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Thursday, March 27, 2008

DAKOTA LOVE
Dodge Dakota

This was my home-away-from-home while awaiting the repairs to my beloved Nissan. I had never driven a pick-up truck before, so I was surprised by how much fun they are. Being in Wisconsin, I also discovered that the 4-wheel drive can be quite useful at times. Not so good on gas mileage, though! Now that my Altima is back on the road, I'm pleased to be back "home." But many thanks to S-I-L Vic for the loan of the truck during my time of need!

11:46 am est

KING OF THE JEWS - Sermon for Lent 5 Mid-Week

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 5 Mid-Week
Sermon
3-12-2008

St. John 19:19-22

19 Now Pilate wrote a title and put it on the cross. And the writing was: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. 20 Then many of the Jews read this title, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. 21 Therefore the chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, "Do not write, 'The King of the Jews,' but, 'He said, "I am the King of the Jews."' "22 Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."

One of the rallying cries of the American Revolution was, "No more kings!" If you'd been a colonist in the late 1760s through 1775, you too would've had your fill of kings. By 1775, King George III had become a living example of the old adage, "absolute power corrupts absolutely." The American Revolution was fought with that principle in mind.

Consequently, present-day Americans have inherited a deeply rooted suspicion of authority. Presidents come and go, and we only have the stomach to tolerate them for two terms. Which is the way it should be. No one person should have all the power and the ones who have power should not have it for long.

So how do you feel when you hear from the Small Catechism that Jesus suffered and died "that I might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom?"

Christ suffered and died so that He could own me? I'm His possession? As Americans, we like to think that nobody "owns" us. We're our own people; we don't answer to anyone as long as we live within the law. So, if you really think about it, to belong to Christ - to be His property - is that something we can live with?

And what about when it says that we "live under Him in His kingdom?" Do we like to think that we live under anyone? Heavens, no! We like to think that our leaders work for us. We elect them to do our business, right? We don't want to live under them. We hand them their marching orders and tell them to get busy, don't we? The very idea of living under someone . . . is that the American way?

It's like when the Jews said, "We are Abraham's descendants and we've never been slaves of anyone." Who were they kidding? Liars! What was that 400 years in Egypt about then? Not to mention that thing in Babylon! And as those who land was currently dominated by an occupying dictatorship, they weren't exactly governing their own destinies, were they. But when Jesus called them to a knowledge of the truth that sets men free, they didn't want to have anything to do with it. "We're God's people already," they told Him. "What makes you think we want to live under You?"

So they crucified Him with a sign over His head that said, "Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews."

Actually, it was Pilate who hung the sign. But what was his point? Was he just displaying the charge against Jesus or was he saying more? Is there more to it than even Pilate intended?

Pilate denied the Jews' request to have the sign removed. Let them be upset, he figured. These people wouldn't know their Messiah if he appeared to them with fireworks and a marching band. "But, he says he's a king," he might have thought. "So let's treat him like one."

Jesus was given a crown made of thorns and a stick for a scepter. He was dressed in a purple robe, bowed down to and addressed, "Hail! King of the Jews." Then the soldiers took that stick and beat Him with it. To top off this "royal" treatment, they punched Him in the face and spat on Him.

Obviously, Pilate didn't think Jesus was a king. The crowds clearly didn't want Him for their king, as they shouted for His crucifixion and heaped their insults on Him. You and I might not even want a king. But you know what? That's what God has ordained Christ to be for us: our King. The king of our lives. The king of our hearts. The king of our heavenly home.

Here we find the very definition of irony. Pilate's sign, which was probably hung more out of protocol than anything else, was absolutely true. Jesus is in fact a king - but not only of the Jews; He's King over all creation.

The crown of thorns, the fake scepter, the royal robe - all these things are fitting of a king whose kingdom is not of this world. All this world has to offer such a king is thorns, sticks, insults, spittle, and torture. This King, however, makes no impassioned speech of how He is being wronged. He doesn't claim either His innocence or His throne. He takes it like a man - just an ordinary man. He certainly doesn't look like a king by the time His opponents are through with Him.

But He is a king, a warrior king who is winning the greatest battle of all. As He hangs there under the sign proclaiming His kingship, He is a king - the King. Indeed, He is never more of a king than when He's dying underneath that sign. The world looks at the cross and stumbles over it. The faithful, however, look at the cross and see a king who loves His people.

And indeed, He is not of this world. What earthly king would lay down His life for His people? No, the trappings of worldly power and wealth keep earthly kings from loving their people the way this one does. King George III wasn't taxing the American colonies for their benefit! No way. Earthly rulers serve themselves.

But, as we've said, our King is not of this world. And neither is His kingdom. Our King loves us. He loves us too much to let us die in our sins. He loves us to death. He mildly and meekly lays down His life for us. He's a good king, putting the needs of His people above His own.

But you might ask: "If He is a king, where is His throne?" Right here. Today He is seated before us on the throne of His altar in the very body and blood He shed all those years ago when He hung beneath that sign. As we partake of His Holy Supper, He draws us close and gathers us together under His reign of love.

Who wouldn't want to live under this kind of a king? All Jesus ever wanted to do was give His hearers His grace, forgiveness, and everlasting life. He wanted to be their loving King. He wants to be our king. God give us the faith to receive Him. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

10:36 am est

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

NO CONDEMNATION - Sermon for Lent 5

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 5
Sermon
3-9-2007

Romans 8:1-11

1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4 in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. 5 Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

The Law cannot help you. So stop thinking that maybe if you lived a life more in keeping with the Law of God everything would be fine. Everything would not be fine. Your body is dead because of sin (v. 10). And the Law is too weak (v. 3) to do anything about it.

Why in the world do we look to ourselves for the solutions to our problems? We think: "If I just tried harder, did more, gave more, prayed more, paid more, went to church more, read the Bible more, told others about Jesus more - and on and on and on - maybe God would love me more or somehow reward me for my good behavior. Maybe then I'd have an easier and more productive life."

But listen, when you start to focus on yourself and the things you can do, you lose sight of the only One who can truly help you, and, like Peter, you find yourself neck-deep in the water you were just standing on a minute ago. You find yourself living according to your sinful nature, not according to the Spirit (v. 4). You've set your mind on the things of the flesh, and this does not bring you life! (v. 6). Because the sinful mind is hostile toward God; it does not submit to the God's law, nor can it do so (v. 7).

Now, you might think: "If my desire is to serve and please God, why is that called 'living according to the sinful nature?" Because serving and pleasing God isn't about following a list of rules and regulations; it's about faith and trust. If you focus on yourself and how well you follow the rules, your trust is really in you, not in God. When you find security in the things you do you are in the flesh and not in the Spirit. And you can forget about pleasing God. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (v. 8).

If you want to fulfill the Law of God you have to have the right attitude. And the Law will never give you the right attitude. The Law always accuses. It creates fear. It drives us to our knees. It does not give us the proper motivation for keeping the Law.

God doesn't want you to keep the Law out of fear. Fear of retribution, fear of punishment, fear of condemnation – these are not proper motives for keeping the Law. In fact, they make any attempt to keep the Law of God null and void. Friends, the Law does one thing: It makes you crave the Gospel. It shows you your need for a Savior. And when you turn your faith toward Him, and depend on Him alone,then you find the Law of God fulfilled for you. Because He did it. He did it perfectly. And He did it for you.

Now you begin to walk on water. You begin to walk in the Spirit because your eyes are fixed on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith. There is now no condemnation for you, not because you've done anything worthy of salvation, but because you are in Christ Jesus! (v. 1) To be "in" Christ Jesus means to trust in His work, not yours. It means to put your faith in Him, not in yourself. It means to acknowledge your lack of anything that could earn God's favor and to see in Christ how perfectly that favor has already been won and given to you by His grace.

Jesus took on our sinful nature and allowed it to be nailed to the cross in payment for our sins. He condemned sin in His own body so that the requirements of the Law would be fulfilled in us (v. 3-4). His work; His accomplishment; our benefit.

But when we expect to be able to fulfill the Law's demands under on our own, it's like telling Christ: "Give me back my sin and let me pay for it. Let me bear my own cross." Have you ever seen a little one who wants to carry his own glass of milk to the table? You just know he's going to spill it. But he insists on carrying it himself. You've seen the tears when the milk is spilled, haven't you.

How many times have you spilled the milk? How many times have you taken it upon yourself to live the kind of life you think God would have you live, only to come up short? How many commitments have you made that you just couldn't live up to? How many times have you failed? Like that little child, we look at the milk on the floor – or all over the table, on in everyone's lap, because we seldom make our mistakes in private! – we look at that spilled milk, that failure, that all-too-tangible manifestation of our inability to keep the Law of God, and we weep. Sometimes bitterly.

Awash in shame and disgrace, we weep from the pain of offending God and hurting those we love. We weep because we've been confronted with the deeply painful reality that we cannot do it on our own. We are slapped dead in the face with the hard, cold truth that we are incapable of doing what we so desperately wish we could - to be our own Savior, to be self-sufficient, dependant on no one but ourselves.

It's a tough lesson to learn, a a lesson that most of us have to re-learn over and over again. Perhaps the greatest argument against living according to the sinful nature is that it simply doesn't work; it doesn't get us what we hope it will, despite how strongly the devil tries to convince us that it can.

So, the Law can't help you. But what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit (v. 3-4).

Now, what does it mean to live according to the Spirit? Well, what is the work of the Holy Spirit? How does Luther explain the third article of the Creed? "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the one true faith." To walk according to the Spirit is to place our faith and trust in the work of the Holy Spirit, who brings us to faith and keeps us in the faith. It means to live in the love and forgiveness of God, who for Jesus' sake forgives our stumbling, bumbling and failing. It means to walk according to His grace and mercy, not only to be quick to repent when we fall, but quick to take His hand as He lifts us up again.

But we struggle with this, don't we. And not only with our own sin. We seem surprised and shocked when a fellow Christian sins. Why should we be? To be surprised and stunned when we sin would be like me being surprised and stunned that I didn't win a hundred-yard dash! That's foolish. We're human. We live in sinful human flesh in a world corrupted by sin. The devil is always nipping at our heels, taunting us, tempting us, tricking us into sin. Brothers and sisters, let me say it bluntly: You will sin. You can't avoid it. Oh, please do try! God wants us to try. But don't try because you want to earn favor with God. Don't try so that you can pat yourself on the back. Try simply because He loves you and you love Him. Try because His Spirit dwells within you and you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (v. 9). Try because Christ is in you, and though your body is dead because of sin, your spirit is alive because of His righteousness (v. 10).

And when you fail, when you fall into temptation and sin, don't wallow in self-pity, as though your salvation depends on you. Turn in faith to the Lord, your light and your salvation, the stronghold of your life, who in the day of trouble will keep you safe in His dwelling, who will hide you in the shelter of His tabernacle and set you high upon a rock (Ps. 27:1, 5, 6). Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death (v. 2). There is no condemnation for you now, for you are in Christ Jesus (v. 1). Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

8:42 am est

Friday, March 21, 2008

BEHOLD THE MAN - Sermon for Lent 4 Mid-Week

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 4 Mid-Week
Sermon
3-5-2008

St. John 19:5

Then Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them, "Behold the Man!"

By the time we get to today's text, the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ has taken a decidedly somber turn. Those who joined Him in the Upper Room have fled. The ones who slept during His agony in the garden are all gone. The crowd that surrounds Him now has dramatically changed. It started with the deceitful schemes of the religious leaders. This was followed by the abusive mob of soldiers. A crown of thorns was made. A royal robe was mockingly draped around His shoulders. Spittle and sweat, blood and bruising have all commingled to make Jesus a ghastly sight. How far this mighty teacher has fallen! Now, stripped of His dignity, strength and vitality, He is reduced to a spectacle.

Even Pilate, an otherwise cruel and heartless man, is somewhat disturbed by the sight. Feeling as if he has been dragged into the midst of a family fight, Pilate draws the curtain back, reveals the battered figure of Christ, and utters his double-edged proclamation: "Ecce homo - Behold the man!"

And what a sight to behold! What was once an authoritative rabbi has been beaten to a pulp. The cat-of-nine-tails has done its worst - ripped flesh, streaming blood, muscles exposed. Stomachs turn. Behold the man. Pilate has put Jesus on display. Maybe he was mocking the religious leaders. Or maybe this was a rebuttal to anyone who might have thought he had grown too soft.

Or perhaps he is in awe. What would make a man endure so much? He could have renounced his claims and been set free. But Jesus says nothing in His own defense. Like a sheep that is silent before its shearer (Is. 53), Jesus says nothing. Behold the Man.

But, like the shrill cry of some hideous beast, the voice of the crowd is heard: CRUCIFY HIM! To Pilate, this man was no threat. To the governor, this man did not deserve to die. But to the people, there was blood-lust. Whoever this man was, He was marked - marked for death. The crowd would demand it. And Pilate's own future was dependant on how well he kept that crowd under control. That's what made Jesus a threat to Pilate - not His teaching, not His miracles, not even who He claimed to be - but the fact that He had riled the mob. He had been punished for that - and brutally so. But it wasn't enough. Nothing short of death would be enough for these unruly Jews. Behold The Man!

We know what they beheld. But what do we behold? We see a Man who bears in His body everything that we deserve. When we behold this Man we behold the very words of Isaiah the prophet: "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Is. 53). The blows He received were meant for us. The blood shed was supposed to be ours. Our transgressions, our sins, our punishment - these were all laid on Him. When we behold this man - bloodied, bruised, beaten nearly to death - we behold the handiwork of our own rebellion. Take a good long look! Behold The Man.

And as you look, remember. Remember that this man - whom we see in all His weakness - the One from whom we might be tempted to avert our eyes - this Man is like no other. This Man is the Son of God. He is the one and only man we need, for there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the MAN Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5). This man, as horrid as He looks, is the ONLY man that can bring the kind of help that lasts. No amount of sacrifice or self-righteousness could ever benefit us. No amount of contrition and confession on our part would ever do. Only THIS MAN can make a difference. Only THIS MAN will intercede between you and God, between your sin and His righteousness. Behold the MAN.

In the weeks to come we will continue to behold this man. There is still much more for us to see. There is more He will say and do. There is a cross that lies ahead. We need to behold this man on that cross. There, in the ultimate human weakness we see God's ultimate strength - driven by nothing other than His unfathomable love FOR YOU.

Behold this man. Behold Him and see just how far YOUR Lord will go for you. Behold Him and see just how much He will endure FOR YOU. Behold Him as He drags His weakened human frame toward a cross that was constructed FOR YOU. Behold THIS MAN. And when you do, behold your Salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

2:00 pm est

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

THIS MAN WAS THE SON OF GOD - Sermon for Lent 3 Mid-Week

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 3 Mid-Week
Sermon
2-27-2008

St. Matthew 27:50-54

50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked, and the rocks were split, 52 and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, "Truly this was the Son of God!"

It was an unlikely statement from an even more unlikely source.

There was a little village in the Austrian Alps which, following World War II, decided to spend some of its foreign aid money on revitalizing its tourist trade. The war had left the village in shambles so they used the money for renovations and beautification projects.

In the center of the village was a park, and in the middle of this park stood a huge, ugly iron cross amazingly left undamaged by the war. The faith of many Europeans had been utterly shattered by the violence of war. This cross, which had once meant something to the citizens of this village, was now simply an eyesore which needed to be removed. The renovation project called for the disposal of the cross as its first item of business.

The day came for the removal of the cross and, as the workers plied themselves to the task, they discovered that, despite their best efforts, the cross wouldn't budge. As the engineers pored over their plans a small crowd began to form. About a stone's throw away, separated from the crowd, was an elderly man who most people thought was a lunatic. He sat there laughing to himself, almost hysterically, as he watched the "experts" scratch their heads trying to figure out what to do next. One of the engineers, fed up with the old man's laughter, decided to give the man a piece of his mind. But as he drew closer, he heard the man say something quite unlikely: "You can't dig it out. You can't dig it out. It goes to the center of the world."

An unlikely statement, don't you think? To imagine that old ugly cross having roots down to the center of the earth . . . that's a stretch for even the most faithful of Christians. Either this man was truly nuts - or he saw something nobody else could see.

Consider now the words of the centurion at the cross of Jesus. Like the crazy old man, the centurion seems disconnected from reality. He sees a man hanging dead on a cross and concludes that this man is the Son of God. Either he's crazy or he sees something nobody else can see.

"Surely He was the Son of God." These are some of the most profound words spoken during the Passion of our Lord. What makes them so is that there seems to be no end to the depth of their meaning. Something about the Centurion's perspective plumbs the depths of human existence. No other comment - apart from the words of Christ Himself - seems to cut to the heart more relentlessly than this one.

Jesus was dead, but still hanging there, when these words were spoken. Think about that! "That guy - that dead guy - is the Son of God." How can anyone say that? How can anyone look at a dead man, particularly in the shape Christ was in, and say he was the Son of God? It defies all logic. There's no way to explain that.

Besides, how was it that a Gentile figured this out? He had no belief in a Messiah. He probably didn't even buy into the notion of sin. He had nothing invested in this whole sordid affair - certainly not in the way the Jews and their religious leaders did. How could it be that he was the only one to figure it out?

Well, this little dose of perspective is brought to you by the Holy Spirit, who causes us to see the unseen, to hear the voice of God in His Word, and to believe what the rest of the world considers unbelievable.

The centurion had never seen anything like it. I mean, what kind of God gives up the life of His one and only Son? You could search the entire planet, you could fly to the moon, you could travel from one end of the universe to another, but you wouldn't find anything like this. The only place you'll ever see it is in the Scriptures and the Christian Church.

Allah, Buddha, and all the false gods of the world can't do this for you. All the self-help gurus whose books and videos fly off the shelves won't do it. No politician will do it either. There's only one. Only one who was ever willing. Only one who was ever able.

Brothers and sisters, you can't make this stuff up. No human author could possibly invent a god who would suffer and die for His own creation. All we've ever come up with are false gods who make you save yourselves.

But not the one true God. He chose to became one of us - to be born, crucified, killed and buried, and then to rise again on our behalf. He does the one thing we would never expect and can only grasp through genuine faith: He saves us by His death on the cross.

"You can't dig it out. It goes to the center of the world."

"Surely, this man was the Son of God."

The double-edged sword of this text is that it cuts to the heart of life itself, to the heart of human existence. We can't reasonably understand a God who would die to give us life. Only by faith can we comprehend it. That's how God likes it.

Thanks be to God He provided us with an example of an outsider who, by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, got it right. God grant us the same Holy Spirit that we may utter the same words: "Surely, this man was the Son of God." In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

2:41 pm est

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

HE SAVED OTHERS BUT HE CAN'T SAVE HIMSELF - Sermon for Lent 2 Mid-Week

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 2 Mid-Week
Sermon
2-20-2008

St. Matthew 27:39-44

39 And those who passed by blasphemed Him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, "You who destroy the temple and build it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross." 41 Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, 42 "He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. 43 "He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" 44 Even the robbers who were crucified with Him reviled Him with the same thing.

Is it sacrilege to say that there's something God can't do? Maybe not. I mean, God can't commit sin, can He? Isn't it safe to say that God is incapable of evil? Think about it: God is so totally good and gracious that it's almost more sacrilegious to suggest that He can commit evil than to say that He can't! So maybe it's okay to realize that there are some things that God can't do.

There's plenty of things we humans can't do - not that you need me to remind you. But doesn't it seem like it's getting harder and harder for people to grasp the idea that there are things they can't do? Modern technology gives us the capacity to do things we never imagined before. Add to this a contemporary philosophy that leads us to believe that there are no more limitations. We're told to believe in ourselves, that the solution to all of life's problems lies deep within us. Modern psychology's typical prescription for solving all of life's puzzles is to take ownership of our problems and to work our way through them.

Look at Dr. Phil. His analysis is often pretty interesting. People like him because he tells it like it is, especially when diagnosing a person's problems. He's been known to say, "If you feel like a dirt-bag, it might just be because you're a dirt-bag!" How refreshing! That sort of direct approach is sometimes the only way you can get through to someone.

But when he starts talking about solutions, that's when Dr. Phil goes in a different direction. His prescriptions all have the basic underlying philosophy: "You are capable of anything. The solution lies within you." That's where we part ways. We believe that because of sin you can't always solve your own problems. When dealing with sin and guilt the solution is not within us because, as Scripture says, there is nothing good in us. There are some things we simply cannot do.

We can't rescue ourselves from sin and its consequences. Sin damages our relationship with God. Sure, we can try to take control of our lives and attempt, with God's help, to make things better. But that doesn't take care of the bigger problem; it doesn't repair our relationship with God. Trying to fix that relationship on your own is like robbing a bank and then using the stolen money to buy your way out of jail. All you've been able to accomplish with your behavior is to mess things up. You can't use those same messed-up resources to make things right again. It doesn't work that way! We can't save ourselves. Because of sin we are doomed to die and there's nothing we - on our own - can do about it.

Nor can we save ourselves from all the messes we make in life because of sin. You know, we didn't put ashes on our heads on Ash Wednesday because we can save ourselves. "Dust you are and to dust you shall return" means that the solutions to life's greatest problems do not lie within you. Will you live forever? None of us gets out of here alive; you can't escape death. And you can't guarantee what's going to happen to you after you die. That's what you confess at the beginning of the Divine Service. You admit - whether you realize it or not - that you are a sinner, that sin infects your life on a daily basis, and that you are powerless on your own to stop it. You cannot save yourself.

But here's the good part: You don't have to! So, why would you want to? If someone paid-off your mortgage for you would you insist on paying for it all over again? Of course not; that would be insane! Would you argue with the person over whether they owed the debt or you? Not likely. Would you make fun of them, insulting them because they paid a debt they didn't owe? Hardly!

But this is precisely what the world was doing to Jesus as He hung on the cross paying its debt of sin. Jesus carried the debt of the world to the cross and then the world stood there and mocked Him. "He saved others, but He can't save Himself."

This wasn't necessarily true, however. Or was it? On the one hand, He certainly could have saved Himself. I mean, He was God, after all. Don't you think it was within His power to come down from the cross? Or to avoid it altogether? But that's not why He came, is it. He didn't come here to save Himself; He came to save you. You know, that's supposed to be YOU on that cross. You deserved death for your sins, not Jesus. It was your debt, not His. Right? But that's not you on the cross, is it. No, He's there in your place. Sure, Jesus could save Himself, but then, who would be in your place? You would. But you can't do it. You can't suffer for your sins and rise again. So you would die. Because you can't save yourself.

As the Son of God, Jesus can certainly save Himself. But, as the Son of Man taking your place, He must not. As far as He's concerned, your salvation is more important than His life. In fact, He refuses to save Himself because you can only be saved by His death. You can't live unless He dies. If He saves Himself, you're lost; you're dead. So He will not save Himself. Instead, He will save you.

The double-edge of the taunt in our text is that it's both true and untrue at the same time. Christ can do anything, including save Himself if necessary. But He can't save Himself without losing you. And He's not going to lose you, even if that means giving up His own life. Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

10:46 am est

Monday, March 17, 2008

WHAT IS TRUTH? - Sermon for Lent 1 Mid-Week

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Lent 1 Mid-week
Sermon
2-13-2008

St. John 18:33-38

33 Then Pilate entered the Praetorium again, called Jesus, and said to Him, "Are You the King of the Jews?" 34 Jesus answered him, "Are you speaking for yourself about this, or did others tell you this concerning Me?" 35 Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have You done?" 36 Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here." 37 Pilate therefore said to Him, "Are You a king then?" Jesus answered, "You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." 38 Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, "I find no fault in Him at all."

The Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ took place more than 2000 years ago. That's a long time. A lot can change over a span of time like that. Even if we go back a mere century we find that we don't wear the same kind of clothes. We don't communicate by telegraph anymore, or travel by stage coach or horse-drawn carriage. A lot has changed, hasn't it.

But there are some things that haven't changed - the question posed by Pilate in our text, for example. In the midst of the confusion and conspiracy of the Passion, Pilate asks Jesus about Truth. People are still searching for Truth. Oh, the manner in which the question is asked might be different, but Pilate fits right in with our post-modern society. He proves that he is way ahead of his time.

But Pilate is not engaging Jesus in some kind of philosophical exercise. He's been around. He knows the schemes of those who try to commit state-sanctioned murder. Remember the setting of this little conversation. Pilate is adjudicating a capital offense. And he knows that the religious leaders have brought Jesus here under false pretenses. He believes this to be nothing more than an internal squabble for control. The charges against the accused are based on jealously and lies. Jesus isn't the only one taking a beating here; the truth is getting bludgeoned as well. But to Pilate Truth is only a concept, a quaint notion that harkens back to an older, more pristine era.

Sound familiar? Is there anything more archaic in our day than a claim of truth? Truth today is nothing but an antiquated concept - as timely as the bouffant hairdo and tail-fins on a Thunderbird. If we declare the Bible to be absolute Truth - God's own Word - people laugh like we're wearing bell-bottoms and a butterfly collar. When we stand in a pulpit or in a Bible Class or - even worse - somewhere out there in society and make a Truth claim, we're like a doctor who still uses leaches.

Our world today asks Pilate's question with as much derision as he did. But they up the ante; they answer their own question: Everything is true! And so nothing is true. Any claims of exclusivity - especially where religion is concerned - are seen as almost terroristic in nature.

We do have to agree, however, that the world is right about one thing: truth for truth's sake doesn't mean much. I mean, "1 plus 1 equals 2" doesn't have any meaning unless you know what a 2 is. Here we see the other edge of the question. Truth is not governed by the times in which we live. If it were, that would mean that truth can change. But for truth to be truth, it has to be timeless.

You see, truth is not just a concept. Truth is a person. Pilate was as close to the Truth as he was to the Accused that stood before him. For Truth, ultimately, is Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God and Son of Man. He made this claim about Himself when He said, "I am the way, the TRUTH, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6).

But Jesus didn't just make a truth claim; He gave the evidence to prove that His claim was true. His wearing of human flesh was not a mere fashion statement. He took human nature into Himself for a purpose: to rescue humanity from its sin. You. Me. The Pharisees that sought His death. Even Pilate. In sacrificing Himself, Jesus made the truth of God's promise come to life.

As He stood before this powerful governor, Jesus also stood on the precipice of fulfilling all the promises of God, beginning with Adam and Eve in the Garden and continuing through His servants down through the ages. The Eternal Father proves Himself true. The promise made and fulfilled in time bears witness to the timeless Truth that is our gracious King - a King who is definitely not of this world. No earthly king would be so selfless. No earthly king would be willing to sacrifice so much for a sorry lot like us. No earthly king would choose cross over crown, scourge over scepter, death over dominion.

Such truth is almost irresistible. Even the pagan Governor seems to be swayed. He knows there is no guilt in Jesus. But that doesn't change the fact that Jesus will die. Pilate will eventually give in to the pressure of falsehood and sentence Him to the cross. But remember, the cross is the truth that Jesus is all about - a timeless truth, a truth that has meaning time and time again. It is a truth that is yours the moment you're baptized. It is a truth that is yours whenever you partake of the Lord's body and blood. It is a truth that is yours every time you receive the Holy Absolution. These are all timeless truths. We know them well. But more than that, such truth will still be timeless should you contract a terminal illness. It will be timeless even when we stand, as Jesus does in this text, in the face of death.

What is truth? That is a timeless question. But that question proves to have a timeless answer. The answer is Jesus. He is truth personified. He is truth before Pilate. He is truth on the Cross. He is truth on the altar. He is truth in us, among us and for us, now and forever. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

3:05 pm est

Friday, March 14, 2008

BETTER THAT ONE MAN DIE - Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Ash Wednesday
Sermon
2-6-2008

St. John 11:49-50

49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, "You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish."

The meeting was called rather hastily. But then again, most emergency meetings are. The hubbub in the room was almost deafening. Everybody had an idea. But they had tried so many ideas before. And each one failed. This Jesus was really starting to get on their nerves.

At first, they just tried to ignore Him. It was easy then because He was all the way up in Galilee. But that didn't last. Soon He was proving Himself to be so much more than just another pretender claiming to be the Messiah; Jesus had staying power.

When His journey brought Him closer to Jerusalem He could no longer be ignored. So they tried discrediting Him. That didn't work either. Every time they confronted Him He absolutely stripped them of any credibility. When they tried to link Him to the devil, they became bedeviled. When they tried to trap Him in His own words or put Him on the wrong side of God's Law, it all came crashing down on their heads. Every effort failed.

Now it seemed like the whole world was following Him. And could you blame them? In Bethany, which isn't that far from Jerusalem, right in their own backyard, Jesus raised a man from the dead! So there was Lazarus, alive and well, testifying about what Jesus had done for him to everyone who would listen.

And there were other witnesses too - way too many to ignore, way too many even to attempt discrediting Him. The old play-book wasn't going to work anymore.

Well, as the saying goes, desperate times call for desperate measures. They also call for decisive leadership, which is why God placed Caiaphas in the position of High Priest. Caiaphas was a Roman pawn. But God Himself would use this pawn to His own purpose.

But how would this decisive leader lead? We've heard leaders say prophetic things. Franklin Roosevelt told us that "we have nothing to fear but fear itself." John Kennedy urged a nation to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country." Ronald Reagan led the whole world to change by defiantly saying, "Mr. Gorbachov, tear down this wall!"

Caiaphas, though not an elected leader, would go one better. His words were not penned by some political speech-writer. No, they flowed from a Divine source.

When all the other efforts failed, there was really only one thing left. Sounding almost like Tony Soprano, Caiaphas ordered the "hit." "You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people than that the whole nation should perish." He was right, of course. But not for the reason he had in mind. He was afraid that Jesus would take his place in leadership. The Romans were practical. If the religious leaders could keep the people in check, ok. But if not, they had to go. With the masses now following Jesus, this was a real threat! So, Jesus had to go; He had to die. It was that simple.

Thankfully, God had other ideas. Oh, He did plan for Jesus to die. No doubt about that. The Lamb of God could only take away the sin of the world one way: He had to die. Caiaphas was right. It was better that this one Man, this Son of Man, would die rather than that the whole nation perish.

You know, ultimately, Caiaphas did lose his place. And Israel lost their nation. So what did the death of this one Man accomplish? It established for us a place and a nation! We have a place because Jesus took ours! We were lost. There was no place for us before the Lord. Without His death we could never be a nation. Oh yeah, Caiaphas was completely correct. His words, evilly intended as they were, were truly prophetic!

Which is why we take this 40-day journey called Lent. Over the next six weeks we'll move closer and closer to the cross where Jesus did exactly what Caiaphas foretold. This one Man died and through His death you have life; you are a new creation. You now have a place with the heavenly Father, a place at the Lord's Table. In a few moments you will take your place and receive into your mouth the very body and blood Caiaphas helped to shed.

But the place you now own goes far beyond this moment; it is eternal. There is a room reserved for you in the heavenly mansion. You have a place in the New Jerusalem. Because of what this one Man did, you - yes you! - are one of the Chosen; you are part of a royal priesthood. You are a citizen of a holy nation. Your place is with God.

In these doubled-edged words Caiaphas and the other religious leaders of the day planned something sinister. They plotted evil. But there was another plan on the other edge of these words. God enacted salvation for you. Caiaphas suggested wielding the deathly dagger of murder. But that sword has another edge - the edge of sacrifice which achieved our salvation. God grant that edge to cut through to the heart of each of us this day, that we may truly find our place in His kingdom. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

10:02 am est

Thursday, March 13, 2008

A LIGHT HAS DAWNED - Sermon for Epiphany 3

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Epiphany 3
Sermon
1-27-2008

St. Matthew 4:12-25

12 Now when He heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet, saying, 15 "THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES– 16 "THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND TO THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED." 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." 18 And walking by the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon who was called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. 19 And He said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men." 20 And they immediately left the nets, and followed Him. 21 And going on from there He saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, mending their nets; and He called them. 22 And they immediately left the boat and their father, and followed Him. 23 And Jesus was going about in all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every kind of disease and every kind of sickness among the people. 24 And the news about Him went out into all Syria; and they brought to Him all who were ill, taken with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, paralytics; and He healed them. 25 And great multitudes followed Him from Galilee and Decapolis and Jerusalem and Judea and from beyond the Jordan.

One thing all of us need to recognize is that we are by nature creatures of darkness. We were conceived in darkness, born in darkness, we live in darkness, and we will die in darkness. At least that's the case for those who don't belong to Christ by grace through faith. They are enveloped by a darkness that has nothing to do with a lack of sunlight, but has everything to do with the absence of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world, the Light no darkness can overcome. Without Christ, we live in spiritual darkness, the darkness of death, which is the kind of darkness John wrote about when describing Judas Iscariot's departure from the Upper Room when he left to find a way to betray Jesus. John said, "Having received the piece of bread, he went out immediately. And it was night" (John 13:30). It wasn't just night according to the setting of the sun; it was night in the soul of the one who betrayed the Lord, for "supper being ended, the devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray Him" (John 13:2). The light of Christ was not shining in the heart of His betrayer. Sure, Judas was remorseful for what he had done, but he was not repentant. He turned to the temple priests to remove his guilt, but not to the Lord, and He committed suicide, dying without the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit. He died in the darkness of eternal death. Such a death awaits everyone who lives apart from the light of Christ. Without faith in Christ, we are lost - lost in darkness - with no hope of escape, no hope of being saved.

But darkness is pervasive. Even for those of us who live in the light of Christ there are events that bring darkness into our lives, aren't there? Isn't it easy for us to get beaten down by the tragedies that surround us? We hear of wars and rumors of wars, and we have loved ones fighting in wars. We are afflicted with pain and sickness. We face financial crises. We mark the death of those we know and love. All of these experiences affect us tremendously. Oh, the vast repertoire the devil uses to weigh us down with misery and sin!

Certainly, this is not what God intended. Suffering is the result of sin - sin inherited from our parents and our first parents in the garden; sin which we ourselves have committed, brought on by the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh, which we struggle against every day of our lives, "for we daily sin much and deserve nothing but punishment" [Fifth Petition].

Because of this - because of our sins we deserve to live in the darkness of eternal condemnation, to spend eternity in the pitch-blackness of hell. Oh yeah, hell is dark, even though there are flames raging there, for Satan is the prince of darkness. And even though hell may not be our destination that evil prince has a knack for causing his shadow to cross our path. How often have you found yourself smack dab in the middle of a foretaste of hell; sitting in darkness and in the land of the shadow of death? Believe me, brothers and sisters, it happens to us all.

And yet, even in the darkest of times, there is a light that shines on us, and from this light comes a voice - a voice that says, "Follow Me." This is the voice of the Good Shepherd, our Lord and our Savior, Jesus Christ. And faith - that gracious gift of God - hears His voice and clings to the promises He speaks. Of course, it's only by the power of the Holy Spirit that wecan follow Christ, for we confess - don't we? - that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ our Lord or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, sanctified and kept us in the one true faith [Third Article].

In this one true faith, dear friends, you can rest firmly and completely, trusting in your heavenly Father who loves you so much that He sent His only-begotten Son into the flesh to die for you, to earn for you the forgiveness of your sins. "The death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God" (Romans 6:10). To believe that Jesus Christ died for you, to believe that He shed His blood on the cross to take away your sins - this is the Christian Faith.

Do you have this faith? Oh, I pray that you do, for it enables you to believe the promises of Christ, to accept the gifts He gives through His Holy Word and Sacraments. In these unfathomable gifts you receive the forgiveness of sins, salvation, and life everlasting.

Remember: Jesus didn't justdie for you; He also rose from the dead for you! You're not only baptized into Jesus' death; you've also been baptized into His resurrection. Jesus Christ rose from the dead proving that He is the Champion over sin, death, and the power of the devil. What great news this is for us!

Had Christ who once was slain
Not burst His three-day prison
Our faith had been in vain
But now is Christ arisen!

The victory our Lord won on that first Easter is your victory too through faith in Him. By this faith you are children of light, despite the fact that you live in a land of darkness, for you are children of the heavenly Father, adopted by His grace in the waters of your baptism, where He marked you with the sign of the Holy Cross and made you His own. You have the promise of eternal life in the land where there is no darkness, your heavenly home, the New Jerusalem, "the city that has no need for the sun or the moon to shine in it, for the glory of God has illumined it. The Lamb is its light. There will be no night there: We will have no need for the light of a lamp or of the sun, for the Lord God will give us light. And we shall reign forever and ever" (Revelation 21:23; 22:5). Until then our Savior lights the way, leading us with His Word, which is a lamp to our feet and a light for our path (Psalm 119:105). God grant that we remain in His Light unto life everlasting. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

8:57 am est

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

MARTHA

If you've been reading my blogs over the past year or so, perhaps you've noticed my my love for the poetry of Oliver Wendell Holmes.

To the modern ear his style is archaic, sing-song-y, too much the product of the late 19th century. There are often referents unknown to us, public figures of the day who have faded from popular memory, significant events which have settled to the bottom of historical record.

But there are some of his poems which I find quite transcendent, striking a chord despite no knowledge of the particular events or persons mentioned. Such is the case with the opus below.

Who was Martha? From the few lines of this dedication we surmise that she was a laundress serving the Holmes household and that she was advanced in years. We also know from the subtitle that she died January 7, 1861.

The other details of her life are a mystery, yet they are not pertinent for either the purpose or the impact of these short verses.

What is, perhaps, more in evidence here is the faith of the poet.

From the outset he calls upon the servant of the church to ring the funeral bell, calling the faithful Christians of the town to join in the confession of what he so boldly proclaims at the end: Martha will rise at the resurrection of all flesh to wear Christ's white robe of righteousness.

My interpretation, I suppose, but gathered from reading much of Holmes work, in which it is possible to find many such references to the Christian Faith. These works have given me such joy, and I pray the ones I share here are a blessing to you as well.

MARTHA

DIED JANUARY 7, 1861

SEXTON! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
Her weary hands their labor cease;
Good night, poor Martha,--sleep in peace!
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
For many a year has Martha said,
"I'm old and poor,--would I were dead!"
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
She'll bring no more, by day or night,
Her basket full of linen white.
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
'T is fitting she should lie below
A pure white sheet of drifted snow.
Toll the bell!

Sexton! Martha's dead and gone;
Toll the bell! toll the bell!
Sleep, Martha, sleep, to wake in light,
Where all the robes are stainless white.
Toll the bell!

9:34 am est

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For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain.
(Philippians 1:21)

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