2nd Sunday of Easter

2nd Sunday of Easter
April 28, 2019
John 20:24-29
“The Reality of Easter”

Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you all in the name of God our Father and our risen Good Shepherd Jesus Christ. The text that engages us today is a portion of our Gospel lesson from John 20, verses 24 through 29.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

Last Sunday was a complete waste of our time. That would be the opinion of a group known as the “Jesus Seminar.” The Jesus Seminar does not believe that the resurrection ever happened. The Jesus Seminar’s founder believes that Jesus’ body was placed in a shallow grave and wild dogs ate His body which explains its disappearance. The Jesus Seminar considers the resurrection, the virgin birth, all the miracle accounts, and 82% of all of Jesus teachings “legendary (additions) with no historical foundations.” For example, the Jesus Seminar considers only 3 of the 9 Beatitudes as authentic and only two words of the Lord’s Prayer as authentic – “Our Father.” They believe the rest of the words were made up by someone else.
The Jesus Seminar’s founder, Robert Funk (deceased in 2005; Seminar defunct since 2006), calls Jesus a “secular (philosopher) who satirized the pious and championed the poor.” He also added that “Jesus was perhaps the first Jewish stand-up comic…starting a new religion would have been the farthest thing from his mind.” It’s ironic that a group called “Jesus Seminar” would have such a low opinion of Jesus! Sadly, Funk is not alone in his low opinion of Jesus and Christianity in general. It seems like these days we face more and more open attacks against Jesus and the Christian faith. The church is no longer the institution it used to be. Fewer and fewer people attend Easter morning services. Images of a burning and collapsed steeple at historic Notre Dame cathedral in France doesn’t help; perhaps that situation is a microcosm of the state of Christianity in Europe these days; still standing, but its heart has been damaged. There was the horrible Easter bombing massacre in Sri Lanka leaving more than 300 Christians dead. Back home, American churches rely on the old “bait and switch,” offering cars and mortgages, in order to get new worshippers in the door. It’s no wonder people are questioning. The church has left them in style and practice and theology. Is it any wonder they have questions and doubts? One of the oldest questions is before us today – did Jesus really rise from the dead? The Jesus Seminar would say “no,” but they’re dead themselves, so there’s that…
Of course, this is not a new question. In fact, a great majority of Jesus’ ministry was surrounded by unbelief, as there have always been questions about the identity and actions and authority of Jesus. Jesus came preaching and teaching as the Son of God (which He was), and very few believed in Him. Even His closest followers did not totally believe. Judas betrayed Him, Peter denied Him, Mary Magdalene expected to find His dead body, and Thomas, well, Thomas demanded living proof before he would believe in the resurrection of the Lord.
And so we come to Thomas, whom we consider EVERY YEAR on the 2nd Sunday of Easter. Thomas is often called “doubting” Thomas. This brand, however, is not a fair one for Thomas and neither is it a fair branding for us. It was not so much that Thomas doubted, rather he did not believe what the disciples reported to him. Thomas heard something that caused him call into question the authenticity of what he heard and what he knew. Thomas didn’t necessarily lack faith, he had concerns over what he had heard; maybe Thomas thought this was the first case of “fake news” ever recorded.
There are some BIG verses in John: 3:16, 14:6 (and 6 other “I AM” sayings), 19:30, 44. Perhaps the most important is John 20:31 – “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” As Christians we have faith, and faith always has an object. In our case, it’s Jesus of Nazareth…the Christ. Faith reveals to us that Jesus is the Son of God and the very real and historical fact that Jesus rose again from the grave on that resurrection morning. Jesus is risen! He is risen just as He said He would! Sin is forgiven; death has been defeated! We know this as fact, and are confident in that undeniable truth.
Our faith in Jesus is not contingent on demands of proof. Thomas’s faith was, but he had the luxury of waiting to see if it were true or not. Neither you nor I have that luxury. Jesus has bodily ascended into heaven and we cannot stand around waiting to see if He walks into this room today and, if He does, it’s too late by the way. But do you know what? We can still see Him…and we do see Him. We see Him whenever His Word is proclaimed in all its truth and purity. We see Him in the very meal that He Himself provides yet again today. We cannot see His entire physical body, and yet we believe without having to see; “Blessed are those who have not seen, yet believe.”
We were not there to see when the Holy Spirit conceived Jesus inside Mary, and yet we believe it occurred. We were not there that night with the shepherds in the fields who heard the Good News proclaimed of the birth of the Savior, and yet we believe it occurred. The hymn asks us, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” and the answer is “no,” yet we believe it occurred. The reality of Easter is that we were not there when Jesus rose from the grave, and yet we know and believe it occurred. And those beliefs, our Christian faith, means everything, especially in the face of hardship and opposition either in your individual lives or the collective life of the Church.
Our sure and certain hope, our Christian faith, is not physically confirmed like Thomas’. But, like Thomas, we can confess “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28). We have looked into the tomb of Christ through His Word and found that He has risen, we have known it and felt it in our hearts. What God has done for us in Christ is what we believe. That is our sure and certain hope – a hope that does not disappoint – for it is the hope for this life and the hope of the life to come.
Our faith in our resurrected Savior gives us conviction in the face of the disbelief of so many people today. It gives us certainty in the face of doubt by others. It gives us strength in the face of sinful temptation. Maybe the kid’s song that we know so well (hymn #588) says more than we realize: “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.” EXACTLY! Thank you! As Christians we know what we believe and in whom we believe without seeing because God’s Word – the Bible – tells us so. And that is the truth – the reality – of Easter.


Easter 2019
April 21, 2019
Exodus 15:1-18
“Against All Odds!”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today for our glorious celebration of Easter is the First Lesson read from Exodus 15.

My dear friends,

At the beginning of the 2018-2019 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning were a 3-1 favorite to win the Stanley Cup. When the playoffs started, they were an 8-1 favorite. Before game 4 of their series against Columbus, they were a 14-1 favorite to win the Cup. How about their chances now! Breathe…breathe…breathe. Okay.
Enough about hockey. What are the odds that you will be struck by lightning? One in three million. A man named Roy Sullivan holds the world record for being struck by lightning. Roy, a park ranger, was struck seven times. Interesting note…Sullivan survived 7 lightning strikes but could not survive depression. He shot himself back in 1983. He was only 72 years old. True story.
The most important “what are the odds” question, though, is this. What are the odds that a man, brutally beaten and then crucified by the mighty Roman Empire, would come back to life? The odds are astronomical, but get this—it happened! It really happened! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! True story!
Today we consider Exodus 15, a song of celebration after Israel defeated Egypt. What are the odds that a group of Israelite slaves who had never fought anybody, would defeat the most powerful military force on earth – the Egyptians – led by that mean and mighty Pharaoh? Probably the same as the lowly wild card Columbus Blue Jackets offing the Lighting in the FIRST ROUND! Breathe…breathe…breathe. Okay.
As the Israelites flee Egypt they look over their shoulders and see Pharaoh madly chasing after them screaming, “Get back here! You’ll have hell to pay!” He was mainly mad at himself; he had let his entire slave workforce leave. But it gets even worse! The Israelites become surrounded and stuck on all sides. Exodus 14:11, “They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die?’” They were pretty funny people.
Just when the odds were completely against Israel we come to Exodus 15:4–5, “Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea…The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone.” No wonder Israelites sing in Exodus 15:2, “The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation!” All of this, though, is just a peek, a prelude, and a preview into the Bible’s greatest against-all-odds story ever.
Opposition began early in Christ’s ministry and it never seemed to let up. After 3 years, the religious leaders finally got what they wanted. Once arrested, Jesus is bound, accused, blindfolded, and mocked. But it gets worse. They strip him and beat him into a bloody pulp. But it gets even worse. Jesus is blood-soaked and nailed to a Roman cross and left to die. It took six hours, and then Jesus breathed “it is finished.” He is, as we confess in the Creeds, “crucified, dead, and buried.” True story.
Just when everyone thought it was all over, the angel announced, “He is not here! He has risen just as he said!” Mary shouts, “Teacher!” Then Thomas for the ages, “My Lord and my God!” Against all the odds, Jesus LIVES! True story!
Jesus lives, but no one ever said our lives would be easy. It feels like opposition began early in our lives too and it never seemed to let up. I’m talking about the 1 in 3 people whose parents got divorced. I’m talking about the 1 in 4 women who were sexually abused as children. I’m talking about the 1 in 7 people who grew up with an alcoholic parent. I’m talking about the people who grew up in families with absentee dads, controlling moms, screaming parents, addicted sisters, and abusive brothers. You feel as though the odds are against you.
Maybe we experienced a devastating loss. For some of you, this means your spouse died, your marriage died, your child died, your career died, or your father died. For others, it means your dream died. And I’d venture to guess that for some of you your will to live has died; no more reason to lift your head off the pillow each morning. Maybe we are crippled by a destructive habit. It’s Easter morning…time to come clean. What is it for you? What is making you rlife an against-all-odds situation? Gambling? Drugs? Alcohol? Pornography? Work? True story? As a result, you might feel as though the odds are against you.
All the odds were against a man named Lee Capps. Lee, who didn’t know how to fly, took off in a private plane in 1996 with a friend who was a pilot. When they got up to cruising altitude Lee’s friend, the pilot, had a heart attack and died right there at the plane’s controls. Lee grabbed the radio and cried for help. An air traffic controller in Renton, Washington, heard Lee’s cry. He said, “This is your lucky day. I’m not only an air traffic controller, I’m also a flight instructor. Would you be interested in a flying lesson?” Being otherwise unoccupied, Lee Capps said, “Sure! Why not?” The air traffic controller said, “Lee, you’re going to have to take a shot at landing the plane. No practice, no dress rehearsal, no spring training!”
Lee Capps came in like a drunk duck. He was all over the place. He tried an emergency water landing, but the floats collapsed! Thanks a lot! The 2nd attempt would have to be on hard, solid terra firma. And he hit pretty hard. But Lee Capps walked away from it all with only a few minor cuts. Afterwards, the air traffic controller was interviewed by several TV stations, “Did you really think he would walk away alive?” The air traffic controller responded, “Folks, Lee Capps made it against all odds!” True story!
I know. Oh God, I know. Stuff is going on—a whole lot of stuff is going on in your life. You’re circling the runway and trying to land. Your greatest fear is that you will crash and burn! Let me remind you of two honest-to-God facts. Against all odds, Israel made it out of Egypt. Better yet, against all odds, Jesus Christ is risen today! That fact alone is enough to help you overcome all the long odds in your life.
In John 14:19 Jesus said, “Because I live, you also will live.” Talk about beating the odds! Easter happened. Easter is happening in you. We live now and we will live forever. True story! Alleluia! Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!
Happy Easter everyone!

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday 2019
April 14, 2019
Exodus 34:1-8
“A New Beginning”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today as we begin our Holy Week journey together is the First Lesson read from Exodus 34.

My dear friends,

Jimmy Wayne learned never to trust a soul. That’s why he never unpacked his bag. We can’t blame him. Jimmy Wayne never knew his father, and his mother spent more time in jail than out of jail. When he was a small child, his mother got out of jail…again and took up with a troublemaker…again. They loaded Jimmy into the backseat of their Oldsmobile Delta 88. For a year the car was Jimmy’s home. He learned never to trust a soul. That’s why Jimmy Wayne never unpacked his bag. After living in the back seat of a car for a year, Jimmy Wayne was dumped off at the train depot in Pensacola, Florida. His mother and her boyfriend sped away in their Delta 88. Jimmy Wayne desperately needed a new beginning.
As we begin Holy Week 2019 and celebrate Palm Sunday, we do so with Exodus 34. It’s all about a new beginning. Aaron, Israel’s high priest, needs a new beginning. So does Israel. And—most certainly—so do we! A new beginning is absolutely necessary. Why is that? In Exodus 32, Aaron and the Israelites were faced with a huge crisis. They hadn’t seen Moses for 40 days and 40 nights; was Moses dead? Did Moses leave them? Aaron and the Israelites grew impatient so they made a golden calf and they worshipped it! What does Moses do when he comes down from Mt. Sinai? Moses smashes the Ten Commandments, grinds up the golden calf, mixes it with water, and makes the people drink it!
So, we pick up the narrative today in Exodus 34:1, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke” The Ten Commandments have been smashed! That’s not good; they defined how Israel was to be God’s people; after 400+ years as slaves, they didn’t know “how” to act. Whoa…That’s why new beginnings are absolutely necessary.
Let’s face it. We’re not that much different than Aaron and the Israelites. Sure, making mistakes is a part of life’s imperfections. But what do we frequently do when faced with a crisis? Instead of turning to the 10 Commandments for guidance, we become angry, impatient, faithless, and selfish. We sinfully turn to our “golden calves” and look to them for deliverance. God—the holy and righteous and perfect God—this God has every right to dump the hot mess that is humanity off at a train depot in Pensacola and ride off into the sunset. But he doesn’t! Our God doesn’t do that!
And because God doesn’t do that, a new beginning is completely and totally possible. The Lord comes down and said to Moses about Himself, “The LORD, the LORD, (is) merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…(and) forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” Don’t know about you, but I find it reassuring that Yahweh frequently comes down in the book of Exodus. We can’t go up to God. That’s why God comes down to us, right where we are wherever we are—in the basement of your brokenness and broken lives and broken commandments.
And what does God do when he comes down? Scold you? Shame you? Berate you? Reject you? Condemn you? No! He doesn’t come to say “You’ve been bad!” God comes into the midst of your anger, anxiety, and angst and He cries out in reminder that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness and forgiving sin. No matter how difficult, dark, or daunting your life and situation may feel, a new beginning is totally possible!
And so that brings us to Palm Sunday. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey on a Sunday because the following Friday he is going to lift up the hot mess that is our sin and place it where? Upon Himself—all wickedness, rebellion, and sin; to give us an eternally new beginning! Jesus is, in the flesh, as He said to Moses thousands of years before, “the merciful and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love.” (x3) Jesus teaches this love. Jesus lives this love. Jesus demonstrates this love by shedding his blood on the cross for you. Palm Sunday announces it. Good Friday shows it. And Easter Sunday celebrates it! You and I can now rejoice – bask – in that love as it compels us to love others. His love and grace truly are Amazing!
One day, while aimlessly walking around Pensacola, Jimmy Wayne—remember Jimmy Wayne?—little Jimmy Wayne spotted a man named Russ working in his garage. Russ’ yard needed to be mowed and Jimmy could push a mower. Soon Russ and his wife Bea invited Jimmy to live with them. The home was like heaven! A hot bath, hot meals, and even TV! Jimmy Wayne, though, had learned never to trust a soul. Jimmy Wayne still wouldn’t unpack his bag. It took another month before Russ and Bea convinced Jimmy that their love for him was real. So finally, finally—Jimmy Wayne unpacked his bag! He made himself at home.
Jimmy Wayne grew up, got a job as a correctional facility guard, and got advice about songwriting from an inmate. Then he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career. Jimmy Wayne is now a famous country music singer and songwriter. He signed a recording contract, released 3 studio albums, had 9 Top 50 Country hit songs and a #1 hit song in 2008. In addition to music, he is a public speaker, author, and advocate for foster care. His new beginning started when he learned to trust—when he learned to truly love because someone loved him back – and he finally unpacked his bag. And now he’s a country music star.
Friends, our past is behind us; we accept our past. God’s grace is before us; we treasure the present. A new beginning awaits us; we trust the future. So now what? It’s time to unpack our bag! Why do that? Because we finally have a home. Where? Here. With Jesus! Unpack your bag…all your baggage. Jesus would have it no other way. Welcome home!
Welcome to Holy Week in the year of our Lord 2019.

5th Sunday in Lent

5th Sunday in Lent
April 7, 2019
Isaiah 43:16-21
“Holy Water”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the First Lesson as read for you from Isaiah 43.

My dear friends,

Sarasota is a coastal city. We are on the east coast of the Gulf of Mexico and on the west coast of Florida. “Congratulations Pastor, you win the geography bee!” That’s not the point. I bring it up because many people come, including MANY of you, because of our proximity to the water…that, and the beautiful weather of course. In all the research and searching that scientists do in outer space, one of the things they are most anxious to find is not spacemen, but water. Why? Well, if they can find water, it may prove that there are other forms of life in the universe besides life here on earth. Water is always essential to life. I know we think that if we couldn’t shower or wash our clothes for a week we would just die. Been in that situation after Hurricane Irma – didn’t like it – but didn’t die either. But the reality is that without water, there is only death. That was true in the history of the people of Israel, and it’s crucial not only to our physical life, but our spiritual life as the church. When God speaks of or uses water, it usually signals something that is literally of life-and-death importance to his people. Truly, God’s use of water is a holy matter of life and death.
Throughout the Bible, water is a “big deal.” Today’s First Lesson from Isaiah recalls when God destroyed Pharaoh’s army by water. The Israelites, just days after coming out of Egypt, were trapped with water on one side and the vengeful Egyptian army on the other side. Water was their problem; water would be their solution. God provided a way through the water, but when the Egyptian army entered the sea, they were drowned (v 17). For the Egyptians, this use of water was not so good. But for God’s people, those waters were saving waters of life (v 16). For God’s people, the way through the sea was the way to safety and life – a new life of freedom instead of bondage and oppression. Both groups went into the water, but only one group came out alive. This was not just random chance or bad luck; it was the Lord’s mighty, saving hand at work in the midst of His people.
In our text, though, the Lord tells Isaiah’s hearers not to look back on all that: “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing!” (w 18-19a). The something new is a whole new era of history, a time when it would be as if the desert would flow with rivers, providing abundantly for both man and beast! This would be the age of the Messiah, the day when the Christ would come and restore the reign of God, making right all the corruption that sin brought into a once-perfect world.
My friends, this age is now. The new reality – the “new thing” – has happened when Jesus came to earth, lived, died, and rose from the grave. It was no coincidence that when the soldier pierced Jesus’ side with his spear while he was on the cross that blood and water gushed forth (John 19:34). The new age came with death – Jesus’ death on the cross – but in that death He provides what is necessary for His people to have life: His blood and the life-giving water to free us from our bondage and oppression to sin and its consequence – death.
The death that Jesus died, as horrible as it was and as graphic as it is portrayed on TV and in movies especially this time of year with Easter so close, it was for a purpose. By dying Jesus paid the ransom price for our sinfulness that we could never, ever pay. But death is not strong enough to hold Jesus. God’s salvation history does not end with Jesus’ death. 3 days later Jesus rose again from the dead to new life! And because we share in a Baptism like His, we will share in a resurrection like His.
Do not forget, though, that Baptism with water first kills. In Baptism, we die with Christ: “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Romans 6:4). By Baptism God also makes us alive again.
We don’t keep a special drum of “holy water” around for Baptisms. The water for Baptisms comes right from the sink. Rather, Martin Luther explains in the Small Catechism, it is not the water that does such wonderful things, “but the word of God in and with the water…along with the faith which trusts this word of God in the water.”
The water of our Baptisms is long gone, but the words that made that water a life-giving Baptism are still with us, and we are invited to recall them daily. Being baptized is no small matter. From a human standpoint it’s not as dramatic as God parting the Sea, but Baptism is God’s saving hand once again reaching down to save…you. Baptism provides what it says it will provide: the forgiveness of our sins, rescue from death and the devil, and the gift of eternal salvation. These things are of great confidence to us in this life as it reassures us that ultimately things are going to be okay.
Maybe it’s not a lack of running water for you today. But maybe it’s a lack of money, maybe it’s a lack of companionship, maybe a lack of good health, maybe it’s a lack of trust, maybe it’s a lack of confidence or forgiveness or courage or hope or love that makes life hard for us. But when sin and despair and anxiety wrap their icy grip around you, you can remind yourself “I am baptized, and nothing can change that.”
Whether in ancient Israel or in Sarasota or outer space or in your home, without water, there’s no hope of life. We thank God, therefore, that he has done an entirely new thing, better than giving water in the wilderness. Today, give thanks and proclaim his praise (v. 21) that by water – the “holy water” of your Baptism – God has delivered you from death and given you life to its fullest in his Son, Christ Jesus our Lord.

4th Sunday in Lent

4th Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
“How Does This Story End?”

Grace, mercy, and peace be and abide with you all in the name of our living Savior and Good Shepherd Jesus. The basis for the sermon today is the well-known Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15.

My dear friends,

So far, I have only seen 1 show at the Van Wezel; I saw some magicians back in 2018. If you’ve ever watched a good magician, the tricks will prompt you to ask, “How did he do that?” Magicians will tell you that much of what they do happens by way of distraction. If the magician can get you to look intently in one direction at what he’s doing, you won’t see what he’s doing elsewhere, and the result will leave you stunned. So, get ready for some sleight of hand as Jesus tells perhaps the greatest short story ever told – the Parable of the Prodigal Son, or the Parable of the Lost Son, the 3rd parable in a string of 3 consecutive parables.
To be “prodigal” is to recklessly waste and squander resources. The younger son does live up to that title! His request for his father to divide the inheritance was offensive, ludicrous, outlandish, and an implicit wish for his father’s death. Just as bad, he put the family’s financial health at serious risk by demanding that inheritance. Now the father has less working capital/land with which to conduct the family business.
Word of his shameful request no doubt had spread throughout the village as the younger son sold off the family’s land and possessions. The son doesn’t want land…he wants cash…liquid assets. The family is humiliated by the younger son’s offensive request followed by ridiculous squandering of all those resources through immoral living. Who of us wouldn’t think, “I hope this kid gets what he deserves!”
Jesus assures us that the young man did not escape the consequences of his foolishness. The only work he found was feeding pigs, a humiliating job for a Jew. No one, not one of his newfound party buddies, bothered to help him out, and as the audience, we celebrate his misfortune: “You got what you deserved!” If the parable had stopped there, we’d be reassured that the wheels of justice still turn efficiently.
But that’s not the end of the story…not by any means. Jesus tells us that the young man woke up. He had an epiphany; he came to his senses. “If Dad would take me back as a slave, my life would still be better than this!” So he packs his meager belongings and on the way back home begins to rehearse his apology. “Dad, I messed up. I’m not worthy to be called your son, but could you find it in your heart to give me a job as one of your hired hands?” If nothing else, we as hearers of the parable are certainly pleased that he has to “eat crow.” The prodigal son wanted pleasure, but he got pain; he wanted freedom, but he got bondage. His big plans for himself will only land him a servant’s job, if that. The magician certainly has our attention!
Then he draws our attention more forcefully. Just when you expect that dad is going to make this kid bow his face to the dirt and grovel for mercy, Jesus creates an unexpected twist: dad runs (1st century patriarchs don’t run) out to greet him as though he were the dignitary! Dad throws a filet mignon on the grill, arranges a welcome-home banquet complete with music and singing, and, in front of everyone, puts a ring (father’s) on the kid’s finger, Ecco shoes (father’s) on his feet, and a Brooks Brothers suit (father’s) on his shoulders. “Whaaat? Whoa whoa whoa. This isn’t fair!” we protest. But the magician smiles and continues. Here comes the slight of hand.
Because now it’s time to re-introduce the character with whom he knows we’ll be eager to identify: the older son. And when dad explains what all of the hoopla is about, the older son expresses his and our indignation. “Why, I’ve served you all these years. I never disobeyed you. Never gave you any grief. Yet you couldn’t even throw me a pizza party! I’m not celebrating the return of this son of yours as though he were some kind of hero. Forget it!” And we, the audience, are thinking, “Finally! Someone with a clear-thinking head on his shoulders! This clueless father needs a wake-up call, and, thankfully, the older son has the guts to say what needs to be said.” And the magician smiles even more.
“Son,” he begins. Now maybe the significance of this word escaped you because, in case you missed it, the elder son had just heaped quite an insult on his dad. “These many years I have served you,” but in Greek the word “serve” is also “slave.” “Really? That’s how you think of your generous dad—a slave master? You think I’ve treated you as just one of the hired hands? Only given you slave-quality food? Slave-quality accommodations?” And then there were the other words, “This son of yours.” “Are you saying you aren’t part of this family? Are you implying that he and you are not brothers? That you don’t have the same mother?”
But Dad has graciously chosen to ignore these insults. “Son,” he begins. And he then reassures him that this welcome home has done nothing to damage the relationship between them. “All that I have is yours. But we had to celebrate. For this brother of yours who was dead is alive, who was lost is found.” The previous 2 parables – the lost sheep and lost coin – feature celebrations not for the sheep or the coin, but for the one who found what was lost. The banquet is not a reward for the prodigal! No, it’s in honor and celebration of the father who found what was lost.
And now we know. Now we get it. The sleight-of-hand trick distracted us with this Prodigal Son stuff to sneak up on us and confront us with our own older-son sins of resentment, our own sins of begrudging forgiveness to those we don’t think deserve it, our own sinful disrespect for a Heavenly Father who continues to love us especially when we offend him and are unlovable. And thanks to his skillful storytelling, like a good magic trick we didn’t even see it coming which leaves us wondering, “how did he do that?
Speaking of which, how does the story end? The lack of an ending is intentional; how you finish it says a lot about you. If you think the older son should refuse to enter the celebration and begrudge his father’s grace, well, Jesus shakes his head in sorrow. You don’t get that you are in God’s family by the same forgiving love that sent the Father’s Son to the cross for those sinners you think are worse than you. It is fitting that those who do not forgive as they have been forgiven remain outside the party, because that’s where they will spend eternity—outside the endless celebration of God’s love and forgiveness in Christ. But those who rejoice with the angels over one sinner who had been lost but is now found will enter into the feast that knows no end.
Knowing that, so how does the story end for you? Amen.

3rd Sunday in Lent

3rd Sunday in Lent
March 24, 2019
Luke 13:1-9
“Carpe Diem”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 13.

My dear friends in Christ Jesus,

The Lain phrase “Carpe Diem” is commonly translated “seize the day,” though a more accurate translation might be “pluck the day.” A phrase like “Carpe Diem” means making the most of current opportunities because life is short.
In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus calls those around Him, and us, with a very real, very urgent message…”Carpe Diem! Seize the day and repent because judgment is coming!” Jesus’ words are a very serious wake-up call for those who refuse to repent of their wicked, sinful ways and just in case they didn’t catch what He meant, Jesus tells a parable to illustrate His point.
Our text begins with those around Jesus asking Him about some Galilean Gentiles whose blood had been mixed with their sacrifices. Pontius Pilate had these Gentiles killed while they were making their sacrifices as Pilate’s soldiers slaughtered them in a holy place. Just imagine a murder in here; imagine the carpet soaked with human blood mingled with communion wine. Most likely the people who approached Jesus about this tragedy were ordinary folk not look to make “small talk,” but hoping that Jesus will make sense of a tragic situation; that he will help them to understand why these Galileans suffered such a terrible fate.
In response, Jesus asks them to consider the 18 residents of Jerusalem – more than likely Jews – who died when the Tower of Siloam fell. Siloam was in the SE section of Jerusalem’s wall. The point is that whether those who died were Gentiles or Jews, the fact remains that they were all sinners who need to repent! In fact, Jesus said, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (v. 5). Jesus teaches that the conditions of your death matter not; it’s all about repentance and faith when the end comes; the condition of your heart.
Jesus’ parables are earthly stories that have heavenly meanings. The parable of the barren fig tree that Jesus told in today’s Gospel lesson is no different. The fig tree may have stood for Jerusalem, but it certainly represents any and all who sinfully rebel against God. The vineyard itself represents Israel specifically, but it can also be applied in terms of the whole creation. The fruit that is being sought is the fruit of repentance or the fruit that is borne out of faith in God. Of course, the owner of the vineyard stands for God. What the parable means is that those who do not repent before God of their sins and bear the fruits of faith will be cast out of the God’s presence. God’s expectation is that His people bear fruit as a result of faith, yet when He comes looking for that fruit He finds none. The tree is bare; the nation/people of God had not been bearing the fruits of repentance and faith.
What if God, the vineyard owner, were to come today and look at our country? What kind of fruit would he find? We are a people and a nation who have gone astray…a LONG way astray. I get it…we all want “progress.” But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be (C. S. Lewis). Is THIS where we want to be as a people? “Gender neutrality? Gender fluidity?” We’re teaching our kids this is a thing? NO…it’s not! This past week, our nation’s Midwest was ripped apart by catastrophic flooding and storms, but all you heard about on TV was the college cheating scandal involving some “B” list celebrity. Since when has the garbage coming out of Hollywood become more important than our nation’s Heartland and the good people in it? As a nation, and as a people, we no longer “seize the day;” we have exchanged truth for lies and then wonder why there is so much wrong around us. What should we expect?
If you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer to progress! If you are on the wrong road, progress means turning around – repenting! – and walking back to the right road. If I say “2 + 2 = 5, so +2 more is 7” and keep working forward with the wrong answer, I am NOT making progress. There is nothing “progressive” about being pig headed and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some BIG MISTAKES. Morally, spiritually, ethically, we are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back; as a people we need to repent and return to God and the truth of His Word, a truth that literally sets us free.
Yet, where God’s wrath against unrepentance is severe and just, grace also abounds. Just as the vinedresser pleads for the life of the tree, so Jesus pleads for us. He became the fig tree for us in our place, suffering the fate of the fig tree so that you and I might remain in God’s “vineyard.” He allowed Himself to be nailed to another fruitless, dead tree -the cross of Calvary – so that you and I and every sinner still has a sure and certain hope. We are promised that the wounds of Jesus have healed us; His sacrifice has brought to us the forgiveness of our sins before God. That great Gospel truth, that Jesus has died and risen again to save sinners from death and hell, calls us to faith so that we might produce the fruits of repentance; that we might behave as believers in Christ ought to behave.
In essence, Jesus calls His people to “Carpe Diem” – seize the day. What does that look like? St. Paul wrote in Galatians 5 that the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (v. 22 and 23). When we bear fruits of repentance and faith we do not hate our neighbor, but we love our neighbor as ourselves in order to help them in every way we can. We do not get bummed out and depressed at every little thing, but we find joy…joy that is ours because of God’s grace that is extended to us every day! We do not worry about the future or get all bothered about every little thing, but instead we exhibit patience and gentleness and self-control.
Jesus was very explicit in today’s Gospel Lesson: “unless you repent you too will…perish.” By God’s grace you can turn things around and bear the fruits of repentance. By God’s grace you can bear the fruits of a faith-filled life. By God’s grace, you can help your neighbor that they too may believe, repent, and live. By God’s grace you too can “Carpe Diem”…seize the day…and my friends, that for us as people of this nation starts with YOU and it starts NOW!

2nd Sunday in Lent

2nd Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Luke 13:31-35
“(Un)Finished Business”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us today is the Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 13.

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

So…I’ve been asked about my weight loss and whether it’s intentional or not. I’m not sick – not that I’m aware of – and yes, I have been trying to lose weight. To date I have managed to lose about 20-25 pounds this year and in my adult life I am down to an all-time low of around 173 pounds after my heaviest weight ever of 295 back in 2001. So far I’ve been able to keep working at what I started, but I don’t always finish what I start. Chances are I’m not alone. Are there any unfinished projects under your roof or in your life? It’s one thing to start, but it is quite another thing to finish.
Finishing what we start. It sounds so easy and yet can be so difficult. In our Gospel text we see our Lord moving forward toward a goal…not a weight loss program, but the goal set before him is death, death on a cross in Jerusalem. In a short time He will reach that goal. This is the plan that has been laid out for Jesus; this is God’s plan of salvation. This is the plan to end all planning. However, in our text we see that not everyone wants Jesus to complete this glorious plan. And, regardless of any plans of men, Jesus faithfully finishes God’s salvation business.
Luke records an interaction between Jesus and the Pharisees. So what do we make of the Pharisees when they warn Jesus? On the surface, the Pharisees seem to have Jesus’ best interest in mind and they warn him to depart and continue on his journey, thinking that since Herod had killed John the Baptizer, he would want to kill Jesus also. However, we find out in Luke 23:8 that “when Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he long desired to see him.” So, it turns out that Herod did not want to kill Jesus. Were the Pharisees then lying to him? Did they just want to scare him into leaving His business unfinished and thus discredit his cause? After all, the Pharisees have consistently been portrayed as doubting and challenging Jesus, so to have them somehow NOW concerned for His welfare is totally out of character.
Ultimately, the Pharisees tried to turn Christ from bringing closure to the Father’s plan of salvation, but they are not the first. In His temptation (last week), we learn of Satan’s attempt to get Jesus to quit His mission before it even began. Peter inadvertently tried to turn Christ from his path as well. In Matthew 16, Jesus explained to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. But what is Peter’s response? “Never, Lord!” he said, “This shall never happen to you”. If Jesus heeds Peter’s advice, the plan of salvation is left unfinished. Even Pilate tried to stop the plan from being finished. In Luke chapter 23, “Pilate announced ‘You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.’ Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Finally, a taunting voice is heard at the foot of the cross, one last attempt being raised up to persuade Jesus to leave God’s plan unfinished. “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:40).
Thankfully, none of these attempts were successful. Unfortunately, the same can be said for us. Our attempts are unsuccessful. We are not able to continue Jesus’ ministry as faithfully as He was able to. We are stuck in the rut of sin. Instead of loving focus on our Lord, we harbor thoughts of hatred and pride and selfish gain. We use our tongues to lash out against God and our neighbors when we should have offered praise instead. We lack the courage and strength to follow Jesus and following Him means following the way of the cross. Christ knew well what would happen to Him in Jerusalem but he finished God’s plan anyway through His death.
In the midst of death there is life. Jesus, handing over His life into death, won life for us all. Giving His body and shedding His blood, the Lord of life gave Himself for the life of the world. That long walk up the hill of Calvary dragging an instrument of death…that should have been us. Those nails that were driven into His hands…they were meant for us. That spear that thrust into His side…that should have been us. But it wasn’t. He took our place. He walked a mile in our shoes. “It is finished,” Jesus called out with his dying breath (John 19:30), and it was. When He died, all the power of sin and death died with him. In His death and resurrection, Jesus swallowed up death forever. That’s why the cross brings us life; it is the life of Christ, which is life from out of death, and THAT – eternal life by faith – is God’s finished business for you.
On January 1, 1994, Nebraska played Florida State for the national championship in college football. With 1:16 left in the game, Nebraska had a slim 16-15 lead. But then, FSU drove 62 yards in that final minute and kicked a field goal giving them an 18-16 win and the national championship. In the wake of their missed opportunity, Nebraska adapted a slogan that spring to inspire them for the upcoming football season – “Unfinished Business”. The scoreboard at the stadium in Nebraska read “18-16” all summer long during their workouts, and when the workout was over, they put another 1:16 on the clock and worked that much harder. That next season, the 1995 Nebraska Cornhuskers went undefeated and handily won the national championship themselves by defeating Miami 24-17. The slogan then changed to read “Finished Business” on all the T-shirts and merchandise that came rolling out minutes after the game was over.
Jesus had no such slogan but that didn’t matter. There were many outside forces that tried to stop Him but they were all unsuccessful. We now celebrate in that sacrifice and are strengthened by His Word and His Sacraments. Yes, we are going to face situations in which we feel too weak to finish the course set before us but we find strength in His Word and the glorious promise that it contains. We find strength in the waters of our own baptism. We find strength in His body and blood.
During this season of Lent we reflect on Jesus’ suffering as He finished God’s plan of salvation. Do you feel like you sometimes need a catchy slogan to keep going in order to finish what you start? “Unfinished Business” well, that may work but how about “He Died On A Cross For Us All” instead. And hey, if it works, I get first dibs on the T-shirt merchandising.

1st Sunday in Lent

1st Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2019
Luke 4:1-13
“To Boldly Go Where Every Man Has Gone Before”

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Good Shepherd Jesus. The text that engages us today is the well-known Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 4 and what we know as “The Temptation of Jesus.”

My Dear Friends in Christ Jesus,

On September 8, 1966 on NBC, a science fiction program aired for the first time. It was called “Star Trek” and this show was about a post-apocalyptic earth upon which humans had developed faster-than-light travel capabilities. This allowed the construction of a ship that could travel through space permitting humans to interact with a whole host of alien civilizations. The crew of this ship – the Enterprise – were led by Captain James T. Kirk who led them through the galaxy with a five-year mission: “to explore strange new worlds. To seek out new life and new civilizations. To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Star Trek, in its original format, boldly lasted only three seasons and was canceled in June 1969. However, Star Trek and its legions of fans, were not ready for the mission to end. Six subsequent TV series have arisen around the original premise totaling more than 750 episodes along with 13 theatrical movies making Star Trek the 2nd most prolific science fiction franchise in history.
“To boldly go where no man has gone before.” That’s a phrase that I would like us to reflect on not regarding Star Trek, but regarding our Lord Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel lesson from Luke 4, Jesus is called to go where every man has gone before. Jesus, following His baptism in the Jordan, is now ready to begin His ministry on earth. Luke 4:1 tells us that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. This is more than just some trip into the desert! This recalls significant Old Testament imagery. In Genesis, Adam and Eve faced temptation from the devil…and they failed. The ancient Israelites wandered in the wilderness for 40 years – note how long Jesus was in the wilderness (40 days) – and they grumbled against God and failed to obey His Word. And so here is Jesus…going where Adam and Eve had gone before, going where the Israelites had gone before, but this time there will be a significantly different outcome.
First of all, the devil tempted in regards to food. In Genesis 3:1, Satan said “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Then, when he
tempted Jesus, he tried the same approach: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Satan knows how weak people can be when it comes to food. In America there is significant press given to the opioid crisis because roughly 60 people die every day or almost 22,000 a year as a result of opioid overdoses. That’s bad, but our obesity rate is 31% and every year obesity-related issues kill 300,000! Our daily bread, though, is about more than bread. It’s everything that has to do with the support and needs of our bodies. People are tempted every day by the allure of material things. We want more…bigger…better…faster…more expensive…more impressive. Our age is an age of immediate consumerism; we want more and more and we want it our way and we want it NOW! Why is the Westfield Sarasota Square mall so empty? People order so much today instead of shopping especially with free, 1-day delivery. We want what we want RIGHT NOW! This is a temptation that every person has faced and given in to with open arms! But Jesus responded, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,’ which is a quote from Deuteronomy 8:3.
Secondly, the devil tempts in regards to death and having mastery over death. No one likes death; we’re afraid of death. Satan knows that, and he hits us where it hurts. To Adam and Eve he said, “You will not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). This was a lie, of course because die they did, but Adam and Eve fell for it. The devil tried the same trick with Jesus. In the second temptation he said to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” from the pinnacle of the temple. Satan was asking Jesus to cheat death knowing that God would intervene. To this temptation, Jesus responded “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test,” which is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:16.
Lastly, Satan used power or dominion as the incentive to tempt humanity and Jesus. To Adam and Eve he said, “God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). This one was too much for Adam and Eve to take, just as it is too powerful for us to resist. Who doesn’t desire power and authority over others so that we get our way all the time? Imagine how great life could be then! This is a strong temptation, but when the devil tried it on Jesus – to offer Him all the kingdoms of the world – he was met with “you shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve.” This is a quote from Deuteronomy 6:13. When the devil posed these three temptations to Adam and Eve it was too much. They gave in, and sin poured into the world staining it ever since. But Jesus endured all three and resisted all three.
Jesus goes where every person has gone before, yet where we fail – daily – He prevailed. Jesus responds to the devil’s temptations not with divine strength or a light saber (oh, that’s Star Wars. I mean a phaser), but with the Word of God. In each case He responded with a quote from scripture. This is not the last time Jesus will be tempted in this manner. While He hangs on the cross, the voice of the tempter comes at Him once more: “…If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matt. 27:40). Believe me…Satan would love nothing more! But once again Jesus does not give in to the temptation, and we will be eternally grateful that He didn’t. For Jesus stayed on that cross to win for us the forgiveness of all our sins, even for every time that we succumb to temptation. His mercy, His grace, His love perpetually forgives us. When we fail, He forgives. When we lose, He loves. When we show compulsion, He shows compassion.
In this life we can boldly go where we need to go. Yet Satan is going to be there to lie, twist, tempt, and generally cast doubt into our lives. As believers in Christ we are not perfect; we will give in to temptation. Although we are not perfect, though, we are forgiven; forgiven by the One who shed His blood for us, forgiven by the One who was tempted in every way just as we are, and yet never gave in.
Jesus has become the model for us when we are tempted. He responds to temptation with the Word. Yet how many Christians handicap themselves today, not knowing the Word, not studying the Word; we have removed from our lives the one effective weapon in our arsenal! Even if you have the Bible memorized, our strength and our heart will fail us…but Jesus prevails for us by going where every man has gone before to win victory over the devil and sin and death itself for every man. May His victory be your inspiration and your strength in every moment of trial and temptation in this life.