Tuesday, June 17, 2014

We are likely to be far more amazed by the answers when they finally come than we were ever confounded by the questions


O depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God. How unsearchable are the His judgments, and inscrutable His ways. Romans 11:33

Today we close the first semester of the church year with the celebration of Trinity Sunday.  In the first half we considered God’s great acts for the salvation of the world.  We were refreshed in our faith by delving into the birth, life, death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, His ascension into heaven and the sending of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Today we confess that it is the Holy Trinity who stands behind those mighty acts of our redemption.  And even if they are as baffling to us as they were to St. Paul, we can still add our own amen to his, and join him in praising the one, eternal God whom earth and heaven adore because whatever God does He does for us; to deliver us from our enemies; to save us from sin, death and the devil; and to make us holy as He Himself is holy; and nothing is better than that.

Do not be surprised if you suffer from theological confusion.  Even Isaiah and Paul did not always track.  Reason tells us that there is a God who is all powerful, but it can only take us so far because our intellects have been compromised by sin, so we must rely on God’s Word which tells us all that we need to know for now. 

In Scripture we learn that God is One, but that He is also three persons each one fully divine.  It is as we confess in the Athanasian Creed, “The Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Ghost is God.  And yet they are not three Gods but one God.”  Though we cannot grasp this now, one day we will.  But not only is the Person of God incomprehensible, so is His modus operandi, which is why St. Paul calls His Judgments unsearchable and His Ways inscrutable.

What is it that leaves this capable spokesman of the mysteries of God speechless?  In the eleventh chapter of Romans Paul writes by the Spirit’s inspiration about God’s dealings with His chosen people.  He recounts how God chose Israel, then hardened and rejected her because of her unbelief and chose the Gentiles to be His people instead.  He does not know how to process that information.  He knows that God chose Abraham’s children to be His special people so that the Messiah might be born of the Jews.  He knows that God miraculously saved Jacob’s family from famine through the life and trials of Joseph.  He is aware that He used “shock and awe” to deliver them from the hand of Pharaoh; that He fed them for forty years in the wilderness with bread from heaven; that He gave them a land of milk and honey and kept the people together for centuries, in spite of powerful enemies who wanted to destroy them.  He knows that God gave them prophets to keep them focused on the unique role they played in bringing salvation to the world, but when the Messiah finally came, His own people would not receive Him, but rather rejected Him and handed Him over to the Gentiles to be crucified, so God rejected them.

Why did God do this?  Paul cannot understand! Neither can we when God reveals His terrible wrath because of sin.  Who can search out why God sentenced all men under heaven to damnation because of the sin of one man?  Or why He condemned the entire human race and exterminated it by the flood, with the exception of eight souls?  And what of His judgment on Sodom, the Egyptians and the Canaanites whom Israel had to destroy when taking possession of the land, sparing no one?

Even today we see God’s judgment in play.  Who can say why millions of people for whom Christ purchased heaven by His death, continue in their sin and die without ever having heard His name?  Who can explain why the stygian darkness of heathenism again settles where the sun of God’s grace once shone brightly?  Who knows why saints suffer and evil men prosper, or why one believes and not the other?  These are the big unanswered questions which leave St. Paul, and men today flabbergasted.

Not only are God’s judgments beyond our ability to trace, His ways are inscrutable as well.  The term “ways” here refers to the grace and mercy that He provides for our salvation.  If His judgments are incomprehensible, so are His ways.  Consider the way God redeemed the fallen human race.  How in His wisdom was He was able to satisfy both His justice and His love?  What human wisdom would have dreamed that God Himself should become a man named Jesus, suffer and die, so that the lost world might be saved?  Not only this, but how should sinners hear of God’s amnesty in Christ?  If we were in charge we would say: let God’s voice speak it from the heavens to the whole earth so that all people will hear, believe and be saved.  Let an angel preach it from the pulpit every Sunday, then surely no one could resist.  But that’s not how God chooses to work.  Instead He delights in confounding the wisdom of the world with the foolishness of preaching, and the strong by utilizing what is weak and worthless in the sight of man.  Why else would He allow Aaron to be a priest, Saul to be the king, or a schizophrenic like Peter to be the Lord's chief disciple?  And if we had been asked to institute sacraments would we have chosen the common elements of bread, wine, water and words to give life to those who are dead in sin?  Or to revive our drooping spirits and restore the joy of salvation to us?  We cannot understand God’s ways but yet we must confess that only through Christ, as He is known in the Word and Sacraments, can any man be saved.

Yes, God's ways are mysterious, we know it from experience as well.  At times we plan things out long and carefully and when we are about to see our hopes fulfilled God says:  No! My ways are not your ways!  We find it extremely difficult to bow to His superior wisdom.  We cannot understand how: all things could possibly work together for our good, and we often ask:  Why?  At times like these we need to remember that for God’s children darkness always leads to light, and the cross to the crown.  Do not trust what you see in the mirror, or the judgments of other people.  In Christ you are heir to all the riches, wisdom and power of God, so there can be no doubt that all things will end well for you, however dark things might appear at this moment.

Nor will the confusion last forever.  The time is coming when God will unveil His judgments and open His ways to us.  We are nearer now than when we first believed.  How surprised we will be when all our questions are answered, all mysteries fall into place, and our fondest dreams come true with Christ.  Then surely we will fall on our knees before Him and exclaim with St. Paul:  Oh depth of riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  To Him be glory unto the ages. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, June 16, 2014

Wealth does not condemn us; poverty does not save us


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The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. Luke 16:22 23

Wealth does not condemn you, and poverty does not save you, but whatever you do, don’t neglect Lazarus! That’s what we need to learn anew on the first Sunday after Trinity.

As God’s people reckon time we are in the second half of the church year which is called “the semester of the church.” The first half, “the semester of the Lord,” provided us with an orderly presentation of salvation history from the Fall, to the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. For six months wave after wave of God’s mercy washed over us, soothed us and saved us as we heard the lessons, prayed the prayers and sang the hymns of the various seasons. The Gospel does not go away in the church’s second semester, but instead we now learn how it bears its fruit; how it has its way with us, and how changes and propels us to express the same love that we have received to other people, and what better way to begin such a season than to hear the Lord’s teaching of the rich man and Lazarus?

Many believe today’s gospel lesson is a parable, an earthly story with a heavenly lesson, and indeed it may be, but there is no clear indication of that, and there are just as many theologians who think that Jesus is giving us an account here of two actual men: one named Lazarus, whose name means the Lord is my helper, and another man whose name we never learn, but who helped only himself, and who, when he finally got religion, found out that it was too late, but it is not too late for us to learn from his travails, and to be very careful never to neglect Lazarus!

Ah, but how thick we are! How afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder when it comes to the things of God. Moses points this out in today’s Old Testament lesson. As he looks into the future he warns his people that when they come into the good land the Lord promised them: a land flowing with milk and honey, and filled with good things that they did not labor to provide, and when they ate and were fully satisfied that they should not forget the Lord their God.

Why would Moses say that, except that we do? Except that when everything is going as planned, and we are well-dressed and well-fed, that we forget the Lord who delivered us from the bondage of sin, forget the poor around us, and resort to worshipping our own bellies? Yes it’s true, true of us all no matter how righteous we might think ourselves to be, and for any who would deny it that person suffers from the most malodorous disease of all; Self righteousness. We can little afford that, dear Christians, not when we are the beneficiaries of divine love the likes of which no tongue can tell. Remember what God in Christ has done for us!

As surely as the rich man ignored sick and starving Lazarus, just so surely we who suffer spiritual starvation on account of our sins are fed to the full with the Bread of Life that comes down from heaven. Jesus says in John chapter six, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day, for my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed.” Jesus dresses us in the royal robes of His own righteousness, and prepares a table of the most nourishing and soul-sustaining food for us, not just later at the Marriage Feast of the Lamb, but now in the presence of our mortal enemies: sin, death and the devil, so that they can only marvel at our blessed estate.

He also cured the sores, which are our sins, first with forgiveness, this is most important of all, so that we might stand justified before God by faith, and second by graciously guarding us so that we have been spared many of the natural consequences that accompanies wrong-doing. Are things bad for you because of your sins? They could be worse, much, much worse! He doesn’t spare us from all the consequences of course, no good father does that, but even when our heavenly Father lets us get bruised He sends His holy angels to attend us just as they did the Lord in the wilderness; and in Gethsemane; and the streams of His mercy to shade and befriend us.

