Friday, April 29, 2016

When the answer is NO


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Once there was a successful businessman who suffered a severe reversal of fortune.  He lost his business, his home, and his health.  He saw himself as downfallen and in need.  Since he was a Christian, he turned to his heavenly Father in prayer, requesting that his fortune be returned.  God did not grant it, so that man went around telling people that he had learned the hard way not to count on prayer.  He claimed it was completely useless.  As the Twelve were marching to Jerusalem, James and John had a request, that they get to sit in the places of honor in Jesus' kingdom.  Jesus replied that they did not know what they were asking - the honor had already been destined for two thieves.  John the Baptist was imprisoned for calling the king to repentance.  He wanted out, of course, so he sent two of his friends to ask Jesus Are you really the Messiah?  The assurance Jesus sent was His way of pointing out to John that special favors were not going to help nearly so much as the cross.

God was able to answer all these prayers.  He can always summon legions of angels to deliver His children from peril, but He can, and often does, say No.  We cannot tell how valuable what we are seeking really is.  Like the people in the parable, we may be completely caught up in the field, the oxen, or the wife, but the King's banquet is the greater good, for which He draws us to Himself.  According to St. John, there are two simple rules to guide us in praying.

Rule #1: It must be the prayer of a humble heart that believes in Jesus; not just Jesus the example, Jesus who is God Incarnate, the only Messiah of Israel, the one Mediator between God and man.  Concluding your prayers with the Holy Name is not some magic formula.  We identify ourselves as His disciples.  God does not hear our prayers without His mediation.  For this reason I have never believed that praying in public schools would bring about anything good.  It serves to make society look more Christian than it is.  In such a setting we want to practice toleration.  Do not think toleration is a Christian virtue.  It is not, but it is a civic virtue, a necessary trade-off in order to be able to practice our own religion.  However,  toleration turns prayer into confusion.  Better we should send our children where they can pray in Jesus' name.  Avoid public prayer that seeks any other God.

Please don't think that I'm claiming to know God's ways, at least beyond what He has revealed.  He wants very passionately to have fellowship with us.  He pursues us like an amorous suitor, begging for a few minutes in which He can behold each of us face to face, without the distractions that come from our agenda.  Sometimes, in order to do that, He has to deal with us as He did with the downfallen businessman.  Isn't it funny that we never complain when He gives us more than we ask for?  Even when He gives less, He is answering with kindness, however impatient that might make us.  The greatest kindness of all was the atoning death and mighty resurrection of Jesus.  We don't deserve His grace, but when we pray He still answers with kindness.

Now, Rule #2: We must pray according to His will.  Imagine what sort of world this would be if God granted all petitions.  If He granted what David asked for, a lot of people would have been wiped out, and those prayers were inspired by the Holy Spirit!  The point of those Psalms was not to teach us ethics, but rather how to handle our feelings, especially when they're as strong as David's.  The Holy Spirit knew he had to let them out, so He directed them into David's prayers.  Likewise when you feel that the lions are after you, that you've hit the wall, so cry out.  It's OK.  Not that God is going to take your prayer literally.  He knows your fear, your anxiety, He listens.  He wants to bring you closer to Himself, but not necessarily along the road you're thinking.  On the Mountain of the Transfiguration Peter wanted to build booths, but Jesus said No.  Peter's prayer was well-intentioned, but it was at cross-purposes with Jesus' mission.  He had to deny it.  God always answers prayer.  He risks the chance that you might become rebellious, but He answers in such a way that He remains the Leader.  He will not cooperate with your self-directed life, and Jesus experienced that same thing Himself in Gethsemane.

He was about to endure the most horrible injustice of all time, to be arrested by people who would mistreat Him terribly, then put Him to death.  The sins of the world were going to crush the life out of Him.  He had already resolved in His own mind to do this, but as the time approached, human nature shrank from it.  His prayer was as humble as can be, Father, if You are willing, remove this cup … The "cup" meant the horrors He would have to suffer.  God said No.  All the evil things that David wished on his enemies, fell upon his Greater Son.  The sacrifice that God did not demand of Abraham, He made Himself.  As Moses lifted up the bronze snake, so Jesus was lifted up, so that all who look to Him might be forgiven, to be the vessel of God's grace, the Righteous One suffered what we deserved.  That is God's will.  We must pray according to it, that is, pray as we're walking the way of the cross as Jesus did.

We cannot be too picky when it comes to God's timing of his answer.  Abraham was 100 years old before he fathered the child God had sworn by Himself to give him.  Abraham never gave up hope, although sometimes he tried to help and really messed things up.  It's like surgery:  sometimes you have to wait until your blood pressure goes down a little, or lose a number of pounds.  God knows the right time to grant what we seek, the time that will draw us to Himself, to the salvation He has given us in Christ.  He can, and will end our alienation from Him.  We trust His higher wisdom.  AMEN.

~Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What is left to be done to attain perfection?


Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.  Of His own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.  James 1:17-18

THE good and perfect gift St. James refers to is none other than holy baptism.  By it we are born a second time.  Our first birth is of our parents, but that which is born of the flesh is only flesh and can be nothing more:  and that's a problem because "flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God."  So by God's mercy we are born anew, into a living hope, by the Word of truth applied to us in holy baptism, "which is not plain water, but it is the water used according to God's command and connected with His Word."

St. James calls baptism a good gift because "Good" is biblical code for the works and the will of God.  What God ordains is always good, and whatever we do in accord with God's will must also be labeled good.  A warning is in order, however, because what the world calls good and what God names as good are usually direct opposites, so St. James begins this section of his epistle with the warning that we should not be deceived.

