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Monday, April 21, 2008


As some of you may know, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale were in town the last couple of weeks shooting scenes for an upcoming film about John Dillinger called "Public Enemies." I walked down as close as I could get one day, and managed to shoot something I found quite fascinating. About a block away from the primary filming location, I noticed atop one of our downtown buildings a rather unusual-looking American Flag.

48 Star Flag

It seems that the Hollywood folks don't miss a trick. In 1934 - the time-frame of the film - our nation consisted of only 48 states! So they erected a correct-for-the-era flag, which will most likely only be seen in the distance in the film. But I've given you a close-up! You're welcome! :)

Here's a shot taken by one of the local news photographers during the actual filming of a bank robbery scene. Liz and I walked down during lunch a few days later and I took the following shot as the cast and crew were working out some details before filming the next sequence. You can see some of the extras in the background.

Depp and others filming a scene

Between Scenes

Next is a shot of some of the construction work they did to re-dress the town. The Walgreens building and the wall with the advertisements do not really exist in downtown Oshkosh.


Finally, here's a close-up of Johnny in costume, taken by the news photographer.

Depp as Dillinger

It's been fun to have this going on here in our little town, but it's also nice to get back to business as usual.

10:21 am edt

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


Rev. Steven S. Billings
Easter 3

1 Peter 1:17-21

17 And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one's work, conduct yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; 18 knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. 20 He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you 21 who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.

Dear friends in Christ, in today's Epistle St. Peter says to his hearers, "you were redeemed." We hear that word a lot in Lutheran circles, but what does it mean? Well, to be "redeemed" is to be "set free by means of a payment." The concept involves someone being in a state of bondage because of a debt that is owed, but he can't pay the debt and set himself free. When someone else comes along and pays the debt for him, that is a "redemption." The word was used in the ancient world concerning a slave or a prisoner of war. Such a person could not free himself from his captivity. But if someone else paid the necessary price, he or she would be released. So "redemption" includes two parts: setting someone free who cannot free himself, and a price being paid to do this.

My friends, that is what Christ has done for us. He has redeemed us. We were in a state of bondage and could not set ourselves free. Jesus came along and paid the necessary price in order to release us. That is "redemption."

"Redemption" was the word that Luther chose to sum up the Second Article of the Apostles' Creed, about the person and the work of Jesus. It was the title he put over that section of the Catechism. In fact, it was this very passage that Luther had in mind when he wrote his explanation to it. This becomes quite clear when you listen to the way he puts it:

"I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true."

You see? It's all there in our passage today from 1 Peter - the language of redemption. Even the very phrase, "not with gold or silver," is simply a paraphrase of our text. You have been redeemed by Christ.

But redeemed from what? Peter says, "you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers." The bondage you found yourself in, and could not free yourself from, Peter calls "the empty way of life." The idea is that it is futile, meaningless, it doesn't go anywhere. Peter is talking about the way of life of the people of this world. Their lives apart from God - which is where all of our lives would be, apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ - don't lead anywhere - like a bunch of people stumbling around in the dark, bumping into each other, tripping over themselves, not knowing where they're going, falling into ditches and running into dead ends. That's the life of everyone in this world who doesn't have a saving knowledge of Christ. No matter how wild or how refined, no matter how reckless or respectable, no matter how bad or seemingly good their conduct - all people by nature are leading an "empty way of life." It always leads to a dead end - which is exactly the point: a "dead" end. It ends in death; eternal death, separated from God. The "empty way of life" is, in reality, the way of death.

That's the state we were in apart from Christ - heading down the wrong road, not knowing any better. But, thank God, that is what we have been redeemed "from." Luther puts it like this: Christ "has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil." All of that is what you have been redeemed from. Remember, redemption is a setting free from a state of bondage. And that "empty way of life" is the death-trap of slavery from which we in Christ have been set free.

But how? What was the price that was paid to set us free? Remember that redemption requires a payment in order for the prisoner to be released. It doesn't just happen automatically; there's a cost involved. So what price was paid to set us free? And who paid it?

Clearly, as slaves in bondage, there was nothing we could offer to meet the cost of payment. All our good works piled up to the sky wouldn't be enough to break one shackle of the chains that bind us. It's a crazed delusion to think that we have anything that could satisfy God's justice. Nothing we have or own or can do would pay a plug nickle toward our ransom.

So Peter writes, "it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed." And Luther echoes, "not with gold or silver." All the money in the world, stacked up to the heavens, could never buy-off God. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Ted Turner could amass their collective fortunes, and it wouldn't mean diddly-squat.

No, something far more precious was required to set sinners free. Only one price could do the job. It took the death of the Son of God - the sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God - to pay the price to set us sinner-slaves free. "But with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect." "Not with gold or silver, but with his holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death."

Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, was the only one who could set the world free from the bondage of sin. God would send His Son into the world, in the flesh, as a man, to keep His Holy Law for us, in our stead, and to die as the sacrifice for our sins. He, the Christ, "was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake." And Jesus said, when He came, "The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many."

Jesus is the "lamb without blemish or defect." No sins of His own for which to die. Spotless, faultless. And yet He is the Lamb. A sacrificial animal. The lambs of the Old Testament were offered up as a sneak preview of THE one and only Lamb to come. Jesus Christ is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." His blood was shed on the cross to make payment for our sins. His holy, precious blood. The same blood He offers you today in His Holy Sacrament, "This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins." The precious blood of the Lamb, Jesus Christ. That is what you have been redeemed with.

In his book, "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," C. S. Lewis tells the story of several children who travel to the magical land of Narnia. One of the children, Edmund, betrays the rest and goes over to the side of the evil White Witch. He realizes his mistake and returns to the other children, who are with the good king Aslan. However, the White Witch comes to their camp and demands that Aslan hand Edmund over to her. She says:

"You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to a kill. . . . And so that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property. . . . Unless I have blood, as the Law says, all Narnia will be overturned and perish in fire and water."

Aslan cannot deny what she says. But he takes the witch aside privately and talks to her. It turns out now that Edmund does not have to be turned over to the witch, and she goes away.

But later that night, Aslan goes off by himself into the woods and enters the witch's camp. He lays himself down on the great Stone Table, the witch's forces bind him, and there she slays him.

But Aslan does not stay dead. He would later explain to the children:

"Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. . . . that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward."

This story is a picture of a redemption. We were condemned to death by the Law, and there was no way to change it. But Jesus Christ stepped in and took our place, as our Substitute, dying the death we deserve. But death could not hold Him. He has broken the power of death, conquering sin on the cross. Now He is risen and has set us free. That's what it means to be redeemed.

But so what? What difference does it make? How does this effect the way we live? Peter puts it this way, "live your lives as strangers here in reverent fear." Luther says it like this, "that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him." This is the new life of Christ's redeemed people. Our lives, our conduct, will be different now that we have been redeemed. No longer that empty way of life. Now we have direction. Now we have purpose. Now we have meaning for our lives. We belong to God. We are His people.

We don't belong to this world and its ways anymore. We're just passing through like pilgrims. We belong to God. We are His holy people, set apart for Him. Our lives are to be an act of worship. We serve Him in reverent, holy fear. We take our lives as seriously as they are joyful - both at the same time. We do not take this life we have in Christ lightly. We take God's warnings against sin and unbelief seriously. We don't fool around with His mercy and grace, as if it were cheap and easy. No, Christ has paid the ultimate price for our redemption. It is very precious indeed.

So what? So we live in that holy fear. And, because of Christ, we live in faith and hope. "Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God." We live in faith, trusting in the God who loved us so much that He gave His Son to die for us. We live in hope - the hope of the resurrection. Easter hope. For God has raised Christ from the dead, and now we have the sure and certain promise of our own resurrection. We have the hope of heaven, where we will serve Him "in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity."

Beloved, you have been redeemed - set free by means of a price. Redeemed, from what? From the empty way of life that is the way of death. Redeemed, with what? Not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of Christ. Redeemed, so what? So now we live as God's people, in holy fear and in faith and hope. And this, my fellow redeemed in Christ - this is most certainly true! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

11:36 am edt

Friday, April 4, 2008

HIS BLOOD BE ON US - Sermon for Maundy Thursday

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Maundy Thursday

St. Matthew 27:15-26

15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to releasing to the multitude one prisoner whom they wished. 16 And at that time they had a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. 17 Therefore, when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" 18 For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, "Have nothing to do with that just Man, for I have suffered many things today in a dream because of Him." 20 But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor answered and said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" They said, "Barabbas!" 22 Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said to him, "Let Him be crucified!" 23 Then the governor said, "Why, what evil has He done?" But they cried out all the more, saying, "Let Him be crucified!" 24 When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it." 25 And all the people answered and said, "His blood be on us and on our children." 26 Then he released Barabbas to them; and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.

Have you ever been so certain you were right only to find out you were wrong? You were so sure that you were correct that you acted on your convictions and things started to fall apart? You were right, and nobody could tell you otherwise. Stubbornly refusing even to consider that you might be wrong, you kept on doing what you were doing and things just got worse and worse. Finally, you hit bottom and someone or something forced you to take another look. Lo and behold, you discovered how wrong you had been, and how asserting your "rightness" had called a curse down on your head. You made a mess. You hurt a lot of people. You even hurt yourself. But all you could do now was live with it.

"His blood be on us and on our children." Wow. Those of you who've seen Mel Gibson's "Passion of the Christ" may not know that this line was spoken in the film, but omitted from the subtitles - a concession to the Jewish community. Why? Because it's an inflammatory remark, that's why. It's gruesome.

The Jews wanted blood. They demanded Jesus' blood. And they didn't care whether or not they were cursing themselves. They were so sure they were right in putting Jesus to death that they were willing to absolve Pilate and assume the guilt of innocent blood. They were so convinced they were right that they were willing to curse their children as well.

Welcome to the wonderful world of sin, where we call down curses on ourselves and put the Son of God to death by our actions. Just like the Jewish rabble we think we're so right, but we're so, so wrong. And the guilt of Christ's blood is all over us. We can't escape the curse; we're smothered in it. We're guilty - guilty as, well, you can fill in the blank.

Some 53 days after this scene - where the crowds so self-righteously demanded the crucifixion of the Son of God - Peter stood up at Pentecost under the direction of the Holy Spirit and let the crowd have it. "You killed the Son of God!" he shouted. "You're guilty. His blood is on your hands. All because you fooled yourselves into thinking you were right."

But there were no executions on Pentecost. Instead, the masses received Peter's proclamation of what a mess they had made. God had sent His Son into the world and they had put Him to death. They understood the magnitude of this great sin. "What shall we do?" they asked. Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." And they did Scripture says that 3,000 of them became believers that day.

Just think - what if just one of those 3,000 had been one of the same ones who cried out "His blood be on us and our children!" Pretty ironic, don't you think? The blood they called down upon themselves is now given to them freely by the forgiving Christ. If you can imagine that, you can imagine just how gracious our God really is. What that person once said as a curse, God now turned into a blessing. His blood - on them - on their children - for the forgiveness of their sins.

This evening's double-edged sword calls down both curses and blessings. This was Christ's whole point in the upper room. His blood - on us - on our children - for the forgiveness of our sins. He took bread and made it His Body by the power of His Word. He took the cup and made it His blood by the power of His Word. Then He said, "Keep on doing this." His blood is connected to His forgiveness. There can be no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood.

This was Christ's agenda in going to the cross. His blood - flowing freely from His head, His hands, His feet, His side - for you - for your children - for the forgiveness of your sins. This is love, my friends, pure and simple, the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus sheds His holy, precious blood by His innocent suffering and death for you and your children.

It's also His agenda at the empty tomb. He is risen so that He may personally give you the gift of His blood and the blessing it contains. His blood be on you and your children, for life and salvation. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

3:24 pm est

CHRIST AMONG US - Sermon for Easter 2

Rev. Steven S. Billings
Easter 2

St. John 20:19-31

19 When therefore it was evening, on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, "Peace be with you." 20 And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples therefore rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus therefore said to them again, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you." 22 And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." 24 But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore were saying to him, "We have seen the Lord!" But he said to them, "Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." 26 And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said, "Peace be with you." 27 Then He said to Thomas, "Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing." 28 Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed." 30 Many other signs therefore Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.

Jesus has your believing in mind this morning. He has your believing, your repenting and your being forgiven in mind. And for all of that, He has His ministers in place for you and gives them Gifts - that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, and so believing - with His Words in your ears and His Flesh and Blood on your lips - believing like that, you may have life in His Name.

You see, believing always goes hand-in-hand with Jesus' Word and Body. You may remember from last week that the angels had proclaimed Christ's resurrection to the women. Then, the Lord Himself appeared to them in the flesh. They clasped His feet and worshiped Him.

The same was true with the apostles. The women told them what Jesus said: He was risen, as He had promised. And then, as if the preaching always leads to Jesus' Body, to more comfort, Jesus Himself appeared to them in the flesh and said: "Peace be with you." Then He showed them His hands and His side.

Believing and Jesus - Believing and Christ's Words, Christ's Flesh and Blood, Christ's Wounds, Christ's Body - these always go together.

Dear Christian, you whose ears are filled with Jesus' speaking "Peace" to you this morning . . . you whose heads are drenched with everything God gave you in Holy Baptism . . . whose mouths will soon be fed with Jesus' Flesh and Blood for your salvation . . . believing rests in JESUS, not in you! It rests in His Gifts - what He delivers into the sinful hands and sinful mouths of sinful men whom HE sends out as He Himself was sent. Believing apart from that is not believing. At least not the kind that saves.

To illustrate that for us this morning, we're told that Thomas - for whatever reason - didn't come to church that Easter! All the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews - except for Judas, whose lack of repentance and faith left him hanging from a rope, and Thomas - who seemed to have some other place to be that day.

By the way, the Ten weren't gathered because they were such great believers. They were just us - coming to church for all the wrong reasons! They were worried that maybe God didn't have everything under control. They were afraid of men way more than they were afraid of God. And so they huddled. They hid. And Thomas wasn't even there!

Which is too bad for Thomas! Because He wasn't around when Faith itself came and stood among them, saying: "Peace be with you!"

Believing and repenting and forgiveness and salvation all show up in Jesus Christ, Who has words to speak and scars to show! And poor Thomas wasn't there. No wonder he gets labeled a "doubter!" Faith doesn't exist apart from Jesus!

Whatever reason he had for being absent when the Service of the Lord began, let's learn once and for all that life apart from Jesus and His Gifts is a life sunk deep in doubt, despair and disbelief. Oh, we do well, brothers and sisters, to keep ourselves from the Satanic suggestion that we can believe just fine when we're running away from God's Word and Sacraments; when we're keeping Jesus' words from our ears and His wounds from our mouths!

And make no mistake: Jesus is here - today! - for sinners like you and me. Now THERE'S something your faith can sink its teeth into! Christ is RISEN! And He is preaching peace and life, forgiveness and salvation, into your ears this morning. Beloved, because of that, you have eternal life!

Why didn't poor Thomas believe? Because he wasn't with the other disciples when Jesus was there. Even when they told him, "We've seen Him, Thomas! He is risen! Your sins are forgiven!" Still, Thomas wouldn't believe. He revealed what is in the heart of every sinner when he said: "I will not believe!" Unless he could see for himself; unless God would conform to his demands and expectations; unless God could fit into his version of religion, Thomas would not believe.

Now, I don't think most of us are willing to be that honest. We say, "Oh, I believe!" But do we hold the preaching of God's Word sacred and gladly hear and learn it? Christ has given us His authority to forgive the sins of repentant sinners, and to withhold forgiveness from those who do not repent. But do we crave such forgiveness? Do we accept absolution from the pastor as from God Himself? Really? We insist that we believe, but how easily do we separate ourselves from Jesus' Body and Blood, all the while clinging to the sinful things we enjoy? How many of us have the integrity of Thomas to bare our naked doubt?

I don't know what the other disciples said to Thomas that week. Jesus had just given them the Office of the Keys - the responsibility to forgive or retain sins. Did they hold his sins against him for as long as he continued in his unbelief? I don't know. But whatever they said or did, we do one thing: "A week later, His disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them!"

Thank God for that! Being gathered together with his fellow believers, Thomas came face-to-face with his salvation. The preaching of the Ten was true! Jesus told him so when He said, "Stop doubting and believe!" Believe what? Believe what the others had told him. For what they had said was only what the Lord had given them to say. And so, confirmed in that, Thomas was admitted to the Savior's Body: "Put your finger here; see My hands. Reach out your hand and put it in My side."

And THAT, dear Christian, is true believing. All in Jesus. For sinners imprisoned in their doubt and fear, He preaches Peace and gives us Flesh and Blood for our faith! This sets us free. The Body pierced for our transgressions, the Blood poured out for our forgiveness - these, the Lord still delivers into the hands of sinful men for DISTRIBUTION. To be handed out, delivered into the ears and mouths of sinful men, like Thomas . . . and like you and me.

So how does Thomas respond? "My Lord and My God!" To which Jesus says,"Because you have seen Me, you believe; blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe." Notice He doesn't say, "Blessed are those who have not HEARD." But, "blessed are those who have not SEEN." By hearing, Christ comes to you with His forgiveness in the Words He gives His Ministers to speak. By eating and drinking, Christ gives us His Body and His Blood in bread and wine. Sinners aren't lost because they do such wicked things. They're lost because they will not have the speaking, the preaching, and the Body and Blood of Jesus!

So, like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk. Crave the Gospel purely preached and the Sacraments administered according to their institution. Christ isn't dead anymore. He is risen! And He didn't drop His Body off somewhere to drift magically into your heart. He is where His Body is, to save you! Where His words direct you to His wounds; where they tell you: "Peace be with you! Take and eat, this is My Body. Take and drink, this is My Blood! Stop doubting and believe!"

And if you struggle to believe? Come, confess with Thomas! There are words you need to hear, and someone God has put in place to speak them! If you've strayed away and fallen into sin? Thank God for the servants God has sent not only to hear your confession, but also to announce that Christ holds nothing against you now. Jesus died. Jesus rose. Jesus still sends out His disciples. And we proclaim to you that all your sins are forgiven.

And if you want to stay away from Jesus and the Gifts He gives? If you want to go on living like there isn't any God Who sees? Behaving as if Christ were six feet under, so it's no concern to Him the way you live? If you think your sins aren't that bad, that they can't damn you? If you really don't care whether the Lord forgives you or not? Then listen very carefully to what I have to say: Your sins are not forgiven! They are still yours to deal with, and you will have to live with them for all eternity.

Like Thomas, we need to hear words like that a whole lot more than we're usually willing. Why? Because Christ wants to spoil our day? No! Because He wants to show us just what sort of prison we've locked ourselves into! Darkness! Despair! Unbelief! He wants to give us true repentance! He wants to wrap us up in the only thing that gives true forgiveness and faith; He wants to surround us with Himself - in the Words He speaks to us, in the Water poured upon our heads in His Name, and in His Flesh and Blood set before us each and every Lord's Day. Here is where the risen Christ stands among us today.

Blessed are you who hear and believe what Jesus says about that. His Word and Body are your salvation, your life, and your peace with God and one another. Blessed are you, dear Christians, to find your believing in all of that. And when you don't, hear and believe the words your shepherds are sent to proclaim: Your sins are forgiven! In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

3:20 pm est

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

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