Homily for the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text is again the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “Finally,
brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is
anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received
and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.”
And St Paul later proclaims: “I can do all things through Him Who strengthens me.” Dear
brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the ancient Greek philosopher
Aristotle—maybe you’ve heard of him before—he once defined human beings as being
foremost rational animals. That was his definition. His idea was that our rationality, our
capacity for reasoning and understanding, is, more than anything else, that which sets us
apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. A crab or a crow, they don’t seem to reason
quite like we humans reason, or so the thinking goes. And many throughout the ages have
bought into Aristotle’s logic here. We humans reason in a way that other animals don’t –
therefore, that is primarily what distinguishes us.
Now, the fact that we men and women are not actually animals at all but are rather
set over and above the animals, having been created in the very image of God Himself,
that fact set aside for just a moment, even the rest of what that famous pagan philosopher
suggests is terribly nearsighted and downright wrong. It is not our reason so much that
really sets us apart from the rest of the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, though
it might seem like that at first glance. Instead, it is our language. It is our capacity for
language. It is words; speech; the ability to communicate. That is what defines and
determines us as humans – that is what makes us men and women and not cattle and
other wild creatures.
God gave us, the pinnacle of His handiwork, the crown of His creation, the breath of life
and the power of speech – the power to name the rest of the animals, an authority granted
in the garden to Adam alone. And language, friends, when you really get down to it,
language, that gift and authority, is the very basis of our reason. You cannot reason
without language. Try your best to think sometime without words. Do it. Give it a shot.
And let me know how that goes for you.
No, language is the foundation of all reasoning and rationality, without exception.
We are, above all else, linguistic beings – we are speaking creatures – embodied souls
having both intellect and tongues. That is how God made us. And He made us different
from every other creature out there. God created everything in existence through
language, all the universe was created by His divine word. And in making us in His
image on the sixth day, He gave us words as well; words to create with, words with
which to share in the joy of creation. So in other words, God made us to speak. He made
us so that we could speak back to Him, so that we could communicate with Him. So that
we could love Him with words, in words, and through words. That’s in part why it was
not good for Adam to be alone – he needed a bride with whom to converse. But more
than all that, God did not solely create the universe with language and create us, His
finest work, for the purpose of language, but He furthermore continues to save us, His
fallen creation, through language. Language was the basis for our creation and for all
creation, but it is moreover the bedrock of our redemption.
How do I know that? Well, because the Word saves – and the Word is a linguistic
thing, it is writing and speech and articulation. It is a communication from the Creator to
the creature through the creature, as Johann Georg Hamann once put it. It comes from
God to us and to one another through bodily form, through physical means. Namely,
through one man. Remember friends, the Word became flesh, right? That is what St. John
tells us at the beginning of his gospel. Christ is the Word Who became a man. The Word,
as we understand it, is the Bible, without doubt. But the Word is also law and Gospel
proclaimed from this pulpit.
And even more wondrous and mysterious than that, the Word is just as much God made
flesh, a human being named Jesus Who was born at Bethlehem, Who taught with words,
and Who was crucified outside the walls of the holy city of Jerusalem for the sins of the
whole world. God is the incarnate, embodied Word. And God redeems us through that
Word. Through language. Through speech. Through words inspired, written down, read,
spoken, prayed, and preached. And through flesh as well. Through the Word made flesh.
God is not a God Who is far off. He is not just distant in the heavens. He is transcendent,
to be sure. But He nevertheless condescends to us, He reaches down to us, He bends
down to our childish level, He stoops down to our human lowliness, and He speaks to us
through our own native tongue. Just like Jesus once stooped down to scribble a message
in dirt that was unfortunately lost to future generations. God is right here, in the Word
read aloud, in the Word preached, and in the Word administered in body and blood at this
hallowed altar, the body and blood of the Word made flesh and named Jesus of Nazareth,
the promised Messiah. And all these things are essentially a matter of language – of a
word – of the Word in its glorious and various forms.
So here’s what I’m getting at, dear faithful. When you gather here on Sunday
morning and you confess your sins together as a congregation, I, as your pastor, then
pronounce the words of forgiveness or absolution. It is a part of our service, correct? But
here’s the thing. Those words I speak, they are not merely a reminder about your being
forgiven. They are not merely a broad declaration of forgiveness – it is not just a matter
of me telling you something you didn’t already realize. No, friends, the words I speak out
loud for the sake of your ears and your souls are the forgiveness itself. When I utter the
words of absolution in Christ’s stead and by His authority, by the authority of the Word
incarnate, that utterance from my lips, those very words, that is forgiveness. That’s where
it is – where it is located for the sake of your certainty – so that you can hear it and have
sure faith in it. That is how you hear about the good news of your forgiveness won on a
cross, which is conveyed through words and which is indeed now accomplished through
words. The means of grace depend on words.
And this is what we call performative speech. I am not just telling you something
descriptive in a matter of words—I am not just describing something to you, not even just
the nature of your forgiveness—but rather, when I speak the words of forgiveness to you,
I am doing something with the words and through the words. Or put more accurately,
God is doing something for you through me by the words I speak to you. Does that make
sense? For instance, imagine when someone christens a ship. You ever seen a ship
christened before? So when this happens, the one christening the ship speaks some words
of blessing over the new vessel, they name the ship out loud—they give her a name and
speak it—and then they usually break a bottle of champaign over the ship’s bow. That is
the historical christening ceremony for a new ship. And after this ceremony is finished,
the ship is considered christened.
