Friday, September 30, 2016

Feeling is a bit different from knowing


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We now know and believe the love which God has for us. God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him. 1 John 4:16

The God we worship is the Holy Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He reveals Himself to us in nature, conscience and through reason but most fully in Holy scripture. Nature tells us about His power, conscience about His judgment and reason that He created all things. But only in scripture do we learn the happy truth that God is love.

God is love! We know it, we believe it and we abide in it by expressing divinely inspired love to other people. In order to know the love of God we must go through the church’s learning process. We need to listen to God’s word, read it, study it and use all the tools of intellect that God gives so that we can know Him, love Him and serve Him here in time, and there in eternity. Dysfunctional versions of the Christian faith think formal education is un-necessary, even a fault. They assume that if the disciples were un-educated then simplicity is a virtue, but they are wrong. The disciples were highly intelligent and savvy men, and we should be the same. The more we can learn about history, language, culture, business, the arts and sciences the better we will understand God’s word, and the more faithfully we can serve Him in our vocations. It’s true that great learning apart from Christ often serves evil, but so does ignorance.

Sadly the church is plunging back into the darkness which it led the world out of centuries ago. Large segments have rejected the love of learning, especially the liberating (liberal) arts. They say that faith is caught, not taught. They praise ignorance, glorify emotion which is an unreliable compass, and teach people to follow their heart. Please do not do that! Because according to Jesus the heart produces nothing but, “evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, and blasphemies.” (Mt. 15:9) Note how each of the Lord’s words here is in the plural. It is no mistake. Instead we should learn to know the love of God by becoming intimately familiar with scripture, church history, church doctrine, church practice, and by diligently pursuing every area of interest the Holy Spirit inspires within us. People like to bash the internet, but today anyone who is willing to expend the discipline can get a world-class education for the cost of an internet connection.

Not only do we know the love that God has for us, we also believe it. But faith is very different than knowledge. Faith is not something we can obtain by our own efforts. It is only given by the Holy Spirit who uses His normally appointed means of preaching and the Sacraments. If we use them our faith remains healthy, if not it gets sick and dies. Therefore we should consider attendance at the divine service our top priority and build our schedule around it rather than it around our schedule.

Faith has both a conscious and un-conscious side. Sometimes we are aware of our faith and actively employ it to understand God’s word so that it might absolve us when we sin, guide us when we stray and re-assure us of His love no matter what surprises might come our way. Other times we are not conscious of it like when the daily struggles of life consume us, when we are overwhelmed, afraid or asleep; or when our minds are too old, too frail or too ill to be aware. Even then our faith in the love of God burns brightly because the Spirit who kindled it keeps it aglow. We need never worry about this because He who began the good work of faith within us, will bring it to completion on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ. But awake or asleep it is faith in God’s love by which we maintain our composure in a world that should otherwise frighten us to death. It is not only our comfort in life, however, but especially at life’s end. The knowledge of God’s love removes the fear of judgment because we know that our many transgressions were answered on the cross. We know that our eternity is secure with Christ because of the vows God made when He baptized us by the hand of His called and ordained servant.

Can there be any greater knowledge than this? Any greater faith? We do not rely on our own imagined righteousness to justify us before God, but on that of Christ crucified and raised from the dead. His birth is ours, His life is ours, His death is ours, His resurrection and ascension ours as well. “As the branch is to the vine, I am His and He is mine.” (TLH #342) This is what God’s love is and does, and there is nothing vague or shadowy about it. It was concretely displayed in history when God turned the Red Sea into dry land, gave His people water from a Rock and slew powerful armies before them. It is still exhibited today in the Church by miracles greater than the ones Jesus performed in His earthly ministry, namely when the word and sacraments bestow new life on those who are dead in sin. We experience it daily as we observe God working in our lives, answering our pleas for mercy, relieving our worries and turning our calamities into blessings. And it will be most fully realized when on the last Day He opens our graves and invites us to enter the kingdom He prepared for us before the foundation of the world!

Not only do we know and believe the love God displayed when He gave His Son into death for us, but we also participate in it by the love we demonstrate to others. But be careful here: God is love, but love is not God! Not every manifestation of charity or kindness or benevolence or sacrifice is a sign of the new birth. Many are covers for darker objectives. People feign love to lure in the unsuspecting so that they might advance themselves at the expense of others. But human beings are not play things to be used and then discarded for one’s own gain. God will judge such sins harshly whether committed by ordinary individuals like us, or by those in positions of power, because all people, no matter how expendable they might appear, are fashioned by God, loved by God and redeemed by Christ the crucified. So we must take our stand near the cross. When love is associated with faith and devotion toward Jesus then it becomes a proof of our love for God.

Let us proceed carefully then, but also love liberally so that we might fully abide in the love of God which we know and believe.   Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Why am I like this?

Today we are going to talk about the hardest part of Christianity. I’ll put it simply at first here: God does not do whatever we want whenever we want it. We have abundant grace because we are cleansed from sin by the blood of Jesus, but that grace does not always work the way we would have it work.  We have been criticized for asking for temporal blessings conditionally, for saying “If it be Thy will.”  Those who say that to be a Christian means instant health, instant comfort, and an interest plus return on offerings ask us “Isn’t our good always God’s will?”  In that question, if you listen carefully, you can hear the serpent of Eden hissing again.  Of course God desires our good! But temporal blessings may be the very worst thing for us.  We don’t know whether they are or not, so we learn over time to humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand.  St. Paul tells us that he prayed three times for health, for deliverance from the malady which he called the “thorn in the flesh.”  Then he accepted his cross and prayed that he might bear it to the glory of God.

We don’t know what the malady was that afflicted the apostle.   Some say it was malaria, some epilepsy, others say it was dimness of vision, or perhaps a skin rash that itched.  Whatever it was it distracted him.  It ripped and tore into his peace of mind.  He prayed three times.  A similar pattern occurred with Jesus in Gethsemane.  Three times He asked, “Father, if You are willing, let this cup pass from me.”  Jesus had to drink that cup, and Paul had to put up with his affliction.  Never did he suggest that the affliction made him anything other than a child of God.  He knew his sins were forgiven.  He knew that a crown of life was waiting for him.  Those were never in doubt, but he wanted something practical for day to day help.  As the same apostle wrote to the Romans, He that spared not His only Son, will He not willingly give us all things in Him?  Not all things.  Not the harmful things.  He had uses for Paul’s weakness in order to make His own strength perfect.

Not everyone is going to have the exact same pattern that Paul had.  Not everyone has a single dominating malady.  There might be several things.  They might be physical, such as being blind, or wheelchair bound, or bedfast.  Or it could be a social problem, a broken home, quarrelling and hatred where one should find comfort and peace.  It could be financial, poverty, bad credit, want.  When these things test us, does God lose credibility?  We can’t afford that.  All sinners must trust God.  Jesus did not say we would have a comfortable life here.  Material blessings are good, but Jesus taught us that God’s kingdom takes priority.  He showed us what He meant by that.  The thorns that pierced His head were sharper and deadlier than any we have to bear in the flesh.  He was giving us grace.  He may ask us to keep our thorns, because He has something so glorious, so life-giving and hopeful that we need not worry about pains of body or spirit.  He holds before us His easy yoke.  “My grace is sufficient for you.”  We are forgiven, and all things are working to bring us to our certain hope of eternal life.

Think about this:  do we deserve any better?  Isn’t a chronic malady a mighty small penalty for the lives we have led?  Of course it is!  In fact, it isn’t a penalty at all.   It is only chastisement, admonition, the Father’s hand coming down in parental discipline.  It is a blessing, a sign that He owns us as His heirs.  Yes, He blesses us abundantly, and as He does we tend to become distracted by the less important benefits and miss the grace itself.  He has to get our attention, so the thorn in the flesh is God saying, “Look at me!”  By grace He loved us before the foundation of the world.  By grace He had compassion on us while we were yet sinners.  By grace the Son of God left the company of adoring angels to come into the flesh.  By grace He bore our sins on the cross.  By grace He provided for us the Word and the Holy Sacraments to create faith in us, and to sustain it.  By grace God demands nothing of us and gives us everything.  He spared not His own Son but delivered him up for us all.  Will He not give us all good things?  Be careful what you call “good things.”  Also be sure that you can rely on the Savior.  God will give us what He sees is our good.

Why did Jesus tell Paul My power is made perfect in weakness?  That seems like a contradiction, but it isn’t.  God’s mercy may permit those thorns to bless you with the virtues of humility, spiritual honesty about yourself, courage you didn’t know you had, and patience.  In Paul’s case it was because he had had so many revelations from God that He might have been tempted to act with some independence.  The traps of self-applause and self-righteousness were open around him, so if we think we are well, we might not visit the Great Physician.  In the Gospels there are stories of people who would never have met Jesus if they had been normal, but God in His mercy made them lepers, or blind, or lame, or in the case of Zacchaeus, short.  Jesus paid attention to these people because of their maladies.  Far from being evidence that God has deserted you, such afflictions are a sign that He has His eye on you.

Whether you have just begun to walk with God, or have already crossed over a mountain range or two, you are still going to have weaknesses.  Through such weaknesses you will see the power of God at work.  His grace is a constant.  Do not doubt this!  God’s grace abounds to you.  It makes you able to face your troubles head-on, to battle against sin, and to find spiritual blessings in your afflictions.  No, in yourself you will always be nothing.  God’s grace accomplishes everything, sometimes through you, sometimes in you, sometimes in spite of you, and sometimes on you.  In any case though, He invites you to share the spoils of victory.  A

Rev. Lloyd Gross

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Whether suffering is for something done right or done wrong


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For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 1 Peter 2:20-21

Today we talk about suffering, first about Christ’s then about our own.   We purposely approach things this way because His suffering is most imporant!  It redeems us from sin, saves us from death, fills us with hope and gives us a pattern to follow in the things that we inevitably must suffer as well.

It is the heart of the Christian faith that Christ suffered and died for us.  The words “for us” mean “in our place” and “on our behalf.”  Jesus was our substitute in death.  The price for sin had to be paid either by us or by Him.  Thank God it was by Him, and that we are now redeemed, restored and forgiven.  Our warfare with heaven is ended, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ and we know that, in spite of our many wrongs, heaven is our eternal destination.

Our Lord’s suffering is not only more important than ours however, but also fundamentally different.  Why?  Because St. Peter tells us that He committed no sin.  Because of this Jesus had no reason to suffer or die but this is what makes Him the Perfect Savior that He is.  It was not His own wrongs that “He bore in His body on the Tree,” but ours.  He did so in order to atone for them, make us dead to sin and alive to righteousness forever.

Neither should we overlook the fact that Peter refers to the cross as the Tree because it shows the logic and reason of God’s justice.  As Adam brought death to all mankind by a tree, even so Christ brought life to all mankind by His death on the same!

The Lord’s suffering and death do not only provide salvation for us, but an example in patient suffering.  Everybody suffers, no one is exempt.  Sometimes the things we suffer are just, the result of our own bumptious behavior.  Transgress God’s commandments, especially those of the second table, and the consequences will not be pretty.  While Christ blessed those who persecuted Him it is unlikely that people whom we anger will be as charitable.  Almost every call for police services comes because someone breaks the fifth, sixth or seventh commandment.

Though there is nothing glorious about suffering patiently for the things we bring on ourselves, it does not mean that we are cut off from God’s love or help.  Please note that well. Even when we cause our own demise we should still ask God to be merciful to us, comfort us in our distress, give us relief from the self-inflicted consequences, and help us to avoid the sins that get us into such trouble.  He is merciful and will never get tired of hearing us, or helping us; so we should never despair or let the shame of our stupidity deter us.  Truly, if God did not help stupid people, He would have no one at all to be merciful to.

Sometimes we suffer unjustly.  They say that no good deed goes unpunished, and while that may sound cynical it is also true; truer than those who believe in “moral progress” are willing to admit.  Many times people have pure motives, especially when executing the responsibility of their offices, but the things they do are not always well-received.  This is particularly true of parents, pastors, police officers and anyone who is charged with management responsibilities.  Sometimes the quickest way to get into trouble is by doing the right thing, but this must never discourage us because this is what God has called us to do.

As Christians we can also expect mal-treatment for our faith.  The world can tolerate us up to a point.  If we quietly practice our faith and turn a blind eye to the world’s sin, we are likely to remain beneath its wrathful radar, but as soon as they hear our profession that Christ bore our sins in His body on the tree; that this death is the only cure for sin; and that salvation is found in no other name under heaven, then all bets are off. (Acts 4:12)  When this happens we should do what Jesus did:  entrust ourselves “to Him who judges justly” and wait for Him to act.  Like a Good Shepherd searching out His scattered sheep, He Himself will provide us with all we need (Ezekiel 34), restore us in every way, and make us strong, firm and steadfast. (1 Peter 5:10)

Other times we suffer because that is just the way the world is, and so no thinking Christian can approve of televangelists when they connect large scale disasters to the sins of the people affected.  No doubt the people so-affected deserve whatever happens to them and more besides, but so do these con-men, and so do we all, but that’s not how God works.  Christ suffered for us, and Christ died for us.  All sin was dealt with on the cross and new life was given the world when Jesus rose from the tomb.  Nothing more needs be done, nothing more can be done.  Instead the perpetual message of the Bible is this:  believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved. (Acts 16:31)  Neither natural disasters, nor the other troubles of life great or small, are meant to punish us.  Instead they serve a dual function of God’s mercy.  For unbelievers they act as a wake up call so that they might repent, believe and be saved.  For God’s children they serve as discipline and correction (Hebrews 12:5) which is something every Christian needs.

God uses the unavoidable sufferings of life to wake us up from our spiritual comas, make us see how fragile life is, and above all how much we need Christ to be our Shepherd, Savior, Comforter and Friend.  He is all these things to us and more!  Martin Luther (not MLK, JR), said that there are three ingredients that go into the making of a theologian.  In Latin they are: oratio, tentatio and meditatio, that is: study, prayer and suffering.  The first two, though indispensible, will only take us so far.  We should all study God’s Word, and be as conversant as we can in all legitimate branches of knowledge.  We should pray without ceasing: formally in church, and informally all day long for the constant stream of things we need God to provide us, but it is not until we suffer unjustly that we learn what a Good Shepherd Jesus truly is, and how blessed we are because He willingly laid down His life for us.  This is what makes us theologians of the cross, and may we become so more and more. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

It is never pretty when we try to glorify ourselves


When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast ... go and sit in the lowest place so that when your host comes he may say to you, "Friend, move up higher."  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.  Luke 14:8ff

AS the Lord has two natures, human and divine, Christians also have two natures, earthly and the heavenly.  The first we inherit from our parents, the second we obtain by faith in Jesus Christ our Savior and Lord.  

In the person of Jesus the Lord's two natures worked together.  They shared the qualities that each possessed thus making it possible for Jesus to be born of a woman, experience temptation, and suffer death on the cross, but also to conquer the devil in the wilderness, read the hearts of Pharisees, and rise triumphant from the grave to win life and salvation for us.  His two natures joined together make one Christ, one Savior, one Lord who is above all, through all, and in all.

Our two natures, on the other hand, do not work together!  The sinful self does the only thing it knows how to do:  it produces a flood of sinful thoughts words and deeds, and is beyond repair or reform.  Based on today's lessons we should think specifically about the sin of self-glorification, of self-exaltation.

Old Adam never rests, but is fully engaged in establishing his bona fides, exhibiting his superiority over other people, and exalting himself as lord over all.  This means that as long as there is a sinner left on earth the race for status and dominance will never end, and that spells trouble for us all -- big trouble!  Seven billion people, each with something to prove!

Yet self glorification is not any old sin, but the chief sin of all.  It is sedition!  Mutiny!  An act of treason; a declaration of independence from the One who is factually God and Father over all!  It is the sin that got Satan ejected from the heavenly council; a breach so egregious that the fitting sentence is everlasting punishment in a place specially prepared for the devil and for his angels, and as we learn in St. Matthew chapter twenty-five, for anyone whom he might deceive into following him there, and it would have to be a great deception indeed because who in his right mind would knowingly choose death over life, misery over happiness, everlasting gloom over eternal gladness?  Yet, it would have to be a powerful lie, but don't forget that Satan is the Father of Lies, and for him such mendacity is no problem at all.  He is more adept at spinning credible tales than we are at sorting them out, so hear the Word of Christ, the world of truth, the word of clarity that exposes all the devil's ploys, and is a lamp unto our feet and light to our path.  As well, always remember your baptism where you renounced the devil along with all his wicked works and all his wicked ways and every sinful pleasure that would distract you from the love of God.  

Let us humble ourselves because Jesus says that whoever humbles himself will be exalted, not by men, but by God!  Beware of man's admiration!  Beware of his approval, appreciation and approbation.  The esteem people dole out serves them, not you.  It takes more than it gives.  It is sticky, conditional, temporary and always dependant on your latest performance.  Rather look to be exalted by the Lord Jesus Christ who will say to you, "Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.  Enter into the joy of your master."  That is praise you can rely upon, the approval that will lift you up to the highest seat at the feast.

Therefore let us be warned again today against the sin of self-exaltation, and the distress and disunity that follows in its wake, that destroys churches, families and friendships.  Instead let us endeavor, by the New Man, Christ in us, to maintain the unity of the Spirit and bond of peace in our hearts and in our homes.

"When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast," says Jesus, "do not sit down in a place of honor..."  Yet this parable is more than a parable because you have been surely invited to the most royal wedding of all, the wedding feast of the Lamb, with this unexpected surprise:  that when you arrive on the last day you will find yourself not as guest, but as the bride, washed with water and the word so that you will be without spot, blemish or any other wrinkle.  You will find yourself exalted in ways that words cannot express at this time, except to say that your days of sorrow will come to a sudden halt, and your joyful eternity will begin.

The mystery, though unfathomable, is the one that Christians believe none the less; not only believe, but anticipate and participate in every Sunday when we come to the Lord's altar to be joined in holy communion with Christ.  Here the two are made one flesh.  Here we are glorified in ways that defy explanation.  We are cleansed of the sins that so easily beset us, released from their shame and guilt, and many times by God's mercy even delivered from their stinging temporal consequences.  Here we are exalted far above any admiration that the world could ever give or hope for, for here we are made one body with the one Lord.

Though you may sit in the lowest seat imaginable at this present time, hear this excellent word of St. Paul.  "Set your affection on things above not on things on the earth.  For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God.  And when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall you also appear with Him in Glory."  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Socialism; Communism; Utopia


Neither was it by blood of goats and bulls, but by His own blood that He entered once and for all into the Most Holy Place having obtained eternal redemption.” Hebrews 9:11-15

Contrary to popular opinion the church is not interested in making the world a better place. We know from God’s Word that the world and her people are utterly desecrated, so we do not waste our time trying to fix the unfixable, neither do we lose our focus. Our beat is theology, God’s Word, Sin and Grace, so like St. Paul we are determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). The world cannot be improved, but it can be saved, not by politicians but by Jesus whose blood provides eternal redemption for the perpetual profanity of which our lives consist.

By profanity we do not mean coarse language, though it is one of the symptoms of a base life. Rather, to live a profane life means to love the secular rather than the sacred, to serve the creature rather than the Creator who is blessed forever (Romans 1:25). It means to receive the gifts of God as brute beasts, without understanding, faith or the giving of thanks, and to use them to serve our sordid desires rather than the Living God.

The world is very evil but it is not only the unbaptized who live profane lives. Christians, too, have sinful natures. We, too, are tempted to sin, often succumb and sometimes never get back up. This is nothing new. During forty years of wilderness wandering God’s people became impatient with the journey, even as we do today. Rather than thank God for the great deliverance from Egyptian slavery, and dedicate their lives to His service, they complained about Him, the Shepherd He gave them and the provisions He miraculously supplied them. The eyes of their hearts were turned inward. They only thought about what they did not have, instead of what they did have, namely, the Living God as their Lord, who satisfies the desires of every living thing. Neither was it a minor rumbling that was brewing, but large scale discontent so that the Holy Nation was about to melt down.

We see the same thing happening today both in the church and the world. The world is living in a massive bubble which is about to pop and people know it. The church appears no more faithful than rebellious Israel we hear about in today's Old Testament lesson (Numbers 21:4-9). How do you stop such a thing? The LORD knew. He sent what Scripture calls “fiery serpents” to bite the people, and many of them died as a result. It didn’t take them very long to connect the dots. They knew that they had brought wrath onto themselves by their love of the secular, and though they were terrified, they knew where help was to be found. They ran with all haste to the one person who could save them, to Moses who was a model of the coming Christ, and he had pity on them. He prayed for his ailing flock and God answered by giving them a bronze snake on a pole to heal them. The Bible records no directions for its use, but again the connections didn’t take long. People who were bit quickly discovered that if anyone simply lifted up his eyes and looked at the bronze snake, he would be healed. It was that simple and that perfect. How can bronze snakes do such great things? They can’t, but God can. By means of this pole, which was prophetic of Christ and of the New Testament Sacraments, God was giving new life to His people ,so that they might purge their consciences from dead works and serve Him with all their hearts, souls and minds.

Fourteen centuries later Jesus said to Nicodemus: as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:14-15 ) Salvation is still that simple and still that perfect. Look to the cross on which Jesus died, and it will undo the devil’s poisonous bites.

The only cure for perpetual profanity is eternal redemption, and we have it in Christ. The writer to the Hebrews explains this by contrasting Jesus with the Old Testament High Priest. Under the Old Covenant the High Priest would enter the Most Holy Place once a year in order to obtain remission for the people’s sins, and secure God’s blessings for them. It was understood that he was not to go in empty-handed but that he had to sacrifice a bull for his own sins, and a goat for those of the people, and that the blood of the sacrifices was the price of admission. It was a ritual that had to be repeated every year because the sins of the people were perpetual. That’s how it is with sin; there’s no way to turn off the spigot. As long as there are people there will be sin so our redemption needs to be one that is inexhaustible.

But Jesus our priceless treasure and sinless Savior was different. He too made a sacrifice, that of His own unblemished and indestructible life (Hebrews 7:16), which He willingly offered to God for us. His self-sacrifice was an intelligent and loving response to the holy and gracious will of God, and to the terrible situation of man. Though we will never fully comprehend it, may we believe it exclusively and be eternally grateful for it.

He was different, too, in that He did not enter as a yearly visitor like the Old Testament High Priest, but according to the writer, our crucified and resurrected Lord “passed through the heavens” to the very throne of God (Hebrews 4:14) where He ever lives to make intercession for us. This is the Glad Message that purges our consciences, allays our fears and energizes us to offer up sacrifices of praise and good works which are pleasing and acceptable to God (Hebrews 13:16). May we do so more and more.

But please don’t think that redemption is something far removed from us, or beyond our grasp. We not only grasp it in our minds by faith, but we actively participate in it when we join in the church's worship, even as we are doing at this very time. In this sacred assembly forgiveness of sins and all its attendant benefits are imparted to us by Jesus Himself, as we hear His Word, eat His flesh and drink His blood. These gifts not only keep us in faith, but they comfort us in all our troubles and strengthen us to complete the journey ahead, until we too pass through the heavens where we will be with our Lord and serve the Living God perpetually. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Am I looking for Jesus or is Jesus looking for me?


But when Jesus heard it He said to them:  The healthy do not need a physician, but those who are sick, do.  Go and learn what this means!"  I desire mercy and not sacrifice, for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.. Matthew 9:12-13

TODAY the church remembers St. Matthew whose titles include:  Tax Collector, Disciple, Apostle, Evangelist, and Saint, but in commemorating Matthew we are in fact remembering Jesus who found him, called him and cleansed him from his sins, thus rendering him a saint.  Jesus has done the same for you!

The first thing we should consider today is who this man was.  The verses we read as our text come from Matthew's own gospel.  They are a short but trustworthy autobiography of the sinner made saint by Jesus.  In verse nine we read these words, "Jesus saw a man sitting at the tax office, named Matthew."  Here we gain two vital pieces of information about the man.  First his occupation, that he was a tax collector.  That in itself is no sin.  Please be certain that Christians are free to labor in government service, or in any other vocation, as long as they do so with integrity, but in Matthew's day tax collectors were sleazy and despised.  First, because they were Jews collecting taxes from God's people that went to support the un-holy Roman Empire.  This enraged many zealous Jews, but second and equally as disturbing was the fact that tax collectors had the power to levy arbitrary fees above and beyond the taxes they had to remit to Rome.  This made them powerful and greedy men; men who served mammon instead of God, their own desires, instead of their neighbor.  Matthew was such a person, a man who needed to repent, so that he might gain heavenly treasures instead.

We then learn his name in verse nine, Matthew, which in Aramaic means "Gift of God."  Matthew was this, too; God's gift to the church.  When Jesus first laid eyes on him He knew that this would be the man the Spirit would charge with writing this indispensable and possibly first of the four gospels.  One of the features of the new Christ Lutheran Church will be the return of St. Matthew's statue that adorned our former chancel, representing the Lord's true humanity, even as will St. John's which represents his true divinity.

Matthew's call was also remarkable.  Jesus saw him sitting in the tax office and said to him, "follow me," and Matthew did exactly that.  Without the slightest hesitation he left everything he knew behind and instantly became a disciple of Jesus.

We should all remember today the explanation to the third article from the catechism which says, "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord  or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith..."  This reminds us that Matthew did not find Jesus, Jesus found Matthew.  The same is true of you.  You did not find Jesus, but Jesus found you.  He found you, called you to be His own, and washed you with the blood of His cross, in the water at the font.  Neither did he wish you a happy life and leave you there to fend for yourself.  Instead He brought you into the church where He dines with you at His holy altar and where by the preaching and teaching of God's inspired word, He causes you to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ so that He who began a good work in you, who gave you the gift of faith and the mind of Christ, might bring it to completion on the Day of our Lord Jesus Christ.  That will be the best day of all!

As the Lord called Matthew to be a disciple, which means "student," even so He calls you, not only to worship at His altar, which is the highest of all Christian privileges and duties, but also to engage in learning all that you possibly can about your holy Christian faith, it's history and practices, doctrines and dogmas, art and architecture, its music, its morals and its ethics.  If you are not growing in the grace and knowledge of your Lord Jesus Christ as St. Matthew did, then you are a lukewarm disciple, like the Christians in Laodicea whom the Lord threatened to spit out of His mouth because they were neither hot nor cold, but may we never be lukewarm.  Let us rather be as quick as St. Matthew to answer the Spirit's call to repentance because even as disciples we are wounded by sin each day.  As wounds and medicine are to the body, so sins and repentance are to the soul, so let us not despair, however overwhelming our sins might be, because there is no sin that does not retreat before the power of Jesus and His sacrifice on the cross.

Lest we should succumb to self-righteousness, let us remember that Jesus did not come to our world to redeem the righteous, but only to save sinners.  If you think that you are pretty good, not so bad, or even in a tiny way better than other people against whom you might choose to measure yourself, then Jesus has no business with you, none at all, but only with sinners who desire mercy each day.

We are those sinners and it is for our sake that the Spirit called St. Matthew to be an evangelist, to be the writer of this enduring gospel by which we gain faith and confidence in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by which we obtain spiritual strength to turn from the love of uncertain riches and to single-mindedly follow Jesus in the path of poverty, service, death and resurrection.  May we be such disciples.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Are you saved by blood but continue to speak and live indecently? General hostility, filthy language and sexual immorality have no place this body


Therefore be imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love even as Christ loved us and gave Himself on our behalf, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. And let not sexual immorality, any impurity, or any lustful desire even be spoken of among you, as is fitting for saints. Nor should there be any filthiness, salacious talk or crude joking which are not fitting, but rather thanksgiving. Ephesians 5:1-4

St. Paul never engaged in publicity stunts when he instructed God’s people, and neither should we.  He never would have erected a church sign saying: the best vitamin for a Christian is B-1.  Instead his unwavering message is this:  Live your lives as beloved children of God.  But isn’t that obvious, you ask?  It may be, but why chance it?  Besides when Paul encourages these things he isn’t merely reminding us, but empowering us to do them as well.  Without God’s word we are not only clueless but also powerless in spiritual matters, unable to lift a finger in thankfulness or praise.  Cut yourself off from preaching and you are done.  Neither is it adequate to say:  I know what I believe, I don’t need to hear God’s Word from the pastor every week, receive his absolution, or share in the Lord’s body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins;  I can read my bible at home, watch Joel Osteen on TV and listen to the FISH on the radio.

Good luck with that.

If that’s what you think, you are what is called “low hanging fruit” for the devil, and every single temptation of the flesh will lay you low.  Such thinking will never do, because there is no more important work than to live as beloved Children of God, and that takes Real Power, the kind that can only be obtained from the divine Word.

What is a beloved child of God?  We are all children of God because He is the heavenly Father who created us, but like rebellious children, sin estranged men from Him.  All of us have taken the blessings God gives and squandered them on prodigious living without a thought for anything but the pleasure of the moment.  Only when we find ourselves living among the pigs, jealous of their food, do we come to our senses, but even regret would have no advantage unless God gave His only-begotten Son to be our Savior, and imparted all the benefits of His sacrificial death to us in holy baptism, which is what makes us Beloved Children.

Paul uses stout language in this little verse in order to give us a better understanding of the breadth, length, height and depth of Christ’s love for us.  He says that Christ offered Himself as a fragrant “sacrifice” to God; and that word, sacrifice, should make us both afraid and grateful.  It makes us afraid because the things Jesus suffered were due and payable to us, and except for His sacrifice there is no avenue of escape for sinners.  Our wrong-doing has merited the fury of God and by rights there should be shame, mockery, thorns and a cross for each of us.  Sin is no laughing matter!  By rights we should be forsaken by God and handed over to our enemies to be “butchered, immolated and eliminated” even as Jesus was for us.  That’s what the word “sacrifice” means as Paul uses it.

But when we hear these words: that Christ gave himself as a fragrant sacrifice to God for us, in our place and on our behalf, we no longer fear, but rejoice.  We thank God for giving His Son to take our sins onto Himself, to be our substitute, to suffer and die in our place and to eliminate our offenses so that they are not only absolved, but dissolved.  Our sins are not just hidden away, swept under a rug, or locked in a cabinet with all the ugly family secrets, where they might one day find us again, haunt us again and make us afraid and ashamed again.  We need not spend our lives looking over our shoulders wondering when the sins of our youth might come calling for us.  Our damning deeds are gone, destroyed and paid in full by Jesus!  They can never again trouble us, condemn us, judge us, harm us, hinder God’s blessings from reaching us each day, or keep us away from the heaven which God promises us (and which our loved ones in Christ are presently enjoying).

How does a beloved child of God live?  St. Paul sets the highest possible standard when he says: become imitators of God.  What does that mean?  We learn the answer in chapters four and five of this epistle where Paul gives us a catalogue of six virtues and six vices.  On the plus side he teaches us to speak truthfully; put aside rage; respect the property of others; perform honest labor so that we can be givers and not takers; use our words to edify others; and finally to maintain a tender-hearted attitude towards others forgiving them the wrongs they perpetrate against us, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven us.

On the other hand he solemnly warns God’s people against sins of the flesh telling us to avoid at all costs sexual immorality, impurity, lustful desires, filthiness, salacious talk and crude joking.  Why such strong language?  Because Ephesus was home to the temple of Diana the great fertility goddess of the ancient near east, and sexual license was considered not only a right but even a religious duty, and nothing was out of bounds, but more than that because these things contradict who we are as God’s beloved children.  In what way?  First, because God who created us is pure and faithful therefore we must keep ourselves unspotted from the world.  Secondly, because the church is the bride of Christ.  He is the Savior who sanctified her, cleansed her and presents her to Himself as a splendorous bride without spot, wrinkle or blemish.  As Christ is a faithful husband to us, who will always love us, honor us and never abandon us; so we too should be faithful and untainted.  Thirdly, because in baptism our bodies become earthly dwelling places of the Holy Spirit and as such we are to keep them unpolluted from sins of the flesh.

It has been said that chastity is the one new virtue that the church introduced to the world and it’s true, not only then but now as well.  Today we live as beloved children of God when we believe the Gospel of our salvation.  Faith is the most fragrant form of thanks we can offer to God, but our thanks becomes even more aromatic when, heeding Paul’s admonition, we lead sexually pure and decent lives, and husband and wife love and honor each other, and when, as opportunity arises, we defend virtue, show it as coming from God, and commend it to all men – so that they too might lift up holy hands in praise to Him who gave Himself as a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God on our behalf.   Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, September 19, 2016

Are you getting tired and ready to give up?


This image is of Australian origin and is now in the public domain
because its term of copyright has expired
Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Romans 12:12

CHRIST fulfilled every promise God made to save sinful man. He came, preached good news, liberated the captives from sin by His blood and still consoles the broken hearted with His mercy.  After He accomplished all that was needed to redeem us He commanded that the Gospel be preached to the ends of the earth so that men everywhere might believe and be saved.

But has the world changed since His coming?  Do we hate what is evil and cling to what is good?  Are husbands and wives more affectionate since our Lord first manifested His glory at a small town wedding twenty centuries ago?  Not so that anyone would notice.  If anything the world gets worse with the passage of time as Jesus predicted it would (Mt 24:12-24).  Wickedness increases, love grows cold, and the kings of the earth rage louder against the Lord and against His Anointed with each passing day. (Psalm 2).

And how about us?  Has our sinful flesh been tamed so that we are no longer tempted to live like beasts?  Impossible!  The Flesh is incorrigible.  It only knows how to do evil and the Old Adam loves and worships no one but himself.

Unless we can see with 20/20 vision through the eyes of faith, Paul’s prescription makes no sense at all.  There’s nothing to rejoice about; no reason to endure tribulation, every reason to eat, drink, be merry and die, and not a rationale in the world that would lead us to devote ourselves to prayer or bow down in reverence before our God.  None the less we have this inspired word:  rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, constant in prayer.

The first thing Paul exhorts God’s people is to do is rejoice in hope.  Immediately a problem arises because in our language to hope means to wish, but in theology it means something very different.  To hope means to wait patiently for the Lord to work His good and gracious will in our lives.  So when Paul tells us to rejoice in hope he means that we should find solace and satisfaction, not in the present sinful realities of life which look like they will never end, but rather in the future and certain pledge of God to supply all our needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).

But there’s more.  In the original Greek Paul doesn’t merely say “rejoice in hope,” but “rejoice in the hope.”  He employs the definite article and that little word makes a big difference.  Why?  Because there are many false hopes out there; each one alluring, each one tempting, each one claiming to be the hope that will solve every problem and make all of our dreams come true.  Companies market false hopes for money.  Politicians spin them out of their dreams for a living.  Criticize if you like but none of them would get to first base if we didn’t foolishly demand that mere men give us what only Christ can, namely true hope and a reason to rejoice.

What is the hope that Paul has in mind?  Nothing less than the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.  That is the Great Expectation that fuels our faith and inspires our hope.  Everything has been done for our salvation by Christ; the promises made, the future prepared.  All we wait for now is our final deliverance and this one reality fills us with joy.

Next Paul tells us to be patient in tribulation and there are two kinds of trouble that we suffer:  First there is the trouble that’s common to all men.  According to the Lord’s own word (John 16:33) as long as we live in the world we will have tribulation.  Do you wish it were not so?  Remember hope is not a strategy, and self-pity is deadly.  Life is what it is; troublesome, tiring and frustrating, sometimes from too much wine, sometimes because there’s not enough, but that will never change.  We might re-arrange the darkness, but until the Last Trumpet sounds and our Lord brings about the New Age, nothing will fundamentally change.

Still there’s more.   Again Paul uses the definite article encouraging us to be patient in the tribulation.  Besides the normal travails of life Jesus warns in Mark 13:13 that, “You will be hated by all for my name's sake, but he who endures to the end will be saved.”  Sometimes it seems like Jesus is wrong and that the world respects the church.  It’s especially true when we do the world’s charitable work for it.  People love the church when it’s nothing more than a benign social services agency, but as soon as we open our mouths to confess that Jesus is the only mediator between God and man and all others imposters, then all bets are off.

It's not only our Profession they despise, but our morality as well.  The world doesn’t like Christian morality.  It’s too confining but also too holy.  So holy indeed that without so much as a single word it condemns all who transgress it, and we are the ones who get the blame.  So St. Paul encourages us to patiently endure these things.  It’s not easy but we get our courage from the Lord Himself who, for the joy that was set before Him, endured the cross, despised the shame and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2). May we learn to do the same!

Lastly Paul admonishes us to be constant in prayer. We cannot re-create the apostolic church, and would be ill-advised to ignore 2000 years of church history as if it never happened. We cannot turn back the hands of time as Pietistic Christians would like, but we can learn a lot from the church which met immediately after Pentecost and devoted itself to prayer, the Word and the Sacrament.  Nothing can counter-act the injuries the devil inflicts upon us better than these things.  Medicine can be a blessing, psychology can teach us a few tricks, but nothing can actually cure bleeding souls except prayer, God’s Word, and God’s Sacraments.

Again St. Paul uses the definite article and tells us:  be constant in the prayer.  For us the prayer is the one we call the Lord’s Prayer.   It is the perfect prayer and there is none better.  It is given to us by Jesus Himself and we will never cease to pray it until we see God face to face and no longer need it.  It includes every important element, covers every possible need and we can be sure that God will answer it in the affirmative every single time.

If we have any problem today it’s not a shortage of prayers to pray, but an over-abundance.  The treasury of Christian prayer is more than we could plumb in a lifetime, so we do well to learn the basics, and nothing teaches us better than the prayers we pray each Lord’s Day in the Mass.  By years of blessed repetition we do what would otherwise be impossible, remain constant in prayer.

The world still is the same, and we’ll never change it, but with the instruction and power of God’s Word we will always be able to rejoice in hope, endure in tribulation and remain constant in prayer.  God grant it.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What does it mean that the world is crucified to me and I to the world?


But as for me, God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world stands as crucified in connection to me, and I in connection to the world  Galatians 6:14

In today's epistle lesson St. Paul goes for the jugular!  He takes on the dirtiest sin of all, the sin of self-righteousness.  The Christians in Galatia suffered from it and so do we.  Rather than glory in the cross of Christ, the Galatians exalted themselves, and did so in the usual fashion:  they raised themselves up by putting other people down.  That's how it always works, but that is not the Christian way.

St. Paul was not addressing a theoretical situation, but the sinful pride that resulted from opposing religious factions.   That still happens today.  Not that religious opposition is a bad thing, because it is not.   It is in fact, a good and necessary thing lest error ruin the church and destroy those for whom Christ died, but the defense of the faith must always be pursued with great care, with humility and thanksgiving for gifts given and for knowledge received; and it must never stem from self-righteousness, or sinful pride, but that is easier said than done.

Self-righteousness, however, does not only occur in the church, but is an ever present danger in the family and in the world at large, so we should hear Paul's words carefully today because vices such as envy, conceit and strife are serious transgressions that incur the wrath of God, and the displeasure of your  neighbor as well.  So be careful, because self-righteousness is not religion, but Christ-righteousness is, meaning the righteousness that comes by faith in Jesus Christ; the righteousness that boasts in, glories in, relies upon, clings to and stubbornly refuses to let go of the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ!  The Galatian Christians had it, but lost it, so St. Paul  rides to the rescue with this most excellent word of God, this most admirable rule of faith:  "But as for me, God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world stands as crucified in connection to me, and I in connection to the world."

The full meaning of this verse is not easily conveyed in English, but what it says in the original language is that the world, with all of its passing pleasures, uncertain riches, lethal temptations, and never-ending struggle to lionize ourselves by demonizing others; all of that and whatever else this sin-sodden world represents, stands as crucified, dead and buried as regarding me.  Or said another way, all that the world holds sacred, all that the world holds dear, all that this world expends its life, energy and resources pursuing, is nailed to the cross of our Lord and is dead to me;  and just to make sure there is no doubt, not only does the world stand crucified, dead and buried in its connection to me, but I, by the same cross, and crucified, dead, and buried to it, and to all that it holds sacred and dear.

All of that is what St. Paul  means, and what he prescribes for the church in the strongest possible language available to him.  When he says, "God forbid," he means, "may it never happen, or be the case, not now not ever that we should boast in anything except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ."

The word "except" is likewise the most dynamic form of negation available to him in the Greek language in which he wrote.  "Except" in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The same is for the words "stands as crucified."  There is no simple way to express this in English except to say that what the cross of Christ accomplishes and represents is not a past event now over, but quite the contrary, it is the ongoing basis of salvation and the foundation of our victory over evil, sin and death now and in eternity as well.

To those who are perishing, the cross is foolish and offensive.  It bespeaks judgment for sins committed, and calls them to repentance, the end of self-righteousness and trust for true righteousness in Jesus dead on the cross.  To the new man, however, who is begotten from above by water and the Spirit, it is our only boast, and our only glory, our only hope, our only confidence, our only peace, and our only comfort, for you see, Jesus on the cross was never Plan B, but always Plan A.  It stood for salvation from the foundation of the world.  The cross, if you recall, was the central feature in the Garden of Eden, even as the altar is the focal point of the Christian sanctuary.  It was called The Tree of Life and it stood in the very center of Eden representing, preaching, promising and predicting the Tree on which our Lord died, to give life to the world.

We find it again in today's Old Testament lesson, an event that took place 850 years before the birth of Christ.  The widow was gathering a  "few sticks" in hopes of saving her life and that of her son, but those "sticks" foretold, predicted and promised the cross which preserves our lives and changes our status from widow and orphan to Bride of Christ, and adopted children of the true God and Father of us all.

Today the same cross is accessible to us in the church.  It's benefits are imparted as we hear the Gospel preached and worship at the Lord's altar where we become one flesh with Him who left His Father, came to earth, assumed human flesh, human soul and human mind in order that He might die for us, and die He did, and live we do!  It is for this reason that we are not ashamed to join St. Paul in declaring:  God forbid that I should boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world stands crucified as concerning me and I concerning the world.  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Why do we focus so much on doctrine?


And they were astonished beyond measure saying, "He has done all things well.  He even makes the deaf hear and the mute speak."  Mark 7:37

THE problem with Protestantism is that it is largely a religion of the mind.  Faith is understood to be agreement to a set of doctrinal formulations, and eternal life is determined by a doctrinal examination.  They would never say it like that, but that is what it amounts to.  Maybe you have seen the billboards around town with the message, "Who do you say the Son of Man is?  Your eternity depends on your answer."

Unfortunately much Protestant thought has rubbed off on Lutherans and we need to scrub it from our brains as best we can.  Doctrinal formulations are a vital part of our religion.  They are the framework of our faith and we must always believe, teach and confess the Word of God in its truth and purity with all of our might, but doctrine is not all there is.  Our invisible faith also has a visible side to it, one that must not be ignored.  We need to understand that the grace of God is always attended by signs and wonders that are perceived by the five senses, and today's gospel is a prime example.

What were the Lord's miracles all about after all?  Were they simply attention grabbers?  If so they did their job.  They inspired astonishment, faith and praise as we learn in today's gospel, but they were more than attention grabbers.  St. John consistently refers to the Lord's miracles as "signs," and that is what they are:  visible manifestations that attend the INVISIBLE grace of God.  They are the tiny tip of the  massive iceberg of mercy that lies beyond our vision.  By them Jesus, already during His earthly ministry, began to repair what sin had destroyed, because at the end of the day all the problems we suffer in life, from the greatest to the least, from illness to earthquakes to a guilty conscience can be traced back to the destructive negativity of sin.

What God created as "very good," the devil is dedicated to destroying, but Jesus puts Humpty Dumpty back together again.  That is what St. Mark teaches us with the words, "He does all things well."  The word in Greek is not "well" but "good," as in Genesis chapter one, where we read that all the things God created were very "good," which is to say that they were in accordance with the Creator's unfathomable wisdom, in line with His good and gracious will.  By the Lord's miracles and by His crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus restores all things to their good estate, especially sinners, especially you.

This same theme, the VISIBLE grace of God, runs through all of our lessons today.

In Psalm 146 we learn that God executes justice for the oppressed, that He watches over the fatherless children, gives food to the hungry and opens the eyes of the blind.  He did that through the Lord's earthly ministry and still does it today through the good works of those who are imitators of Christ.

In today's lesson from Isaiah the Lord promises that, "the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see."  These are the things that Jesus did in fulfillment of the prophecies, and that He still does today in answer to the church's prayers, and according to His good and gracious will.  Yes!  You can and should still pray for miracles today, and expect them however hopeless the situation might seem by human standards, not because you have twisted His arm by your great display of emotion that you mistake for faith, like so many raving prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:29), but because He is the "almighty and merciful God" just as our collect* says today.

Though the kind of miracles that Jesus did are not as evident today as they were then, the Sacraments are richly  manifest among us.  By the water, the word and rituals of holy baptism Jesus opens the ears of our hearts to hear His gospel, to trust it, and to cling to it though devils all the world should fill, and like the deaf mute, He opens our lips to receive His body and blood, and that by doing so, to confess with His people every Sunday that Jesus is Lord!

This is what St. Paul has in mind in today's epistle lesson where he declares himself to be a minister of the New Testament.  He is not referring here to the last twenty-seven books of the bible, but instead to the words of Jesus:  This cup IS the New Testament in my blood.  This is the greatest miracle of all:  that in the blessed sacrament our Lord feeds us with His own life-giving, death-defying flesh and blood, in order to eradicate every last "sin cell" from us, rendering us sin-free, and giving human beings, infected with eternal death, a clean bill of health.

Yet the church does not stop there!  Instead, since the beginning, she has consecrated her time, talents and treasures to making the invisible faith visible.  She has constructed beautiful sanctuaries to reflect the Beautiful Savior she worships.  She has turned her best efforts to producing sacred liturgies, books, vestments, vessels, music, art, rites and rituals to be visible manifestations of the love that the Immortal, Invisible and only Wise God holds for us, and lest anyone think that she is turned only inward, she has consecrated her very existence on earth to performing works of mercy for all in need, to teach the ignorant, counsel the erring, heal the sick, clothe the naked, feed the hungry and bring about justice for the oppressed.  Her works of charity have been performed in every corner of the the globe to make the love of the invisible God visible to every eye.

So on this 12th Sunday after Trinity let us continue to dedicate ourselves to the same:  to our life-giving and soul-satisfying doctrine, to Divine Worship in all of its goodness, beauty and truth, to the love of the sacred, and to the works of mercy without which the Christian religion is incomplete.  God grant it.  Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

*Almighty and merciful God, by Your gift alone Your faithful people render true and laudable service.  Help us steadfastly to live in this life according to Your promises and finally attain Your heavenly glory, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.