Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Testing the Spirits: Are You Sure That What You Believe Will Lead You to Heaven?


Those of you who are my age or older will immediately recognize today's title.  It comes from the logo of RCA Victor records. There was a picture of a small dog looking down the horn of an old victrola, listening attentively.  The idea was that the reproduction of sound was that good.  A dog would believe he was hearing his master.  For those of you who are younger, records were large disks with analog recordings using grooves.  Before the days of CDs they were the principal delivery system for music.  In the text we just read we heard the Apostle John calling us to be Jesus' faithful dogs, listening always for the sound of our Master's voice.  We need to be very discriminating.  If we want to hear Jesus, we must not put on the wrong record.  That means we cannot take for granted anybody who claims to be preaching or teaching God's Word.  The message must have Christ, that is the Incarnate Son of God, as its center.  False prophets may have dreams or notions.  Everybody has opinions, but notions and opinions are not the Word of God.

Long before the time of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah complained because so many false prophets were telling Israel the wrong message.  Jeremiah was called by God.  He had to proclaim the message of repentance.  The false prophets contradicted him.  Their message was I'm OK; you're OK.  Of course the false message was much easier to hear.  It made no great demands.  It fit in so well with the culture, so most of Judah listened to it, and then they wondered why the ax fell on their heads.  The Antichrist has his message in the world, competing with and contradicting our Master's voice.  Centuries ago there was Mohammed, who designed a false religion, taught that Jesus was not God Incarnate but merely a prophet, and misleading people to think that they could be righteous before God by following five simple rules.  That false religion did not go away.  There are followers of it here in Cleveland today.  They teach that we are disobedient because we come to the Father through the Son. There is no way to reconcile that with our Master's voice.  If they are right, then we are wrong.  If we are right, then they are wrong.  You cannot compromise the deity of Jesus.

Suppose you asked the Lord's own question today, What do you think of the Christ?  Several years ago the magazine Christianity Today asked that very question.  The figures were appalling.  One question was whether or not the death of Jesus was a sacrifice for sins.  You would think every Christian would answer in the affirmative.  Wrong.  Only 55% of the Methodists, 66% of the Episcopalians, 83% of the Baptists, and 91% of the Lutherans said Yes.  Don't get smug because our number was a little higher than the other guys'.  This was a poll of clergy.  Almost 10% of our own denominations' preachers don’t believe the Gospel.  Is it any wonder that they cannot faithfully reproduce our Master's voice?  What you do hear, all too frequently, is that what you believe doesn't matter, that we're all going to the same place.  Jesus never said anything like that.  He said the broad road leads to hell, the straight and narrow path was what He advised us to take.  In John 14 He told His disciples I am the way, the truth, and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.

In the early days of the Church, St. Paul was a high-fidelity recording of the Word of God.  He tells us in I Corinthians 2 When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom … I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.  Through his letters that great saint warns us against those who would make all sorts of rules to bind us.  Make no mistake about it.  When the true servant of the Word speaks, the voice of Jesus must sound out loud, and the sheep of His flock will attend His voice.  The way He leads is narrow, and those who feed the flock of Christ nothing else will be called narrow-minded, bigoted, and self-righteous for this, but what the world says doesn't count.  We are not of the world.  We don't need its false messages.  What is important is what Jesus calls us -- His people and the sheep of His pasture.  Believe me, we want to be that.

Test the prophets.  You, the people must judge whether your shepherds are feeding you the genuine Word or some substitute, so let's beware the traps that are about.  First, don't think of the Church as an outward organization.  Denominations come and go, synods flourish like a flower, human associations are temporary.  The genuine Church of Jesus Christ abides forever, successfully charging the gates of hell.  Second, don't be snowed by sincerity.  There are many who sincerely believe false doctrine.  Yes, there are many who preach for personal gain, and some people are actually silly enough to follow them.  Far more dangerous are those who are sincerely devoted to falsehood.  Third, you cannot let yourself be ignorant of the Bible.  That can be a paralyzing weakness.  You must read it regularly, memorize the great texts of the faith, as we say in one collect, "inwardly digest them."  Make the Word the sword of the Spirit in your hand.  Seek a faithful recording of your Master's voice that doesn't add a lot of static.  Remember the true prophet teaches that Jesus came in the flesh. Unless He actually came as mortal man He could not take away our sins.  Unless He actually rose again in the flesh, He could not really conquer sin and death for us.  Unless he ascended into heaven in the flesh He could not reign over all things, but He did. He was God Incarnate and still is, and we have the privilege of serving the Word made flesh.

Along with the Word every Christian needs a generous helping of the Blessed Sacraments which it is his minister's duty to provide him.  Again St. John would warn us against those who deny that Jesus is present in the flesh to give Himself to us in the Holy Eucharist.  Our Master said This is my body.  A faithful recording will not add words that weaken that statement.  Jesus wants us to grow in grace, to be strengthened for the daily fight.  No one is too old, too smart, too brave, too simple, or God forbid too busy to receive this.  Sacraments are not a second record. They are another band on the one record with the Word of God.  They must also be a high-fidelity recording producing our Master's voice.  One and all, listen.  Listen!  Listen!  Hold to the Word you have been taught.  Jesus wants His flock well-fed, well-taught, well-cared-for.  He is the Good Shepherd.   AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Festival of St. Mary Magdalene


And when they had carried out all that was written of Him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb, but God raised Him from the dead, and for many days He appeared to those who had come up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now His witnesses to the people.  Acts. 13:29-30

TODAY we celebrate a most agreeable festival, that of St. Mary Magdalene, who St. Augustine names, "The Apostle to the Apostles."

We learn from the text just read that "for many days" after His resurrection the Lord "appeared to those who had come up with Him from Galilee to Jerusalem..."  Mary Magdalene was the first of them, the first disciple of Jesus to learn, and to announce, the glorious Easter Gospel that saves our souls from death, permeates our hearts with joy, and shields us from all of the devil's fiery darts.  As the resurrected Lord wiped away Mary's tears, so He does ours:  those caused by the cords of death that entangle us, and the demons that surround us day and night.

As Lutherans we do not worship Mary Magdalene.  We don't  pray to her, or ask her to pray for us.  None the less we are fools to ignore the Great Cloud of Witnesses that surrounds us, guilty of neglect if we don't study them, praise God for them, and take courage from their examples.  This is precisely what our Lutheran Confessions admonish us to do, not only the saints mentioned in Scripture, but what the Te Deum calls, "The noble army of Martyrs":  names such as Ignatius, Justin, Polycarp, Cyprian, Sebastian, Barbara, Agnes, Perpetua, Felicity, Lucy, Cecelia and others too numerous to list.

While, as Lutherans, we reject what is against Scripture, let us not on the other hand become reactionaries like Protestants who harbor institutional prejudices against the saints of the ages, simply because their names are not found in Scripture.

Who is Mary Magdalene, and what is it that made her so devoted to Jesus?  That is a beautiful story!  We first meet Mary in St. Luke's gospel chapter seven.  The Lord is attending a meal at the home of a Simon the Pharisee.  It was there that Mary Magdalene, who was known by all to be a notorious sinner, crashes the party, kneels at the Lord's feet and cries copious tears of repentance, enough to thoroughly bathe the Lord's feet from His dusty travels.  St. Luke reports that she then dried his feet with her hair and further anointed them with the most costly fragrance that money could buy.

The self-righteous Pharisees, of course, were scandalized!  If Jesus really were from God, they said, He would know that this woman was a legendary sinner, a woman who used her deceitful charms and passing beauty to get what she wanted; a woman possessed not by one single demon, which is bad enough, but seven!  Her life was a disaster.  While on the one hand she wanted to experience every thrill life could give, she also learned that the devil demands his due.  The first ride is always free.  Remember this, especially you young people, who are just entering into adulthood.  The first rodeo is always free, but then there is hell to pay!

What the Lord says is true, "...anyone who sins is a slave to sin," but what He then adds is glorious.  "But if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed."  That is what Jesus did!  He set her free and from day forward she became the Lord's most devoted follower.  She put her sins behind her, left all she had, and followed Jesus right to the cross.  May we do the same!

We learn from Scripture that she, along with other women, ministered to the Minister as He travelled, as He preached the good news that the devil's reign is over, that He would crush the Satan's head from the cross, and that He would give life, liberty and holiness to all who put their faith in His blood!  Thus the Lord was able to dedicate His full time and attention to announcing the rule of God on earth, expelling the demons, and making sinners whole again by His miracles.

There are many myths that have grown up around our Mary.  A blatant sinner turned great saint tends to fire the imagination, but please don't believe the myths.  Instead let us praise God for Mary, and let us remember her devoted work, for of all the Lord's followers, only a handful of people were courageous enough to come so close to the cross, as to carry on a conversation with the Lord.  Mary Magdalene was one of them.  Judas was dead.  Peter was drowning in self-recrimination (but he too would be made whole), and the other disciples kept a safe distance so as not to end up on Golgotha themselves, so it should be no surprise that of all the Lord's followers, it is the woman from Magdala who first appears at the tomb, who now, as at their first meeting, comes with the sweetest of fragrances and bitterest imaginable tears, and who might well have laid down and died then and there except for the Lord's astonishing greeting:  Mary!  Neither should it surprise us that when the joyous reunion was complete that she should leave the tomb and preach the Easter Gospel to the Lord's Apostles, thus gaining her famous title.

Yet it is not Mary, or any other saint, we gather to worship on Christ's Day, but as the Revelation Angel tells St. John, "Worship God."  This we do!  By the power of the Spirit and as true baptismal members of Him who is the Truth, we worship our God and Father;  He who gave His one and only Son for us to be crucified for our sins, to shed His divine blood,  which is the only antidote to save us from the snake's poisonous bite, and to heal us and break the power of the demons over us so that now we are free, free indeed!  If you ever doubt it, remember your baptism, for it is your own personal Independence Day.  Neither the demons, nor the devil himself, can force you to do anything anymore unless you are willing to cooperate with him, but don't do that!  Instead hear St. James who writes:  Resist the devil and he will flee from you.  And remember the Apostle to the Apostles who was liberated from her demons and served Jesus all the days of her life.

Go and do likewise.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

If religion is about love, why are we always fighting?


The Church has had its share of critics. Many of them point to the bloody wars which have been fought from holy motives. One may ask them if truth is not worth fighting about, what is? That only makes them doubt whether truth exists. War, however, is a fact of life. It has been a constant companion of God’s people since the Exodus. Holy Scripture describes for us how God’s chosen people undertook His bloody mission to conquer the Holy Land, and cleanse it of its former inhabitants. Later in the days of the kings, there was always somebody else to fight. Josiah was killed in combat. The Apocrypha records the deeds of the Maccabees, the second century BC freedom fighters, who fought a guerrilla campaign against King Antiochus. Constantine secured the peace of the Church on the battlefield. Three centuries later began the jihad, the obligatory warfare of Islam. They kept invading and harassing Christendom until our fathers decided to be proactive instead of reactive and inaugurated the Crusades. More recently we behold those sectarian struggles that followed in the wake of the Reformation. The heathen accuse us of lacking love for one another, but many Reformation Era Christians fought their brethren precisely because they did love them and wanted to correct them. Catholics and Protestants were breaking the Fifth Commandment, but they were not breaking the Golden Rule. They were doing precisely what they would have had the others do if the roles were reversed. In the end, though, all those good intentions accomplished a horrible evil. Christendom became afraid of the truth, and refused to discuss it any further.

Why would the dealings between God and man lead people to fight? For the same reason why many Americans refuse to talk about it – because it is so very important. Anything that important is dangerous. Remember, religion is the devil’s favorite subject. It becomes a bone of contention because people are sinners, and thus deluded and beguiled they think they can find a path to God. There is no such path. God can come to us, but we cannot come to Him. The prophet Hosea taught us God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Something inside all of us says the opposite. It’s a universal affliction, the opinion of the Law. We think we can find a way to please God. In our text, the example of that opinion is Cain.

Cain and Abel were the first two named children of Adam and Eve. Cain gave an offering of produce, while Abel brought an offering of sheep, to which Moses adds, “Especially the fat pieces.” The Israelites thought that was the best part. So Abel was parting with a choice portion. In the New Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Abel made his offering “by faith.” We have no idea what that faith might have been. Revelation up to that point had been rather skimpy. But there is a key in Psalm 51 – the sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. Both Moses and David tell us that the human heart is too full of itself to ever approach God. But a heart can hate what it has become. It can repent, and look to being rescued from itself. When it does, we say the person is “seeking God.” He won’t find God, but he will get the garbage out of the way so that when God comes to him he can see Him. Reason tells us nothing of this. Without the Bible we would be completely ignorant. But thank heaven we have revelation. God’s pure and holy Word is available. We must hear it, learn it, strive to understand it, and be disposed to obey it. Since we fall short of that, we have wars.

The first clear sign of trouble is that Cain’s religion made him sad. He would not look up. True faith looks up, but Cain was turned in upon himself. Somehow he knew that God did not accept his offering. Cain looked down, depressed in soul, calculating how his produce might fulfill his religious duties. That is the devil’s way of thinking. Cain was no longer standing in God’s retinue, but face to face with Him like a merchant. True faith does not do business with God. It follows in His train. True faith does not seek independence from God, but relies on Him who never deceives.

Over the years many have misunderstood this story as if it were intended to teach the work ethic. Nothing in the story suggests that Abel was more industrious than Cain. Both men worked at their vocations as diligently as the friendly environment of the world before the Flood required. It was not because of works that Abel’s offering was more acceptable. Rather, it was because of the Lamb of God. The fact that Abel had to kill his offering, the bloodshed, points us to Calvary. Adam and Eve had seen that once before, when God made them clothes. The Hebrew said God covered them. Moses chose this term carefully because two books later he would describe a “day of covering,” a yom kippur. God covered the sins of His penitent people – the first couple, Abel, and later Moses and his people. He gave them another child, the only other named child, Seth. From Seth came the genealogy of Jesus. Furthermore, when Seth was born Moses tells us people began to call on the name of the Lord. Imagine that! Thousands of years before the burning bush, Seth called on that sacred name. God never took a vacation from shepherding His people. His love would continue, so would prophecy and preaching, so would salvation history as it moved to its climax when the Messiah came.

Note that Abel’s religion made him happy, while Cain’s made him sad. People are going to fight about religion as long as what they believe makes them sad. We must not misplace the blame on creeds and confessions of faith. We must present the Gospel of Jesus crucified and risen against those who would teach something different. Human nature, with the devil’s urging, always tries to mix some Law in with the Gospel. The love of Jesus constrains us to admonish and correct those who need such things. But it does not constrain us to kill them. The Commandments make that very clear.

True faith looks up to the crucifix of Calvary, to the resurrected Lord in His glory, to the One who will pardon our offenses. The Church is a body of sinners. Often in the past we have sinned against love. Those who are the Church’s loudest accusers sin against it every day, but God pardons our sins. True faith receives that pardon and gives thanks. That is why we look up. True divine service takes place when God serves us with grace. May His true flock always look up and be fed. AMEN

by: Rev. Lloyd Gross

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Why is there so much singing in church?


To the choirmaster ... a Psalm of the Sons of Korah.  How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.  Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young at your altars, o LORD of hosts, my King and my God.  Blessed are those who dwell in your house, ever singing your praise!  Psalm 84:1-4

THE SONS OF KORAH, who penned this Psalm for the church, had skeletons in their closet.  As Elijah went to heaven alive, their distant ancestor, Korah, did the opposite.  He and his entire family went to Sheol alive, which is the Old Testament name for the world of the dead.

What did Korah do to deserve such a fate?  He led a rebellion against Moses, who was the divinely appointed pastor of God's flock, but in despising Moses Korah was, in reality, shaking his fist at God.  Jesus speaks this way in St Luke.  He says to the disciples, "Whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me, rejects the One who sent me."  That is how zealous the Lord is for His pastors, so may we always hear and heed.

After due process the Lord meted out just punishment.  Korah, his clan and all his possessions, along with 250 others who joined the mutiny, were put to death.  The Lord commanded the earth to  open up beneath them, swallow them alive, and then close up again.  From that time the name Korah became a byword among God's people.

Although their father's infamy lived for generations, the Sons of Korah did something amazing.  They broke the cycle!  They did not join the sins of their father.  They did not despise the church or the ministry, but quite the contrary, they were so fully devoted to it, that King David put them in charge of Israel's music.  May God in His mercy break the cycle of sin in our families, too.  May the Son set us free from the skeletons in our closets, too, and then we will be free indeed!

Music helps!  The Word of God is a living word that bestows life on all it touches, but when we sing God's Word, as we do in our liturgy, hymns, canticles and prayers, what is already perfect attains, if it were possible, even greater perfection.  The Word of God works fine without music, but it works better with it.  This is why Jesus is called "the New Song" in Psalm 98, why heavenly choirs sang when the Lord "was made man," and why David spared no expense, avoided no pain, and exerted every effort to provide music and song to liturgize the house of the Lord; so that in worship men might gain a foretaste of the things to come, for heaven is nothing if not music; glorious song that will renew our flesh, settle our hearts, and drive all our demons ever away, for in heaven there is only good, only God, His heavenly counsel, His holy angels and His unblemished bride who, with one glorious voice sings the hymn of all creation.  You are that bride.

God's Word and music!  It is a peerless combination, pulsing with life that permeates a person through and through.  It discovers the sin that lies hidden deeply within, then heals it with the cross, with holy water from the Lord's side that removes every blemish by baptism and the sacred blood from Jesus' side that dissolves every sad sin.  This is the cup of the New Testament we drink at His altar where we, like the swallow, find a placid home and a nest for our young.

For us the Word of God is everything.  We use it to baptize, celebrate the Sacrament, pray for the sick, ordain pastors, confirm our young, start every task, bless every home, sanctify every meal, consecrate every marriage, prosper our work, dedicate our churches, and finally bury our dead so that the voice of the Son of man will raise them up on the last day.  All these things are done with prayer and the reading aloud of God's Word appropriate to the occasion.  Why?  Because where God's Word is, God is, not in vague fashion, but in a very particular way to give us His grace, mercy and peace; present to pardon us, soothe us, fortify us, clear our heads, soften our hearts, hear our every whispered prayer, prosper us in every way, cut off our rear view mirror, and to show us the way forward.

In today's gospel we learn that the people at Lake Genessaret "pressed" on Jesus from every side so that they might hear the sparkling words that issued from His silver tongue; gracious words that opened heaven to them, taught them about the Father's love, about salvation from sin, and about the glorious things God has prepared for those who love Him.  So intent were they to hear the words of eternal life that the Lord was forced onto Peter's boat which he used as the chancel for his watery church that day.

Elijah, too, heard God's Word, not in the ruckus of the tornado, earthquake or fire, but in a still small voice.  Please do not interpret this verse in the spooky way Pentecostals do.  The subject here is not private revelations whispered to your heart, but about God's Word administered in the church to all who will hear the message of the cross, for we preach Christ as crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to the those who are called, both Jew and Gentile:  Christ!  The power of God, and the wisdom of God!

The Father gave His Son to bear the sins of every man, to drink the cup of every sorrow, to die a sinner's death as our substitute, and to rise again with great power and glory on the third day for our justification, so that sinners might be reconciled to their true father, remain faithful unto death and so receive the crown of life.  Is it any wonder then that we, like the sons of Korah, whatever skeletons we might have in our closets, cannot but help sing, chant and hymn God's holy Word without ceasing?  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras