Christianity is an identity, not a challenge

Matthew 5:13-20

You, Christian, are the salt of the earth. This mattered more before refrigerators. It’s not just you give the world it’s flavor, and too much of you is bad for everyone’s heart. You are the preservative. Jesus says you are what keeps everything from rotting and falling apart. You, Christian, are the light of the world. You stand between the world and the dark. That’s a tall order. It’s terrifying. Especially as our numbers appear to shrink, as our world appears to rot, and dark and latter days hem us in. It feels like we’re losing. It feels like everything’s falling apart. And somewhere down the line the hope of the church stopped being about sharing Jesus with sinners and turned into just surviving another generation. Concern stopped being that the world doesn’t have enough peace and started being that we don’t have enough officers or money or power. We’re not just afraid for our institution. We’re afraid for our retirement. Our relationships. Our health. We’re afraid we don’t have enough of whatever it takes to make things ok. If the salt has lost its saltiness, it’s no good for anything. Trample it underfoot. It’s called despair. It’s not good for anything.

Jesus only seems to want to twist the knife. Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. The thing is, they were probably better at this stuff than us. The pharisees weren’t villains who twisted fancy mustaches. They were men who thought family mattered. They stood for morality and the good of their people. They supported their church. They were the upright people you’d expect to see standing against the darkness of the day. They were the ones building something that would last another generation. That isn’t enough. Their temple was torn down. Not one stone stood upon the other. Everything they fought for wasn’t enough, not for this world, and not for the next. If you have to do better, they didn’t do enough. They were trampled underfoot, but where does that leave us?

So much of our struggle, our fear, our despair, is rooted in the fact that we go looking in the scriptures for a challenge rather than an identity. What can I do to achieve something worthwhile? Succeed where others failed? Build something that moth and rust can’t destroy? What can I do to show I’m the salt and the light that will make this place better and make me stand out from those who make it worse?

This is not about you. Christianity is not about you. It’s about Jesus for you. Christianity is not a challenge. It’s an identity. The light of the world is Jesus. That light dwelt in darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. The light became the light of men. Now the light is you. Not because of what you did. Not because of what you built. Not because of what you stood for. Because Christ and His righteousness are yours. Now. For real.

He is the light set on the hill. The light that came into the darkness that crept in every time we sinned and failed, every time we tried our best and it wasn’t enough, and every time we contributed to the destruction by our own sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. The light came into our darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it. The light was set on the hill of Calvary. The light set on the hill is the cross. Jesus died there for sinners. The afraid sinners. The despairing sinners. The sinners who couldn’t do enough and the ones who made things worse. He died for me. He died for you. He died for pharisees. He died for all. Your sins are forgiven you. Darkness lost. The world was preserved. Rot comes undone as He rose from the grave. Death is destroyed. Dark is vanquished. Light shines from Christ.

That shines through Christians to the world. They see our good works. More than just the outward works of the Pharisees. More than the ability to build or the power to enforce morality. More than the outward works, who Christ is for us shows the world the inward work of love. Mercy. Forgiveness. Peace. This isn’t a challenge. It’s an identity. You are love, because you were first loved. This is not a quantity of works, but a quality of character. You are not the sum of your sins weighed against the sum of your works. You are not what you’ve broken or failed to do. You are what Jesus made you. Salt. Light. Holiness. Loved.

This identity lets you face the fullness of the law without fear. You don’t need to downplay it or excuse it. You don’t need to justify yourself by abolishing the parts that would make you look like a sinner. Your sins are forgiven. You are in Christ. The law can’t hurt you. When the Son of God calls you holy and forgiven, the law can’t give you an identity. You don’t need to excuse the law or hide the law or relax the law. Jesus fulfills it for you. The more you relax the law to flee from what it would call you, the more you try to not need Jesus.

If we can fulfill the law perfectly, it’s not that hard. To relax the law is to point away from Jesus. To see the law fulfilled and not relaxed one iota is to see Jesus. To teach the law fully is to teach Jesus. To call on you to actually strive to do the same is to hope in Jesus. Be not afraid of your failure. Be not afraid of your sin. Christ has fulfilled the law. Christ has won your forgiveness. Christ has given you an identity, not a challenge. This is just who you are now. Baptized. Holy. Loved. Light.

Christianity is an identity, not a challenge

John 1:29-42 Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world

John 1:29-42 “The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

More often than not, it feels like Christians gather around an idea. We’re the Lutheran kind of Christian. We believe in justification by grace alone through faith apart from works. We believe in baptizing babies. We don’t believe in accepting Jesus into your heart, open communion, or getting rebaptized. We should do this. We shouldn’t do that.

Statements of fact can be completely true, but still don’t seem to help when your family disagrees, or when your church has a reputation in town you’re not proud of. And when you yourself don’t live up to your beliefs, if this is just a house of ideas, it’s gonna make this place seem bitter and empty of anything worthwhile.

This isn’t about being less honest about what we believe, or even less strict. John was about as straightforward as they came, and many were offended by the truths he told. He called folks nice little pet names like “hypocrites” and “brood of vipers”. He warned of fiery hell for unbelief. He preached about God.

But John was not sent out into the wilderness to relay a series of ideas. He was sent to to give Jesus to sinners. He baptized for the forgiveness of sins. So when Jesus shows up, even while John’s hand is still dripping with water from the river, he stops what he’s doing. John would have prevented him. “I need to be baptized by you, not the other way around.” It’s his cousin. Their moms hung out. But it was so unlike what John expected that even he has to admit “I myself did not know him” like this. Baptized with a booming voice from heaven and a Holy Spirit filled bird. Jesus is not just a man. He is not just a set of teachings. John points a finger and explains it. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Christians don’t gather around an idea, but the lamb. Jesus showing up is the whole point. This is why we’re here. We need something from Him. The picture painted is ugly. The bible’s not big on plot twists. The lamb isn’t there for you to pet it. A lamb in the bible is like seeing a promiscuous teen in an old scary movie. It’s like seeing a guy in a red shirt in an away mission. It’s like hearing “hey ya’ll watch this” at a party. It’s like seeing me do anything athletic. The details might change a bit, but know gonna end bloody.

Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The Son of God is not here to be a set of teachings or ideals or morals. He’s here to bleed. That’s how we’re saved. It’s a fact of nature that we try really hard to avoid, but still see a sense of it in the country that people hide from in the city. Something has to die for you to live. God did that. A lamb wasn’t just an animal, it was an almighty act made to work peace between sinners and God. God made this animal to die, so that we might live.

Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. See Jesus, the Passover lamb, blood protecting us from death. The lamb, killed to make skins to cover the shame of Adam and Eve. The lamb provided to save Abraham’s son from death and fire. The Lamb, sacrificed on the day of atonement to make sure there was blood on the altar to make every sinner in the camp of Israel righteous. THIS lamb, Jesus, not made, but God almighty taken flesh, slain before the foundation of the world, here, for you, and for all the world. He is the fullness of every promise, and the God every lamb hinted at. The Spirit remains on Him. He is at work to do the work of God. Bleed. It has to be this way.

Christianity has to be more than a set of ideas. It has to be more than a group of people who get together and talk about their faith. All the ideas in the world only point to the fact that things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be. That word sin tells us something is wrong. It’s a diagnoses. We do evil. Think evil. We will away God’s truths because they’re uncomfortable. We try to leverage that into hurting each other. We try to leverage each other into helping ourselves. We sin. It’s a mess. It’s death. Christianity isn’t a mental exercise or discipline to outthink evil or rise above the world that will never be as good as you. The wages of sin is death. If you’re still gonna die, you haven’t escaped. Nobody will be saved by having faith in their faith. This is not about you. This is not about your reason or heart or strength or trust. This is about Jesus. John points. Trust in Jesus, not in how much you’re able to trust Jesus.

Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The whole world. All the sin of all the sinners is gathered up, heaped on Jesus, and he takes it away to calvary. He bleeds there. Dies there. For you. For me. For your family. For your enemies. For all. Jesus died for sinners so that you can find more than just a place that shares your ideals, but shelter in your day of trouble, forgiveness for every time you’ve fallen short of God’s law, and hope to escape every threat John makes for those who don’t believe. The axe is laid at the root of the cross, the tree, where God bore the sins of the world. It will not be chopped down. It bore the fruit of eternal life. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. Your sins are forgiven you. You will rise too.

Christianity is Jesus for sinners. Lutheranism is Jesus for sinners. It’s worth defending the truths we teach. It’s worth recognizing that truth that powerful changes things. This isn’t about being right. Truth powerful enough to rip you out of your grave is powerful enough to help with what’s wrong. This isn’t a house of ideas. A house of God. The altar still has blood on it to save you, so we sing John’s song each week.

O Christ thou lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy on us, grant us peace. We sing because Jesus is here. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Behold the body and blood of Jesus in with and under bread and wine. It’s true, but more, it’s help. It’s forgiveness. It’s shelter. It’s life. We stop what we’re doing. This matters. The truth is made flesh here for you. For everything that’s wrong. It’s more than a statement of belief. It’s Jesus here to save you. It’s the cross made here and now and for you. It’s doctrine actualized and delivered for you. We call it communion, but it means God is here to help and forgive and save. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. The peace of the Lord be with you always. This is not a house of ideas. It’s where God shows up to save. It stands for those who know things aren’t the way they’re supposed to be, but who can’t fix it. It stands to bring Jesus to you. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus for sinners. Jesus for the world. Jesus for you.

John 1:29-42 Behold, the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world

you are what was done for you.

You are what you do. Worse. You are what you’ve done. If the room’s ever gone quiet when you walked in, you get it. If you have a past everyone talks about, or even one nobody talks about, you understand. If you’ve ever lost sleep wondering what people think or wishing to go back in time, you know. You are what you do. Sometimes that’s not a good thing. Because folks don’t forget. And the hope that we can be the hero enough times to make people remember that instead of the mistake, the incident, the sin…well..what do you like to talk about more?

God gave us the 8th commandment. You shall not bear false testimony against your neighbor. We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt our neighbors reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way. Except churches tend to gossip so much that it’s harder to be a sinner here than anywhere else. In the house God built to forgive sins.

Because deep down it’s what we’d expect from God no matter how often we’re told He loves everyone. It’s so much of what we teach our kids. Jesus loves you, so behave. Some write them songs about it. O be careful little hands what you do, O be careful little hands what you do, There’s a Father up above, And He’s looking down in love, So, be careful little hands what you do. Watch where you go because Jesus loves you. Watch what you see and say and hear.

It’s so much of what we reinforce to our adults. Jesus loves everyone, but did you hear? It doesn’t sound like a God who won’t break bruised reeds or quench faintly burning wicks. It sounds like God’s really only concerned with making sure you’re called by what you do if you sin. I guess that’s a God who brings justice, but not one who takes you by the hand and keeps you, not one who gives help to prisoners in darkness.

And so you see how people treat this place. The house God built to forgive sinners becomes the place where the good little eyes and ears gather, who don’t have soiled hands and feet, who always do what they’re supposed to. The place to be avoided if you actually need love or help, or God forbid, forgiveness. Whoever wrote that evil little song didn’t know God. For all we identify each other based on what we do, we seem to expect something different from God.