But here’s the question: what part of all that ceremony actually makes the ship
christened? What does the work, so to speak? What aspect of the ceremony does the
heavy lifting? What precisely in the ceremony christens the ship? It isn’t the champagne
bottle shattering over the bow, that’s for sure. But in truth, it is the words themselves that
do the work. When the blessing is spoken and when the ship is named out loud by its new
owner while the champaign bottle is broken, those spoken words do something. They
don’t just mean something, they don’t just relay new information, but they do something.
They perform an action. The words themselves christen the ship. The speech does the
work. The words make something new that wasn’t there before – namely, a christened
boat. That is what we mean when we talk about performative speech. Speech that
performs. Some words in human language describe things, yet other words do things.
That is how language works sometimes. And brothers and sisters, in this ceremony here,
in our Divine Service, the words you hear are what are important. The words do
something for you and they do something to you. And that something they do is
remarkable – something done seldom elsewhere in this earthly life.
The words of forgiveness forgive you. The words of absolution absolve you; they
cleanse you of your sin. You are changed afterwards. You are no longer the same sinner.
The words of the baptismal rite, for example, they don’t just describe your baptism, but
they make you, when you have faith, baptized; the words baptize you. God’s Word
spoken by a minister baptizes you. The water, while necessary, does not do the baptizing
– neither does the minister, for that matter, even by his authority; but the Word through
the power of the Spirit baptizes. The Word does the work. The words of Institution
spoken over the elements of bread and wine, they do something too. They don’t simply
retell the story of the Last Supper. Anyone who suggests as much is wrong. No, those
words consecrate the Supper here and now, such that our Lord is really and truly and
physically present. Words have the power to do this. Again, our God created with words,
He created all things out of nothing with a word voiced into the void. “Let there be light!”
Words are profoundly creative. And God gives His church the authority to speak
redemption and the language of new creation through words every single Sunday.
Forgiveness, life, and salvation: these promises are spoken and kept and ultimately
fulfilled through language, through the Word. Never forget, dear friends, that language is
so incredibly crucial. It is everything. Language brings the reality of what happened at
Calvary twenty centuries ago to life for you in your heart, and in your body and soul, on
this very day. Words bring the merits of that sacrifice offered up over six thousand miles
away to benefit for you right here right now. Words are the foundation of the means of
grace. God works His will for your salvation by way of words – and by way of the Word.
But okay, pastor: what’s your point though? What are you driving at with all this
highfalutin talk about language? Well dear flock, it is plain and simple actually. This is
why what I have said so far matters for us today. St. Paul, picking up where we left off
last week, he encourages us, through this letter to the Philippian church read shortly ago,
he encourages us to rejoice, to not be anxious, but to think about whatever is true,
honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise. We are not
to spend our brief lives under heaven in worry and doubt, Paul says.
Instead, we are to be joyful always and we are to concentrate on what brings joy: on the
true, the just, and the pure in this life and in the life to come. Yet how exactly do we do
that when so much in this world is so dark and disgusting and dangerous? How do we
focus on nice things when there is so much conflict and chaos raging around us –
especially in the Holy Land as of late? When sin abounds as much as it does, how are we
supposed to concentrate on the good and the pure? Is it even possible? Or is that not
purely naïve, dear pastor?
Well, first of all, bear in mind again that Paul offered this much-needed advice
while still imprisoned, facing a great deal of conflict and chaos, danger and darkness
himself, arguably much greater than our own. But more than that, this is how we
concentrate on the good and the pure per Paul’s pastoral recommendation: recall friends,
that we are only able to reason because we have language. We can only think because we
have words with which to think. That being the case, whatever words we have in our
vocabulary, in our memory bank up here, whatever words we have at our intellectual
disposal, that is what we will think with. Whatever we put into our minds over time
through words is what our minds will work with. That’s how it works. You can only
think with what your mind has been given to think with. Even in your imagination, you
can only ever imagine with what has been placed into your mind by the senses and
through words. A unicorn is no more than a horse with a horn, after all. The mind is kind
of like a computer and it depends on data being fed into it. Therefore, the words that you
put into your mind, the speech that you spend your day dwelling on, the language that
you indulge yourself in, and the phrases you repeat in your head hour by hour, that is
really what you will end up thinking about. You will concentrate on whatever you feed
your mind. Your thoughts will be centered around your mind’s diet. And things will
become a self-fulfilling prophesy. Whatever you put in your mind and in your heart is
what will come out of your mind and out of your heart. That is guaranteed.
All that to say, dear flock, don’t put garbage in your heart and mind. Stop
worrying about and fretting over all that σκύβαλον – all that refuse and distraction that is
useless in eternity, which we addressed last week. And instead of all that trash, put good
words in your heart and in your soul and in your mind. Put true, honorable, just, pure,
lovely, commendable, excellent, worthy words in your precious head. Meditate on those
things. And do you know where those things are? [Walk over to get bible] Right here.
This is where they are. These are the words you must put in your heart and mind if you
ever want to be free of the chains of anxiety and doubt and despair that tether us to this
disordered world. If you ever want to be free to think about the good, the true, and the
beautiful – you have to turn right here. These words, contained in the Holy Bible, let
these words become your vocabulary, your memory bank. Let them become your new
alphabet. Learn to think, speak, read, and write again through these words, through the
grammar of God’s language, inspired by the Holy Spirit and recorded by the patriarchs,
prophets, and apostles. Let Holy Scripture become the very water in which you swim.
Surround yourself with it. Read, mark, and inwardly digest the Word of God. Memorize
Scripture as well, as best you can. Allow it to become a part of you. Take it to heart and
absorb it like the medicine it is. Come to church week after week and hear it again and
again. Tie the Word on your hands, bind it to your foreheads, and write it on your
doorposts, remember? And eventually, I assure you, doing so will positively impact how
you think, and how you live, and even how you hope.
And let the words spoken here, in this gathering, the performative words of the
absolution, of the sermon, of the Supper, let them flow through you. Do not put up a
guard against them. Do not lose attention or focus. Don’t just come here for the sake of
coming here and making an appearance. Instead, let the words of forgiveness and
salvation have their way with you. Let them melt your hardened heart. Let God love you
through these words. That is how He loves you –through His Word.
Through the absolution at the beginning of the service, through the lectionary readings,
through this sermon, through the hymns we sing and the language of the liturgy, through
our collective prayer, through the words of Institution and those most intense and
intimate words of all: “The body of Christ, given for you; the blood of Christ shed for
you.” Let God create a new creation Sunday after Sunday through these most pure words
of all, through His own saving Word. And let that new creation be you. Permit your God
to redeem you. And don’t think that that happens in some overly spiritualized,
mysterious, ascetic or ecstatic way apart from what happens here in space and time and
history. It doesn’t happen that way, I’m afraid. Not usually. It isn’t usually a big,
dramatic thing. On the contrary, God creates and sustains and saves and forgives you
simply through language. Through common human language, through something very
physical, audible, and seemingly ordinary. Like what you hear within these walls.
But really, these aren’t only ordinary words you are hearing. That is what I need
you to believe and to trust. I am not just having a nice conversation with you up here. I
need you to be convicted of the truth that words have the power to do something
powerful. And that is just what they do, week after week, in this sacred space. Don’t
underestimate the ability of language to transform and transfigure you. If we are, at the
end of the day, what’s up here [point to head] and right here [point to heart], just know
that what is here [point to head] and here [point to heart], it all begins – or it all once
began – with language. When you were a baby – a toddler – a child – language was given
to you, as a free gift from your parents and teachers. However, more than that, it was a
free gift from God above, from the Author of all things and the Author of your own life.
That gift of language was the alphabet, the building blocks, given for your mind to grow
– and for your personality, who you are as a person, to blossom. So language is, in a very
real sense, what you are. You are a linguistic creature, God’s child imbued with the gift
of speech. Language is what you use to think with and to communicate with. As such,
you must always be mindful of the words you use and cling to. Be thoughtful of the
words you spend your day hearing and speaking.
Let your words and thoughts be good words and good thoughts. Let the words you
imbibe be honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy words. Let
them be biblical, Christian, and life-giving words. That’s the pastoral advice for the
sermon this Sunday. Pay attention to words. Because words matter. Words save. And
words are also how we confess our saving faith to the world out there.
“What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these
things, and the God of peace will be with you.” This is what else St. Paul promises us
today. His message is straightforward. What you learn and receive and hear and see in
written words; in speech; and in the Word made flesh, Christ Jesus, becoming visible in
Holy Communion, hidden yet still revealed under the form of bread and wine; practice
these things, Paul urges. Concentrate on these things. If you do, then the God of peace
will most assuredly be with you always and everywhere. And the God of peace will
strengthen you, such that you, too, can do all things. We, as baptized children of God, can
do all things through Him Who strengthens us. We can endure all things, suffer all things,
overcome all things, accomplish all things. Paul is right on the money, once again. But if
we want that strength from God, if we sincerely desire it from the bottom of our hearts,
then we have to recall from whence it comes. We have to remember where to find it. It
comes through words. It comes through the Word. The Holy Bible and the Sacraments,
that is where it is now found. So cling to these blessed and holy things. Grasp your Lord
by grasping those gracious means through which He comes to you presently – through
the Word. In His name. Amen.
Homily for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Our sermon text this morning is the lectionary reading from St. Paul’s epistle to the
church in Philippi.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “But
whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as
loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have
suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and
be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that
which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that
I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming
like Him in His death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the
dead. Not that I have already obtained this or that am already perfect, but I press on to make
it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own. Brothers, I do not consider that I
have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward
to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in
Dear brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, St. Paul very likely
wrote these profound words to the Philippian church during that particular Roman
imprisonment we hear a little about at the very end of the Acts of the Apostles. In Roman
chains that very first time, St. Paul then realized his hope for release from prison, or house
arrest, or whatever confinement it was, that his hope for freedom could take only two
possible forms: either fortunate release from the physical bonds of the Roman guard, or a
less fortunate release from the physical body entirely through persecution, death, and
martyrdom. Those were his only ways out, as it were. But we know, of course, that Paul was
eventually freed from that initial incarceration in Rome, right?
However, only a few short years later, as the holy tradition of the church tells us, St. Paul
was ultimately martyred in that same ancient city, beheaded in the Ardeatino, its twentieth
quarter, on the orders of Emperor Nero. Now we might happen to think that a sad story. He
was emancipated but then brought right back to the same place to face and suffer his unjust
death. And in a sense, it is a sad story. But you know what: Paul certainly wouldn’t have
thought so. He wouldn’t have understood it that way. In fact, he didn’t understand it that
way. You see, the hope Paul he had when he wrote this letter while jailed to the still
somewhat fledgling church at Philippi, this hope was only later perfected by his blessed
Roman death. His words here were not undermined by his execution a few years later but
they were rather solidified by it. Martyrdom gave his optimistic message an eminently
powerful and an enduring meaning down through the ages – a meaning for all the Christian
martyrs throughout the history of the church – to this very day. So let us now try our best to
learn something for our own present good as the twenty-first century church from these
noble words of the holy apostle this morning.
And let’s start here – with a single solitary word: σκύβαλον. Yeah. Funny sounding
word, huh? Have you ever heard it before? Σκύβαλον. Well, it is an ancient Greek
word—because of course it is, I always love to bring the Greek in whenever I can, against
all seminary advice to the contrary—but it is an ancient Greek word that we find in our text
today. Most translations are pretty mild with handling it though. I think the New King James
Version, my personal preference, and the English Standard Version we read earlier render it
as “rubbish.” And that’s close, I suppose. But the full meaning, I think, is a tad bit more
jarring and, truth be told, a little more graphic than that. Really it means in a visceral, or a
very earthy and a kind of coarse way, it means gross waste – it signifies the trashiest of trash
– it indicates icky and unpleasant garbage and refuse, and if you really want to get the point
across – it denotes dung – yeah, in a rather indelicate sense, it means feces – human waste
even. That’s really what we are talking about. And what exactly does St. Paul consider dung
and human waste here? Well, everything. Everything other than Jesus, everything in the
world, Paul regards as trash and dung, pure rubbish. It is all worthless compared to Christ.
Paul never minces words, does he? When it comes to the things of God and the
things of men that get in the way of the things of God, there is really no time for politeness.
And Paul is right. Nothing matters without faith in Christ. Period. Nothing else matters
without Him. Nothing else saves. Nothing else has eternal worth removed from the
incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, and saving faith in His historical atoning sacrifice. And
here’s the painful reality for many that is plainly implied by Paul’s words here: even our
own lives, without Christ, they are meaningless and lacking in purpose, worth, aim or any
lasting value. That is why we see in this letter Paul’s over-eager willingness to face
martyrdom and death. Because if living for him meant forsaking Christ in this life before the
despotic Roman authorities, or whomever, then it wasn’t worth it at all – because life
without Christ just isn’t ever worth it. Martyrdom itself is more of a gain than such a
meaningless and empty trifle of a life. That’s how Paul understood it anyhow. Faith must
come before everything, even our own comfort, even our own wants, even our own safety
and our own lives. And Paul proved that with his own bloodshed nearly two thousand years
ago. He literally lost his head for that eternal truth.
And here’s the lesson for us today: we are exceedingly lucky and blessed that
Emperor Nero isn’t ruling in 2023, however much we might jokingly suggest otherwise at
times. Our government isn’t Nero. We aren’t yet facing real physical persecution in this
nation, at least not violent persecution – and thanks be to God. But I seriously worry about
the church if we ever were in that dire position. If ever we were under the harsh and
repressive rule of a truly anti-Christian emperor or empire. Because look around. We are
free to worship our God right now, we are not forcibly restricted from doing so – and yet
again, look around: the churches are growing vacant nonetheless. The pews are emptying
quickly—and not just the pews themselves like here this morning, but the people in
them—they are emptying hastily in every single denomination without fail, and without the
slightest threat of force. And even among us faithful few, how many other distractions and
concerns we let get in the way of our faith day after day.
Money, or mammon, as our Lord calls it – it is meaningless. Vanity of vanities.
Material wealth and nice things, the accumulation of hollow, futile, purposeless things,
lording money and influence around for the brief enjoyment of some societal clout, it is all
meaningless. It is dung and nothing at all in comparison to Christ’s glory. None of it matters
whatsoever in the end. King Solomon, again, he made this clear to us in the Book of
Ecclesiastes, did he not? Vanity of vanities, remember? So yes, having the newest i-Phone,
for instance, not only does that not matter, but it can, if we let ourselves obsess over it, it can
become a considerable hindrance and an even a diversion from what actually does matter.
The fancy car, the expensive house, the enviable plot of land, the well-manicured yard, the
upper-middle-class existence, respectable GDP growth and suburban comfort – none of this
will make you genuinely happy and joyful – don’t be deceived, it won’t. Sports and
popularity, or your preferred politician winning a debate or an election, or any politics
whatsoever, none of that will bring you fulfillment for very long. Attention from others,
online influence, the lusts of the flesh and their gratification, the respect and esteem of
seemingly important people, these things fade so very quickly. Sic transit gloria mundi –
such glory always fades, it is said.
Like everyone else, like you and like me, we will each grow old and pass away
someday. Brothers and sisters, we are all going to die. Unless Jesus comes quickly, that is
our future. And we cannot take any of the stuff we’ve amassed with us. Because in eternity,
none of it matters. We don’t need it. It counts for nothing – it is but rubbish. And so if you
believe me, which is to say, if you believe Paul, then examine your priorities daily, dear
flock. This faith in Christ, this church here and the fellowship you have here and at home
with your own faithful family, that’s all that really matters. Everything else is superficial,
temporary, and altogether fleeting. Everything else is σκύβαλον. It is just decoration. And it
is all useless in comparison to life in Christ and among our Christian brothers and sisters.
Having considering that, I want you to do something for me today. Or at least I want
you to try to do something – and it is something I have been trying so very hard to be better
about myself: when you get home, today or tomorrow, or whenever you get the first chance,
as soon as you have the opportunity, take a full day and keep an account of how you spend
it. Log the hours. Keep track of what you are doing and what you are thinking, even. Write
it down if you need to. We sleep, on average, a third of our lives. We work at least another
quarter of our lives. But that leaves about forty to forty-five percent of our lives free. So
what do you with all that time? How much of that time is spent valuably, with your family,
friends, and loved ones? How much of that time is spent in the Word of God, the very thing
that delivers you from death and saves you from sorrow? How many of those seventy or so
hours a week are spent in prayer and worship and doing works of mercy, too, lest we forget?
And alternatively, how much of your week is spent with things that serve absolutely no
purpose in eternity? I urge you to find out for yourselves. And find that out regularly, if
Now obviously I’m not saying that there isn’t plenty of time for leisure and
entertainment and much-needed rest. Naturally there is. We keep the Sabbath here, we
understand the value of rest – we know this better than anyone else – much better than the
secular world out there, that’s for sure. There is a time for everything, as that wise king
Solomon once also noted. But if God matters most of all, if everything apart from Christ is
secondary, then it stands to reason that that truth, that reality, would reveal itself in our daily
and weekly lives, in how we spend our time – in how we spend our money as well. Because
here’s the thing: someday, we may face actual persecution. We may be confronted with the
tyranny of unbelief. It may well be in the cards for some of us. Who knows? And if that day
eventually comes, the question is: will we be more willing to part with our creature comforts
or with Christ? What will we be more attached to: God or goods? The faith or our own
sinful wants and fallen fancies? That’s a question we ought to always bear in mind.
Now believe it or not, there are valid reasons to miss church. You heard it from the
pastor himself, so there it is. But guys, the thing is: there aren’t very many. There are good
justifications for neglecting our daily Bible reading. But those are few and far between.
There are even decent causes for forgetting to pray now and again. But they are so
incredibly rare. And yet, what do we sinners—myself very much included—what do we do
all the time? Exactly those sinful things. You know what we really lost in the garden,
friends? In the fall from grace long ago, when Eve took that forbidden fruit and shared it
with her disobedient husband? We lost our innocence, we lost the tree of life, we lost our
original righteousness and our freedom. But more than that, we also lost all sense of priority.
In Eden, faith and family were everything. Worship was everything. And these things used
to mean an awful lot in this country, too. Maybe you can remember. Once upon a time, that
was the case – God meant something, He meant a whole lot, as did His holy church. But
how distractable we’ve become. How part-time and lackluster in our faith, in our doctrine
and practice, we as a nation have allowed ourselves to become. But don’t let that be you.
Don’t let that be us. Listen to St. Paul. Recall what Christ is really worth – for you and for
yours. It is high time for a revival, if you ask me. A revival of the heart and soul, of good
theology and good practice, of American Christians being devout and devoted American
Christians once again.
And here's what we have to revive foremost in our memory: the fact that God made
His home in a poor virgin’s womb. The fact that He took on the lowly flesh, with all its
struggle and baggage. The fact that He knowingly suffered rejection by His own beloved
people. You know, they once welcomed Him into the holy city with celebration and then
they straightaway cried out like banshees for His brutal and bloody crucifixion. Pretty much
immediately. The cornerstone was once the rejected stone – and He was rejected in such a
blatant and vile way – by all men and women, with us being no exception. And then what:
He was crowned with thorns, nailed to a cross, and left to die. He underwent all that
disappointment, bitter betrayal, and agony precisely because His priority was our
redemption. His priority was our deliverance, never once deserved. The salvation of all
mankind was His top priority. And He delivered on that priority, defeating the final enemy,
death itself, for all those of faith. He was raised on the third day and ascended into heaven,
leaving us with His Holy Spirit as our comforter.
And that Holy Spirit long ago gave us faith, always a free gift, through our Holy Baptism.
And our Lord returns week after week to strengthen that faith in Holy Communion.
And God, He is always with us, everywhere we go, as He once promised to Joshua
and so many others. He is with us everywhere, speaking to us through His Word, and
through the created world out there and through our own individual conscience. The only
way you can go a whole day, a whole hour even, without deliberately thinking about God is
by putting blinders on – by willfully ignoring His voice and His ever-present nearness and
His loving desire for conversation with you. So don’t do that. But be revived instead. God is
here with you and for you. Believe these words and these promises. And act accordingly.
Let there be a revival of proper priority among us.
Worship God here. Worship Him consciously and with reverence and the deepest
respect, regardless of what people say. This weekly gathering isn’t just a cute thing we do. It
isn’t about keeping up appearances and being hospitable. It is about the one true God
coming to you, entering into your broken body and soul, and fixing you, healing you,
sanctifying you, and making you perfect, a slow process, to be sure – but a sure process
nevertheless. And what an amazing and gracious gift that is. If we honestly believe it, and I
sure hope we do, then how could we ever fail to prioritize this gift of forgiveness, life, and
salvation? It should come first in everything we do and in everything we are. Christ is the
most significant and consequential thing in your life. I know that to be the truth. So do not
lose sight of that important truth. Say it to yourself out loud every morning. All things are
but loss apart from our Lord. Paul got it so right. He got it right unto death by Roman hands,
just like his own Lord. And may we get it right too. No matter what. May we treat Christ,
especially His body and His blood, as being of the greatest eternal worth.
Of course, maybe you’ve messed up though. Maybe you’ve forsaken your Lord in
thought, word, or deed recently. Perhaps you’ve failed to make Him first in your life as of
late. Or maybe you’ve even partaken of His own body and His blood in an unthinking and
potentially unworthy way. That would not be a surprise, seeing as how we all have at some
But that’s okay. You’ve repented of it, you have already confessed it here to God, and are
therefore forgiven. So then, all that’s left to do now is change course. That’s what
repentance is really all about: changing course, turning around. As St. Paul says in
encouragement, forget those things that lie behind and strain instead for what lies ahead.
Press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Repentance
and revival, that’s what we’re trying to be about here at Bethlehem.
Today is a new day, friends. You are forgiven and freed – freed the prison chains of
sin’s eternal consequence. Sunday is the eighth day which is the first day of the new
creation – and you are the new creation. It is the first day of the rest of your saintly life.
Your God is here now to absolve and to feed you, to revive you, a miserable sinner, with
His own precious body and blood. And may that body and blood make you brand new. In
the life to come, our Lord Jesus alone is what matters. Focus on that. Meditate on that,
because it is equally as true for this life down below. What is more, tell all your friends
about it. Tell them about Him. And at every step, press on toward the goal of life everlasting
with Jesus and with all His saints. And when you do that, when you put Christ first, take a
moment here and there to truly appreciate the feeling of liberation you then experience, the
feeling of freedom and emancipation from all the oppressive heaviness of this weighty life,
a freedom only our dear Lord can offer. All this stuff, this σκύβαλον all around us, it doesn’t
really matter in the end. All the stress of things and of the profane responsibilities we can’t
help ourselves but have – clinging so desperately to these worldly things just wears down
our already weary souls. However, Christ and His church, His body, our family here and at
home – that’s what matters. That’s what is worth clinging to – in good times and in bad.
And having these as your constant priority, that’s the most freeing thing in this earthly life.
Therefore, with Paul, count all else as loss, beloved. Christ is the sole gain, along with His
body, the faithful Christian church. So press on toward Him. In His holy Name. Amen.
Homily for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “‘Behold, I
am coming soon, bringing My reward with Me, to repay each one for what he has done. I
am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ And it is also
said: Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of
life and that they may enter into the city by the gates… And the Spirit and the Bride say,
‘Come.’ So let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the
one who so desires take the water of life without price.” Dear brothers and sisters in our
Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord, Christ the King, He is coming. The liturgical
season of Advent is on the horizon, of course, only three short months out now. And I know
that’s a time of year we all eagerly await, right? If for no other reason than the fact that
Christmas follows it, arguably our favorite church holiday. But more importantly than all
that, for us faithful believers, our Lord’s final advent, His second coming, His ultimate
return on the clouds in glory, His descending from the heavens above just as He once
ascended to them, this most momentous advent of all remains forever on the figurative
horizon, no matter the time of year. And we know that to be true because our Savior tells us
as much in our reading this morning. I ended my sermon last week with these words that we
hear again today – Jesus, the King, promises: “Surely I am coming soon!” – Put otherwise:
“Don’t worry, little flock, My advent, it is coming very shortly.”
Now the holy Christian church has waited many centuries for this advent, millennia
even. Our ancestors in the faith, all the faithful departed who preceded us for two thousand
years, they once waited like we now wait. In years past, theirs was our present wait, it was
no different for them then than it is for us now. They waited patiently, though no doubt with
keen expectation. They, the millions if not billions of sinner-saints from every generation,
longed for Christ Jesus to return and bring them home, just like we do. And it goes without
saying that it has so far been quite a long and protracted anticipation, hasn’t it? Again, two
whole millennia. That’s something of a wait, wouldn’t you say?
Probably the longest wait in all of human history. But no matter how long that wait
continues to last, our Lord’s parting words to His church, recorded in St. John’s apocalyptic
revelation, these words are no less true. For as St. Peter tells us in his second epistle, with
God, one day is a thousand years and a thousand years is like one day. Our Lord is surely
coming soon, and that promise is perfectly kept today, just as it was yesterday and as it will
That is why the church’s chief prayer is “Come quickly, Lord Jesus!” – the closing
words of Holy Scripture, mind you, with which we are invited to pray ceaselessly. Jesus’
promise to us is only perfected and made more trustworthy with the passage of time, as
paradoxical as that may seem – and so our chief prayer begging for His hastened arrival is
mostly a helpful reminder to ourselves of that fact, a reminder of the reliability of His return
and the reality that it draws nearer with every blink of the eye and with every new spoken
prayer. It is closer with each and every subsequent breath. Closer now … and now … and
closer now … But in this growing wait though, in this drawn-out longing for our dear Lord,
from this day forth until the very last day of all, we have to remain watchful always and as
vigilant as ever, like all those saints who fell asleep before us. Let us never once become
like those foolish virgins in the biblical parable whose oil ran out during the night-watch for
Remember that story? I think it comes up in a month or so in the lectionary. And a
funny story about that story: when I was England a few years back, in a gorgeous Anglican
or Anglo-Catholic church, there was this remarkable statuary depicting the parable of the
foolish and wise virgins. And one of the foolish virgins depicted there, in a striking pose,
looked like this – [face palm] – with a face palm felt for eternity and memorialized in
marble. It was such a funny yet profound sight. You could feel the concrete regret. So no, let
us never be like that, like them, like the foolish virgins. But friends, let us instead be like the
wise virgins and let us be found properly prepared when Jesus does return. Let us be greeted
by the Groom with robes all washed and readied. Let us, the bride of the church, be
composed, well-dressed, attired and adorned for a heavenly matrimony, in a state befitting
the holy Bridegroom Himself.
He is surely coming soon, so we must not delay in this our preparation or lose watch or
vigilance for even the slightest second. And that warning right there, that admonition toward
readiness and diligence you just heard from my thirty-three-year-old lips, that’s what these
closing Sundays of this current liturgical season are really all about. Preparation.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do we make sure we are ready?
How do we anticipate our Lord with patience yet prudence? Christ could come back at any
moment. Or frankly, dear faithful, we could fall asleep and meet Him first at any moment.
This earthly life is fleeting. Our existence is very fragile. Youth, it is no guarantee against
that regrettable reality. None of us here are invincible, none of us can escape our fate, and
none of us can outrun the hour of our end. So how do we prepare ourselves either for His
triumphant return or for our own jubilant journey home? For the end to our wait or for the
end to our lives?
Well, consider this: the Lord’s angel once showed St. John in his vision a glimpse of
the New Jerusalem, with the river of the water of life, clear as crystal, running through a
grove of sheer vitality, through the midst of the tree of life with its many healing leaves –
and the angel as well showed him the eternal sunshine of the Almighty God’s undying and
undiminished radiance, the radiant brilliance of God’s beautiful, incandescent face. But we
are not yet there, obviously. That was but a glimpse for one man seen centuries ago and
recorded for us latter-day believers to give us hope. But here and now, in 2023, on this
wrecked and sin-ravaged earth, instead of a river of life there is rather a great deal of
drought all around, often apparent in the ground beneath our feet, like with the sad Colorado
river out west, but just as much is there drought present and altogether apparent in the
withered and parched hearts of men and women. Sin and its consequences infect and corrupt
all creation. Which is why creation remains so devastated today. Look around: there are
trees right now ready for their death, a white witch’s winter soon approaching, both in
nature with its seasons of discontentment and its misuse and abuse by greedy and careless
men, and more importantly there is persistent winter and disease in the souls of the
unbelieving world out there, too, whose superficially ripened fruits all spoil in eternity. And
there is plenty of darkness, both physical and spiritual. We know that painfully well.
It is dark for lengthy periods of time – we ourselves are soon to endure longer hours of
darkness. And that darkness is equally as actual in the wicked ways of the world. Evil goes
on for days these days. No, as is evident to all with eyes wide to see, we are not yet home.
This devastated world is not our true home, we are but pilgrims here. Yet the Bridegroom is
nevertheless coming soon, to carry us over the threshold, to hurry us there, to hasten us
home, where all things will be made new, where a fresh creation awaits us. Therefore, we
must be found ready, at any time.
So how? How do we make ourselves ready? How do retain the oil in our spiritual
lanterns and keep our robes pure and white? We all want so much to enter into the holy city
of the New Jerusalem by the gates someday and to have a right to that tree of life at its
center once again. So how do we do that? What do we have to do? What can we do? Our
Lord Himself says that He will bring with Him His reward, His recompense, and that He
shall repay each according to what he has done. For us, we will be ready for that reward and
that holy recompense if we wash our robes and keep them clean – we are assured of this.
But how? How do we do that exactly? That’s the important question.
Well, put simply, beloved: you do so by staying put. By being still. By being passive
and receptive. You are already where you need to be. You are already in the true church on
earth, the Church militant, you are in the house of God, you are where robes are washed
weekly and where lanterns are kept continually supplied with a sanctifying oil and are
perpetually lit. But outside, in the hopeless dark out there, in the lamp-less night beyond
these walls, “outside are the dogs and the sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers
and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood,” as Jesus and St. John warn
us. Now, some of us here have also fallen into sexual immorality at some point, most of us
here are idolaters in some way, shape, or form, we all harbor anger and resentment against
our neighbor, murdering him or her in our own hearts, according to Christ in St. Matthew’s
gospel chapter five, and truth be told, we are all mangy dogs, just like that Canaanite woman
begging for the scraps from the master’s table we heard about some weeks ago.
However, these particular sins mentioned outside, these unfortunate failings, though
grievous and shameful they are, regardless, they are forgivable; and insofar as you’ve
repented and confessed them to God the Father, they are thusly truly absolved. You are
forgiven them. Your robes washed clean again. It is that easy.
Yet what we cannot ever let ourselves become is lovers of falsehood. That is a
completely different story. And that is what staying put and holding fast to the true church
and her true teachings prevents and precludes. That is why it is so important to be here,
within these walls at Bethlehem, in God’s company and in the fellowship of His saints. Sin
is forgiven freely wherever there is repentance and faith, full stop. No sin whatsoever is
unforgivable or unpardonable, except the sin against the Holy Spirit. But falsehood, faith
and falsehood can never coexist. They have nothing to do with one another. One is of the
true God and the other of Lucifer. Falsehood, wherever it perpetuates itself in impenitence is
unpardonable – and in truth, it is the sin against the Holy Spirit, it is akin to blasphemy –
because it is a rejection of the true faith.
Our Lord, when He returns in glory, He will repay us for what we have done. But
what we have done, what we do now, whatever good is wrought and worked by our feeble
human hands, it is not actually even ours to claim, now is it? We went through this a few
weeks back. Instead, it is all the work of the Holy Spirit within us, sanctifying us and others
through us, as mere vessels of God’s good and gracious will – this work is nothing more
than the fruit of our faith, the evidence of our belief – and it doesn’t even belong to us – it
belongs to God alone, Who works faith and belief. Our entrance into the holy city someday,
it has little at all to do with what we are capable of accomplishing by ourselves. We are
sinners, and on our own, we are nothing at all. We would be eternally helpless were it not
for the grace of God. And before that grace, as Luther once scribbled on a deathbed note, we
are all beggars.
No, our passageway into paradise depends solely on faith, it is predicated, based and
contingent on faith alone, on faith in the Son of God worked by the Holy Spirit for the sake
of the Father’s grace – again, the water of life is offered without price, as our reading
promises. We don’t owe anything, because Christ already paid everything. Our hope for the
kingdom rests in belief alone – belief in the truth, belief in Christ, not in falsehood, never in
falsehood nor false teaching. Belief and falsehood are diametrically opposed, the one only
ever diminishes the other. The robes of our bodies and souls were washed clean long ago in
Holy Baptism and they are daily rinsed when we cling to our baptismal faith and when we
drown the old Adam in us in those cleansing waters. Our sin is pardoned every single
Sunday when we walk through those doors there and make our confession collectively as a
church – all our sin, the dirt and the filth are bathed away week by week. Those sins great
and small that so burden your poor souls, they become nothing at all in the eyes of God –
they are forgotten entirely in eternity – the Father solely sees the Son’s sacrifice. And our
lamps, dear friends, our lamps are kept lit, kept oiled, kept readied by the Word proclaimed,
spoken from the lectern and preached from the pulpit. The pulpit and lectern put oil in your
lantern. Think of it that way.
So how do you make yourself ready for the King’s coming? You don’t. You simply
stay put and you receive what is graciously given to you with thanksgiving. You remain in
the bosom of the church; that’s what you should do. You abide precisely where robes and
lanterns are so well cared-for. Right here. You cling to the truth rather than to those
falsehoods and false teachings out there in the world that tug on the sickly souls of sinners,
urging them to abandon the sure certainty they have here in their salvation. There aren’t just
dogs outside, but moreover there are wolves, even wolves in sheep’s clothing. They may try
to tempt you away from the church, or they may lie to you, to your face, and tell you that
you can do something more, that you can add something, that you can do a little bit extra to
ready yourself for the final judgment, or that you can even save yourself in the end. But they
only ever lie. The wolves and the self-righteous hypocrites and legalists are one in the same.
The serpents and the Pharisees are no different, which is why our Lord once called them a
brood of vipers. And they and their falsehoods have no place in the coming kingdom.
Falsehood and faith are sworn enemies. So don’t be carried away by the god of this world
and by the seduction of untruth and false doctrine. Only untruth is unforgiveable. All else is
pardoned by Christ’s bloodshed. Never lose sight of that fact.
You, friends, are saved by grace through faith. You know this. Truth and faith, faith
in the truth, faith in the truth incarnate at Bethlehem and then hung naked on a tree to die
twenty centuries ago, these are what prepare the bride of the church for the coming of the
Bridegroom. So stay put in these, keep steady in the Word and Sacraments, hold still in pure
doctrine and pure practice. Don’t budge and don’t give in – ever. Don’t compromise with
untruth and falsehood. We don’t do that. Our Lord certainly never did.
Read your bible, at least a few verses each day. I’m serious: I implore you to do that
without fail, make it your habit and don’t let yourself break it. Hold yourself accountable.
Or have others hold you accountable. And do the same with your catechism while you’re at
it. Always say your prayers with a willing heart – and even when your heart is unwilling,
say your prayers anyways. Just move your mouth and go through the motions. A willing
heart will come with time. And give thanks to God every morning and night. That is a given.
And tell the people in your life that you are grateful to God for them too. They might
appreciate hearing it spoken out loud once in a while. Ask for guidance and wisdom in your
personal vocations, from God and from others. And when you mess up, which you most
certainly will, as a husband, mother, friend, or brother, seek forgiveness. Don’t waste time.
You don’t know the hour of the Second Coming, nor the hour of your own impending death.
So don’t hesitate. But repent and reconcile. That’s what our religion is all about. And stay
right here, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. If
you do, then you will be ready for whenever the King finally comes, you’ll be good and
ready until kingdom come. You will be prepared for His permanent advent. Trust me in this.
And yes, you will be ready as well should He first decide to carry you home individually, in
His most able arms, over the threshold of death, into paradise, where you will rest
peacefully in the company of all the saints until that Last Day, until you are raised body and
soul from the grave to inherit the new earth with all the children of God.
The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, the King
of glory and of all creation, the Lord of Hosts, He is coming soon, make no mistake. The
truth of that statement has only become truer since this sermon first began twenty or so
minutes ago. And should you ever feel afraid, or too weak to withstand the seemingly
overlong wait, alone or too discouraged and downtrodden to carry on for another difficult
day, then do not despair, dear friends. For behold, Christ the King, He comes to you right
now as well. To pick you up for a little while, to wipe your cheek, to stand you firm and set
you straight, to strengthen and ready you for tomorrow and for the other five days outside
these walls. He comes now, this Sunday, this Lord’s Day, to bear you up for the drought, to
sustain you for the long winter ahead, and to lead you with His unfading light through the
deep darkness of this often-exasperating life. And so very soon, He indeed will come again
in glory at last to make all things new – to put an end to each and every sorrow – to raise the
dead from their defeated death – to grant us access to the river and the tree of life in that
eternal spring on the horizon – to welcome us into His blessed kingdom, where we will live
with Him and all our departed loved ones in the faith in righteousness and under His reign
forever and ever.
Until then though, do not fret, brothers and sisters, everything is going to be alright.
It’s going to be okay. I promise you. Because God is always with you – now – and also
very, very soon. How do we prepare for His coming then? How do we withstand the wait
and ready ourselves for that final advent of His? Well, we do so by being here and receiving
Him when He comes to us right now, in this present and perennial advent – in the Divine
Service, today and next week and the week after that too. So dear saints, I really hope to see
you then. And so does the King, the Holy Bridegroom Himself. In His Name. Amen.