Sunday, January 15, 2017

Is something holding you captive making you sick and disparaged?


The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the afflicted.  Isaiah 61:1

Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany and it is the church’s intention in this season to demonstrate that the Babe of Bethlehem is very God of very God. We see this as the boy Jesus teaches the teachers in the temple; and again at Cana, where the Lord graces a small town wedding with His presence, and performs the first of His miraculous signs; one of such indelible splendor that it revealed his glory and caused His disciples to believe in Him. (John 2:11) So as we hear today’s Old Testament lesson we should understand that the servant Isaiah speaks of is none other than Jesus our incarnate God, who turns water into the finest wine; and wine into His own blood to give life and salvation to sinners.

There are other anointed servants as well. The prophet Isaiah was one of them. He was authorized by God to announce good news to his people during their time of captivity in Babylon. They were as dejected as a people could be, misery was their “new normal” and no power on earth could ever change it. These are the people to whom Isaiah proclaims that, in spite of the way things look, a day of divine release is on the horizon, and what a day it will be!

There are still anointed servants today who, like Isaiah, are authorized to deliver good news to those who are crushed by sin. However, being “anointed” or authorized by God is a concept mostly lost on people today. The Roman church abuses it by claiming the exclusive right to ordain men into the ministry. Evangelicals abuse it by teaching that anyone who feels “led by the spirit” is qualified to minister to the souls of men, but neither of these ideas is correct. There is an authorization and it does come through the church, but Rome is not the Church, nor is any individual. Instead the true church is found wherever the gospel is purely preached and the sacraments administered in accordance with our Lord’s institution, and it is mostly hidden from view except, of course, to the eye of faith.

So who is anointed by the Spirit to speak glad tidings? Parents are authorized to teach the Gospel to their children. Every Christian is likewise empowered to speak to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Col. 3:15), but only those who are called and ordained are authorized to minister in the church. By these ecclesiastical rites the same Spirit who anointed Isaiah and rested upon our Lord without measure sanctions men to teach the Gospel today.

Contrary to popular opinion, modern day anointees are not free to conduct the ministry in any way they see fit. Pastors are servants of God put into office to give God’s people the things that God wants them to have, namely the Law and the Gospel, and a faithful servant must preach both. He must condemn sin in unmistakable terms even though it opens him up to criticism, persecution and sometimes death, as happened to Isaiah. The sins that are being referred to here are not the theoretical sins of other people, but the real ones of those who fill the pews before him. He must also teach the Gospel, and do so in such clear terms that the most afflicted sinner, the most hopeless person, the most flickering faith can see the Light of Christ shine through life’s darkness no matter how bleak the house may look.

The church, anointed by the Spirit of the Lord God, has established her liturgy, piety and devotional tools for this purpose. Thus when we gather to engage in worship we are not merely rehearsing well-worn lines for piety’s sake, but are participating in the feast of victory for our God! In the mass we enter the stream of salvation history. We join our hearts, minds and voices to those of all the company of heaven who are gathered around the “glassy throne” to sing Holy, Holy, Holy to the Lord God of Sabaoth. We give glory, honor and thanks to the Lamb on the throne who washed us clean from the stain of sin, and the stench of death. There is more going on here than meets the eye dear Christians; much, much more indeed!

We might compare Christian worship to the piano, a simple instrument consisting of twelve different notes, eighty-eight keys in all, but what a set of keys it is! For centuries people have composed delightful music on it to soothe the savage beast and to make our sorrowing spirits sing. And if the piano is a mystery, what of the pianist? Is he nothing more than a button pusher? Perhaps, but what a button pusher he is! One who plays the instrument, who bends it to his will, who makes it do what he wants it to do, and say what he wants it to say because he knows like no other that there is music behind the notes. Yes, there is much more here than meets the eye, and in the church’s worship as well. When God’s people come together to pray the liturgy of the ages, to feast on His Word with reverence, to praise, give thanks, and have table fellowship with Christ in the Eucharist, there is a divine synergy in play.

This is where Isaiah’s good news is announced to those who are afflicted with sin and cursed with death. It is the place where sinners are healed by the Great Physician, who gave His own life for ours, and rose again to give us victory over the grave. This is where broken hearts are made whole. Consider how many things can break our hearts in this world: people, situations, politics, money, loneliness, loss of health, unfulfilled desires and the fear of death, but here our Lord, using nothing more than His omnipotent Word, heals our broken hearts and promises to be the Balm of Gilead for us. This is where liberty is proclaimed to the captives. As long as we live we are in captivity to the Flesh’s sinful desires. Yes, we are forgiven. Yes, death has lost its sting, and the grave its victory over us, but our sins still make our lives miserable. They make us sick and afraid and filled with all types of anguish, but don’t be afraid, dear Christians, because St. Paul assures us that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:12), and David reminds us that the Lord is good, and that His mercy endures forever (Psalm 118:1). This also is the place where God announces vengeance on our enemies, every last one of them, and assures us that He will destroy them so completely that they will never trouble us again. What troubles you now? Temptation? The devil? Fear of the future? Poverty? A heavy spirit? The plots of evil men? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord,” (Romans 12:19) and as He takes vengeance on our enemies, with even greater zeal He will redeem us and comfort us with the Peace the world cannot give, so don’t let your hearts be troubled, and don’t be afraid because the Spirit of the Lord God announces good news to you here, today and always. Amen.

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A clear directive for the mission of the Church


DOES our church need a mission statement? One would think that two millennia would give her ample time to recognize what she was about. It's really very simple. The church is to lay before the world God's plan of salvation, the good news of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus who died and rose again. If the church be true and faithful, that is her mission statement; she needs no other. In order to reinforce her message she takes up the Lord's cross, and thus makes what St. Paul calls the good confession. Doing so brings her ridicule, persecution, and tribulation. Those point us and attach us to Christ, but never far away from the true church, aping it and mocking it, stands the assembly of the apostates, the synagogue of Satan, the deformed copy of the divine congregation. The false church does not seek the ancient path. It makes up mission statements that lead to glory and perdition.

Never has the world needed the Gospel more than it does today. By that I mean the whole counsel of God, the Law and the Gospel rightly divided and properly applied. So let us understand what we call "the church." Strictly speaking the church is the assembly of the faithful. More broadly, it includes all who profess the faith, the "visible church." By extension it has come to mean a house of worship, which is not an abuse, because the word "church" comes from the Greek word kyriakon, which means "house of the Lord." In our country today there are more than a quarter million such houses of worship. Most of them, unfortunately, are not the house of the Lord, because the Lord is not the Host within. Upon entering them one hears vain philosophy, senseless modern babbling of those who consider themselves too enlightened to seek the ancient path, or too wrapped up in attracting visitors to be concerned about remembering the Incarnation of the Son of God. There is nothing wrong with wanting people to visit, but to visit for the right reasons. We want everyone to join us in celebrating the Incarnation, in getting their sins forgiven, in growing in holiness, in prayer and praise, and in being encouraged to live according to what they believe. Right reasons for coming do not include being entertained.

So we stand at a crossroads today. The prophet advises us to ask for the ancient path. How can you tell where that is? I can tell you where it is not. It is not in the church that dilutes the law and the Gospel to suit modern sensitivities, that tolerates false teaching and deceptive practice. Neither is it in the church that is constantly involved in money-making enterprises and commercial ventures. Let others run the restaurants, bowling alleys, and bottling companies. Such things are not bad in themselves, but they are not the church's mission. No one needs a fellowship hall that has been turned into a casino, but be careful also how you retreat from such things. God is no more pleased with the church that wants to establish a religious police state. That is a tempting direction, but we must not go there. All around us we see immorality, humanism, ugliness, and lack of respect. It is tempting to seek the security of the Inquisition. Unfortunately that is gun control for the soul. It has the same drawback as public gun control, the same basic irrationality behind it. What I'm trying to say is, thoughts don't damn, people do. Thoughts can be instruments of good or evil. Like all instruments they can be abused, but there is no one under heaven who can be trusted to regulate them. What might be undertaken with the best intentions, within a generation falls into the devil's power. The ancient path is not there.

We can find the ancient path in the Bible. Today's church is powered by the same Spirit as the apostolic church. Her pulpit must be the fountain of life from which Christians come to drink. The Law has to be part of the message, not watered-down. The church must call sin by its real name. Original sin is the disease of all men, and what flows from it includes thoughts, words, attitudes, and deeds. No psychobabble, no education, no self-esteem is going to cure it. The blood of Jesus does. Our sin nailed Him to the cross. His blood washes it away. His victory sets us free from it.

The power of the church is the cross of Jesus. All the acts of the church follow from it. We wash little children in the blood of the Lamb by the Sacrament of Baptism. We lead adults to repentance by the Law, and to faith by the Gospel. We renew and strengthen the sinner-saint by the Body and Blood of Jesus' sacrifice. The true church is a monarchy. The King is the only Leader, the Giver of all good.

Jeremiah promises us that if we find and follow the ancient path we will find rest for our souls. He does not say you find rest because you acknowledge what the ancient path was, or because you approved of it, or because you taught it to your children. It does not say that you will find rest if you would have followed the ancient path if you had ever gotten off the fence. No, the ancient path only takes you anywhere if you follow it. Does your conscience bother you? Is your life filled with pain and sorrow? Do you think of yourself as weak and wimpy? Do you find yourself cold and unsympathetic? There is no solution in the human world. Only Jesus can make you holy. He touches you through His church. By its preaching and teaching, by its hymns, its comfort in times of trouble, its timely literature, the church is your contact with Jesus. Jesus gives rest to your soul. His genuine church stands out because it points you to the ancient path, which probably will not bring you good fortune on earth, but prepares you for the rest that remains for the people of God. Jesus makes you a saint. Being nice is nice, but being holy is far better, and that is whither the ancient path leads. AMEN.

Rev. Lloyd E. Gross

Friday, January 6, 2017

I may choose to open my eyes or to close them for the same reason


Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to worship Him.” Matthew 2:1-2

The Feast of Epiphany is one of the church’s oldest Feasts, and this account of the Magi has captured the imagination of God’s people like few others. And why should it not for it is a truly amazing story that teaches us two consoling theological truths: first, that Mary’s Son is none other than God Himself, come to us in the flesh, to undo sin’s deadly curse; secondly, that He did not come to redeem only a limited number, or favored group of people, but that the salvation Jesus obtained by His blood on the cross answers for every sin, and covers every sinner, so whoever or whatever you are today, you are not beyond the pale of His love, or outside the reach of His mercy.

Everyone we meet in today’s gospel lesson is aware that the Child in question is none other than God Himself, come to earth in human flesh to visit and redeem His people.

First there are the Magi. Over the Christian centuries the church has celebrated these men because of their devotion to the holy Child, but they did not start out that way. Like every other person they too were born in spiritual darkness, and lived their lives that way. They were pagan astrologers, superstitious men who relied on the creation rather than the Creator to guide them through life; men who thought that they could get a leg up in life by penetrating the mind of God and divining the future by the reading of the stars. Today they might have appeared as astrophysicists on a university campus, or as “readers and advisors” in a ragged store front on Pearl Road, but God in His love caused the Bright Morning Star to rise in their hearts, even as He has in ours. He took who and what they were and turned it around for their benefit and for the blessing of all who are afflicted by sin and death.

Herod also, much to His consternation, understood who this Child was. When word of the Magi’s inquiry reached the palace, which it no doubt did in record time, he called together the religious leaders of the people, but notice his question: he did not inquire where the “King of the Jews” was to be born, but rather where “the Christ” was to be born! Though he himself was not a Jew – but rather an unscrupulous tyrant and cold-blooded killer whom Caesar Augustus appointed to be king over the Jews – he understood that this Child was the end of his power, the end of his glory, the end of the man called Herod. No wonder “all Jerusalem was alarmed with him,” at the news, because when Herod sneezed the whole nation caught a cold!

The same can be said of the Chief Priests and scriptural scholars whom Herod called together. They, too, knew where to find the answer to Herod’s question – in the scroll of Micah the prophet who predicted that the Son of David would be born in the City of David. There was no hesitation or question in their mind when they heard the Magi’s inquiry, that this Star, “His Star,” was leading them to the birthplace of the Messiah who would put an end to the long night of sin.

This distinguished Feast reveals to us that God did not send a boy to do a man’s job, but rather that He sent His only begotten Son to save, comfort and console us in this vale of tears, so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. However, Epiphany has a second emphasis as well, namely that God’s love is not limited to any favored group of people but holds out hope of salvation for us all.

In the Old Testament scheme of things there were two classes of people: Jews and everyone else whom the Bible terms Gentiles. During the Old Testament era and even in the early New, it was assumed that God would send His Christ to redeem Israel and Israel alone, but Epiphany teaches us that they were wrong. True, it is a moot point today since the church is now made up almost exclusively of Gentiles, but the principle of Epiphany is still in force because the invitation to repent, and to worship the Newborn King is still tendered to all men, none excluded for God is not a respecter of persons. His love is offered to all: to vegetarians and carnivores, ministers and rabbis, dictators and philanthropists, homosexuals and heterosexuals, for there is no difference, no difference at all! For all have sinned, all have transgressed, all have merited judgment and condemnation, all come short of the glory of God! and if we are to be saved, if we are to be redeemed and justified and shed the sorrow of sin and learn to live holy lives, it must be by God’s grace, an unmerited gift given to us through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

This is why the church continues to celebrate this renowned and eminent Feast even today, because it is filled with the joy and hope of the Gospel! As the Star drew the Magi to the place where the Christ child lay, the church draws us even now to the Word and the Sacraments which are the cradle of Christ. Like the Magi, it is here that we can kneel before the God/Man with repentant, humble and expectant hearts, here that we can offer Him our gifts of thankfulness and praise; but most important of all it is the place where we come to receive His gifts, the remission of all our sins, light to dispel our darkness and the blessings of heavenly peace, both here in time and there in eternity. Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

God does not send you out alone!


So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of His father Isaac.  And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, "Jacob, Jacob."  And he said, "Here am I."  Then he said, "I am God, the God of your father.  Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.  I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again..."  Genesis 46:1-3

THE Old Testament is a Christian book.  Jews, and even Muslims, may claim it as their own, but the Old Testament, just like the New, was given to the church, to be used in the church, by the church and for the church.  You, along with all the faithful people of old, are that church, the Bride of Christ made spotless by His blood and washed from every stain of sin by faith in the Newborn King.

You did nothing to merit this blessing!  Quite the contrary, you've done everything possible to pacify your flesh and puff up your sinful pride.  Like the proverb says:  the dog returns to its vomit, but God's love for you is relentless, even as it is for your children and your children's children, so peace!  Be still.  As He is able to redeem you he will redeem them as well so that there may be one flock and one Shepherd.

As we hear this account of Jacob going down to Egypt we should know that the events occurred just as scripture reports.  However, they are not an end in themselves but tell instead the story of Jesus, who also went down to Egypt.

The first thing we learn is the when of Jacob's encounter with God.  It was during holy worship.  We read that he "offered sacrifices to the God of his Father Isaac," and this is crucial because Divine Worship is not merely a "service" but a theophany, a factual encounter with God!

Whenever you worship you leave the precincts of the world for a time, and enter something of a corridor between heaven and earth.  Here you experience communion with the Holy Trinity through the Word and the Blessed Sacrament.  Like St. Paul, you are elevated to the third heaven where you see things and hear things that make your head swim; where you get glimpses of a dazzling future that no tongue can tell, but one nonetheless that fortifies you in every fiery trial that comes your way.

Note, too, the where of Jacob's encounter, a place called Beersheba, the place where Jacob's grandfather, Abraham, discovered what was most rare in that arid part of Palestine, a well of running water!  Next to it he planted a tamarisk tree, a shade tree that retains moisture and is ever-green; but what is the meaning of all this?

The tree is prophetic of the cross on which the true sacrifice is made for the sins of the world; the one sacrifice that affords you cooling shade from the scorching heat of judgment brought about by your sins, and as often as you look at a Christmas tree, it should remind you of this tree which is a symbol of the Lord's cross.

Water in Scripture should always remind us of baptism; of the water made holy by our Lord's Institution that delivers us from death and the devil and gives eternal life to all  who believe in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yet there's more!  As Jacob went down to Egypt with all his wealth and possessions in tact; our Lord, too, came down to earth in full possession of His divine power and glory.  He veiled it to be sure.  He humbled Himself to be certain, by assuming our humanity and thus was not recognizable as God by most.  This is the reason, too, that the Eucharistic elements are veiled before they are revealed:  as a liturgical reminder that His glory was hidden, but our Lord was not a "hologram" or a "ghost."  He did not only "seem" to be man but was fully man, and thus it had to be, because in the words of the 4th century church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, "What Jesus did not assume, He did not heal," but He did, in fact, assume our humanity; heal it, cure it, and make it well from the evil's deadly venom.  The case is exactly as we sing in the Christmas Carol, "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.  Hail the incarnate Deity.  Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel."

Having said this, however, does not exhaust the meaning of today's Old Testament lesson.  As Jacob went down to Egypt, so our Lord also went to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of Herod, but more importantly to fulfill the meaning of Jacob's trip there.  Jacob went to Egypt to preserve the Old Testament church from extinction by famine, but within a short time Israel found herself in utter bondage, and there she remained four hundred fifty years.

However as all things must, this misfortune served the purposes of God.  As the LORD went down into Egypt with Jacob, and brought him back by the mighty hand of Moses, even so Jesus was not alone when He came down from heaven to rescue us, when He went down into bitter servitude, sufferings, death and grave for us.  He was not alone, but God was with Him and raised Him again by His Spirit on the third day!

Like Jacob, and like the child Jesus, we too are often forced into Egypt, but the word  the LORD spoke to Jacob is just as applicable to us.  "I am your Lord.  Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for ... I myself will go down with you ... and I will also bring you up," and so He will dear Christians.  Whatever Egypt you find yourself in, rest assured that as He brings you up to His altar today to restore you, to purge you of your sins, replace your fear with courage, your doubt with faith, your confusion with a clear mind, and your sorrow with solace, "I will bring you up,"  He says.  On this you can rely O Israel of God  Amen.

~  Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, January 1, 2017

For the New Year Resolve to Put Your Trust in the NAME OF JESUS


Think about how many children have been misnamed. In school I remember a mild-mannered, weak-willed boy whose name was Leo, Latin for Lion. In college I knew a very attractive young lady named Bertha, but I had been trained to associate that name with the wife of the owner of the Krupp works, after whom the famous gun was named. There have been a number of dull, unintelligent people named Socrates, and at least one Catholic priest whose first name was Luther. I don’t have any second thoughts about my own name, which is neutral enough, but some people hate their names so much that they change them.

Mary and Joseph didn’t have that problem. The name of their Child had already been selected, and revealed by angels, first to Mary at the Annunciation, and then to Joseph in a dream. Ever since then Jesus has been the holiest name in the universe. Angels whisper it with the greatest awe, clergymen bow their heads as they read it during the liturgy, but there are fools who blaspheme it for the silliest reasons. I wonder if those fools ever consider what they are blaspheming, what the angels dare only to pronounce with the highest respect! "Jesus" is the Greek translation of Joshua, the Hebrew name that means "He will deliver." The ancient Joshua did that, conquering the land of Canaan, destroying the walls of Jericho, and judging Israel. But the Old Testament Joshua could not take away sins. Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament Joshua, was far more effective. St. Luke tells us that when the 70 returned they claimed that Jesus’ name gave them power over the demons. Yes, that is the name fools blaspheme today.

St. Matthew connects the name Jesus with another name, Immanuel, recorded in Isaiah 7:14 as the son of a virgin. St. Matthew wants to show us that a very detailed divine plan was at work here. The angel of the Annunciation made a veiled reference to Immanuel when he told Mary, "The Lord is with thee." Immanuel is Hebrew for "God with us." The angel was proclaiming the divine nature of Jesus, saying that the Child was nothing less than God Incarnate. God had turned the tables on His enemies. If Adam and Eve had sinned in Eden by becoming like God, God now became like man to bring forgiveness. As God placed a cherub to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the fruit of the Tree of Life, so their most important Descendant would be mortal to redeem us.

When Joseph heard the angel say these things he was relieved. He knew the baby wasn’t his, yet he loved Mary too much to make a big fuss about it. He didn’t want to lose his self-respect, so his heart was troubled, but the angel assured him that the Child was from the Holy Spirit. God definitely wanted Joseph to rear this Child as though He were his own. Joseph did so, and at least that problem was solved.

One famous American once said that the sweetest words he knew were "mother", "home", and "heaven." No doubt those words are sweet, but they fall short of the holy name of Jesus. Every country has had its heroes, its deliverers. In ancient Israel there were Gideon and Samuel. Among the Jews there were Esther and the Maccabees.  Among more modern nations there are Joan of Arc, William of Orange, even the great pianist, Paderewski.  None of these political heroes could deliver from sin.  Many of Jesus’ own contemporaries were disappointed that He wasn’t such a deliverer.  They wanted liberation, and wanted Jesus to be a Hebrew Ho Chi Minh.  So little did they understand their real problem.

Do we really understand it that much better?  Aren’t we also more concerned about the uncomfortable consequences of sin that we seek relief from the symptoms?  Jesus wants to give us the genuine cure.  His name does not mean "problem-solver," or "king-maker," or "constant companion."  It means "Savior."  That’s what He promises to be for you.  He doesn’t promise to be your personal Santa Claus, or your witch doctor, or anyone who benefits you on your terms.  He does promise to take away sin, and with it all of its evil consequences.  Sin is your big problem, and Jesus will take it away, on His terms.  It isn’t just you.  Sin has deformed, defiled, and disordered the whole universe.  Jesus alone is still right-side up.  His help is real help, not just for the symptoms, but for the root problem.  It was for you that He died and rose again.

Don’t settle for half a Savior.  The Savior God gives you lacks nothing.  Grasp Him as Jacob grasped the angel, and do not let Him go until He blesses you.  That doesn’t mean you can demand anything of Him, but take the blessing He wants to give, forgiveness, life and salvation.  Don’t settle for only a part.  He wasn’t just a Physician, though He healed; He wasn’t just a Teacher, though He taught; He wasn’t just a Prophet, though He preached; He wasn’t just an Altruist, though nobody ever gave more of Himself.  The Passion story has the most important message, how He died, how He forgave His enemies, how He rose again, how He explained to His disciples why all these things had to be, how He calls us to follow the way He went.  Joseph probably only knew a small part of the story when he obeyed the angel, but he knew enough to trust God.  He followed patiently, accepting what would happen on God’s terms, because he knew God was keeping His promises.  He will keep them for all of us as well.

Jesus has begun a good work in us.  Now daily He brings it toward completion as He leads us to look away from ourselves to the One who fulfills all promises, to the One who is Immanuel, God Incarnate, and who is also Jesus, the Savior who has delivered us from sin, death, and the devil.  Learn to say His name with reverence, to call upon that name whenever you’re in trouble, to look to that name as the fulfillment of all hopes and promises. For us, that name is the sweetest of all. AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross