.

“So that being justified by His grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

Merry Christmas!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

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

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Sermon: Christmas Eve – 2016

24 December 2016

Text: Isa 7:10-14, Mic 5:2-5a, Isa 9:2-7, Matt 1:18-25, Matt 2:1-12, John 1:1-14

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

Christmas is a time of nostalgia and memories, memories triggered by ornaments and decorations and repeated family rituals, by familiar sights and smells of the season.  And in calling to mind these memories from our past, we are reminded of our family members who are no longer with us, as well as the realization that the babies have become children who have become grownups who have become grandparents.  The passage of time is a mystery, for when we are young, it creeps along at an agonizingly slow pace (especially waiting for Christmas to come), whereas as we age, the years seem to fly by.

The series of readings traditionally read and pondered on Christmas Eve call to mind memories of the distant past, memories of our fall into sin, and of our deserved mortality and condemnation as a result of our transgressions.

But we also ponder God’s acting in a way that defies reason.  He is willing to suffer for our salvation.  He is willing to die that we might live.  He, the Divine, is willing to become human so that humanity might intermingle with the divine.  And He does this through love: the Son is of the Father’s love begotten, and through a mother’s love is a Son born to all the world, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.”

Just as we participate in family rituals, including sights, sounds, touch, smells, and taste – so too does our family the Church. Our senses call to mind the working of the Lord in human history, through the prophets of Israel, the people to whom they preached were they through whom the Lord would take flesh, the people who would be the down-payment on the redemption of the whole world.  

“The Lord spoke to Ahaz,” and his oracle was recorded by Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”  For seven hundred years these words were read wherever God’s people gathered, waiting for the fullness of time when the prophecy would put on flesh, when the ritual would be replaced by the reality.

The city of Bethlehem, today a hotspot of violence and terror, was in the days of Micah the prophet, a sleepy, inconsequential village.  But the little town of Bethlehem, the village whose name means “House of Bread,” would become the breadbasket of salvation, the place where the Bread of Life come down from heaven would emerge from His mother, that same flesh to be multiplied miraculously in space and time, even unto our very age where we gather tonight, participating in the miracle of the incarnation anew.

Isaiah also spoke of darkness and light.  The darkness of sin and death are to be illuminated by the light of the Christ, the light of the star of Bethlehem, the light of the hosts of heaven appearing to shepherds, the Uncreated Light of light who is “very God of very God.”  Indeed, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  How many memories we have, dear friends, of holding candles and singing “Silent Night” with our children and our loved ones as time passes.  And how many memories we have of candles lit in churches while services have gone on from the days of the apostles until today.  Even in places where candles were too expensive or where our brethren had to meet under the cover of darkness to escape persecution, the Light of Christ still shone brightly in their hearts and in the Word of God proclaimed among all who gather around the Lord Jesus.

And in the fullness of time, the Holy Spirit came upon the virgin Mary, and the Father brought forth a Son according to the flesh, and His name was “Immanuel (which means God with us).”  The angel of the Lord warned Joseph not to divorce his betrothed, for she had been faithful to him, and the Lord had used her to faithfully bring the Savior into the world.

And that world has never been the same, dear friends.  For more than a few Jews living in Bethlehem were affected by this great and mighty wonder.  Gentiles from the east, the Magi, came bearing gifts: “gold and frankincense and myrrh,” royal gifts for a royal Child.  “And they fell down and worshiped Him,” worshiping the God in the form of a baby.

All of those prophecies became reality in the incarnation of Jesus.  All of those memories: rituals of words confessing His coming, and rituals of actions, our bodily responses in worship, brought alive in our senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, generation after generation, century after century, all were brought to their fullness in a single quantum of space and time, that one redemptive and creative moment when time froze, when the universe halted for less than a nanosecond, when the past met the future in the present and in the presence of God’s physical conception in Mary’s womb, and then in the revelation of the Christ child at His birth.  How utterly remarkable and beyond human reasoning and understanding, dear friends!

For the coming of Jesus is where past, present, and future meet, where the entire universe finds its fulfillment in a single human cell.  This fleshly incarnation of Jesus unites the time of “In the beginning,” when the Word was creating all things with the Father and the Holy Spirit, with that moment when “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Nothing was ever the same after.  For Christ came to restore a broken world, to cure human disease, to end all of creation’s struggle and strife, to restore peace between God and man, and to raise us from death unto eternal life in a new and incorruptible body, not the body of a spirit or of an angel, but the glorious body of humanity: male and female bodies created in the very image of God, a flesh and blood body redeemed by the flesh and blood of Christ, by our Immanuel, of Him who is truly God With Us!

Let us revel and celebrate these Christmas memories!  Allow these rituals to bring richness to the reality of life!  Take in the candles and music, the sights and smells, the hugs and the smiles, the joys of being together, and even the pain of separation – and allow these memories to point you to the Christ Child, to the Word Made Flesh, to the Lamb who went to the cross to redeem you, to the Great Physician who has come to heal you, to the Good Shepherd who gathers all of His sheep promising them resurrection in a body, even as our Lord took upon Himself a body in the womb of Mary, a body willing to be put to death at the cross, a body that rose again from the grave, a body given to you in the Most Holy Sacrament: His true flesh and blood, that the divine might mingle with the human, and the human might be elevated to the divine.

Let these sights, sounds, touch, smells, and tastes trigger memories of the prophecies and their fulfillment in Christ.  For “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”


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

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Sermon: St. Thomas – 2016

21 December 2016

Text: John 20:24-29

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

St. Thomas, who walked with our Lord for three years, hearing Him teach, witnessing His miracles, and having just heard the rest of the Eleven say: “We have seen the Lord” after His death on the cross, could not simply discount the evidence of his own senses. 

He saw Jesus arrested.  He saw Jesus crucified.  He saw the tomb in which the dead body of Jesus lay.  Thomas could not process the events of the past couple weeks, and simply refused to believe what was being said, that Jesus rose from the dead and was walking around in the flesh.

“Unless I see…” said Thomas, whose story gives us the nickname we might call someone who lacks belief: a “Doubting Thomas.”  Thomas wanted proof.  He wanted something other than the testimony of others.  He wanted something to see and touch and hear.  He wanted the kind of knowledge that isn’t subject to the interpretations of other people.  He wanted evidence.

“I will never believe,” said Thomas defiantly.

It’s hard to believe in something we have not seen. It requires trust in our sources – those who saw what they saw, those who heard the account from them, those who wrote down the account, and those who copied those writings and handed them down to us.

How do we know that what we have read is true?  How do we know that what St. John wrote was true?  How do we know the copies are true?  How do we know this really happened?

In light of our skepticism and cynicism about what we read on the Internet, St. Thomas’s doubt seems utterly reasonable.  

Well, dear friends, we know that our Bibles are faithful copies because we have so many ancient fragments and quotations from the Bible in books and sermons written by the church fathers that we know we can rely on it.  We know that St. John’s writing is true because He was one of the inner circle of Jesus, eyewitness to every major event in the Lord’s life, and we know that He refused to recant his testimony of Jesus even under threat of punishment.  We know that had what he said been untrue, it would have been challenged.  And we even have embarrassing accounts recorded in the Gospel of John – such as St. Thomas’s cringe-worthy doubt of the Lord’s resurrection.  

If you’re going to make up something, you don’t make up embarrassing stuff like that to put in the book.

Moreover, we have evidence of St. Thomas’s ministry after this encounter with Jesus, in which he went from Doubting Thomas to Believing, Teaching, and Confessing Thomas, Preaching Thomas, Church-planting Thomas, and even the Martyr Thomas – who was willing to die before denying that Jesus is truly His Lord and His God who appeared to him.

We should honor Thomas for his honesty.  He would not naively believe what was said by others.  And in His infinite mercy, the risen Lord Jesus appeared to Thomas, not as a ghost or vision, but as a flesh and blood Man, still bearing the wounds of the crucifixion, and inviting Thomas to “Put your finger here, and see My hands; and put out your hand, and place it in My side.  Don’t disbelieve, but believe.”

St. Thomas replies by addressing the Man Jesus, the Crucified Jesus, the Risen Jesus as “My Lord and My God.”

This, dear friends, is what Christmas is all about: a baby born to a virgin, a baby who has no human father, but is the Son of God, and who is Himself: “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”  The birth of Jesus is truly a miracle, because this baby grew to manhood, died, rose again, and appeared to the eleven, and then to hundreds of others.  He defeated death, conquered Satan, and undid the damage to mankind at the Fall in Eden.  He is coming  again to raise the dead, give us new and glorious bodies, so that we live forever in a new heaven and earth that will never see death and corruption again.

“My Lord and My God!”

This is one of my own favorite verses in Scripture.  For there are those who claim that Jesus never claimed to be God.  There are those who belong to cults that misinform people by denying the Lord’s divinity.  But on this beautiful and touching moment in the upper room, when the doors were locked, the Lord Jesus appeared.  He did not come in anger or to scold Thomas – but to show grace and mercy to him.

“Peace be with you, He says to His disciples, and He says this again to us tonight, dear friends.

He offers St. Thomas peace because He is Thomas’s Lord and God, the one who came to remove Thomas’s sins and give Thomas His own righteousness. Thomas receives this glorious gift by faith, and even when his faith is weak, the Lord Jesus bolsters his weak faith into a faith that will do more than move mountains, it will be a faith that builds churches and brings people into fellowship with God.

Thomas’s doubt became Thomas’s faith by God’s grace and by the Word of Jesus.  Thomas’s confession of Christ as “my Lord and my God!” is the Church’s confession. Our Lord’s greeting blessing, “Peace be with you” is the church’s greeting and blessing.

And hear anew the blessing of our risen Lord: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”  Amen.

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

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Rorate Coeli (Advent 4) – 2016

18 December 2016

Text: Luke 1:39-56

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

In the Roman world, the least powerful people were women and children.  While it is true that some women and children – by virtue of aristocracy – could wield power, the vast majority were poor and taken for granted.

Although all of us started out in our mother’s wombs, although every human being born with the exception of Adam and Eve experienced life as a pre-born baby, then as an infant, and as long as life lasted, a child, and perhaps an adult - the ancient world did not think too highly of children.

They were dispensable, by means of abortion or exposing infants to nature to allow them to perish.  They were valued mainly for the work they could do, for their utility.  Handicapped or injured children were useless, and disposable.

Women were likewise not typically of great value to society.  Prostitution and human trafficking were legal and common. There was no real social stigma for men committing adultery.  Women had no presence in most matters of government, society, or religious affairs in the Pagan Roman world.

And so, how extraordinary that our Gospel reading records a meeting that changed the entire course of world history. This was not a meeting between king and counselors, or between members of a senate, nor between a general and his lieutenants, nor even between great philosophers and sages.  This was a meeting between two women and two fetuses.

And yet, this meeting is one of the most remarkable in history, translated into nearly every known human tongue, and even quoted in gathered assemblies of Christian people for nearly two millennia all over the planet.

This meeting was the first between the final prophet and the Messiah, and they exchanged no words, for both men were in their mother’s wombs.  And these two women were not from aristocratic Roman families, though they were of royal Israelite extraction in spite of their worldly poverty.

Mary was a pregnant teenager whose fiancĂ© was not the father.  She was too poor to even afford the usual Temple sacrifice when her Son was born.  She had no influence in Judean or Roman politics.  And yet, she is the most unique and extraordinary woman who has ever lived, the mother of the mightiest King in history, and the author of lyrics sung, and words prayed, for centuries.

Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was older, a woman who had been socially shamed by being barren. She was a priest’s wife, whose husband was struck mute after a strange encounter in the Temple, and who shockingly became pregnant at an advanced age.

The meeting of two unknown pregnant cousins in the backwater hill country in rural occupied Palestine was not something of interest to the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, nor the mighty from their thrones.  

Indeed, this meeting went unnoticed by kings and counselors, senators, military leaders, and philosophers.  

But we notice it today, recorded in the Word of God, two mothers that epitomize motherhood, and stand as living historical symbols of both the Old and New Testaments.  For the two men growing in their wombs were John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ.

When the four were close to one another, hearing the voice of Mary, the mother of His cousin Jesus, John leaped in his own mother Elizabeth’s womb.  His leap was a response to Jesus, to the proximity, the closeness of the physical presence of the Lord.  And Elizabeth was herself filled with the Holy Spirit, honoring the Mother of Jesus, who is truly the mother of God, with the immortal words recorded in Scripture: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

The Blessed Virgin Mary was likewise filled with the Holy Spirit, and she prophesied in agreement with her cousin about herself: “all generations will call me blessed.”

While the future prophet and the future Savior held their silence awaiting their births, their holy mothers confessed their faith and proclaimed what had been revealed to them.  They prepared John and Jesus for their life to come, feeding and mothering, nurturing and teaching.  The hands that rocked their cradles truly revolutionized the world.  These two women, dear wives and mothers and saints of the church, have exercised far more power than any Cleopatra, Elizabeth, or Victoria, changing the world in ways that no queen could ever come close to doing.

For God worked through St. Elizabeth to launch the last great prophetic voice, the Savior’s herald: St. John the Baptist. And God worked through the Blessed Virgin Mary to bring God Himself incarnate into the flesh, the one perfect all-atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world, and the conqueror of sin, death, and the devil, the crucified one who dies to give us life, mightier than any Pharaoh, Caesar, General, or President could even imagine to be.

In this meeting, these two women and two children testified to the Lord’s plan of redemption that involved each of them as His servants.  As St. John would testify, the mountains are to be laid low, the valleys raised up like mountains.  St. Mary puts it like this: “He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts; He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent empty away.”

Indeed, the Lord Jesus Christ humbles the proud, and raises up the humble.  He afflicts the comfortable, and comforts the afflicted.  He kills with the law and resurrects with the Gospel.  

For Jesus is the King of the universe, and John was His counselor, with the Lord governing not by means of elected senators, but by called and ordained servants of the Word, leading a war “not against flesh and blood, but against… the spiritual forces of evil”, and being the incarnation of Wisdom Himself, before whom all great philosophers and sages must bow.  Indeed, this meeting was not between tissue, or blobs of flesh, or as parts of their mothers; but of men who would change the world forever: John, the final prophet, and Jesus who is God and Savior.

Let us thank and praise the Father for showing mercy to them that “fear Him from generation to generation.”  Let us thank and praise the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, Mary’s God and Savior, the Redeemer of all mankind by the cross. Let us thank and praise the Holy Spirit, whose mighty creative and redemptive voice goes forth not only in inspired words given to men and women for us to sing and pray, and not only by the preaching of the Gospel by prophets and pastors, but also by the leaping of a fetal human being, created by God for us as a prophetic testimony to Him who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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

Sunday, December 11, 2016

In Memoriam: John C. Kiletico

John Kiletico was a member of Salem Lutheran Church virtually all of his life of 77 years.  He passed away on Friday, December 9, 2016.

Here is the announcement.

John began his life in Christ on his baptismal birthday on December 10, 1939 at less than a month old.  He was baptized by the Rev. Eugene E. Schmid (served 1919-1967), by whose own hand it was recorded in our congregation's historic Tauf-Register, the very last baptism at Salem of the decade of the 1930s.

John would live to see the restoration of the century-old font in which he was baptized.

Like our historic baptismal font, John was a fixture at Salem.  Over the course of his nearly eight decades of life, he held virtually every position one can hold in a congregation.  He took the Lord's Supper from the hands of nine pastors of Salem in his sojourn on this side of the grave.  He was also proud of his service with the Army during the Vietnam War, and you could always spot John in his Vietnam Veteran's hat, or driving his car with the Big Red One license plates.  He was ever quick to strike up conversation with visitors to church, especially fellow servicemen or veterans.

The greatest thing, however, I believe, that John did for his church and country was to faithfully raise up four children in the Christian faith, passing along the Gospel of Jesus Christ to succeeding generations.  The effects of this faithfulness is immeasurable.  His grandchildren today bear the fruits of John's tireless service as a Christian husband and father, one who always made sure the family under his care confessed the faith, participated in Word and Sacrament, and lived out the Christian life.  There is nothing comparable in the life of a faithful Christian.

In accordance with his wishes, we will hold funeral services at Salem Lutheran Church.  And it is particularly poignant that we will gather this Wednesday, the week of Gaudete.  Today is Gaudete Sunday, named for the Introit in today's liturgy, which begins in Latin: "Gaudete in Domino Semper: iterum dico, gaudete."  That is: "Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again will I say, rejoice!" from Philippians 4:4-5.  We also lit the single rose-colored candle in the Advent wreath today as a reminder that even in the gloom of winter, in the penitential season of Advent, in the at-times tedious and frustrating period of waiting for the Lord's return, in the midst of the world's anguish and bodily suffering - and even in the very face of death itself - we Christians have cause to rejoice.  We rejoice in Christ, in the Gospel, in the promise of the resurrection, in the new life that will have no end.  We rejoice in the hope and promise of a heavenly reunion.  And rather than curse the darkness, we defiantly light a rose-colored candle as a testimony against sin, death, and the devil - over which our Lord has triumphed!

Many years ago, John told me that it was his wish to have this passage of Scripture read at his funeral.  He will receive a double blessing from the Lord's hand, as it will be used both as the Introit of the service, as well as the epistle reading.

The Gaudete Introit as we sang it at Salem today is particularly poignant in light of John's departure from this life and entrance into eternity:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
Again, will I say rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men.
The Lord is at hand. (Phil 4:4-5).
Lord, You have been favorable to Your land;
You have brought back the captivity of Jacob.
You have forgiven the iniquity of Your people;
You have covered all their sin.
Will You not revive us again,
that Your people may rejoice in You?
I will hear what God the Lord will speak,
for He will speak peace to His people. (Ps 85:1-2; 6, 8) 
Glory be to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and will be forever.  Amen. (Gloria Patri
Rejoice in the Lord always.
Again, will I say rejoice!
Let your gentleness be known to all men.
The Lord is at hand. (Phil 4:4-5).

For today's gradual we used the fourth of the Great O Antiphons, which includes this petition to our Lord:
Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.

As part of our Gospel procession, we sang the fifth verse of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel":
O come, Thou Key of David, come,
And open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high,
And close the path to misery. 
Rejoice!  Rejoice!
Shall come to thee, O Israel.
Today's readings provided the opportunity to proclaim comfort to the Lord's people, especially those of us who have lost loved ones at this time of year.  We can indeed rejoice in the Word and promise of the risen Lord!

The final hymn today was a reminder of the hopeful words of our Old Testament reading, the glorious passage from Isaiah 40, spoken to the children of Israel in the darkest days of their mourning and exile:
"Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace," thus saith our God;
"Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning 'neath their sorrows' load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover
And her warfare now is over."

It was the Lord's merciful and providential will to call John home on this week, honoring his wish to proclaim St. Paul's bold and audacious call to rejoice, even as St. Paul himself was imprisoned at the time when he wrote this joyful epistle to the Philippians.  It is an act of defiance to hold a funeral in the midst of lighted Christmas trees and an Advent Wreath joyfully flickering with flame upon a rose-colored candle of joy.

For in the midst of sorrow, sadness, and suffering, dear Christians, we have a promise, a joyful expectant hope of the return of Christ, the putting off of the fallen flesh, and the resurrection of our flesh in eternal perfection, and joy.  Even the gloom of separation cannot snuff out our rose-colored flame that calls to mind the light of "Jesus Christ, the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome!"

Our congregation's name, Salem, means "peace," calling to mind the prophet's message that for those redeemed by Christ, our "warfare is ended" (Isa 40:2) in Christ's victory at the cross and the empty tomb.  And in this victory, John is at peace, even as we continue our callings in the church militant until the Lord calls us home as well.

With love and affection, we pray for John's family, his wife Shelly, and his children Danielle, Lynette, Micah, and Leslie, their spouses and their children, as well as his brother Derril and his wife, in the hope of the resurrection and in the merciful providence of our Lord to call us all to rejoice even in the midst of our mourning.

I'm grateful for John's selection of Philippians 4 for his funeral, as well as amazed at the Lord's providential timing in driving home this theme that in Christ, even in the face of death, we have cause to rejoice.  Christ has won the victory.  Our warfare is ended.  The Word of God brings comfort, comfort to us, his people, including John's family and his church family who will miss him in our lives on this side of the grave.

And in spite of our mourning, we are bold to rejoice!

Rejoice in the Lord always.  Again will I say, rejoice!  Amen.

Sermon: Gaudete (Advent 3) – 2016

11 December 2016

Text: Matt 11:2-11 (Isa 40:1-11, 1 Cor 4:1-5)

In the name of + Jesus.  Amen.

God tells Isaiah to “Comfort, comfort my people.” 

The Lord is not directing Isaiah to make sure the thermostat is set correctly or to fluff up their pillows.  The word “comfort” has a very deep and complex meaning.  It is a Hebrew word that can be translated in many different ways.  The root of the word means to “sigh,” as in breathing heavily in sorrow.  And so there is a sense of repentance and forgiveness in the word, a sense of sorrow, and a sense of mercy being shown to the one who is sorrowful. 

It calls to mind the sigh of our Lord when he opened the ears of the deaf man. 

The sense of healing and forgiveness comes through in the Lord’s instructions to Isaiah to preach to His people that “her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

This comfort being spoken as a sighing gospel preached by the prophet points forward to the very last in the long line of prophets before the God who sighs, who pardons, who comforts us, and who is to come into the world.

This last prophet, St. John the Baptist, fulfils this prophecy, as a sighing voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”  John the Baptist preaches the words delivered to Isaiah: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.”  John’s comfort is a joyful message that the kingdom is near, because the King is near. 

The entire world wants to know the answer to John’s question posed to our Lord Jesus Christ: “Are You the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”

Our Lord sends the messengers back to John not just with an answer, but with an answer bearing with it proof, testimony of Jesus’ standing as Lord and Messiah; as Prophet, Priest, and King; as God incarnate, as the Savior: “Go and tell,” says our Lord, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

These miracles of Jesus are not only mighty acts that confirm that He is no mere ordinary, fallen man; they not only demonstrate the mighty power of the Lord.  For in addition to that, they also reveal the Lord’s mission.  He is undoing the work the Satan, rolling back the degradation of the evil one, reversing the curse of Eden.  For the Lord takes the blind and the lame, whose bodies are malfunctioning as a result of the brokenness of the sinful fallen world, and Jesus restores their sight and their mobility.  Jesus takes the leper, whose body has turned against its own flesh in a one-man civil war, cell against cell, flesh against flesh, in a painful and disfiguring mortal struggle, and Jesus takes away the disfiguration, the pain, and the destructive ravaging disease, replacing that flesh with new flesh, calling to mind the innocence of Adam and Eve before the fall.  Jesus raises the dead, showing us not only His divine power but His divine mercy, the comfort, comfort that He delivers to His people and the Word He puts into His preachers’ mouths, that not even death itself stands in the way of God’s plan to restore paradise, and the sure and certain hope of the “resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  The Lord remembers the poor, that the good news is that poverty and scarcity itself are replaced by riches and abundance in the kingdom of God, in the new heaven and new earth to come.

This, dear friends, is the comfort of the Christian faith.  Comfort for us Christians is not found in fluffy words or vague feelings, but rather in the unequivocal promises of Christ Himself, who promises us that “He who believes and is baptized will be saved,” and “not even the gates of hell will prevail” against His people, those to whom the “comfort, comfort” is being preached by patriarch, prophet, and pastor.

For even as Isaiah was sent with a message, and even as St. John the Baptist was given a mission, so too does that same proclamation of Christ go on today, dear friends, and will continue to do so until the return of the Lord in glory.  As St. Paul points out: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  The pastor is a servant, a steward, one who brings food to the table and who serves it with His hands. He announces the decrees of his Lord and he obeys the commands of his Master.

The object of all preaching – that of Isaiah, that of John the Baptist, and that of the Church of every age, is Christ, the comfort, comfort in His name given to His people by God’s grace and mercy, comfort, comfort given to us by means of the blood of the Lamb, shed upon the cross, willingly offered as a sacrifice to atone for our sins and bring us into communion with the Father once more, and the comfort, comfort of knowing that we are baptized even as our Lord was baptized, and that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus, the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, set apart and kept until the day of the Lord, when “the dead are raised up” and “the poor have good news preached to them” that the words of the prophets and preachers are fulfilled, brought to their fullness in Jesus Christ, who is our true comfort:

“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.”  Amen.

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