God is what He does. Today, He gets baptized. Jesus goes out to the Jordan with sinners and tax collectors. He goes out to something that forgives sins and wades down into waters soiled by unclean hands and feet, to be spoken to by prophet who’s not careful what he says. The sky is ripped open, and unclean eyes see a dove and unclean ears hear a voice, and we see exactly who God is.

Jesus gets baptized. It’s the beginning of a ministry where He fulfills all righteousness. He becomes like us. He who knew no sin becomes sin for us. He takes upon himself everything we hate about ourselves and each other. He carries our sin to the cross and He dies. On the cross His all righteousness becomes yours. Sin is atoned for. Death is destroyed. He rises. All of it was for you.

You’re baptized too. Your baptism is into Him. You are baptized into His righteousness. He takes on Your sin and bears the wrath of God for it. You take on His holiness. You put on Christ in that font. God knows you based on this. All of your sins were placed on Christ, everything you’ve ever done that you wish didn’t define you, everything worthy of punishment, everything that makes you feel ashamed, it was paid for by Him. Your identity is baptized.

This is beloved child, with whom I am well pleased. God says that to you now. Your baptism is into this moment, this declaration, this promise. Your identity is not what you have done, or didn’t do. It’s this. You’re baptized. You are baptized where they stare at you, and baptized where they talk about you. Every accusation leveled against you gets taken from you and placed upon Christ who bore it willingly. All that’s left is holy, righteous, child of God. That’s who you are. Christ took all the sin. It’s finished. You are holy and worthy of love. The Father is well pleased with you.

And it will make no sense to anyone on the outside. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose to love what is low and despised in the world. God chose to love you. So powerful is his love that it brings to nothing everything that they would call you. Now you are not what you have done. The only thing left to call you is what God’s done for you. You are baptized. You are baptized in the church, where God in His mercy continues to pour out true love, forgiveness, peace. That’s why we have this building. It’s not for the good to get better and look down on the rest. It’s for the sinners to get more mercy. So He pours it out over and over again, that the sinners and the despised can turn in here to listen to remember who they really are.

We are the baptized. Jesus is the source of our life. He is our boast, our identity, our everything will be in the Lord. Our God got baptized for us.

you are what was done for you.

Weep, but don’t despair

“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.”

On December 28, the church remembers the slaughter of the innocents. Herod’s fear drove him to murder every male toddler in his kingdom. It makes the word genocide even harder to utter. Especially after the Christmas manger, the scene feels too horrid to even imagine. It seems like a small comfort that Joseph escaped with Mary and the Christ-child as Herod’s soldiers went from house to house to murder those left behind. It’s a small comfort today in the face of the same slaughter of children, the same loss, the same pain.

Prophesies were fulfilled and angels spoke to Joseph in a dream. Rachel still weeps for her children. I’ve seen her tears stream down more faces than I want to think about. There’s no Christmas carol that asks why Jesus would allow Himself to be born helpless in the face of so many people who needed His help. Away in a manger, no crib for a bed, the little Lord Jesus lay down His sweet head. Around Him, Herod was slaughtering infants while looking for Him. And He made Himself too little to stop it. Today, the slaughter continues. It’s framed under the word choice, but even in the most scientific of explanations, organic life becomes…dead. God still seems every bit as far away from the tragedy of it all.

You can tell people God is everywhere, but it doesn’t make them feel better, because if God is everywhere, why did this happen? It’s no wonder the scriptures say Rachel refuses to be comforted. This Rachel recalled by the prophet died in childbirth. Things weren’t ok. It wasn’t about perspective, it wasn’t that she had a bad outlook on life and just needed to smile more and think positive. Things weren’t OK. With her dying breath, she named her child Ben-oni, son of my sorrow, son of my strength. After she died, her husband called him Benjamin, son of my right hand.

You’re allowed to be frustrated. Remember Rachel who who weeps at the sight of the destruction wrought on this world and cannot be comforted. You’re allowed to mourn. Remember Rachel who died during childbirth. As far as God seems in all of it, know He weeps too. He shared in the tears that poured down her face. But He would not be far from the tragedy of it all. He spoke through her last breath, and through her husband’s name. By a dying woman’s last breath, He showed what He would be to a people who need Him.

He would be called Son of my sorrow. The helpless God took flesh to do more than prevent suffering. He would suffer for us. He did not flee to Egypt to escape pain, but take each necessary step to Jerusalem to bear the suffering of all the world as He hung on the cross to help the helpless. He died for the martyrs and murders alike. He ransomed the captives and the captors. He took the place of the monsters and bled so that massacres would be avenged. He dove into death to pull the children back into life even as He burst from the tomb 3 days later.

He would be called Son of my strength. Not just Son of my emotional stability. Not just Son of my cheery outlook. The Lord God is our strength and our help. In these days, Rachel weeps, and cannot be comforted, for her children are no more, but this is not too great a thing for Christ to fix. The Lord answered weeping Rachel and said “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.” Christ is risen from the dead. He’ll just have to make those who Rachel weeps for rise too, that we would all be brought back from the land of the enemy. Because Jesus is the true Son of the Father’s right hand. There He sits in power, ruling a messy world. The world’s still messy, but we find hope, even when we don’t like what it looks like. We don’t measure the world. We measure the cross and the empty tomb.

Christ permits the church to be afflicted, and even calls it blessing. We share in His sufferings, and find that His true glory is revealed in suffering. His glory looks like Him suffering on the cross for sinners. His glory looks like forgiveness and mercy for a sinful people who deserve to be erased. His rule from the right Hand of the Father is one that even works among sin and brokenness. We who suffer entrust our souls to a Creator who is faithful. Who does good, even amongst evil and for evil people. Who baptizes Christians into death and into life again. Into victory that is called ‘victory’, even before we see it in this world.

It makes Christianity look like a failure. It’s looked that way from the beginning of it, when our infant God had to run from a tyrant, yet here we still are, the ones who Christ has saved. That means that our identity isn’t victim. Christianity isn’t just pity me. Look how bad things are. Christianity is look what Lord has done for us. Look at the comfort God gives. Find Him where He has promised to work among the rubble of a broken world to carry forward those redeemed. Find Him in His body and blood on your altar at church. Find Him in your neighbor through vocation, working to help. We can weep at the slaughter, but we do not despair. Our Christ shared in our sufferings, that we will share in His glory.

Weep, but don’t despair

you have to admit how it looks

Matthew 1:20–23: But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Matthew tells the grownups the Christmas story. That Luke business comes next week for the actual holiday. It’s the family friendly version. The angel will visit Mary and she’ll sing a hymn. The shepherds will look peaceful. More angels. More hymns.

Today we get the mess. It’s more my style. The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. Mary was engaged to Joseph, but she got pregnant. From the Holy Spirit. From hearing the Word. She’s totally still a virgin. And Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. That means he didn’t believe her. Which is probably not unfair. You have to admit how it looks.

Remember that, grownups, when the world doesn’t understand the reason for the season. Nobody was converted by Christmas decorations. Ever. Not even just the secular side. Look at the nativity and tell me someone could look at it and proclaim “Hey, look, that baby is fully God and fully man, Son of the Father, born of the virgin. He’s going to die on the cross and rise from the dead to forgive us our sins.” You have to admit how it looks.

It’s a truth that bears repeating. You’re not going to figure this out on your own. It has to be revealed. So an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and explained it. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

So Joseph woke from sleep and did as the angel commanded. And you have to admit how it looked. To all of Nazareth, Mary looked unfaithful. And a little crazy, because she stuck to the story. Yet she is blessed among women, because she is the mother of God. Joseph looked like an old fool, yet he believed where so many didn’t. The more they believe, the worse they look. It follows them. Watch how many times only the enemies of Christ refer to him as Joseph’s son. It’s a jibe. You have to admit how it looks.

Especially to the Pharisees who look so amazing all the time. Who always behave in public. Who have perfect families. But the Pharisees weren’t perfect. They were just good at hiding what was wrong. They were good at excusing it. Blaming others. Anything but confessing what’s wrong to be sin and hoping God would be merciful to sinners, which is sort of the whole point of the religion. The believing Mary and Joseph looked like sinners and fools. The unbelieving Pharisees looked righteous. Remember that, grownups, when you want to measure Christianity by what you see in each other.

It’s a great temptation. How much good do you do? How proper does your family look? How much praise can you muster? We love to measure how things look. But how did Mary look, even to Joseph? How does Jesus look hanging on the cross where He saved the world that couldn’t save itself? The Lord wasn’t kidding when He said the world will hate you. He meant it when He said this is foolishness to the wise. You’re not going to figure this out on your own. It has to be revealed. Christianity is never measured in you, your works, your feelings. It’s measured in what God says about you. What God does for you. It’s measured in His name. Jesus. He will save His people from their sins. Immanuel. God with us.

He became the same. To dwell in creation, alongside us, in sin and misery. God almighty became an infant. Jesus is actually God. The Son of God made flesh. Fully God. Fully man. God in a box. He knows what He looks like. The more faithful He is, the more the crowds turn on Him. They love Jesus the healer. But they flee from the Jesus who says unless they eat His flesh and drink His blood they have no life with Him. And so it is today. We love the Jesus who tells us to get along and not worry about the little things. Even though we’re terrible at both. We love the Jesus who doesn’t need to bear the cross. But we can’t even agree on where to put a manger. No matter how we present ourselves in public, things aren’t going as well as you pretend.

So this is your Jesus. Listen. The thing is, if Jesus didn’t need to die for what you want to come true, you’re probably thinking of the wrong guy. It’s ok. Nobody figures it out on their own. It’s always been revealed. Because faith comes by hearing, not looking. Look at the cross. It doesn’t look like much. No wonder the world mocks us. Yet the God man Jesus, born of Mary, would not come down from there. He who was worthy of all honor and praise bore mockery and abuse, suffering and death for you. He came to assume your weakness, and carry your sins. The ones others belittle you for. The ones you hide so well. The ones that prove you don’t measure up. The ones that make you look like a bad Christian. The ones it’s easier to hide or excuse. He saves you from your sins. All of them. He bears our humiliations, our sins, our weaknesses. He bears what others whisper. Jesus died only for the sinners. For me. For you. It’s finished. You are measured by that cross.

It gives a new identity. Mary is blessed among women. Even the mother of God. You are holy and worthy of love. You are baptized, and even now wear robes of righteousness. You’re not going to figure it out. It has to be revealed. But it is. This is who you are now. A child of God. He said so at that font. Nothing you do can change that. Nothing you do can improve that. Nothing needs improving though. Jesus is enough. He has saved you from your sins. Amen.

you have to admit how it looks

stay awoke.

Matthew 24:36-44

Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.

It’s hard not to hear the gospel text and think ominous thoughts. There’s an end. Stay awake. Don’t get caught sleeping. The thieves are coming. Some will be taken. Some will be left. And let’s just namedrop the flood that destroyed creation but for a boat too. And all of it is out of your control. You don’t even get to know when. Stay awake.

Except we just decorated for Christmas and the fear feels artificial like a bad scary movie. The words of our Lord could be taglines. Stay awake. It’s the wrong season, but the Son of Man will show up at an hour nobody expects. Like bear attacks. They come when you least expect them.

Sorry. It’s hard to take it seriously for so many reasons. Not the least of which is that the threats ring hollow during the most wonderful time of the year. So maybe we’ll poke fun at the baptists down the street who wonder about the two women and invented the rapture to compel people to behave to avoid being left behind like some bad fiction. Two women will be working in the field. Which are you? Stay woke.

Mostly though, we’ve got other stuff on our minds, like in the days of Noah. Folks were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Really, it’s nothing new. We’ve got the holidays on our mind. We’d rather think about baby Jesus than end-of-the-world-judging-Jesus. We’re thrilled to see cute baby Him laid in a manger, kids dressed up in costumes acting out plays, cookies, carols, and presents. I love Christmas. But if I’m willing to procrastinate on stuff I know how to do with clear deadlines, preparing for something someday without clear instructions how…let’s just sing let it snow for a northerner instead. We’re too focused on the world to face the Lord on the last day.

The thing is, when we won’t consider the end because we think it detracts from the holidays, it changes how we see Christmas too. We grumble when Christ took flesh, not so we could fight over discounted TVs when the ones we have at home work fine or tell everyone on the internet to stop posting about politics we disagree with, but to call us all sinners, then bleed for us.

But we did it last year too. The crowds gather outside of the mall annually. Each election cycle brings more of the same. Facebook reminds us of passive aggressive posts and bitter complaints that fixed nothing. We’ll do it again time around too. Worse, we like it this way. Even though we know this is an ugly world, for some reason the idea that we shouldn’t be eager to be a part of it is just appalling. We’re so uncomfortable with an end we don’t know we’d rather have the same song and dance of the misery today. See how ridiculous sin is. I’ll complain that the world is too material, but if you tell me to use all the money I’ll spend on junk people don’t need on feeding homeless, I’ll scoff. That’s for other people to do. I’m too busy ripping electronics out of the hands of senior citizens in the name of giving. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

If you’re willing to be honest about sin, about how cold it really gets in sinners hearts that would rather stand alone and freeze than see the warmth of forgiving an enemy, because for some reason we actually prefer the bitter grudges. Be honest about how measuring who’s awake by our behavior looks. It says something when we study black Friday flyers like God wishes we’d study the scriptures because you’ll be there at 5 for some blue rays, but to be here at 9:30 for bible study is nuts.

So God fires a Divine bullet straight through all of it and calls it Advent. It means God shows up. God actually and physically and truly comes to His people. He takes on human flesh, born of a virgin. He will come again on the last day to judge the living and the dead. And He shows up here too in His word and sacrament. Advent means God will not sit idly in heaven while creation looks like this. But Advent begins with the end. With the recognition that heaven and earth will pass away, but the Word will not.

That gives meaning to Christmas traditions we lean into. It shapes why we care that God would be here in body and blood for you. Whenever God shows up, it’s a recognition that some things are eternal and some things…just aren’t. From the darkness we chase away with Christmas lights to the holiday gatherings that bring so much stress. From the pains of death and the families broken by the sinners not with us or the saints who left too soon. We won’t last down here for long. Nobody stays awake forever.

Advent is a reckoning, but it’s a breath of fresh air. There is an end. Who honestly cares? This is not a scary movie and Jesus isn’t the bad guy. He’s the savior of a world that doesn’t pay attention. Of a people too sinful and sleepy. Of you.

Remember the days of Noah. Actually remember. Then begin with the end. The rainbow. The promise. The days will be as those before the flood. We eat. We drink. We marry. We live. But we know who we are. There will be two women at the mill. One will be taken and the other left, but we’re already in the ark. We’re the baptized.

That’s what this place is. The church is the ark where the faithful are kept safe until the end. The baptized find shelter here. Salvation here. The last day comes when nobody expects it, but we’re ready. We will be found holy because Advent reminds us what God’s all about when He shows up.

When God shows up, it’s about the cross. He enters creation to carry the cross to forgive you for all of it. Every bit of covetousness, disregard for your neighbor, and grudge buried deep. So when He comes again in Glory He can find something more than the mess we make. The end comes not as a threat, but a hope. A promise. An understanding that whenever God shows up it’s to give mercy to sinners. Even the ones who’d want nothing to do with Him. Nothing you can do can change that. He will end the disputes and wars and sins and deaths so absolutely that swords will be turned into plowshares. The Light of the Lord is coming soon.

And even here and now, there is light for you in a dark world of changes and spins. Here is one straight line. God comes to you. The Lord enters your space to save. The end will come when nobody expects it, but the Lord shows up here on a schedule for you. He Advents in body and blood for you to eat and drink. He makes Himself present in the ark to keep you safe. Remember where you are in dark and latter days. You’re already in the ark. Remember the rainbow. The promise. The end will come, but on that great day You’ll receive life that does not sleep the sleep of death.

stay awoke.

saints are ordinary heroes

Revelation 7:9-17

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

John wrote Revelation as an old man exiled to an island called Patmos. Most of his friends were already dead. Martyrs. Killed in creative and painful ways. He’s all that’s left of the 12. Maybe he didn’t always get along with Peter, but I bet he misses him. The old rivalry was fierce, but I guarantee John didn’t want Peter to go the way he did. He was crucified upside down at his own request. He didn’t feel worthy to die the same death as his Lord.

The letter that would be called Revelation was written to the handful of fledgling churches only in their second generation and already slipping. Into heresy. Hatred. Hopelessness. John watches, wondering whether there will be anyone to carry on what he saw start on Pentecost.

He’s an old man, waiting to die alone. He’s not doing nothing. Still, he wishes he could do what he used to. John peaked. In his time with Jesus. Maybe later, when the Spirit penned the gospel through him. Either way, looking forward, it was pretty much downhill. The best he could hope for was not to be martyred. To die an uncreative death on an island cut off from where he’d rather be.

I’ve been kicked out of a few places, but never exiled. Not for the rest of my life at least. I don’t know any martyrs. My peak, whatever it was or just might maybe be, won’t be remembered in 100 years. But I can still relate to the last apostle. I know what it’s like to mourn someone you love who should be with you here and isn’t.

We ascribe a lot to our heroes. Not just the biblical ones. The ones who have gone before and just seem larger than life. Who seemed to radiate strength that always calmed us. Love that washed over our tempers and fears. Wisdom and knowledge that always knew what to do or say or even just how to say nothing yet convey everything all the same. Our heroes were there when we needed them. Were. Too many of our heroes are dead. Too many of our problems aren’t.

I know what it’s like to mourn heroes. And I know what it’s like to mourn the rest too. I know what it’s like to wrestle with the memory of someone. Because you might not have gotten along perfectly, but you want to remember the best of them, and you’re sure now that all that stuff shouldn’t have meant they went like they did.

I know what it’s like to look around and remember what was, to know what was lost, to worry about what will be, and to just feel…tired. John did a lot I’ll probably never do. But I think I still understand what he felt on Patmos. Too many of us probably do. Despair.

This is the John shown the vision of the great multitude. Through him, God gives us a gift to guard against the same despair that infects heroes and the rest of us alike. A vision that speaks to that quiet pessimism that says “I’ve peaked. I’ve lost. It will only break.” John shares his glimpse of a reality outside of the tunnel vision we get when we mourn and despair. It brings hope. Light. Life.

He is taken up to see the heavens, and outside of time, the resurrection of the body on the last great day. He saw the victory. Not just Peter and the heroes. “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” They’re the baptized. The church that continued to the end against all odds to include multitudes no-one can number. Those who you loved and mourned because they fell asleep in faith. Those who felt the despair of dark and latter days. Who are these coming out of the great tribulation? Us. He saw us.

Ordinary heroes who have washed our robes and made them white in the blood of the lamb. Ordinary heroes who God saw fit to pen into the bible for all generations to see and remember, whether or not their names cross our lips. You’re in the bible. Right there. The baptized, brought through tribulation and unto glory.

The world deals with despair predictably. They grasp the false optimism of bumper stickers like “fake it till you make it, dance like nobody’s watching, live laugh love.” They craft blame into stones to throw at each other because hate at least hasn’t given up and anger feels better than pain.

Christians are called to confront despair differently. We’re called to confess the truth even if it isn’t popular. Never yield it. No matter how crazy it sounds. We are dust. To dust we shall return. And Christ is risen from the dead. The thing that chases away despair isn’t just lying to yourself about things, wishing for what used to be, or finding someone to blame it on. It comes from seeing the victory. We answer despair with the God who fought for us. He didn’t just smite the enemies we can’t. That does no good. I’ve seen heroes do stuff I can’t, and it’s inspiring to some, but only makes me feel more helpless about my situation. I can’t do those things. I can’t be those heroes.

God didn’t ride into Jerusalem on a warhorse, make a passionate speech while rousing music played in the background, then smite the devil. He didn’t topple the corrupt governments and live a happily-ever-after life free from worry or death. He came to bear our despair, our loss, our fear. He came to cry our tears. And then to conquer our enemies by dying our death. All for you. To bring you out of the great tribulation.

We are are not bound by the same feelings and struggles or some measure of how important we are in the grand scheme of things. We’re bound by Jesus who gives us a new identity. Holy ones. Saints. The ones brought out of death to life.

What we see toppling and in decline, God answers with a heavenly vision of victory. I know who we are. I know where we stand. Sheltered in the presence of God. Not just someday. Now. Because He has already accomplished it. He let it all fall down, then rebuilt the pieces, bringing us through with Him. He died and rose for you, that you would rise again. That the ones we mourn as gone, God would call alive, and more, alive with Him.

“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

And these are not far away. They are now. They are here. Because the same God comes to us. We eat and drink the body and blood of Jesus that unites us to a victory that endures what we’re afraid might crumble. We call it the communion of the saints. We mean all of them. God makes Himself present with us this day in a meaningful way. In His body and blood for you to eat and drink. He brings all of heaven along. The saints kneel together. All of us. You kneel with those who have gone before us. Shoulder to shoulder. So close that the last enemy death gets ground beneath us in Him who brought it to nothing.

All Saints Day is for ordinary heroes, everyone of us holy, not by doing things that will be remembered in 100 years and defeating odds the rest couldn’t. We are made holy by being united to Him who makes us that way by washing us white in His blood. Who, even as He brought the world to a halt and ripped the sun from the sky as He cried out it is finished to redeem us from sin and death, works simple acts of love through us for each other that make this day so important to us. Remember the saints for what God has worked through them. Holiness. Love. Salvation. We remember. Viola Kaddatz. Carl Roberts. John Grieshaber. Ray Kniepkamp. Roy Lehrmann. Donna Travis. June Wendt. Mark Hagedorn. Alene Hensel. Don Morris. We remember the saints who left holes in our hearts, but kneel with us here in the same faith. We remember them by a cross and an empty tomb. We remember them by a baptism that joins us in white robes washed in the blood of the lamb. We remember in a feast that we share even as it unites heaven and earth.

You didn’t bring anything into this world, and there’s a lot you can’t take out with you, but there’s some things you can. The most important. By Christ’s resurrection. By baptism. By faith. You will see your loved ones again. Who are these coming out of the great tribulation? The baptized. Us. We are all saints.

saints are ordinary heroes

The reformation is freedom in Jesus

John 8.31-36

Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Today we celebrate Reformation Day. You know the story. Luther. 95 thesis. Big door. Bigger fight. We know it’s important. Especially lately. I don’t think it’s just because of anniversaries. I think it’s because we look around the church today and it looks…apathetic. We hear that story and then look around an it feels like something’s missing today. Heroes. Passion. A people who cared. A church that stood against all odds. That lived when everything around it called for it to die. It sounds familiar.

I don’t think we do this as some kinda sarcastic “invite a Catholic to church” day. We don’t celebrate what would come to break the church so that if I told you San Antonio had 500 churches you’d probably think that number sounds low. That doesn’t even count the street preacher who told me I was going to hell the other week. We’re looking for heroes. Passion. A people who care. A whisper of a hope the church that stands today against all odds will make it another generation. Because these are dark and latter days.

So we tell the Luther story one more time. Maybe we’ll make a quip about the selling of indulgences to support a corrupt institution or prayers to the saints or something else we learned along the way and try not to think too hard about why prayer chains are totally different because the saints we want to pray for us are still on earth. Celebrate a man who didn’t want the denomination named after him in the first place, and preach some manner of the following: 1) Luther was awesome. 2) Believe like he did. 3) Be brave like he was.

The irony gets lost. It’s a small mirror of the very thing Luther stood against. The issue was deeper than corrupt practice. It was the foundations of the faith. 1) The Holy Roman Catholic Church is the only source of salvation. 2) Assent to the doctrine of the church. 3) Do what is in you. See it yet? 1) Luther was awesome. 2) Believe like he did. 3)Be brave like he was.

The thing is, Luther was a dumpster fire. Folks argue over what kind of mental disabilities he suffered under. Anxiety. Depression. OCD. It wasn’t just that Luther saw a doctrinal problem and made good choices. It’s that he tried all of the things the church pointed him to and never once found any peace in it. Luther was never the role model that makes Christianity look easy. He was never the hero we think we need.

The kind that makes Christianity look almost too easy. The kind that’s just so in love with God, and because of it, so happy. All the time. I’ll let you in on a secret I didn’t find out until after I grew up and put on a black shirt. I see Lots of people love God. I really, truly do. As much as they love Him, they still walk around bound to fake smiles and t-shirts with bible verses on them. To what Christians are supposed to look like…when underneath sometimes we feel nothing like the heroes we imagine. I see people chained To the desperate hope that nobody can see what’s real. Chained to the effort of pretending that something about us is true when it isn’t, that fake me that I need so I can be to be accepted, loved. So I can matter. We feel so chained to the need to be more that we are. Holier, happier, better.

The problem is, the more we fake it, the more the expectations pile up. And none of us, not one is as great as people around us want us to be. Sometimes, even pretending to be something more is too much. Sometimes we’re just desperate to look less ruined that we are. It’s fear. Fear of being really known. Really seen. Because what’s really inside me is ugly. The church calls it sin for a reason.

Sin breaks stuff. It hurts people around me. Hurts me. We’re pretty good at hiding it. But still. There’s that guilt of knowing the truth. As much as I pretend, it doesn’t change anything. It just gets harder to carry around. Even what I can hide from everyone else, God sees. And as much as we wish for one, we don’t have a God who says, “do whatever makes you happy. Just love me and it will all work out. Just believe hard enough and all things are possible for you to do.”

Your God threatens punishment for sin. All of it. The pain we inflict upon our neighbor who God loves, the way we mistreat and disrespect Him when we claim to love Him so much. We know what we should be. And we aren’t. Any one who practices sin is a slave to sin. I know what that feels like. And we carry it privately because we’re in love with a lie. The same lie the devil’s been telling us since we’ve been around to tell.

It’s on you. You better carry it. You love God enough to make it ok. Then he just waits until we’re teetering on the edge to point out to us when we don’t. It takes one whisper. If you really loved Him, why are things like this?

God sees you sinking under the weight of all of it. Maybe not today, but you’ve felt it. Truth is, Christianity not about how much you love Jesus. None of it. It’s about how much He loves you. This is the truth that sets us free. The Word made flesh so that we can abide in Him when everything else falls apart. The Word come down from heaven to submit to the slavery of sin and bear it unto death. This is what love looks like. Christ on cross for you.

And when it seems too far to help, He brings it to you. He delivers the salvation and freedom won at calvary by the Holy Spirit. He gives you a new identity. A free identity. You are baptized. That’s who you are. Baptized. That’s enough. That’s true. That’s free.

You don’t need to put on fake smiles. You don’t need to pretend to measure up. Every day, Christ does it for you. Every day the old Adam, the guy who walks around a slave, is drowned. Every day, God raises up a new man. Free.

This is what Luther fell upon when there was nothing else. This is what the reformation was about. It’s not about poking fun at Catholics or having a million denominations so that you can make choices. It’s not about heroes. It’s about Jesus. And Jesus is for you. He is the word that we abide in. And so in Him, we are free. Free from sin. From bondage. From death itself. Free to lift up our heads and live.

The reformation is freedom in Jesus

justice for bruised reeds

Isaiah 42:3 ESV: a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

Nobody wants justice but the wounded. The trampled on. The sinned against. The nations cry for it. This world’s full of hurting people. Fix this. Punish them. Make them feel what I feel. Everyone quotes “judge not, lest ye be judged”, but “an eye for an eye” is the verse we really have in mind. The broken want their pound of flesh.

Someone told me God didn’t give us the “eye for an eye” verse to set a minimum punishments, but upper limits. It wasn’t that He was worried that we’d be too lenient with each other. He was worried we’d be too harsh. Which, if we’re willing to be honest about ourselves for even the briefest of moments, makes sense. It was a gift from God to keep us from taking even more than was taken from us in the name of ‘justice’.

Because to me, justice is about pain. I don’t think for a second it fixes anything. I don’t for a second care. I want the kind of justice that spreads around misery. Hatred only wants more of the same. Burn it all down. That will make me feel better. But it won’t. It doesn’t. It can’t. The coastlands wait for the law of karma. But that is not the law of God.

Our Lord promises to open the eyes that are blind due to the justice I want. Not simply the sad state of affairs down here, where we’ve so lost track of sin that we don’t know whether it was the blind man or his parents who sinned. I think God wants to open the blind eyes taken in judgment. I think He wants the eye taken for an eye restored. I think that because the Lord promises, with one breath, justice, and with the next, to free the prisoners, who don’t deserve it. He will bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness. There is no justice in bringing out the prisoners. Justice by the law does not let loose the prisoners. The gospel does that.

Our Lord’s promise is not to break those who’ve broken you. It’s that He will not break the bruised reed. He will not quench the faintly burning wick. He will not crush the sinners, but will bring forth justice all the same. It’s the gospel. Wrong was done and needs to be punished. Jesus would bear the cost Himself in the name of justice.

Punishment unto your enemy doesn’t heal you. Punishment unto your God does. He would not cry out or lift up His voice to defend Himself. He would not abandon the path that lead to the Golgotha. He would carry His cross for me and for you. Not for the innocent. For the guilty. The sinners. Us. We love to play the victim, and turn blind eyes from those we’ve hurt. But God makes the blind to see, and even making us see the depth of our sins, God leads us out of the prison we deserve. He leads us from hell to heaven. From death to life. He died that you would live. And not just you. There is enough justice here for your enemy. Look. See their sins punished. Look, see your God’s mercy, not just as a guilt trip to forgive them too, but as a promise of mercy that doesn’t rest on your heart not being in pain anymore. The coastlands wait for the law fulfilled in Jesus. He established justice on all the earth, not by the law, but by the gospel. Your sins are forgiven you. Your pound of flesh was paid on the cross. He will faithfully bring forth justice, even if the cost is Himself. He paid it for all. The cross doesn’t just spread around the misery. It heals it. It makes a promise of resurrection and restoration to that which sin destroyed. Down here, we play an eye for an eye. Some are born blind and some are blinded by sin, but the justice God worked in His death and resurrection mean there will come a day when both blind men see. Forgiven. Whole. Alive. For God will not break the bruised reed.

justice for bruised reeds

The bricks are a gift, but the temple is Jesus

Luke 17:11-19

“Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” And he said to him, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.””

This is the Thanksgiving text. It’s like listening to Christmas music in October. If we start too soon by the time the actual holiday rolls around we’ll be sick of it. I can’t start asking you to be more thankful for stuff yet, or by the time the turkey gets here you’ll be tired of that too. The encouragement to try harder to be grateful only goes so far. Especially in a story where there was only one thankful man, but all 10 lepers still got healed.

Jesus said “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went they were cleansed. All of them. Even the ones who didn’t turn back. It’s a good reminder. God doesn’t reserve mercy for the ones who earn it. That would make it something other than mercy. That would make it for people other than us, who really only have enough thanksgiving to do this thing once a year.

Go and show yourselves to the priests. They’ll offer sacrifice for you. Blood will be shed for you. The priests will tell the truth. You are clean. You can leave the leper colony. No more separation from the ones you love. No more must you cry “unclean” so that your public shame would protect people from getting sick too just by being near you. You can go home again. See your family again. Live. I’d run too. And as they ran, they were healed. You can call them ungrateful, but they took the first steps on faith. They weren’t cleansed until they were moving, but they were clean by the time they got there.

The miracle pointed to who Jesus is. This is God, who makes the unclean clean again. Who restores the relationships sin has destroyed. Who sheds holy blood for what’s unclean in you, that stuff you hide for fear of shame that’s easier to let boil inside you than tell someone else it exists. For the sin that splashes past where you wanted it to. And for the people who run dry on things to feel thankful for. The temple was to point to Jesus. The one who was traveling to Jerusalem to shed His blood to make us clean.

The job of the temple was always to point. The sacrifices pointed to the all atoning sacrifice of the cross. The alter pointed to the meal placed here for you. The architecture, the art, there’s something to be said when you walk in a room and can tell it’s a church. And I suppose there’s something to be said when you can’t. We always point to what’s most important to us.

Here, we dress up the bricks to remind us that God’s here. It’s a gift. It’s beautiful. Look what we believe. See a picture of what’s given here for you. There’s something potent in that, and it’s good. But sometimes we forget that it’s only the job of the bricks to point. We see the beauty and the shelter and we begin to believe God is in the bricks, not the word. Not the sacrament. We begin to believe we couldn’t be the church without the bricks. The bricks are a gift, but the temple is Jesus.

We’ve been given a treasure in this place that the early church couldn’t imagine. Art they could only describe in words. Safety that even today other congregations don’t enjoy. But all of us share the same hope and worship at the same temple. The temple is Jesus.

Jesus is here for sinners in word and sacrament. He was hidden in catacombs in ancient times before believing what we do was legal. He stands risen even as firebombs destroy the bricks that point to Him in the Middle East. And He is here. For you. In Body and in Blood. It was God in the flesh that the bricks pointed to. God in the flesh that spoke to lepers and cleansed them. That same God in flesh and blood is given for you to eat and drink for the forgiveness and the cleansing and the healing that miracles and bricks could only point to. Those things point to Him, but if He’s not there, it’s the wrong place.

Right now, if you travel to the temple in Jerusalem, there’s a mosque on the Temple Mount. I kinda dig it. Not because I want false religion. That’s a bummer. It’s because you can build whatever you want there. Christ is still risen. The temple is still here. God is still cleansing. Restoring families cut off by sin.

Was no one found to give praise to God except this foreigner? He saw the truth. The true temple that would be torn down and rebuilt in 3 days stood before him. Healed him. So there He rejoiced. There he knelt. There gave thanks. He went back to God for more. That’s worship. The temple is not the bricks or the tradition. Both of those are good, but they’re good because they point to Jesus. Wherever He is, that’s the true temple. And Jesus is here for you.

The bricks are a gift, but the temple is Jesus