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Lent 3 2022 Oculi - Luke 11:14-28

Lent 3 2022 Oculi

Luke 11:14-28

March 20, 2022

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


Jesus had been accused of many things throughout His earthly ministry. Some people loved Him, and others hated Him.  Some approved of what He did, others were not so welcoming of His words or actions.  In our Gospel reading today, we hear more of the latter. Jesus was casting out a demon that was mute. I would venture to guess that most people would view that as a good thing.  But not so.  Some who witnessed this miracle brought up one of the nastiest things against Jesus, “He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the prince of demons.”  Basically, they are saying Jesus is in league with the devil.

Amidst this and testing from others, Jesus gives a fairly straightforward and logical answer.  He says that a house cannot be divided against itself.  It would make no sense for a demon to be cast out by a demon. Satan could not be allied with Jesus without being divided against himself. Neither can the Church ally herself with anything that is evil without being separated from Christ, her head. We are tempted to do evil so that good may come. “The end justifies the means” is a cry of the world, and the whisper of the devil.  We cannot use the devil’s weapons in the cause of God. It will leave a divided church, a divided people, division from God Himself. Our divisions prevent the Church from exerting its true moral and spiritual force in the world.  If Satan himself will not have a divided kingdom, how can a divided Christianity be for the advantage of Christ?

So Jesus is setting up a contrast here between two kingdoms, one of the devil and one of God.  And there is no middle ground between the two, for as Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.”  “To be ‘with Christ’ means to have the same mind and view as Christ that is, to believe that Christ’s works and not our works help us, for this what Christ holds and teaches. But ‘gather with Christ’ means to do good through love and to become rich n good works. Whoever does not believe is by himself through his own works; he is not with Christ but against Christ, for he denies Christ by building on his own works. So also, whoever does not love does not gather with Christ, but does useless works through which he only becomes worse and goes further away from faith” (LW 76 396). 

Which also means there is no middle ground. One of the greatest lies we face today is one of neutrality, one of indifference. There’s an attitude among many, even some within our own church, who feel like this really isn’t a big deal. As if sin is just a minor thing, and whatever I do is ok if it feels ok.  Indifference toward the kingdom of God places one in a very risky situation. Such indifference does not recognize the evil of evil nor the good of good.  Like the Laodicians in Revelation, Jesus’ speaks to us, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth” (Revelation 3:15-16). In such a contest, for Jesus, indifference counts for opposition, and he who does not gather with Christ scatters.  From God’s perspective, there cannot be a divided house, or contrasting kingdoms, or an unpossessed heart.

Therefore, Jesus says that it is by the finger of God that He casts out this demon, which results in the coming of God’s kingdom.  The only true exorcist is Jesus.  “The result is that wherever God’s finger does not cast out the devil, the devil’s kingdom is still there, and wherever the devil’s kingdom is, God’s kingdom is not. The unavoidable conclusion, then, is that as long as the Holy Spirit does not come to us, we are not only incapable of any good, but also are, of necessity, in the devil’s kingdom… These are extremely dreadful words! Christ here grants to the devil a kingdom which cannot be avoided without the Spirit of God, and God’s kingdom cannot come unless his kingdom is cast out of us with divine, heavenly power” (LW 76, 395).

Jesus’ point is that simply casting out evil is not good enough.  It must be displaced by good. The space must be filled, the heart and soul must be possessed by the Spirit of God. Negligence of this only leads to greater bondage. It is not good enough to sweep out the house but leave it empty.  If the unclean spirit comes and finds the house empty, he brings back worse. Sin loses none of its danger by losing its repulsiveness.

This is one of the main purposes for the house blessings that we’ve been doing here.  By the Word of God and prayer, the Christian home is swept clean of sin and evil and filled with the Word of God. The main prayer at end of the rite says this, “Drive from here the snares of the evil one and send Your holy angel to guard, protect, visit, and defend all who dwell in this home.”  Out with evil one, in with Christ and His presence.  The only thing that can keep Satan out is to keep Christ in.

There is a story of Christian converts in Southern Asia who were once Buddhist.  Before their conversion, there had never been a murder in the village for as long as anyone could remember.  There was never any theft or fights.  But after their conversion, people began to act “evil” and crime started to happen.  Years after the missionary who converted them had left, he ran into one of the people from the village.  The person told him about what had happened.  What do you think his reaction to this was?  I would think the former Buddhist would be angry blaming Christianity on the rise of crime in his village.  But instead, he said that it was proof of God working in their lives and the truth of Jesus Christ.  

Before their conversion, Satan left them alone because they were already damned.  But afterward, Satan began to work hard in their village to try to steal them back. As long as the devil is served, he keeps his peace. His stronghold is the sinful, human heart.  And when he his dethroned, when these words are spoken over one soon to be baptized, “Depart you unclean spirit and make room for the Holy Spirit, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen,” the devil goes on the offensive. As a Christian, hell will be loosed upon you and the devil will fight to get you back.  “One stronger than he” must ascend the throne of your life. Christ’s victory must be yours, and it is only yours by faith.

The need and process of release from the devil’s kingdom, entrance into the Kingdom of God through the waters of Holy Baptism, the power of victory in the cross and resurrection delivered to you by the Word and received by faith, and the continual presence of Christ in your lives is of eternal signficance.  Today we hear the call again for faithfulness, for tried and true loyalty, motivated by pure patriotism for the heavenly kingdom, to fill our lives with Christ.  We cannot receive the Gospel, be brought to Jesus, and return to our sinful ways. Great sacrifices will be demanded of you.  You must be ready to give up everything to follow Christ, the world, honor, possessions, enjoyment, pleasure. You must walk as children of light, (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true)” (Ephesians 5:8-9). You must fill your hearts and minds and lives and homes with the Word of God. In a day and age where Christianity is not favored in our country, where politics do more harm than help to our faith, where the influence of the sinful world seeks to encroach we must stand firm with Christ or the devil will return with greater ferocity.

By Your baptism, Christ has snatched you ought of the hands of the devil and delivered you into the very kingdom of God. He desires to fill your lives and your homes with His presence. Do no despise the Word of God or the preaching of it by which God’s kingdom comes, but hold is sacred and gladly hear and learn it. For blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it. Come, now, receive the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, the strengthening of your faith, and the assurance of Christ’s presence with you and your presence with Christ in eternal life.

Sexagesima 2022 - Isaiah 55:10-13

Sexagesima 2022

Isaiah 55:10-13

February 20, 2022

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


This last week there was a story that got all over the news, even many of the secular news outlets.  A Roman Catholic priest serving in the Diocese of Phoenix had performed baptisms over the last 20 years saying, “We baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” rather than “I baptize you…” This has caused a lot of consternation in the area, and doubts concerning the validity of the baptism, or if it was really a baptism at all, when the change of the word “I” to “We.”  Without getting into the nuances of Roman Catholic thought on the issue, it does raise a question for us as well. What do we with something like this, not just for baptisms, but with the Word of God in general? 

Before some of you scoff that it really isn’t that big of a difference or that big of deal, it actually is a big deal.  The one who is placed into the Office of the Ministry is not there to change things, to try to make it more communal or acceptable to modern ears or to put a new spin on things, but to speak in the stead and by the command of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Words actually mean things.  We want to avoid falling into the trap that words don’t really matter, especially in times of confusion.  Clarity and precision in the words we use and how we use them are extremely important.  That’s not to mention that we aren’t allowed to monkey with the words of the Word, nor free to redefine what things mean.  This is God’s Word, not ours, and He has placed His word into our ears, into our hearts, into our mouths to proclaim the truth, and His Word is truth. “The power of the word and its content are inseparable.  It is because what God says is the truth that the word will perform exactly what God intends” (Oswalt, Isaiah, 446, fn 61).

At the same time, we have to be careful not to treat the Word of God like a magical formula, either, where if we just say the right things at the right time in the right way that something automatically happens by your own power or simply by going through the motions. There’s an old Latin phrase that describes this misuse of God’s word, ex opere operato, which means, “from working the work”, by doing the act itself, apart from the necessity of faith.  Again, this brings up all kinds of questions, but most importantly how do we view God’s Word, the speaking and praying and proclaiming of that Word?  This is part of the confusion that entails with some many Roman Catholics and many others, honestly, because one word was different, does the formula fail, is the Word and the Sacrament valid?  

In our Old Testament reading for today, from Isaiah 55, we have an answer:  “For as the rain and the snow comes down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall My word be that goes out from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).  

Isaiah compares God’s word to the rain and the snow, and the effectiveness of the two.  Now, we live in a desert and there’s a lot of farming that goes on around here, so we know well the importance of rain.  If the rain doesn’t come, not only is the crop lost, but also the seed for the following year’s crop.  It is not the rain that is the source of life, but the word of God, the word that separated the waters above and below, and the word that blesses God’s creation by making the rain fall on the good and evil alike.

And so too God sends His Word into the world, as a recklessly generous sower of the seed of faith.  That is what our parable in the Gospel reading is all about.  The Word of God goes out to everyone sown through the proclamation of the Gospel. No one is left out of the proclamation that in Christ, God saves sinners.  It doesn’t matter whether their hearts are hardened against God, not capable of supporting roots, or whether they are full of weeds or thorns that would choke the seed. The seed of the Word is good, it is effective, and it does only what good seed is capable of doing – brings life where previously there was none. 

This whole passage resonates in relation to the beginning of St. John’s Gospel account.  The word became flesh and dwelt among us because the Word was God Himself.  Through Him all things were made that were made.  Here is the full and perfect revelation of the purposes of God, whose Word takes upon human flesh to achieve the purposes of God – to plant and water the seeds of faith, to cause faith to grow, to cause you to be raised imperishable. And to make things even better, Christ does not return empty handed to the Father. The Word that goes out from the mouth of the Lord accomplished that for which it was sent – the forgiveness of your sins, and where there is forgiveness there is life and salvation.  

Isaiah is making a case as well for why we ought to turn to God and abandon our self-reliance – the absolute dependability and effectiveness of God’s Word to do what God has sent it to do.  Whether or not we understand the ways of the Lord, we can trust that His Word is true and will do what it says.  You don’t have to change it so it makes more sense, so it doesn’t offend, or out of fear of being cancelled. If fact, you are not at liberty to do that, for it is God’s Word not yours. God’s Word works what it says and what God intends despite coming out of the mouths of sinful men.  God doesn’t need you to fix it, to change it, to make it more agreeable to modern ears.  Believe it, believe Him who is the Word. Those who turn from their sinfulness can again and again experience the full pardon and blessing of God.  Where the Word is, there is Christ. Where Christ is, there is His Word. The word written, the Word enfleshed, the word proclaimed once more.  

Over the questions over this last month that I have heard throughout doing the house blessings is, “did it work?” We go around from room to room reading Scripture and praying, ending with the blessing itself.  Did it work? Yes! If God blesses something, it is blessed.  If God sanctifies, it is sanctified.  If God cleanses, it is cleansed.  Is this a magic formula, no?  For the Word both requires faith to believe and delivers the faith necessary to believe.  Does the word take root and faith grow and blossom?  Yes, it does.  But when it doesn’t it isn’t the fault of the Word, the seed of faith.  

Jesus’ parable drives home this harsh reality.  Not all who hear are converted to saving faith. There are hardened sinners who refuse to believe the Word. The devil, the world, and our sinful nature trick people into believing lies; they never rest from their attacks on you. Temptations are real. Your sins are serious. There are real thistles and thorns in your life seeking to choke your faith. Faith can be lost by despising of the Word, the blessing of God – faith, holiness, righteousness, justification – all can rejected and discarded.  

Blessed are you, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).   For the Word of God does what it is sent to do, and it has been sent to you. And what it is sent to do is deliver Christ, the word of God in the flesh. The Word incarnate accomplishes what He was sent to do.  He goes to the cross to take your sin, and the sin of the world, upon Himself. He returns to His Father at the Ascension with the success of the atonement and defeating death itself. And now He rains down His righteousness upon you. “Let the Word of God dwell in your richly” (Col 3:16a). 

Septuagesima 2022 - 1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

Septuagesima 2022

1 Corinthians 9:24-10:5

February 13, 2022

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


This morning we stand today in the time of transition.  Still rejoicing in the Epiphany hope, over the next three weeks, we are reminded that God’s revelation of Jesus as the Christ leads us to Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and finally to Easter. 

In this time of transition, we address ourselves to the overcoming of sin, the necessity of self-discipline, the preparations needed to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. By God’s grace, as we heard in the Gospel reading, we have received the invitation and call to enter God’s vineyard.  This is a call for laborers, for workers in the Kingdom, not for those who would be lazy or idle.  The Christian life is hard work in the heat of the day, a hard battle, and a race to the finish line.  The work has its pay, the battle its final victory, the race its medal.  It is the denarius of eternal life, the final defeat of sin, death, and the devil, the crown of victory.

This is no earthly trophy, no worldly prize, no perishable wreath, but an imperishable one, life with God through faith in Christ. And, like all things of eternal value, this is something for which we as Christian ought to hope for, strive for, work for, train for. 

Right now, the Winter Olympics are going on.  The Superbowl is later today.  Whether you follow these things or not, it is impressive to see some of the best athletes in the world competing against one another.  There’s always stories of how they got to where they are. No one gets to compete, no one gets to win a medal or trophy at such things without constant training and practice and self-discipline and coaching. 

St. Paul compares the Christian life to a race and by the Word of God coaches us in what that means. This race of the Christian life requires continuous effort, stamina, and endurance are needed to work during the heat of the day.  This takes regularly exercising one’s faith in Christ and holding tight to His promises found in His Word. It involves denying oneself and the indulgence that might lessen the chance of victory, of perseverance until the end. The spiritual runner must learn to run wisely, not wildly, heading in the right direction, toward the finishing line and entrance into eternal glory with Christ.

Paul says not only that this is a race, but also a fight.  Pursuit of holiness, the fighting is the conquest of evil and sin.  Not boxing the air.  Our punches must land.  This is not practice, and this life is no game.  This is to live with purpose, to intentionally seek the good for others, not only in word, but in deed. Beating the air, training for no purpose, does not produce the desired result.  St. Paul warns us of our fathers in the wilderness of the exodus.  They too received a baptism in the cloud and in the sea, received the spiritual food and drink, yet with most God was not pleased. They went through the motions with no purpose, the practice with no faith, and they were overthrown, disqualified because of their unbelief. God forbid this happens to you.  The last will be first, and the first last in this race and fight. 

The danger is of pride, of thinking that you deserve more than what God has promised.  This was the laborers issue in the Gospel reading.  They wanted more, that the felt entitled, as if God owed them more than what He was already giving out of pure grace and delivered according to His promise.  “The justified are due the crown because of the promise. Saints should know this promise, not that they may labor for their own profit, for they ought to labor for God’s glory. But saints should know it so they may not despair in trouble. They should know God’s will: He desires to aid, to deliver, and to protect them” (Ap V 242-243).  The strength to endure comes not from our efforts, but from Jesus.  Our victory is included in His victory upon the cross and by His resurrection.  This is where the race if finished, and the fight for your eternal life is won, your sins forgiven, Satan is knocked out, and the power of death destroyed.

The point is this. These things that we do here and now; these things aren’t practice. This is real life. What you do here and now matters. It has eternal significance. The life of the Christian is filled with temptation and overcoming with suffering and effort.  No pain, no gain, it is said.  And it is true.  Just as an athlete discipline one’s body, keep it under control, so you as a Christian must do the same. We train the soul by training the body.  The postures we have in worship and life matter. Our soul is taught by our body when we stand to hear Jesus’ words in the Gospel readings.  Our soul is trained by our body when we kneel at the altar rail, confessing humility and thanksgiving out of receiving the body and blood of Christ as a gift.  Our soul is trained by our body when we say no to temptation, whether it tempts our gluttony, our lust, to the envy – the fleshly, sinful passions that should have no power over those who belong to Christ. 

Make no mistake, this lifelong race and fight will be painful.  For it bruises pride, offends the old sinful man, denies the bodily passions, and beats off the devil. This is the life of Christian training. This is no practice, but this is the real deal, and the results are life and death. Just like any professional athlete, to compete, to excel, to win the prize one must focus on the fundamentals. 

This is the purpose of the Divine Service. To deliver the grace of God, according to His promise, to those who believe.  This is wherein the fitness, skill, and reward are delivered by means of His Word, in Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Practice the basics of Christianity, both in belief and in life.  Small Catechism, hymns, liturgy all teach this, reinforce this.  They teach a life of repentance over sin, faith in Christ, and struggling against sinful desires and the pressures of the sinful world which try to lead us onto another path. 

This is the purpose of our School. Parents, your church operates a school to assist you in training of your children in the fundamentals of the Christian life and in preparation for a life long race toward the eternal crown of victory.  Youth Catechesis has the same goal in mind, as does Sunday School and Bible studies. To teach the things needed for faith and life to cross the finish line, to finish the race.  In other words, to die well.  And, by grace alone, to receive the crown of eternal life. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8).

Transfiguration 2022 - Matthew 17:1-9

Transfiguration 2022

Matthew 17:1-9

February 6, 2022

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


Nowhere else in Gospels does Jesus appear in His divine glory as He does in His Transfiguration.  From His lowly birth, throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus’ humanity is revealed in His appearance. Even when He has been raised from the dead and ascends into heaven, He looks like a man. Now, of course, as we see every year during the Epiphany season, this man Jesus reveals His divinity by means of His miracles.  But in His transfiguration He reveals more of Himself than He does any other time.  His face shone like the sun, His clothes became white as light.  Until He returns in glory upon that Last Day, this is as glorious looking as Jesus gets, which is only a glimpse of what we will see in eternity. 

Peter, James, and John – Jesus’ inner circle of disciples if you will – witness this wonderous sight.  But they aren’t the only ones there, either.  Moses and Elijah are there, pillars of God’s promises throughout history.  The great lawgiver and the great troubler of Israel prophet represent all the Law and the Prophets, the OT Scriptures.  They aren’t just standing around, but they are talking with Jesus, and as St. Luke states, they were speaking of Jesus’ exodus, that is His journey to the cross.  If that weren’t enough, a bright cloud overshadows them, God the Father revealing His presence as He did on Mt. Sinai and throughout the Exodus as He led His people to the Promised Land.  Here He is, at it again, now echoing the words He spoke at Jesus’ baptism, “This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matthew 17:5). 

The Transfiguration confirms to the disciples that Jesus really is the Messiah.  This shouldn’t have been news to them, for over and over again this very fact had been revealed to them.  A chapter earlier, Peter had made the great confession in answer to Jesus’ question about who they say that Jesus is, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” True enough, yet he doesn’t understand what that really means.  When Jesus then foretells His death and resurrection, Peter rebukes the Son of the Living God Himself.  Peter fails to envision a Christ who must suffer and die, the very thing that Moses and Elijah are speaking to Jesus about. Jesus knows that He must take up the cross for our salvation.  This is the very purpose for which He became man, after all.  

Peter genuinely thinks that He is helping Jesus when he tries to talk Him out of going to the cross and then to set up tents to keep Jesus there on Peter’s terms and on how Peter thinks Jesus should act.  That takes quite the gall on Peter’s part, don’t you think?  How many of us would dare speak to God and tell Him that He is wrong, that His plan isn’t good enough?  And yet, we do, don’t we?  We can’t be too hard on poor Peter, for we act the same way. At times, we fail to understand God’s ways, His actions, His work, thinking we know better, and we feel the need to lecture God on how we think He should act and what He should do and how His view of the world ought to match up to ours.  But God doesn’t answer to you.  You have no place, no right, no authority, no power, to stand in judgment over the will or the plan or the actions or the Word of God in the flesh. 

“This is My beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to Him” (Matthew 17:5). “Listen to Him,” the Father says.  When the disciples are flat on their faces with fear over the glory of God in Christ, they hear Jesus’ own words, “Rise, and have no fear.” If Jesus is beloved of the Father, do not be afraid, Peter.  You should already know of His power and you confessed that He was the Christ, though denying the need for the Christ to die and be raised again.  Take courage in the voice of the Father.  In the Lord’s plan to reveal His glory by means of Jesus’ death on your behalf.  That we see the glory of the cross, of Christ crucified for the forgiveness of your sin, of humility before glory, of suffering before glory, of death before resurrection!

“The Lord’s attitude in this is a challenge to the faith of believers, reminding us that although we should not doubt the promise of blessedness, we should understand that, amid the trials of this life we must pray for perseverance before glory; for the joys of heaven cannot come before the times of trial” (Leo I of Rome, Sermon 51). This is why Jesus speaks six days before His transfiguration, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” 

Christians are marked by possession of the cross.  We must endure hardships, all kinds of trials and temptations and evil from the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh that attacks our very soul, that leads us to think it is not good to be here, to bring sadness and sorrow and depression and confusion. Yet the end is not the cross; the end is eternal life in God’s kingdom.

In baptism, the cross is traced upon the forehead and the heart to mark one as redeemed by Christ the crucified.  It is a recognition that in those blessed waters, in Jesus’ cross and resurrection being applied to you, that God the Father declares you to be His son.  God has only one natural Son, only one begotten.  All other are adopted, which takes place in your baptism. We pray for this in the Collect of the Day, “In the voice that came from the bright cloud You wonderfully foreshowed our adoption by grace. Mercifully make us co-heirs with the King in His glory and bring us to the fullness of our inheritance in heaven…” He has. He does. He will. 

The Transfiguration is a foretaste of the coming glory; the coming glory of Christ in all His divinity while retaining His humanity; the coming glory of those adopted as sons of God by grace, co-heirs with Christ; the coming glory of eternal life, the world without end.  For the sake of Christ, by faith in the only begotten Son of God, the Father declares the same to you, “You are my beloved son; with whom I am well pleased.”

Advent 4 2021 - Isaiah 35:1-4

Advent 4 2021 Rorate Coeli

Isaiah 35:1-4

December 19, 2021

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.  The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God.  Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.  Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of Go.  He will come and save you.” Isaiah 35:1-4

This morning, our children recounted part of the Christmas story.  Herald out the news as surely as the angels, as John the Baptist, as the shepherds, and magi.  A symbol in the sense that the confession of the lips are a sign that points to Jesus, that Christmas is about the Mass of Christ, that is to say, the Divine Service focusing on the incarnation of Jesus Christ who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was made man. 

Throughout our midweek services this year we focused on many of the symbols for the coming Christ found in the Old Testament, many of the images and foreshadowing of God’s promises to His people: the burning bush, the pillar of cloud and fire, Gideon as the mighty man of valor.  This morning we consider another one of these symbols, both in prophetic promises of Isaiah and in current tradition. 

Consider the prophet Isaiah as he poetically describes the Messiah’s coming from Isaiah 35 in this way:“The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.”  Most of the Holy Land was arid desert wasteland: dry, dusty, desolate.  Very few animals, very little vegetation, and virtually no trees. The prophets often use this image of desert wasteland to symbolize our sin and its consequences: dreadful, doom, death, damnation. But, opposite of this, the coming of the Messiah is often pictured by the Old Testament prophets like a miracle in the desert, symbolic of spiritual renewal and rebirth in the desert of our hearts. 

Like streams in the desert, God sent his Son into our world, and He works faith in your heart to trust in Christ as your Savior.  Where there was once dread and death because of sin, He give you hope, for your sins are all forgiven, and everlasting life with Christ in heaven. The coming of the Messiah into our world, into our hearts and lives, of faith blossoming abundantly leading to rejoicing and singing over everlasting life, is like the desert bursting forth in bloom. 

Probably one of the most popular and common symbols of this in our culture is the Christmas tree.  According to tradition, it was Martin Luther himself who invented the Christmas tree. One evening in the winter, the leader of the Protestant Reformation took a walk in the woods to compose a sermon, saw the stars through some pine trees, and rushed home. This reminded him of how the “glory of the Lord shone round about” the shepherds the night of Jesus’ birth.  To capture this beauty, he cut a tree down, set it up indoors, and decorated it with candles, fruits, and nuts.

No one knows for sure if this traditional story is factual, but it sounds like something Luther would do.  Whether or not Martin Luther himself actually invented the Christmas tree, it was first used among German Lutherans, both in Europe and here in America as a symbol during the Christmas season.  Decorating homes with evergreen is a practice that goes back at least as far as the Romans and the Druids, but German Lutherans are credited with bringing the tradition of candle-lit Christmas trees to settlements in Pennsylvania as early as the 1747. At that time, New England Puritans viewed Christmas celebrations outside of church—namely Christmas trees—to be a form of "pagan mockery.” Indeed, pagans were into the evergreen thing, too, just like they still are today. And though today almost all American churches of every denomination have a Christmas tree, it is a fact of American history that the very first Christmas tree in a church anywhere in North America was in a Missouri Synod congregation.  In downtown Cleveland, Ohio is a historical marker with this inscription:

On this site stood the first Christmas tree in America publicly lighted and displayed in a church…  On this site stood the original Zion Lutheran Church where in 1851, on Christmas Eve, Pastor Henry Schwan lighted the first Christmas tree in Cleveland.  The tradition he brought from Germany soon became widely accepted throughout America...

That first year the Christmas tree was such a new and controversial thing that there were scathing editorials in the Cleveland newspapers about those awful Germans worshipping a tree.  This prompted Pastor Schwan to launch a life-long campaign promoting and gaining widespread acceptance of the Christmas tree as an appropriate symbol of the Biblical account of Christmas.  It would be decorated at the beginning of the Christmas season, on Christmas Eve, and left up throughout the 12 days of Christmas until Epiphany, January 6. As a result of his campaign, within five years Christmas trees were being erected in homes and churches all across the country.  There had been previous Christmas trees in America, especially among Germans immigrants.  But, because of his efforts to popularize this German custom in the new world, Pastor Schwan is known as “father of the Christmas tree” in America.  Not only that, but Pastor Schwan later served as the LCMS Synodical President from 1878-1899.  He also was the author of several of the questions, explanations, and Bible proof texts appended in the back of Luther’s Small Catechism, which we still use today. 

So, the Christmas tree is a uniquely German invention; a uniquely Lutheran contribution to the Christmas season; and, to a large extent, a uniquely Missouri Synod contribution to American culture.  But, the Christmas tree is more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime.  

The evergreen itself, which stays green, full of life, throughout the long, dark, cold winter, is a symbol of life and of faithfulness: God’s faithfulness in keeping his ancient promise to send the Savior; and the faithfulness of the prophets and people of old, who proclaimed and believed the promise, and looked forward in faith, waiting for the coming Messiah who was to come.  The evergreen is also a symbol of our faithfulness, trusting in Messiah who has come, and the eternal life we have in the wilderness of this fallen world.

The lights on the tree stand for Christ, the light of the world, and the light of faith which the Holy Spirit works in hearts through the Word and Sacraments.  As Paul says in 2 Corinthians, “[He] made his light shine in our hearts.”  The lights on the tree also stand for the good works that we do, prompted by our faith in Christ.  As he said, “You are the light of the world…  let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and praise your Father in heaven.”

The beautiful ornaments on the tree are not just any ornaments, but are chrismons, or Christ monograms - decorations that represent Jesus.  Various forms of crosses, chi rho, a manger, alpha and omega, baptism, communion, the Word, and all topped by a star.  Just as God used the star to light the way of the Gentile magi to Jesus, so He continues to light our way and gather to Himself a holy and a righteous people.  Sometimes an angel is used for the same effect, announcing as they did so long ago to the shepherds the good news of great joy that Christ has been born.

And lastly, the Christmas tree also symbolizes the tree of life – both that tree that Adam and Eve were banned from in the Garden of Eden, but even more importantly, the cross upon which Jesus died for the salvation of the world.  As Peter also writes, “Surely he bore our sins in his body on the tree.” And as Peter says in the book of Acts, “They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead.”  It’s common when real Christmas trees are used in the church that after they are taken down, branches are cut off and trunk is fashioned into the shape of a cross to be used in the procession on Good Friday.

As you give thanks to God for adorning the lives of our children with the ornaments of faith they confess, as you admire the beautiful Christmas trees in our church, in your home, and elsewhere, remember that these things are more than just a beautiful decoration to brighten up our homes and make our church festive at Christmastime.  The Christmas tree, decorated with lights and ornaments, topped with an angel or star is truly a Christian symbol to draw our attention to the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ. 


Portions of this sermon were adapted from a sermon by Pastor Kevin Vogts, Trinity Lutheran Church, Paola, Kansas, First Sunday after Christmas—December 29, 2013


Advent 3 2021 - 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Advent 3 2021 Gaudete

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

December 12, 2021

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


Pastor John, the Baptist, was a faithful minister of God, indeed no one more so than he has ever been born.  In expectation for the first coming of Christ, John the Baptist was the preacher of preparation.  The great forerunner of Christ, the new Elijah, the voice crying out from the wilderness to make ready the way of the Lord’s coming had come without worry or concern over being sensitive, politically correct, culturally woke or accommodating. His faithfulness to God alone caused him to end up in prison and it finally ended in his death.  But you see, here’s the thing about death.  Death doesn’t have the last word, it doesn’t silence the preaching of John for he spoke not his own words, but the word of the Lord.  And the Word of the Lord endures forever.  

To ensure that the word of the Lord continues to be preached unto the whole world, to continue the ministry of preparing God’s people for His Advent and “so that we may obtain [saving] faith, the ministry of teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted.  Through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Spirit is given.  He works faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who heard the good news that God justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake.” (AC V1-3a).  The King who is coming again still has His preachers of preparation, the ministers of Christ, the stewards of His mysteries according to St. Paul in our Epistle reading for this morning (1 Corinthians 4:1).  The Lord still has His messengers who are able to prepare the faithful for a blessed commemoration of the First Advent, for the constant coming in Word and Sacrament, and for His coming again in power and glory.  

In a similar way as Pastor John, pastors today are not their own master, but servants of the King.  They are sent to do God’s business in the world, not their own.  The treasure of Word and Sacrament that a pastor is called to disperse are not his own, his words are not to be his opinion, his service not his preference.  Likewise, pastors are not ministers of the congregation, but ministers of Christ and for Christ’s sake to the congregation.  St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” As a servant of Christ the pardon announced in the absolution and the preaching of the Gospel, the Law proclaimed curbing and condemning sin and to guide the Christian in faithful living; the preaching, the prayers, the visitations, the study of God’s Word are all conducted in service to Christ for the benefit of His Church.

But Paul also says that Pastors are to be stewards of the mysteries of God.  A steward only manages what belongs to His master and in accordance with his master’s will. So pastors are under orders to speak God’s Word and hand out God’s gifts according to God’s command, and it is only effective by Christ’s commission and authority.  This word that Paul uses for “mysteries“ translated in Latin is sacramentum, from which we get the English word “Sacrament.” So Paul is telling us here it is those who have been placed in the Office of the Holy Ministry by Christ, through His Church, whom Christ has made managers or stewards of the Word and Sacraments. So we confess in the Augsburg Confession XIV, on ecclesiastical order that “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments without a rightly ordered call.” So, pastors then have a great responsibility in stewarding the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and administering the Sacraments according to God’s intent and purpose and dare not go against the will of God.

So this is why St. Paul also says (1 Corinthians 4:1b), “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.”  Trustworthiness, faithfulness, to the Lord Christ, to the pure teaching of the Gospel and the correct administration of the Sacraments of Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, are the main duties of stewards even if they are to end up like Pastor John.

Your responsibility is to hear their voice crying out with God’s Word, to receive the gifts being delivered from the hands of Christ’s steward, to assist him in trustworthiness to God.  Don’t neglect God’s gifts.  Don’t reject His forgiveness and comfort.  And be careful. For there are false pastors, those who speak what itching ears want to hear. Judge what you hear in Church, what you are taught in Bible study, what your kids learn in Sunday School, or at our school or daycare by the Word of God and not by the personality of the pastor. We all have our quirks, strengths and weaknesses. And please, when the Word is faithfully spoken in alignment with the Scriptures and you don’t like it, or it hits close to home, or wounds your sinful pride, don’t shoot the messenger. Your problem isn’t with me, it’s with God.  And frankly, while I love you all and value your opinions, I fear and trust God’s judgment much more than yours.

Ultimately, the point is this: Christ is coming.  To prepare you for His coming, He sends His messengers, His called and ordained pastors, to speak His Word and deliver His mysteries. Give thanks and praise to God that for more than 100 years God has sent His pastors to Zion Lutheran Church, and by His grace, may He continue to do so.  In doing this, in sending you faithful pastors, God is telling you how valuable you are to Him. Just as He has commanded angelic messengers to guard you in all your ways because you are His beloved child, so He has commanded His pastoral messengers to serve you by Christ’s command and with His authority as a continuation of the apostolic ministry.

But this is not just to take place here in a church building once a week.  The word “apostle” means one who is sent, and the apostolic ministry is the ministry, the service, of those called and sent by God, His pastors, His undershepherds, instituted by and flowing out from Christ’s command as He delivers His comfort, His peace and the end of warfare through reconciliation in Christ, and His divine blessing by means of His messengers.  In Luke 9, Jesus sends out the Twelve disciples, and then in Luke 10, He sends out the 72 to proclaim the kingdom of God which has arrived with the presence of the King, Jesus.  And these are sent to the homes of God’s people.  And the house they enter, they are to say, “Peace be to this house!  And if a son of peace is there, then your peace will rest upon him.  But if not, it will return to you.” Upon the return of the 72, they joyfully say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!”  Jesus reaffirms, “Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.” 

Next month, during the season of Epiphany, I will start conducting house blessings for this very purpose.  To deliver Christ and His blessing, His Good Word, to you and your family so that you are prepared for His Coming, that your homes are sanctified and set apart as a godly place to live out your vocations. That’s God’s Word and prayer are applied for your divine protection, guidance, preservation, and blessing.  That the good word of the good news is for you, behold your God, the Lord God comes with might, His arm rules by the pierced hands of Christ (Isaiah 40:9b-10), who stirs up His might and comes to save (Psalm 80:1). 

Advent 2 2021 - Romans 15:4-13

Advent 2 2021

Romans 15:4-13

December 5, 2021

Zion Lutheran Church + Nampa, ID


What is it that you are hoping for this year as we approach Christmas?  Maybe you hope you get the present you wanted for Christmas. You hope you family is happy with what you got them. You hope the meal goes ok. You hope your family member is able to come home, or that you’re able to go see your loved ones. You hope to have a new addition to the family. You hope everyone gets along. Wishful thinking in a good way.

We have lots of hopes for this time of the year.  When we think about these hopes and what we are saying, though, there’s often a certain level of doubt, or worry, or fear that our hopes will come to nothing.  And so we try to reassure ourselves, think the best of the situation, do what we are able, and leave the rest up to God.  

Today, though, we hear of a different kind of hope than what we normally talk about.  This is the hope of Advent, the hope of Jesus’ coming.  This is not wishful thinking. The Greek word here for hope carries a meaning of certainty and expectation that doesn’t allow for doubt. When St. Paul speaks of hope in our Epistle reading today, he means the unquestioning confidence and certain conviction that never disappoints – that as surely as Christ is risen, Christ comes. 

The classic Christmas hymn, “O little town of Bethlehem” holds the answer at the end of the first stanza, “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in Thee tonight.” In the coming of Jesus all our hopes are met and fears addressed. This hope in Jesus has a certainty because it is based on the only thing that is absolutely certain.  This hope is based on the Lord Himself, “who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnated by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary and was made man, and was crucified also fur us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and buried, and the third He day rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven and sists at the right hand of the Father. And He will come again with glory to judge the both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”  And we know this, as we so often confess, according to the Scriptures.  

And so St. Paul reminds us today, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  All of Scripture, Old and New Testament, was written to instill and maintain hope in the hearts of the waiting believers, Jews and Gentiles alike.  It is God’s Word of hope to you. These things are written that through endurance and encouragement you might learn to hope aright.  A hope that is based on the revealed will of God in His Word that points us to Jesus.  

Scripture’s promises all point the One who made and keeps them, it’s prophecies to a better future.  To illustrate this, Paul tells us Jesus became a servant to the circumcised, to the Jews, to show God’s truthfulness and that He keeps His promises. Christ trusted His Father even when human reason would say that all was hopeless.  He endured all and suffered all.  In doing so, He fulfilled the promises God had made ever since the fall into sin, throughout the history of Him guiding His chosen people and reassuring them over and over again of His coming.

So Scripture is also a record of people who trusted God’s promises and were not disappointed or put to shame.  Faithful Israel patiently waited for Messiah to come.  Although many lost hope and fell away, those who watched for the redemption of Israel did not lose patience but received the Lord’s coming with faith and joy!

And not just them. Paul quotes four Old Testament passages which highlight how these promises of God given to the patriarchs were also given in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy, “Therefore I will praise You among the Gentiles, and sing to Your name.” Rejoice, O Gentiles, with His people.” “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the people extol Him.” “The root of Jesse will come, even He who arises to rule the Gentiles; in Him will the Gentiles hope.” (Romans 15:9b-12).  The OT looked ahead to the day when Jews and Gentiles would worship God together.  This day has come in Christ when people from all over the world are united through faith in Christ to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Romans 5:2) with a hope that does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5).  

Again, this hope is of certainty, not of doubt. In fact, doubt and despair are enemies of this Christian hope, enemies that are fought only by exposure to the Scriptures, the very Word of God again and again.  This is part of reason why we hold extra midweek services and devotionals during this season of hope.  This is part of the reason why, during this Epiphany Season, I will be conducting house blessings, sanctifying the Christian home with the Word of God and prayer for those who desire this reassurance of hope.  It’s so that you may hear the promises of God again and again, to be reassured that you do not hope in vain, nor place your hope in the wrong things.

Let’s be honest, sometimes, especially during this time of the year, our sinful flesh steers us to put our hope in the things of this temporary world.  We think our life is complete if we have them, and if we do not, then our life is empty and sad.  We are taught to avoid pain and suffering almost at all costs, and that we can do that if we just have enough money, the best insurance or healthcare, the most friends, the newest toys.  These are probably good gifts from God, yet we elevate them in our minds to a level that they should not occupy. Because earthly hopes eventually disappoint.  They are false hopes after all.  Toys will break.  People will disappoint you. If you live long enough either your body or your mind will fail, or even both.  False hopes in these earthly things eventually only leads to fear and despair, since even heaven and earth will pass away.  

The God of hope fills us with the joy and peace in believing.  There are indeed troubles that afflict us.  There are needs that He allows to go unanswered for a time.  There are wounds that heal slowly, or not at all in this life. He reminds us that the sheer magnitude of His love has been proven beyond a doubt upon Calvary.  He reminds us that His grace is sufficient for us in the weakness we must endure.  He speaks to us again and again, causing His majestic voice to be heard that you may have gladness of heart (Isaiah 30:29, antiphon of the Introit).  

So let us not look around at this world to find our hope.  Let us fix our eyes on the God of hope by fixing our attention on Christ and His Word, who is the hope of the Jew and Gentile alike, and the fulfillment of God’s promises. For Christ is risen and Christ is coming. This is most certainly true.