Baptism is good because it makes us sons of God for time and eternity.  It lights our way in this present darkness so that we can find the path of life.  In the primitive church baptism was called Enlightenment because in it sinners acquire spiritual eyes to see, spiritual ears to hear, the  mind of Christ to understand the things of God, as well as good affections and new strength to walk in the way of Christ.  Apart from baptism, these things are impossible, and we remain forever imprisoned by the opinions of the world, the oppression of demons, and the base passions of the flesh.

Your baptism is not only a good gift, it is also perfect, which in Scripture means:  something that has reached its final, God-intended state and that can advance no further, nor progress any farther, so in this world no person, no action, no final result can rightly be called perfect, because everything is compromised by sin, which is the ultimate imperfection, but there is an exception.

Adam, the first man was good, but he was not perfect.  Indeed St. Paul tells us that he was a "type" of the one to come.  Adam was good, but Jesus is perfect.  Jesus is the fulfillment.  His atoning sacrifice is perfect.  We know this from His final words on the cross, "it is finished," which should properly be translated, "it is perfect," which is to say that every saving promise God ever made throughout the long dark night of sin, has now reached its climax.  Salvation is won, the ruler of this world is judged.  Sinners are reconciled to God.  Universal peace is restored.  There is nothing more to do, nowhere to go from here.  All is accomplished.

His resurrection and ascension are likewise perfect for He returned to His Father from which He came and  now all is right in heaven.  The gifts He gives us by His departure, His Holy Spirit so lead us into all truth, His divine Word, His Sacraments and the assurance that our present sufferings are not worthy to be compared to the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).  These are all good and perfect gifts come down to us from the Father of Lights, and there is nothing higher, nothing better, nothing more to be desired or expected than these.

Therefore when our Lord says in St. Matthew:  be ye therefore perfect even as your Father in heaven is perfect, it is not a command, but a benediction; one indicating that by His death and resurrection, and by our baptism into the same, that sinners stand perfect in the sight of God, but we  must know that this high standing is by grace, through faith and that not of ourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.  This is called the doctrine of justification by faith, and is our only comfort and hope of salvation for as long as we have sinful flesh, but we must be careful not to use this doctrine as a license to sin, so St. James goes to great lengths to show that faith without works is dead, and that faith, far from being in opposition to good works, is made evident by the very works that proceed from it.

He gets specific in his exhortation, and what he says to Christians then was canonized in Scripture, because it still needs to be said to Christians today, specifically that God's people would be swift to hear, slow to speak, and even slower to get angry because your anger does not accomplish the good purposes of God.  Further, that God's people must reject every sort of moral impurity and disown every manifestation of evil.

St. Cyprian of Carthage, the early third century bishop and martyr, reduces all that James says here to one word:  Patience.  He says that patience restrains anger, bridles the tongue, governs the mind, maintains peace, breaks the force of evil desires, checks violence, quenches hatred, overcomes temptation, endures persecution, embraces suffering, and guides all our actions so that we should walk in the way of Christ who suffered patiently for our sins, to leave an example for us.

These are the good and perfect gifts of God that are yours in Christ, who came from the Father, returns to the same, and gives you His Holy Spirit, so let us draw water from the wells of our baptism with joy, give thanks to Christ, call upon his name, make known His deeds among the peoples, and proclaim that His Name is exalted at His altar today.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Is praise of God becoming emotion-based and repetative?


Shout out to God all the earth! Sing aloud the glory of His name, compose songs concerning His glorious praise. Say to God, “So terrifying are your deeds! So great is your strength that your enemies cringe before you. Psalm 66:1-3

THE Psalm we just heard is the introit for Jubilate Sunday, which is the traditional name for the third Sunday after Easter. While the world gave a passing nod of recognition to our holiest season, we are not quite so anxious to let it slip away.

In the days of King Hezekiah God’s people had become so secular that the great Feast of Passover had not been celebrated for several centuries, but under Hezekiah’s reforms it was restored, so people from throughout the Land came to Jerusalem to celebrate it with renewed faith. For seven days they worshipped the Lord to commemorate the victories He gave their fathers over Egypt by sacrificing 1,000 bulls and 7,000 sheep, but when the seven days were over they did not want to stop, so they stayed another week, offering 1,000 more bulls and now 10,000 sheep in further praise of God’s salvation. Is it any wonder then that we celebrate the Passover of Gladness for 40 days, not with the blood of goats and bulls, but by receiving the holy sacrament to remit our sins, and restore the joy of salvation to us?

Speaking of introits let us also take a moment to remember the function of this ordinary liturgical element. “Introit” is Latin for “entrance” and marks the real beginning of our liturgy. While opening hymns have precedent, confession and absolution were historically done in private and had no attachment to the mass at all, so the introit marked the entrance of the celebrant and the true beginning of the divine service. The introit is almost always from the Old Testament and is always answered by the Kyrie in order to show that Christ is its fulfillment, that He is the One who unites all generations of saints -- old and new -- and makes them one. By the Kyrie we affirm that we too will be seated at the Messianic Banquet with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; with Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; with the believing centurion; with all the prostitutes and tax collectors who by faith in Christ were cleansed of their sins, and who will welcome us with great Jubilation.

While introits always sound a joyful note, today’s is especially so because it is an introit of the resurrection! From the earliest times the Greek version of Old Testament named it “a Psalm of the resurrection.” It is also exceptional because its author is unknown! In this respect it is like one of our greatest hymns, “Jesus Christ Is Risen today” whose author is also unknown. Imagine if you will a faithful Christian in the hazy past, unknowingly led by God’s Spirit to pen a hymn that would bring him no fame or fortune, but one that would, instead, impart joy to Christians for generations to come and teach them how to sing God’s praise in the most glorious of strains! Yes, there are many reasons to be jubilant today, so without further delay let us learn from this introit, this Psalm: who we are to praise, how we are to praise, and most importantly why we should worship our resurrected Lord with great Jubilation.

It may seem obvious to say that we should worship only God, that the whole earth should shout out praise to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit who is incomparable and who tolerates no rivals, but sadly these things are not so evident. Sin has blinded us, and has led us to worship ourselves, our passions, our pleasures, our institutions; nature, money, governments; and in short every flimsy scheme that promises some modicum of relief from the sin and death which take us to our graves, so today’s introit provides us with the much needed reminder: shout out to God all the earth.

Once we remember who to praise we must ask: how do we praise? How do we sufficiently honor the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has begotten again us unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead? What is the proper response for the great deliverance that Christ gained for us? In a word, dear Christians, it is faith. Faith is the highest form of worship there is, so that whenever the Gospel is purely taught, when Christ is the subject of every sentence, and doer of every verb, so that sinners believe and are sure that they are pardoned from every wrong, given fresh joy and new strength – then true worship occurs, then God is most highly glorified.

This introit also reminds us of another fact: that faith and music are inseparable. This is not the time to debate what is or is not acceptable music for the fitting worship of Christ, but suffice it to say that the church’s music must always be beautiful, reverent, thoughtful and orderly; that it must only access the higher emotions within us, and never the baser ones; and that it must glorify God rather than those performing it, which is why church musicians serve from the back of the sanctuary, and why all liturgical dancers will be shot on sight.

We have covered a lot of ground this Jubilate Sunday but before we conclude let us ask the most important question of all: Why should we praise God? So called “contemporary worship” loves to multiply words of adoration. They even call their services “praise services” (as if ours are not) and maintain that they learn this in the Psalms, but they overlook two vital elements: first, that Christ is the LORD of the Psalms! Secondly, that every utterance of praise in them is tied directly to a reason for it by the word “for.” We know this very well. “O give thanks unto the Lord.” Why? “for He is good, and His mercy endureth forever.” Or the 100th Psalm which enjoins us to serve the Lord, know the Lord, and enter His gates with thanksgiving. Why? “for the Lord is Good, His mercy is everlasting and His truth endures to all generations.”

Yes, by His sacrificial death and glorious resurrection Christ our dear Lord has caused sin and death to cringe before Him, and has given us utter victory over both, so we will not always be the poor miserable sinners we are now, who suffer the debilitating effects of our current condition. Instead we will soon enough receive glorified bodies like the Lord’s very own, along with a new voice and a new song, with which to sing endless praise to Christ our Passover Lamb in a world without end. Therefore with high delight, let us unite, in songs of Jubilation, now and always. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Jesus said, "You will see me," but how do we do that?


Now you are full of sorrow, but I will see you again and your heart will rejoice, and no one will be able to take your joy from you.  John 16:22

THE disciples were about to have the worst day of their lives.  They had anchored every fiber of their hope on Jesus this remarkable Son of God Who for three long years "went about doing good and  healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him," but now their lives were about to come crashing down around them.

We are Monday morning quarterbacks.  We know how the story ends.  They did not!  Jesus told them quite plainly that He would be handed over to the Gentiles, put to cruel death, and be raised again on the third day, but they could not take that in:  even as we cannot take in many important things that God's word tells us for it seems like a distant echo.

We are like the twelve disciples in that sooner or later our lives come crashing down around us, too.  It doesn't matter how well you live life, how much faith you have, or how hard you try, the sorrow the Lord predicts will always come.  You are not exempt.

Why does this happen?  Because of sin, of course.  For one thing we must remember what Jesus says that, "all men will hate you on account of Me."  We must bear in mind that the world, blinded by the Evil One, has a natural antipathy of Christ, His gospel and His chosen followers.  If they persecuted Me, says Jesus, they will persecute you also.

Then there is the matter of our own sins that leave shame and sorrow in their wake.  The world likes to denounce guilt as a needless burden and to chalk up sin's end result to other factors, but God's people should know the truth, that these aftershocks are God's mercy leading us back to repentance, back to faith and away from the road that leads to eternal sorrow, because there is nothing worse than that.

There are also the sins of others.  You  might be "standing around minding your own business" as people like to say, when someone else's sins come crashing into your life.   You might be their intended victim or merely an innocent bystander, but the sorrow is the same.

Neither is that the end of the problem.  There are the general consequences of sin as well.  Natural disasters, poor judgment, bad engineering, blind spots, ignorance, weakness and the like, but in the unlikely event that you were to avoid all those pitfalls, even the most storied life finally ends in death.  Even Jesus, the best life ever to appear in this world, was snuffed out by evil men, but before this happens our Lord comforts the disciples with the words of eternal life.  "Truly truly ... you have sorrow now but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy from you."

"I will see you again."  You should take those words most seriously Dear Christians.  You should memorize them and recite them day and night, because true joy is not founded on the imaginary Jesus of the "contemporary worship" crowd, but on the living flesh and blood of the crucified risen and glorified Lord; on the Savior Who loved us to such a degree that He was willing to get His hands dirty for us, Who assumed human flesh, and the full human condition, and Who thus can sympathize with you.   If there was such a thing as DNA testing then, the results would have found that the Lord shared the DNA of the Virgin Mother, and indeed of Adam himself.  That's how up close and personal God's work of salvation is for His beloved fallen children.  You are those children now redeemed by Christ!

When the Lord said, "A little while, and you will see Me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see Me,"  He was referring to His death and resurrection.  He was going to a place no man could follow, nor need follow, for He Who is true God begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man born of the Virgin Mary, was about to discharge humanity's cosmic debt, and to reconcile sinners to their God.  The disciples could do nothing but wait on the sidelines as our Champion single-handedly gained the victory over sin and sorrow for us, but He also says, "... and again in a little while, and you will see me."  the Lord was not speaking figuratively here, because the joy that the Lord promises us proceeds directly from the crucified, risen and glorified flesh of Christ.  When the Lord saw them again He was cleansed from the worst that sinful man could do to Him, except for five wounds, which remain an everlasting memorial to the Incarnate Lord whose cross and resurrection redeemed us, and who raises us from the dead.

Before His resurrection He was dressed in human flesh full and sure, but after the resurrection they saw the glorified Jesus, the same Jesus we behold today on the altar, and whose body and blood we receive on our tongues!  Before the resurrection He came clothed in human form, but now He clothes Himself in bread and wine, divine words, and in holy water, none of which are ordinary because of His promise, "I will see you again."  These are the Lord's appointed means administered to us today by the church in Her Liturgy amidst solemn ceremony and celebration for our life and salvation.  O taste and see that the Lord is good.

Therefore we must never try to find Jesus, or the joy He promises, apart from the water of holy baptism, the inspired word and the bread and wine of the Eucharist; in short, the Divine Service, and if you look for Him here you will find Him.  Then like the disciples, you too will see Jesus, your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.  AMEN.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A sixth sense, a gift from God to win the victory over the world


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For whatever is born of God overcomes the world; and this is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith. 1 John 5:4

THERE is one thing the church does not do on the Sunday after Easter and that is to try to top Easter. We are not in show business or concerned about ratings. Neither could we surpass it if we wanted to, because it does not get any better than the sights, sounds and smells that accompany the joyous Easter proclamation: Christ is risen! Instead the church names this Sunday: Quasimodogeniti. It is a Latin word that means “like new born babes” and it comes from Peter’s first epistle. There he urges God’s people, just like newborn babes, to long for the pure milk of God’s word so that by it we might grow in the joy and understanding of our salvation. We are still basking in Easter glory but we know that such highs cannot be maintained. So the church returns to what she does on a steady basis, preach the Gospel, so that by Spirit-borne faith we might overcome the world and obtain eternal life.

In this verse St. John calls faith “the victory that overcomes the world,” but faith can be a confusing word. It has a secular meaning. We can, for example, put our faith in a car, a person, a certain career path, or an investment vehicle. When we do this we examine the matter under consideration, study it from all angles, give it plenty of thought, and if after a rigorous process we conclude the thing to be reliable we put our faith in it. That works well for matters that reason can comprehend. If people did more of this we might live in a slightly saner world, but that is not the Faith Scripture speaks of. When St. John says that our Faith overcomes the world he is talking about a Faith whose source is God. One whose beginning, middle and end proceed from Him. He is talking about one that is generated and supported by the Holy Spirit, using the mighty channels Jesus instituted for this purpose, namely the Word and Sacraments, the very ones that have gathered us here today.

Some people consider faith to be a noble virtue, but it is not. Put your trust in the wrong object and you will soon learn how ignoble that is. Others consider it a good work which makes God happy and merits his favor, but it is not that either. Still others consider it to be a personal decision, a sort of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to Jesus, but faith is none of the above. It is, instead, a new faculty given to us by God. A new sense, if you like, beyond the five we are born with; one which is capable of perceiving and believing what no other faculty can, that the death Jesus died was in expiation for our sins, and that His resurrection insures ours as well.

Neither is Faith a static or idle thing, but rather a divine power that strengthens us to win the victory over the world. That is the way we have to think about things, dear Christians, that we are at war with the world and must gain mastery over it; not by shield and sword, or by controlling great swathes of its wealth and resources, but by controlling our passions, and by making sure that it does not conquer us; by fighting it and resisting it with all our might so that it does not entice us into loving it, and thereby losing the eternal life that Christ won for us when He rose victoriously from the grave. This is not a battle that can be fought with human strength, but only by the word of truth, the power of God and the weapons of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, and that means Faith. (2 Corinthians 6:7) St. John warns earlier in his epistle, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions – is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15-17) God gives us many gifts in this life, each one is to be received with thanksgiving and used according to His statutes, but always remember that we are strangers and pilgrims here, merely passing through, and that heaven is our true home. (Hebrews 11:13)

How are we doing on all this?

Not well?

This is where our Faith does its best work. It believes in the absolution Jesus instituted on Easter night, and as many times as we fail it makes us bold to go back; because only Faith knows that the power of the Cross to pardon, and of the empty tomb to give new life, hope and courage, can never be exhausted.

Faith gives us Eternal Life as well. What a word that is: Eternal life. It is not something that we readily understand, especially when we are young and vibrant, but we must learn about it now, and think about it now, so that it can calm us when we face danger and our own inevitable demise. Jesus says that whoever believes in Him will never die. (John 11:27) It is a promise that is defied by every hospital, every nursing home and every cemetery in the world, but Faith stares all of them down and stands boldly on the promise that God gave us eternal life, this life is in his Son and whoever has the Son of God has life. (1 John 5:11-12) It is not possible for a preacher to fully convey what the words Eternal Life mean, but suffice it to say that in baptism we are conformed to the image of the Son. (Romans 8:29) As He was born, we are born. As he lived, we live. As He died, we will die. As he rose again, we will rise again. As He ascended into heaven, we will do the same. Neither does the expression only refer to quantity of life, but also to quality. It will be a life of equilibrium and symmetry, one that will settle and satisfy us as nothing else can do. There must be no doubt about these things, dear Christians, because Christ accomplished them for us, and pledges them to us based on His merit, His Righteousness, and His alone.

There can be no greater promise, prize or goal than to have Eternal Life. No wonder the disciples were Glad on Easter evening when they saw the Lord. Let us be glad, too. Amen

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, April 4, 2016

Are you afraid to die? Where will you spend eternity?


As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image is in the public domain
ALTHOUGH most people are afraid to die, few of them are honest enough to admit it. You have to really know someone before he will tell you. For some there is no rational fear, no picture in the mind's eye of any tangible disadvantage to being dead. Such people have a vague aversion to it, no more. For the more reflective there is a rational reason; they don't want to miss out on life's goodies, to fail at their goals, and they shrink from the anguish of dying.  But these do not have priority.  The number one reason for fearing death is the dread of being judged, of having your life evaluated by Another. Youth may put on false bravado, middle age may claim to be self-sufficient, but as death approaches we would all flee from it.  Our society has tried to hide death, by keeping it from children, by banishing it to institutions, even by denying the inevitable fact of aging.  How different were the early Christians!  From the graffiti in the catacombs we have learned that many of the martyrs were looking forward to dying.  They were already removed from friends and family, received little sympathy, and often had to face a violent and painful conflict, but they faced death with hope.  They saw death as their servant, conducting them to keep company with the Triumphant Messiah.  So Jesus, the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the Nations, approaches His mortal disciples with the familiar address, Don't be afraid.

On the first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the Lord appeared to His friends.  A week later He did it again, this time even Thomas was there.  The disciples appreciated keeping company with the risen Jesus.  He was establishing the pattern that Sunday would be His day.  After seven weeks, again on a Sunday, the Holy Spirit came.  So on the day when God began all time by saying, Let there be light… on the day when the True Light entered Jerusalem, on the day when the darkness did not overcome Him, on the day when the spirit gave birth to the Church, we come together to feed our souls on the Holy Word, to honor the Third Commandment.

After that first Pentecost, many years passed before Jesus spoke the words of our text.  He spoke them to John, the "beloved disciple."  He was a leader of the church in Ephesus, who had been sent into exile because of his faith.  He was on the island of Patmos, off the coast of Asia Minor.  He tells us that Jesus appeared to him on the Lord's Day -- by the time this was written Sunday had acquired that appellation.  Jesus appeared to John in a vision.  John does not say he was looking for a vision.  Even if he had been, he did not handle the vision, it handled him.  The Lord who loved him had a strange voice, like the sound of Niagara Falls.  Even though the form might have been frightening, the content was the same as the angels' message to the shepherds at Christmas -- Don't be afraid.  Now this was not the humble Jesus.  This was the exalted Jesus, the Lion rather than the Lamb.  He claimed: I am He who was dead, but am alive forevermore.  Whereas the humble Jesus three times foretold this victory, the exalted Jesus fulfilled it.  Yet this Lion and the Lamb are one and the same.

He clearly mentions the most important matter;  He was dead but now lives forever.  That changes absolutely everything.  He is on our side.  Far above this place of sorrow, far above the anguish of earthly existence, Jesus rules in love.  The Conqueror of sin, death, and Satan rules in love.  Every day we meet opposition, temptation, frustration.  We know what the Psalmist must have felt like when he feared "going down into the pit."  It seems we're always in the pit.  But the Triumphant Jesus is our Redeemer, our Advocate, our King.  Scripture speaks of Him as enthroned both in heaven and in our hearts, but these thrones will some day be brought together.  We live in the time when He has begun the good work, and look for the day on which He will fulfill it.

He continues:  I have the keys of death and hell.  Jesus can bind, so can He release.  Eternity has but one entrance.  Jesus stands before it.  Yes, the Jesus of the Bible, risen with the glorified, spiritual body that had been crucified.  All the great philosophers, prophets, and teachers of mankind remain in their graves.  Jesus alone came out of His.  He was not a disembodied spirit as in a séance.  He was not less than a material being;  He was more.  He was alive in a way no sinner could be.  He was not waiting to live out His karma, although that is not necessarily an incorrect way to account for His resurrection.  Remember He is Lord of all, subject to no one.  He voluntarily humbled Himself to save us.  He went through death and hell to capture their keys, even as He remained their Lord and Master.  All the great philosophers will be raised some day, and will have to stand before Jesus to give account.  But this is good news to us, because we know He captured those keys in love, and will grant us pardon and eternal fellowship.

What do you want said at your funeral?  I hope something more than vain speculation.  I have heard some people say things like "The body is here but the soul has fled."   Fled whither?  That soul is before Jesus for judgment.  Once a society matron attending her friend's funeral said, "Nothing that is pure … nothing that is good can die."  Jesus is an exception to that.  As for us, we are certainly sinners, and sinners die every day.  It isn't very comforting to think that the good cannot die, because none of us know anybody that good, and the One who really was did die.  At my funeral, I want the pastor to preach the Law and the Gospel, to be frank in telling people that I was a sinner, and that Jesus came into this world to save me along with every other sinner.  I want him to say that in Holy Baptism He washed away my sins, so that I could face eternity as one who was born again of water and the Spirit.  I want my funeral sermon to be about Jesus, who was dead but is alive and has the keys to death and hell.

If Job in the age of the patriarchs could say:  I know that my Redeemer lives… if Paul could boldly assert that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus … if Daniel Webster could on his deathbed give thanks for the Gospel that brought life and immortality to light, then you can also look forward to keeping company with the Triumphant Messiah.  You will know Him by His nail wounds, for that is how He captured those keys.  He will know you by name, and you will be part of a large company, reunited with many loved ones.  They may be resurrected much younger than you remember them, or they may be blessed with an adulthood of which they were robbed on earth, but for Him who holds the keys, nothing is impossible.   Human weakness may make us all nervous about dying, but like the ancient martyrs, we need not fear the Judgment.  Let whoever preaches our funerals speak of Him who is the Master of death, who died and lives forever, and who welcomes us to keep company with Him, the Triumphant Messiah.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Do you doubt that God is present?


 They said to each other, “Wasn't it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road and explained the Scriptures to us?”  Luke 24:32

THE two disciples were ready to go home.  They were walking on a Sunday afternoon in spring across the pleasant hill country of central Judea, one of the scenic routes in the Holy Land.   They had been in Jerusalem for Passover, and now were on their way to a medium-sized town called Emmaus.  Neither of them saw the spring flowers or the scenery.  They were depressed.  They had experienced a dreadful disappointment.  While they were in Jerusalem, they thought they were going to witness the first act of the great apocalyptic struggle, but the turn things took affected them badly.  Jesus had died.  A week before on Palm Sunday, their hopes had never been higher.  This evening they appeared to be altogether vanity.  A Traveler overtook them.  They didn't look at Him; they were irritable because of their depression, but the Traveler wanted to talk about the Bible, so they listened to what He had to say.  He was amazed at their ignorance of Scripture.

These two were not stupid, far from it, but they were ignorant of the central message of Moses and the Prophets, the testimony God gave throughout Israel's history, that mankind would be redeemed by a sacrifice.  All of the animal sacrifices were types of this great Sacrifice.  Without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, and everything depends on that remission.  They had been taught misleading things instead.  Even though they called Jesus their Lord, they had never really understood His role.  Now they were offended because the religious leaders had rejected Jesus and He had been put to death.  We know little of these two.  One was named Cleopas, the other remains unnamed to this day.  Only Luke mentions them.  He says nothing of what they did for a living.

What Scriptures should they have known?  Beginning with the Psalms as we do on Good Friday, Psalm 2, laments that the rulers take counsel together against the Messiah.  In Psalm 22 we have the despairing cry of the Son of God cast away from God, as well as details of the crucifixion - nailing His hands and feet, thirst, even the fact that the soldiers played dice for His clothes.  Consider the prophet Zechariah, who tells us how much the payoff would be for betraying Him, the spear wound, the scattering of the sheep when the Shepherd was struck, and the beautiful description of the Fountain that was opened.  Then there is Isaiah 53.  We call Isaiah The Evangelist of the Old Testament because of this chapter that describes the Suffering Servant who makes many to be counted righteous by His death, by whose stripes we are healed spiritually, who would later be buried in a rich man's tomb.  There was the sign of Jonah of course, for Jesus Himself referred to it.  Hear those prophecies with faith, and see how Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled them all. 

What do you suppose the Traveler has to say to us today?  Let us call Him by His right name, the Lord Jesus.  Would He call us foolish and slow of heart to believe the prophets?  As if neglect of the Bible were not bad enough, He also rebukes slowness of heart, not standing up confidently for what we believe.  Is your faith today what it was the day you were confirmed?  Do you remember what you said then?  You believe in the Trinity?  You believe the Bible is God's inspired Word?  You believe the doctrine of our Church as it is written in Luther's Catechism?  Your faith was strong that day, at least it looked as though it was.  I guess there are always a few people who say those things with crossed fingers, but how is your faith now?  Can it survive a disappointment?  Since you confess that the Holy Spirit is God, do you call on Him for wisdom and counsel to enlighten your heart and mind?  Have you become lukewarm like the the Laodiceans?  Is there any heat to your faith, the heat of zeal for God's house?  Have you availed yourself of Bible Class to give the Spirit an opportunity to lead you to higher ground?

There is an old saying that man's extremity is God's opportunity.  Those two disciples represent extremity.  They knew they had to go on living, but life would be weary and burdensome.  Perhaps they would buy a farm, or invest in a shop. Whatever they did, next time there was talk about a Messiah they would be far more skeptical.  Still, that was also God's opportunity.  Jesus appeared with that same characteristic promptness He showed at Nain when they were carrying out the widow's son, or at Sychar as the Samaritan woman was bringing her bucket to the well, or walking on the sea as the boat was about to sink.  Their boat of faith was about to sink.  Jesus came just in time.  He was risen, alive, and in the flesh, so when we are grieving, or in great peril, that is also God's opportunity.  Call upon me in the day of trouble ...,  that's what He tells us.  Death has not had the last word.  God has.

In the core of every city are people who have next to nothing.  They have built their hopes on quicksand and lived to see them come crashing down.  Some of them are very bitter, but others are happy.  The sun of gladness warms their hearts.  The external problems do not take away their joy.  These are the people that Jesus has sought out and visited, perhaps beginning with an indirect encounter, some Good Samaritan who helped at a critical time, a food basket at Christmas, a greeter who  made them welcome in God's house, or perhaps lyrics such as we sing in our church.  They were all on the road to their respective Emmauses when Jesus met them.  We can see Him, too, meeting us through His Word and Sacraments.  Are we, like Thomas, always the skeptic?  Do we relish nursing our grief like the two in our story?  They watched as Jesus took bread, broke it giving the Hebrew blessing, and gave it to them.  At once the mystery was over.  So this morning the Church invites you to the Supper of Christ, to behold the full revelation of God's forgiving love.  Jesus is risen.  He has accomplished His mission, redeemed us from sin and death.  His Sacraments assure us of forgiveness, of comfort in the day of trouble, and a foretaste of the Messianic Banquet.

One day it will be the evening of our lives as each of us approaches the shadowy vale.  Jesus will abide with us then as He does now, opening to us the Scriptures, letting our hearts burn with blessings, reassuring us that His cross is now our Tree of Life, His tomb is our gate of heaven.  He is ready to escort us through that valley.  At last, as we emerge from it, all disguises are dropped.  We will have the full vision, the full revelation, the ultimate joy in the presence of all God's saints.  Our happiness will be unmixed under the light that shines from the Lamb.   What more could we ask?  He has done all things well.  He abides with us here, that we may abide with Him hereafter.  AMEN.

`  Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Saturday, April 2, 2016

What are you putting your trust in?


“I will not believe!” John 20:25

THERE'S nothing worse than unbelief when it comes to Jesus, but there is something refreshing in Thomas’ negative confession, especially today when no one will commit to anything. There’s no jello here, no wiggle or jiggle just pure, pig-headed unbelief.

Now it’s true that the Lord threatens to spit the lukewarm Christian out of His mouth, but at the end of the day there’s nothing worse than unbelief, because it condemns us to a life of hopelessness and an eternity of punishment for our sins.

This does not mean that faith in and of itself is a virtue, it is not. Instead it is the object of faith that is all important. If we place our faith in the wrong thing we will always get hurt. The Bible, for example, has been warning people for 2000 years not to trust in “uncertain” riches. It may have taken a while, but anyone with financial assets now understands why St. Paul used that adjective: uncertain. People who were once proud of their 401k’s now call them 201k’s, and people who once thought of their homes as the goose that laid the golden egg now shake their heads in wonder.

Neither should we put our trust in government programs, their only goal is to control us; nor in financial markets, they exist only to separate fools from their money. When dealing with people a healthy dose of suspicion is a virtue, but not so with Jesus.

Why not? Because the only way we can have fellowship with God is by faith in the name of Jesus who was sacrificed and raised again for us. This is what Jesus means when He says: no one comes to the Father but by me. (Jn 14:6) There is no other route or mediator. Without Jesus we might wrestle with God our whole lives but we will never receive the blessing and new name that Jacob did unless we do so with Jacob-like faith. Without faith that Jesus is both Lord and God, as Thomas finally professed, our prayers remain unanswered and our hopes are all dashed to the ground.

Likewise, to doubt that God raised Jesus from the dead is also to make God a liar, in which case our faith is vain and we’re still in our sins, and if faith in the Son of God equates to eternal life, then dis-belief means eternal death. No, there is nothing worse than unbelief, and nothing better than faith when it comes to Jesus.

We believe that Jesus is the Son of God who was sent to be our Savior, to give us Peace by His blood, absolution for our sins and to release us from all our fears.  There’s nothing better than that!

We believe that faith is a precious commodity which is beyond our ability to obtain or maintain. We believe that it is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us through the Word of God. This is how Thomas’ doubts were finally dispelled, by what Jesus said to Him: don’t be faithless, but believe. What Jesus said, happened, and there’s nothing better than that, but it wasn’t only the Word that re-generated Thomas.  The Lord’s body acted like a sacrament for Him as well. The Sacraments are not merely “means” of grace as we often like to say, but they are grace, they are the Gospel, and impart all the blessings of our Lord’s death and resurrection to us. Without them salvation is but an inaccessible theory.

There’s nothing better than faith because our faith overcomes the world. What does that mean? Christians don’t overcome the world by revolution, or by trying to change it. The church is not a social movement. It has plenty to offer the world in terms of wisdom and moral guidance, but the world will have to gain that by osmosis because we must never force our sacred morals on the unbelieving world.

So how does our faith overcome the world? We overcome it first by “overlooking” it. We should never take the world too seriously or fall in love with it because we are only pilgrims who are passing through to Heaven which is our real home. We overcome the world by understanding what it is, accepting it for what it is, and by not expecting it to be what it never can be. Many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, are Utopians. Utopians think the world should be good, just and fair, and each Utopian has his own definition of what that means. Utopians whimper a lot and you can always identify them by their vocabulary. They use the word “just” a lot; we “just” want this and “just” want that. Such remonstrations alone are harmless. The problem comes when such people set out to make their theories reality. One hallucination gives way to another and soon they’ve destroyed half the world in order to make it a better place.

Faith overcomes the world. It informs us that the world is diseased with sin and all of its institutions are shot full of death so it can no more be revived than the Thanksgiving turkey can be resuscitated once it’s on the table.

Christians should be realists. We should not imagine, like many people do, that we can leave the world a better place than we found it. The world is ever the same and it’s not our vocation to change it or trouble it, but rather to overcome it by faith.

If our faith changes anything let it change us. We have all the necessary tools. We have the Holy Spirit, the gift of self-control and the Word of Truth to inform us what is good and pleasing in the sight of God. With those powerful weapons we can begin to conquer ourselves, our lusts, our fantasies, our envy and our aimless lives. We can turn our backs on sin, hunger and thirst after righteousness, worship God with reverence, and love our neighbor expecting nothing in return.

And we can pray! For the world, for it’s people and leaders so that we might live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness, and in mercy God answers our prayers. He breaks bows, burns chariots and commands the world to be still and know that He is God.

There’s nothing better than faith. Not only does it overcome the world but it also, at God’s appointed time, takes us out of the world. For now we live on God’s promises, but later, by grace and through faith, we will receive the heavenly mansion Jesus prepared for us; eat at the Messianic banquet; sing in the eternal choir and worship before the throne of the Lamb. We will hear the non-ending benediction which Jesus gave His disciples that first Easter evening: Peace be with you. This is all ours by faith, and nothing is better than that. Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Friday, April 1, 2016

It will be said, "We waited for Him that He might save us"


And it will be said on that day: behold this is our God we waited for Him that He might save us; this is the Lord,  we waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation. Isaiah 25:9

ONE of the greatest gifts God gave His church is the prophets, and chief among them is Isaiah from whom we get our Old Testament lesson for the Feast of the Resurrection.

God charged these men with a three-fold mission. The first was to condemn the sins of His people, to prosecute them in God’s court, to drag out their violations one by one and to display them in all their gory detail. Not only to condemn the sin, as people like to say today, but to condemn the sinner as well. Their job was to make proud people quake in their boots; to make base people kneel in repentance; or barring that, to look over their shoulder for the rest of their days for the judgment that would swiftly over-take them.

Their second duty was to forecast the coming tsunami that would wash away all who did not repent. These prophecies were usually made decades in advance because there is no “three strikes and you are out” with God. With God we get many strikes, and it must be so because we are so thick, spiritually speaking, but please do not mistake kindness for weakness, or use God’s mercy as a license to sin because when you are out, you are really out. In Dante’s Inferno the sign over hell’s entrance reads: Abandon All Hope Ye Who Enter Here. You don’t want to go there.

The third and most imporant task of the prophets was to foretell how God would solve man’s problem for him. This too they saw not only decades, but centuries in advance as they comforted afflicted sinners with myriad promises of the coming Christ; of His death, burial and life-giving resurrection from the dead -- the very thing we celebrate today -- and how by rising from the dead Jesus would turn the tide of all things in our favor and restore to us double all that sin has taken away.

Yes, ever since the Fall God has been busy working out all things for our good, not only in a general sense but for each of us in our own lives, for our own sins, our own troubles and the particular problems that vex us so sorely each day. Don’t ever doubt it, dear Christians, but believe it with all your heart and be glad and rejoice, because God is preparing a Feast for us of the richest food, a Feast of the finest wine! The wine Isaiah speaks of is no common wine, but wine that is well-fermented, well-aged and finely filtered; wine that is both strong and clear; wine that is able to make glad the heart of man; wine that teaches us three important things about our salvation:

First, because it is the best that can be had. It is of divine and not human origin. The same is true of our salvation. All of man’s plans to make the world a better place or to “save” us from who knows what are nothing; less than nothing, and in actual fact they are but deceptive attempts to own us, control us, enslave and tyrannize us. But God’s way, which is to re-create sinners in the image of His Son is everything, and if the Son sets you free you are free indeed!

Secondly, the wine that Isaiah speaks of takes much patience and time to make. In the same way God’s salvation in Christ developed slowly, running like a golden thread through all the generations of human history. His entire Will down to the last detail, such as the spear that pierced the Lord’s side so that, “not a bone of His body would be broken,” was perfected and played out in time. This lets us know that all things must bend to His good and gracious will for us, and that no opposing force can stop God’s Spirit from renewing the face of the earth.

Thirdly, it is a prophecy of the incarnate Christ who became incarnate to sacrifice His holy life for “the life of the world.” Not only of Him but also of the Sacrament He established in which we take the flesh and blood of Him who is the Resurrection and the Life into our dying flesh; and so obtain “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Please note the definite article. It is not any old life that the church of the risen Christ confesses, but the life everlasting. The one fore-shadowed in the Law of Moses when Joseph is re-united with his father. The one delineated in the Psalms by King David when he sings: in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. The one disclosed by the Prophets as Isaiah here predicts the Messianic Banquet. But most fully the promise described in the Revelation of St. John in which countless people from every nation, tribe and tongue under heaven join in celestial praise singing Holy, Holy, Holy around the happy throne of God and of the Lamb, singing it like it was never sung before, because what we sing now in the Divine Liturgy is but choir practice which prepares us for the perfect joy and holy communion that will gladden us then and there.

 You will be there! You who believe in the resurrected Christ as Mary Magdalene, the disciples, and finally even Doubting Thomas did, because at the end of the day it is faith in the crucified and Living Christ that takes us there; not our putative good behavior, not our suffering, sacrifices, sincerity or happy spiritual thoughts; not our philanthropy, fond hopes or fervent devotion, but faith and faith alone; faith which sings, “Jesus lives the victory’s won, death no longer can appall me. Jesus lives death’s reign is done, from the grave Christ will recall me! Brighter scenes will then commence, this shall be my confidence.” (TLH 201:1)

Yes! By His mighty resurrection our Lord abolished death so that not a trace of its former sway will be left. He removes the cause as well as the outward symptom, the sin as well as the tears from all faces. By His glorious resurrection this same Jesus vindicates our faith, hope, patient suffering and perseverance in the face of all opposition so that not a trace of the world’s scorn will remain. Without doubt, Easter is the premier Day that the Lord has made, the Day He acted to give us “new birth into a living hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” Let us rejoice and be glad in it, then, as we join the church of the ages and say of Christ Jesus, “Behold this is our God. We waited for Him that He might save us; this is the Lord, we waited for Him, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.” Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras