Archives - January 2019

Real and Present

January 27, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this morning is from our Old Testament text, Psalm 16, especially where the Psalmist writes, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends…

This upcoming week is National Lutheran Schools Week, and across the Missouri Synod, this is cause for joyous celebration! We celebrate this rich heritage that has been an integral part of our mission and ministry since its inception; indeed, the emphasis that Luther himself placed on education laid the groundwork for our synod’s call to educate our children in faith and life! We’ve had, as a synod, the joy of impacting children and families in our country and around the world: nearly 2,000 Lutheran early childhood centers, elementary schools, and high schools across the United States, totaling more than 200,000 children hearing the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And here at St. James, this mission is of the utmost importance; it has been since our congregation was established! The joy that has been mine when I share the Gospel with your children and grandchildren, the joy when I see the gears in their heads turning as they consider theological concepts they’d not heard before, the joy that I have to pray alongside them to our God and Lord is beyond adequate explanation! To hear little children speaking the Apostles Creed alongside our older kids is overwhelming, and to hear such children ask to be baptized in the Name of our Triune God is unparalleled! This is an incredibly fertile field for the harvest, and I, for one, am honored and humbled to be a worker in this field!

Now, each year, as I’m sure you know, synod develops a different theme for our Lutheran schools, and this year’s theme is “Real. Present. God.” Basically, in our school and in schools across the synod, our students, staff, and families have been immersed in the Book of Psalms, looking at a different Psalm or a portion thereof each week. With the psalmists, we celebrate the only true God Who deigned to reveal Himself in the Person and work of Jesus, Who is called the Christ. We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, the One Who, through the Means of Grace, is truly present with His people and where our God is present, there is real joy!

Our Old Testament text for today, Psalm 16, sees this joy exemplified as David writes, “Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. … You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” David understood that, in the presence of the real God, there is real joy.

But we must remember that joy is not the same thing as happiness – something that Scripture makes very clear. The same David who wrote the words of our Old Testament text also confesses his sin in Psalm 51, “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.” David writes these words in response to Samuel’s call to repentance, showing him the sin he had committed in his affair with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. One could hardly call this heart-rending confession “happy,” but there is nevertheless joy found here, as David implores a little later in that same psalm, “Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have broken rejoice. …  Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.” Even in the midst of sorrow and contrition, we have joy in knowing that there is forgiveness and salvation in the Messiah for whom David longed: Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

That is, after all, why Jesus manifested in the flesh … why He came into the world that He created. The writer of Hebrews tells us of this joyful mission that Jesus had. “He who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” His joy was in our salvation from everlasting death and damnation. He was willing to endure the agony, the shame, the sorrow, the bitterness, of death on a cross … to bring to us the joy of His presence.

In our schools, and definitely here at St. James, you see this joy, the joy that comes from walking with the Living God, every single day! He is present as baptismal promises are remembered and renewed “in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” He is present as His Word is taught in the classroom. He is present as the chapel message is proclaimed and preached. He is present as school families gather for worship and as the Sacrament of the Altar is shared with those who partake of His real presence in a worthy manner.

And because Jesus is present here, there is the joy of His forgiveness here, extended from students and staff alike as they forgive as they have been forgiven. There is the joy of God’s peace here when our daily prayers include petitions for a child who is ill or a family that is grieving. There is the joy in seeing all our students’ abilities and gifts, but especially in remembering these talents and abilities are gifts from our gracious, loving God, and should be treated thusly. In Jesus’s presence in the Lutheran school, there is fullness of joy. There is the joy of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.

Now, we are realists, knowing full well that our students, staff, families, and partners do live in the real world, where life is messy. There are no rose-colored glasses here; we recognize that we are all sinners living in a sinful, broken world. Lutheran schools are not always happy places. St. James is not a perfect place; none of the staff are perfect, including me, and none of our students are perfect. School ministry takes place in the real world. Pastors, principals, board members, staff, students, and parents deal with dynamics that remind us daily that we are sinners in a broken world.

Nevertheless, Lutheran schools are joyful places because Jesus is there. The proclamation of the forgiveness of sins is there. The instilling and nurturing of the one true Faith in the next generation is there. Our schools offer much more than the joy of the presence of children, the joy of academic excellence and professional staff. No, our joy … begins and ends with Jesus. King David boldly proclaimed, “Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.” In a world that desires to shut us up and shut us down for having the audacity to instill the one true Faith in our children, there is real comfort and joy in this reality. The promises of eternity are real, and here at St. James and in our Lutheran schools across the globe, we educate for eternity.

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

Tags: Psalm 16

Here's Your Sign

January 20, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation this morning is from our Gospel text, where John writes, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory. And his disciples believed in him.” Here ends our text, dear Christian friends…

I have no qualms in telling you all that, as a young man in high school, I enjoyed the Blue Collar Comedy Tour. The folksy “wisdom” and observations they imparted, their critiques of rural and non-elitist America resonated with me growing up in small-town northern Wisconsin. In particular, I enjoyed the comedic stylings of Bill Engval, and his “Here’s your sign” vignettes. He goes fishing with some buddies on a boat, gets a nice string of bass, and after coming back to the dock, some genius asks him if he caught all those fish …. “Nope … talked ‘em into giving up. Here’s your sign.”

The signs that Mr. Engval describe are indicators of just how silly people can be, how thoughtless or hair-brained. Humorous, to be sure, but nonetheless biting in their truth. But signs do that: they point beyond themselves toward something true. They point us in the way we should go if we are lost. They relay relevant and important information and instruction. They reveal mysteries. That is certainly what we have in our Gospel lesson, where John describes, the first of [Jesus’s] signs, one which [He] did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. As a result, His disciples believed in Him.

And what a sign this miracle turns out to be! Jesus gives instruction to the servants to fill the six purification jars with ordinary water, each holding 20 to 30 gallons – for those of you not mathematically inclined (like myself) that’s anywhere between 120 and 180 gallons, or 600-900 of those 750mL bottles! The servants follow Jesus’s instructions, filling each jar all the way to the top, and Jesus tells them to “draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.” He doesn’t do any fancy tricks, or wave His hand over the jars, or even speak to the waters contained therein. He just has the servants draw from what’s there and give it. The result? Incredulity, as the host of the feast proclaims, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now.” In a way completely mysterious to us, by means which we are completely ignorant of, the incarnate Word transforms ordinary water into extraordinary wine – we’re not talking about Franzia here! This is primo stuff! But it makes no logical sense! You cannot explain reasonably how this occurred! By all accounts, it’s impossible! Yet it happened. God acts, and what is physically impossible occurs. The definition of a miracle, my friends. Displaying for all who are present the might and power of YHWH, the King of all creation.

And John’s word choice here is quite intentional; the Greek word is saemeion, which can be translated simply as “miracle,” but carries heavy overtones of said miracle acting as a sign. John likely chooses this word instead of others precisely because this is what Jesus’s work at the Cana wedding is: a miracle and a sign, the first of many. John often uses this word to describe Jesus’s miracles; in fact, in his Gospel account, he uses it in this way seventeen times. Jesus heals the sick—it is a sign. He walks on water—it is a sign. He feeds 5000—it is a sign. He gives sight to the blind, makes the lame walk, raises Lazarus from the dead—sign, after sign, after sign. John describes Jesus’s miracles—not as responses to prayer, and not as divine interruptions—but as signs. They pointed to something else, as signs do.

And this sign is no different. The turning of water to wine at Cana points beyond itself toward the greater reality, the greater work Jesus had come to do. He had come to undo the grip that sin, death, and the devil have upon this world, to turn the bitter waters thereof into the sweet wine of forgiveness, life, and the love of God. Simply put, the miraculous sign at Cana does point toward Jesus’s work on the cross. There, He did what was humanly impossible: by the shedding of His divine blood, He atoned for all sin from all time, yours and mine, once, for all, and forever. That is, ultimately, what all the miraculous signs of Christ do: they point us to His salvific work, accomplished on our behalf. John says as much near the end of his Gospel account, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His Name.”

To believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, is to believe what He has done for you, on your behalf: that He has redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from sin, from death, and the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that YOU and I may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. It is beyond all logical reasoning. It is beyond our ability to explain – how God in the flesh died, and put to death the very thing that causes death. It is certainly beyond our fathoming how He also rose from the dead three days later. Yet it all happened. God acted, the physically impossible occurred, and the result of these miracles is that, by His choice, we believe.

And we didn’t even see these signs occur! That, I think, is truly miraculous! We have not seen, and yet, by God’s grace, we are able to believe. We have been given the faith and are able to believe that He Who turned water into wine also turned death into life – His own, as He rose victorious three days after His crucifixion, and that of His children, as we pass through the waters of Holy Baptism. He has revealed Himself to the world in these signs and miracles, that all may believe. This is your sign, and it is most glorious!

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

Tags: John 2:1-11

Heaven Was Opened!

January 13, 2019
By Rev. David French

After the crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus’s baptism is the next most important event in His ministry. With a divine epiphany, the Father opens the heavens to proclaim to those who are present at His baptism that Jesus is His beloved Son as they witnessed the Holy Spirit descending in bodily form like a dove to anoint Jesus as the Christ. This, my friends, is a very big deal in the life of Jesus, because it here that He opens the door for human beings to be adopted as God’s children.

Jesus began His ministry in the womb of the Virgin Mary. There, He took on our humanity and, even though He never sinned, He began to experience the pain and the curse of sin at that time. He endured the trauma of childbirth just as we all do. He grew up in a world where life and family and work were just as frustrating as they can be today. Even though He never sinned, Jesus carried the sin of the world for us from the very beginning of His existence as a human being.

Up until His baptism, Jesus basically carried out His ministry in a quiet, private way. A little more than thirty years has gone by since He took up our humanity. And yet, we only know about a few events and people in His life: Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Anna and Simeon, the magi, and the teachers of the law who were astonished by His learning when He came to the temple at the age of twelve. That’s about all the Bible tells us about the first thirty years of Jesus’s life as a human being.

That all changed after His Baptism. That was the beginning of a public ministry that would bring eternal comfort to some and incredible frustration to others. He brought hope to the hopeless and challenged those who were confident in themselves. Those who loved Him, loved Him more than life itself. Those who rejected Him, hated Him to the point of plotting against His life. Jesus’s public ministry was very divisive. It divided the believers from the unbelievers. It separated the saved from the damned.

The Father’s proclamation at Jesus’s Baptism not only confirmed Jesus’s identity as the Son of God, but it also proclaimed that He is the seed who will crush the serpent’s head. The Father’s proclamation at the Baptism was not only an epiphany of the true nature of Jesus, but it was also a battle cry that this is the Savior of all mankind … the One who will save all mankind from sin, death, and the power of the devil.

The devil, however, has also been challenging these words of the Father by sowing seeds of doubt since then. As we read through the Gospels, we see that the challenges, the temptations that the opposition brought against Jesus, all had a common theme. They all attacked the idea that Jesus really is the only begotten Son of God.

In a few Sundays, when the season of Lent starts, we will read the temptation that the devil brought against Jesus. Two of the temptations begin with the words, “If you are the Son of God ….” The other temptation asks Jesus to worship the devil as God. All three temptations attack the identity of Jesus as God … the identity that the Father proclaimed at Jesus’s baptism.

Then there’s the temptation at the cross. As Jesus hung on the cross, those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” Even as Jesus hung on the cross, the passers-by were still challenging the words that the Father proclaimed in this morning’s reading.

Even today, there are people who admire Jesus as a great teacher, a good example to follow … maybe even a miracle worker. Still, they draw the line at the words of the Nicene Creed: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” They simply refuse to believe that Jesus Christ is God, and so, reject the proclamation that God the Father made at the Baptism of Jesus.

But why? Why do people reject this proclamation of God the Father? Well, it seems they reject the Father’s words because believing them would mean that Jesus has authority. If Jesus really is God the Son, then He has authority over all things and all people. It means His words are the word of God, that He is the judge and savior of the world.

As judge, He tells us that our sin is something that happens in our will, not in our behavior. Our very thoughts can be, and often are, sinful. The things that we do that seem good to the world around us can still be sinful if our heart is not in the right place. We often do things not because it’s the right thing to do, but because people will notice our good deeds. The truth is, when Jesus judges us, He shows us that we are a lot more sinful than we think we are.

As judge, Jesus also knows that our sins deserve punishment both here on earth and forever in hell. He knows that we cannot stand before God on the Last Day if we are still in our sins. He knows that we would be lost forever unless delivered from sin, death, and everlasting condemnation. Our sinful will is rightly terrified and most certainly does not like to hear this teaching of Jesus the judge.

As savior, Jesus tells us that He is our only savior, that all other so-called saviors are false. As Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” As rebels, we want choices. We want ways that are more to our way of thinking. We want to be like God, and so, we want to be in charge of our own salvation.

It is the Son of God as our only savior that has the most comfort for us because, not only does Jesus proclaim our guilt and punishment, but then He takes that guilt and punishment onto Himself. Instead of pouring the wrath of God out onto us as we deserve, He takes that wrath of God onto Himself as our substitute. As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

The truth is, it’s through the very act of baptism that Jesus unites us to Himself. As the Holy Spirit inspired the apostle Paul to write in today’s Epistle, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.”

Clearly the Holy Spirit working through Paul teaches that Holy Baptism delivers to us the blessings of Jesus’s work on the cross, that is, forgiveness of our sins. Paul also teaches that Holy Baptism not only credits Jesus’s life and death to our account, but by grace through faith, His resurrection also belongs to us.

In today’s Gospel we read that heaven was opened at Jesus’s Baptism. In proclaiming Jesus as His Son, God is also proclaiming eternal life through the sacrifice His Son would offer. He was announcing the victory that would keep heaven open for you and for all who bear His name.

In His Name, Amen.

Tags: Luke 3:15-22

If You Want to Make God Laugh …

January 06, 2019
By Rev. David French

I have no idea what you think of Woody Allen, but today’s Gospel reminds me of something he said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans.” The Epiphany account of the magi is a good example of how true those words are because they show God working very directly to change people’s plans.

I suppose we could take that idea all the way back to the visit that the angel Gabriel paid to Mary. I mean, Mary did plan to have children … someday … after she married Joseph, but God had other plans. Then there’s the place of the birth. Do you think Mary planned to give birth to her child in Bethlehem? She should have because God did reveal through Micah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be the ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient days.”

Then there are the magi. Who knows what they had planned when they noticed that there was a new light in the sky … a star unlike any they had seen before … a star that caused them to set out in search of a new born king. They planned to find the king in Jerusalem, but that wasn’t God’s plan. King Herod told them to look for the king somewhere in Bethlehem, but as the magi set out from Jerusalem, the light of that star guided them to the exact location of the newborn king. The magi planned to worship the newborn king and then return to Herod, but God sent an angel to them in a dream and warned them to return by another route, again changing their plans.

Herod had plans. Herod planned to rule indefinitely. Herod had murdered friend, family, and enemy alike to keep himself on the throne in Jerusalem. Now he planned to murder this newborn king, but again God had other plans as an angel warned Joseph to flee to Egypt and stay there until he received further instructions.

Joseph planned to marry Mary and then be the father of her children. He didn’t plan to be the stepdad of a child conceived by the Holy Spirit. He probably never planned to do any international traveling either … much less to Egypt.

Yes, if you want to make God laugh, just tell Him about your plans. The entire account of the visit of the magi … in fact, the entire historical content of the Scriptures, consistently shows that God’s plans always come to pass while man’s plans are very much subject to change.

Did Noah plan to build a floating zoo? Did Joseph plan to be sold into slavery by his brothers and then become Pharaoh’s right-hand man? When Moses planned to deliver Israel from slavery, God sent him out into the desert for forty years. Then, when Moses turned eighty and gave up on his plan to deliver Israel, God came to him in a burning bush. Saul planned to travel to Damascus and arrest Christians, but God struck him to the ground in a bright light that blinded him that he might come to see, and so, changed his plan as he became Paul the apostle to the gentiles. And these are just a few examples of God changing people’s plans.

God inspired Isaiah to prophesy, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” My friends, we should be very, very happy that God changes our plans and very, very happy that His plans for us are not what we deserve.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they brought a curse on all of creation. They expected punishment. They ran and hid. They did not expect God to promise a seed who would crush the serpent’s head. I would have expected God to erase His creation and start over. He didn’t do that. He sent a savior, instead. Instead of punishing His creation or starting over, He provided redemption for His creation and promised that all things would one day be as He intended for them to be.

Even the way that the Redeemer did the redeeming did not fit the expectations of man. The people who had God’s promises … the people who should have known better … even these people expected a king of earthly power and glory. Herod most certainly expected a king of power and glory. That is the reason he was troubled. If Herod had understood the true nature of the newborn king … that His kingdom is not of this world … Herod wouldn’t have cared at all.

Man’s plans expect a redeemer who makes laws, not one who lives under the law. Man expects a redeemer of great power and wealth. Yet God’s Word reveals, “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” Even though the prophets foretold of the suffering servant of God, even Jesus’s disciples didn’t expect Him to suffer the way He did or to die the death He died.

The resurrection certainly didn’t fit in with the plans of the Pharisees and the chief priests as we read in Matthew, “The next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, ‘Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, “After three days I will rise.” Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, “He has risen from the dead,” and the last fraud will be worse than the first.’”

The guards at Jesus’s tomb didn’t plan to ever see an angel, but God changed their plans as we read again in Matthew: “An angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men.”

So, if you want to make God laugh, tell Him about your plans. Pagan philosophers from a foreign land come to worship the Christ child. At the same time, the powerful in Jerusalem … the high priests … the scribes … the man on the throne … they haven’t got a clue. The account of the magi visiting the Christ child again shows us that our lives are subject to God’s plan … not ours. As the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to write, “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Mercifully, it is God’s good and gracious will for us to spend eternity with Him which is why His plan, the great mystery Paul spoke of in our Epistle reading, is that God Himself would work out our salvation. As the Holy Scriptures remind us, “God chose us in [Christ] before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.” You see, God’s plan of salvation for you and me has been in place since before He created the world.

It’s that plan of salvation that was unfolding as He revealed Himself to the magi in the person of the Christ child or the Savior by way of the star. It’s that plan that is still at work in us as God the Holy Spirit reveals and brings that same Savior and salvation to us through the same holy Word of God and same body and blood of His Son. It is that plan of salvation that will one day, by grace through faith, take each of us from this valley of tears to live in His eternal light-filled peace and joy for all eternity.

In His Name, Amen

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