Sunday, January 31, 2016

Not an athlete? Not interested in competition? We need to be if we are going to make it through to the end.

TRAIN FOR GOLD

Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. 1 Corinthians 9:24-27

WE know all about competition. The world chatters on about level playing fields, and awarding trophies to everyone just for showing up, but the fact is that for as long as we live, we compete.

Our lives as Christians are also competitive. Paul appears to be the biggest contender of all time as he encourages his readers to outdo one another in love and service, to train for the fight and run the race. Even when he was about to die St. Paul spoke of his life as a great sports event, and was happy that he was about to get the Gold Medal of glorious Life in Christ. Could we do that? We have the same promise and same power going for us that Paul had; and we have the same agenda as well: to conquer evil, pursue holiness, and guard the weak points.

What's in it for us? Whatever prizes athletes might win in the Winter Olympics are dung compared to a crown that Jesus has in store for us. The huge payoffs of the Super Lotto perish. The Nobel Peace Prize is subject to oxidation. These greatest honors earth can bestow are nothing compared to what God has prepared for those that love Him. This prize is so valuable that Paul tells us he is going to compete for it as if only one person could have it. Don’t let that thought scare you, it’s only a simile. God will give the crown of life to you and to all who have faith in Jesus; but each of us ought to seek it as if he had to out-distance the rest in order to acquire it.

That makes us very uncomfortable. Most of us are not athletes, our main contact with sports is as spectators, and the muscles that get the biggest workout are fingers pressing the keyboard. We have an aversion to discipline. We consider it a very unpleasant word, so we need to make an effort in the pursuit of holiness. In fact we need a rather constant effort. This race can't be won by fast starts and long rests. The Christian life is more like a marathon. No one can go for the long haul without discipline. All the self-denial, self-control, steady perseverance and grace under fire develop so that we can emerge victorious in and through Christ who has already won the victory for us.

Paul also compares our life to a boxing match, to a struggle against those who try to gain control over our lives. We need determination and vigilance. We must take pains to be on the look-out for the evil foe. God has given us His own righteousness through the blood of Jesus, but the devil wants to take it away. He will tempt us to quit, drop out, cave in and submit to the stress of constant conflict. Flesh and blood are no match for this enemy, and the undisciplined modern man doesn't even make a contest of it.

Our Fathers in the Faith knew that they weren't always at their best. They struggled as we do, and were wounded again and again by the sins and temptations of their day. They needed a regular, systematic renewal, a time to convalesce, a method of self-confrontation. So do we. We need a systematic way to face our personal failures, our lapses into selfishness, our disobedience and apathy to love. Nothing provides a better opportunity for this than individual confession and absolution. In it we confront and confess our specific sins, then gladly listen as God’s Word absolves them one and all, and they are gone. We can't let our faith accounts remain overdrawn, and the window of hope needs regular cleaning. We must forget about our neighbor's faults, our spouse's faults, the president's faults. Which of us has no besetting sin that stalks us day after day? Indeed we are lucky if it is only one. Don't we have enough flesh of our own to crucify, that we must crucify our neighbor’s?

Neither is this an exhibition for the fans. We can't just appear to repent, we can't be merely outward about our renewal. The high calling we have in Christ Jesus is a serious thing. We are involved in a fight to the death. We know about the active power of sin in our lives and we must war against it. We have the grace and power to do so. In baptism God called us into His vineyard, expunged all our transgressions, gave us His Holy Spirit and made our bodies His temple.

In the upcoming Lenten season we will journey with Jesus to the cross. We will watch Him as He walks boldly into the valley of the shadow of death. Like the disciples we can only watch from afar. We will ponder His Great Sacrifice but it remains a mystery to us. A mystery, that is, until we take up the cross of self-denial, and learn to endure all of life’s troubles patiently for Christ’s sake. They contribute nothing to the cause, the Lord’s death was all-sufficient to cancel out every sin, but suffering does help us to comprehend what really happened. Jesus gave up everything for us! He gave up everything, but then He rose again and received the highest honor that heaven or earth could give. To assure us of this He gives us the supernatural food and drink of Holy Communion. In it Christ bestows the benefits and the power of the cross upon us, places it upon our lips, and gives us a foretaste of the feast to come. He seals us for the day of redemption with His grace. The flesh of His sacrifice, the cross of His humility, these strengthen us as we enter the dreaded valley. He has won a glorious victory and received the crown of life, not for Himself but for us. He graciously bestows it upon us. For this He spared no pains, let us also run the race with perseverance in Him. Amen.


Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, January 29, 2016

A lesson on the Holy Communion of Our Lord Jesus Christ


BODY AND BLOOD FOR YOU

Jesus took the seven loaves of bread, He gave thanks, and broke them and gave them to His disciples to place before the people; and they set them before the crowd. Mark 8:6

There should be no question that for Christians the Flesh of Jesus is the center of our universe, the rising sun of our salvation. Why do we state the obvious? Because we know from the church’s long history that men all too often abused, or ignored the Sacrament and the vital benefits it imparts. There were times when people used this Holy Gift for base purposes such as generating revenue, or to threaten and control other people. At other times people stripped the Sacrament of its meaning, dispensed with it entirely or restricted it to occasional use only, as if we could survive a single day without it, but as we cannot live on the memory of yesterday’s food, neither can we long endure without the “never-failing providence” that God supplies for us in this Blessed Meal.

What we need to learn again today, besides the power and compassion of Jesus that this miracle teaches, is its spiritual lesson: that Jesus is the Bread of Life, and that the Sacrament is God’s chosen vehicle to deliver the Life of Jesus to us. Anything less is to miss the point.

Let us remember again today, that the bread which we break is the Lord’s Supper; the Lord’s, not man’s. Jesus instituted it, empowers it and blesses it. This Sacrament is not the possession of any man or group of men, so we are not free to handle it as we like, but must be careful to administer it as Scripture teaches. This means we may not open the Table up to everyone, but only to those who are first baptized, catechized, absolved, and who confess the same Christian faith we confess. Neither are we at liberty to use elements other than those prescribed by Jesus, natural bread, and natural wine. Nor can we allow those who live in open sin, and will not repent, to come to the table. Above all only those who believe that the flesh and blood of Jesus are truly here given may come, for this is not mere bread and wine, or just a symbol, or reminder of Calvary, but rather when we receive Holy Communion, we receive Jesus, who is here present, for us and in us, to do what no one else can, to free us from death and the devil, and to satisfy us as nothing else can. We must come with faith, believing that the Eucharist remits our sins, cleanses our minds, brings us closer to Jesus, and moves us farther and farther away from the sins that so easily beset us. Though we have a sense of this wondrous gift, our humanity weighs too heavily upon us, and it remains just beyond our grasp. None the less, based on our Lord’s great love, and because of His gracious command, we sing with Charlotte Elliott: O Lamb of God I come, I come.

There is another thing we should remember today; that contrary to wide spread opinion, we are not free to tinker with the church’s long established rites and rituals. We learn from this miracle that there are two important elements to the church worship: the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament. First Jesus taught, and then He fed His people. The church has followed this order ever since, and there is no reason to change it. By first teaching and preaching God’s Word we hear about our sins, learn that we live in a spiritual desert, in a world of need, and that there are no provisions capable of sustaining us. There is only Jesus who stands between us, and death. Not being limited to teaching the law alone, the church centers on the Gospel which tells us that Jesus is powerful and compassionate, that He will feed our hungry souls now and always. With both words and the Service of the Sacrament, with all its attendant ceremony and celebration, she feeds us with the actual Bread of Life from the hand of her ministers.

That’s another important lesson we learn from this miracle. Do you recall the five step sequence that took place at the First Holy Communion? Scripture tells us that Jesus: took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, gave it to His disciples and said, "Take eat…" Notice the sequence in St. Mark’s gospel: Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to His disciples. This time He did not say “take eat,” but rather “take distribute!” Lay it before the people. And this is what the church has done ever since, because you see, Dear Christians, this Holy Sacrament was not a one time gift for the benefit of the disciples, but an ever present bounty that God provides, in order to transmit the Life of Jesus to us. Without the Lord’s death, the Sacrament is empty. It is nothing more than the coffee klatch, and cozy encounter, that many think it to be. Without the Sacrament how could we understand what the Lord’s death was about, or have any palpable connection to it? On that Holy Thursday we learned that what Jesus was about to suffer was accomplished in order to put sin into remission. We learn from the words of institution that He was giving His body for ours, His blood for ours, His life for ours, and now His Life is ours. Now, instead of amassing the wages we have well earned for the steady stream of our transgressions, we get something else; a gift -- the best gift -- the superlative gift of unending Life with God in Christ.

Starting at baptism, and continuing throughout our lives, as we live in the life of Jesus each day, and as He lives in us by His Word and Sacrament, is a new and better life than any other we might choose. The world yields its members to impurity and to greater and greater iniquity, but in Christ we are empowered, called and even ordained to yield our members to righteousness for sanctification. May God continue, by the Word and Sacraments, to call us away from the world, and to Himself. Amen


~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The art and blessing of blind hospitality

CLOSE ENCOUNTERS

This work is in the public domain in the United States, and those countries
with a copyright term of life of the author plus 100 years or less
One of our contemporaries has made a cynical paraphrase of the Golden Rule, "He that has the gold rules." We don't want to believe that, but don't we often obey it? We all have imaginary lines drawn around whatever we call "our own," whether it be time, goods, or affection. Then, when people seek some of the bits of ourselves which we have carefully budgeted, a conflict begins in the heart. We know we ought to help, it is right to help, but that means having to let go. We would buy something with our gifts, perhaps gratitude, or what we might call "a player to be named later." We are willing to cast our bread on the waters, but we want to know the schedule for the return trip.

In our text Abraham had a chance to show hospitality to persons from out of this world, to have a real close encounter. Did he know who they were? Not at first. Abraham did not ask questions like, "Are these important persons?" How could he know? Was Lazarus in today's Gospel an important person? He was a beggar, a bum. Few people would have called him deserving. We might have found him disgusting, but in heaven he had a reserved place in the executive parking lot. The last shall be first, as long as Jesus has anything to say about it. Abraham didn't speculate about His visitors. At that moment what counted was that they needed hospitality, so they were important to him. He invited them inside immediately. There were three of them. They were men - no halos, no wings, no shining faces or clothes. But Abraham ran out to meet them, persuaded them to stay, told Sarah to make three beds, washed their feet, and told his cook to kill the fatted calf. There would be company for dinner. In both the Old and New Testaments, one thing you don't want to be is a fatted calf. For all we know, Abraham had plans for that calf, but these travelers were at hand, so Abraham was willing to go back to the drawing board. Later he learned more about them. When they prophesied that Isaac would be born, Abraham could see that he had entertained the Lord.

There is no hint in the story that these travelers had experienced any evil. There was no reason to pity them. Lazarus, on the other hand, was a beggar. Abraham was rich, but he had come to the holy land as a pioneer. The rich man in the Gospel had grown up in it, enjoyed its fruits all his life, so his sense of duty had grown dull. Lazarus was suffering, but that did not move him to pity. His heart was like a rock. All he could see was that he was an important person and Lazarus was not. How different from his ancestor!

Now after he was consigned to hell, this descendant of Abraham looked up at the patriarch of his ethnic group who was enjoying the company of Lazarus. This time the one who had refused pity found none from Abraham. The two men both had close encounters, of different kinds. Lazarus was no angel, but if he had been the rich man he would not have acted differently. He did not listen to the Law of Moses or the preaching of the Prophets. Those spokesmen for Israel tell us again and again to take pity on the poor. Can anyone plead ignorance of God's will here? Abraham said that if they don't believe the Scriptures, signs and wonders wouldn't help either.

So how are we doing with this? We all know plainly what our duty is to the victims of evil. But that inner conflict takes so much of our energy. We are frozen into apathy. If the evil is bad enough we might complain that somebody should do something about it, but to give up our roast beef and TV, to have an adventure of our own, why that's out of the question. God still has ways of awakening our sense of pity, but we can trump Him by institutionalizing as many victims as we can, then we can comfort our consciences in the confidence that something is being done for the unfortunate, and thank heaven, we don’t have to get involved with it.

That describes a cold heart. How did it get so cold? The coldness is born in all of us. It is original sin. Sin makes us consider ourselves the most important people in the world, followed by people we have an interest in. When we have a close encounter with a bum, we hardly expect that we may be interacting with an angel. We just don't think in those terms. We know our duty, but we all draw that line before we become too uncomfortable. And we're stuck with ourselves like that.

Jesus alone was free from this coldness, so He alone can warm us, by taking away our sins. He knows the real trouble. We have put ourselves in God's place, we have arranged our lives around ourselves instead of around Him. In the Atonement Jesus made He sets us free. He opens our self-made prison of pride, sets us free to forgive our enemies, free to love our neighbors, and those with whom we have close encounters, as ourselves. He forgives us by telling us that He forgives us, that by the Atonement He made He has that authority and is willing to use it. He calls us to believe in Him, which means letting the self-sufficiency go, finding our sufficiency in Him.

What Jesus does works. The conflict might still be raging within us, but forgiveness is a powerful new ally. Neither duty nor pity could give us such power. The close encounters are no longer occasions for judgment, but chances to take up the cross of Jesus. Since He has bought us we no longer belong to ourselves. God's pity moved Him to do this for us. We do not have to win God's love, for it is Jesus' gift. If we lose our creature comforts, we have a far greater comfort that cannot be taken from us. Abraham's Great Descendant has died for us and risen again. He has retrieved us from coldness of heart, from apathy, from self-importance, and by the Holy Spirit, Jesus has given us a new heart in likeness to His own. The inevitable close encounters come to test us. As they do, the Spirit will not let us fail.

Every day, in some way, Jesus is trying to make you more holy. It is never a straight line. There are false starts and back steps, but the attack is launched, Jesus against Satan's stronghold in your heart. He attacks the weakness of the flesh, the stubbornness of our attitudes, and the importance we place on ourselves. Instead He gives us the cross, for which the resurrection is always Act II. Meanwhile do not forget what He did for us, or why He did it. By His grace we can be as generous as Abraham, and stoop to conquer the Lazaruses lying helpless at our gates. As long as He keeps pouring love into us by His Word and Sacraments, it will overflow to others. And who knows, one of those others might be more than he seems to be. AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

How should we celebrate Lent?

MY GRACE IS SUFFICIENT FOR YOU


Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.  2 Corinthians 12:9-10


FOR Lutherans Lent is more ceremonial than sacrificial.  If we kept it the way it was observed for most of history it would be a jolt to our system; a drastic change to business as usual, in which case the three pre-lent Sundays we now observe would mean more to us.  They would lower us ever so gradually into the frosty lake of Lent with its imposed sorrow and self-denial.

The English word Lent comes from the word "lengthen" and refers to lengthening of the days.  As the longer days announce the coming of spring, even so Lent points to the Spring time of our religion, to the Lord's mighty resurrection from the dead, whose solemnities we will soon celebrate, for He did not merely survive brutality and death, but as the ancient prayer states:  by His death He trampled death and brought life and immortality to light by the gospel.  He robbed death of its victory, removed its sting and rendered it harmless for all who believe and are baptized.

Originally, Lent was one or two days long, and was observed only by those catechumens who were to be baptized on Easter Sunday, and by their instructors.  They fasted and prayed so that these who had renounced the riches and pleasures of life would remain faithful unto death and so receive the crown of life our Lord promises to give all who hope in Him.

In the past the church imposed strict fasts and harsh spiritual disciplines on God's people to aid them in putting the desires of the flesh to death and to give them a way, however small, to share in the sufferings of Christ.  Much to our loss we don't do that anymore, but rather than lament we can still make the most of Lent by using the sacred season each year to learn anew what today's gospel and epistle so powerfully teach, namely to devote ourselves fully to the Word of God and to endure the trials and tribulations of life with calm as we learn from St. Paul who confesses:  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamites.  For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Fasting and other forms of self-denial are good, but to learn this lofty lesson is even better!  To master it would render you holier than any monk or ascetic that ever lived, but it is a hard lesson because the pleasures that the world lays before our eyes are desirable in the extreme, and because it is impossible to serve both God and Mammon.  To serve one you must always leave the other.  It can be no other way, so the battle rages and spiritual warfare must continually be waged.  Yet through our struggles this parable of our Lord fortifies us.  His Word, which always accomplishes what He sends it out to do, makes us the good soil He desires, and give us honest and good hearts that bear fruit with patience.

However, it is not only riches and pleasures that threaten our status as the children of God.  There are also the cares of life, the trials and tribulations that cause people to "fall away" when the time of testing comes, and come it does!  No one is exempt.  Indeed the church is Satan's primary target.  He has the rest of the world fast asleep in a happy coma, but we are soldiers of the cross, followers of the Lamb who, like our Captain, must do spiritual battle with this bloody butcher of souls day and night.

St. Paul was captured by the enemy on many occasions, and in today's epistle he recites the extensive list of brutalities he suffered at their hands.  He survived them all and went back to work because he believed the thing that Jesus told him, that whatever should befall him:  My grace is sufficient for you.

How do we react when those things happen to us?  Do we "fall away" when temptations come?  Or do we believe the same promise Christ gave to Paul:  My grace is sufficient for you.  We should believe it and stand on it with all certainty because the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is sufficient to see you through everything life can throw at you, however sudden, however frightening, however challenging, however overwhelming, His grace is sufficient to pardon your sins, give you patience and finally to show us the way out.

Or is self-pity our drug of choice when things turn south?  It is alluring, and it comes to us easily, especially if we think that no one cares about us, but self-pity is counter-productive.  It paralyzes us, and prolongs our suffering.  It is completely unnecessary because Scripture says:  As a father pities his children ... as a father feels solicitous and tender towards their weakness and naivete ... even so the LORD pities those who fear Him!  We are those children, and He always comes to our aid, so take heart!

So how should we celebrate Lent?  What will be of the most advantage to us?  The heightened devotion of our Lenten services is good.  Choose a form of self-denial if you like, because as our catechism states that, "fasting and bodily preparation is indeed good outward training..."  but to make the  most of this upcoming holy season let us learn to confess with St. Paul, no matter what befalls us:  " I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong."  And let us hear and rely upon the same benediction Jesus gave him:  My grace is sufficient for you.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Don't let your sense of fairness get in the way of God's generosity

THE LAST SHALL BE FIRST



"O God, graciously hear the prayers of your people that we, who justly suffer the consequences of our sin, may be mercifully delivered by your goodness to the glory of your name."  Collect for Septuagesima


TODAY the church begins her descent into suffering and death with the Lord.  Lent does not begin for three weeks but the trio of Sundays before hand, designated pre-Lent, help us to gradually descend into a season of imposed sorrow and resolute repentance.  Not that we don't repent of our sins daily, because we do.  We must, and not only that, but with humble repentance we also obtain pardon, cleansing and new resolve to accomplish what we pray for in the post communion collect, viz. "faith towards Thee and of fervent love toward one another."  Those are the loftiest endeavors of all.

Today's Scripture lessons all work together to impose what  many would call a negative theme upon us, and right they are, for we are the faithless congregation of Israel asking, "is the Lord among us or not?"  We are the ones who passed through the water of baptism and yet still live like the unwashed.  We are the laborers in the vineyard who disdain the Lord's generosity and who think that we can do business with God.  A negative theme indeed, but one that is much needed because until we rest in heaven we can never rest on our laurels.  We must never become smug, over-confident or self-satisfied, not in our faith and not in any other pursuit either, because the moment you start to swagger is the moment you are about to fall:  as Scripture says, "pride cometh before the fall!"

Yes, the theme of today's Collect is most negative, most offensive to human pride, and contrary to the liturgy that the world demands we sing.  That line, "we who justly suffer the consequences of our sins," would never be tolerated outside these walls.   You won't find such sentiment in government publications, college campuses, or even displayed on one of the many pandering church signs that dot our city.  Such a proclamation amounts to "hate speech" in the ears of the Old Man, and would sound that way even to the New Man were it not followed immediately by the gospel, but it is!  "...that we who justly suffer the consequences of our sin may be mercifully delivered by your goodness!"  That we most definitely are!  Hence empowered by the Gospel, which is God's supreme Word to us, let us understand that everything we suffer in this world, large or small, individually or collectively, is the wages of our sins coming down upon our heads.  Sin always promises us great benefit!  It is suave and silver-tongued, but it only delivers bloodshed and sorrow, and it always incurs the wrath of God, but there is a cure, and that cure is Jesus.

You may alleviate the consequences of sin by other means:  technology, virtuous behavior, or just institutions if only you could find one, but those are only bandages.  Jesus is the cure, but we must say more than that, because slogans can never provide the mercy we pray for in today's Collect.  The church is much more than slogans; much more than the sound bites or the cozy encounters that pass for Christian worship today.

This was the case for Israel and it is still the case for us today.  Then, God commanded His Old Testament church to build an exquisite place of worship.  He instituted religious observances, sacrifices, liturgies, rituals, clergy, vestments, craftsmen, musicians and an army of other assistants, so that God's people might always have the remission of sins readily at hand; so that it was something they could grasp with their senses as well as with their minds because God always comes to men dressed in flesh and blood.

In today's epistle St. Paul talks about the Old Testament church.  He asserts that they were the beneficiaries of every grace and blessing that God had to give.  When they were hungry God gave them manna from heaven, which was prophetic of Jesus who is the Bread of Life and of the Sacrament of His body and blood.  When they were perishing from thirst God commanded Moses to strike a rock with the staff he had earlier used to open the Red Sea and water came out: enough to quench the whole congregation!  That Rock was Christ and the staff prophetic of the cross that gives life to the world -- His life in exchange for yours!

Thus today's gospel lesson bespeaks the mercy of God that relieves us from the consequences of our sins!  There are any number of lessons we can draw from this parable, but the heart of the matter is summed up in two sayings.  First the  master says to the self-righteous worker:  am I not allowed to do what I choose with what is  mine?  And of course we must answer, yes!  Creation belongs to the Lord, however mangled it is become especially in these latter days when the love of men waxes cold, our God has redeemed us by Christ and wishes to give us every good gift that a Father gives His beloved children;  more than we can ask or even imagine, but it is not a meritocracy like the early hires of the parable thought.  It is "by grace I'm saved, grace free and boundless."  Then there is the final word of the parable:  the first shall be last, and the last shall be first!   Jesus is the firstborn of creation, the firstborn from among the dead, the firstborn among many brothers.  You are those brothers.  He is the Lord of Life and the Lord of Glory, but He who is first made Himself last so that we who are last due to our sins and their unbearable burden, are made first by Him, and it is this sparkling promise that makes it possible for us to boldly confess our sins, and to believe with Child-like faith that they are forgiven and forgotten by God.  So be of good cheer, your sins are forgiven!  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Saturday, January 23, 2016

We are always looking to be amazed by God, but He enjoys being amazed by US

FAITH ASTONISHING TO GOD 


This work is in the public domain in the United States,
and those countries with a copyright term of life
of the author plus 100 years or less
.
“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 8:11-12

There are three things that make us afraid when we hear today’s Gospel lesson.

First, like the leper, we suffer all sorts of illness and troubles and we wonder if Jesus is willing to help us. Secondly we agonize when our loved ones suffer, but like the centurion we feel unworthy to ask Jesus to help us. Thirdly we’re afraid of the “outer darkness” Jesus speaks about, where devoid of all happiness, un-repentant sinners will eternally cry and gnash their teeth.

It’s no wonder we doubt the Lord’s willingness to help us. Sin makes us unsure. We ask ourselves: why would God whom we’ve offended in so many ways be willing to help us when we’re in trouble? Sin also makes us blind to His abilities so that we have no clear vision of His love or of His will for us, which in spite of our dire circumstances is always for our good.

It’s no wonder that feel unworthy, though. On the one hand the world’s catechism tells us that we are entitled to God’s aid and that He has a duty to help us, but on the other hand we know in our hearts it isn’t true, because our conscience teaches us a different and stronger lesson. In the words of Scripture: There is none that is good, no not one.

This is the reason that people don’t like to come to church. It’s not the liturgy or the music, but the fact that we don’t gather on the first day of the week to congratulate ourselves on a job well done; nor, to the surprise of many, to learn how to do a better job next week, but we come so that our most basic disease might be diagnosed by the Law, and be cured by Jesus, who’s as truly present among us today in the Means of Grace. However, this too is a source of irritation. The Lord’s Presence in the humble means of water, word, bread and wine is at least as offensive to our pride as is the fact of our sin. In this respect we are like Naaman who snubbed the ordinary means of grace God provided for him, and who assumed that if God is to be involved there must be pizzazz, divine panache! After all, we deserve the best don’t we?

Thirdly, this Gospel lesson makes us afraid because we’re like the centurion’s paralyzed servant regarding the things of God. The Old Adam within renders us in-capable of fulfilling the Law and there are penalties for our failure. Our violations exclude us from the Heavenly Table and consign us in the “outer darkness” we all hope to avoid.

Yet while there are three things that make us afraid today, there are also three things that give us courage.


First the mercy of Jesus is bigger than our sin. It’s bigger, better and extends as “far as the curse is found.” In Psalm 30, David states that God’s anger: is but for a moment but His favor for a lifetime! That weeping might stay for the night, but that joy comes with the morning! So whatever our current circumstances, Jesus is here, to answer our prayers, give us hope, and to seat us at the Banquet Table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and with all the redeemed of history.

The mercy of man is limited, but Jesus will never avoid us because of our unclean condition. Lepers in Israel had a most difficult life. They weren’t cared for in hospice programs or given meds to kill the pain, but rather were ejected from society, forbidden to get near other people, and left to fend for themselves in their weakened condition. Society can make us crabby, and people can wear our patience thin, but to be ostracized from society is death by a thousand cuts.

For 14 centuries Jewish culture dictated: never touch a leper, and never let a leper touch you. That was the rule. But Jesus broke with convention. He let the leprous man kneel at His feet, accepted his prayers and then He did the unthinkable! He stretched out His hand and touched him! In that touch the Lord transferred His holiness to the leper and absorbed the leper’s disease – a disease which He would later take Him to the cross where illness and death would be conquered at the cost of this holy and wonderful life.

In Christian theology we talk about the free forgiveness of our sins, but if we look more closely at the matter we find that forgiveness is not free at all. A price was paid, not by the leper, the centurion or by us but by Jesus. He was forsaken as a spiritual leper on the cross. He wept and gnashed His teeth in the “outer darkness” of death, but in so doing cleansed us, and freed us from the paralysis of our sin.

Secondly we can be glad because Jesus is not only willing to help us but He’s also able. Epiphany reveals the Christmas Child’s power and love. It makes us bold like the leper to pray for our own needs, and strong like the centurion to pray for the needs of those we love. No matter how hopeless our condition might seem Jesus can heal all diseases and fix all problems. His power and love are limitless and His mercy endures forever. Pray to Him. Trust in Him. He will never fail to help.

Lastly, we exult because there’s a place set for us at the eternal banquet with the leper, the centurion and with all of God people. The greatest novelists of history combined could not conceive of the bright future God has in store for those who love Him, but this much-awaited day isn’t merely a future reality but a present one and may God help us to understand this more and more, that Jesus is here with us, not only in our thoughts, but as real and sure as He was with the leper and the centurion 2000 years ago in Galilee. He’s the One speaking when the Gospel is preached. He’s the One forgiving when the absolution is spoken. He’s the One who resides on the altar doing what He’s always done: healing our leprosy, canceling out our doubts and answering our pleas for help. This is why God’s people have been building cathedrals and worshiping with reverence for 20 centuries, because Jesus is on the altar. The devil, the world and the flesh make us doubt His presence. They lead us to question His willingness to help us and the power of His promise, but the third Sunday after Epiphany makes us bold to believe it all! It installs the kind of faith in us that the leper and the centurion had, and enables us to believe with such unwavering focus that even Jesus Himself stands amazed and gives us all we desire of Him. Amen.


~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, January 18, 2016

Jesus is the Wine of the Wedding Feast

THE BEVERAGE OF THE MESSIANIC AGE


This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.  John 2:11

THE Word of God we just heard is St. John's summary of the miracle at Cana.  The miracle took place just as we read.  Every detail of the account is factual and true, and if that is all there were to it, it would be a breathtaking display of the power and the love that Jesus holds for us, but that is not all there is.  With Scripture in general, and with St. John in particular, we must learn to read between the lines, because like the Super Mario Brothers, there are hidden bonuses waiting to be uncovered.

The same is true about today's epistle lesson.  Many people call it the Bible's marriage catechism and so it is if by it husband and wife learn the love that Christ has for them, and if they, in turn, learn to love, honor and sacrifice for one another, they will have done well, but there is a deeper meaning both in St. Paul and in St. John; one we must not ignore if we wish to attain mature manhood in Christ.

Yes, on first reading we learn many nice things from the Cana wedding.  By our Lord's attendance we discover that God honors marriage, a lesson modern man urgently needs to learn.  We don't consider it a sacrament like Rome does, but it is sacrament-like.  It has outward signs:  the wedding garments, the rings, the rituals, and the change in status in effect before God.  Where originally He made two people, in marriage the two individuals become one flesh and that is a miracle in itself.  They become a new creation, one that calls to mind the church's marriage to Christ Who cleansed her of her sins by His bloody baptism on the cross and by her watery baptism at the font.

Today's gospel also teaches something about prayer.  Unlike the Christian radio crowd we do not offer magical formulas guaranteed to pry God's gifts from His hands, yet we discover a beautiful pattern here from the Lord's mother, one we would do well to imitate.  She did not get worked up in a frenzy over the problem at hand, or storm heaven with her great faith and demand that God reply in kind!  She did not even make a request!  She simply stated the problem to Jesus:  they have no wine.  May your prayers be as pure as you pray to God for the needs of all:  they have no health, they have no peace, they have no money, they have no hope; and you can be certain that God will graciously hear and answer your prayer for the sake of Christ, the holy Groom to Whom we are wed.

From today's gospel we could also learn that God provides richly for every need of body and soul, that He has power over nature, and that He will use it for our advantage, so however impossible your circumstances may be, take heart! because your God is not only almighty but He is also brimming with mercy and He will supply all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus

Those are obvious lessons, but if we read between the lines we find even more.  John notes that this sign took place on the third day.  Third day is Christian code for the Lord's resurrection from the dead;  His victory over the death He died to take away, to erase and to forever delete the sins humanity has perpetrated, the evils that make men irrational, unreasonable, self-loathing and self-destructive,  the wrongs that are not only painful, harmful, distressing and deadly to others, but that constitute treason, high crimes and misdemeanors against God who creates us, gives His Word to regulate us, and to Whom we owe all glory, laud and honor.

It is clear that John recorded this account as well as many other watery events in his Gospel in order to praise and promote the sacrament of holy baptism.  The water pots filled at the Lord's command bespeak baptism which is much more than a ritual purification, for it connects us to the Lord's death and resurrection and brings all their benefits forward in time to us, each and every day of our lives, and we need that!  We need it because even our highest thoughts, words and deeds are tainted by Old Adam who can never let a single thing remain unspotted or unblemished.

Yet though we have no righteousness of our own to hold forth before God, we do have the imputed righteousness and alien righteousness of Christ that adorns us at baptism and it is enough!  By it we are able to commune with the Almighty and Everlasting God we address in today's Collect and be deemed worthy to obtain every blessing from Him, here in time and there in eternity.

Jesus is the New Wine, incomparably superior to all other, the best served last!  "Late in time behold Him come, offspring of a virgin's womb."  He is Life and Salvation, the rich and abundant blessing of God to man Who imparts luxurious life to all who believe on Him; indestructible life that will never run out, go sour, or ever disappoint.  His blood, factually received with the wine in holy communion, is the beverage of the New Testament and the Messianic age.

Jesus is the glory of God!  The disciples, seeing this sign at Cana, were enlightened, believed on Him and followed in His foot steps.  May we do the same.  May we follow Him into death, burial and resurrection, sacramentally by our baptism and factually by dying to sin each day and rising again to newness of life to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Are you sure you want the Lord to intervene right now?

HOW TO COPE WITH THE GREATEST FEAR OF ALL

Take care lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and with the cares of daily life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come upon all who live on the face of the earth.  Therefore be alert at all times, praying so that you might have the strength to escape all that is about to happen, and to stand before the Son of Man.  Luke 21:34-36

Being afraid is part of being alive.  Those whose lives are falling apart are frightened, but so are those whose lives are going well, because they know how fragile it all is.  They know that the world goes this way and that, and while we should try to maintain a healthy optimism based on the love of God, fear is always lurking.

Of all the things people fear, what they dread the most is the Day Jesus talks about in our Gospel lesson, the Day of wrath -- the Day of Judgment.  The Day that will take many people by surprise and spring on them like a trap, when the thoughts and intents of every heart will be revealed, and adjudicated with exacting justice.  Men have always dealt with this fear in one of two ways, by intoxication or prayer.

Our first instinct is to find solace in what Jesus calls: dissipation, drunkenness and the pleasures of life.

Alcohol is a good thing.  It is a gift from God which may be used in moderation and received with thanksgiving, but alcohol can also be abused.  If it is, then we fall asleep not only physically, but also spiritually, and then we forget the things of God.  Fathers forget their children.  We forget to welcome strangers as Christ welcomed us.  We forget how to pray with one voice, but worst of all we forget that Jesus is the only one who can bless His people with peace.

Other times drunkenness leads us into temptation.  Intoxicants can ignite sudden rage and unbridled lusts that destroy lives, but alcohol isn't the only diversion we take to extremes.  There are work-aholics, rage-aholics, porn-aholics.  We can become addicted to government handouts, cell phones and to a vast assortment of other things.

Jesus warns us against such things because they lull us into a spiritual sleep, but there is a better way to cope.  The Lord says to us today, "Be alert at all times praying so that you might have the strength to escape all that is about to happen, and to stand before the Son of Man."

How do we do this?  The prayer Jesus teaches here is the orderly prayer that we learn in the church.  It is prayer that we have repeated so many times that we now have "spiritual muscle memory" so that there is no delay when our backs are to the wall. It is calm and rational even in the face of danger, because we have learned in the liturgy that Jesus redeemed the world by His blood, that God is now our gracious Father, and that He so directs all things, good and bad alike, that they must finally work out to our advantage.

That is the Day we live for and look for like no other!  The Day when Christ who is our Life will appear and then our enemies will be no more!  Scripture calls it "the Day of the Lord" or "the Lord's Day," but what does that term mean?  The Lord's Day is the day when "the Lord intervenes in the affairs of men."

At various times and in diverse manners God spoke in times past to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by a Son who He appointed to be heir of all things! (Heb.1:1)  It happened in the fullness of time  (Gal 4:4) when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,  (Jn 1:14)  when voices of angels filled our hellish world with heavenly song, when our great God and Savior Jesus Christ demonstrated how much He loves us, how far He was willing to lower Himself in order to "raise the sons of earth!"  What wondrous love!  What overwhelming grace!  What tender mercy became ours when the divine Lord assumed human flesh, when in solidarity with those He loves, He assumed the misery of the human condition, crude and unjust death, in order to free us from our sins, so that we might become partakers of the divine nature forever.  (2 Pet. 1:4)

Every Sunday is the "day of the Lord's intervention."  This is not at your kitchen table or your favorite weekend get away, but only in the church.  It is only here that Jesus promises to be present with His grace to diagnose our sins by the Law, to lead us to repentance, and to make us well by His Gospel.  This is the place where He grants us absolution, gives us new knowledge, heightened understanding, a greater courage and, in every way, leaves us better off than we were before.  The weekly "Lord's Day" is not a stand alone affair, but rather a foretaste of the things to come, an hors d'oeuvre, a down payment.  It portends of a future day whose date no man knows, but may it come quickly!  May it come quickly because it will be the best day of all.  On it we will see our Lord face to face, then nothing else will matter -- nothing!  Then the promise of the 84th Psalm will come to pass:  The sparrow has found her home, the swallow her nest.

Till then, hear the Word of the Lord.  Be careful lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness.  Be sober at all times, praying the church's liturgy and celebrating the holy Eucharist so that you might have the strength to escape all that is about to happen, and to stand before the Son of Man with your head held high.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, January 11, 2016

What does baptism do?

THE BAPTISM OF JESUS


I need to be baptized by you.  Matthew 3:14

IN today's gospel lesson St. Matthew instructs the church about baptism, but the moment we praise this sacrament, sinful nature goes postal!  As often as we praise it, glory in it, rejoice in it, return to it for spiritual assurance and defend its doctrine, it is the New Man, the baptized man, doing the talking.  It is not the Old Man because he is blind regarding the things of the Spirit.  Yet as dead and blind as the sinful nature is, that is just how alive and perceptive the new man is regarding holy things, and baptism is definitely holy.

We call it "holy" because that is God's adjective and baptism belongs to Him!  It proceeds from heaven.  He institutes it, owns it, gives it to His church for our blessing, teaches us how it is done, and gives new birth to every person who receives the priceless gift in faith.

What St. John the Baptizer said to the Lord that day was ultra perceptive, "I need to be baptized by you!"  John did not object to the role he was ordained to perform, or to the assignment he was destined to complete.  The Baptizer was an emblem of Adam ejected from the Garden, living in the wilderness, foraging for food, not dressed in the soft clothing of kings, but like Adam in the skins of animals.  He was Adam anxiously looking for the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.  We could think of this dramatic encounter as the First Adam meeting with the Second, who would now fulfill all righteousness by His pneumatic baptism in the Jordan, and by His bloody baptism on the cross.  

Neither did John mind preaching to the crowds, or baptizing those who repented, even the caviling Pharisees and the despised Sadducees.  He would baptize even them after reminding them that they descended from the snake, and after impressing upon them the necessity of the good works that must follow baptism.  May he impress this necessity upon us, too, because faith without works is dead, being alone!

He did not protest any of those things, but he did object when the Lord presented Himself to be baptized.  John said to the Lord what every person must say, "I need to be baptized by you!"  and that is what happens as often as this life-giving sacrament is administered.  The pastor pours the water and conducts the ritual, but it is Jesus Himself, by the agency of His Spirit, who is effecting the blessings here given.

What blessings?  Baptism works forgiveness of sins, delivers from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and the promises of God declare.  What are these words and promises of God?    Christ, our Lord, says in the last chapter of Mark:  He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that does not believe will be condemned.

By His baptism, our Lord "fulfills all righteousness," not for Himself, but for us because we are by nature sinful and unclean and need the righteousness of God that Christ supplies.  Baptism is not merely a symbolic event, but every person who believes and is baptized is born anew, born from above.  As surely as heaven opened, and the Spirit descended upon the Lord that day at the Jordan, just so surely the same Spirit is imparted to us and where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty!  There is freedom from the judgment and everlasting condemnation that sin always incurs; emancipation from the fear of death and release from the tyranny of the devil who loves to torment us day and night, to tempt us and to patiently await our downfall.  "Resist him standing firm in the faith."  Resist him every day and every moment and Scripture promises, "he will flee from you."

We should remember today that baptism and the Spirit it imparts is not a passing phenomenon, but like an inoculation it stays with us, stays in our system always staving off the deadly power of sin, death and Satan in us, and that is a good thing; good because the devil, using the world, easily leads our flesh by the nose into every kind of vice there is.  It seems that the devil has demons specially dedicated to the various vices:  a demon in charge of lust, another in charge of greed, another in charge of deception, and others in charge of pride, prejudice, luxury, addiction, self-pity and disrespect for authority.  Further, just to exist in the world and to maintain your life requires a certain amount of less-than-holy thoughts, words and deeds; not that we are justifying sin.  We will never do that, but neither do we need to be afraid to live the life God gives to its fullest extent because we have soap!  We have the blood of Jesus, and we have water, the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit.

Not only must we never get comfortable with sin, but we must know that baptism gives us a new, better and different kind of life, not just later, but here and now.  It enables us to know and to live life for God rather an an existence dictated by the passions that tantalize the flesh.  We learn this from the catechism  when it asks, "What does such baptizing with water signify?"  It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, again, a new man daily come forth and arise; who shall live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

"I need to be baptized by you!"  John the Baptizer needed it.  You need it, and by God's mercy you have it, so like the Lord Himself you are now beloved sons of the Father who is well pleased with you.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras


Monday, January 4, 2016

No matter what you see, God IS leading.

THE FOOTPRINTS OF GOD


Your way O God, is holy.  You are the God who works wonders.  You have made known your might among the nations.  With your arm you redeemed your people.  When the waters saw you O God they were afraid, the deep trembled.  You made a path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen.  You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.  Psalm 77

TODAY'S Scripture lessons have a single theme, namely that God is with us, and leads us in all the circumstances of our lives, just like He was with the people we encounter in those lessons:  Jacob, the Holy Family, and the early Christians who received St. Peter's epistle.  No doubt they were unable to understand what was happening to them; why famine had forced Israel into Egypt, why God did not stop the Herod's unspeakable violence that forced the Holy Family into Egypt 19 centuries later, and why God permitted St. Peter's congregation, His own redeemed people, to suffer persecution at the hands of cruel people.  They could not comprehend it because they could not "zoom out" like we do on a Google Map to get the larger picture, or to see the blessed outcome, but by the advantage of Holy Scripture we can.  We are able to see what the saints of old could not, in the words of our Psalm:  the footprints of God through the water.  We can see God's footprints in their lives, but can we see them in our own?  It isn't always easy, but they are there and they are "Holy" as the Psalm says, so we can rest in peace.  We can know for certain that God is leading us in a holy way and a holy life just like He did the saints of old

At this point we should be very careful so that we do not mistake the church's divine service for a motivational seminar, so that we do not confuse the true Gospel for a mega church pep talk.  When we say that God is with us in all our circumstances, and that He will deliver us from evil, we are not talking about an abstract notion of God With Us, especially on the 11th day of Christmas; on a day when the church still basks in the light of God's mighty deed, the most arresting of all, namely the Lord's incarnation, for that is where we encounter God's power and God's Footprints, in the flesh of Christ.  That is where we learn just how "with us" God is willing to be.  Yet that too is a mediated encounter.  As you can not get to God apart from Jesus, you cannot get to Jesus apart from the Word and Sacraments.  You cannot hold Him to your breast like the Blessed Virgin Mary, or lean on His breast as the beloved disciple did.  You can try to reach Him by your emotions -- that is what megachurches do because it is all they know -- but you cannot get there apart from here!  You can talk about "having a personal relationship with Jesus," but unless it is accessed by baptism, it is little more than  your imagination at work.

We learned this in today's Old Testament reading and it is still true today that God came to Jacob and spoke to him in and through holy worship.  Jacob was about to leave the land of promise, the land of inheritance that God gave to his father Isaac, and to his grandfather Abraham before that.  He was about to abandon the inheritance and go into a land that would give Christ's ancestors temporary shelter from famine, but would eventually enslave them for four and a half centuries!  Moses tells us that as Jacob was about to cross the border in Beersheba, which is Israel's southernmost region, he stopped and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac, and there God came to him and to his tiny congregation of 65 people with a golden promise:  Do not be afraid to go down to the land of Egypt, for I will go with you.  I will make you a great nation and I will bring you back again.

It is the same promise that God makes to us in our worship today, only we know much more than they did.  We know and believe and still celebrate God born as a man by the Blessed   Virgin Mary -- the greatest mystery of faith that there is -- and that in and through and by Christ, God is with us as a man to lead us out of the Egypt of sin, sorrow and the grave, so it is not without reason that we reverently bow and that our spirits stir at the words "and was made man" as often as we recite them in our Creed, for He Who is "God of God" became "Man of Man."  He Who is "of one substance with the Father," was made "of one substance with man."  Man did not  become God in the process, but God did become man and by His incarnation God raises humanity, raises you, to sit in the heavenly places with Christ Jesus, with the result that now, in Christ, you are glorious!  You are of ultimate value!  You are worth more than the sparrows, the trees, or the many protected species  modern-day paganism deifies.

Yes, God is truly with us in Christ incarnate, Who dwells among us still today in the Word and the Sacraments, and it is by these that all the words of today's Psalm come true.  It is by Christ incarnate in Word and Sacrament that God works His wonders for us:  the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  It is in these that He makes known His might and His intervention in the Egypt of our lives each day.  It is here that we learn to discern Christ who is the Footprint of God through the water; here that He gives us the needed light to shine forth in our lives each day.  Praise God from whom all blessings flow.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras