Monday, August 28, 2017

How do we get the strength to resist the desires of the flesh?


But I say, walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.  Because the things flesh craves are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh; these things are contrary to one another, so that you cannot do the things you would. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.  Galatians 5:16-18

Heeding these words of St. Paul is a vital part of our worship, dear Christians.  When we come to this holy house we bring God our offering and gifts.  We bring the fruits of our labor, along with our prayers, prises and endless thanks, like the cleansed and grateful Samaritan lepers we are.

Yet there is still another element to our worship, the very thing St. Paul supplies for us in today's epistle, that we should "walk by the Spirit," and refuse to gratify those things that our flesh craves more sorely than an addict his heroin.  Therefore in addition to these other gifts, we also give our very bodies into His service as "living sacrifices," not dead ones as was the case under Jewish law.  This is genuine worship.

The desires of the flesh are well known by every Christian, but St. Paul takes the time to list the most common.  Yet we should also be clear that he doesn't equate sin with flesh, as if flesh were evil, for it is not.  We know this because God who created it also assumed it in the Person of His Son who was truly "made man," so that He might suffer under Pontius Pilate for our salvation.  No, flesh is not evil, but the devil, in concert with the culture and our own fallen intellects, conscripts our members into carrying out the deadly desires we heard a few minutes ago.

In order to strengthen us against such mighty foes, St. Paul fortifies us with this divine word, "...walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh."  This is no mere pep talk, or self-help suggestion St. Paul gives us here, but rather a Word from God's own mouth, and as such, capable of accomplishing that which it says.

What does Paul mean when he says, "walk by the Spirit?"  He means that Christians should live in the power of their baptism, but to do that we must understand the gifts that were so richly bestowed upon us there.  In baptism we are delivered from death, that is to say we are no longer subject to the curse our sins bring; and though our bodies will die the first death, we are exempt from  the second death.  People like to chatter on these days about justice, but it's not justice you want from God, O Man, but rather mercy, and that is what we get by faith in Jesus Christ.

In baptism we are rescued from the Roaring Lion who wants nothing more than to devour us, to ruin us, and to have us share in his misery  now and forever; and too often, because he presents himself as a reasonable and rational "angel of light," we haplessly play along, but there is a remedy!

First that we should confess our sins, as often as we fall; and again when we pray the general confession in church each Sunday.  Yet confession is not enough.  We must also hear the absolution and believe it!  Believe that, though the words come from the mouth of a man, this is God's forgiveness, and by it you are cleansed from the leprosy of your sins.

In baptism we are made a new creation in Christ.  We receive a new nature; one that detests the works of the flesh and expends its every energy in pursuing the fruits of the Spirit that St. Paul outlines for us today.  "For if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law."

What does that mean?

It means that you no longer need to seek heavenly peace by the Law, which is to say, the Jewish sacrificial system, but neither should we seek salvation by the sacrificial system of current culture.  Attempting to escape the guilt of its sins, culture has banned the Bible from the public square, but it has not helped because in the process they have also banned the peace of the Cross, so guilt is felt today as a general disquiet and dissatisfaction, as a melancholy that people can neither explain or shake off, that follows them like their shadow wherever they go.

The latest cultural gospel tells us that to get rid of it we must simplify, and get back to nature.  Heeding the call, many people are leaving the rat race of the city and becoming farmers.  They are trading in their Toyotas for tractors in the hopes that this will soothe their psyches and dispel their disquiet, but it does not help.

Adam and Eve tried that, too.  They covered their guilt with fig leaves.  They thought that going green would save them, but it did not.  Instead God found them and prosecuted them for their mutiny, but He who condemned them also saved them and made them alive again by killing two animals; by shedding their blood and cutting the skin right off their backs.  With it He made garments for our first parents, ones that truly covered their shame, but that also looked forward to a Greater Slaughter yet to come: to God's Lamb, the One of Whom, and to Whom we sing, "O Christ Thou Lamb of God that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us."

Pray this prayer often, dear Christians, not just on Sunday, because it is one that  our Great High Priest will always answer in the affirmative, because you are no longer under the Law but under the Cross by your baptism.  Therefore rely on Him to strengthen you against the sins of the flesh and to make the fruit of the Spirit grow in your life.  Amen

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Monday, August 21, 2017

Are we as blessed to see and hear as the Disciples were?


Then turning to the disciples He said privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!  For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.  Luke 10:23-24

WE have all lamented being in the wrong place at the wrong time, sometimes regretted it sorely, but these 12 disciples were in the right place at the right time.

What God had promised for several thousand years was filled to the full in this Jesus whom they called Teacher and Lord; fulfilled in what He said and did, in His merciful miracles, godly prayers and gracious words, but above all by the joyful offering of Himself into suffering and death to release us from our sins and the sins of our fathers.

Yes, the disciples had a front row seat for the fulfillment of God's ancient and everlasting promises.  Their eyes saw and their ears heard what pining prophets and yearning kings longed for, but in the words of the sermon to the Hebrews (11:13ff) "These all died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them, and confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth."

These are the things that the disciples were blessed to experience, but what about us?  What do we see?  What do we hear?  Are we also blessed like the Twelve?

You know the answer is yes, and you must believe that with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.  Believe that when you come to this Holy Ground, to this Burning Bush, this altar with its eternal gifts, that you come to see, and to hear, and to eat, none other than your Lord and God, Jesus Christ, because the Gospel you hear each Sunday is not only about Jesus, it is Jesus!  Which is to say that when you hear these holy words, you are hearing Jesus Himself.  Please believe it and please don't be fooled by what your eyes see!  They see His minister, His emissary and ambassador, which we must highly regard because that is the way our Lord established things, but we must also learn to see through him and past him, to see Jesus Himself!

Lutherans say that Jesus is present in the Word and Sacrament, but what we say of the Sacrament is equally true of the Word, the Holy Scriptures, especially of the holy Gospel for which we show special reverence by standing and by its own versicle and response at the beginning and end; and in best Christian tradition by chanting it because chanting is first elevated speech employed to sing out and ring out the most elevated words ever uttered in this cacophonous world.

Yes, it is Jesus who is speaking to you.  This is not merely a shared hallucination.  If you don't believe that Jesus Himself is here, Jesus who was conceived by the Holy Spirit; Jesus who was born of the Virgin Mary; Jesus who suffered under Pontius Pilate, who was crucified!  dead!  buried!  and who rose again on the third day, ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father; if you don't understand that He HImself is speaking here, receiving your prayers and praises, excising your sins with the laser of His love; entering our dead flesh with His living flesh in holy communion and giving us His very own Spirit to be in us and with us wherever we go, then there are better uses of your time.

What did their ears hear that day, and ours today from the same mouth of Jesus?  The Parable of the Good Samaritan, which is about Jesus.

He is the one who sees us in our despair, our pain, our tears, our fears, our cultural hallucinations, the bloody messes of our lives, and comes to rescue us with the wine of His Word and the oil of His Spirit; comes to disambiguate our confusion and to restore us to our right minds!!!  Just like He did the raging Gadarene demoniac after He had expelled the legion of demons from Him (Mark 5).

Others pass us by, but not Jesus!  Even those whose duty it is to rescue us and help us, fail us more often than not.  Such is life on earth, dear Christians.  Don't expect too much, and don't put your hope in the wrong things, for Holy Scripture says:  it is better to trust in the LORD than to trust in men, it is better to trust in the LORD than to trust in princes.

Yes, they all pass us by not only from self-interest, but because they all have their own wounds; and because they don't know what to do anyway!  They are physicians who cannot heal themselves, how can they make you well?

In our day, man has thrown in the towel.  He has given up trying to end the madness, trying to save humanity from itself, and has turned his collective efforts to far easier, but less noble tasks: to the rescue of animals which makes him feel good and makes him think that he is doing something high and holy, but he is not!  Just be glad that God doesn't think that way, that He doesn't give up that easily, and that He values us much more highly than the sparrows, O ye of little faith; but what man cannot do, Jesus can, Jesus does.  He is the all-mighty Savior and there is nothing He cannot reconcile:  even you in your weakness, shame, guilt, and your sticky, prickly pride.

He is doing it here.  He is doing it now.  Moreover, He authorizes those who are rescued to "go and do likewise," not as Don Quixote's tilting at every windmill of social conscience, or on Facebook, but in your daily vocation, in the patch God assigns to you and you alone to be His man, His woman, on scene; to extend His love to those who are beaten down by the serial killer of souls.  You are rescued, your future is assured because of the cross, and now you have good and noble work to do.  You are in the right place at the right time!

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Living a Godly Life by the Examples of History


And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has regarded the humble estate of his maidservant: for behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for He who is mighty has done great things for me and holy is His name!  And His mercy extends from generation to generation of those who fear Him!  Luke 1:46-50

HAGIOGRAPHY is the body of Christian literature that tells the stories of the martyrs and saints of the ages.  It was written to instruct and edify us, and to teach us what true faith and a godly life are all about.  Many of the church's saints are biblical ones that all Christians recognize:  Noah, David, Esther, Ruth, the Evangelists & Apostles, St. Stephen the first Christian martyr, and St. James the second Christian martyr.

There are many others that followed in their sacred train:  Clement, Ignatius, Justin, Polycarp, Perpetua, Felicitas, Sebastian, Agnes, Alban, Basil, Gregory and the Venerable Bede, who is the author of our beautiful Ascension hymn #212 "A Hymn of Glory Let Us Sing."  These are just a few, but the most blessed of all is the one whose feast the church celebrates today, St. Mary the Mother of our Lord, even as we hear in today's text:  "From now on all generations will call me blessed for He who is mighty has done great things for me."

Yet for a thousand years, from the 6th to the 16th century, hagiography turned sour.  The worship, prayers and praises due to God alone were redirected to the Blessed Virgin, and to a host of other saints so that people prayed to them, loved and trusted and put their hope in them instead of the Heavenly Father who alone supplies our every need, now and in eternity.  It should come as no surprise, then, that one of the biggest grievances the Lutheran Reformers had against Rome is this very practice.

In Article XXI of the Augsburg Confession, which is our chief Lutheran confession of faith, the Reformers repudiate the false teachings and practices that had become so deeply entrenched in the medieval church (and still continues today), but they didn't only reject what was wrong, they also taught what was right, because they were reformers, not revolutionaries!  For at the end of the day hagiography is a good and blessed thing; one the church disregards at her own peril.

So, how do we rightly remember the martyrs and saints today?  It is the Lutheran Faith for which Christians should first thank God for converting sinners into saints by holy baptism, for you see, none of the saints started out as saints, but as died-in-the-wool sinners, just like us, just like all people.  Yet if they can be made new creations in Christ, reasoned the reformers, then we can too, and this is reason to rejoice!

Secondly, our Lutheran confessions teach that we should praise God for giving the world such heroes of faith to be our examples of holiness, perseverance, patience in suffering, and of ultimate trust in God above for every need and every blessing; for giving us flesh and blood human beings, who by faith in Jesus, resisted the siren song of the culture; rejected the world's shallow wisdom and irrational ways of life; and who devoted themselves to the  -teachings of Holy Scriptures as the only viable path for life.

Thirdly, our Lutheran Confessions teach that all people should imitate their faith, and the holy works their faith inspired.  In this respect the church has many great saints, but none more honored throughout the ages than St. Mary the Mother of our Lord, whom the church remembers today.

Now it goes without saying that we do not pray to her or ask her to pray for us, or to intercede for us with her Blessed Son because that very Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is the one and only High Priest, Intercessor and Mediator there is between God and man.  No other can help, no other can save, no other can intercede.

Therefore in accord with our Lutheran faith let us this day join the Blessed Virgin Mary in magnifying God Most High for the holy Child she bore who is the world's Savior, and for her example of humility, faith, and holy devotion to God.

When the angel Gabriel first appeared to make the happy announcement (Annunciation / March 25th), the young Virgin was greatly troubled and deeply distressed, but Gabriel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God.  And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall all his name Jesus.  He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end..."

Hearing this she was not only troubled, but now confused and perplexed beyond telling.  She said to the Angel, "how can these things be since I am a Virgin?"  To which Gabriel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God."  To which the Blessed Virgin answered with these immortal words, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."

Here is an example to follow; a most blessed model of humility, faith, and devotion to our God, but humility is a virtue that has gone missing in our day!  We must find it again because no man can be saved without it, and because Mary's Son says many times in the holy Gospel:  "whoever exalts himself will be humbled, but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."  There's nothing better than that.

Where can we find this godly virtue?  How can we learn it along with pure faith and unwavering devotion to our God and to His perfect will for our lives?  In a word hagiography; by studying the example of the Blessed Virgin and the saints of the ages, not only the ones written in Holy Scripture, but all those who followed in their train.

May we learn their stories, imitate their virtue, and rejoice with all the company of heaven, in never-ending gladness at the throne of the Lamb.  Amen.

~ Rev. Dean Kavouras

Sunday, August 6, 2017

In this world that is changing, turning upside down so quickly...


public domain
Consider the room underneath our sanctuary, where the various cabinets and closets are.  If the power ever goes off down there, you are really in the dark.  In the days when I used to watch recess at LMS, I would sometimes take a grade down there on a rainy day and turn off all the lights.  They loved it!  You could hold your hand this far from your nose and not see it.  What an accurate metaphor for the world we live in!  The Gospel is the sunshine, the energy that enlightens a world that has no energy of its own.  It has gloom, and despair, and a sense of the tragic.  Human reason is not a light.  It is a mirror that reflects and focuses light as long as one is shining, but reason is fallen, compromised by sin, so the only thing it is able to reflect is more darkness.  Like a flashlight downstairs, the Word of God, the completely reliable Word of God, penetrates the darkness.  When Peter refers to "the prophetic Word," he means the Old Testament, which in his day was the Bible.  The apostles added more details, but the message is always the same.  The Biblical message enlightens those who pay attention to it. No one else has anything but darkness.

Now let's go a few verses up from our sermon text, up to verse 4 in fact.  There Peter referred to something unparalleled in human experience.  He said that Christ shared His divine nature with us.  Think about that!  It isn't enough that He took away our sins!  It isn't enough that we have peace in our hearts!  It isn't enough that we have comfort in the day of trouble, or the hope of heaven.  We have all those, to be sure, but now He gives us a share in His divinity.  Wasn't this the very thing that the snake offered the universal mother?  His way to get that was by disobeying.  Jesus gives us the opposite.  His perfect obedience is credited to us.  He gives a spiritual life that begins when we are born again of water and the Spirit.  Even as heaven and earth were born when the Spirit moved on the primeval water, so we are born again when we are washed and sanctified by the Gospel of Jesus Christ, applied through Holy Baptism.  Our Catechism calls this life "the new man."

We think our technology enlightens us.  It might give us capabilities, for good or evil, but it cannot make us divine.  It raises the stakes, but does not give us a better hand.  It took a generation to learn the secrets of the atom.  Within a decade mankind made it into the most destructive bomb imaginable.  The church has also been seduced by technology, such as management techniques, marketing, and entertainment.  The results have been dreadful.  Instead of the shepherd, the model for clergy has become the CEO.  Instead of ministry, the church pursues people management.  Instead of worship, insert entertainment.  The church has come to dislike doctrine, but if you don't have doctrine, you don't have a church.  Without the divine light, the church is just another part of the darkness.

Peter contrasts the certainty of the Word with the myths devised by men.  Some scholars have called the Gospel a myth.  That had better not be the case.  If the Gospel is a myth, if Jesus didn't really die and rise again, then there is no point in having a church.  No one can build faith on a myth.  The ethical teachings of Jesus are meaningless unless He had authority to say them.  The Christian Gospel is the one certain, true word that we have in our society today.  It isn't "my truth" or "the church's truth."  It is the truth.  I cannot impose it on you, but I can be the messenger who says that when Jesus returns, He will impose it on the world.  That is how it is going to be.

Our world does have myths.  Secular humanism has its mythical narrative which it calls the story of Progress.   It teaches that mankind heroically overcomes all obstacles by applying technology over nature, including finally his own nature.  There are also spiritual myths, that talk about the higher self, or the masters, or reincarnation.  All such things are devised by men.  No matter how sincere those who hold them might be, they are wrong.  Nothing against sincerity, but it does not make up for being wrong.  Stalin was a sincere Communist, which made him a lackey of hell.  You can say the same thing of Mohammed, or the New Age people.

Christians are not against spirituality so long as you keep it connected to holiness.  Christian spirituality seeks the cross.  New Age spirituality is self-indulgent, disobedient, striving for the very things the snake offered in Genesis 3.  There have always been some in the church that have tried to combine Christianity with the occult.  Unfortunately, that turns lights off, not on.

But the apostles did not make up stories.  They wrote about what they saw and heard.  On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John heard the Voice.  They knew God was speaking to them.  They saw Jesus glorified in their presence, for as Peter tells us in verse 18, we were with Him on the holy mountain.  Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, representing the Law and the Prophets, but the core of the Gospel took place on another hill. Jesus did not bask in the glory of the Transfiguration.  He was headed for Calvary.  Immediately He warned the apostles not to talk about what they had seen until after He died and rose again.  The good news is that He did both of those things.

Is there any compelling reason why we should believe the apostles?  Why not?  They were practical men, not visionaries.  They were experienced men of the world, not very gullible.  They had no conflict of interest, since the government threatened them with death for telling what they had seen.  They were men of good repute, honest and industrious.  In the story they wrote, they did not make their own roles very heroic, but they did keep their eyes on the Scriptures, showing us how Jesus fulfilled the prophecies.  Why should we not believe them?  This is not a myth.  This is the one genuine light in the dark world.  We witness to this whenever we light the altar candles, beginning at the top to show that all light must come from God.  The Word is our witness from the Holy Spirit, to make us certain that Jesus has saved us, that forgiveness and life are ours by His cross.  We can find certainty nowhere else.  We can look to the Word.  Soon the dawn of eternity will swallow up the darkness of time.  Until then, pay attention to the Light that we do have.  AMEN.

~ Rev. Lloyd E. Gross