Monday, April 27, 2015

How can you rest at a time like this?


There are many who say, "Who will show us some good?  Lift up the light of your face upon us, O Lord!"  You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound.  In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.  Psalm 4:6-8

THE Psalms are about Jesus.  He is the Lord of the Psalms, the Lord who became flesh and came to dwell among us full of grace and truth, but while they are written by David and are a record of his inmost prayer, they are inspired by the Holy Spirit.  They are the true voice of the Gospel that unites us by faith to the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ our Lord who was handed over for our sins, and raised again for our justification.

When we hear these words on David's lips they make perfect sense.  He faced so many challenges in his life, and suffered so many reverses due to his own sins, and because of his enemies, that he often had to cry out, "Who will show us some good?"  In spite of his numerous enemies and scores of sins David was also a man of faith, a man who knew where to turn when clouds gathered and the darkness thickened, so that at the end of the day he could say with full confidence, "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety."

May God's word here given help us to do the same, because while we might find temporary relief here or there for the things that threaten us, true joy is found only in Christ, the Lord we commune with in the church each Sunday.

These words make perfect sense on our lips, too.  There are those times when, as the hymn says, "all things seem against us, to drive us to despair;" times when we pay dearly because of our sins, or when we suffer due to the sins of others; times when we are persecuted for our faith, when we are dismissed as foolish, naive, intolerant or out of step with the times.

Above  all, the words of this Psalm fit best on the lips of Jesus who is the incarnate Lord of the Psalms, who as a man prayed them, but who as God answers them for us!

Whenever Jesus was distressed, as He often was in His earthly life, He prayed.  When the Light of the World encountered the utter spiritual darkness of men, or when His soul was sorrowful to the point of death in Gethsemane, or when He was dying the shameful and protracted death of the cross, innocent of all sin, but suffering silently for the sins of all; even then He  possessed the unwavering confidence of our Psalm.  Even then He trusted that He would not be abandoned to the grave but that God would watch over Him and raise Him up again.  "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety."  So it was on the seventh day the Lord rested in the tomb from all His labors, so that he might grant eternal rest to us from the labor of our sins.

That is the holy Christian faith we confess, but unlike Buddhism or other contemplative creeds where religion is only a notion residing in ones mind, ours in incarnational.  That means it has flesh and blood, that it can be known not only by faith, but by the five senses as well.  Most important in the matter is the flesh and blood of Jesus; God who humbled Himself and became true man in order to redeem sinful men and return them to the Shepherd and Bishop of their souls.  His body was truly sacrificed in violent death in our place, as our substitute, so that we might be made whole.  We encounter this Lord in the Scriptures which thrill our ears because whenever they are read we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling us away from this world to follow Him in a life of sacrificial love to our neighbor; to follow him to the cross, to the grave and finally to the resurrection from the dead.

Unlike those Johnny-come-lately versions of the Christian faith which are faulty in so many ways, the Lutheran faith we hold is crisp, clear, fully formed and developed in the mass we celebrate each Sunday.  It engages all of our senses as it teaches the whole counsel of God to us.  It proclaims the Law to check the Old Adam, and the Gospel to comfort us in the face of his corrupting influence.  It gives us opportunity to sing and to pray, to confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and to believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead so that we will be saved by faith in Him.

There is also holy communion where we taste of the Messianic Banquet, where we partake of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb only to find that we are both guest and Bride in a marriage made in heaven.   The Eucharist makes us giddy with heavenly visions which, like St. Paul's, defy verbal description, but that fill us with longing for our true home. the city whose builder and maker is God.  

This holy catholic faith into which we are eternally baptized also gives for us a heart of wisdom so that even here and now, in this scattered world, in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, we are enabled to comprehend divine and eternal realities.  We are authorized and empowered to live as servants of the most high God and to provide light and salt to the dark, bland world.

Overflowing as we are then with "every spiritual blessing in Christ," we too may confidently pary the words of David and of David's son at the end of each day, and at the end of all of our days,  "In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety."  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavourus

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy


Truly, Truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice.  You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into have sorrow now but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  John 16:20-22

Whenever Jesus utters His trademark "truly, truly," as He does 25 times in St. John's gospel, you should put down your iPhone and pay careful attention, very careful indeed, because Jesus is here speaking Truth into the face of deception!  Injecting light into the darkness of this present age, and O how we need that beauteous, heavenly Light.

Things appear to us to be a certain way as long as we live in the shadows.  Joy seems ever fleeting, tears ever present, but that is only because we are spiritually dull, but Jesus tells it like it really is.  "Truly, truly ... your sorrow will turn into joy."

Yes, we are spiritually dull when it comes to the things of God, but when it serves the interest of our bellies, on the other hand, we can be razor sharp and overcome every obstacle.  Today, after centuries of scientific progress, we are standing at the threshold of a technological revolution that may well turn all previous history on its ear.  One, that if we use carefully, and remember to give thanks, can be received as a "first article" blessing from the Giver of all good gifts, but if we are not careful, people will mistake it for heaven on earth and lose what is most important because Jesus warns, "What does it benefit a man if he gain the whole world but lose his own soul?"

This is why we must always submit to the tender ministrations of mother church, why we must make Divine Service, the thing in which we are presently engaged, the focal point of our week and build everything else around it, because apart from the gifts we receive here every 8th day, we must always shrivel and die.

The disciples were mystified by what the Lord said to them that night.  We are no brighter.  "What does He mean by a little while? " they wanted to know, and the Lord's answer is ever the same, "I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."

What is this "little while" that the Lord had in  mind?

Jesus was referring to the impending death that He would endure on behalf of all men to atone for the sins of all, none excluded however soiled or unworthy they might make you feel.  The Lord's bloody sacrifice expiates them all, propitiates them all, and provides remission to all who trust this death and are baptized into it.  In Christ God accepts the cop as well as the criminal; the Pharisee as well as the tax collector; the homosexual as well as the heterosexual, but both must repent.  Both must reject their sin.  Both must believe the gospel of peace and embrace the way of life.

The Lord was also referring to His resurrection when He would see them again face to face, then they would understand all things!  Then they would find inexpressible joy and abiding elation that nothing can ever take away.

Now this message about "the forgiveness of sins" may seem ordinary to us, but only because we are spiritually dull, or self righteous, or because we don't comprehend the jeopardy we are in without it, but ask any pastor who has ministered to people in their dying moments and he will tell you that when the time comes, nothing will be more precious to you than the words of Jesus, "your sorrow will be turned to joy."  Nothing more soothing than the pledge that God will not exact the punishment you deserve for a lifetime of rebellion, that He will not consign  you to the Lake of Fire, but that you will soon see your Savior as He is, and in that encounter, you will become like him!

Or ask any chaplain who has ministered to people who suffer crushing fear and sudden loss.  Nothing calms the shattered heart like the certain knowledge that what you are suffering is not God's punishment, but that "in a little while" your sorrow will be turned to ineffable joy that will never leave you nor forsake you.

Now these words that the Lord spoke to the disciples the night in which He was handed over are just as applicable to us as they were to the disciples.  To us who live in the "little while" between the Ascension and Second Coming, it doesn't always seem so little, but again that is only because we are spiritually dull.  

The forces of evil did a victory lap when Jesus was secured to the cross, when the spear opened his side, and blood and water flowed into the ground (Adam).  Now they could get back to business as usual, oppressing the weak, inflating their egos with vain glory, and their pockets with extorted money.  In the mean time Simeon's predicted sword was flaying the Blessed Virgin's devoted heart, and the petrified disciples were having the worst day of their lives, but this isn't just a nice story about "once upon a time," dear Christians, because as God's children we too live under the shadow of the cross, and as long as we do, we will suffer illness, disappointment, temptation, epic failures, swinging back and forth between self-loathing and self-justification -- neither of which is a Christian virtue.  We will suffer due to our own sins, those of others and many times because that is just the way the dysfunctional world is, and what little joy we do manage to attain, short of Christian joy, Eucharistic joy, Baptismal joy can be taken away, but the promise Jesus makes in today's gospel bolsters us, shields us, and fills us with jubilation on this Jubilate Sunday.

Truly, truly I say to you ... you have sorrow now but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, April 24, 2015

Mysteries of the Christian Faith


Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God. 1 Corinthians 4:5

EVERYTHING about the Christian faith is a mystery. Over time we learn to think theologically and God’s wisdom begins to make sense, but there are still more questions than answers. It won’t always be this way, however. A Day is coming when all our questions will be answered, and when we will know even as we are known. (1 Cor. 13:12)

Chief among the mysteries of our faith is the Lord’s incarnation. Throughout the Old Testament the pre-incarnate Christ made many appearances. He is Melchizedek whom Abram worshipped; the Rock that led the children of Israel through the wilderness, and the fourth Man in the fiery furnace who saved Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from a fiery death. But His greatest Advent is to be found in the mystery of the incarnation when “eternal God begotten of the Father from eternity,” assumed human nature, thereby exalting humanity to the highest heavens!

It’s true that human nature has been completely compromised by sin and that there’s not a trace of spiritual health remaining to it. But that’s not to say that sin is an essential property of man, or that we are the loathsome creatures and blight to the planet that the Nature Worshipers in Copenhagen would have us believe. In spite of original sin and our many actual sins we are still God’s creations! And though mankind lost its original righteousness when Adam sinned it has been fully restored to us by Christ who is the New Adam! By His birth, death and resurrection He redeemed us, reconciled us to God, justified us, glorified us, and in every other way returned us to full sonship by faith in His name. We all want to be praised and held in high esteem -- that’s as basic to Sinful Nature as breathing -- but there can be no higher status than the one we now possess as God’s people in Christ. His birth gives us dignity and His death makes us Holy, so let us give up our trifling attempts to be important in the eyes of the world, so that we might receive the commendation of God when Jesus comes again.

Jesus is God’s Great Gift to the world, but His incarnation isn’t the only mystery. St. Paul says, “Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” (1 Cor. 15:51ff) St. Paul is speaking here of the Lord’s Second Advent in which He will judge the living and the dead. The world doesn’t know what to do with such information. It writes off the Christian faith as foolish. Or, in good post-modern fashion, it declares that it’s only valid for those who believe it but affects no one else, yet the mysteries of our faith are not fairy tales, or private revelations which only have consequence for those who believe them. Instead they are theological realities that will affect every person without exception.

Equally mysterious is the fact that our Lord knows all that is now hidden and that He will reveal it on the last day. We love our privacy. We all have secrets we’ve concealed from the world, and we’re glad that others can’t read our thoughts. When Warren Buffett, the world’s richest man, was asked what his guiding business principle was he said: never do anything that you wouldn’t want to read about in tomorrow morning’s paper, but when Jesus returns all that is now hidden will be revealed. He says in Luke 12:12 “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.” We don’t like to hear words like this. They make us afraid because we all have many things that we would rather not have revealed. We all judge others harshly in our minds as if we were God. Neither have we been faithful stewards with the gifts God has given us, or in the vocations He’s placed us. Whenever the Scriptures make us squirm we should know for certain that we are hearing the Law. It’s not pleasant because it exposes the thoughts and intents of our hearts, but we need to hear it so that it can lead us to repentance. Only then can we understand the Great Gift that Christ is. As we can’t justify ourselves before God, neither should we condemn ourselves according to St. Paul. Instead we should let God be our judge and not be afraid to do so, because in baptism we are dressed in Christ, and in Him we stand before God in Righteousness and Purity forever.

St. Paul says in the last part of our text that, “at that time every man will receive his commendation from God.” Does that sound confusing? It shouldn’t. As Jesus praised John the Baptist before the people for his faithful ministry, He will also commend, confess and acknowledge us eternally before His Father in heaven (Matthew 10:32). He came to share our humanity, He lived for us, died for us, rose again from the grave for us and will come back one more time to bring us to the place He’s prepared for us. These are some of the mysteries of our Christian faith that we will one day understand fully. Until that time, may they sustain us as we fight the good fight of faith, and cause us to rejoice in the Lord always. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Do not give in to temptation and fight death, rather fight temptation and give in to death


And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, to be tempted by the devil. Luke 4:1-13

If you are not afraid to die you are an awesome opponent. The Japanese kamikaze pilots of WW2 struck terror into the hearts of their enemies for that reason. They were willing to fly their craft, brimming with jet fuel, directly into their opponents' ships, knowing that they themselves would perish. They did not do this until 1944, rather late in the war, when they realized that they were losing. That is when they went on tilt, when they became desperate. The devil is much the same. Jesus calls him "the ruler of this world." That title means that he has power. He displayed it in the Garden and never stopped. He tempted David to take a census against God's will, and the one who happily tormented Job, and turned his life inside out. Now he tries the same with Jesus, but Jesus was not afraid to suffer, and Jesus was not afraid to die.

From the moment God made the promise of redemption to the Church in Genesis 3:15, the devil knew that his time was short, but being the devil he convinced himself that he would be the final winner. It's what he thought and what he hoped, but everything changed when the Word became Flesh. In John Milton's poem, Paradise Regained, redemption is won after Jesus emerges victorious from the wilderness, because if Jesus could win there, He would win from the cross and from the grave as well.

We see this in the Savior's passion and death which was the devil's "more opportune time," when heaven and earth conspired against Him. The government turned against Him. The church turned against Him, His friends abandoned Him. There were no angels to minister to Him, and even His heavenly Father, for a time, turned His back on His Son. There He hung, in the balance, one Holy Man; one good Man; alone; praying for His enemies; enduring the awful penlty of our crimes and refusing to save Himself so that by this death He would save us all. Yes, as He won the victory in the wilderness, so He did again on the cross, and because Jesus was not afraid to suffer, not afraid to die, God raised Him up from the dead and gave Him victory over the grave.

We, on the other hand, want nothing to do with either. We don't like deprivation or sacrifice, which is why we are such easy prey for the devil, and why we make such problems for ourselves. But this Lent may we learn from Jesus not to fear temptation, deprivation or death.

Temptation is a constant in our lives. Our New Man is terribly distressed by it, but the Old Adam loves it. He makes it so easy for us to stop the conflict and simply to give in and go with the flow, but that is not what Jesus did. Neither should we! Instead we should fight the good fight with all our might, that is to say, with the power we obtain from God. We are not helpless in the struggle. We are not play dough to be molded by every whim of the devil's temptation. Instead the same Spirit that led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted gives us the weaponry, power and skill to fight back, to resist.

Where do we get it? From the Gospel that holy mother church supplies us with each week. In today's Old Testament lesson we learn that Moses prescribed a liturgy for God's people. They were to bring gifts to God, and to liturgically acknowledge that their special place in the Land was a gift of God's grace, and to offer thanks! Their faith was visible and audible, so is ours. In this lesson we see the infant form of what we know today as the Offertory. Today we bring currency which represents our labor, but historically God's people brought the bread and wine to be used in the Sacrament, as well as every other type of practical gift for the support of the clergy and for the relief of the poor. The Offertory in our liturgy is the first stop of the dance that culminates in receiving the One who was victorious in the wilderness, into our irresolute and sinful flesh, in order to cleanse it and to strengthen it. To fortify it so that each day we might be better prepared than the last for the warfare every child of God must invariably conduct.

Neither should we fear deprivation. It is not the will of God that we exist without food, that is impossible, but in this world there are seasons of plenty and seasons of want. Like St. Paul who declared, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me," we too must learn to live gracefully when we have much and when we have little. In times of plenty may every meal remind us of the Heavenly Bread that God gives us in Holy Communion, and in times of want, let us suffer patiently, but also prayerfully and with hope, drawing endurance and consolation from Jesus who will never deny us His life-giving flesh and blood, but always gives it to us without money and without price.

Nor should we fear death. To preserve our life and to defend it is good and right, and there is no virtue in throwing it away, or in dying before our time, but each of us has an expiration date, and when it finally comes we can trust in God, even as Jesus did: that He will raise us from the dead. We can find relief in the fact that we will be through with this wilderness existence; and that a new life will be ours, one we can embrace with holy joy and expectation.

As we learn these things from our Lord, as we grow in our faith, we too become awesome opponents to him who is the sum of all evil, not by any inherent power within us, but we are made strong by Jesus, who defeated the devil in the wilderness, on the cross and in our baptism to make us strong, firm and steadfast. To Him be the glory unto the ages of ages. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, April 20, 2015

Creation began on the First Day


This is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  Psalm 118:24

DEAR Christians:  it is not unusual for people to get religion all wrong; to get it backwards, twisted around and turned upside down.  Don't be shocked and don't be surprised because humanity has no more capacity for practicing the holy Christian faith than a child does for the cockpit of a 747.

That is why we must be grateful for the Scriptures which are God's true and reliable voice, and for the Holy Spirit who is always s at work guiding the church in their proper interpretation, application and practice.  In our generation we have seen how over-the-top people can get when they reject the "sacred ordinances of God's House," and rely on their own devices instead.

Today's Psalm is a perfect example of how religion can go wrong if we are not careful, if we forget that the Scriptures are God's Word and not man's; if we forget that they are the revelation of how God takes action in Christ, in history, not simply to repair what our sins have made so terribly wrong  -- the world is beyond repair -- but to create it anew, to go back to the drawing board, to start at the beginning, not with Adam this time, for in Adam we all die; but with Christ in whom we shall all be made alive!

Yes,  this is the day the LORD has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.  But what does that mean?

The thing we should learn about this verse today is its proper interpretation.  It is often used as a "positive thinking principle" to get Christians motivated on a bad day, but what it actually says in the original language is not, "this is the day that the Lord has made," but "this is the day that the Lord has acted."  The day that God made a definitive move on our behalf;  the very thing we celebrate today, the raising of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead, and by so doing restoring life and hope to the world, and announcing to all of its people that death is now conquered and has no more power over us!  That is saying a lot, because in Scripture death is called "the final enemy."

What does that mean?  It means that no matter how far you might advance in the world, how many enemies you might conquer along life's perilous journey and emerge victorious...there is still one more enemy waiting for you at the end of the road; one more intrepid foe that no man has the power to overcome; no man that is except the God/Man, Jesus Christ your risen Lord who in the Holy Scripture is called the "firstborn from among the dead."  He being the first that is, and we the many to follow.

Yes, this is the day that the LORD has acted, let us rejoice and be glad in it!
Scripture says that "in the fullness of time" God sent forth His Son into the flesh to be our Savior.  Likewise on a given day, Good Friday, He gave His Son into the hands of sinful men to be put to death as a criminal, to suffer the penalty of our crimes against heaven and to be the scapegoat that erases the sin of the world.  Likewise on a given day, the third day, He raised Jesus from the dead in order to undo the curse and wages of sin by Him.

It is this last day, the Day of Resurrection, the day that the Lord trumped the Final Enemy that the church as always called the Lord's Day, a day that we don't only celebrate once a year in a special way, but that we mark every Sunday, because for Christians every Sunday is Easter!

There are three things that must always go together:  the Lord's people, the Lord's Day, and the Lord's Supper.  While it is true that the church may celebrate the sacrament on any given day of the week, the First Day is its (theo)logical home, the day by which Christians mark time, the day that the Lord acts in the church to refresh and invigorate His holy bride in holy communion with Jesus.

This is the day the LORD takes action.  Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Is it really possible to rejoice when we consider the immense capacity that men have for evil?  Or the wicked world which glorifies all the wrong things and labors day and night to enlist us in its causes?  Can we be glad when we exist in an environment where divine activity appears to have gone missing, and where there seems to be a potent demon supervising every manifestation of malevolence there is?  Yes we can!  It happens whenever the Lord's people gather on the Lord's Day to celebrate the Lord's Supper.  That is Easter Day.  That is Resurrection Day, the day the Lord takes action, and it gives us reason to rejoice.

Yet joy is different than happiness.  It is deep.  It is abiding.  It is untouchable by the gloom of death and destruction.  It is a divine gift installed in us at baptism by the Spirit and remains forever.  At times it may be buried under a mountain of cares, contrary circumstances and of horrors too macabre to recount, but it always emerges and rises again as surely as our Lord broke free from death's strong bands.  

There is also the admonition to be glad.  What is gladness?  It is that special feeling you get when all the neurotransmitters are doing their job, that feeling of being at peace, of being well fed, well cared for, with plenty of money in the bank, and "every prospect pleases."  That is gladness, except that divine gladness doesn't come from bread in the belly or money in the bank, but from the Lord's resurrection and the promise that it holds for you.

This is the Day the LORD has acted, let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Finally, let us not ignore these two final little words of the verse "in it" because Sunday is a day like no other, it is a foretaste of the things to come, the day of eternal gladness and joy when God will wipe away every tear from your eye, and then all will be well.  That is the Day we await, the Day when the Lord will act with finality to open our graves and raise us from the dead, and we will never ever look back.

This is the day that the Lord will act, let us rejoice and glad in it.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, April 13, 2015

Even the enemies of God find themselves doing His work


But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all.  Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish."  John 11:49-50

BECAUSE God is God even His enemies must praise Him.  St. Paul tells us in today's epistle that, "at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Pilate was such a case.  He unintentionally preached the gospel of the one he crucified.  He did it by a placard affixed to the cross that read, "the King of the Jews," written in three languages, in Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so that no one would miss the message, so it is that a Roman governor preached to the world with Pentecostal tongue that the Man here crucified is the Savior of the world, the Redeemer of the planet now soaked in the last drops of his saving blood.

The same can be said of the blood-thirsty mob calling for the Lord's crucifixion with the chant His blood be on us and on our children.  They too preached the gospel unawares because St. Peter says on Pentecost that the promise is to you and to your children and to your children's children.

Caiaphas the high priest also glorified God unawares.  As the Lord's fame had reached a feverish pitch so that it appeared that the whole world would become His followers, he addressed the Jewish council with the following words:  it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.

Better indeed!  Yet it was not theology that moved Caiaphas to speak that day, but politics.  He feared his Roman over-lords.  He knew that the Roman state could be quite tolerant as long order was maintained, but he also knew that the empire could "strike back" if anyone should disturb the peace, and the peace was definitely being disturbed.  Jesus had turned the whole world upside down!  His fame was spreading like a brush fire, and ancient messianic hopes were being re-ignited.

That's what it looked like from the surface at any rate, but another power was at play; the power of God unto salvation for all who believe!

Caiaphas was not a believer.  He knew who Jesus was.  He was aware of the message He preached and of the mighty miracles He performed; everyone was, but he was more politician than cleric.  Rather than marvel at the Lord's message and sit at His feet with a broken and contrite heart like so many others did, he rejected Jesus and determined to be rid of Him once and for all.

The Lord still has His enemies today and it is their greatest desire to silence the Jesus of Scripture, the Jesus of the catechism, and of the church's liturgy, and if Christians are not careful they too can be swept away by the tide because there is a little Caiaphas residing in each of us.  Unbelievers and Sinful Nature both ask the same question:  can the whole world really be under God's condemnation because of Adam's sin?  Can the death of One Man really prevent the whole world from perishing?  Is the way of life indeed that narrow?   And can God really act that way?  But they answer their own question, because the sin of Adam is still alive and well in his children and the only way to be rid of it, the only way to avoid "death after death" is to have the righteousness of Jesus Himself put into our account.  That is what happened on the cross.  In His mercy God arranged that one Man should die for the nation, so that, "by the obedience of one Man," to use the words of St. Paul, "the many should be made righteous."  Jesus is that One Man whose obedience avails for all, and you are the many made righteous by His blood.

Yes.  Blood.  For without the shedding of blood, Scripture says, there can be no forgiveness of sins, but we are so conflicted.  On the one hand society likes to pretend that the world is a utopia, a place where if we never talk about violence it won't happen, a place where if a school child should even shape a piece of bread to look like a gun, he must be sent for "re-instruction," but on the other hand we favor camo pants and love to wear BDU's.  We fill the air waves with every bloody story no matter how distant from us it is, and we get all gushy whenever a military band plays the national anthem.

There can be no doubt that innocent blood is shed daily and that it is a tragedy in every case, but in this case, the death of this One Man, this holy, innocent Son of God, this Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world, the words of Caiaphas apply!  It is better that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish, and so it was!  Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day knowing what awaited Him, rode forward to the acclamations Hosanna, which means "save us."  The crowd, too, preaching a gospel they did not understand, but were soon to find out.

A well-known spiritual asks, "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?"  No.  We were not, neither do we need be because the benefits of the Lord's death are brought forward to us in the church today.  The Gospel preached is nothing other than absolution, baptism nothing other than salvation, and the Blessed Sacrament nothing other than life.  These are the things generously given to all who come to the church each Sunday.  Not only are the incomparable blessings of salvation brought forward, but they propel us ever forward as well; forward in thanksgiving, in humility, in holiness, in faith and in love for both God and one another; forward beyond the cold grave to the heavenly Jerusalem that is our true home where we will see our Savior face to face and bask in His love which endures forever.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, April 6, 2015

We know the father of the children by their works


You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires.  He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him.  When he lies, he speaks out of his own character,  for he is a liar and the father of lies.  John 8:44

WHEN the mother of our race chose to listen to the Snake they became fast friends.  Like so many young girls today she made a bad association, and it turned out to be the worst mistake of her life, but that is not the end of the story because God intervened.  The Lord Himself came to the scene of the crime, came as the Good Samaritan to render aid to the fallen and to make right what humanity had made ever so wrong.  This is what our God does!  He doesn't only create and preserve us, but because He loves His whole creation, He redeems through Christ as well.

The first gospel promise ever spoken was addressed to the mother of our race after she and her husband had perpetrated history's original sin.  After the word of God's Law crushed all hope of repairing the damage themselves they received history's first absolution, one based on a promise that the Lord addressed to the Snake, but within earshot of the woman.  The Lord said to Satan, "I will make enemies of you and the woman, of your offspring and of her Offspring; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."

Why did He say that?  Because the woman and the snake had indeed become friends, and befriending the snake is like the mythical Hotel California where you can check in but you can't check out again.  It is a door people thoughtlessly open every day, lured in perhaps by the occult or by one of the seven deadly sins, but one that they cannot close again!

In today's gospel lesson we see the promise fulfilled!  Jesus is the Descendant that God promised in the garden that day and the people disputing Him are the offspring of the Snake.  Listen again to the Lord's words, "I came from God...but you are of your father the devil."

What made these particular people the "brood of vipers" that they were?  Like all people they were conceived of sinful parents.  They were born spiritually dead, with a will that is in bondage to sin.  That is the human predicament, so that while we might be able to explore the Mariana Trench which lies 14,000 feet below the ocean's surface, or fashion new body parts with 3D printers, or fill outer space with satellites and space stations... for all of humanity's much celebrated progress we are unable to get at the real problem, unable to repair the human heart, unable to make ourselves righteous before God.

All of this is bad enough, but when Light came into the world these men loved the darkness more than the Light, because their deeds were evil.  Rather than hear the living words of the Man from heaven they disputed Him and tried to domesticate Him, and when nothing worked they plotted to silence Him once and for all.  This made them descendants of the one who was a murderer from the beginning.

There are still descendants of the devil to be found today, more of them than us to be sure.  At times they are crude and violent like the most recent Fort Hood killer.  At others they are refined and charming, hoping to enlist the children of God in their wicked works and wicked ways.  This is why St. Peter warns in his first epistle that we should be "sober and vigilant," and in his second epistle that we should, "supplement faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge and knowledge with self-control;"  why Jesus instructs his disciples to be "as wise as serpents," but also, "as harmless as doves."

Though St. John's gospel is probably the best-loved book of the New Testament it may also be the least-understood.  It is no mistake that both Genesis and St. John begin with the same words: "In the beginning."  Genesis is the narrative of the original creation,  the one God spoke into existence by His Word, but was compromised by sin.  What we read in the opening verses of St. John, "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God," is not merely theological information about the Person Jesus (though it is that), but rather it is the narrative of the New Creation, of the Second Adam, of the Word made flesh who came to dwell among us full of grace and brimming over with truth.

This Creation will not go bad like the first one did because it is founded on Him who is the Author and Finisher of our faith, built on "nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness," so that the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.  

We know, too, from St. John that in the end the descendants of the blood-thirsty snake would have their way.  With the aid of the Roman State they would crucify the Lord of Glory, but what they meant for evil God meant for good.  Your good!  Your salvation!  Your victory over the grave. By His death our Lord Jesus Christ crushed the Satan's ugly head and brought life and immortality to Light by the Gospel.

Why?  So that we might be purified from the deceit of our sins, so that we might find strength to speak true words, even as He himself is True.  And there are none truer, none purer than the ones we pray in the church's liturgy each Sunday whereby we proclaim the Lord's death until He comes again in glory, comes to judge all things in our favor, comes to open our graves and to give unending life to all who are born anew of water and the Spirit.  By God's mercy we are those people.  Let us, then, live up to the high calling that we have in Christ.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, April 3, 2015

Will You Just Stand There, a Stranger to the Family? Or Will You Come With Us?


A glance at this evening's sermon theme may cause you to ask, how is this guy part of the Holy Family?  Even if we are talking about the extended Holy Family, how does a perfect stranger like Simon fit in?  We can admit right away that we have little information about him.  There are only three verses, one in each of the first three Gospels that say very much the same thing about him.  We know he was from Cyrene, a place to the west of Egypt on Africa's north coast, that he was on his way into Jerusalem when the execution squad was heading out, that he was coming from the country, and that the soldiers made him carry Jesus' cross.  Mark names his two sons, Alexander and Rufus.  Those are the only facts we know.

It is unlikely that Simon was a disciple, even a remote disciple. Neither was he one of the crowd that was arguing, indeed, screaming for Jesus' blood.  He woke up that fateful morning completely uninvolved with Jesus of Nazareth.  By sunset, he was a lock to get his name in the New Testament.  Jesus and His executioners were going out; Simon was coming in, "from the country," probably having spent the night in a farmers' town.  Was he a Passover pilgrim?  His name certainly was Jewish, although his sons' names were those of Greek-speaking Egyptians.  There is no reason not to accept the tentative conclusion that he was a pilgrim, arriving a day late.  Since he had come all the way from Cyrene, that wasn't bad.

Nothing in Simon's past experience could have prepared him for what happened that day.  As he approached Jerusalem he was probably worrying about how long it would take to get through the custom house, and whether or not he could find lodging.  All of a sudden, those things did not matter.  The soldiers commanded him to stop.  They were taking three men out to a place of execution, and one of them was too weak to carry His cross.  They told Simon, "You just volunteered to carry that for Him."  There was nothing Simon could do about it.  The soldiers were armed and in no mood for games.  He might have had business in the city, but the soldiers thought their agenda was more important.  So Simon picked up the cross and trudged along behind Jesus.

Once he was caught up in the procession, what could have been going through Simon's mind?  First of all, he must have worried about being mistaken for the criminal.  That did not last very long.  It was obvious that this criminal was well-known, and apparently hated.  They yelled insults at Him, taunted Him about the Law and the temple; Simon was apparently safe from that mishap, but a new nerve started to act up. Suppose they think he was a follower of Jesus.  How terrible to be considered a friend of Jesus!   To have your name linked with His!  Did Simon try to discourage this by insulting Jesus as well?  Would you?  Oh, yes, this sermon is about us after all.  Have we been following a Lord we don't really trust?  Do we step in His steps only because some bullies threw a cross over our shoulders?  Are we strangers who want to remain strangers?  DO we dare get close to Jesus of Nazareth?  Isn't that a dangerous place to be?

Jesus was extending the Holy Family even as Simon plodded along behind Him.  He was including Simon.  By sunset Simon would be a different man.  Not that the procession took all that long.  Calvary was close to the city.  Within half an hour they would have arrived.  Once there, Simon's services were no longer needed, but his life was different.  He didn't worry about the custom house or the lodging any longer.  Everybody seemed to be coming out here.  Having had some time to look at Jesus, Simon could see that this Man was hardly a criminal.  The other two cursed their fate, cursed the soldiers, and cursed the crowds. Jesus was silent.  Something very wrong was happening here.  As they took off Jesus' robe, Simon could see the bloody work of the scourging, the painful stripes inflicted by the flagellum, leather thongs tied to a handle, often with rocks tied to the ends.  No matter what Jesus had done in the past, He certainly wasn't dangerous now.  There was still the danger of being associated with Him, yet something forced Simon to stay. Mark knew the names of his sons, and assumed that his readers knew them, too.  That is rather good evidence that Simon was no longer a stranger.

What did Simon of Cyrene see?  First, he saw the crucifixion.  The crowd would fill him in as to the context, the trial that morning, the anger of the priests and scribes, perhaps even the events of the previous week … and sooner or later Lazarus was bound to come up.  Second, he saw the sky grow dark, felt the earth shaking.  There was no voice from heaven, but perhaps the silence of heaven is even more amazing.  He saw Jesus die.  Simon heard the enemies say, "He saved others, Himself He cannot save."  Of course not.  Had He saved Himself He could not have helped us.  Simon did not know that.  Unlike you and I, he did not have years of New Testament study to help him understand these things.  God was expelling the Rightful Heir to extend family membership to strangers like Simon, who would no longer be strangers.

Simon saw one other thing; the few people who watched with Jesus, miserable at His misery, heartbroken at His pain, grieving at His death.  His mother was there, and John, and Mary Magdalene.  These were not outlaws, not revolutionaries or trouble-makers.  Their anguish was so great!  Did they move Simon to ask questions?  Let us remember when we have to grieve, when we have to suffer, or fail, that is the time to display patience and humility.  We may move somebody to ask the most important questions.  By wanting to know us better, they can know the Lord better.  Instead of asking, "Why me?" seek the good in the situation and come through it as a Christian.  Be eager to love God's Law and do His commandments.  That's by no means easy, but it is a service we perform for the Simons of this world.  Jesus will be using us to extend the Holy Family.   AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Life or Death? Blessings or Curses?


It is exhausting to have to make decisions, even more so to feel that all the decisions you have made have been the wrong ones. That was the spot Pontius Pilate was in.  He argued with the people who seemed zealous for Jesus' blood.  He declared Him innocent several times, to no avail.  He tried to pass the buck to Herod, but Herod sent Jesus back to him.  He had his soldiers mock and scourge Jesus to try to appeal to their sympathy.  There was no sympathy.  He knew Jesus was innocent, but after all the wrong choices he had made that day, he knew how much persisting would cost him.  On his right hand, Pilate wore a ring.  On that ring, written in Latin were the words, amicus caesaris, "a friend of the emperor."  The crowds had alluded to it when they said, "If you let this man go, you are not Caesar's friend."  He had to find a way to make it their choice.  Then he got a splendid idea.  Offer them the customary Passover amnesty.  Let them choose which prisoner should benefit.  On the one side was Jesus, an innocent soul at worst.  He is exhausted, beaten, and crowned with thorns, a sight that would move most hearts to pity. On the other side is a murderer, a scoundrel, a terrorist named Barabbas.  No one wanted him back on the streets.  So Pilate asked the crowd the question of our text: Which one do you want?

But the priests had done their work.  The crowd answers what it had been told to answer, Release to us Barabbas.  So this is what had become of all of Pilate's waffling and beating around the bush.  He releases the worthless terrorist, and gives sentence that Jesus should be crucified.  That was another wrong choice, even if God did use it for good.  God used the religious zeal of the priests, the herd mentality of the mob, and the shakiness of Pilate to accomplish the main event of the Gospel.  The people made an evil choice, Pilate gave it the sanction of the state, and God accomplished His will in spite of them all.

Pilate's wrong choice forced Jesus outside of the city, along the way known as the "Sorrowful Road."  God loved sinful mankind so much that He permitted this terrible injustice to take place.  So today we hear of this, and find ourselves in a place like Pilate's.  Will we be like Pilate - meaning well but distracted by the world, drawn to the glamour of the rich and famous, spending our time and resources in pursuit of worldly pleasures?  That's too bad, because Mammon can offer us nothing that lasts.  This world is on its way to a maxi-Hiroshima.  The choices that we make every day leave marks on our souls.  If every choice is a constant hardening, a flight from grace, an assertion of self, one day the soul will be as hard as a nut, too hard even for God's grace to crack.  Once that maxi-Hiroshima arrives it will be too late to repent.  Do we, like Pilate, distract ourselves, pass the buck, let events push Jesus out of our lives? Face that issue now, because no one knows whether there will be a tomorrow.

Would we rather stand in the place of the crowd?  They may have been sincere in their conviction that Jesus was a blasphemer, but their sincerity was a fault because their opinion was wrong.  No matter how firmly you hold your opinions, please measure them against the Word of God, and do that while there is still time.  If your sincere convictions contradict divine revelation, give them up in obedience to God.  He doesn't force anyone to believe, but those who should have known better, who disobey out of defiance, have the greater sin.

We have looked at two alternatives, waffling and rejection.  There is a third, and this is faith. No human decision can bring faith about.  Our fallen minds and wills are incapable of accepting the Gospel.  The Law is written on our hearts; the Gospel is not.  We will always be drawn to false religions unless God overcomes our wayward hearts.  He loves us enough to do that.  The Holy Spirit operates through Baptismal Regeneration, and through the call of the Gospel, enlightening our souls with the wisdom of salvation.  We must not separate the Spirit from the Word, or the Blessed Sacraments, which are forms of the Word.  These make us believers, and by God's great irony, we can say and mean what the crowds said that day to assume responsibility for the crucifixion, His blood be on us and our children.  Indeed, no one can be saved unless Jesus' blood is on him.  Although such a confession can gain us grief from our friends and neighbors, scorn from the world, and weariness from the flesh, we confess that Jesus loved us enough to cover us with His blood.

How will we respond?  Not like Pilate, trying to pass the buck.  Not like the priests or the crowd that rejected Him.  Rather, we will be moved by the grace of God, moved to repent of our sins that angered God, to trust that the sacrifice of Jesus takes away our sins, and resolve to reflect that love by serving Christ in His members, ministering to the needy in their various afflictions.  That is hard.  Every day we are tempted to throw Jesus out and release the Barabbas that is inside of us.  Then we must remember the Passion of the Incarnate Word, and be moved by the Holy Spirit to love Him and serve Him.  Which one do you want?  Do you want to be the terrorist, released again into the city to cause ever more havoc?  Or do you want the One who gives forgiveness, life, and salvation, and asks you to carry the cross?  AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Glory of the Church vs. Self-Esteem


The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one. John 17:22

One thing we humans cannot afford is to be proud.  Our Lord Jesus warns us again and again to beware the false glory of the world, the deceptive vanities all around us, and that prejudice in favor of ourselves that pervades all of our thinking.   The psychologists on the talk-shows tell us to love ourselves, that it is unhealthy to hate yourself, that your  self-love should increase and seek greater satisfaction. They want to condition us to what they call "self-esteem," which they claim is a cure for crime, a rule for learning, and a motive for achievement.  God's Word disagrees.

In Eden, Adam and his wife could love God, themselves, and God in themselves, because their wills were perfectly disposed to obey Him.  Their entire motivation was to please Him. They pleased themselves when they pleased Him.  We can't do that.  Our motives have been corrupted since before we were born.  We cannot love God.  When we love ourselves, we love twisted, hideous rebels against the heavenly throne.

Yet, miracle of miracles, God loves those very twisted, hideous rebels.  We cannot know why, but we can see how, because we have been looking at the events of Lent and Easter.  We join in confessing that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself.  As God gave His Son for us, He became the Fountain of Life, a fountain outside of ourselves.  Our text is from the High-priestly Prayer of Jesus, as He was about to walk to Gethsemane.  The glory He is praying about is the cross, which is God's gift to us, but an expensive price for Him.  We would never choose the cross for ourselves.  It is alien to our whole way of thinking.  We naturally sow to the flesh, naturally love money and pleasure, naturally seek worldly pomp and power.  There is nothing natural about the cross.  It is only by the Holy Spirit that it draws us from the vanities.  Yet by the cross God loves us, affirms us, assures us, and establishes us.   Jesus calls this the glory You gave me.  He is praying to God the Father, thanking Him for the privilege of being ordained to die for us, the Incarnate Word Himself embracing the cross to condemn sin and comfort sinners.

Technology does not make you a better person, only a more sophisticated sinner.  Behavior modification may change what you do about your self-love, but it cannot take away the self-love.  Education can make you a more efficient child of the world, but it cannot create faith.  Such things can treat the symptoms, but not the disease. There is no human answer to original sin.  We will always seek glory for ourselves, and reject the cross until the Holy Spirit conquers us through the Gospel, and replaces our pride with faith.  Whether an infant or a senior citizen, we all need to be born again into the kingdom of Christ.  The only other kingdom is Satan's.  We must be in one or the other.

If the Word of God kills our self-love, that is nothing to cry about.  The Word gives us something far better.   Jesus asks the Father to give us the glory which the Father gave Him, glory which is by no means diminished in the sharing, glory which is not just like the glory of Christ, but that very glory itself, cross, resurrection and all.  To us it seems impossible. There's no way we could love people like that.  Jesus says, I have loved you, therefore you can love one another.  How much better His esteem is than self-esteem!  The Holy Spirit has created something new in each of us, re-created a new self in Christ, a self with genuine value.   It is not enough to say that we have permission to love this self.  We can actually love God in this new self, and in the new selves of our fellow Christians.  Such love makes the Church one.   Regardless of what we might see with our eyes, there is an invisible Church which is always one in Christ.

Notice the Lord's language here:  that Christians be as unified as the Father and the Son.  Many historical contingencies have produced a divided visible Church.  These divisions will not go away.  Truth, like any other good gift, cannot be possessed.  It can be understood, appreciated, and obeyed, but not possessed.  We must always bear witness to the truth, even when it brings the visible divisions into sharper contrast.  You cannot bring unity to the Church by denying the truth.   You will not make the Church one by denying the Trinity, or the Incarnation, or the Sacraments.

Could we be one if we all believed the Bible?   Look and learn.   For four hundred years Lutherans and Baptists have been reading the same Bible, with the same commitment, with equal linguistic skill, yet coming up with contradictory - not just differing but contradictory - teachings concerning regeneration.   Both are moved by love of the same Christ, both confess the free gift of forgiveness.  Does it matter?  Understand this:  saying the right theology is no better than any other human work.   It is often mixed with sin, and can harbor pride, but teaching incorrect theology is a sin.  Refusing to hear the Word and be corrected by it is stubbornness.  In the face of men, stubbornness can be a virtue, but not in the face of God's Word.    It is forgivable, that is certain, but it is difficult to confess because one must be faithful to Christ, which is difficult to separate from being faithful to one's particular division of the Church.  Only the Holy Spirit can overcome stubbornness.   Only forgiveness can reconcile.

The invisible Church, on the other hand, is always one.  Under the constant love of God, the true Church is not divided by historical events.  It is one because its glory is the cross.    This Church is the Bride of Christ.  Throughout time and space, from the creation to the consummation of all things, this Church is one as the Father and the Son are one.  We can have no better esteem than to belong to this Church, for the forgiveness poured upon us by the blood of Jesus makes us worthy to be His own.  As the moon reflects the glory of the sun, so we reflect the glory of Jesus, which is the cross.  Through the cross we are reconciled to God, and to the community He has assembled here, and in heaven. To be glad that we belong is not pride; it is faith. AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross