Sunday, December 10, 2017

How do we prepare for the Lord's coming?


Stir up our hearts, O God, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve you with pure minds.  (Collect for 2nd Sunday of Advent)

LAST week, on the first Sunday of Advent, the church prayed that God would "stir up His power" and come rescue us from the threatening perils of our sins.  We asked our God, for whom nothing is impossible, to awake to our troubles, hear our prayers, and to save us from them!

Today we pray that the same God who "stirred up His power," would also "stir up our hearts" so that we might prepare for the Lord's coming and be enabled to serve Him with pure minds, here in time, and there in eternity.  But how do we do that?

If you want to meet God, if you want to know the joy of His love, and the consolation of His coming, there's only one way to do it, dear Christians:  by repentance.  We are sinners and by our sin we have left the family home and forfeited our place at the family table.  We have sold our birthright like Esau did for a pot of beans, only there's nothing magical about them: no beanstalk, no rainbow and no pot of gold; only discontent, despair, disease and death.

Yet we need not always live this way because Jesus came to be our Savior; came to renew the face of the earth, but He didn't redeem us by remote control from a comfortable recliner in the heavens.  Instead He "was made man."  He "bore our griefs and carried our sorrows."  He took on the entire human experience from birth to death and sanctified what we polluted with our sins.  He suffered want, sorrow, temptation, pain, dishonor, injustice, false accusations and finally cruel death on the cross, but He did all those things for us, to purge our sins, reconcile us to our True Father, and make us new creations in Christ who can now serve Him with pure minds.

In baptism, we who are born as sinful people of sinful parents, are born anew and begotten from above; begotten of the heavenly Father and given a heavenly inheritance.  However our new life doesn't end with baptism.  It is only beginning.  From the font we are brought into the church where we are taught holy things, holy truths, holy ways; where we are absolved of our ongoing sins of the flesh and nourished and strengthened with the Bread of Life.  Here we enter into communion with the holy so that the old things that cling to our flesh might pass away and behold, all things be made new.  This is what we pray for in today's Collect, that God would continue to stir up our hearts so that by our Lord's coming, we might be enabled to serve Him with pure minds.

Now there's a prayer!  The desire to serve God with a pure mind, a service which takes on two forms, first that the baptized should partake in holy worship.  Twice in the revelation of St. John we hear the command of the angel:  Worship God!  We hear the same message from our Lord who says, "Worship the Lord your God, and Him only shall you serve."  This is the duty of all men whoever you are, wherever you come from, to turn from your sins, to cleanse your minds, and to worship the Father in spirit and truth.  Yet this command to worship is not merely done in theory or simply in our minds or hearts, but done here in this very gathering where in the words of St. Paul we, "glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one voice."  That "one voice" is the voice of the church's liturgy:  her prayers and praises, her hymns of glory and songs of thanksgiving, so Christian unity is not merely a matter of subscribing to the same confession of faith (important as that is) but of speaking the same words, praying the same prayers, eating of the one loaf, and drinking from the one cup by which we who are many are joined to one another and "become one flesh" with our holy Lord and Bridegroom, Jesus Christ.

Let us  not forget the second part of what it means to serve God which we learn from our Lord's own words in today's gospel lesson when He says, "But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.  For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth."

Dissipation means to live life in the fast lane; to party hearty day and night; to live a decadent life of excess, self-indulgence, and over-consumption with no thought for tomorrow, no thought of the Lord's return and no thought of the final judgment that will come upon the whole earth.  It means to pollute your mind with the culture's impure "values" instead of the pure "morals" of Holy Scripture.  It means to intoxicate yourself by whatever substances or diversions necessary rather than "serve the Lord with gladness and come into His presence with thanksgiving."

Therefore on this Second Sunday of Advent, with temptations to the left of us and temptations to the right of us, the church fervently prays, "Stir up our hearts, O God, to make ready the way of your only-begotten Son, that by His coming we may be enabled to serve you with pure minds."   It is a prayer that our God answers at His altar today.  Come and eat!  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Traditions of the Church in the building itself


TODAY, on the first Sunday of the new liturgical year, Christ Lutheran Church begins a new chapter in her blessed history.  After 262 Sundays in the wilderness, she crosses the Jordan and steps foot onto dry ground.  Today, in the words of Jeremiah, she enters a land of her own, but the Promised Land was not handed to the children of Israel on a silver platter.  Instead, the LORD commanded them to conquer it and to tame it step by step.  Christ Lutheran Church will follow the same pattern.  Now her work begins, but as the LORD prospered Israel in all her labors, as He shielded her, gave her courage, skill and every needed resource to conquer all obstacles, so He will do for us today.  Obstacles, there will be, but with them comes new opportunity to serve and to grow, to trust, to gain patience and understanding, to cooperate with others; but something more as well.  By this effort we will become intimately familiar with the most thrilling subject of all:  the worship of the one, true God, because divine worship is not simply a notion residing within our individual or collective minds, but it also involves sacred space.

It's true that at times the worship of God occurred in other places:  in caves and concentration camps, but thank God that is the exception and not the rule.  The "rule" is that for the last two millennia Christians have dedicated their best efforts and resources into building houses of worship worthy of the One who is named therein, but few of us have ever been involved in such a task, and it's not as easy as it looks.  Up to this point we have always walked into a church that someone else built, someone else furnished, and we accepted it for what it was, good, bad or ugly, because every detail in a house of God is one of those things.  Everything teaches a lesson either the right one or the wrong one, and nothing is neutral, from the high altar, to the pattern and material of the floor, which is holy ground in every sense of the word.

Yet in a happy coincidence today's liturgy not only gives us an entre into the coming of Christ at Christmas, but into the labors that will occupy us for some time to come.  It is a largely forgotten fact, for example, that for most of Christian history churches were constructed to face the east whenever possible.  The reasoning is that the sun, which is an icon of the returning Christ, rises in the east.  We learn this from the prophet Malachi who calls Jesus the "Sun of Righteousness who will rise with healing in His wings," and from our Lord Himself who says, "As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man," but what happens when a church is not situated eastward?  Does that make it unsuitable for Christian worship?  Not at all, because of this one remarkable fact:  that whenever we enter the house of God we leave the world behind and enter a new dimension.  Whatever the orientation might be on he surveyor's plat, we face the "liturgical east" for our worship.

In the words of St Augustine we "turn towards the Lord!"  We look with great hope to the east fixed on the Lord's return, when He will deliver full and final salvation to us.  When what He gained for us by His saving incarnation, His atoning death, and life-giving resurrection will be fully tendered to us so that we will never want again!  Never hunger or thirst again!  This is the day St Paul speaks of in today's epistle, and there is nothing better than that!

This is why both pastor and people "turn towards the Lord" in holy worship:  whose cross is at the center of our worship, and whose word, and whose own body and blood reside on the altar, and are given to us to eat and to drink for remission, life and salvation."

St. Paul says in today's epistle lesson that, "...salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed," so in divine worship God's people move towards their Lord, even as He moves nearer to them, closing the gap of time and space between the sorrowful and sin-filled now, and the Glory that is about to be revealed!

Another little known fact of liturgical orientation is that the altar has a Gospel side and Epistle side.  Traditionally the gospel was not read from the lectern but from the north side of the altar.  It is designated the gospel side based on Jeremiah's words "out of the north country."

The reasoning is this:  whenever Israel's enemies came to harm her, to plunder and destroy her, they came from the north, so in Jewish and Christian tradition the north symbolized the place from whence evil came.  For this reason whenever the church gives voice to the Saving Words of our Lord Jesus Christ, she reads them into the perilous north to ward off the evil, death, sin and sorrow that symbolically come from that place; and to call her children home from captivity, home to Jerusalem above, Jerusalem the Golden, the place we are gathered at this very hour.

Therefore by these and other liturgical gestures every Sunday is Advent!  Every Sunday the church turns toward the Lord.  Every Sunday she can rightly say, "the night is far spent, the day is at hand, and our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed," but it's not just words because every Sunday Jesus appears before us in this "upper room."  The Lord of Glory speaks to us from his Word, and has Holy Communion with His church here gathered.

Knowing all this we might well like to dwell in this house of the Lord forever, but for now we have a different charge, the one St. Paul writes in today's epistle.  It is this:  "So then let us cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.  Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies, and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality, and sensuality; not in quarreling and jealousy.  But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires."  This is the word of the Lord.  Amen

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, November 27, 2017

Am I chasing after the right things?


Stir up your power, O Lord, and come, that by your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and saved by your mighty deliverance. (Collect for the 1st Sunday of Advent)

THE church prays this prayer because it seems as if God is asleep in the heavens.  We face many perils in our lives, and cry out for help, but nothing seems to get better.

Yet our gracious Lord is not asleep.  We know this because the Bible says in Psalm 121:4, "He that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep."  Even if He is asleep, like Jesus was in the boat on the stormy sea of Galilee, He will quickly awaken to our cries and command the threatening storms to cease, and be still!  Therefore as the Church admonishes us each Sunday, let us pray!  Indeed, let us "pray without ceasing."

The source of all our troubles can be traced back to what today's Collect names "the threatening perils of our sins."  But sin a word that falls on deaf ears, both inside and outside church.  You can deny it if you like, rename it or redefine it if you must; no surprise there, because as the poet T.S. Eliot once wrote, "Human-kind cannot bear very much reality."

Yet however popular it is to live in a state of denial today or in a state of perceived reality -- no matter how many fools may share it with you --  your sins will not disappear, neither will your troubles.  Live life as fast as you can!  Work hard!  Play hard!  Devote yourself to saving the planet, or to social justice:  it changes nothing.  Spend every waking hour streaking through cyber-space or intoxicate yourself into oblivion if you insist, but you will find no peace, no rest, no calm, no satisfaction because the baggage of your transgressions, the peril of your sins, will always do you in.

To sin means to break divine law and that is to play with fire!  We're not dealing here with fleeting decisions made by a body of lawmakers who are themselves flawed and foolish.  To sin is to transgress all that is good, right, true, pure and holy, and by doing so, by violating the Bible's moral code which is written in stone, you don't only break a law, but you break away from the God and Father Of our Lord Jesus Christ; from Him who is your Lord and God, your Creator and Judge, your Father and Savior and the very source of Life itself.  By crossing this line you crack-up your life, rupture the planet, fracture the cosmos, and take down everyone around you.

Whether you know it or not, guilt is a communicable disease!  When a child, for example, is violated by a pedophile that child feels guilt and it is real.  One can counsel all day long, "you didn't do anything wrong," but it doesn't help, because the perpetrator's guilt has easily spread to the victim who now needs confession and absolution, for it is the only cure for sin that there is.  As Holy Scripture says, "The Blood of Jesus His Son, purifies us from every sin,"  and, "whoever's sins you forgive, they are forgiven."

The whole world is awash in such guilt, and each person at any given moment is either the perpetrator, or the victim of someone else's sin. What sin?  For that we need only turn to St. Paul in today's Epistle where he admonishes us to wake up from comfy comas, to shake off the drowsiness of the perceived reality we all together pretend is real, to awake from the sin of self-pity, to stop living in the bubble of relentless anger, to rid ourselves of the love of quarreling, of contention and division, of jealousy, of intoxication, of immorality and sensuality, whether factual or virtual.  He teaches us to cease the pursuit of happiness and the insatiable desire to do everything and anything except the thing we are doing right now:  worshiping God and filling up on the one thing needful that rescues us now and redeems us eternally.

Yet this isn't all that St. Paul prescribes as he predicts the end of all things.  As he sees the imminent return of Jesus to "judge the quick and the dead," he teaches not only to "cast off the works of darkness," but also "to put on the armor of light."

This is baptismal talk!  For in baptism we renounce the dark devil, his wicked works, and wicked ways, and we are dressed with the shining glory of Jesus Himself, with His righteousness which is the brilliant armor of light that "exposes the darkness" wherever it is to be found; an armor so seamless that not one fiery dart of the devil can penetrate it; one that makes us invincible now and in the final judgment.  As we sing in the hymn:

Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress;
'Midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed,
With joy shall I lift up my head.

Though we are baptized only once, we renew our baptismal vows every day.  By daily repentance we drown the Old Man and rise up to serve God in righteousness and purity forever.  This, too, is worship.  This, too, is  liturgy; the most difficult part to be sure, but one we must work at, train for and make new strides in every day of  our lives.

As virtue without the worship of Christ means little, even so the worship of Christ without virtue, so when we pray in today's Collect that our Lord should:  come down and deliver us from the threatening peril of our sins," we are not only asking for forgiveness, life and salvation, which He has richly granted us, but also for the dedication to live pure lives, to conquer sin now and be free of its clutches today.  This is the will of our God.  This is how those who are "strangers and pilgrims" on the earth prepare for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ; and there is no more gladdening pursuit in the world than the pursuit of holiness.

"Stir up your power, O Lord, and come, that by your protection we may be rescued from the threatening perils of our sins and be saved by your mighty deliverance."  Our God answers this prayer at the altar today.  Come and eat!  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, November 20, 2017

Christ's coming is closer today than it was yesterday.


Watch, therefore, because you know neither the day or the hour when the Son of Man is coming.  Matthew 25:13

THE warning the Lord gave then is just as applicable now, maybe even more so because in Matthew's day believers were under the impression that the ascended Lord would be returning very shortly, well within their own generation; but as time dragged on the inspired evangelist needed to prop up the church, which he did by recording three of the Lord's parables in a row, all speaking of  a Master who is delayed; and with a fourth, that of the talents, which is is an admonition to the church to vigorously administer God's Word to God's people so that their faith should not run dry before the Lord returns, so that they would not give up on the one, true faith that conveys the redeemed into the wondrous wedding hall.  Therefore watch O virgins!  Be wise so that you are not locked out forever.

Now if God's people needed to be shored up then, how much more today, 2000 years later, as centuries come and go?  Today, except for the church that keeps the end before our eyes, no one thinks about the Lord's return: not the fundamentalist Christian who endlessly chatters about it, and certainly not the world that the devil keeps in a comfortable coma so that many will miss the Bridegroom's coming.

Though things look grim, and though misinformed Christians think it is their job to save the church from extinction, we are not without hope because we have something far more powerful than their mad programs.  We have this Word of Jesus, "Watch," that awakens the dead and gives them light and life.

The parable our Lord tells here is first about Himself.  He is the Bridegroom who went ahead to prepare a place for us and who will return so that where He is, we may be also!  The customs cited in the parable key in on the Song of Songs Chapter three, The Royal Wedding of King Solomon to his Beloved, who was attended by a procession of bridesmaids.  Solomon was the perfect groom:  handsome, wealthy and powerful, but also gentle and solicitous, filled with tender longing for his desired bride, but Jesus is greater than Solomon and the church is His beloved!  He loved us and gave His life for us.  He washed us clean from all of our sins by His death on the cross and renders us spotless and without blemish before God by His resurrection from the dead.

The virgins are the church which is made up of people both foolish and wise.  Which one are you?  The foolish virgins ran out of staying power.  As time rolled on they forgot about their Betrothed and fell in love with the present age instead; with things that can never satisfy the human heart or give us glorious life.  They became infatuated with the ecstasy they might squeeze out of each moment, and with the fleeting hope that tomorrow they will win the lottery and then all will be well.  They expended no effort to hear the words of eternal life.  They lost their focus and with their focus, the holiness of life that marks Christian existence.  Like some of the Thessalonian Christians in today's epistle, they became drunk with the  moment, relinquished the all important spiritual gift of self-control and gave themselves over to every unspeakable sin of the flesh.

Yet there were wise virgins, too.  They also lived their lives in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.  They too were tempted to become impatient and to trade in the unseen things that are eternal for the transient things that are perceived with the sense, but sustained by the nourishment of God's Word, they did not quit.

The delay is the time between Pentecost and the Lord's return when the Judge will descend to separate the sheep from the goats, but on a more personal level it is the span between your baptism and your death.  It seems like a long time, and much patience is required, but if we are to endure to the end and be saved (Mark 13:13) we must make God's house our first priority.

The oil is the Word of God, the grace it delivers and the faith it engenders.  It is the event we are engaged in at this time, feasting on the Lord's Word wherein our flasks are filled and our lamps are kept burning bright.  We have God's command to hear His Word, to learn it, believe it, treasure it, to eat it and drink it at His altar, and to let it transform our lives.  How does such a transformation occur?  It is nothing you yourself can accomplish by pious thoughts or pretty intentions, but  rather it is occurring here and now, for there is no greater teacher of the faith, nor life sustaining power, nor giver of patient endurance than the gifts you receive in God's house today:  His Word administered through the church's liturgy, hymns, creeds, prayers, preaching and sacraments.

Yet we must be careful as well.  We must not mistake the glorious and all comforting doctrine of "salvation by grace through faith" for a theological welfare program, one where we are carried to heaven on beds of ease.  We are children of the light, children of the day.  To us much as been given:  the promise of a new heaven and new earth, therefore much is also required.  In baptism we are granted both the power and the responsibility to organize our lives like the wise virgins did; to live them in a constant wedding procession to and from the altar where we obtain mercy as regards to our sins and then to carry mercy into the world within the confines of our God-given vocation.

TODAY, hear the Word of the Lord.  Watch!  Pray!  Be ready! because you don't know the day or the hour when the Bridegroom will come for you.  

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, November 13, 2017

What does Jesus mean by "Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather?"


Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather.  Matthew 24:28

TODAY'S Gospel less on closes with one of the Lord's most enigmatic sayings, "Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather."

It's unlikely you've ever heard a sermon on this text, or even lingered over it very long because it is such an inscrutable word, a mysterious word, but a word of Scripture nonetheless; a word spoken by our Lord and included in the sacred text which was written under the influence of the Holy Spirit, written for our instruction so that by patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope, so let us find out what hope this unique saying of the Lord has for us today.

When Jesus speaks of the corpse he is referring to Himself and to the ghastly death He was about to suffer in order to give life and salvation to sinners; a death to end all death, to reverse our judgment, remit our penalties and to absolve us of the many sins we perpetrate in thought, word, desire and deed; sins whose wages are nothing but trouble, sorrow, fear, pain, weakness, uncertainty and death of body and mind, soul and spirit.  This is what St. Paul means when he writes in Romans 6:23 that, "The wages of sin is death ... but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord,"  and why he also writes in 1 Corinthians 15, "For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received:  that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures ... " and why St. Peter says in Acts 4:12, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved."

This body, this sacred corpse, dead on the tree of the cross is the only cure under the sun for your sins, and your only light when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but it is even more!  It is a new life, with new power to see new realities and to worship Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light; a new life by which we conduct ourselves honorably in this world and abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against our souls.

"Wherever the corpse is, there the eagles will gather."

Yet part of what makes the Lord's saying so mysterious is the word eagles, or as it is in other English translations, vultures, because in the original Greek the same word can mean either one:  eagle or vulture.  There's no way to know for sure which bird the Lord has in mind here, but it works either way.

Vultures are birds of prey that feed on flesh that is already dead.  What people consider repulsive and covered with the aroma of death, vultures count as a feast!  This is why we liken people who treacherously attack others to vultures.

If we are to think of vultures, then what Jesus says here makes sense.  There were many vultures gathered at the cross.  There was the contingent of Roman soldiers, the execution detail consisting of hard and cruel men; men who had no mercy or qualms about inflicting hideous death on those handed over to them for punishment.  There were also the Jews who had incited the Romans to do their dirty work for them, to take care of their little problem, to get rid of the one who upended their religion, who robbed them of their money, influence, power and glory; who not only delivered Him up for death, but taunted Him, ridiculed and cursed Him, even as He pronounced absolution on them and entrusted Himself to God who raises the dead.

There are still vultures today:  people who burn with hatred against Christ and Him crucified and who would like nothing more than to crucify His followers.  For the moment, at least here in America, the persecution is bloodless.  It comes in the form of ridicule and arrogant contempt for the things we hold most sacred.  It issues forth from government offices, college classrooms and social media, and even from many churches who reject the crucified and risen Lord Jesus; who worship and serve the golden calf of culture  more than the Creator who is blessed forever!

"Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather."

Yet if the Lord had eagles in mind then His mysterious saying also makes good sense.  Those eagles were the three Mary's and St. John the Evangelist who came with Him to Calvary, who feared no terror, no trauma or threat and would not leave their Lord now or ever.  Though we are far more timid than they, we too are to be counted among the eagles, not gathered about a corpse, but around the living and glorified flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ around the altar of our God!

Like Israel of old, we, too, are lifted up as on the wings of an eagle far above the carnage of sin and the stench of death.  The altar is our nest, the place where we commune with the Holy, where all the benefits of the Lord's cross are distributed to us freely by God's grace.  It is our resting place where we find the peace which surpasses comprehension, the peace that guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  It is the perch from where we soar like eagles from the grave to the sky, from earth to heaven, from the mortal to the immortal and from the perishable to the imperishable.

Here is the place where the eagles gather.  You are those eagles:  by holy baptism, by holy communion, by grace through faith you, too, are lifted up on the wings of love.  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Thursday, November 2, 2017

What actually happens when we say, "I am going to church."


"They shall hunger no more!  Neither thirst!  The sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat.  For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will shepherd them, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."  Revelation 7:16

WHAT St. John saw on that Lord's Day many centuries ago, while in exile for his faith, was Christian worship from heaven's perspective; from above, and not from below.  Not only did he see it, but he was instructed to write it down so that you could see it too, so that you could understand what actually happens when you say, "I'm going to church."

When we speak of Christian worship we mean one thing:  we mean  the Holy Communion, for it is the one and only form of worship the Lord gave His church to celebrate until He should come again.  A worship that looks like and sounds like St. John's vision that we heard a few minutes ago, and that one day we will see for ourselves.

What is Christian worship?  What does it give or offer?  We've all learned very well that above all it is the definitive remission of sins, and that is the foundation for every other blessing we have in Christ, one that we need every Lord's Day of our lives, without exception.

That is the practice taught in holy scripture, and the practice of the church for the first four centuries, but then the practice was lost for a millennium!  Talk about Great Tribulation!  Though mass was still celebrated everyday in every place, few if any communed.  By a process of wrong teaching God's people were made to feel unworthy to receive such holy things into themselves when that is what they needed more than anything!

The church of the Lutheran Reformation followed the same practice of weekly communion, but taught people that faith in the words "given and shed for you" is what make a person worthy, so the Eucharist was restored to the people, and once again they rejoiced and reveled in the love that God bestowed upon them.

Yet soon, what was stolen from the Roman church was also stolen from the Reformation church by two of the devil's chief henchmen:  Rationalism and Pietism.  Again God's people suffered.  Again God's people were forced to live on a spiritual caloric intake that might keep them alive, but one on which they could never thrive.  They became all ribcage, all spiritual skin loosely draped over spiritual bone.

In our day, thank God, the promise "They shall hunger no more!  Neither thirst!"  has been restored!  Once again the Lord saved His church from her enemies and more and more Lutheran churches are returning to the Biblical practice of Christian worship.  For that to continue and expand among Lutherans, however, some things need to be understood.  As Baptism is much more than entrance into the assembly of the Firstborn, even so the Lord's Supper is much more than the remission of sins.  It is that to be sure!  To be certain!  But it is more besides.

This Supper is what constitutes Christian worship, and in case we are tempted to over-think the matter, which Lutherans are famous for doing, when we talk about the Eucharist we mean the entire event of the mass.  From the moment we step foot onto this holy ground till the moment we leave indelibly marked, tattooed if you will, with our Savior's image, covering not just a forearm or an angle, but our whole person.  (Talk about ink!)

It is also the eternal Passover of the church, the one we see celebrated in heaven, for who is it that occupies the throne in St. John's vision, except the Lamb!  That is important.  St. John did not use one of the many names that our Lord goes by such as Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, or Son of Man.  No.  He is called the Lamb!  The One who gladly and willingly sacrificed Himself to lift the smothering cover of sin and the pall of death from the whole world, and by His cross each of you is truly forgiven all your sins, and there is no greater beauty than that!

The Mass:  The Divine Service, Christian Worship, the event we are now celebrating by grace through faith, is also the identifying mark of the unity we have with one another, with Christians the world over, with angels, archangels, and with all the company of heaven: and with the dear ones who have gone before us!  Those are not just abstract notions, but union we factually possess; unity gained, obtained and participated in as often as we eat this bread  and drink this cup.

Yet the blessed sacrament is more besides.  It is strength for as often as you are weak:  weak in faith, in hope, in love for God or for one another; strength in the time of temptation; much-needed power to meet life's daily necessities and emergencies with confidence and a clear head.  As God gave power to Samson and to David to slay lions with their bare hands, and to the Lion of Judah to slay the Roaring Lion Satan with hands nailed to the cross, even so this sacrament makes you mightier than all of your enemies combined.

Holy communion is also endurance in the face of chronic pain, ongoing trials, and the miniseries of miseries that mark life on this mortal coil.  It is consolation when life is spinning out of control, and the future looks only dark!  Even then you can "exalt in glory, and sing for joy as you lie on your bed" (Psalm 149) and soon sweet sleep will find you.  It is spiritual food, the only kind that can nourish faith in these unseen things that St. John shows us today, and it is the matrimonial intimacy of Christ the Bridegroom and the Bride He has made spotless by His blood.  The church is that Bride!

Therefore now we return to where we began, OH Saints!  To the heavenly Feast we are celebrating on the earth today; to the Supper of the Lamb, and the Springs of Living water whereby you will never go hungry or thirsty again.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

If you don't have time to worship God here on earth, what are you preparing for?


In Nomine Jesu:  Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, saying "do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads."  And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: Revelation 7:2-4

What a blessed revelation is set before us as we hear in the Revelation to St. John.  You just heard it.  The "sealed servants of God" are His priestly people, God's new Israel, and Jesus is the certainty of that.  What we hear is a mystery revealed to embolden and strengthen faith for this Lord's Day and the Great Lord's Day yet to come.

John first heard before He saw.  That's how it is with God's mysteries -- you must hear them before you see them.  He heard a number:  144,000.  And he heard the roll call:  12,000 from every tribe of Israel.  Judah is first; the Lion of Judah now reigns.  Dan is missing -- the anti-messiah was supposed to come from Dan.  Dan is out.  Joseph, the savior of his brothers, takes his place.  12 times 12 times 1000; a number that means a glorious heavenly perfection; an Israel like there never was before and never will be on this earth.  God's Israel, His chosen people, holy  nation, royal priesthood -- these are God's baptized believers who bear the mark of their God upon their foreheads.  Having heard the perfect number, John then looks with his eyes, and he sees a great multitude no one could count in all their diversity -- from every nation, every tribe, every people, every language.  Their Babel-bred divisions are finally ended.  They are finally one people under one God.  They wear white robes, the baptismal sign of their priestly purity.  "As many of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ" Galations 3:27  They are covered with the seamless robe of Jesus' righteousness.  Behold a host arrayed in white.  They're waving palm branches, the way the Israelites did every year at the Feast of Tabernacles when they marched around the temple grounds waving palm branches to signify God's victory and their homecoming.  It looks like a perpetual Palm Sunday.  They worship the slain Lamb who lives.  People ask, "What is heaven going to be like?  What will we be doing for all eternity?"  The answer given in the Revelation to St. John is this:  Worship.  What else is there to do when your labors are ended?  You might say that our liturgy here each Sunday is a kind of preview, a foretaste of the feast to come, when our work is over and all there will be is worship.  And for those who don't have time or interest to bow before the lamb and worship Him, begs the question:  What then are you preparing for?

John heard their liturgy.  Note coincidentally, it sounds a bit like ours, at least the words do, because our liturgy borrows from theirs.  They praise Christ and His Father for saving them: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." Revelation 7:10  There is salvation in no other than this Jesus whom the Father sent to die and rise.   His is the only Name by which we are saved.  He alone is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep.   Salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ is both inclusive and exclusive.  Jesus inclusively died for all, for every sinner and every sin -- once for all people, once for all time.  Lifted from the earth, He drew all to Himself.  There is no one who has not been died for, no one whose sins are not covered by His death.  There is only one Son of the Father, one only-begotten; only one Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, only one Good Shepherd who leads His sheep to eternal life.  No other name, no other Savior or other shepherd than Jesus.  He's all the Savior the world gets, and all it will ever need.  "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb."   The hosts of heaven agree.  They fall down on their faces and add a thunderous "Amen" together with a seven-fold doxology:  "Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever.  Amen" Revelation 7:13  This is most certainly true.  The big question, the one pressing on John, is:  "Who is this congregation, this crowd of white-robed worshippers, and where do they come from?"  Revelation 7:13  The answer may surprise you at first.  They are the ones coming out of the great tribulation  Please notice, "they are coming out" Revelation 7:14  in the present tense, not in the past tense, the way we have it in some Bible Translations.  Believers are not spared tribulation, they go through it together with Jesus, and with Him they come out of it.  There's no "rapture" where true believers escape the troubles of this world.  Only one, continuous coming out of this "veil of tears"  to eternal life.  Jesus isn't a way around the dark valley of the shadow of death, He's the only way through it.  Freed from the tyranny of chronos, that's clock time) looking through an open door into the kairos, (that's the right opportune moment) of eternity, John sees the entire company of believers as it was never seen on earth.  He is seeing the triumphant side of the church, of which we see only the militant.  On earth the church looks weak, inept, confused, incompetent, irrelevant, divided, mismanaged, hopelessly out of touch.  Her glory is hidden behind a cross; her victory  a matter of faith, her only hope is one crucified, risen and reigning Lamb.  But now this white robed bunch who suffered all, even the loss of their own lives, are face to face with the only thing that matters -- the Lamb at the center of the throne who is their Shepherd.  We learn the secret of their purity.  Their robes are washed in the Lamb's blood.  Only His blood will do.  Their blood cannot cleanse from sin.  Neither can the sweat of their labors or the tears of their contrition.  There are no sinless saints, only forgiven ones.  If you say you have no sin, you're kidding yourself.  Temptations abound and sin comes all too naturally to the natural born sinner.  But the blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin.  The word "sin" doesn't seem to have the traction it once did.  Tell someone that something is a "sin" and they'll probably laugh at you and call you a "religious fanatic."  Mention that something is bad for their health and they'll go into a state of apoplexy.  They'll want laws to protect the children, but "sin"?  We worry more about calories and fat grams.  We need to be specific, diagnostic:  immorality, greed, lust, envy, murder, gossip, theft, pride, hatred, idolatry.  These are the symptoms of the inborn, congenital death of Adam at work in us.  Only the blood of Christ, shed for us on the cross, and delivered to us in His Word, in Baptism, and in the Supper of His Body and Blood, can purify us from that.  And when we stand before the throne, we stand not based on what we have done, but based on what the Lamb has done -- His perfect life, His perfect death.  "Jesus, Thy Blood and Righteousness, my beauty are, my glorious dress."  TLH 371  They tabernacle under the tent of God's presence forever, as Israel once did in the wilderness.  He is their God, they are His people, His Israel.  Sun and scorching heat no longer beat down upon them.  Their wilderness days are over.  God is their shelter, and they are at home. They dine at His table.  You get a little taste of that each Sunday -- the bread of Jesus' Body, the wine that is His Blood.  No more hunger, no more thirst -- they are filled and satisfied.  It is finished.  John knew his people were going to suffer for the faith.  He knew that many would die.  He knew that those seven congregations under his oversight did not stand a chance against the forces that would be unleashed against them, but he lived in the confidence that the Lord was with them always; and whether they lived or died, they did so in the confidence that they would dwell in the Lord's house forever.  That applies to you here today too.  That vision of the white robed crowd worshipping Christ the Lamb is a picture of you gathered with all of Jesus' baptized believes.  That's your future in Jesus, and it's already your present through faith in Jesus.  Already you are gathered in worship with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven.  The comfort for today is this:  No matter how bad things may get, for you or for the church, no matter how many tears and how much blood is shed, no matter how much we may hunger and thirst, it all comes out good and right in Jesus.  There will be tears now, plenty of them.  Tears of grief, tears of sorrow, tears of suffering, but in the end those tears will be vindicated by the Lamb who died but lives, and God will wipe away every tear from your eye.  For now, you must trust, take the Lamb at His Word.  Hear His voice and follow Him through suffering and death to life that has no end.  

Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever.  AMEN

~  Rev. George Fyler

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Are you splitting your time between works and grace?


For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

WHAT was the Reformation all about?  If you went to public school before the sixties you probably learned that it was a movement for freedom of conscience, one that had the courage to struggle for that liberty, one that was a part of  the Progressivist view of history that made it nothing more than the spiritual side of the Renaissance.  If you went to Lutheran school you would have learned that it was about how people can go to heaven.  Are these very different?  It all depends on how you define "liberty."  If liberty means making choices then you mean political liberty.  That has very little to do with your conscience.  It only makes things worse when liberty degenerates into license, and people claim the right to indulge in every sort of immorality.  Too often people speak of being "liberated" today when they really mean debasing themselves into swine, wallowing in the mire of unbridled self-indulgence.  The Reformation was not about that.  It was about liberating the human conscience from guilt and the fear of death.  The liberty Paul is talking about in Galatians comes only from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Wherever there is Christian faith, there is also the liberty Paul is talking about.  When you get a chance, read this whole letter.  In the first chapter Paul thunders against his opponents who want to place Christians under the Law.  He curses anyone who would preach such things.  Yes, Paul is very intolerant.  He takes no prisoners when he argues against false teachers.  Neither Jesus nor Paul was a humanist.  The Apostle does not confuse toleration with liberty.  Do not think that toleration is a Christian virtue. It is nothing of the sort.  If one tolerates falsehood, then he does not care about truth.  If one tolerates evil, he does not care about goodness.  If he tolerates ugliness, he does not care about beauty.  Ah, but what about religious toleration?  Look in the Old Testament -- that was the sin of Solomon which brought ruin upon Israel.  Paul is not looking for free and open discussion.  He wants a firm stand for the truth of Jesus Christ.

Because human nature is weak, because we are born in total darkness and ignorance, lured into falsehood by the devil, enticed to vanity by the world, Christian faith is always going to be an uphill climb.  We cannot afford to give the devil equal time.  That is trifling with grace.  Our nature longs for the Law.  Our experience with people tells us that the righteousness of works sounds better.  Something within our nature tells us that works are more certain to rely on.  Against our nature, our environment, our society, and our own inclinations we have nothing to put forward except the daring, despised Gospel, yet as we listen to it that Gospel proclaims a better liberty -- from sin, from death, and from the Law.  The Gospel offers no politics -- it is completely irrelevant to politics, but it is the power of God for salvation, power to overcome the flesh, to be larger than our inclinations, wiser than our own wisdom, leaders rather than followers.  It places us into the kingdom of Jesus, the Son of God.  The world will always hate us because of that Gospel.  The world thinks it can score points in heaven.  The Gospel of Jesus cuts through that.  The devil rages.  He attacks from the inside, trying to get us to see Jesus as a Teacher of works, and from the outside, telling us that the world has outgrown Jesus, that humanity needs no Mediator.  Yes, the world wants to liberate us from the kingdom of Christ.

Yet it is that despised and misunderstood Gospel which we must believe, teach, and confess.  Watch out for the Church itself, because from time to time she twists the revelation of Jesus.  Watch out for the world as well, which doesn't think it needs any revelation.  Confess before all that God is merciful, that we are sinners who have broken His Law, that because we have done so we deserve His anger, but confess also that Jesus has made full atonement for us.  He did this when He died and rose again.  Already in the Old Testament we see the lessons God gave, the plain and obvious types of Jesus such as the Passover Lamb, the Yom Kippur goat, the High Priest, Isaac, the Bronze Serpent, and the unconditional election of Israel.  Along with that take the 328 Messianic prophecies which we can see fulfilled in the New Testament.  If we still have questions after reading the Old Testament, the New is even clearer.  The best liberty is freedom from sin.  We do not have to justify ourselves because Jesus has set us free.

This is so against our nature ... there are many Christians today who feel guilty because their lives have not been difficult as the Apostles' lives were.  That doesn't matter.  The important cross is not yours, but His.  For all we know our very scruples may be the cross God appointed for us.  The devil will use our own scruples to make us doubt, as he did with Luther.  Even after being shown the blessed atonement, our flesh would rather make a deal, see if God will take 10 cents on the dollar.  What vanity!  God doesn't have to make deals with us.  He is Almighty; capable of exacting the uttermost farthing.   As much as the flesh would like to weasel out, God will not let this go.  He isn't interested in giving us a lot for a little.  He wants to give us everything for free.  He saves us from sin and death by grace.  He gives away eternal life without any mortgage, any credits and partial payments.  That is what the cross is all about, for there God did exact the uttermost farthing.  There is where the Lamb was slain.  From that sacrifice the risen Lord sent us His Holy Spirit to renew us, regenerate us, make us God's children.  He puts us into His kingdom of grace, so if you want a personal relationship with Jesus, then an objective and public relationship with the Church is part of the deal.  You cannot be joined to the Head while despising the Members.

Finally, we must expect some conflict in our lives because of this.  Either from within or from without there will be threats, there will be deceptions, and there will be enticements.   All of these are designed to get you back under a yoke of slavery.  When you are assaulted by them, remember your Baptism.  By that washing of regeneration you were born again of water and the Spirit as Jesus taught.  Learn the Commandments, not to be afraid, but as wonderful opportunities to please God who has already saved you.  Jesus is your Liberator, your King.  In Him your conscience is at peace.  You aren't' in heaven yet.  When you are, two things will be different:  one, you will no longer be tempted to sin, and two, you will be ruled directly by Jesus who will provide the ideal government under which you will live.  Meanwhile, do not compromise the Gospel.  It is true that to live in secular society, we must tolerate various opinions in order that we may be tolerated.  It is not a virtue, but it can be a quid pro quo.  Yet do not compromise the Gospel.  No matter how many people disagree, no matter how reasonable their disagreement might sound, utterly reject and condemn whatever contradicts the Gospel.  Works can only enslave the conscience.  Jesus and His truth make it free. AMEN

-- Rev.  Lloyd E. Gross

Monday, October 23, 2017

How do I come before God?


With what shall I come into the LORD's presence; and bow myself down before God Most HIgh?  Shall I come before Him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?  Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil?  Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  He has shown you O Man what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah 6:6-8

TODAY Micah asks the question people don't ask much anymore.  We live in an evil day; a time when few people want to know God, or even think about Him.  To be sure many admit to a higher power or call themselves spiritual, but no one asks Micah's question anymore, not even the tiny remnant that still comes to His house each week.  Even we take it for granted and think we are entitled to enter this sacred space, to partake in holy communion with the living God, and we're not wrong, except that it's not an entitlement, but a gift of God's grace given in baptism and received by faith alone.  For it is there in the cleansing flood, that we obtain all of the benefits of our Lord's "holy, innocent, bitter sufferings and death."  There we are "delivered from death and the devil."  There we are given the gift of eternal life; the very life that God Himself lives, a thing we hardly know how to talk about because words fail us, or we can hardly think about for long because it's like trying to look at the sun.  We are always aware of its presence, we bask in its glow, and soak up its life-giving rays, but we can't stare at it for long or it will blind us.  Neither can we stand in its presence without protection, lest it burn us to a crisp.

So how do we safely come into the presence of the One to whom the church and all the company of heaven sing Holy, Holy, Holy?  There's only one way, dear Christians:  with an offering!

But what kind of offering will do???

What can we bring to gain admittance to such a God as this???

In the Old Testament he commanded the blood of animals and other gifts, but here, with a few inspired words, Micah sweeps away the entire Old Testament sacrificial system, not because he was a rebel, but because he was a prophet, a visionary who was given the eyes of faith to see 750 years into the future, to see the reality that every Old Testament sacrifice symbolized, to see Jesus on the cross lifting away and removing the burden of sin from the world, giving relief to the oppressed and life to the dead!

The Old Testament sacrificial system, as such, could not forgive a single transgression, but still the rituals were indispensable because every sacrifice ever made pointed to the crucified and risen Lord we worship.  For every Old Testament sacrifice, ten thousand though they may be, the voice of faith proclaimed aloud:  the body of Christ, the body of Christ, the body of Christ, just like we do at the altar today! 

With what shall we come before the Lord our God?  With Christ as our Savior, and Christ as our Shield, but there is a process and we are engaged in it now.

We come with humility, confessing our sins and gaining remission for them, the very thing every cancer patient hopes for, prays for, pays for, and suffers for, we get instantly, painlessly and without money or cost; remission of our sin which is cancer of the soul -- self inflicted, not by smoking or by eating red meat, but by our idolatry, anger, greed, lust, self-worship and the refusal to forgive our brother from the heart.  These are tumors that consume our soul with sickness and grow larger and larger until finally there is nothing left, till finally they bring us to the pit!

We come, too, with our gifts of bread and wine which God graciously receives and returns to us infinitely multiplied; not in quantity, but in quality!  For the bread and cup are no longer mere bread and wine, but now they are "the body and blood of Christ given for us Christians to eat and to drink for the remission of sins, life and salvation."

This is why the church elevates the elements, to do the very thing we sing in the hymn:  to Lift High the Cross, and proclaim the love of Christ for all.  Here in the happiest procession ever to set boots on the ground we come into the presence of our God.  With "Christ the Royal master" in the bread and the cup leading the way against the foe of death and sin, and straight to the presence of God most High!

Look carefully then and look well, dear Christians!  Burn this picture into your minds because what you see here -- God's redeemed processing towards the alter -- that is the very thing you will see on the Last Day, the Festal Procession into the Festal Gathering with the cross of Jesus going on before!  For all the world, don't miss it now, and don't miss it then.

Yes, Jesus in the Holy Eucharist is the divine gift and the divine offering by which we happily come into the gracious presence of our God and share holy communion with the all-glorious Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there's more because in holy communion not only are our sins remitted, but our minds are transformed, our bodies made into living sacrifices, and we become "imitators of God."

As God is just, even so we live just lives.  That is to say lives that are in line with, and in keeping with God. (1)  As He is graciously disposed to all people and all creation, so are we.  As He loves to shower the world with senseless acts of mercy, even so do Christians.  As Christ "humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross," so we, too, walk humbly with our God, taking up our cross each day, forgiving those who trespass against us; and ascribing to our God all glory, laud, honor, praise and thanksgiving, now and unto the ages of ages!  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

1. For that (and much more) is what "justice" means in Scripture