Monday, February 27, 2017

What happens in the part of the ritual we do not see?


This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.  Listen to Him."  Matthew 17:5

AS we mark the Feast of Transfiguration today let us not only remember the event itself, but let us also learn how to connect the dots because nothing in the Bible stands on its own.  Everything is connected and getting these connections right makes the difference between faith that is built on a rock that will sustain you in all of life's angry storms, and a faith built on sand that collapses when the rains and the winds and floods invade your life with relentless fury.

Yes, we must connect the dots because every Christian knows what the Bible says and any literate person can read the words; but what do they mean, and how are they connected to one another?  When you hear the Lord say to Nicodemus, "You must be born again," do you think Moody Radio and "the sinner's prayer?"  Or do you think baptism?  It makes a difference and it all depends on how you connect the dots.

There are four dots we must connect today; four events so closely related that we can hardly speak of one without spilling over into the other.  They are the Lord's baptism, transfiguration, crucifixion, and lastly our own baptism.  Those four go together so let us now connect them.

The Lord's baptism, which we marked last Sunday, is recorded in all four gospels and should therefore be understood as a key event of our salvation.  Not many other events of Jesus' life get such attention, but this one does, so let us note its magnitude.

The first thing we should know is that Jesus was not baptized for the same reasons we are.  He had no sin, and He is the Son of God from eternity, so He had no need of cleansing or of adoption.

We, on the other hand, do, so we are baptized for those very reasons: so that our sins might be left behind in the water, just like dirt from our bodies when we take a shower, and emerge fresh and unsoiled.  Not only are we cleansed but we are also born again.  Our first birth is as the child of the persons named on your birth certificate.  The second is as sons of God and so we are!   The words the Father spoke of Jesus at His baptism are the same ones He says to us at ours:  "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased."

Though Jesus had no need of it, His baptism accomplishes several things.  By entering the Jordan River He sanctified all water and gave it the power to do more than ordinary water can.  Combined with His Word and Command, Christian baptism delivers us from death and the devil and gives eternal life to all who believe, even as the words and promises of God declare.  Make sure you understand all that was bestowed upon you that day, so that you can gain strength and confidence as you wage war against sin and sorrow every day.

He also did it to serve as an example so that every person should also submit to holy baptism in order to be made an heir and child of God, so that God would become his Father, Jesus his Lord and the Holy Spirit his Comforter to cleanse him and keep him from now to eternity.  Remember what the voice said at the Lord's baptism, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."  

These are the same words we hear at his Transfiguration making these two events inseparable, but now with the additional command:  hear Him!  Hear Him when He says:  Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved.  Hear Him when He announces His suffering and death because when Jesus uses the word baptism it doesn't only mean the sacramental act, but He uses the same word in reference to His cross as well.  Jesus says in Luke 12:50, "I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!  I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!"

This is the baptism, our Lord's sacrificial suffering and death, that gives power to the baptism we receive.  That assures us pardon for our wrongs however egregious, long-standing, shameful or destructive.  His death promises not only exoneration, but also liberty from their stranglehold, and mercy, too, as we struggle and squirm under the disaster that always follows in their wake.

This brings us to the final of the four events that are always connected.  There is the Lord's baptism, transfiguration, bloody baptism on the cross, and last but not least the event of our own baptism.  This part gets tricky, though, because the baptism the church administers is more than it appears to the eye.  Outwardly it is a religious ritual, one commanded and taught in holy Scripture to be sure, and that is brimming with good and divine blessings.  That's the part people can see and capture as a Kodak moment, but what is not evident except to faith, is that the person being baptized (child or adult) is also being put to death!  At the font he is being crucified with Jesus, sealed in His tomb with Him and also best of all is raised from death with Him; raised from the death of sin to a new and better life, the only life worthy of the  name.

When you are baptized, you are also transfigured!  You are changed and altered from what St. Paul calls "children of wrath" and "sons of disobedience" into "children of the Light."  Though human eye cannot see it now, the day is coming when you too will shine like Jesus, shine like the sun, because at baptism you are dressed in His garments and arrayed in His righteousness, and as such, you have a permanent share in the glory displayed on the holy mountain that day.  This is our faith.  This is the Gospel of the Lord.  Amen.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Dealing with the desire to glorify these failing bodies


NASA - Public Domain
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray.  And as He was praying the appearance of His face was altered, and His clothing became dazzling white.  Luke 9:28-29

OUR faith is a living faith.  It is based on the events of the past, on all the things that God did to bring about our salvation, but when we consider these things as we do annually in the church year, it is not for the purpose of living in the past.  We must start there of course, but then we must move on to find both the present and the future meaning.

Today we remember our Lord's transfiguration.  We need to be reminded once again of the event, to be made aware of what took place and why, since no incident in the Savior's life was without meaning.  The remarkable change that took place in His appearance on the holy mountain that day is an indicator of who Jesus is.  It teaches us that He is Light of Light, that He is very God who appeared in the flesh to dispel the darkness that envelops us, and to swallow up death forever.  It tells us that God did not send a boy to do a man's job, for no one else could do what our High Priest did.   Moses was a good and holy man, but only a man, one whose strength and salvation came from God.  So does ours.

One of the leading forms of idolatry today is the unquenchable desire people have to save themselves and everything around them, not just in the religious realm, but in all areas of life: whales, trees, malaria sufferers, women in combat, but we forget that our very existence depends on God and that we could not think a thought or lift a finger without His blessing.  "In Him we live and move and have our being" says holy Scripture; and "unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain."  Now if we need a steady stream of God's mercy to accomplish the things that reason comprehends, how much more the things that it does not, such as the spiritual warfare we wage against sin, death and Satan?

What benefit does knowledge of the Transfiguration confer on us today?  As we said earlier and can never repeat too often, it informs us that the Man who was going to Jerusalem to stand trial for our sins, is God.  It informs us that He is the Bright Morning Star of God to bring salvation to the world, to shine light so bright that earth's thick darkness cannot overcome it or extinguish it.  Jesus is that light.

Now there is nothing we desire more than to be glorified, but we go about it all wrong.  We think that money, beauty, talent or tattoos can transform us from the mundane creatures we are, into shining individuals who will be loved and adored by everyone.  Is there any hope for us, or will our lives always seem like a dead-end?  Will we always be frustrated with our dreams ever beyond our reach?  There is hope!  By virtue of our baptism we are made one with Jesus, and His glory is ours, but it is nothing that the world would understand, or that human eyes can see, or that human reason can comprehend.  This kind of glory is understood only by faith.

Jesus was glorified in two ways, first by becoming obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.  This was His glory.  Then by being raised again.  The same is true about us.  In baptism we sacramentally follow Jesus to the cross and grave.  Sin is put to death in us and we are changed from children of wrath, children of disobedience into sons of the Living God.  Not only are we put to death with Christ, but we are raised again to a new and different kind of life, one marked by faith, by hope and by love expended in service to God and to one another, even our enemies; and though our outer self is wasting away, the Lord's Transfiguration reminds us that our inner self is being renewed day by day.  This is our glory.

As often as we come to the Holy Mountain of the church to pray like Jesus prayed, and to receive nourishment from God as Jesus did, we too are glorified.  We are dressed in the dazzling garments of the resplendent Lord and are given a glimpse of the grandeur that awaits us.  As we stated earlier there is not just a past and a present aspect to our Lord's transfiguration, but a future one as well.  When Jesus returns scripture assures us that He will transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body by the power that enables Him even to subject all things to Himself, but when it comes to such promises, like the three disciples on the mount of Transfiguration, we are drowsy with sleep.  Such a promise seems too good to be true, like a dream.  We cannot discern it when we look in the mirror, or as we hear the endless negative chatter of the people who know us all too well; or as often as our consciences accuse us, but this is where our Lord's transfiguration does us the most good.  It promises that we who are united to Him, whatever things look like now, will one day shine like the stars forever and ever.  That is the future promise of Transfiguration that we long for and that will be realized when our Lord returns in glory.  Amen

~Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, February 12, 2017

A prayer to save the church from ourselves!


The LORD is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.  And those who know your name put their trust in You, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you.  For the needy shall not always be forgotten and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.  Arise, O LORD!  Let not man prevail.  Psalm 9:9-10; 18-19a

O LORD, graciously hear the prayers of Your people that we who justly suffer the consequence of our sin may be mercifully delivered by Your goodness to the glory of Your name, through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our LORD, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

IF you think the church's job is to make you feel warm and fuzzy, think again.  The sham smiles you might see in television "churches," as the camera pans the audience, are not real, neither do they reflect what is happening in the Master's Vineyard today.  In church we conduct eternal transactions.  We deal with matters of spiritual life and spiritual death, and there is nothing more solemn that that.

Does the church talk a lot about sin?  Yes, but only in the same way an oncologist talks about cancer; not because he likes it but because it is the enemy, and the church is not afraid to say the enemy's name out loud.

Who is the enemy?  The answer to that may surprise you.  In the words of the Gradual we prayed this morning, "Let not man prevail!" or to borrow the words of the famous Pogo comic strip, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

What a prayer that is!

Let not man prevail!

Anyone who prays that prayer is guilty of treason, of high crimes and misdemeanors.  He spits in the face of the proud culture.  He "disses" its church, its hymnal, its doctrine, its practice and its god.  It is sacrilege!  An intolerable offense against the human family that worships itself as the only true god.

Let not man prevail!  What does this mean?  For the answer we need look no farther than the day's propers.  The Collect is brutally honest, more than a person could tolerate except he be drenched in divine grace, except that in the church we know that the Good News always follows the bad and is magnitudes more good than the bad news is bad.  In this collect we learn that the things we suffer in life are the "just consequence of our own sin."

That is harsh, but in the church we must not "live in denial" as the timid culture does.  We are under no illusions, supposing that one day it will all be better, just as soon as we elect the right politicians and distribute the world's goods to all men equally.  The Christian version of utopia is just as sinister.  Just as soon as Christians really learn what their faith is all about and begin to live it, then the world will be a good and decent place.

Now it is true that the Bible exhorts the baptized to every virtuous work, but it also recognizes human limitation.  It knows that all people, believer as well as unbeliever, are compromised by sin, so that not only are our wrongs are exceedingly wrong, but even the good we do:  our prayers, our worship, our loftiest thoughts and greatest sacrifices are tainted by the sin that dwells in us (Rom 7:17)

Does that depress you?  It need not because Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.  You are those sinners.  You, your father and mother, your kids and spouse, brothers and sisters, neighbors and rulers, your barista and your barber all alike.  This is why the church prays, "Let not man prevail," because however bad things are, how much worse would they be if men, who are turned in on themselves, driven by unquenchable desires as they are, were to have their way, instead of Christ?

Let not man prevail, but let God who is rich in mercy and who takes us in at the 11th hour, prevail; and let Jesus who is our Rock and who bore the burden of our sins and heat of their judgment, reign as King of Glory and Lord of all.

Let not man prevail!  We learn this in today's Old Testament lesson.  At Rephidim the people were dying of thirst.  They were tired, hungry, oppressed and at the end of their rope.  The "social contract " (which is tenuous in the best of times) was about to be dropped into the shredder.  They would have stoned Moses in a heartbeat and murdered one another in cold blood for a cup of cold water.  Let not man prevail!

The Lord answered their prayer by a stick and a rock.  Moses used the stick to strike the rock at God's command.  Water came out and the people were saved, once again at peace, but let us also connect the dots to Christ.  The stick Moses carried symbolized the cross.  It looked ahead 1,400 years to a hill far away, to Calvary, where He who is the righteous branch, by a branch prevailed over our sins and the infernal tyranny of the devil; and the water from the "rock that is Christ" prophesied baptism with dead accuracy, the sacrament by which we enter the kingdom of God and become heirs to every blessing.

Let not man prevail!

We find the same in today's Epistle lesson.  The founding members of the church in Corinth are remembered for the shame they brought on the Gospel.  They professed themselves Christians but lived like pagans, even as we too often do.  Repent!  Confess your sins and come to Calvary's holy mountain to be cleansed by the body and blood of Christ.

Let not man prevail!

We learn the same in today's Gospel.  All the workers contracted with the master to do so much work for so much pay.  End of story, until payday that is when they noted the master's strange way of doing business and they grew jealous and resentful.  Given the opportunity there's no telling to what lengths they might have gone, what property they might have looted, or what innocent blood they would have spilled in order to re-write the bargain in their favor.  Let not man prevail!

Yet if any man should prevail, let it be the Perfect Man, the "Man Christ Jesus" who is the only mediator between God and man.  Let Christ prevail, who like a lamb going to slaughter permitted evil men to prevail over Him, and bore every pain, every thorn due to us, so that neither death, devil nor sin should ever prevail over us.

Let God in Christ triumph!  He who gives you life with immortality, splendor with righteousness, truth with confidence, faith with assurance and self-control with holiness.  Let God arise, and his enemies be scattered.  Amen.

Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lord, set us free from the bonds of sin

As Jesus drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging.  And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant.  They told him, "Jesus of Nazareth is passing by."  And he cried out, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"  And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent, but he cried out all the more.  "Son of David, have mercy on me!"  And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to Him.  And when he came near, He asked him, "What do you want me to do for you?"  He said, "Lord, let me recover my sight."  And Jesus said to him, "Recover your sight: your faith has made you well."  And immediately he recovered his sight and followed Him, glorifying God.  And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.  Luke 18:35-43

TODAY the church makes us the blind man on the roadside, the man at the end of the freeway ramp, not begging uncertain riches from passing strangers, but calling out to Jesus to have mercy on us, and to deliver us from every evil, and why should we not?  For THAT is the sum of every prayer we utter; that our dear Lord Jesus Christ would look upon us with the beautiful eyes of His mercy, with true pity, and with divine love open our eyes so that we should recognize His mercy for what it is:  the end of all evil.

Yet the mercy of God is not only a future reality or a happy thought we use as a drug to get us through the rough times and then promptly forget.  Instead, God's mercy always takes on concrete form.  Like our Lord Himself, divine mercy assumes flesh and blood so that it is not only something we hold forth in our  minds to shield them from evil, though it is certainly that, but something that gives the measureable relief we pray for in today's Collect:

O Lord, we beseech Thee, mercifully hear our prayers and, having set us free from the bonds of sin, defend us from all evil:  through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

In the Old Testament church God extended His mercy to Israel by installing David as His own chosen king, but whatever Scripture posits of David was perfectly fulfilled in the Son of David, even our Lord Jesus Christ.

David was a shepherd who, by his given occupation, pointed to Jesus the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.   You are those sheep.

David was ruddy, which means reddish in color.  This points to the true humanity our Lord assumed in order to become our Savior and to the blood He shed on the cross to triumph over the world's sins, over death and to crush the devil's ugly head.

Scripture tells us that David was handsome, which in this context actually means boyish and innocent looking ... certainly too young to lead a nation.  We sing the same of our Lord: 

 This Child, now weak in infancy, Our confidence and joy shall be, The power of Satan breaking, Our peace eternal making.

This teaches us that looks can be deceiving when God is involved.  Goliath despised David's youth.  He wondered why Israel had sent out a boy to do a man's job, and we all know how that turned out.

As David was anointed with oil and with the Holy Spirit, St. Peter tells us that:  God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power, and that He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him.

Today's epistle continues in the same vein.  The love that God's people extend to one another is the concrete manifestation of the love of God in Christ.  When we give and receive it, when we are patient and kind; not rude or envious; when we reject what is evil and rejoice in the truth, we are giving and receiving the material mercy of God to one another.  We are injecting light into darkness and vanquishing the devil's wicked works and wicked ways, so there is no greater endeavor in life, no more blessed and beneficial activity, than to believe, teach and confess the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the very thing we are engaged in at this time.

In today's gospel we hear about the ultimate mercy of God in handing over His Son to be our substitute in judgment, suffering and death.  The things He endured were our due for our crimes, for our willful blindness, for our refusal to know God and to worship Him as God, for our lust, our greed and for our immeasurable narcissism; but as we sing in the hymn: 

 God would not have the sinner die, His Son with saving grace is nigh!
("God Loved the World so that He Gave"  The Lutheran Hymnal 245 )

Thus the holy died for the unholy, the just for the unjust and the righteous for the unrighteous.  That is mercy.  That is love!  That is the greatest deliverance from evil there is.

Hence the things we pray in today's Collect, that God would mercifully hear our prayers and deliver us from evil, are answered for us by our Lord's suffering and death, and what was gained for us by His cross is also given and distributed to us in the Lord's Supper on the Lord's Day, for in the blessed Sacrament the deliverance we seek from our sins, from eternal death, from hopelessness and despair, are given to us in the richest possible measure.  Truly our "cup runneth over," because in the Sacrament we commune with Jesus our glorified Lord; not a mere symbol of Him or a contrived remembrance of Him, but His true flesh and blood "in, with, and under the bread and the wine given for us Christians to eat and to drink for the remission of sins, life and salvation."

Accordingly, may we continue to do as the church has done from the beginning, because today's gospel lesson is not only a description but also a prescription for the church to imitate until the end of the age.  May we too join in the Lord's festal procession, not to Jerusalem, but to the altar, where we cry out to the Son of David to have mercy upon us and to deliver us from every evil.  It is a prayer He will always answer.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras