Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21; 2 Peter 1:2-11; Joel 2:12-19

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
I know that everything about Ash Wednesday, and everything about Lent in general, is offensive to you. The overly intense focus upon your own sin is offensive to you. Your submission to being marked with ashes upon your forehead and confessing your sins before a man you know to be a sinner himself is offensive to you. The absurdity of coming to this altar to have that same sinful man lay his sinful hands upon your sinful head and pronounce you forgiven – I know very well how this offends you, for it offends me as well. Therefore, permit me to put word to your thoughts: “We confess our sins each and every Sunday in the Divine Service. Why must we do it again now, and with such somberness and severe words and preaching?” “And, besides, only God can forgive sins, right? And, Jesus has already forgiven my sins on the cross, right? Then, why do you make it sound like I’m not forgiven, like I need to confess again and again and again? Are you saying that I’m not already forgiven?” “And, these ashes, this ceremony, and all this making us feel guilty and bad, isn’t this all just Roman Catholic mumbo-jumbo that Luther got rid of at the Reformation?” Yeah, I know, everything about Ash Wednesday, everything about Lent in general, is offensive to you. It’s offensive to me as well. But, that is precisely why you need it. And, that is precisely why I need it. We need to repent from our pride and from our self-righteousness that are so easily offended. They need to be offended. In fact, they need to die. Therefore, this Ash Wednesday and this Lent, your Lord invites you to die – to die with Him – to die to your pride and to your self-righteousness, to be broken and to be humbled, and to repent, that He might raise you up again, and daily, to new and everlasting life in Him, and in Him alone.
So, are you going to give something up for Lent? Are you going to make a sacrifice of some kind or another? Are you going to give up chocolate or wine? Good for you! You could stand to lose a little weight! Or, are you going to give up swearing and cursing? That would be good! Maybe, give up Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media? I’ll bet you find you’re a lot less angry and have more time to get things done. Those are all great things to give up. They’re likely to make you a happier, healthier person, no doubt. But, don’t think that God is going to be impressed. Don’t think that giving up stuff is going to make you holier or somehow more worthy in the eyes of the LORD. God doesn’t need you give up anything at all. And, frankly, if there were one thing God would like you to give up, it’s the one thing that you simply cannot ever give up – sin, you simply cannot give up sin, no matter how hard you try. So, my advice to you is this: Stop trying to do stuff. Stop trying to give up stuff. Stop trying to do, and practice getting better at receiving.
“Now you’ve gone off the deep end, Pastor! Are you suggesting that I should stop trying not to sin?” No, not exactly. Of course you should, you must, continue to resist the temptation to sin. But, how do you think you’re going to do that? By your extraordinary will power? How has that worked for you in the past? Still keeping those resolutions you made only forty days ago? You can only resist the temptation to sin by keeping the oil of faith in the lamp of your soul full and replenished. You cannot buy this oil, you cannot earn it, and you don’t even deserve it, but you receive it as a gift of God’s grace through His means of grace, His proclaimed Word and His visible Word in Baptism, Absolution, and Supper. Giving something up for Lent – the Biblical Word is fasting – may be, as Luther teaches in the Small Catechism, “good outward bodily preparation,” but it is not a meritorious work. In fact, the purpose of fasting is that you might become hungry and thirsty, weak, and dependent so that you might all the better receive the spiritual food and drink your LORD mercifully pours out for you to strengthen your faith, to preserve, keep, and sustain you through every trial, tribulation, and temptation you face.
Today your LORD invites you to return to Him, with the promise that “He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” Your LORD invites you to return to Him “with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” That is to say, return to Him in repentance. Return to Him in humility. Return to Him dead to yourself that He might revive you and cause you to live again in Him. “Who knows whether He will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?” Who knows? You see, it doesn’t matter. You’re not returning to Him in order to get something out of Him, are you? No! But, return to Him because He is your God, your Creator, your life and your being. If you’ve come for any other reason, then repeat the first part again about fasting, weeping, and mourning until it sinks in. Yet, indeed, your LORD does leave a blessing behind, a grain offering in the holy body of Jesus, and a wine offering in His precious blood that you may eat and drink and live.
Moreover, you do not return to the LORD merely as His subject, but your return to the LORD as His Son. “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us to His own glory and excellence, by which He has granted to us His precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” Did you catch that? Partakers – your God wants you to be a partaker of His divine nature. To be a partaker is to be a recipient of His gifts. And, this is not a one-time thing, but an ongoing, every-day-of-your-life kind of thing.
However, being a partaker of the LORD and of His divine nature – well, that means something. That means that you are not your own, but you are the LORD’s. That means that you are part of both the spiritual and fleshly body the LORD has taken on in His Son Jesus Christ. That means that you are, as St. Paul teaches, members of His Body, and that you are, as Jesus’ teaches, branches of His True Vine. That means that you will bear fruit – His fruit. Thus, St. Peter exhorts you today to “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” What are these but the fruits of the Spirit expressed in different ways? What they share in common is that they are qualities that come from humility, selflessness, sacrifice, and reception of the LORD’s gifts. There is no doing here, just as there is no giving anything up, but, instead, there is being. Thus, what is described is what your life will be like and look like when you are a partaker of the LORD’s divine nature. The children's apples will not fall far from their Father's tree.
But, St. Peter continues saying, “If these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Again, I ask you, how does this happen? How do you increase your fruitfulness? Well, how does a branch from an apple tree or a grape vine produce more and better fruit? It’s not by the efforts of the branch, is it? No. But, it is by drawing life and sustenance from the tree and the vine. Thus, St. Peter exhorts you to “make your calling and election sure, for if you practice these qualities you will ever fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” What St. Peter is saying is that your calling and election are already accomplished in Jesus Christ. However, your certainty and comfort in this comes only from remaining in the LORD’s gifts and in bearing His fruit. Thus, if you remove yourself from the LORD’s gifts in Word and Sacrament and cease bearing the fruits of His Spirit and faith, you will stumble and fall. Whether you will be raised up again to faith and fruitfulness God alone knows. Therefore, take care and be diligent in receiving the LORD’s gifts and bear His fruit.
But, again, my advice to you is to stop trying to do stuff, even to give up stuff. Stop trying to do altogether, but this Lent, practice that you may get better at receiving and being. Indeed, a huge part of Ash Wednesday and of Lent is recognizing and confessing your inability to stop sinning and to save yourself, or even to work together with God towards your salvation, but rather to throw yourself completely upon the mercy of God poured out for you in His Son Jesus Christ. This is why Ash Wednesday and Lent are so exceedingly offensive to your fallen flesh and reason. You want to justify yourself, always. But, the truth is that your justification always and only comes from outside of you. That is why your Lord exhorts you not to lay up treasures for yourself on earth, but in heaven, with the promise that “where your treasure is, there you heart will be also.” Those heavenly treasures are here for you today, right now: “Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.” No, these things are not impressive to the world and to your fleshly reason and desires. They are not earthly, but heavenly, treasures. But, they are real, effective, and lasting treasures nonetheless. These treasures of Word and Water, Bread, and Wine bestow the forgiveness of sins, preserve you as partakers of the divine nature of the LORD, and make you fruitful, comforting you and strengthening you that you might make your calling and election sure in practicing them. “Return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” He has relented over your disaster, and He desires to bless you and to make of you a rich blessing to others. Stop doing, and practice receiving His gifts and being His gift.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Homily for Quinquagesima

Luke 18:31-43; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 Samuel 16:1-13

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The so-called New Atheists of our day seemingly delight in mocking and ridiculing your Christian faith. Regularly on social media, television, and talk radio do they refer to your God as your “Fairy Godfather” or as the “Invisible Man in the Sky,” or they liken your faith to belief in an absurd Flying Spaghetti Monster. They like to dismiss your faith as being irrational and groundless, having no bearing in the natural, material world of empirical, scientific evidence. However, they are simply wrong. While God may be unobservable, because He is an eternal spirit who exists outside of and before His creation of the universe, He has, nevertheless, penetrated and entered this universe and has taken upon Himself the material stuff of His creation being born, in time, to a human mother, as a human man, in a particular known place, in a particular known time in history, in the presence of particular known witnesses who simply would not and could not keep their mouths shut concerning what they had heard and seen.
And, that is precisely why the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ is the beginning of the Gospel, a Greek word that means “Good News.” The Reformed theologian Michael Horton has written in his book Christless Christianity: “The central message of Christianity is not a worldview, a way of life, or a program for personal or societal change; it is a gospel. From the Greek word for “good news,” typically used in the context of announcing a military victory, the gospel is the report of an appointed messenger who arrives from the battlefield. That is why the New Testament refers to the offices of apostle (official representative), preacher, and evangelist, describing ministers as heralds, ambassadors, and witnesses. Their job is to get the story right and report it, ensuring that the message is delivered by word (preaching) and deed (sacrament).” Thus, the story of the Gospel, the Good News about Jesus Christ, is not subjective, it is not an opinion, or even a belief, but “it is about news, reports of events, [and] phenomena that occurred in real human history.”
It is in this manner that the crowd following Jesus, including His disciples, were proclaiming the Good News about Jesus in the same way that a king’s heralds would announce his coming saying, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by!” In his book Heaven On Earth, Arthur Just explains that, “In the ancient world, the king would sometimes visit a village or city. Anticipating his coming, villagers would line the road waiting for him to appear, and as he entered the city they would cry, ‘Lord, have mercy!’ Amid their shouts, one could also hear petitions from the crowd for gifts that reflected the king’s mercy, such as food, protection, lower taxes, and always and most important, peace. Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem is an excellent example of this.” Likewise, the blind beggar in today’s Gospel was just such a one waiting along the roadside to petition King Jesus as He passed by.
Legend holds that Martin Luther’s dying words were, “We are all beggars, every one.” This is certainly consistent with Luther’s teaching throughout his ministry. Like the poor blind beggar along the roadside, we bring nothing before Jesus our King. We bring nothing to Jesus – not our works, not our righteousness, not our choice, not even our faith – but we are truly poor, blind, and deaf beggars in total and complete dependence upon His mercy, His charity, His compassion, His grace, and His love. If we think that we come before Him with anything at all, the truth is not in us, we deceive ourselves, and worse, we will never receive the forgiveness He died to give us. That is your fault and my fault, our own most grievous fault. For, the Word is out there. The Lord’s heralds – His apostles, preachers, and evangelists of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus’ victory over sin and death and Satan, which has secured forgiveness and redemption for all who will believe without exception or distinction – The Lord’s heralds have proclaimed this Good News throughout the world. But, only beggars can receive it, just as only confessing sinners can be forgiven, and only the dead can be raised.
Therefore, you must see yourself in that blind beggar along the roadside, for he is every sinner, and he is every Christian, a servant of King Jesus and a recipient of His Kingly gifts. His only plea before the Lord is kyrie eleison, “Have mercy on me!” But, those in the crowd rebuked him and told him to be silent. This is what the devil always does. He tries to make you silent before Jesus. Thus, he will speak to your pride and attempt to get you to think that you don’t need any forgiveness, that you’re a pretty good person, better than most. But, this is self-righteousness, and your faith is not in Jesus but in yourself. Or, Satan will speak to your guilty conscience and condemn you so that you are silent before Jesus because you consider yourself too sinful and too guilty to address Him or to receive His forgiveness. This is why you must always see yourself as the beggar. For, it’s not about you, that is how good you are, or how bad you are, but it’s only and always about Jesus, that He loves you and forgives you despite yourself. Believe this, for Jesus’ sake.
Yes, the devil wants to silence you before Jesus. However, your faith makes you cry out all the louder still. Thus, when confronted by those who sought to silence him, the blind beggar cried out all the more saying, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is what faith does: it clings to what it knows of Jesus and ignores everything else. The blind man’s kyrie literally stopped our Lord in His tracks. King Jesus stopped His procession and He stood before the man and asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Likewise, when you pray your kyries before the Lord, “Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy,” the Lord stops before you and asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” “Whatever you ask in My Name My Father will give you.” “Ask, and you shall receive,” “Knock, and the door will be opened.” However, don’t ask from your need, but ask from what you know about Jesus – His goodness, His kindness, His compassion, mercy, and grace, His Name that is above all names, His righteousness and holiness, His Sonship with the Father. Yes, when you say your kyries before the Lord, you, like the blind beggar and so many others, are confessing Him to be the Son of David, the King of heaven and earth, the only-begotten Son of the Father, Emmanuel, God with us.
“Lord, let me recover my sight,” the beggar pleaded with Jesus. “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well,” Jesus answered. What’s important here is not that the man’s faith made him physically see again. It wont be long and his eyes will sleep the sleep of death. What’s important is that his faith made him well, saved him, that his eyes will open again on the Last Day and behold the same Lord who stands before him now. It is this faith that we desire: saving faith that sees Jesus. Immediately the man recovered his sight and he followed Jesus in His procession towards the cross, for if anyone would follow King Jesus as His subject and disciple, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Him through humility, meekness, selflessness, sacrifice, and death unto resurrection and life that will never end. And, as he went his way following Jesus to the cross, he glorified God. This is what beggars do: “This one here, He did this for me.” This is the briefest definition of what it means to glorify or praise God: simply recount what He has done.
We are all beggars before our merciful King. While our Alleluias have gone away for a time, our Kyrie never does. Jesus’ ears remain continually open to our cries for mercy. We receive our wages according to His desire to give, we receive the Word according to His reckless love, and we cry to Him as beggars who have nothing, but expect to gain all good things from His nail-pierced hands. This is the Gospel, this is the Good News that Jesus’ heralds – His apostles, preachers, and evangelists – proclaim to you. May the Holy Spirit open your ears to hear and your eyes to see the Lord who is active in the world and in the lives of the men and the women He has created and redeemed, who are simply incapable of keeping their mouths shut concerning what they have heard and seen. Ours is not a God who is far off, but a God and King and Lord who is very near. He is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones, having become one of us as our Brother, our Husband, our Savior, our Lord, and our God.
Therefore, do not be like those who judge only by what their physical eyes see and by what their physical ears hear, for there is more to life and to creation than that. For, the supernatural has penetrated and has entered the natural, and the spiritual has taken up the physical – The Word of God has become flesh and made His dwelling amongst us. Those who can physically see and hear are often blind and deaf to the God who is with us as one of us. In contrast, the spiritually poor, impoverished, hungry and thirsty, humble, persecuted, and even the blind and the deaf can receive the Gospel, the Good News, about Jesus. The deaf can hear, and the blind can see. Blessed be the Name of the Lord! Even now, hearken to the words of Jesus’ heralds: “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by!” Where? Here, amongst you, in Word and water, bread and wine, to forgive you, to strengthen you, to sustain you, and to keep you in Him for life and salvation evermore. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Homily for Sexagesima

Luke 8:4-15; 2 Corinthians 11:19 – 12:9; Isaiah 55:10-13

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
The rain and the snow fall upon the Catskill Mountains, the Appalachian Trail, the well-tilled field of an organic farm, and the New England Expressway alike. There is no distinction. And, three-quarters of these will most certainly spring forth with life, if not fruit, but one-quarter most certainly will not. Yet, without the rain and the snow, there would be no growth anywhere. Likewise, without the seed, there would be no life. The earth might as well be formless and void, barren, empty, and dead. But, so was the soil of your heart until the Seed of God’s Word and the Rain of His Holy Spirit fell upon you. These came from outside of you and fell upon you as the LORD willed, just as “the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout.” Therefore, if you have faith, give glory to God. This is His will and work within you and for you, His sustenance and nurture that sustain you. But, will you be fruitful? Will you bear His fruit? Yes, you will, for that is what God’s Word does through you, unless you willfully resist His work and Spirit, reject Him, and choose to go your own way.
A great crowd had gathered to see and to hear Jesus. The crowd consisted of the four types of soil of which Jesus spoke in His parable: The hard path heart, the rocky soil heart, the thorn-infested soil heart, and the good soil heart. The Rain and the Snow of His Word and Spirit fell upon them each alike as seed that is broadcast here and there by an indiscriminate sower. But, what kind of foolish Sower is this who so scatters His Seed without distinction upon both good and poor soils? Why would He not cast his Seed upon only the most fertile and receptive soil that He might reap an abundant harvest? The Sower does not discriminate because He knows that fruitfulness lies in the Seed that is sown and not in the soil, and that the Seed that He sows contains within it the power to turn even hard, rocky, and thorny hearts into good and fruitful soil.
As the master of the vineyard went out in last Sunday’s Gospel to hire workers to work in his vineyard, so today a Sower goes out to sow His Seed. This is how the Gospel begins: with Jesus acting, by Him coming to us because we could never come to Him. Even the good soil does not choose to accept the Seed. Indeed, soil cannot make any movement towards the Seed whatsoever. Soil is entirely receptive. You are the soil. Jesus is the Sower. And, the powerful, performative, and creative Word of God is the Seed. But, the hardened path, just as the hardened heart, cannot receive the Seed of the Word. Its ears are closed to it, and the Word is snatched away by the devil as good seed by the birds of the air. The only hope for the hardened heart is the patient, long-suffering, merciful, and continual sowing of the Sower. He will not give up on you, but time is running out. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Some of the Sower’s Seed also falls among rocky and weed and thorn infested hearts. Under each of these conditions, the Holy Spirit creates real and true faith, however, because of the rocks, remnants from the broken up hardness of the heart, and weeds and thorns, the fleshly, worldly, and materialistic cares and anxieties of the heart, faith is not able to grow to fruitfulness. Sadly, many who are brought to faith by the Holy Spirit through the Word of God fall into these categories – fifty percent in Jesus’ parable. The rocky remnants of the hardness of heart keep faith from becoming deeply rooted, and so faith lacks the fortitude to withstand trial, tribulation, and temptation just as a seedling lacking depth of root lacks moisture and nutrients and is uprooted by wind or flood or withers in scorching heat. Likewise, faith that is forced to coexist and compete with fleshly, worldly, and materialistic cares and anxieties may grow well enough, but it is prohibited from bearing much or good fruit. Moreover, the weeds and the thorns are not interested in coexistence, but in the elimination of faith in the heart. Just as God is jealous and will share your heart and faith with no one and no thing, so Satan is also jealous and will not share you with God.
But then, some of the Sower’s Word-Seed will undoubtedly fall upon good soil. Why only some, you ask? Because God’s ways are not your ways, and God’s foolishness is wiser than man’s wisdom. Further, God would have you fear Him and love Him and trust in Him freely, without coercion. Thus, He created you with the freedom to reject Him, and not as an automaton. However, it must be noted that the good soil is known only by the fact that it produces good fruit. The Sower does not distinguish the good from the bad in His sowing, but He preaches His Word to all and lets the Seed of His Word and His Holy Spirit fall where they may. The fruit is born from the Seed, not from the soil. The soil can only hinder the growth of the Seed and the fruitfulness of faith by its hardness of heart or fleshly and worldly idolatries. Thus, Jesus teaches that you will know His children by their fruits. And, St. James teaches that faith without works is dead and no faith at all. Moreover, in St. Matthew’s telling, the Seed sown in good soil produces fruit yielding thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and, in some cases, a hundred-fold. The amount of fruit produced is not the point, but faith alone is.
And, the point is also this: The Seed of the Word ALWAYS produces results. If it is received in faith – faith given and created by the Holy Spirit through the Word – faith will begin to grow towards the potential to produce fruit. But, there is competition. Worry and anxiety and desires for worldly wealth, material, and pleasures compete in a battle for the soul. These must be resisted, a feat that can only happen with the assistance of faith, and faith must increase and prevail over these distractions. Likewise, the rock and stone remnants of the once hardened heart must continually be uprooted that faith may flourish and grow. But, when one gives themselves over to idolatries and fear, resentment, anger, and hatred, the same Word-Seed that created faith and caused it to grow will harden the heart to stone once again. Yes, it is true! For the hardened heart only became broken and receptive by the Word, but when the Word is rejected, it returns to its hardened state once again. This is what happened to Pharaoh when Moses preached the Word of the LORD to him and he rejected it. Similarly, Isaiah was sent to “make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” Thus, Jesus teaches in parables so that “seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.”
All the soils, all the hearts, all the ears hear, for they are passive in their hearing, they are receivers of the Word-Seed of the Sower. They all hear, and yet, many do not hear. Is this a paradox? No, it is not. For, there are many reasons that hearers do not hear – just ask any parent or teacher of children, or any pastor of a congregation. Distraction, laziness, boredom, apathy – these are all typical obstacles to a hearer’s hearing, and Satan will encourage you in all of these. Therefore, what is a hearer to do?
Jesus concludes His explanation of the Parable of the Sower to His disciples saying, “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the Word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” “We cannot take refuge in the fact that we hear God’s Word; so does everyone. Hearing the Word, while necessary for salvation, does not guarantee salvation. We do not trust hearing the Word, but we trust the One of whom the Word speaks: We trust Jesus. Jesus is the sower who sows on all manner of soil, who would rather His Word be trampled and snatched and scorched and choked than that we poor sinners would be without it. His Word is like Him: Jesus is the Word that was sown on the Stone Pavement as He stood trial before Pilate and was taken away by the devil. Jesus is the Word that was sown on that rocky hill called Golgotha where He sprang up on the cross and withered away. Jesus is the Word that was sown among the thorns of Chief Priests and Scribes and Pharisees and Sadducees, who competed with Jesus out of love for the world. And it was by sowing Himself on our wretched soil, by dying and rising, that He made a little plot of good soil: people who are saved for His sake.”
What is a hearer to do? Remain hearing. And, how do you do that? Hold fast to the Word in fear, love, and trust – in faith – and receive His help through His means of grace: The Word of the Gospel which proclaims your sins forgiven in His holy shed blood through Holy Baptism and Holy Absolution, in His body broken for you and in His blood shed for you that you may be strengthened in faith and live, and in His Word of Law and Gospel which equips you for every fruitful work the LORD has prepared for you to do before the foundations of the world. In this way His Word will prevail in your hard and rocky, weed and thorn-infested hearts and you will bear fruit. How much? That is the Spirit’s concern. Do not judge yourself or others and you will not be judged. We are all on the receiving end of His Grace.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Homily for Septuagesima

Matthew 20:1-6; 1 Corinthians 9:24 – 10:5; Exodus 17:1-7

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
“Is the LORD among us or not?” That is the question, isn’t it? Truly, a whole lot depends upon your answer to that question: How you view worship – Is it your work, or is it God’s work? How you worship – with deep reverence, humility, and awe, or with unfettered revelry and emotive expression? How you understand the Lord’s Supper – Is it merely a symbolic or spiritual presence, or is the real and true body and blood of Jesus Christ present in the Supper for the forgiveness of your sins? How you view baptism – Is it merely lawful obedience, or does it actually create faith and give the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation, and bestow the Holy Spirit, as the Word of Scripture says? The answer to all these questions and more are bound up in your answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?”
“Is the LORD among us or not?” Does God actually keep His Word? Did the Word of God, the Son of God, really become flesh and make His dwelling among us? What say you? Truth be told, you answer this question even without words, by your actions, in what you place your fear, your love, and your trust. That is because we are confessional beings. That is to say that your words and your deeds make a public confession of what you truly believe in your heart. And so, your answer to the question “Is the LORD among us or not?” will determine whether you live in contentment, peace, and hope, or if you live with restlessness, anxiety, and fear.
“Is the LORD among us or not?” That is the question the children of Israel had to answer in the wilderness. “Is the LORD among us or not?” Or, has God abandoned us? Does God have our best interests in heart and mind? Is God able to help us? Does God even want to help us? The people were thirsty and there was no water to drink. And so, they complained to Moses, they complained to their pastor, “Where is this God whom you say loves us? Why doesn’t He provide for us? Maybe you brought us up out of Egypt to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst.” Do their questions make you uncomfortable? They should. You know what the LORD had just done for them. The LORD led them out of captivity, bondage, and slavery in Egypt. And, before that, the LORD provided for His people in Egypt and made them a great nation. And, but a little bit earlier, the LORD had even provided sweet water for His people to drink. Why would they so quickly disbelieve and, even worse, blaspheme to think the LORD evil and wicked?
Do you not, at times, do the same? “Why has this disease befallen me? I’ve trusted in the LORD. I’ve tried to be a good person.” “Why does God permit evil to go on unchecked? Why do so many children die from war, disease, poverty, hunger, and thirst?” “Why does our church struggle so? Why don’t more people come? Is it the way we worship? Maybe we’re too old-fashioned, too Catholic, too irrelevant?” “Maybe it’s our pastor. If he’d just preach more about the problems we face in our lives, if he’d just lighten up and tell some stories or jokes, if he’d just not talk about moral and social issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, or if he’d accept evolution or women pastors, then maybe we’d be growing instead of declining.”
“Is the LORD among us or not?” If your answer to that question is “Yes,” then you have nothing to fear, to worry, or to be anxious about. But, if your answer to that question is “No,” then you, and all men, are to be pitied, for my preaching is in vain, and your hope is in vain. Though your thirst may be well sated and your bellies full, though you may have ample clothing and shelter and many luxuries and material wealth, if the LORD is not among you, then you will die in this wilderness and will never enter the land of promise. God have mercy on you and turn you in repentance.
For, the LORD is indeed among us, even as He was among the children of Israel, guiding, providing for, and protecting them throughout their wilderness wanderings. Sweet water, water from the rock, manna and quail, all that the people needed to sustain their bodies and their lives, the LORD graciously provided them. They never went hungry and they never thirsted, though the LORD did test them as a father disciplines his children, that they would learn right from wrong, good from evil, and put their fear, their love, and their trust in Him alone. And, like rebellious children, they accused their heavenly Father of doing them evil. But “the LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” He calls His children to repentance that He might shower them with His blessing.
And so, the LORD is with you in the most intimate of ways, in your very flesh and blood. Jesus is Emmanuel, which means, literally, “God with us.” In Jesus Emmanuel, the LORD is with you to forgive your sins, to strengthen your faith, and to give you His life and the benefits of communion with His Son. The LORD is with you to guide you in the ways you should go that you might live and prosper and be a bright light, leaven, and salt to those walking in the darkness of sin and death. The LORD is with you might be protected from the assaults of the evil one, resist temptation, persevere through affliction, and find the glory of God in the things to which He has attached His Word and promise instead of in the things that the flesh and the world value and deem to be glorious and good.
The LORD commanded Moses to strike the rock with his staff, promising that the people would have water to drink. St. Paul tells you that the Rock was Christ. Christ was with them all along. The Rock followed them wherever they went. Today, still, Christ the Rock is with you, providing you food and drink that you may not perish, but live. The LORD struck Christ, His Son, upon the cross, crucifying, crushing, and breaking Him for you that you might be forgiven and live. The LORD pierced the side of Christ the Rock, from whence flowed His cleansing blood and purifying water. Now the LORD is with you in the waters of Holy Baptism and in the meat and drink of the Lord’s Supper to sustain and keep you in your wilderness wanderings until He returns as Lord and King. Spiritually, you have already passed through the Red Sea in Holy Baptism and have entered the Promised Land. And, in His time your body will be raised from death to new and everlasting life. “Is the LORD among us or not?” Yes! Yes, He most certainly is!
Then why do you grumble and complain? Why are you anxious and fearful? Your words and your deeds are confessions of what you believe in your heart. You fear that the LORD will not provide for you because He does not do it in the ways that you would expect or that seem wise to men. You think that the LORD will not help you if you do not first help yourself, or that He isn’t able to help you, or that He doesn’t want to help you. And, when you see others prosper who do less than you, you are filled with anger and outrage at the inequity and the unfairness of it all, as were the laborers who were hired at the beginning of the day who were paid the same as those who were hired near the end. Is the point that you should not grumble because no one is deserving of anything good at all? Well, yes, that is true. However, the greater point is that the LORD is among us and provides for all of us without exception or distinction. Indeed, St. Paul teaches that there is no distinction, not between Jew or Gentile, male or female, master or servant, but that all are one in Christ and are equally justified through faith in Him. For, the LORD is among us to forgive and to save and to sustain and to protect. The LORD is among us for each of us, for all of us, and for all. There is no distinction. Thanks be to God that He does not pay us what we deserve, the wages we have earned – death, but that He gives us the grace that we do not deserve and could never earn – the forgiveness of our sins, life, and eternal salvation.
And so, again, your answer to the question “Is the LORD among us or not?” is a confession of what you believe in your heart. Your answer will shape and determine how you view yourself in relation to God and to your neighbor, how you view your own works and faith, and how you view the works and gifts of the LORD that He provides for you. The children of Israel grumbled and complained and blasphemed the LORD saying that He was not with them, that He had abandoned them, and that He meant them harm and evil. They did not see and believe that He was among them as He had promised in His Word and had demonstrated repeatedly through miraculous signs and wonders. Similarly, the LORD is among you in His Word and Blessed Sacraments performing miraculous signs and wonder – creating and strengthening faith, forgiving sins, feeding, nourishing, and protecting His children – just as He has promised in His Word. Will you grumble at the ways in which He provides for you? Will you complain that that He favors others more than you, or the same as you? Will you blaspheme that He means you evil and seeks to harm you or abandon you? Or, will you confess that His ways are not your ways, that His foolishness is wiser than your wisdom, and receive the gifts that He gives to you in fear, love, and in trust of His Word and Promise fulfilled in Jesus Christ?
Your life, words, and deeds are the confession of your answer to the question, “Is the LORD among us or not?” You answer that question “Yes” by receiving His gifts faithfully and regularly in the Divine Service. You answer that question “Yes” by confessing yourself unworthy of such holy gifts. You answer that question “Yes” by not begrudging others mercy, compassion, grace, and forgiveness, but by readily, freely, and gladly sharing these with all. And, you answer that question “Yes” by trusting that the LORD is present and active for your good, and for the good of all, in the ways and through the means to which He has connected His Word of Promise, regardless of how humble, weak, foolish, and inglorious they might appear. For the LORD has chosen what is weak in this world to shame the strong, and what is foolish in this world to shame the wise, and what is not to bring to nothing things that are.
“Is the LORD among us or not?” If your answer to that question is “Yes,” then thanks be to God, for the Holy Spirit has called you by the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, and will sanctify and keep you in the true faith. But, if your answer to that question is “No,” then you have deemed your wisdom to be wiser than the LORD’s and have made yourself to be god and, therefore, must save yourself. Good luck with that. But, thanks be to God that He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.” He will continue to call those who turn away to repentance that He might bless them. But with each passing day and hour time is running out. The LORD is among us now through Word and Sacrament in His Church, but soon He will come in unveiled power and glory as King and Judge. May we be found among His gifts when He returns and enter with Him behind the veil into His glory and light and life.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.