Once again let us hear the theme of today’s readings. As God did not neglect us in our spiritual impoverishment and disease, but gave His One and Only Son to feed us from His altar with the bread that we break, and to tend to our wounds by the cup which we bless; even so we must not neglect Lazarus.

Who is Lazarus? Scripture is clear. Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs of you.” St. John writes, “But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?” Who is Lazarus? We have only to open our eyes to the suffering and deprivation around us; to the neglected children who suffer want of life’s most basic necessities while their parents indulge every desire. Our charity might be directed to them, or to the beggar at freeway off ramp, or to more organized efforts. There’s no question that we must always employ reason and caution because charity is a strong medicine with dangerous side effects, but we must do something! and we must not let the challenges involved choke off our compassion. Instead, as God’s people who have received mercy; who are clothed in the Lord’s own righteousness by baptism; and who are fed from the Lord’s table with food that makes us immortal; let us never forget the Lord our God who delivered us from Hades by the cross, never close our eyes to the need that is around us, and let us be sure never to neglect Lazarus. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Do you long to be wise?


Does not wisdom call?  Does not understanding raise her voice?  On the heights beside the way, at the crossroads, she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries aloud:  To you, O men, I call, and my cry is to the children of man.  Proverbs 8:1-4

THE word wisdom means that all things are working as God intended.  When rivers flow into the sea, when the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, when men fear, love and trust in God above all things, there is wisdom.

The first crack in the dam, the one that set all other things out of order, was not the sin of the creation, but the sin of Adam.  That is not the way God made things to work.  He did not fashion men to rebel against Him, or to dance with the devil, but to live in perfect harmony with their True Father.

In Proverbs chapter eight, Solomon The Wise gives us a divinely inspired poem in which wisdom is personified as a "master workman."  In it he tells us that before earth's beginning there was Wisdom.  Without it, there would be no creation.  Without it Moses would not have been able to write, "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."  Neither could St. John have written, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

What Solomon personified in a song, God personified in the flesh.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, Christ the power of God and the Wisdom of God.  He is the Master Workman who did the work of God, who restored fallen creation, reconciled it to the Father and who makes all things New by His death and by His mighty resurrection from the grave.

The preaching of the cross is folly to the world, but to us who are saved, it is the power of God, for on the cross we see our sins paid for, and as they are dissolved, the judgment, guilt, shame and condemnation that accompany them, vanishes.  The fear of death fades away.  It is a miracle to be sure, and a greater miracle yet that we should trust what our eyes cannot see, and believe what our hearts cannot comprehend, namely the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ's love for us.

The created world hears its Lord's voice and responds to His every command.  In the words of Reginald Heber's famous hymn, "only man is vile" (TLH #495).   It is to us, to people, each an infinite miracle of God's design, each of infinite value to God, that Wisdom cries out loud and long -- very loud and very long -- to interrupt our tunnel vision which is locked only on this short life, the desires of the moment and on licking the many wounds that life deals out; to pierce the auditory exclusion of our sinful hearts which hear only the devil's voice spoken by the lips of fellow sinners.  No other proclamation than the cross can save us from ourselves, save us from our sins, but this declaration does!  This voice does!   It is the voice of Jesus, the voice of the Good Shepherd, the voice of Wisdom Incarnate, of the great "I AM," heard in the church.  It is the voice of our Lord that will open all graves on the last day and will share His glory with us; the voice that says to us, "If any one keeps my word he will never taste death"; the voice that cries out to you, "take and eat, take and drink for the remission of your sins."  Yes, we still need that!  Of a truth, there is nothing we need more than to be daily cleansed of the sins which so easily plague us, and to be guided in the ways of Wisdom.

As Lutherans we talk about sin the singular and sin the plural.  Sin in the singular, called original sin, is the congenital disease of the heart we inherit from our parents.  It is a terminal illness and the source of every destructive thought, word and action that our Old Man is so addicted to: the anger, lust, greed, gluttony and worst of all, the self-righteousness that blinds us to all of our wrongs, making us the greatest fools of all.  We are cleansed from these when we are baptized into the name of the Triune God.  It is the Name that covers all of our sins, that draws us to the church, the Word of God, to absolution, prayer and to the altar where we receive the true body and blood of Christ for life and salvation.  Don't ask how that can be.  It is a miracle that no one can explain.  The Christian religion does not ask us to have blind faith.  Indeed to our enlightened reason all that God proclaims in holy scripture makes perfect sense.  All the pieces fit, but there are some things we will never comprehend, like the Eucharist, like the Trinity, until we see our true Father face to face.  Then we will see.  It will be a life-altering experience.

We also need to learn the ways of Wisdom.  They are taught perfectly in holy Scripture.  We can only see the beginning of wisdom now, only the tiniest tip of largest iceberg the seas have ever produced, but what we see is beautiful!  For now wisdom consists of two things.  First: faith that Jesus is our one and only savior; that He is our wisdom and righteousness, our sanctification and redemption and there is no other name under heaven by which we must be saved.  Second: to know that what is true and right, coupled with the power to carry it out.  We have that.

We are not helpless pawns of the devil.  We are not spiritual paralytics.  We must never live as frightened, insecure, cowering children.  We are God's people who possess God's Spirit.  As such we have the knowledge and the power to cast off the works of darkness, to put on the armor of light, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ, to dine at Wisdom's table, and to live our lives with confidence and joy; to love God with our whole strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.   This is the gift we receive on Trinity Sunday from the Father, who sends us the Spirit in Jesus name.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Father's Day


In His parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus told of an undeserving runaway youth who was welcomed home by a loving father. He had the opposite experience Himself. He was the deserving Son who kept the Law perfectly. Yet at the moment of greatest crisis, His Father turned His back to Him. At noon the sky became dark. The sun was hidden to show us that He who outshines the sun did not care to look upon what was happening. The heavens were dark and empty. For three hours there was no light in the sky, as Jesus' passion slowly wrung the life out of Him. Jesus tried to pray, but there was only darkness for an answer. Heaven was silent. The Innocent One was being punished, and the Just God did nothing to stop it.

As we look at the extended holy family, this evening we want to concentrate on the Patriarch of that family, the Old Man, God the Father. St. Paul tells us in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit teaches us to call God Abba, which is Hebrew for "father." The name is rare in the Old Testament. Moses and the Prophets hardly ever call God "Father." David, in Psalm 103, tells us, "As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities them that fear Him." He doesn't exactly call God "Father," but he compares His compassion to paternal affection. In the New Testament we have a totally different picture. Jesus called God "Father" regularly, and taught His disciples to pray to "Our Father, who art in heaven." At the Great Commission, Jesus commanded us to baptize people "in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." In Gethsemane He said, "Father, if it is your will, let this pass from me." He frequently spoke of "my heavenly Father," and told us that, "Your heavenly Father feeds the birds, clothes the lilies, gives the Holy Spirit, knows your needs, etc."

What does a father do? He begets children, provides for children, disciplines children, guides and directs children, and blesses them with every conceivable blessing. If human fathers can do this, then certainly God can. Do fathers extend their families? Not necessarily, but they can, either by begetting more children, or by adopting the fatherless. The family patriarch provides order and stability, along with the honor of being called by his name. Our heavenly Father has reached out to adopt us through Jesus, to make us no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints.

Alas, many fathers are not like that at all. They bully, beat up, and berate their children, if they talk to them at all. Some ignore and neglect their families as if they never existed. Some seem to go through life finding new ways to abuse their offspring. Some just walk away from their children and never want to see them again. That is foul, unnatural, a result of sin that has infected men in our world. The godless try to say that men naturally want little to do with their children, but that is a lie. Men who reject their own flesh and blood are subnatural. They have more in common with the evil angels than with birds and trees. Of course, men cannot help being sinful, but we must never confuse what is fallen with what is natural. The father in the parable is completely natural. No one who heard Jesus tell it thought otherwise. And the model of every father is God, the Father Almighty.

Why, then, did the good, loving God so abuse His only-begotten Son? All through this season we have looked at how various people were brought into the holy family. In many cases what looked like abuse at first was really love in action, as with Jesus' own blood relatives. But the Father is more deeply involved than anyone else in extending the holy family. It is His family. It is called by His name. He has the power and the right. Therefore He had to choose between those who deserve His abuse, and the One who deserved all that is good. Here we see what His choice was. The righteous Son was cast out, forsaken. It had to be in order to bring the undeserving children of men into the holy family. Here we see that the same darkness that hid the Father's face, also hides our sins. There is no light in us, but in the dark, there is also no darkness. We made the darkness by our sins. God let its worst evil fall upon Himself. For three hours God told it like it was. And there, in the middle of it all, He was doing something about it.

You and I will never have to ask the question Jesus asked in our text. What happened to Him happened for us. In our Baptism we were united with Him in His death, and brought forth again to stand in the Father's presence. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and lives within us. We, the prodigals, can look forward to a paternal embrace, while our Elder Brother was forsaken. That is, He was forsaken for a time. Easter morning shows us that God is completely fair and just to the deserving, even as He is merciful and indulgent to the undeserving. Once the work of redemption was complete, the Father stopped abusing the Son, gave Him the keys of the house, the treasures of heaven and earth, and a name that is higher than all. As He gives His unworthy children the Holy Spirit, He gives His righteous Child all authority in heaven and earth. Through Jesus, God the Father is our Father. Through Jesus we are members of the extended holy family.

God would have us appreciate what He has done, both in nature by giving us human fathers, then in the story of salvation by giving us Jesus. He would have us thank Him, visit Him in prayer, attend the sacred rites of his house, study His Word, and learn to perform our duties within the holy family. He would have us remember that we are called by His name, so that we do nothing to bring disgrace upon it. He would have us develop a likeness to our Lord. He would have us respect our human fathers, including our spiritual fathers, the older men in our congregation and community. He would have us love and protect our children, including our spiritual children. He would have us act honorably to our mothers, sisters, and daughters, that we might be blessings to them. He would have us teach one another to love, to worship, and to be honorable. He cast out His Son for a time to extend His Fatherhood to us. He wants us to cast out our sin that we might be His children in truth. AMEN.

~ Reverend Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, June 9, 2014

A call to thought, reason, and faith by the Holy Spirit who gives us these abilities


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“But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.” John 14:26

By every intelligent measure it seems that we’ve entered a new Dark Age. Not only are the pure doctrines and the sacred traditions of the church under heavy assault, but so is our ability to think. It shouldn’t surprise us that these things are disappearing all together because faith and reason come from the same source – the Holy Spirit whom the Father sent in Jesus’ name to teach us all things and remind us of all that Jesus said.

Life in the future may be much harder than it’s ever been before, not because men are more evil today than in former times; sinful nature never changes, but as a result of technology in the hands of people who don’t think and don’t have the Scriptures as their Teacher. In the past it took some effort to kill and maim large numbers of people. A major military campaign under Alexander the Great took years to plan, equip, finance and execute. Today it takes little more than the push of a button. In the past it was easy to avoid other people if you were having a bad day, or if you just didn’t like people that much. But today it’s not so easy. There are cameras everywhere. They watch us as we shop, they write us electronic tickets if we drive too fast, and if you go to Milwaukee beware! The entire city is wired, every inch of it. You can’t go anywhere in public without being observed, and the Surveillance State is positively giddy. How long will it be before such things are used against us by the world, if we want a share of the shallow peace that it offers?

God’s people have always thanked and praised Him for giving His Spirit to be our Holy Teacher. Pentecost is one of the church’s oldest holy days. But life being what it is, we can be doubly thankful today that Jesus gave us this incomparable gift, and that by His power our sins are forgiven, and that even in the middle of life’s storms we are at peace with God through Christ.

He gives us the gift of faith in baptism and nourishes it through the church’s ministry, but the church has largely given up her birthright and caved in to the sensibilities of modern man. The church has always conducted her ministry in a rational way. Thought, order, congruity and consistency have always been her way. She has a long and glorious history of raising men up from their base desire to remain ignorant, to the glory that faith and knowledge give. But today ignorance is worshiped in the church as well as in the world, and intellect dashed to the ground. Nor do people want to hear about sin today, so the church has dumbed-down and lightened-up. When she does venture to speak on the topic it’s usually about “social sins” such as contributing to global warming, which is no sin at all. Or “collective sins” such as injustice, that whiny term which means whatever a person wants it to mean on any given day. But the real trespasses condemned by the Law such as envy, self-pity, infanticide and the worship of false gods dare not be mentioned. The church is much happier today, better-attended and better paid-for if she confirms people in their ignorance and doesn’t demand that they think very hard. But unless we learn God’s Word, unless we can get from theological Point A, to theological Point B, how will we ever know our sins, retain the Peace that Jesus gives, or live out our vocations in joyful service to God and man?

We say in the Third Article of the Creed, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel…” We say it because Faith is the Spirit’s best gift, but not His only gift. We also say in the First Article that He gives us the ability to think. Remember the words, “my reason and all my senses?” Why did God do that? Why did He make us, “a little lower than the angels,” (Psalm 8:5) but much higher, and of far greater worth than plants or animals? Because we, as opposed to the animals, are created in the image and likeness and God, who is above all things rational! And the only way we can know Him, believe in Him, and have fellowship with Him is by using both the faith and the intellect He’s given us.

Believing doesn’t supplant thinking. Instead, faith is the highest form of thought there is. To believe in Jesus as our Savior means to think divine thoughts, to have the very mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16) and to know God even as we are known by Him. (1 Corinthians 13:12) So never let a Christian glorify ignorance, because there’s nothing foolish or simple about God. (1 Corinthians 12:1) The devil, on the other hand, loves ignorance. His followers are more anxious to kill the Holy Spirit than they were to kill Jesus. They work day and night to extinguish the Divine Light that He gives, to make us forget Pentecost, to create a new Dark Age and call it Enlightenment. They’ve been very successful so far, and the conversion from thinking people to emoting people is nearly complete in our day.

We see it so clearly in the political realm. It’s not the job of a Supreme Court Justice to have empathy, but to think. To use cold, calculating reason. To take the words of the Constitution and to dictate from On High that they say what they mean, and mean what they say. Why? Because no authority exists except that which is established by God, and with God A is always A, and there can be no inconsistencies.

Whenever we make important decisions based on emotion rather than reason, we suffer. We lose many of the earthly blessings that God has in store for us, and life which is already difficult becomes that much more painful. We begin to wonder if there’s any rhyme or reason to life. We question whether there really is a God in heaven who loves us and who has a bright future planned for us in Christ. But God gave us a Great and Wonderful gift when he “poured out” His Spirit on Pentecost. Besides being a Holy Spirit, He’s always a Tireless Spirit. He works day and night, through the Church, to keep faith and reason alive. By His power: old men still dream the dreams of God, and young Confirmands still see visions of His love and glory that awaits us in Christ. And it’s this Spirit, and the gift of faith and reason that He gives, that makes the Church, and not America or any other nation, the Shining City On A Hill. By her light the Holy Spirit calls out to all who are ignorant so that they can come and learn the Truth as it’s never been taught before to all who are at the end of their rope so that they might learn that God is our Refuge and Strength and very present Helper in trouble; to all who are afraid of life and afraid of death to know that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life Everlasting, who brings us to the Father, and gives us Peace both now and always. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Holy Spirit fills the earth and takes us back to where everything is as it should be


Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. Acts 2:5

This Pentecost we will learn that God scatters and gathers His people. Those two words are polar opposites. Scatter is the Law word which names the ultimate terror of being banished from the sight of God. Adam and Eve suffered that curse for a time, and so did our Lord but there was a difference. Our first parents endured it for their own sins, but Jesus for ours. He was forsaken that we might be accepted. “Made to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God’s Old Testament church was also scattered, but as we will discover today that dreadful judgment was part of God’s larger plan to gather the whole world to Himself in Christ.

It is no exaggeration, dear Christians, when we say that God loves the whole world and that Christ died for all. You might be tempted to think otherwise, to think that His love applies to everyone else but you. You might think that your sins are so serious and that you are so hopelessly tangled in their web that you could never be extricated, even by the Son of God. But that’s not true. The Holy Spirit, who was poured out on Pentecost, was given for you as well as all others. In Holy Baptism He calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies you, and liberates you from a scattered existence. He gives you new life, new wisdom, new desires and new strength. He makes an everlasting covenant of peace with you, one He will never break on His side, and one He will keep you faithful to on yours! Yes, God gets all the glory, not just most of it.

In our text for the day St. Luke informs us that: there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. But how could that be? How could a man be a visitor in the land God promised would be his perpetually? Centuries earlier God pledged Israel the Jews. Under David and Solomon she became the belle of the ball, and envy of the world because the God of Jacob was with her. But something changed over time, not on the Lord’s part who is ever true, but on the people’s. Once they were in possession of the blessings they forgot the One who gave them, and set off to establish their own destiny. They grew tired of the worship the LORD had prescribed. That was bad on many levels, but especially because the seeds of the Christian faith were embedded in it. Those who ate the bread and drank the cup of temple worship were proclaiming the Lord’s death until He came. They envied the pagans around them and noted how they worshiped. The worship of fertility goddesses was fun and exciting, so God’s people soon whored after the gods of their neighbors. Before long they transgressed every commandment the Wise Lord gave them debauching their lives and their society.

This should come as no surprise. Now as then, when people disregard sound worship practice not only does their worship degenerate but so does their faith, and then their manner of living because orthodox faith, worship and life work together like a three-legged stool. If any is missing, all is lost. But if God is anything He is patient. He understands, better than we do, the material He has to work with. We are addicted to sin as surely as the addict to his heroine, and cannot free ourselves. He gave them numerous opportunities to repent and sought to gather them under His wings as a hen gathers her chicks, but they would not. So when words were exhausted God, as it were, pulled out the strap. He called in the Assyrians to destroy the Northern Kingdom in the year 722 b.c. and the Babylonians to destroy the Southern Kingdom in 587 b.c. Many of God’s people were killed in the siege and the rest were forcefully deported to Babylon and from there they were eventually scattered “to every nation under heaven.” Their blessings were revoked, their temple destroyed and now their hope was dead.

But what no one at the time could have possibly known is that this scourge of judgment was also part of God’s design to gather the whole world to Himself in Christ! God’s people were scattered to the four winds empty-handed, but not empty-minded or empty-hearted. Now they needed their religion more than ever, and having been purified by fire they practiced it with greater zeal and joy than before. Wherever they found themselves they established synagogues devoted to the Word and worship of the Living God. In this way the Gospel of the coming Christ was preached and the world made ready for 600 years before His holy birth.

Thus it was no accident that wise men came from the East to worship the newborn king. Or that Simon who lived in Cyrene, 900 miles west of Jerusalem, was visiting Jerusalem that particular Passover, just in time to help the Lord carry His cross to its final location, to the Place of the Skull where Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice to reconcile a world at war with God and one another. Nor was it an accident that the Jews visiting Jerusalem on Pentecost were descendants of the people God scattered 600 years earlier. They were devout Jews, well schooled in the Old Testament scriptures. So well, indeed, that when they heard Peter’s message about the crucified and risen Christ they recognized Jesus of Nazareth as the missing link that made their religion whole. Nor was it an accident that these very people who believed and were baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, returned to their distant homes taking their new found faith with them. For the next 30 years as the Lord’s disciples carried out their Great Commission to baptize and teach, they utilized those synagogues as forward bases of operation. Nor was it an accident that from these major Christian centers the Good News of life in Christ made its way to every continent and in the year 1889 arrived at the corner of W.43rd and Robert Avenue in Cleveland Ohio. For over 120 years people scattered by sin have received the words of eternal life within these walls. Nor is it the ninth inning for Christ Lutheran Church. Today yet another Christian young lady who was baptized and catechized, publicly confesses the faith she received in this place. Today as the Word of God is preached and the sacraments administered sins are being absolved, hope is being restored, life is being revived, and courage and strength are being given us to face whatever lies ahead. Truly, we can endure all things through Christ who strengthens us!

There are no accidents with God. He who once scattered His people has received them back in Christ. We are those people. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, June 6, 2014

Are you struggling with God?


This image is in the public domain because its copyright has expired.
Jacob and Esau were twins. Esau was the firstborn, but Jacob wouldn't let him be born in peace.  The second twin's hand was grasping the ankle of the first.  Because of that, he was named Jacob, which literally means "heel-grabber" but which had the connotation of one who trips others, and later, one who tricked others, and trickery was Jacob's strength. In his youth, the third Patriarch cajoled his brother out of his rights as the older son.  Later, in order to claim that right, he deceived his father into thinking he was Esau.  While Esau was frank, open, a simple hunter, Jacob was a used wagon salesman.  This sort of thing caught up with Jacob.  He was filled with guilt.

After that trick with his father, Jacob had to leave in a hurry.  Twenty years passed.  Jacob had been living in Haran with his uncle.  While he was there he acquired two wives, two slave girls, thirteen children, not to mention flocks, herds, donkeys, wagons, and various trappings of wealth, but as he approached his childhood home, none of that mattered.  Esau was coming to meet him with 400 men.  Jacob was worried. He sent his family and possessions south of the Jabbok Creek, while he remained alone.  He brooded about what the morning might bring.

Jacob had faith.  Faith in what?  In the promise Isaac had given him, and in the promise he heard in his vision at Bethel.  Jacob's life had now come down to a moment of crisis, and just at that time God intervened.  Yes, God became personally involved.  There was no thunder, no booming voice, no fireworks.  God leaped out of the bushes in human form and attacked Jacob physically.  In some ways this was like the night twenty years ago when Jacob had his dream, but this was no dream.  God did not use His divine power.  He fought man to man.  Moreover, God probably enjoyed it thoroughly.  This was not war, not an attempt to kill, not an attack born from bitterness.  God fought by the same rules as Jacob.  They both fought as hard as they could.  Now you may think it remarkable, but God was not able to defeat Jacob. Nor was Jacob able to win.  The strange combat was still a draw when the new day dawned, but it is for us a shadow, a picture of a more serious conflict, the struggle between the Son of God and the forces of evil.  Jacob's most remarkable Descendant also had to struggle against God and man.  Easter morning proclaimed Jesus the winner in His match, but what happened here with Jacob?

According to Moses, Jacob held onto God and refused to let Him go.  Remember, God was playing by human rules, and without breaking those rules, God could not get away.  The same hand that once grabbed his brother's heel, now closed firmly on God's arm.  Finally God made a move that dislocated Jacob's thigh.  Jacob knew he couldn't win, but he still would not let go, not until God blessed him.  So God did.

Each of us has his own Peniel at some time.  Our lives come down to a moment of absolute judgment, complete crisis, where everything is on the line.  Our hopes and aims stand over the horizon, but our guilt lies heavily upon us.  That is when our faith is put to the critical test.  The world backs us into our Peniel, into the depth of temptation.  We have to summon every resource to one single struggle.  Even if you live your whole life without such a judgment, eventually you come to the crisis of dying.  In that moment you stand like Jacob, with all of your worldly security on the other side of the creek, and in that moment, you have to meet God.

The time had come for Jacob to be unmasked.  We likewise must cast away all deception.  We must hold onto God until He blesses us.  In today's epistle St. John says this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith.  Even though we have been God's enemies, we trust His forgiveness because He promises it.  God might appear menacing as He approaches us, but we need not fear.  He has come to change us.  We don't like being Jacob, identified by deceit, greed, and sloth, but that's who we are.  That's where we have to begin.  God asks, "What is your name?" So we must tell God what we have done.  Confess all that we would have Him forgive.  Then it is God's turn to speak.  He says, "You will be called Israel," which means "Prince of God."  That pattern is familiar throughout the Bible.  Having heard the first Gospel, Adam named his wife Lifegiver.  Jesus called Simon The Rock.  Even today we give children new names when they are baptized in the name of the Triune God.   The new name put aside Jacob's doubts.  He had heard the promise from Isaac.  He heard it again at Bethel.  Now God was giving him the name which more than any other signifies divine election.  The most valid Judge of all had proclaimed Jacob to be Israel, the official bearer of the promise.  How much more should we, who have learned the record of the New Testament as well, who have seen the cross and resurrection of Jesus, be confident of God's grace.  We can even tell when He won the victory over sin and death.  We know that we have benefited from the washing of regeneration, and have come to the table set with the Sacrament of His sacrifice.  There can be no doubt that we will overcome the world.

Just as dawn stands at the end of night proclaiming the coming day, so the Holy Spirit gives hope to a troubled heart as the dawn of the life to come.  By faith we now look forward to the coming resurrection morning, when all hostility to God will be put down, and every crisis will be past.  AMEN.

~Rev.Lloyd E. Gross