Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pray now before sin drags you under


Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.  Psalm 32:1-2

ALL people want to be blessed by God.  They hope that He will bless them, keep them and make His face to shine upon them; that He will supply their every need, and satisfy their deepest desires, but what makes for the blessed estate that David speaks of in today's Psalm?  Nothing other than the forgiveness of sins, because sin is the wedge that separates men from their Maker and incurs His displeasure rather than His blessing, but to be forgiven one must first confess his sins to God, and then He must believe that in Christ he has a merciful Father who forgives our iniquities and cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

In today's Psalm David gives us that very confidence!  He preaches the Gospel to us and assures us of remission with these words, "I said I will confess my transgressions to the LORD, and you forgave the iniquity of my sin."  Yet please understand that sin and its forgiveness is not merely a system of credits and debits, merits and demerits, or of penalties imposed for crimes committed, but sin is  a matter of lost affection, broken trust, and unrequited love: and its forgiveness is more than a bookkeeping entry in your favor, but of "peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinner reconciled."

Jesus says, "The Father loves the Son and has given all things into His hand."  That's what a father does.  He is not merely half the equation needed to bring a child into the world, but He is the One who loves His children, sacrifices for them, and provides them all that they need; not only food and clothes, and house and home, but He imparts His very self to them!  He makes them in His own image.  He gives them His wisdom and His spirit, even as the Father in holy baptism, has given us Christ who is His wisdom, and His Holy Spirit as well to dwell in us and with us.

Yes, a father inclines towards his children.  Be sure not to miss that little phrase in today's Gospel that Jesus who is the good Samaritan in the parable, "came to where the man was."  This means that through the Son, the eternal Father seeks us out in our lost condition, and comes to our rescue.  Children in turn, seeing their Father's love, incline themselves toward him.  They lean in close to His mouth so that they might hear every word He has to say, so that they might learn from Him, be like Him, and live in His image: whose image we truly are!  This is the religion of the Bible.

Contrast, if you will, the world's catechism in post Christian society.  It's chief doctrine is that children don't need a father:  that fathers are extraneous, irrelevant and unimportant, that one mother is adequate, or perhaps two even better, but this is the doctrine of devils, a crime against nature, an assault against reason, and a denial of God who is above all Father:  always begetting, always providing, always imparting His own glad and irrepressible life to us through Christ.

There is no more primal or sacred relationship than Father and Child.  This is what we learn from our Lord who says:  "The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand."  And again, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work."  And what is that work but to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their father, to God most High by the cross.

So in today's Psalm David exhorts you, "Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach Him.  You are a hiding place for me: you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance."

"The rush of great waters" is a poetic way of describing two things:  First the misery of miseries that befall the inhabitants of earth.  This is why David exhorts people to pray for God's protection at all times, for it is He who saves you from trouble, or, if He allows it, uses it for your final benefit:  for even sin and evil must bend their wills to the purposes of God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth.  Neither does He forget you in your trials, or let you languish, but aids you and consoles you instead.  Know this too, that He puts an expiration date on all your reversals, so don't give up hope, or "sorrow even as others that have no hope."

"The rush of great waters" is also the final judgment.  The language is reminiscent of The Flood from which no one escaped, except faithful Noah and his family, and no one will escape the Great Judgment to come except for the One Who is Greater Than Noah, even Jesus our Lord, and those whose sins are covered in the flood of holy baptism.  He is our hiding place, who keeps us safe from the wages of our sins, the power of death, the corruption of the grave, and who promises us elegant and eternal life.

The shouts of deliverance that David refers to is the very Divine Service in which we are now engaged.  It is here that we recount, preach, proclaim, confess and receive the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, for the Gospel is not just a notion in our minds, but something that is truly enacted and given us in the holy house.  Here we name God as our Father and Christ as our Brother.  Here He inclines to us, to counsel us by His Word, and due to the Old Adam, it is here, by the preaching of his Law, that He urges us to listen to Him, and admonishes us not to be stubborn like a horse or mule that has no understanding, and must be curbed with a bit and bridle.  Thus we will avoid the many sorrows of the wicked, and we will enjoy abiding peace, whatever comes our way, for the wounds of our Lord Jesus are our Hiding Place.  Amen

-  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Though He was without sin, Jesus understands better than we do.


And He took him aside from the crowd, and place His fingers into his ears, and spit and touched his tongue and looked upward into heaven, and sighed and said to him, Ephphatha, which means, Be opened!  And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue loosed and he spoke plainly.  Mark 7:33-35

WE can never praise the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ highly enough!

It is theoretically possible that God could have made some other arrangement to do away with human sin, that He might have conducted a spiritual transaction in the distant heavens, somewhere far away from our sight, and without our knowledge, but that is not what He chose to do!  Instead, in a show of the greatest possible solidarity with sinful man the heavenly Father sent His only-begotten Son into the world to be our Savior, to assume human flesh, taken on the form of a servant, and to become obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

As a man He took up residence in Nazareth, a city of Galilee, far removed from the religious capitol of Jerusalem.  From there He travelled to still more out of the way places like Tyre and Sidon where the glory of God's Word had never been heard; where people lived in great darkness, where they had no hope and were without God in the world.  There the Light shone.  There He expelled demons, healed the sick and preached the good news of the Kingdom so that people who otherwise had no expectation of divine blessing would learn the love that God has for all men without exception.

From there He travelled to the region known as Decapolis where a deaf mute was presented to Him for healing.  His friends brought the man to Jesus requesting only one thing, that the Lord should touch him with His holy hand, and it would be enough.

We read in St Mark's gospel that Jesus graciously received the man without appointment, without charge, and without any stipulations or demands.  How different that is from the signs posted on telephone poles around town that warn:  Jesus is coming, clean up your life.  We can no more clean up our lives than rotting flesh can stop stinking, but Jesus has cleansed you to your very core by His Word, and now you are clean!

We learn from Scripture that Jesus did more than just touch him and send him away, but that He turned this faithful request into an unforgettable event.  In a great show of ceremony the Lord used His fingers to open the man's ears and saliva from His own sacred tongue to open the man's lips so that his mouth might show forth God's praise.  With His all-seeing eyes He looked heavenward, because the Son of Man came from heaven to do the will of His Father, to release sinners from the curse that always accompanies sin.

He used His mouth to speak the words of healing.  Because Jesus is the Word of God made flesh, the utterances of His lips are all-powerful.  When He says to deaf ears, "Be opened!":  they open; and when He says with His dying breath on the cross, "It is finished," we should be fully persuaded that the struggles of our soul are over and the day of our deliverance is here.

Neither should we miss the significance of what the Evangelist reports in verse 34 that the Lord "sighed."  We confess in the Athanasian Creed that our Lord not only had a human body but also a "reasonable soul."  He could think, reason, and understand things even as we do.  He could comprehend human suffering and identify with it.  The writer to the Hebrews puts it this way, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.  Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help  in time of need."  Hebrews 4:15-16

As our Lord wept over the death of His friend Lazarus, and shed tears of sorrow over the lost city of Jerusalem, so here He sighs over the immense misery that sin visits on the world.  Yet there was more to His sigh.  In His  mind the Lord was thinking of His impending suffering and death.  He understood the trade He was making; that for every sin He forgave, and every disease He healed, that He who "bore our griefs and carried our sorrows," would be stricken, smitten of God and afflicted on the Cross, that He would pour out His sacred blood so that sinful humanity should freshly joy in the Lord.  All this was done for us men and for our salvation.

Still, the faith we profess does not consist only of past events, as prized and amazing as they are, but as we can never acclaim our Lord's incarnation highly enough, neither can we sufficiently exalt the blessed Word and Sacrament by which He resides among us still today.  As Jesus once came in the flesh to save us from our sins, He still comes to us today in the church, in the Word and in the Sacraments to continue His ministry among the people of His pasture.  We should always be cognizant of the fact that it is His voice that we hear in the church, His absolution we receive and rely upon for the ongoing treatment of the sins of our flesh, and His true body and blood we eat and drink in Holy Communion, all to the end that the ears of our hearts might be opened to hear the words of eternal life, for our spiritual nourishment and joy, and that, having our lips opened by Jesus, our mouths might show forth the praise of Him who heals all our diseases, forgives all our sins and gives us reason to sing.  Amen

~  Rev.  Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Is it enough to put money in the basket?


TODAY Holy Scripture answers the questions we ask each Sunday:  What shall I offer to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  It is  a rhetorical question to be sure, but one we should take time to ponder.

The Offertory is the first element of the Liturgy of the Sacrament.  In it we bring our offerings to the Lord, which he receives, blesses, multiplies and gives back to us a hundredfold.   We bring bread and wine, He gives back His own body and blood.  We bring earthly gifts, He gives back heavenly ones by which the church is supported and charity given, but we should be careful to do things in the right order.  We love Him because He first loved us.  We give to Him because He first gave to us, because as we sing in the hymn, "All that we have is thine alone, a trust O Lord from thee."

The Offertory is nothing new, but has been part of Christian worship since the church of Cain and Abel, and today's Old Testament lesson has much to say to us about it. 

The first thing we learn from Genesis chapter four is that there was a regularly appointed day for worship, just as there is today.  This is vital because man does not, and man cannot live by bread alone, but rather by every word that comes from the mouth of God, and the church is the place this "benefit" is given.  You cannot live by bread alone, because you are not comprised of flesh alone, but also have a living soul and it can be nourished only by the Bread of Heaven.

We learn, too, that both Cain and Abel brought offerings to the Lord.  Cain who was a farmer gave produce from the ground, and Abel who was a shepherd offered a lamb from his flock.  Because we don't live in an agrarian economy, we give our offerings in the form of currency, which represents our labor, but please understand that we don't bring offerings because of their practical necessity, or gather them into the church because it is a convenient time.  No!  The offerings we give are an act of faith, of worship and of love by which we acknowledge that God is the giver of all good gifts for both body and soul.

Further, the gifts offered must not only be gathered, but they must also be brought  forward to be specifically blessed, dedicated and offered to our God with praise and thanksgiving for the Great Gift He gave to us:  His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, whose blood shed on the cross and poured into the ground like Abel's redeems earth from death, and makes us glad, now and unto the ages of ages.  All of that is what is going on when we sing:  What shall I offer to the Lord for all His benefits to me?

Yet we quickly discover from Cain and Abel's church that there is more to the Offertory than the mere gifts.  We find in our story that Abel's gift was accepted and that Cain's was not, but why?  Did God prefer animals over produce?  Not at all.  In the fiftieth Psalm the Lord says, "Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?  Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you and you shall glorify me."  No it wasn't the nature or the size of the offerings but this fact alone:  Abel had faith, and Cain did not!

How about you?  Do you have faith?  Do you believe that the suffering and death of Jesus prefigured by the death of Abel, was for your sins so that they might be dissolved, deleted, and ever put to rest?  Such faith is central to the Christian religion.  With it you are saved, without it you are not.

Yes, faith!  Trust!  Reliance!  Utter dependence that in spite of your many transgressions, each of which has the power to eternally condemn you, that you are not condemned along with the rebellious devil, but saved; saved by grace, through faith, and that not of yourselves.  It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.

That brings us to the other quality needed to make a right offering to the Lord: humility.  For before you can believe, you must first repent.  You must first humble yourself before God.  The tax collector did, the Pharisee did not.  The tax collector came to church that day burdened by his many sins before God.  He had done nothing to offend man.  In the eyes of the law he was squeaky clean, but not before God.  He knew, not only that his debt was too great to pay, but that he had no currency that God would accept, so he did not ask for a deal or for terms, but rather for mercy, and he got it!  So do you!  Indeed we live before God on no other terms.

Jesus is the mercy seat of God.  When He died, the grand and ancient curtain in the temple which hid the  mercy seat from view, was torn wide open and a new mercy seat was revealed:  Jesus on the cross, which though He is seated in the heavenly places, is still the mercy seat of God.  His blood, spilled to the ground like righteous Able, gives life to the earth and to all who dwell therein.  You are those people.

What shall I offer to the Lord for all His benefits to me?  Faith?  Yes.  Humility?  Yes, but more besides.  St. Paul teaches us today that we are God's workmanship, created anew in Christ Jesus for a life of good works.  That is our purpose for living, Fellow Baptized, for a life of good works, and the one that commends itself to us today is the one we learn in Genesis, because you see, you are indeed your brother's keeper.  Only be sure not to do that good work in the smothering way that culture teaches, but in the way we learn from Christ, who is our true Brother and who keeps us ever safe.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Are you trying to find God in some great vision?


IF there is a common theme running through today's Scripture lessons it is that people don't know where to find God, but that is only because they are forever looking in all the wrong places.  They don't understand a key mystery of the Christian religion:  that God only reveals Himself through things that are NOT God.  Let us hear that again and pay close attention:  That God only reveals Himself to men by things that are NOT God.

You see, there are only two realities.  there is God who is in a category all His own, and there is everything else, all the things visible and invisible that God created and still lovingly preserves, but when God wants to reveal Himself to man, He never does it directly.  He never does it face to face, but only through things that are not God; only by means of the things He created.

Does that seem mysterious?  It is; not only mysterious, but baffling, and offensive to human pride, yet once we understand the mystery for what it is, we will no longer be confused.  Then we will not be like the people who heard Jeremiah preach, or like the Jews who encountered the Lord in His temple that day who had no earthly idea of the momentous events taking place before their very eyes!  Not only will our confusion vanish, but we will also know when, where and how to find our gracious Lord Who has unconditional positive regard for us, watches over us, and who delights in delivering us from all our troubles.  Yes, if you want to find God and enjoy the peace that surpasses understanding, then be sure to look in the right place.

What Jeremiah's audience did not know is that the prophet's words were God's words, that when Jeremiah spoke, God was speaking.  They saw Jeremiah's face, heard his voice, took note of all his utterly common features and promptly discounted him!  That was unfortunate, because by the prophet God was calling His wayward people to repentance.  He was warning them to avoid the coming judgment by amending their wayward lives, but they did not listen.  Their sins reached such a pitch that their consciences were no longer operational.  They normalized every sexual perversion and every from of idolatry.  Fraud and oppression became the national sport, and in the words of Jeremiah, they forgot how to blush.

St. Paul notes the same problem in his sermon to the church in the city of Rome.  The Jews did not recognize that the Old Testament was not an end in itself, but a schoolmaster that leads men to Christ.  They did not realize that when God's Lamb, who bears away the world's sin, arrived on the scene that the law had come to an end; that the temple with all its liturgical hardware, rituals and sacrifices was now obsolete.  They stumbled over the stumbling block that is Christ, but Scripture says to us as to them, "That whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame!"

The same confusion was at work in today's gospel lesson where we read that as Jesus viewed the holy city from afar, He broke down and cried.  He was filled with sorrow because His own people did not comprehend the mystery that we are pondering this morning:  that God's greatest revelation of Himself was here, dwelling among them, dressed in human flesh, and brimming over with grace and truth.

In spite of the Lord's unparalleled wisdom, His gracious displays of power over sickness, sorrow, death and Satan; in spite of all that Jesus said and did, His own people did not comprehend who He really was.  "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph," they said, "whose father and mother we know?"

What really tripped them up was the cross.  "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days," they taunted, "save yourself!  If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross."  But Jesus would not do that; not until sin was conquered, Satan's power crushed, and His Spirit was given over to His people to be the Lord and Giver of life for us all.  Then He would come down, yet not under His own power, but by the hands of Joseph of Arimathea, who boldly claimed the Lord's body from Pilate, and laid Him in his own tomb because he recognized that this Man is truly the Son of God.

Therefore the mystery we should learn today is that God only reveals Himself to men by things that are not God.  He makes His grace, mercy and peace known to us today by the Word of holy Scripture read, preached, prayed, sung, and confessed among us, and in the bread and wine which are the Lord's own body and blood, and the medicine of immortality.

Yet let us not stop there, because God reveals Himself by many other things that are not God as well.  What things?  The sanctuary itself, sacred art and architecture, by  liturgical  hardware, vestments, clergy, rites and rituals.  He uses graven images such as statues and crucifixes, icons and objects of sacred art to show Himself to us and to teach us about the life and salvation that is ours in Christ  Each of these discloses Jesus to us, who in turn reveals God to us.  None of these exist for their own sake, but for the sake of the gospel that fills them, otherwise they would be empty indeed, but they are not empty; quite the contrary.  These things that are NOT God engage all of our senses in order to uncover God for us.

There is yet one more disclosure of God that is not God.  It is you!  Yes, you, compelled by the love of Christ, reveal the goodness of God to others by your own gracious words, your peaceful thoughts, and your sacrificial acts of love.  By these, people perceive Christ in you and glorify your Father who is in heaven.  By these God is made known among men.

~  Rev.  Dean  Kavouras

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

When your life has been called to account


YOU have all heard about wolves in sheep's clothing; wolves who dress like the sheep in order to gain entrance among them, so that they can use them, abuse them, and destroy them.  That's what Satan does.  He can appear as an angel of light.  He can make himself look so sweet, good, and reasonable that the unsuspecting happily grant him admission, so God's people must always be sober and vigilant!

Jesus, who is the Son of Light, did the opposite.  He is God in human flesh, God for us, with us and comprehensible to us; not God the Judge come to give us our due, but God the Savior who brings sweet relief, who wins us back from our sinful rebellion, our pact with the devil, and who restores us to green pastures where the sheep may safely graze.

In His parables, Jesus teaches us in ways we can understand.  His parables are sometimes stories about us, like the Pearl of Great Price.  You are that pearl and the Lord "sold all He possessed" to buy the field where you were buried, so that you might be His own.  Or in the words of our Creed, "Who for us men and for our salvation He came down from heaven ... and was made man!"  He purchased us with His own blood, washed us in the water from His pierced side in holy baptism, and now we are His priceless treasure, even as He is ours.

His parables are also sometimes stories about Him.  He is the Good Samaritan who finds us along the roadside, dead in trespasses and sins, shunned by everyone, even those who profess to be our helpers.  When they see us they cross to the other side, but not Jesus!  He crosses to us, pours the wine and oil of His saving blood and Holy Spirit into our wounds, brings us to the inn of the church, and when He returns He will take us to the"eternal dwellings" spoken of in today's unusual parable, a parable in which Jesus is the main actor!

It is a tale that has left many Biblical interpreters puzzled.  They feel compelled to apologize for Jesus because He commends the "unjust Steward."  They do the same when He calls the Syro-Phoenician woman a dog, but the Lord doesn't need our apologies.  He knows what He's doing and what He is talking about, and contrary to to all the pretty Puritan pictures that Christians have formed of Jesus, when you're dealing with the Jesus of the Scripture, you should be prepared to get your hands dirty.  You should be ready to grab hold of life as it really is, and not the way utopian dreamers think it ought to be.  Only then can you be free and understand life in its fullness.

First the Law, then the Gospel; that is the Lutheran rule of faith.  First death, then resurrection.  First sorrow, regret, and terror regarding our sins; then remission, salvation, balm and blessings the likes of which no eye has ever seen, no ear ever heard, neither has ever entered into the heart of man.

If there is a weakness in our churches it is that we do not practice personal confession.  We don't give voice to our sins into a consecrated ear, longing to hear the words, "I forgive you all your sins."  General confession is not enough, because our sins are not general.  When we move to our new sanctuary there will be instruction given, and time afforded for such confession, in the hopes that this missing piece of the Lutheran Reformation, specifically prescribed by our Lutheran Fathers, may be re-established, because if you are anything other than a pathetic, flesh and blood sinner, then the true flesh and blood Savior is not for you.

No, this parable is not for Puritans.  It gets down and dirty for you see, Jesus is the Unjust Steward in the story who is commended by His Father for all that He did.  So let's ponder exactly what it teaches.

First the Unjust Steward is called to judgment, figuratively dies by losing his position, then rises again.  In the same way Jesus was called to account for our debts by "God who justifies the ungodly."  He suffered, died, and rose again to pay for our sins:  what is more unjust than that?

Scripture uses many metaphors to speak about sin but one of the big ones is debt.  Our trespasses put us in debt to God, and it is a balance none can pay.  It is too big, too stifling, too overwhelming.  Many discovered the meaning of such debt with the advent of the Great Recession in 2008.  People who worked their whole lives lost their jobs, their homes, and watched their retirement savings dwindle to nothing.  That is our condition before God:  "poor, wretched, blind," as the hymn says, but scripture says that "...though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you by His poverty might become rich."  What is more unjust that that?

Next the Unjust Steward extends forgiveness to others.   In the parable it is only partial forgiveness, but it is just a parable.  In fact our debts have been fully paid by Jesus on the cross and marked as "Paid in Full" when He rose from the dead "and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness."  Yes, sin pays its wages - death - to Jesus, but the gift of God to you is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Now this mysterious transaction may thrill you as much as baffle you.  Don't be surprised.  Saints of the past, both humble and great, have spent their entire lives engaged in studying the mysteries of our redemption and we would do well to imitate them.  This is what the church does in her teaching ministry.  Do not despise it by your absence, your love of sleep, or the creature comforts of this world.

Instead let this gem of a parable whet our appetites, and let us praise God from Whom all blessings flow for Jesus, the Unjust Steward who stood up to the Justice of God for us, who makes us Sons of Light, and who has prepared eternal dwellings for sinners who are declared just by faith in Him.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras