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Saturday, February 28, 2009

THE CONFESSION OF ST. PETER
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Confession of St. Peter
Sermon
1-18-2009

Acts 4:8-13

8 Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, "Rulers and elders of the people, 9 if we are on trial today for a benefit done to a sick man, as to how this man has been made well, 10 let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead-- by this name this man stands here before you in good health. 11 "He is the STONE WHICH WAS REJECTED by you, THE BUILDERS, but WHICH BECAME THE VERY CORNER stone. 12 "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men, by which we must be saved." 13 Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John, and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were marveling, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.

I wonder what Peter was thinking. Not long before this he had preached his first sermon - and it was a rousing success! The build-up was fantastic. They'd all been waiting in the upper room, as Jesus had instructed them. It was at the time of the Feast of Pentecost, and there was that sound of the rushing, mighty wind, and there were those tongues of fire, and all those people from all over the known world. Suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit, the Apostles began speaking the Gospel in languages they'd never learned, and the foreigners visiting Jerusalem heard the story of salvation in their own tongues, and they wondered what was going on. That's when the Lord moved Peter to get up and speak. And he did. He preached the Law with all its sting and the Gospel in all its sweetness. He told the people how Jesus was the Christ and how they'd killed Him. He told them that they could all repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. And they did. Three thousand of them came to be baptized and were added to the church in one day! Wow! Not bad for your first sermon, eh?

Peter must've really felt like God had truly forgiven him for having failed at the time of Jesus' death. Oh, how he'd blown it! After all that blather about how he would die rather than deny his Lord, after the brash, reactionary drawing of his sword and slicing off the ear of an unarmed man – such mock bravery! After all this, what did he do? He lost his nerve. He revealed the truth about himself – the cowardice at the core of his being. He disgraced himself; he shamed himself - and the Lord he claimed to serve. What painful memories these must've been.

But Jesus had forgiven him. In fact, Jesus re-commissioned him. For each of the three times Peter had denied Him, Jesus asked him: "Peter, do you love me?" And each time, when Peter answered: "Lord, you know I love you," Jesus commanded him: "Feed my sheep." Jesus wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He had called Peter when he was tending to his nets and assigned him the task of tending to His sheep. Peter had blown it. But Jesus has a way of using our mistakes for His own purposes. The bottom line was, Jesus had a purpose for Peter, and He wasn't letting him off the hook that easily. Peter must've been awfully glad of that on Pentecost, when he preached his first sermon and so many people came to faith in Jesus that day. I wonder if he looked forward to his next opportunity to preach. What a wonderful thing to bask in the glory of the Lord and see God's power at work in your life.

But I wonder what Peter was thinking today. Yesterday, after spending day after day in the temple and going from house to house taking the Lord's Supper to the faithful, he and John encountered a crippled man on their way to the temple. The man saw them and began to ask them for money. They didn't have any money. So Peter said: "Listen, I'll go you one better than that. We don't have any money, but what we do have is healing in the name of Jesus. Get up now, and walk." And he did. And everyone who saw it marvelled. And now came Peter's opportunity for his second sermon. And he took it. And he preached. And he spoke as powerfully as he did on the Day of Pentecost. He preached the Law with all its sting and the Gospel in all its sweetness. But, lo and behold, somehow it just didn't work like it did the last time. People just didn't line up in droves to repent and be baptized this time. In fact, they called the cops. Somebody sent for the temple guards and they were arrested and thrown in jail. Wow. What a way to end your second sermon!

I wonder what Peter was thinking as he sat in that jail cell. He must've felt like he were the most unworthy servant ever to be called to preach the Gospel. He must've begun to wonder if he were really cut out for this. The memories of his sins must've come flooding back on him like a tidal wave. Maybe he felt like he was up to his neck in water again, drowning at the feet of the Savior he served so poorly.

And to make matters worse, this time he got his friend John in trouble too. Peter deserved the treatment he was getting – or so he must've thought – but not John. John was the only one who didn't desert Christ during His suffering and death. John had stayed right there at Jesus' side the whole time, not caring that it could cost him his life. John was soooo faithful. John was so much better than Peter. At least, that's what Peter must've thought at the time. He had failed – again. And this time his failure hurt someone else in the process. Oh, why did he always have to ruin everything!? Why didn't Jesus just let him go back to fishing – back to something he was actually good at, something he was comfortable with, something that didn't remind him of what a failure he was?

What Peter didn't know, as he sat in chains, was that there were those who had come to faith in Jesus through his second sermon – this time not three thousand, but five thousand!

The next day Peter and John were brought before the High Priest – Annas, the same one who presided over Jesus' trial – and Caiaphas was there, too. I wonder what Peter was thinking while he stood there before them. Do you suppose his mind played over again the events that followed Jesus' trial in the Court of the Sanhedrin? Do you suppose he imagined that the outcome of his trial would be pretty much the same thing? What irony! The things he was ashamed of most he did to avoid standing right where he was! He denials, his hiding, his cowardice - the memories that brought him such grief - were all for naught. Here he was, anyway, about to be sentenced to death just like Jesus. Or so he thought.

I wonder what Peter was thinking as he began to testify before the court, as he began to preach what amounted to his third sermon. I wonder if he thought: "My cowardice has gotten me nowhere. This time I'm not going to add more bad memories to carry around for the rest of my life - however long or short that is. This time I'm going to say what I should have said last time. This time I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. This time I'm not going to turn my back on my Savior, but I'm going to live as He has called me to live and do what He has called me to do!" Filled with the Holy Spirit, he stood up before that council of rulers and leaders of the people and he preached. He preached with power. He preached the Law with all its sting and the Gospel in all its sweetness. And he didn't care if it cost him his life.

What he didn't know was that gathered all around were those who had heard him preach the day before. And maybe there were those who had heard him on Pentecost. At any rate, there were thousands upon thousands standing there who had come to faith in Jesus because of the faithful preaching of this man. And God used their presence to strike fear in the hearts of those Jewish leaders. The leaders threatened Peter and John. And they ordered them not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John, emboldened by the Holy Spirit, held their ground and wouldn't budge, saying: "You can threaten us all you want. And you can imprison us and torture us and even kills us, but you be the judge as to whether we should obey God – or you. But we will not stop speaking of what we have seen and heard."

The Jewish leaders wanted to do all the things that Peter and John mentioned. But they were afraid of the crowd – a crowd that God had raised through the preaching of a man who in his own estimation deserved all the things he was afraid of. But not today. Peter would suffer crucifixion, just like his Savior. But not today.

I wonder what Peter was thinking as they were being released. I wonder what he thought about that huge crowd of people who were on their way to heaven because of his willingness and his faithfulness to preach. I especially wonder if he knew that once again, as he had feared that awful night months ago, [once again] he was recognized. He was recognized, this time not by a few huddled around a fire, this time not by a little girl who challenged his craved anonymity. This time he was recognized by thousands. Do you think he knew? And do you think he knew that this time he was not recognized because of the way he was dressed; this time he was not recognized by his accent or because someone thought they saw him somewhere? I wonder if he knew that this time he was recognized because people saw in him a confidence – a confidence despite his lack of education; a confidence despite his lack of training – a confidence that they had only seen in those who had been with Jesus.

I wonder what you're thinking now. I wonder what you think of when you hear how Peter must have felt about his failings. Do you conger up in your memory the grand list of your own? Do you feel that God must be so disappointed? I want you to know that this is something we all experience. The devil is so good at reminding us of all the reasons why we can be of no use to God. But I also want you to know that there are things you don't know. Have you failed? Sure. Who of us hasn't? But can God use your failings for His own purpose? Does He have a purpose for you? Listen, if He can have a purpose for Peter, and if He can have a purpose for failures like me, He can – and does – have a purpose for you. And He won't take "no" for an answer. Nor will He leave you without His Holy Spirit to strengthen you. And though you may feel the walls of a prison cell around you, though you may feel shackled and chained, there is a release coming for you. You're surrounded by a great crowd of witnesses. And they're praying for you. And those prayers are striking fear in the hearts of those who want to imprison you and punish you and, yes, even kill you – the devil and all his forces of evil.

The truth is, someday you will die. But not today. Today you will walk free. Today you will live with confidence – despite your inadequacies, despite your failings – today you will live with confidence because you have been with Jesus. And even more – Jesus has been with you, and will continue to be with you, in His Word and in His own body and blood which today you will take with you. And He will continue to be with you until the day He takes you to be with Him. And you know what? St. Peter will be there to greet you. Aw, maybe he doesn't stand at the pearly gates, but he is surely there with His Savior enjoying the peace and bliss of heaven. And so are those three thousand who came to faith on Pentecost. And so are those five thousand from Acts chapter four. And so shall we all who share Peter's great confession and faith in Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
2:04 pm est

HOLY BAPTISM
Rev. Steven S. Billings
The Baptism of Our Lord
Sermon
1-11-2009

Romans 6:1-11

1 What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace might increase? 2 May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin. 8 Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, 9 knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him. 10 For the death that He died, He died to sin, once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.

The Sacrament of Holy Baptism is the fulfillment of Epiphany and all that it means. The font of water and Word is where Christ reveals Himself as our Savior from sin and death. Each of us has been drowned and buried with Him - as Paul writes in today's Epistle - and are thereby are united with Him in His Resurrection.

The waters of Holy Baptism, administered with the Word of Christ Himself, are the means by which the death and resurrection of Jesus become significant for us, for they're not just memorable events of the past, but an eternal reality that we experience for ourselves in this Sacrament.

That's why the Season of Lent originated as a time of preparation for Baptism. The adult catechumens - who would spend as much as three full years in catechesis - would enter an intensive period of instruction for the forty days leading up to their Baptism during the Easter Vigil.

It's enlightening to note the content of the instruction they received during those forty days. They would, first of all, memorize the Apostles' Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Then, their Pastor would teach them - at a fairly rapid pace - the entire Old Testament history of Salvation: the Creation, the Flood, the slavery in Egypt and the Exodus, the Manna in the wilderness, and crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land. (Third year Confirmation students - I hope you're writing this down, 'cause there's gonna be a quiz on Wednesday! Nah, just kidding. Actually, we're gonna give the quiz to your parents and see how they do!) ☺

We chuckle - and that's good! - but it's important for us to recognize that it's not just for Sunday School kids to understand the connection between the mighty events of the Old Testament and the cosmic reality at work in the humble waters of Baptism.

You see, all that God was doing for the life and salvation of His people in the Old Testament - and everything He accomplished through His Son - He did for us - for you and for me personally - in the simplicity of Baptism.

The waters of Holy Baptism are for us the waters of Creation all over again - the cosmic deep over which the Spirit of God hovers and gives life-giving breath. And again, they're the waters of the Flood, in which sin, death, and the power of the devil are drowned and destroyed, and at the same time, these waters support and preserve the Holy Ark of Christendom, in which we are kept safe and secure with faithful Noah and his family. Then, emerging from the deluge of the font, we're born again to new life, like infants emerging from the waters of the womb.

Beginning with our Baptism, we become part of that Christian faith which we confess in the Creed. Do you believe in God the Father Almighty? Yes. Do you believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord? Yes. Do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Yes. Well, that's the reality you receive by grace in the waters of Baptism: In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Everything you confess about this Holy Triune God is now your story, your life, and your salvation . . . in Christ Jesus.

Christ is the Key that makes it all possible. He's the One Who conquered sin, death and devil through His own death on the Cross. He's the One Who opened the gates of heaven for the baptized by His resurrection from the dead.

It's the Baptism of Jesus that makes our Baptism a gracious washing of forgiveness, life and salvation, for though He is God Himself, holy and sinless and perfect, He entered the waters of the Jordan in order to take our sin and death as His own, that He might carry those things to the Cross and crucify them in His own body.

Now, when you and I enter the waters of Baptism, soaked with sin and weighed down by our own mortality, we receive in exchange the righteousness of Christ and all the benefits of His Cross and Resurrection. All that He is and all that He's done is freely given to us and credited to our account.

That's how you become a child of God in Christ Jesus; your relationship to the Father is in Him Who is the Son, so that now, that voice from heaven applies to you when it says: "This is my beloved child, with whom I am well–pleased." Doesn't this make praying the Lord's Prayer so much more personal? I mean, we who have been baptized get to go to Almighty God together and say: "Our Father, Who art in heaven. . . ." Amazing!

And not only that, but we also receive the Holy Spirit - the same Spirit that descended on Christ in the form of a dove at His Baptism - for all that He has received is given to us as well. Brothers and sisters, do you understand the immensity of this? As baptized believers you get to walk through your daily life with the very Spirit of God living inside you! We are the bearers of the Spirit of God - Who unites us with Christ in His Church . . . Who strengthens us and keeps us steadfast in the one true faith . . . Who helps us in our weakness and teaches us how to pray. The Holy Triune God has become an intrinsic part of who we are through Holy Baptism.

For that very reason . . . just like the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord are more than mere historical events of the past . . . so also our Baptism is far more than just another piece of ancient history - it has an ongoing - daily - significance. In fact, it defines our entire life as Christians; it dare not be forgotten or treated with casual disregard!

The drowning and dying of our old Adam - our sinful nature - which began with our personal flood at the baptismal font, is a drowning and dying that must continue throughout our life. In this world there is never a point at which we can say that sin is once-and-for-all completely behind us. Our battle against it rages on until we die - until we pass from this sin-laden existence to our true home in heaven.

And don't think you can win the fight with good intentions or firm resolve. Jesus defeated Satan by clinging to the Word of God and allowing Himself to be killed. Beloved, that's the only way we can win - by clinging to the Word and allowing ourselves to be crucified with Christ - which calls for daily contrition and repentance.

In this respect, Baptism anticipates the Fifth Chief Part of the Small Catechism on Confession and Absolution. For Luther, confessing our sins and receiving forgiveness in the stead and by the command of Christ is simply the ongoing activity of Baptism in our life. Believe me, it's not just for those who find themselves in a crisis over some monumental sin; it's the most natural thing in the world for Christians, who recognize their sin and find their hope in Jesus.

Indeed, repentance and forgiveness are yet another way that Baptism brings the reality of the Old Testament into your story as a child of God - your own personal Exodus from the slavery of sin to the freedom of forgiveness. Baptism is our crossing of the Red Sea out of the Egypt of sin; and in the end, it will be our crossing of the Jordan River into the Promised Land of heaven. In the meantime, we live in the desert with our Lord and His People, feasting on the Manna, which only He provides, and trusting His mercy and forgiveness for everything we need in body, soul and spirit.

As we live this way in Christ - walking, so to speak, on the waters of our Baptism - we find that He is living in us. In spite of our sins and our weakness - which never leave us this side of heaven - we begin to live the new life that we received in the washing of water with the Word, so that the Law of God - and the Ten Commandments, in particular - are no longer a curb to restrain us or a club to beat us over the head; now they're a guide and a description of who we are in Christ.

What it all boils down to is this: In Baptism, the Life of Christ becomes our life. The Life He lived and offered for us, the life He continues to live in us and through us, is and remains the definitive reality of all that we are and all that we do as His people. God grant that we may live this reality today and always. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
2:00 pm est

DESIRE OF NATIONS
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Epiphany Sunday
Sermon
1-4-2008

Isaiah 60:1-6

1 Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. 2 For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. 3 The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 "Lift up your eyes all around, and see: They all gather together, they come to you; Your sons shall come from afar, And your daughters shall be nursed at your side. 5 Then you shall see and become radiant, And your heart shall swell with joy; Because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you. 6 The multitude of camels shall cover your land, The dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba shall come; They shall bring gold and incense, And they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord.

Today's sermon hymn may have confused you. It's not an Epiphany hymn, per se; it's an Advent hymn. But it fits so well with today's theme that I couldn't resist using it, especially the last verse: "O Come, Desire of nations." This entire hymn comes from a series of antiphons commonly called the “O” Antiphons, because they all begin with "O."

The Latin term for this particular antiphon is "O Rex Gentium", which literally means: "O King of Nations." But as you listen to the Antiphon prayer from which this verse is taken, you will hear Jesus addressed as both King of Nations and Desire of Nations. The prayer goes like this:

"O King of Nations and the Desired of them, Thou Cornerstone that makest both one, Come and deliver man, whom Thou didst form out of the dust of the earth."

When God led His people out of Egypt by Moses, He called them to be separate from the unbelieving world. He called them to be a holy nation, His very own people. He did this so that the Jews would be a witness to the rest of the world that their God was the one and only true God whom all people should worship.

After many centuries God finally brought His plan of salvation to fulfillment when the entire known world was under the rule of pagan Romans. He didn't send His Son just to be the King of the Jews, but to be the "Rex Gentium," King of the Gentiles, King of the Nations.

This was prophesied in the book of Haggai, chapter 2, where we read: 6 "For thus says the Lord of hosts: 'Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; 7 'and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,' says the Lord of hosts." You see, Jesus Christ is the Desire of all nations, not just the Jews.

This is what the Prophet Isaiah reminded the Jews of in our text: "1 Arise, shine; For your light has come! And the glory of the Lord is risen upon you. 2 For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, And deep darkness the people; But the Lord will arise over you, And His glory will be seen upon you. 3 The Gentiles shall come to your light, And kings to the brightness of your rising. 4 "Lift up your eyes all around, and see: They all gather together, they come to you; Your sons shall come from afar, And your daughters shall be nursed at your side. 5 Then you shall see and become radiant, And your heart shall swell with joy; Because the abundance of the sea shall be turned to you, The wealth of the Gentiles shall come to you. 6 The multitude of camels shall cover your land, The dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; All those from Sheba shall come; They shall bring gold and incense, And they shall proclaim the praises of the Lord."

So, Jesus - the Christ - was born of Jewish stock in order to be the King of all Nations, so that God, as our Antiphon says, would "make both one."

That phrase has 3 meanings, actually: First, and most obviously, God unites Jews and Gentiles through faith in Jesus Christ. In these last days, which began when Jesus was conceived in Mary's womb and will continue until He comes again, God has removed the differences between Jews and Gentiles. He judges people on the basis of their faith in Christ. All nations, all races, all languages, have been brought together across all ethnic and political lines.

That's why the church is called the holy catholic church - that’s "catholic" with a small "c" - which means “universal.” It is everywhere and it is for every one.

That much is obvious. But God done more than unite Jews and Gentiles. In the Person of Jesus Christ, God has united His Divine Nature and our Human Nature. Jesus is both True God and True Man. In order to bring peace and salvation to this sinful world, God became one of us in Jesus Christ - son of God and son of Mary.

But God has also united all of us - in our relationships with one another. He dwells in hearts that desire Christ the King, bringing peace and harmony not just between us and God, but also between us and each other. If Jesus didn't rule in our hearts, and if we didn't live in obedience to His commandments, and if we didn't cherish the Gospel that saves us from sin, death and the devil, then that devil would rule. Instead of peace and harmony, there would be anger and hatred. Indeed, where anger, animosity and hatred rear their ugly head, there you know that the devil has a foothold. Beloved, pray fore those who exhibit these things, because Satan is at their door, seeking to devour them. Their behavior may frighten you, but be more frightened for them, for their souls are in danger, and pray that God will begin to rule in their heart and bring about the peace and harmony that is characteristic of those who belong to Him.

The antiphon concludes with the words: "Come, and deliver man whom thou didst form from the dust of the earth." This takes us back to creation, back to the garden of Eden, when man was created pure and holy. It takes us back to when our first parents were sinless and owned eternal life as a birthright.

Human beings lost their original innocence and holiness in the Fall. But God recreates us through faith in Jesus. The image of God that Adam and Eve lost for themselves and for us, is now restored through faith in Jesus Christ. Now, all nations - and that means you and me and generations yet to come in places far and wide - [all peoples of the earth] can be returned to God to live with Him forever.

Jesus truly is the Desire of all Nations, as the Antiphon declares: “Come, O King of Nations and Unite us all in Yourself!" God make it so, in the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:57 pm est

HIS NAME SAYS IT ALL
Rev. Steven S. Billings
New Year's Eve
Sermon
12-31-2008

St. Luke 2:21

And when eight days were completed before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Tonight we stand on the brink of another year - a new year of grace, the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Nine. As members of the body of Christ, our new year begins just like our lives as Christians began, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Our lives in Christ began as He placed His Name on us at the font, where He sealed us in the new covenant of Holy Baptism. The old covenant is no longer binding on us but was fulfilled in the Person of Christ. Circumcision is no longer binding, for Jesus, who has no need for the Law, willingly placed Himself under it for our sake, bearing its penalty through the second shedding of His holy, precious blood. The first shedding came on the eighth day in the temple of His infant body.

The Lord at one time dwelt among His people in the Ark of the Covenant and later in the physical building of the Temple in Jerusalem. Then, for nine months, His "temple" was the womb of the Virgin Mary. This prenatal temple held the very presence of God in the infant Savior, named not by Mary, His mother, nor by Joseph, His foster-father, but by His heavenly Father, as the angel said: “You shall call His Name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21b).

You know, words mean things. In biblical times, names had meanings. The angel of the Lord gave Mary and Joseph the name for the Child, as well as the reason He was to receive it. This Child would save His people from their sins.

The Name JESUS means “Yahweh saves,” as does its Hebrew equivalent "Joshua." As the Lord through Joshua saved His people and took them to the Promised Land out of the hands of their oppressors, so also this Child would grow to save His people, bringing them to heaven by way of the cross, where His Name was displayed for the entire world to see.

The world has seen the Name of Jesus and wandered as though it were blind. It has heard the Name of Jesus and turned a deaf ear. Scripture says that at the Name of Jesus every knee shall bow, but the world acts like it's crippled.

The Lord commands that His Name not be misused, not taken in vain, for it is the very Name of God. Yet, all too often, we toss His Name around like darts in a pub, calling down curses on things that don't need cursed, and thereby condemning ourselves. We swear when we're not under oath, calling God as our Witness, instead of simply letting our “Yes” be “Yes” and our “No” be “No,” and such speech, Jesus says, comes only from the evil one.

In some circles we're even afraid to speak the Name of Jesus. In this evil, sinful world, God is practically unconstitutional. Oh, you can celebrate Kwanzaa and Ramadan, but Christmas is offensive - precisely because it's the celebration of the birth of the Lord who saves people from their sins, and nobody wants to be reminded that they have sins to be forgiven!

Isn't it funny? We invoke His name when we shouldn't and don't speak it when we should. Either way, we break the Second Commandment. We don't show our Lord the respect that's due Him because we fear others more than we fear and love Him as He commanded us to do. We don't honor the Christ child, whose circumcision and naming we observed tonight, and inadvertently cut ourselves off from Him. We place ourselves outside the covenant He's established for us. Oh, we may have been baptized, but we don't always act like it. Remember: Not everyone who says to Jesus, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven. He tells those who've lived apart from His Name that He doesn't know them - nor will He acknowledge them before His Father.

“But as many as received Him,” John tells us, “to them He gave the right to become the children of God, to those who believe in His Name” (Jn. 1:12). “Nor is there salvation in any other,” Peter reminds us, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

Anyone who believes in His Name has exactly what His Name means: Salvation from God. Anyone who believes in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is marked with His Name from that time on, and that name brings with it salvation, eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, and Jesus Himself, for where His Name is, there He is. Gathered in the Name of Jesus, as we are tonight, He Himself is present, coming to us through His Word.

My friends, the Lord is present here tonight and wants to bless you with the Name given to Him on the eighth day, the first day of His willing submission to the Law, which saw its fulfillment on the eighth day of Holy Week, the day of His resurrection, the first day of the new creation, the day our new life - our eternal life! - in Him began.

On the eighth day of His earthly life Jesus submitted Himself to the Law and shed His blood under the old covenant and would shed His blood again on the cross, establishing the new covenant, which purifies us from all sin. He bestows on us the benefits of His cross and empty grave at the font, placing on us the same Name that was placed on Him at His circumcision, so that we will not be cut off from Him. As the Psalmist writes: “Those who know Your Name will put their trust in You; for You, Lord, have not forsaken those who seek You” (Ps. 9:10), “His Name shall endure forever. His Name shall continue as long as the sun. And men shall be blessed in Him; all nations will call Him blesséd. Blesséd be the Lord God of Israel, who only does wondrous things! And blesséd be His glorious Name forever! And let the whole earth be filled with His glory. Amen and Amen.” (Ps. 72:19)

Yes, belovéd, with the holy Name of Jesus upon us, we are indeed blessed! We're also moved by the Holy Spirit to confess boldly the Name of Jesus, whether it's politically correct to do so or not, for the Lord is greater than our politics or our government. After all, He has overcome sin, death, and the power of the devil, and He can certainly overcome our politicians as well. So far, despite them, we still get to tell the good news of Jesus and the salvation found in Him alone. We again join the Psalmist who writes: “I will praise You with my whole heart; before the gods I will sing praises to You. I will worship toward Your holy temple, and praise Your Name for Your lovingkindness and Your truth, for You have magnified Your word above all Your Name” (Ps. 138:1-2), and we remember the hymn refrain: “Lift high the cross, the love of Christ proclaim; Till all the world adore His sacred Name” (LSB 837:refrain). God grant it in Jesus’ Name and for His sake into the new year and always. Amen
1:53 pm est

HOW FAR HAVE WE COME?
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Holy Innocents
Sermon
12-28-2008

St. Matthew 2:13-18

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, "Arise and take the Child and His mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him." 14 And he arose and took the Child and His mother by night, and departed for Egypt; 15 and was there until the death of Herod, that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, "OUT OF EGYPT DID I CALL MY SON." 16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the magi. 17 Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, 18 "A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE."

Before Christmas we talked about the mysteries of God as seen in Jesus' incarnation. Today the Church remembers the slaughter of Bethlehem's baby boys (Matthew 2:16), and, without looking for one, we've found another mystery. Just about anybody who's read the Gospel of Matthew, has wanted to know: Why? Why did God record this part of the story in the Bible? Why did He move Matthew to include such a discordant note in the beautiful melody of Jesus' birth? Things had been so wonderful, so peaceful.

Remember the joy of Elizabeth and Zacharias, as their sadness was brought to an end by the birth of John the Baptist? (Luke 1:57-60) That was SOOOO nice! And then there was Mary (Luke 1:42). What a magnificent gesture of faith! And what about Joseph, who trusted the word of the angel concerning his expectant bride (Matthew 1:20). We marveled as the heavenly Father, using a decree of Caesar Augustus, brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6). We rejoiced with the shepherds as they heard the angels' tell of "Good tidings of great joy which had come to them and to us (Luke 2:10)." Everything had been so perfect, so beautiful.

Then, things got even better. Just a few days ago, we knelt at the side of the manger and celebrated, with all Christendom, the birth of Christ. What a wonderful moment! - seeing this new life that entered the world in the lowliest of circumstances.

Our homes are still decorated. The tree is still trimmed, the presents all nicely received and appreciated, and oh, have we feasted! Now we can sit back and enjoy the afterglow, right? Well, not exactly.

For here comes this story about King Herod - wicked, conniving, sneaky, jealous, murderous, power-crazed Herod. He represents everything evil that we try to forget during the season of Christmas. But the bloody swords of his soldiers as they silence the smiles and squirming of Bethlehem's baby boys are impossible to ignore. Why does God ruin our warm, cuddly feelings? Why does He allow this time of year - when we're trying to hang on to the good feelings we've enjoyed - to be defaced and disfigured by this mad monster's mania? It's just not - very nice. It’s an awful mystery.

So, why? Why this murder in the nativity story? God certainly didn't want it there. Just as He has opposed every inhuman act ever committed, so He loathed the blood-thirsty behavior of this evil king (Matthew 5:48).

But let's be careful not to say that this act was "inhuman." It wasn't, really. Herod is actually quite human. That's part of the problem.

Take a walk with one of our first ancestors: Cain. Ask him what lies beneath that freshly turned mound of earth (Genesis 4:8-10). Stand with Moses and watch as your people suffer under slavery in Egypt (Exodus 2:11-14). Search the Scriptures and you'll see humankind stripped of its pretend sophistication and culture. Rapists, murderers, adulterers, and blasphemers march through its pages. Dig through the Word of God and you will see that when a pastor says we are "dead in our sins," it's not a joke! (Isaiah 59:10) When this pulpit proclaims that humanity is "spiritually blind, dead and an enemy of God," you can believe that it is no exaggeration (James 4:4). Herod stands out in our minds not because his deeds are any worse than the others, but because his horror is silhouetted against the light of our Savior's birth.

Make no mistake about it. God hated Herod's act of infanticide. But, as much as God hated it, He was unwilling to sweep it under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. The story of Herod forces us to change the way we look at our new-born Savior. Herod reminds us that the little hands we see in the manger are destined to be pierced with nails. The young forehead is, not so many years later, to be crowned with thorns. Herod's treachery reminds us that Jesus has come, not as a celebration of life and love and giving, but to save souls from their sins. It's precisely for people like Herod - and us - that Jesus was born (Romans 5:8).

My friends, God tells us through Herod that He wants us to remember that His Son came to this planet to save souls, not to bring a jolt to lagging economies (John 12:46). God doesn't want His Son's story to become one of many holiday "fairy tales" which have become part of our culture. Jesus is not Frosty, Rudolph or the Grinch. Jesus, the Son of God, has come to save the world from the Herods of humanity - indeed, He has come to save us from ourselves (Luke 19:10).

Having said that, I know some people will disagree. They will vehemently argue that humanity's come a long way since Herod sent his soldiers on a search and slay mission against the Messiah. People today proudly proclaim that "Such a barbaric act would not, could not, happen now." They point to the fact that our world has been freed from slavery, and almost everybody is intolerant of prejudice. They maintain that the world is moving toward equality, a global brotherhood, motivated by far-seeing leaders who are guiding us toward self-actualization. Really?

Oh, I guess in some ways they're right. In some respects, we are equal - equally sinful (Romans 3:23). We're all equal when it comes to the punishment we deserve on account of our sins (Romans 6:23). And we're all equal in that Jesus came to rescue us from our sins. But, as far as I can tell, that's where the equality stops. To those who think we've outgrown our need for a Savior - or that we have some kind of new "messiah" in our midst - all we have to do is look around. "We haven't come that far, baby."

Just look at the facts. We're shocked to read how Herod killed these Bethlehem babies just to preserve his throne. Shall I tell you that the best guestimators believe about 25 children may have been put to death by the King Herod? Now, that's terrible; no question about it. But how does that compare to the million or so unborn babies that were put to death in the United States last year. These children died, not because of the decision of a crazy man, but by the "choice" of their own parents. And they weren't protecting a throne; they were saving a "lifestyle." Now, you tell me: Have we come a long way? Or do we need that "good news of great joy" more today than they did 2,000 years ago?

How far have we come? It's estimated that there are well over a million Christians buried in the catacombs of Rome. Victims of persecution, they are an underground necropolis of those who've joined their Savior. Can we say that there is no longer such persecution? Have we come a long way?

Recognizing that the last 100 years produced more martyrs than any other century of history, we have to say "no." In Russia, Boris Yeltzin's Commission on Victims of Political Repression admitted that Communists tortured and killed 200,000 pastors - that's just the pastors! - between 1917 and 1980. The report states that: "Clergymen were crucified on churches' holy gates, shot, strangled, and doused in water in winter until they froze to death." Communists persecuted more than 500,000 Christians and destroyed over 40,000 churches.

How far have we come? In 1997, a young Christian man from India was shot in the head by some people who resented his witness to Christ. In 1998, 5,000 Christian families in Pakistan had their houses burned because of their faith. Neighbors refused to give them food, clothing or water. Mobs threatened to kill them until they were rescued by government troops. In 1999, in Egypt, a church had a young people's rally. Young Christian men and women came from all over to learn about Jesus. Radical Islamists broke into the church and opened fire with submachine guns. Eleven of those young people were martyred for their faith, others were wounded. In Angola, in 2000, gunmen broke into a Christian school and demanded the students turn traitor on each other. When the children refused, one of the students was shot in front of his classmates. Rather than betraying their Savior and each other, the students broke and ran. Hand grenades were thrown. Five students and one instructor were killed, 19 were injured. In 2001, in Burundi, 34 students studying to be pastors and seven staff people were murdered for their faith. Do I need to go on? How far have we come? Is the age of persecution over? I think we're just gettin' started! Brothers and sisters, we need the promise of Christ more than ever!

Now, someone might say, "Pastor, these stories come from places where there's still prejudice. America is different." Maybe. I suppose we can write-off the Oklahoma City bombing as the act of a few social misfits; the events of 9-11 as terrorism from the outside; the bloodbath in Waco as people who were brainwashed by a lunatic. We could even explain away the drugs, the gangs, and the breakdown of the family with one excuse or another.

The Reader's Digest published an article not long ago about people who can't control themselves on the freeway. A couple of Christmas' ago, a stockboy was hospitalized after he was trampled by a crowd searching for "Tickle Me Elmo" dolls. A pastor in California was recently imprisoned for speaking against homosexuality. They said he violated the state's "hate crime" law. We may think we're safe here in middle American, but how soon before they start comin' after us?

How far have we come? Have we come far enough to recognize how desperately we need the Mystery of the Gospel that is found in Jesus Christ, how we need "this thing which has come to pass," "to go and see that which the Lord has told us about" - not just at Christmas, but in the New Year as well? Beloved, we need to share together in the promise of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Mystery that can unite us as a congregation of believers, repair broken families, and help us look past our differences and tackle the crosses of 2009 as fellow members of the Body of Christ.

Now, I’m no prophet. I don't know what tomorrow will hold. But I do know that the descendants of Herod are alive and well (1 John 5:19). Sometimes they march openly, with cruelty and hatred as their weapons. Other times, they veil their activities by moving stealthily through the shadows of our cities and countryside (1 Peter 5:8). They won't always be featured on CNN, but they're there. Herod's malevolence, his greed, his maliciousness, lives on.

It was Christmas Day. The year was 1870. The Franco-Prussian war was in full-swing, and the Germans had besieged the city of Paris. As the birth of Jesus approached, the only sounds that were heard were the whine of rifle bullets, the blast of artillery and the wails of the wounded. Work on the trenches had been stopped, not because there was no need for protection, nor because the officers wished to celebrate Christ's coming. Work had ceased because the temperature was 12-below-zero and the ground was frozen to a depth of 20 inches.
Although both sides were confident God was on their side, and that the victory would soon be theirs; at that moment, the Germans were winning. While the French soldiers were hungry and cold, in the German camps, there were Christmas trees, festival dinners and spirits being served all around. Then, as darkness approached, the artillery stopped and the rifle fire slowed down.

It was at that moment, in an uncustomary stillness, that French and German soldiers put down their rifles and remembered the night, many years ago, when the Savior was born.

Suddenly a French soldier climbed out of his trench and in a beautiful voice began to sing, "O Holy Night." The fingers of the German snipers held steady on their triggers. They listened to the words: "Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth." And then, having finished, the French soldier humbly stood, trembling from the emotion of this song, sung on a battlefield.

Then, the voice of an enemy was heard. A German soldier left his trench as well. He sang Luther's Christmas hymn: "From Heaven Above to Earth I Come." And for a little while the horrors of Herod were stilled; the swords of his soldiers were sheathed. The Mystery of the Gospel had, once again, brought men together in a sharing of the promise of Christ. The Mystery of the Gospel had shown itself victorious over the hatred of the world's Herods.

Oh, my friends, it can do the same for you and for all the world. In the trenches of the year to come, trust in the forgiveness, the peace, the joy of Jesus. Whatever our battlefield may be, may we sing with Luther:

"Glory to God in highest heaven, Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth A glad new year to all the earth."

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:50 pm est

DEUS EX MACHINA
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Christmas Day
Sermon
12-25-2008

St. John 1:1-14

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it. 6 There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came for a witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. 9 There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. 10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.

Deus ex machina: It's a Latin phrase that refers to an ancient Greek and Roman theatrical device. When the characters of a play found themselves in an impossibly difficult situation, a god would be lowered onto the stage from machinery overhead to save the day.

Deus ex machina, literally means: "god out of the machinery." The problem is, when the playwright used this device, the solution often seemed artificially contrived or laughably absurd. The cinematic version of this is when they have one of the characters simply wake up and you find out that all the terrible circumstances you've been watching were nothing but a bad dream. Or when they cut to commercial and when the show resumes all the problems have been solved. It's bad writing - and usually done because the writers couldn't figure out how to straighten out the mess they created. A reasonable Greek or Roman, paying any attention at all to the actual storyline of the play, would've been disappointed with the intervention of Deus ex machina, just like some of us were who wished that J.R. had really been shot!

Deus ex machina: "The True Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world" (John 1:9). "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us" (John 1:14).

Here on the stage of world history, we, the characters of the human race, found ourselves in an impossible situation. We had victimized ourselves with our own foolish desires, and there was no solution to be found. Even those who worked the hardest to live and love as they had been commanded found that they were inwardly unable to do so. Our greatest heroes, our most capable warriors, could not defeat the enemy that had cornered us with his deadly deceptions and who threatened our eternal destruction. Not even the most humbly offered sacrifices were enough to pay the price of our guilt, "for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away our sins" (Hebrews 10:4).

Deus ex machina: God enters from the machinery, so to speak; He intervenes in our impossible situation and saves the day. "The True Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world" (John 1:9). He came into the world at just the right time. "When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive the full rights of sons" (Galatians 4:4-5). "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us" (John 1:14). God became a human being. "Since the children have flesh and blood, He too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil" (Hebrews 2:14).

Deus ex machina: When the device is used in theater, the solution seems contrived and absurd. People are disappointed, which leads to criticism and scorn.

"He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him. He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him" (John 1:11). You know, you could translated those words like this: He went home, and His own people rejected Him. It's as if the Lord of Creation rang the doorbell of the world, and no one answered.

Maybe the solution seemed too absurd. Maybe God's entrance onto the stage of the world wasn't flashy enough, powerful enough, commanding enough. Maybe the characters on stage simply refused to believe they needed deliverance. But you know what? The real absurdity is that so few actually recognized, comprehended and grasped God's entry for them. The truly appalling aspect of this entire play is not the Deus ex machina, the God who intervened from above, but the scorn and ridicule He received when He got here.

And He knew it would happen. But He came anyway. "The True Light that gives light to every man was coming into the world" (John 1:9). "The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us" (John 1:14). And "to all who received Him, to those who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God" (John 1:12-13). God enters through birth so that we would receive birth. God enters into death, so that we would be delivered from death. God comes down from above, so that we would be raised up, "seated with Him in the heavenly realms" (Ephesians 2:6).

Deus ex machina: Luther writes: "We poor mortals, who are condemned and miserable sinners through our first birth from Adam, are here singled out for such great honor and nobility that the eternal and almighty God is now our Father and we are His children. Christ is our brother and we are His fellow heirs" (Luther, AE 22, 88). God hasn't come to save us just to leave us again; He has built His dwelling place among us, made us His own family, to live with us forever.

Today is Christmas Day. Today marks God's entry into our world. Today we rejoice in the Deus ex machina - the God who came down to save us, the God that dwells among us and lives with us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:47 pm est

TIDINGS OF JOY
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Christmas Eve
Sermon
12-24-2008

St. Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 "And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins." 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us." 24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

"I bring you Good Tidings of a great joy, which shall be for all people! For unto you this day is born a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord!" To this angelic message, we as Christians, tonight on Christmas Eve, and tomorrow on Christmas Day, are supposed to respond by singing, "Joy to the World, the Lord is Come!"

So . . . how's your "joy" this evening? Are you happy beyond all hope and expectation? Are your cheeks sporting a bold smile? Are you ready to burst into tears for happiness? The angels speak of great joy, because of good tidings. We sing "Joy to the World." Why? Where does such joy come from? Does it come from being with your friends and neighbors? Does it come from seeing little ones dressed as shepherds and angels?

What is it about the Christmas season that's supposed to bring this joy? Is it the extra "family" time? Is it buying Christmas gifts in crowded stores? Is it taking twenty minutes to wrap gifts that'll be torn open in twenty seconds? Is it watching the children open packages and wondering what sort of reaction you're going to get? Is it preparing the dinner, or watching football, or playing "Sheep's Head" ? (Nobody outside of Wisconsin has ever heard of that game, by the way. And for good reason! I've lived here almost a year and I still can't figure it out!) But do any of these things - the shopping, the wrapping, the cooking, the visiting - do any of them have you singing joyful Christmas songs this year? And I'm not talking about singing them in church. Do you find yourself humming them in the shower? Are you whistling them merrily as you're shoveling your walk for the hundredth time?

Okay, so these things don't bring you great joy, which shall be for all people. Hmm . . . I wonder what does. Could it be that our Christmas joy doesn't come simply from being with family and friends? Could it be that great food and wonderful gifts just won't do it? I mean, what about those who won't be with loved ones this Christmas? You know, it wasn't that long ago that I found myself sitting alone on Christmas day. Many families have suffered from divorce, from rifts in the family, and from any number of other sins that have broken them apart. What about those who don't get a lot of toys, food, or the comforts many of us take for granted?

Oh, beloved, I hope and pray that, if you haven't figured it out by now, before this night is through, you'll come to understand that the source of Christmas joy is not found in what we do to celebrate the season. The source of our joy was first revealed to Joseph, a hard working carpenter engaged to a girl who suddenly became pregnant and was now the talk of Nazareth. When he came from heaven, the angel gave Joseph the first hint when he said:

"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife,
for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.
And she will bring forth a Son,
and you shall call His name JESUS,
for He will save His people from their sins."

The angels on Christmas Eve proclaimed that a Savior had been born - not a Savior from credit card debt. Not a Savior from global warming. Not a Savior from high taxes or unemployment. Not a Savior from bankruptcy or stress. This was not another government bail-out program. Rather, as the angel said to Joseph: "He will save His people from their sins."

Now . . . does this cause you joy? Are these really glad tidings of great joy - that in the Baby of the manger the sins of the entire human race are washed away? When you hear from your pastor throughout the year, "I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit," does the joy of Christmas sweep over you? Really? Do tears of happiness well-up in your eyes? Does an expression joy explode across your face?

If not, maybe you haven't come to terms with the nature of your relationship with God. Do you understand the seriousness of your sins and the consequences that Jesus has saved you from? Do you understand the terror and darkness and hell that death brings apart from Christ? Maybe you're one who loves an old-fashioned Christmas but doesn't really care for those old-fashioned commandments. Have you forgotten what the Bible says: "The soul that sins shall die!" ?

Oh believe me, Joseph, a descendant of King David and a faithful Jew, vividly felt shame and disgrace over his sins. Scripture says he was a just man, a righteous man, a man who looked forward to the coming of his Messiah. Mary, too, knew her desperate need for a Savior from sin and death, for when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, she rejoiced in the promise of the angel concerning the Baby in her womb, declaring to the mother of John the Baptist: "My soul magnifies the Lord; and I rejoice in God, my Savior!"

What do you think motivated the shepherds that night? Do you think after the angels went away, they just looked at each other and said, "Hey! Let's go into Bethlehem and see the cool Christmas lights!" No, as humble Jews, looking for the eternal Kingdom of God, with great joy and hope they left their flocks and raced to Jerusalem to see how the Lord was going to save them from their sins. And when they arrived and saw there an ordinary-looking Baby, and an ordinary father and mother, can you see the smile coming to their faces? Can you see tears welling-up in their eyes? Why? Because they saw a cute little child in the feed-trough? Because the whole scenario was so absurd? Come on - the King of Heaven comes to earth and is born in a barn? It sounds like the punch-line to a joke! Doesn't it?

Oh, there were tears alright. And huge smiles spread across their faces. But it was because God had sent them a Savior from their sins! God, in His mercy, despite our evil, which we think about and do all the time, had sent His Son to destroy sin's power which brings death and sorrow into the world.

What else would lead shepherds to leave their helpless flocks in the open fields, vulnerable to predators and thieves? What else would cause them to leave their work and possibly lose their livelihood? I mean, would you leave your job, just to get a look at the Christ Child? Would the joy of sins forgiven be so great for you, that you'd risk house, home, food and clothing, just to see God keep His ancient promise?

Would you, like the wise men, leave you own country, just because you heard the message of a Savior coming to the Jews? Would you cross a foreign border into a hostile empire and put your life into the hands of a petty tyrant king, just to get a glimpse of a Little Child?

My friends, all that Child promised them, all He promises you tonight, is that He forgives your sins. The Magi didn't know if they'd get home safely, yet they risked their wealth and possibly even their lives just to hear the message: "There is born unto you this day, in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord." And you will know Him by the Name JESUS, "for He will save His people from their sins."

That's why, friends, that of all the hymns I could have chosen on this Holy Night, I've chosen "What Child Is This?" as our Canticle hymn. As you look for the joy of Christmas, remember the words of this beautiful hymn, which we'll sing in just a few minutes:

Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear; for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear, shall pierce Him through,
The Cross be borne, for me, for you;

Joy, joy for Christ is born,
The Babe, the Son of Mary!

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:44 pm est

JOHN SCHLITT CONCERT POSTER

John Schlitt

This is the poster I designed for our upcoming concert featuring John Schlitt of Petra.

1:41 pm est

WHEN?
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Sunday School Christmas Program
Pastor's Message
12-21-2008

When?

The program today has been very interesting, hasn't it. It's covered just about everything that a good detective needs to know in solving a mystery. When I was in school, we used to talk about this in terms of the five "w's." But if you were keeping track, you may have noticed that so far we've only had four: Who, what, where and why. We're missing a "w."

We've talked about Who God sent to save the world - Jesus, His own Son. We've heard about What Jesus came to do to save us - to die for our sins and rise again. We've sung about the stable Where Jesus was born. We've even discussed Why He would do all this - it's because He loves us, right?

But what's the missing "w" ? Well, it's "when." Okay, maybe you're thinking: "Pastor, we know when Jesus came - it was at Christmas!" And, well, to a point, that's true. That's when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But it may not be the actual date that He was born.
You see, there was another big festival that was very popular a long time ago called the Winter Solstice. The Romans used to worship a mythological god they called Saturn, and they held a week-long festival that started on the 17th of December and incorporated the shortest day of the year, known as the Winter Solstice, which occurs between the 20th and 23rd of December. In fact, this year, the Winter Solstice occurs - today! - December 21st.

It's believed by historians that the celebrations around this time of year date back many thousands of years, because people back then didn't understand the rotation of the earth and that at this time of year our part of the world is the farthest it can get from the sun. So - you may have noticed - the days get shorter and shorter until right before Christmas - then they begin to get longer again until we get to the longest day of the year, called the Summer Solstice.

Well, can you imagine seeing the days get shorter and shorter, not knowing if they will ever get longer again? People used to think that pretty soon they just wouldn't have any daytime anymore. And how can you grow food if there's no sunshine? So that's why they would pray to Saturn, because they believed he was the god of the harvest. Of course, we know that Saturn was really a made-up god, and couldn't do anything for anybody. But that's what they believed, and the Church in its early days had a hard time getting people to stop celebrating and praying to this false god.

It was decided that the best way to get people to honor the real Savior instead of a pretend one was to celebrate Jesus' birth in place of the Winter Solstice. So, in the year 354 ad the Church set the date for the Celebration of the Birth of Christ on December 25th.

Of course, you may know that not all Christians celebrate Christmas on December 25th. Orthodox Christians - those from Greece and Russia, and so on - celebrate Jesus' birth on January 6th - the date we celebrate Epiphany, which is when the Wise Men arrived from the East with their gifts for Baby Jesus.

So . . . when was Jesus actually born? There's been a lot of speculation over the years. Some have said it was in March, others have said in May, but there's some very interesting data recovered by a Christian archeologist, that suggests that Jesus was actually born in October.

We know from the Bible that Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to Jerusalem for His purification, according to Jewish custom. There they registered His birth with the Priest and gave the traditional sacrifice - a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, as it says in Luke 2:24. That was the day that Simeon and Anna gave their blessings and we even use the Song of Simeon as part of our liturgy.

Well, as we say, the more things change, the more they stay the same. When a baby is baptized in our day, a record is kept not only of their baptism, but also of their birth. So when Jesus was brought to the Temple, His birth date was recorded.

It was also the custom in that day to send a copy of this registration to the Rabbi in charge of the synagogue of the town in which the child was born. That Rabbi would then record the date in his diary, which became the official record of births for that region.

Years ago, I had to get a copy of my birth certificate. I had to write to the County Clerk's office where I was born to get an official copy. This would have been much the same. So, to get the official record of the date of Jesus' birth, you would have to find the diary of the Rabbi of Bethlehem the year that Jesus was born. That diary has been found!

But there's a complication. Our modern calendar which splits time between bc and ad wasn't even invented until 525 ad. At that time, Pope John the First asked a monk named Dionysius to prepare a standardized calendar for the western Church. Unfortunately, poor Dionysius missed the real bc/ad division by four years!

So . . . with all that considered, when was Jesus born? According to the diary of the Rabbi of Bethlehem, and accounting for our modern calendar, and so forth, Jesus was born - are you ready for this? - on October 26th, 4 bc, at 2:50 A.M.

But you know what? It really doesn't matter. What matters is that He was born, lived among us as one of us, and carried our sins to the cross so that we could live forever with Him in heaven.

Whether we celebrate His birth on December 25th or January 6th or some other day, let's always remember those other four "w's," ok? Who came to save us? Jesus, God's own Son. What did He come to do? To die for us and rise again. Where was He born? In Bethlehem in Judea. Why did He do this? Because He loves us.

Let's pray. Heavenly Father, we thank You for loving us enough to send Your Son to save us from our sins. Help us always throughout our lives to remember the real reason for this wonderful holiday. In Jesus' name. Amen
1:36 pm est

JUST LIKE THOMAS
Rev. Steven S. Billings
St. Thomas
Sermon
12-21-2008

St. John 20:24-29

24 Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 The other disciples therefore said to him, "We have seen the Lord." So he said to them, "Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe." 26 And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, "Peace to you!" 27 Then He said to Thomas, "Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing." 28 And Thomas answered and said to Him, "My Lord and my God!" 29 Jesus said to him, "Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Thomas is someone we remember because he doubted the resurrection of the Lord. He was one of the 12 Apostles, but was not present when Jesus appeared to the others. Jesus appeared to them again 8 days later. This time Thomas was there. He saw Jesus' wounds and confessed: "My Lord and my God!" He recognized that this was the same Lord who suffered and died on the cross. Here He was, risen in the flesh, and soon would ascend into heaven to prepare a place for all who believe in Him.

This was just as God the Father had planned before the foundation of the world. Jesus died and rose again. Thomas saw Him with his own two eyes - touched Him with his own two hands - and believed. But Jesus said him, "because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

Brothers and sisters in Christ, I submit to you that we are more like Thomas the first time Jesus appeared than we are the second time. Like Thomas, so often we're not even there. And when we do show up we need some kind of evidence to believe.

But what we really need is something we can't get for ourselves. We need to be raised from the dead. But we can't raise ourselves out of the death our sins. Contrary to the contemporary "seeker" mentality, we can't come to Jesus and believe in Him unless He raises us from the dead and makes us alive through the gift of faith. If it was hard for Thomas, do you have any idea how much harder it is for us to believe in Him? We have too much to worry about and not enough time to prepare for the coming of our Lord. He indeed will return like a thief in the night and He has warned us through His Word to be ready. But we're not ready. We're not ready to recognize the baby in the manger as the God and Lord who will die on the cross to save us from our sins.

The reality is, we're just like Thomas; we're not ready. But this doesn't keep God from being prepared to receive us into His glory. It doesn't keep His only Son from being prepared to suffer and die so that we may have life in His name.

Jesus told His disciples that He would be crucified. He told them that He would rise again on the third day. But so often Jesus' words fall on deaf ears. It's not until after His resurrection, after the disciples see Him in the flesh and once again join with Him at the table, that they're able to figure out who He really is. This is the Lord God. This is God Himself whose way John the Baptist prepared through the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins.

This same Lord, before He ate the Last Supper with His disciples, brought words of peace to Thomas and the rest, saying, "Let not your hearts be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also. And where I go you know, and the way you know." Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (Jn. 14).

Beloved, Thomas finally saw and believed. He put his hands into the wounds. He felt the scars and fell on his knees in worship. What will it take for you?

Blessed are you who are no longer dead in your sins but have received God's forgiveness in Christ through the hearing of His Word. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph. 1). In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:33 pm est

IN HIS PEACE
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Advent Mid-Week 3
Sermon
12-17-2008

St. Luke 2:8-20

8 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 "And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: 14 "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" 15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

You may have noticed that the regular prayers of the Church are called Collects. And you may have wondered from time to time why they're called that. A Collect is a prayer that collects our thoughts as a summary of the theme for the day, whether it's a Sunday of the church year or some other festival. A Collect is also a short liturgical prayer that summarizes the petitions and intercessions of the congregation.

One of my favorite Collects is the Collect for Peace. I like it because of the things we pray for, namely, that God would give the peace that only He can give and that He would defend us from our enemies so we may live in peace and quietness.

We begin the Collect by addressing our Lord, saying, "O God." We then offer the reason we're praying to Him. He is, after all, the One "from whom come all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works." We then make our request: "give to us, Your servants, that peace which the world cannot give." Then we voice what the benefit would be to us should He grant our request: "that our hearts may be set to obey Your commandments and also that we, being defended from the fear of our enemies, may live in peace and quietness." Finally, we close the Collect: "through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Quite frankly, I think this is a wonderful prayer to end each day, that God would bless us through the night with His heavenly peace.

The shepherds in our text this morning were hardly at peace. They may have been peacefully keeping watch over their flocks by night, but they were awestruck by the presence of the angel of the Lord, and the glory of the Lord that shone around them. They were terrified by what they saw; they were shaking in their sandals. It'll be an awesome thing for us to be in the presence of the glory of the Lord on the Last Day, but those shepherds weren't prepared for that, and, as the Old King James puts it: They were sore afraid!

But the angel comforted them with the announcement that the Savior of all mankind had been born: Christ the Lord. The heavenly messenger told the shepherds where the Christ-child would be found. Then many angels, too many to count, a multitude of the heavenly host, appeared and engaged in the liturgy of heaven. They responded to the Gospel announcement by singing the great canticle, the Gloria in Excelsis: "Glory be to God on high!" "Glory to God in the highest!"

That must've been quite an assembly gathered there for worship: the small group of shepherds and the vast choir of angels singing, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" (v. 14). Normally, the choir is made up of selected members of the congregation, with the vast majority of folks seated in the pews. Here the numbers were reversed. But this was no ordinary worship, was it. No, this was the first Christmas, the very first "Christ-Mass."

How did the shepherds respond? They went to Bethlehem. Luke says, "When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us'" (v. 15). Moved by the Spirit through the Word of God, they went to worship their Savior. It was an unusual trip to a most unusual temple. It was not richly decorated, nor was it much to look at. It was a barn, after all. Nor did it have the smell of incense swirling around - which might have been helpful, considering the aroma normally associated with a barn!

The shepherds approached this unusual altar, which was really a feeding trough. They came not to offer a sacrifice but to worship the One who came to be their Sacrifice. The Great High Priest was lying there wearing diapers. Here was the Prince of Peace on a bed of straw.

This was for the shepherds a great sacramental act, for they were fed both from the word of the angels and again as they worshiped the Bread of Life. It was as if they continued the heavenly liturgy that began with the Gloria: "We praise Thee, we bless Thee, we worship Thee, we glorify Thee, we give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory." They left this impromptu house of worship and "returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them" (v. 20).

Mary pondered these things in her heart, and was at peace with the God who made her the most blesséd of all women. The shepherds, too, departed in peace, for their eyes had seen God's salvation, which He had prepared before the face of all people. They were their way in peace and joy, serving as a model for us.

Shepherds had but one task in life: to tend their sheep. Now, having heard the message of the angel and the song of the heavenly host, there was only one thing for these shepherds to do: come to Bethlehem and see what the Lord had revealed to them. What's amazing is that we see in them no panic; no stress. They acted as the Holy Spirit moved them, and they gladly worshiped the Lord.

Dear friends, what about us? How do we compare to the shepherds? Are we a people at peace? Do we find ourselves, especially now, a week away from Christmas, peaceful? Maybe you still have a lot of shopping to do. If not shopping, then maybe there's lots of cards and letters to write. If those are done, then there's all the Christmas programs and pageants to attend. And then there's the dinners and the travel plans to make. Oh, and maybe we can squeeze in some time to come to church and worship the Lord for a few minutes.

Just look at all the things we get caught up in. We spoke a few weeks ago about Martha, who fretted over making dinner preparations while her sister sat at the Lord’s feet, learning from Him. Martha was troubled by many things; like us, she was not at peace. She forgot the one thing needful: to hear the Word of the Lord and receive Him. I wonder: Do we forget that, too? Do we get so busy we forget about the Christ-child - to hear the Word of the Lord and receive Him who comes to us in flesh and blood? We buy lots of presents, but we forget the greatest Gift of all, and because of that we are not at peace. Brothers and sisters, without Christ, whatever peace we think we have is false.

But even while we live in a world that does not know peace, you and I are living in the arms of the only One who truly gives it. As Jesus said to His disciples: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid" (Jn. 14:27).

Beloved, do not be afraid! The message from the angels to the shepherds is the Lord's own word of comfort to us as well. This is why we pray for that peace which the world cannot give, that peace which He has promised us in His Word. "Peace be with you," He told the disciples on the road to Emmaus and to those hiding in Jerusalem after His resurrection. You know, the world can't take this peace from us because it didn't give it to us; the world knows only strife and discord. And get sucked into that and stress out during these hectic days, we still have the one thing needful: the Word of God, who came in the flesh, and who comes to us in His Means of Grace. We who are called by God and, by His Spirit, receive the Gospel with joy, also receive His peace, as the angels sang, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"

Moved by the Spirit of God, we respond like the shepherds, continually praying for His peace: "O Christ, Thou Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, grant us Thy peace" ; "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word" ; "Give to us, Your servants, that peace which the world cannot give." And how blessed we are to hear that peace offered at the close of every service: "The Lord look upon you with favor and give you peace."

It's a peace beyond comprehension, and yet "the peace of God, which passes all understanding, truly does keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (Phil. 4:7). In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:24 pm est

A POWERFUL FORCE
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Advent 3
Sermon
12-14-2008

Isaiah 61:1-3, 10-11

1 The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, Because the Lord has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to captives, And freedom to prisoners; 2 To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord, And the day of vengeance of our God; To comfort all who mourn, 3 To grant those who mourn in Zion, Giving them a garland instead of ashes, The oil of gladness instead of mourning, The mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified. 10 I will rejoice greatly in the Lord, My soul will exult in my God; For He has clothed me with garments of salvation, He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness, As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. 11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts, And as a garden causes the things sown in it to spring up, So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise To spring up before all the nations.

Words are a powerful force that elicits all sorts of reactions in peoples' hearts and minds. But words – especially those employed by the Word of God – have to be properly understood for the right message to be conveyed. For instance, how would you react if I told you that the Bible does not condemn slavery? For us, the mere mention of the word brings to mind the cruel and inhuman evils committed against an entire race of people in this country in the 19th century. With that context in mind, we can hardly believe that the Bible doesn't condemn it. But our understanding of slavery is conditioned by a context established two and half centuries ago.

The Bible says: "Let as many bondservants as are under the yoke count their own masters worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and His doctrine may not be blasphemed." So, we come to understand that there's a kind of "slavery" that's not forbidden in Scripture. The fact of the matter is, if someone chooses to indenture himself, to obligate himself to someone else, until his debt to that person is paid, the word for that is "slavery," and yet, the parties in the agreement are to treat one another with honor and respect. This kind of "slavery," is not condemned in the Word of God.

I witnessed a debate once that centered around Revelation 6:9, which says that the souls of those slain for the Word of God, and for the testimony they held - in other words, the souls of the martyrs - "cry out with a loud voice, saying, how long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?" The concern was that these martyrs for the faith, these saints of God already standing in the presence of their Lord, might have a desire for "vengeance." The pastor's response was that these martyrs now share so much of the divine nature of God that they can't help but desire what God Himself desires. It seemed to me, however, that the conflict was really about words, and what those words – the words from Rev. 6 – intended to convey.

It's hard for us to conceive of a "vengeance" that is totally pure and without malice, that's focused only on justice and the perfect desire for truth. But Scripture speaks of such a pure desire on the part of God, who says, "Vengeance is Mine" (Deut. 32:39). And here in Isaiah 61, we're confronted with that same pure motive on the part of Christ who will, in time, proclaim, "the acceptable year of the Lord," even as He will proclaim "the day of vengeance of our God."

Make no mistake, friends; the day of God's vengeance will come, and when it comes, His judgment will be pure and perfect and holy, for, in His vengeance, justice will be served and truth will prevail. Those who hope to stand in that day of judgment - if they intend to stand on their own apart from the grace of God in Christ - are in for a rude awakening, for they will be found lacking, and if they try to claim that God's vengeance is unfair, or that it's driven by some sort of sinister motive - like the sinful desire to "get even" - they'll find themselves completely without justification, for God, who is totally pure and holy, in whom there is no sin, not even the slightest desire or ability to sin, is a vengeful God, because in its purest sense, vengeance is not about "getting even" ; it's about justice. It's about truth. It's about defending what is right.

Words are a powerful force, eliciting all sorts of reactions in our hearts and minds. Another case in point is the little word "grace." The word itself is not used here in Isaiah 61, but verses 10 and 11 paint for us a beautiful picture of the grace of God in Christ. We'll look at that picture in just a moment, after we sort out some confusion about this word.

John wrote that Jesus - the Word - "became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). "Of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace" (John 1:16). Clearly, in Christ, we have been given "grace." But, what does that mean? What does it mean when Scripture says: "to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ's gift" (Ephesians 4:7) ? What does it mean when the Bible says: "In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace" (Ephesians 1:7) ? What does it mean when it says: "having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace by which we stand" (Romans 5:2) ?

Sadly, much of the Christian world is divided over the meaning of this simple word. Some believe that the "grace" of God is some kind of commodity - something that God gives to us - a sort of "goodness" that we put to use in order to live a good and decent life worthy of salvation.

Think of your life like a cup. Some people believe that God takes that empty cup, and, through merits of Christ, pours a little bit of "grace" into it. The more you put that "grace to work," the more God gives you, so that in the end you and God together have filled the cup and He lets you into heaven. They call it "grace," but their use of the word is something quite different than what Scripture teaches.

Actually, the grace of God in Christ Jesus is not some inert quality that has to be activated by the individual. As John says: "of His fullness we have all received and grace upon grace." In other words, in Jesus, your cup is already full. In fact, it's overflowing with the gifts and blessings of God. Grace is not something that God gives you to get you started toward salvation; it's the very gift of salvation itself, complete and full, given by the "author and finisher of your faith" (Hebrews 12:2). There's nothing you need to add to the grace of God in Christ. All you can do, as Luther says, is "give God thanks and praise," and then "serve and obey Him." But even these actions aren't done to receive more grace; it's simply the response of a heart already made whole by the free gift of God.

The prophet Isaiah, delivering the grace of God to you in Christ Jesus, describes so beautifully its nature and character. Grace is something that is outside of you - which is good! - because too many times we examine our lives and wonder how in the world God's grace could apply to us. We see our sins, our failures, our rebellion, our thanklessness toward God, and we wonder: "How can God possibly love me? How could He ever consider me His child?"

But Isaiah tells you that, by God's grace, He wraps you up in a robe of the righteousness of Christ. "For He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe of righteousness." Think about that cup. If it were left up to you or me to fill it, we'd be limping along through life with nothing but dregs. But, thanks be to God, it's not left to us! Beloved, the instant you came to faith in Jesus your cup overflowed, for you were clothed in that instant, and for every moment thereafter, with Jesus Christ your Savior.

Lookit, for grace to be grace it has to be about Jesus, otherwise it's not grace. Listen to Isaiah again: "the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth." Did you hear that? Grace is in God's hands - "the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth." Flowing from the Cross of Jesus, God's grace transcends time and space, coming to you through the means of grace - His Holy Word and Sacraments.

As you wrestle with the sins that you fear will condemn you, even those sins that come up over and over again, know beyond all shadow of doubt that, through the grace of Christ, God sees you as He sees His own dear Son - clothed in a righteousness that overcomes all sin. He sees your cup overflowing. He sees your life characterized, not by sin and rebellion, but by holiness and obedience.

Words are a powerful force that elicits all sorts of reactions in our hearts and minds. God grant that His "grace" would elicit, in each of you, faith, hope, and an undying praise for the Giver of this unfathomable gift. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:16 pm est

DAUGHTER OF ZION
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Advent Mid-Week 2
Sermon
12-10-2008

Isaiah 62:11; 30:29-30

11 Indeed the Lord has proclaimed To the end of the world: "Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Surely your salvation is coming; Behold, His reward is with Him, And His work before Him.'" 29 You shall have a song As in the night when a holy festival is kept, And gladness of heart as when one goes with a flute, To come into the mountain of the Lord, To the Mighty One of Israel. 30 The Lord will cause His glorious voice to be heard, And show the descent of His arm, With the indignation of His anger And the flame of a devouring fire, With scattering, tempest, and hailstones.

The 2nd week in Advent comes with an end-times warning, and that message is: "Watch and pray." That's not the same as: "Be afraid. Be alarmist. Be some kind of sci-fi nut trying to scare people into faith." It's simply: "Watch and pray."

The Church always prays in faith, eager for the good things the Father gives. Though Our Lord will return like a thief in the night and snare all those who dwell on the face of the earth, we are not afraid. For He comes to steal us away from destruction and Hell. You know who should be afraid? The devil should be afraid! But not the Bride. It's for our redemption, our salvation, our completion in Christ, that the end draws near.

So it is that Isaiah proclaims to us today: "Daughter of Zion, behold, surely your salvation is coming. The Lord shall cause His glorious Voice to be heard and you shall have gladness of heart."
No doubt you've heard of Zion throughout most of your Christian life, but what is it? Where is it?

Zion is the hilltop in Jerusalem where Solomon was instructed to build the Temple. It's synonymous with the Temple in the same way that Washington is synonymous with the American government or Hollywood is with the film industry.

Zion was the place of God's promised presence. It was also the place of the Law. For the Ark of the Covenant sat in the Temple and in the Ark were the tablets on which God's finger had inscribed His Law and which Moses had smashed in frustration. They stood as a constant accusation against the guilt of man, for they were broken in more ways than one!

In the face of that holy Law justice was served on Zion by the slaughter of animals offered to God for mankind's sin. The animals died so that the people could be forgiven and live. The life of an innocent being was exchanged for the life of the guilty. God was present in the Temple in mercy through sacrifice. Day after day these sacrifices were made in Zion. The blood of bulls and goats drained down the sides of that hill. It was the blood of grace, the blood of the Old Covenant, the blood of peace. Still, it was never enough. It never actually covered and remove the sins of the people. But through that blood God delivered the benefits of the perfect Sacrifice of His Son. And that sacrifice is enough. That's why He came. That's what He lived for, died for, rose again for, and why He's coming back to bring the end of the world.

To be a Daughter of Zion, then, is to not to have the right color of skin or DNA. To be a daughter of Zion is to be a child of sacrifice, a child spared by, and born in, blood. The salvation that draws near is the completion of what God began in you when He gave up His life between two thieves and named you as His own in the waters of Holy Baptism. Though you must now carry on in this sad valley, soon you shall have gladness of heart. Soon you shall be restored, saved, and made strong. Soon the Lord's face will shine on you graciously, in mercy and acceptance. Soon you will hear the Lord's glorious Voice, the Voice beckoning you to His side, not as a mere servant or slave, but as His dearly beloved Bride, faithful, pure, and perfect in the Grace He so generously bestows.

The blood that poured down Zion is gone, but the Blood that came from Jesus' sacrifice will never end. He is eternal and so is His Flesh from which His blood poured forth. He comes to us each week in that same Flesh and Blood of the New Covenant, for the forgiveness of our sins, to wash us clean, to give us strength, and to give us hope. Your salvation, beloved, will never end.

"Daughter of Zion, behold, surely your salvation is coming. The Lord shall cause His glorious Voice to be heard and you shall have gladness of heart." In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:12 pm est

COMFORT MY PEOPLE
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Advent 2
Sermon
12-7-2008

Isaiah 40:1-11

1 "Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. 2 "Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the Lord's hand Double for all her sins." 3 A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4 "Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the Lord has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Call out." Then he answered, "What shall I call out?" All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, When the breath of the Lord blows upon it; Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever. 9 Get yourself up on a high mountain, O Zion, bearer of good news, Lift up your voice mightily, O Jerusalem, bearer of good news; Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 Behold, the Lord God will come with might, With His arm ruling for Him. Behold, His reward is with Him, And His recompense before Him. 11 Like a shepherd He will tend His flock, In His arm He will gather the lambs, And carry them in His bosom; He will gently lead the nursing ewes.

In this chapter from Isaiah, the God of Israel speaks across time to John the Baptist, the man appointed from eternity to be the "voice of one calling in the desert" (Mark 1:3). And just as God says to all Christian pastors and teachers, He says also to John: "Comfort, comfort My people" (Isaiah 40:1). So John comes, comforting the people. He uses water as the means by "baptizing in the desert" (Mark 1:4). Through Isaiah, God commands John: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem" (Isaiah 40:2), and he responds by pointing his finger at them and saying: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee the coming wrath?" (Luke 3:7). His "pastoral tenderness" is expressed with the words: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie" (Mark 1:8). These statements may sound harsh to our ears, but John's message does carry comfort, as God instructed: "Proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for" (Isaiah 40:2). The message, you see, is one of baptismal "repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). It is a message of future hope: "[The one who comes after me] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit" (Mark 1:8).

In John, as in today's Old Testament, we can see that God works in two directly opposing ways. The work He hates to do, which is alien to His nature, is the work of condemnation, what Isaiah calls "hard service" (Isaiah 40:2). John's baptism calls people to repentance, that is, to grieve over their sins and turn away from them. John's preaching reveals the truth of what the prophet says: "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall" (Isaiah 40:8). This is the foreign work of God, the work He doesn't want to do, but must do, for those who refuse His message of repentance.

But God does not desire the death of a sinner; His will is that he would turn from his wickedness and live. So God willingly relents from His alien work of scorching judgment and takes up instead His favorite work, His proper work, His work that most closely fits who and what He is. He abandons the foreign work of condemnation in order to do His native work of reconciliation and peace. "Comfort, comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, [and not only that, but] her sin has been paid for" (Isaiah 40:2).

Now, these words sound to some as though Isaiah is saying that the people have paid for their own sins through their hard labor. But the context of the Christian faith won't let us draw that conclusion. The people have indeed suffered hard labor on account of their sins, just like people today suffer as a result of their sins. Today a man might suffer paralysis because he was driving drunk, or he might suffer a deadly disease because of his sexual promiscuity. Israel's rebellion against God led to their hard labor in much the same way.

But this hard labor in no way pays the debt of Israel's sins. We know from many other passages of Scripture that the payment for those sins belongs to God Himself. Speaking of Jesus, John writes: "He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2:2). St. Paul adds, "[God] has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son He loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Romans 3:25). And Isaiah himself knows no god other than the One who "was pierced for our transgressions and bruised for our iniquities" (Isaiah 53:5).

So when God commands John and all His other prophets to speak comfort to His people, that comfort comes on the basis of what God Himself has done. When the prophets speak God's warnings, they always speak His promises as well, for this is the most natural work of God. Sometimes prophets have to condemn, warning people about the consequences of the actions, but God in His mercy gives them a brighter message too. He commands them to proclaim, as in the words of our text: "The Lord Almighty comes with power. Behold, His reward is with Him. He tends His flock like a shepherd [and] gathers the lambs in His arms" (Isaiah 40:10-11). It may be that all men are like grass that dries up and withers away, but God in His mercy waters the grass through the "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

"Comfort, comfort My people, say your God" (Isaiah 40:1). So John – and all of John's successors – come, comforting the people of God. They use water as the means by "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4). Today the Church returns, yet again and tirelessly, to her comforting waters. Like sea-lions that can only survive out of the water for the briefest of times, Christians can never stray too far from the coastal waters of their Baptism. It is for them the very mark of God's comfort. It's how they appropriate the comfort God speaks through His prophets. Without Baptism, Christians run aground. Without Baptism, they fall easily to predators. Without Baptism, they dry up in the wind and wither away.

"Comfort, comfort My people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her: 'He tends His flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart; He gently leads those who have young'" (Isaiah 40:11). Each time a new little lamb is created for the Shepherd to tend, to carry close to his hear and gently lead (Isaiah 40:11), each time we witness the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, the entire season of Advent is re-enacted, for the Baptismal font is the place of God's coming, and there He delivers His great reward of eternal life.

Thank God for these waters in which we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). Thanks be to God for this gracious water of life (Rev. 22:17). In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:10 pm est

WITH YOU ALWAYS
Rev. Steven S. Billings Advent Mid-Week 1 Sermon
12-3-2008

St. Matthew 1:18-25

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After His mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. 20 But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 "And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins." 22 So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: 23 "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us." 24 Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, 25 and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS.

"Immanuel" is a Hebrew word that means "God with us," just as Matthew tells us in our Gospel for today. It's appropriate that we look at the name "Immanuel" today, for our Lord blesses us with His presence, even as He blessed the Virgin Mary. The angel "came to her and said, 'Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!'" (Lk. 1:28). And so He is with us, His people, and assures us of His presence. God is indeed with us as we gather in His house, in His Name, and around His Holy Word.

Our Lord came to us in fulfillment of the prophecies spoken about Him in the Old Testament, as well as those given by the angels in the first chapters of Matthew and Luke. The angel greeted Mary with the Salutation, and came to Joseph with the word that the baby his betrothed was carrying would be called Immanuel, "God with us," for the Child was not Joseph's, but was "conceived by the Holy Ghost," as we confess in the Apostles' Creed; "incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man," as it says in the Nicene Creed.

John describes the Incarnation this way: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. ... The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-5, 14).

The eternal Word became enfleshed, lived among us as a man, and is now present with us in His Means of Grace. Matthew wrote by inspiration of the Holy Spirit of the omnipresence of God. He frames his Gospel with the promise that the Lord is with us, beginning with the angel's promise to Joseph that the Son shall be called Immanuel and ending with the Lord's own words: "Behold, I am with you always, to the very end of the age." (28:20b).

So, my friends, the Lord is with us at all times and in all places; He is but a prayer away. In fact, He invites us to call upon Him in all circumstances. Whether we're in trouble, or simply wish to praise or thank Him, our Lord is with us; He hears our prayers. He knows our thoughts even before we think them. That's how close He is to us. That's how close He wants to be with us, to be "a very present help in trouble" (Ps. 46:1b). Forget that nonsense about "watching us from a distance" ; our God wants us to have a close, personal, intimate relationship with Him, as a father has with his little child.

The trouble is, regardless of how close our Lord wants to be with us and despite the scriptural fact that He is indeed always with us, we cannot say that we are always with Him. The truth is, we're frequently against Him, often behaving as though we're spiritually blind, dead, and enemies of God. We are, after all, by nature sinful and unclean, and we sin against Him by thought, word, and deed, by what we've done and by what we have left undone, not loving Him with our whole heart, nor loving our neighbors as ourselves. Left on our own, we would be forever separated from God, forsaken and condemned by Him.

And sadly, we often act as though this were the case. We run around, especially at this time of the year, like chickens with our heads cut off, worried about whether the preparations are all in place or if the presents we've purchased will please the ones we bought them for. We fret about all the places we have to be, not sure how in the world we're going to make it to all the programs, parties, and dinners. We're like Martha, who out of sheer exasperation, cried out, "'Lord, don't You care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.' But the Lord answered her, 'Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good part, and it will not be taken away from her'" (Luke 10:40b-42).

Like Martha we so easily forget the one thing that is needful: the Word of God, which we hear read and proclaimed, the Word who became flesh and dwells with us. In the midst of our hassles, struggles, trials, and tribulations, we need to be near to God through His Word.

The angel said to Joseph, "Don't be afraid." He who was conceived in Mary and who made His temple in her womb, whose Name is Jesus, has come to save us from our sins, for that is what His Name means: The Lord saves. In His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, God the Son took on the flesh and blood that He would later give and shed on the cross for us. Thanks be to God He laid down His life, only to take it up again by His glorious resurrection, so that we would be with Him and He with us now and forever. Thanks be to God He has given us the everlasting promise of His presence!

And perhaps I should point out that it's not only Jesus who is with us, but the entire Trinity as well: the Father who created, the Son who has redeemed us by His blood, and the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us by calling us to and keeping us in the faith of Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Holy Triune God is with us even now, as we are gathered here to receive Him who comes to us in His Word, the Lamb of our salvation, who once lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

As we leave here today, we go with the promise in the Benediction that our Triune God is with us. Beloved, we need not fear, "though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling," (Ps. 46:2-3), though we are beset with many worries and concerns. We need not fear for God is in our midst; we shall not be shaken; He will help us when morning dawns, when the sun shines at noon, when evening falls, and when we sleep at night. The Lord of hosts is with us; He is always with us. To the end of time He is and ever shall be Jesus, our Immanuel, God with us. In the Name of the Father and of the † Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
1:03 pm est

ADVENT OF THE MESSIAH
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Feast of St. Andrew
Sermon
11-30-2008

St. John 1:35-42a

35 Again, the next day, John stood with two of his disciples. 36 And looking at Jesus as He walked, he said, "Behold the Lamb of God!" 37 The two disciples heard him speak, and they followed Jesus. 38 Then Jesus turned, and seeing them following, said to them, "What do you seek?" They said to Him, "Rabbi" (which is to say, when translated, Teacher), "where are You staying?" 39 He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where He was staying, and remained with Him that day (now it was about the tenth hour). 40 One of the two who heard John speak, and followed Him, was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. 41 He first found his own brother Simon, and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated, the Christ). 42 And he brought him to Jesus.

Today marks the beginning of a new liturgical year. Advent is both penitential and preparatory and usually begins on the Sunday nearest the Feast of St. Andrew. This year they happen to fall on the same day. Some liturgical scholars have suggested that St. Andrew is the first to be commemorated in the church year because he was the first apostle called by the Lord.

But what do we know about St. Andrew? Outside of Scripture, we have little historical data. We do know that he was a fisherman along with his brother, Simon Peter. He had been a disciple of John the Baptist. Occasionally he was mentioned as part of Jesus' inner circle along with Peter, James, and John. It was Andrew who brought forward the little boy's lunch of five loaves and two fishes just prior to Jesus' miracle of feeding the 5000. Andrew and Philip were the ones who told Jesus that some Greeks wanted to see Him. Most importantly, though, we see, especially in our text, that Andrew told others that he had seen the Messiah.

The rest of the information we have comes from centuries of church tradition. It's believed that Andrew preached in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) and in Greece. One tradition states that he was martyred on this date in the year 60 ad. It's alleged that a pagan ruler commanded Andrew to sacrifice to false gods. Andrew refused, was crucified, and reportedly proclaimed the Gospel for two days before he finally died.

Crucifixion was a slow, agonizing death, and Andrew’s would've been no exception. What was unusual about his crucifixion was the cross on which it took place. When we think of a cross, we think of the two perpendicular, intersecting beams from which our Lord's body hung. But the cross on which Andrew died had diagonally intersecting beams that looked like a large letter X. This is why, since Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, there's a red X on the Scottish flag. It's also why there's an X on the union jack, the flag of Great Britain.

But what does Andrew have to do with Advent? What does he have to do with us? Advent is a season of preparation and penitence. As we reflect on our sinful nature and our need for a Savior, we prepare to celebrate again the first coming of the King who saves us.

But how do we do this? How do we prepare for such an awesome event so that it doesn't get swept away in all the commercialism and familiarity? How do we avoid this holy season being reduced to the perennial question: What are you getting for Christmas? Do we try real hard to muster up within ourselves some semblance of piety? Do we berate ourselves or others for acquiescing to the use of such popular notions as Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? Do we do our best to make sure we attend all the extra services so that we "do our part" to observe the season properly? What truly prepares us to celebrate the birth of Christ?

We could talk at length about the shortcomings of each method of preparing for Christmas I've just mentioned. We could say: Christmas isn't about getting; it's about giving. And we'd still be wrong! We could try our best and still not gin up enough pious sincerity for the season. We could prick a hole in every inflatable Santa in the neighborhood - never mind the fact that properly understood there's nothing at all wrong with Santa Claus! We could paint the word "Christ" over every "Merry X-mas" sign we can find - and still miss the point! We could go to every church service our congregation offers - hey, I do! - and we could still not be ready.

Why? Because ultimately it's not about what we do. It's about what God does in us through His Word. It's the Word of God that prepares us to receive Him who comes to us in the flesh. When we hear His Word the Holy Spirit quickens our faith. Andrew spoke the Word to his brother, announcing that the Lord was near, that he had seen the Messiah. "Yes, Simon, John and I have seen the One whose way John the Baptist prepared, whom the Prophets foretold. Come, oh, come, Simon, and behold Immanuel, for the Savior of the nations is here!" Through Andrew's proclamation, the Holy Spirit moved Simon to behold the Lord. Beloved, hear the Word and be moved by Andrew's proclamation to let your hearts be prepared to celebrate the coming of the Lord.

The message that Andrew brought to Peter was the result of the what John the Baptist had proclaimed: The Lamb of God had come to take away the sin of the world. As we hear this Word proclaimed to us, we remember why He came. He came to save us from our sins. Brothers and sisters, we are sinful. We need forgiveness. This reminder encourages penitential preparation in us. We need to repent of our sins so that we may enjoy the full blessings of Christmas. When that day finally arrives, we can sing praises to our God, thanking Him for the love He has shown us - a love so deep that He sent His Son, begotten of the Father from eternity, born of the Virgin Mary, to save us from our sins! The One who came in all humility, born in a stable, would grow to be crucified in glory. Oh, yes, stricken, smitten, and afflicted on the cross, our Lord appeared in glory, for there He fulfilled His mission, to pay for the sins of the world. This is the Christ whom Andrew preached: Jesus, the Son of God, who came into the world and died to take away your sins. This same Jesus rose from the dead to give you eternal life as a free gift by grace through faith.

So, on this Feast of St. Andrew, we are moved by the Holy Spirit to follow Andrew's example. He didn't do anything flashy; he simply proclaimed what he witnessed and brought others to Christ. He told Peter that he had seen the Messiah, and he brought him to Jesus. This is how faith comes, through the hearing of the Word, as Paul writes in our Epistle: "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). We get to tell others that we have by faith seen the Lord as He has come to us today in His Word, bringing others here, that they too can hear the gospel and be saved. And, while we may not be crucified on an X-shaped cross, we are still blessed with the gift of the gospel that we get to give to others, and the Holy Spirit prepares our hearts (and theirs) to receive our coming King. This is the greatest gift we can give this Christmas, the gift of the Good News of Jesus Christ. It truly is the gift that keeps on giving: from the Prophets to John the Baptist to Andrew to faithful pastors through the ages, and now from the Lord to you and to others, that they too would come, see, hear and believe. In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
12:59 pm est

THE LORD IS LEADING
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Thanksgiving Eve
Sermon
11-26-2008

Deuteronomy 8:1-10

1 Every commandment which I command you this day you will be watchful to do so that you may live and multiply and go in and possess the land which Yahweh has sworn to your fathers. 2 And you will remember all the way which Yahweh your God has brought you this forty years in the wilderness in order to humble you, to test you, to know that which is in your heart, whether you will keep his commandments or not. 3 And he humbled you and gave you hunger and caused you to eat the manna which you had not known, and your fathers had not known, in order to cause you to know that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word coming out of the mouth of Yahweh. 4 Your mantle did not wear out on you, and your foot did not swell this forty years. 5 And you have known with your heart that as a man corrects his son, Yahweh your God corrects you. 6 And you have kept the commands of Yahweh your God, to walk in his ways and to fear him. 7 For Yahweh your God brings you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and depths going forth in the valleys and hills; 8 a land of wheat and barley and vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive oil and honey; 9 a land in which you shall eat bread without poverty; you shall not lack anything in it; a land whose stones are iron, and from its hills you will dig copper. 10 And you will eat and be satisfied and you will bless Yahweh your God in the good land which he has given you.

As Moses stood on the hillside across the Jordan from the land of Canaan - as the people prepared, finally, to enter in and possess the land - he must have looked back over the course of his life in wonder and amazement. The only surviving male child of his generation, he was rescued from the Nile by the daughter of Pharaoh and raised as Pharaoh’s own son. Banished from his homeland at the age of forty for slaying an abusive Egyptian soldier, he fled to the land of Midian, took a wife, raised children, and lived as a sheep-herder for the next forty years of his life. And just when he surely must have been thinking that his life’s story was coming to a close, God met him in a burning bush and called him to lead the Children of Israel out of bondage. Yes, at 80 years of age God sent him to stand before Pharaoh and demand the release of His people.

For the next twenty years he wandered with his people through the desert of Sinai, putting up with their constant whining and praying for them to the God of their fathers. He had an ambivalent relationship with these people. At times he was their hero, other times they hated him. But faithfully he led them as God directed, ultimately to the very Promised Land they had looked forward to for 400 years. And yet, at the age of 100, having fulfilled his task by leading the people to the Promised Land, they wouldn't go in! So, back to the desert it was for Moses and his people, to wander for another twenty years.

And now, at 120, his work was finally coming to an end. Forty years he served God and these people. Soon, God would take him home. Soon, God would lay him to rest, the only recorded burial performed by God Himself. What do you say at a moment like that? What words of wisdom does someone like Moses leave behind?

The words of our text are both the wisdom of God and the insight given by Him to wise, old Moses. After repeating the words of the Law - the Ten Commandments - Moses offers a word of encouragement. And I say this despite the reading given these words by many translators and interpreters. So often you hear this passage with an over-emphasis on the word “shall,” taking it in its imperative sense, as though “you shall” always means “you must.”

Well, in spite of all the rhetoric, there are no imperatives in this text. Moses does not say “you must” ; he says “you will.” What’s the difference? Well, one is a command; the other a simple statement of fact. A command says that you must not steal. “You shall not steal.” A simple statement of fact goes more like this: “If you love and respect God, you will not steal.” A command says that you must not commit murder. “You shall not murder.” A simple statement of fact says: “If you love and respect God, you will not murder.”

Moses does not say: “you must be watchful to do every commandment.” He says: “Because you are children of God, because you love Him, you will be careful to do what he commands.” You see? This text is not Law; this is pure Gospel. Moses is recognizing the relationship that exists between God and His people, and is reminding them of that relationship and how it has shaped and will continue to shape their lives. Moses has already reiterated the Law to the people; that’s not his purpose here. His purpose is to reinforce the Gospel. These are words of comfort.

Nor are they some kind of quid pro quo - “if you do this for me, I’ll do that for you.” Naturally, there are benefits to living according to the Law of God. People do live longer in lawful societies, right? Life is better for everyone when cultures are centered around the Law of God. Even the heathen benefit from God’s Law; it’s that perfect.

There's quite a difference, however, between reaping the consequences of your actions and receiving a reward. Consequences are built into the nature of things. If you step out in front of a truck, you going to die. Does that mean that God punished you for stepping in front of a truck? Of course not. If you don’t rob a bank, guess what - you don’t go to jail! Does this mean that God rewarded your behavior by keeping you out of prison? Not at all. It's just that God has established certain laws in the universe. If you follow those laws, life will work better for you. It's not a reward; it’s just the way things work.

What’s far more important to consider is why things work the way they do. Why did God set up His Law so that when followed, life is better? Why create a Promised Land? Why lead His people there? Why do all the marvelous things mentioned in this text? There are some fantastic things mentioned here, aren’t there? Listen again to all that Moses reminds his people of: God was with them every step of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land; He humbled them and helped them to know what was really in their hearts; He fed them miraculously with the manna and taught them that food for the belly is worthless without food for the soul; He preserved them all that time through the desert. Can you imagine having clothes that never wore out in forty years?! And how about the simple knowledge that God corrects those He loves, like a father corrects the son he loves; for the promises of the future: a good land with bubbling brooks, fountains, hills and valleys; a land prolific in its abundance of food; a land where no one would be found wanting or lacking anything; a prosperous land rich in iron and precious metals? Why would He do all this for them?

And, while we’re at it, why does He do all the things He does for us? Why provide us with a roof over our heads, clothes for our bodies and food to sustain us? Why give us a house of worship and a school and pastors and teachers to divide His Word of Truth for us? Why give us families, friends and loved ones? Most of all, why send His own Son to die for our sins and gain for us a heavenly home for all eternity? Why give us hope? Why give us peace? Why give us comfort and love and the forgiveness we all so desperately need?

Why indeed! Why does God love us and continue to give His richest blessings to those who don't deserve it? Well, dear friends, we may never know the answer to that question. Why do you love your children, even when it’s hard to like them a whole lot? God only knows. But thank God He does! He loves us! He loves you! He sent His Son to give His life and rise again for you! Let's not question why, but let's be grateful and rejoice in the reality that He loves us and continues to bless us and is leading us through the desert of this world to a good land, a land of plenty, a land of peace, a land where we will want for no good thing, a land where His presence shines like the sun, where we shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord our God forever and ever. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
12:54 pm est

THE LIFE OF FAITH
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Last Sunday
Sermon
11-23-2008

St. Matthew 25:31-46

31 "But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. 32 "And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; 33 and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left. 34 "Then the King will say to those on His right, 'Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 'For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; 36 naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison, and you came to Me.' 37 "Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You drink? 38 'And when did we see You a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? 39 'And when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?' 40 "And the King will answer and say to them, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.' 41 "Then He will also say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; 43 I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me.' 44 "Then they themselves also will answer, saying, 'Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not take care of You?' 45 "Then He will answer them, saying, 'Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.' 46 "And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

When it comes to the Day of Judgment all of us are bean-counters by nature. We're tempted to believe that when God comes to judge the living and the dead, He'll have some kind of ledger in hand, with one column for everyone's good deeds and another column for their sins. After all, you gotta have two columns on a ledger, right? Otherwise there's nothing to balance. I think a lot of people have this mental image of God, on Judgment Day, blowing the dust off the register of their life, opening it's tattered pages, and running His finger down the columns until He gets to the bottom line, where He'll "do the math" and give His final verdict. If the ending balance is good, then it's off to heaven. If not, well, we'll go to that other place.

I suppose if your certainty and hope is not in Christ and the goodness of His life, you're kinda stuck with the ledger mentality. I mean, what else can you do? You live your whole life hoping that you're doing enough good to tip the scales in your favor in the end. You'd have to admit, of course, that you've done quite a few things wrong in your life, just like the rest of us, but I think you'd finally try to find some peace in believing that you're basically a good person, someone who works hard, who helps other people, and who always tries to do to others as you would have them do to you. And if you were serious about this, you'd have to keep a running tab in your mind, calculating your deeds, hoping that, when all is said and done, the good in your life will outweigh the bad.

Christians too, I think, wonder from time to time how God's going to assess their lives on Judgment Day. Obviously, we know that we're made righteous before God by grace through faith in Jesus, but don't we often remember things we've said or done that weren't the best? How about those times when we've been in a position to help someone who was hungry and naked and we did nothing to feed and clothe them? Or those times when we could have extended a kindness or shown some kind of compassion but we didn't? We think about those things sometimes and we feel pangs of doubt and guilt and maybe we feel a little bit afraid of those sins and failures being exposed as we stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ.

So, I think everybody often thinks of God using this kind of two-column ledger system on Judgment Day. Unbelievers trust in it, while believers fear it.

But I'm wondering if the whole concept isn't flawed. I think, rather, if we look at today's Gospel closely, we'll see that, in God's system of accounting, when we get to the Day of Judgment, the ledger of our lives is only going to have one column.

Basically, we have t throw out the whole notion of "good" sheep and "bad" sheep. According to Jesus there's no such thing as a bad sheep, just like there's no such thing as a good goat. You're either a sheep or a goat, one or the other. So when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead there will be no "evil deeds" column for sheep, nor will there be a "good deeds" column for goats.

Why is that? Well, think for a minute about the kind of life a "goat" lives. He has no hope in Christ and he lives accordingly - selfishly, thoughtlessly, with no concern for things that have no direct benefit for him. So, on the Day of Judgment Jesus will say to him, "I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did clothe Me." To which the unbeliever will indignantly respond: "When did those things happen?" And Jesus will say: "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me." But the unbeliever will protest: "What about when I gave to the poor and tried to help those less fortunate than myself? What about all the times I did my best to live a good life?"

But there's not going to be any of those deeds. Why? Because there is no such thing as a good work in the eyes of God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. All those deeds that seem to shine so brightly in the eyes of men, that appear on the surface to be pure and holy, are nothing but filthy rags in the eyes of God if they are done apart from faith in Jesus Christ, so that anyone who approaches the Day of Judgment trusting in himself and his own good works, will ultimately find that he has no evidence on which to plead his case.

But what about the sheep - the faithful of God, each of you, who has been baptized in the name of Jesus, whose confidence and hope is Him and in His righteousness? How is it that God will find so much good in your life and what will have become of your sins?

Keep in mind, the world prizes the most visible and notable good works, and sometimes the faithful of God are tempted to prize those things as well, as if God only values the things that are impressive to the eyes of the world. "It seems to me," Luther wrote, "that we shall have our hands full to keep these commandments, practicing gentleness, patience, love toward enemies, chastity, kindness, etc., and all that these virtues involve. But such works are not important or impressive in the eyes of the world. They are not unusual and pompous, restricted to special times, places, rites, and ceremonies, but are common, everyday domestic duties of one neighbor toward another, with no show about them. For when a priest stands in a gold-embroidered chasuble or a layman remains on his knees a whole day in church, this is considered a precious work that cannot be sufficiently extolled. But when a poor girl tends a little child, or faithfully does what she is told, that is regarded as nothing. Otherwise, why should monks and nuns go into cloisters?"

Do you see Luther's point? As you live out your life of faith, God fills it with all kinds of good. As you go off to work, you're loving your neighbor, because he benefits from the hours of toil and labor that you put in each day. God considers that a good work not because it's necessarily anything special as far as the world is concerned, but because you're a Christian and you live and move and have your very being in Christ. Your life is defined by Him because you are His through faith.

When you tend to the needs of your children, your grandchildren and your great grandchildren, when you teach them how to pray and read God's Word, this, too, is counted "good" in the eyes of God. When you work to put shoes on their feet and food on the table, when you cut your grass and walk the dog, when you love your spouse and take care of your own body, these things, too, are counted as "good" in the eyes of God, for they're caring for the gifts He has given you as His child in faith.

Truly God fills up your whole life with things that He will count as good on the Day of Judgment, for what is done in faith, is done to the praise, glory and honor of God. And you, like the sheep in Matthew 25, will stand before God's throne of grace in wonder and amazement, saying, "when did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?" And you'll be amazed at what God found good in your life. But, my friends, you needn't be, for the life of Christ is your life, now and on that great Day of the Lord. And so He will say: "Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world."

What about your sins? What about that other side of the ledger that you sometimes worry about, that maybe God will hold against you? What will have happened to all the failures of your life? What will have happened to the record of all those times you disappointed God? Look at what Jesus says: They're not there!!! They're gone, forgiven, forgotten, washed away by the blood of the Lamb!!!

So, beloved, resist the temptation to dread the Day of Judgment. Don't worry that God may not find anything good in your life when you stand before His throne. The reality is, you belong to Christ Jesus, and as such, His life is your life, His deeds are your deeds, His perfection is your perfection. You have nothing to fear. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
12:07 pm est

AGAINST THE HIGH TOWERS
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 27
Sermon
11-16-2008

Zephaniah 1:7-16

7 Be silent in the presence of the Lord God; For the day of the Lord is at hand, For the Lord has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests. 8 "And it shall be, In the day of the Lord's sacrifice, That I will punish the princes and the king's children, And all such as are clothed with foreign apparel. 9 In the same day I will punish All those who leap over the threshold, Who fill their masters' houses with violence and deceit. 10 "And there shall be on that day," says the Lord, "The sound of a mournful cry from the Fish Gate, A wailing from the Second Quarter, And a loud crashing from the hills. 11 Wail, you inhabitants of Maktesh! For all the merchant people are cut down; All those who handle money are cut off. 12 "And it shall come to pass at that time That I will search Jerusalem with lamps, And punish the men Who are settled in complacency, Who say in their heart, 'The Lord will not do good, Nor will He do evil.' 13 Therefore their goods shall become booty, And their houses a desolation; They shall build houses, but not inhabit them; They shall plant vineyards, but not drink their wine." 14 The great day of the Lord is near; It is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the Lord is bitter; There the mighty men shall cry out. 15 That day is a day of wrath, A day of trouble and distress, A day of devastation and desolation, A day of darkness and gloominess, A day of clouds and thick darkness, 16 A day of trumpet and alarm Against the fortified cities And against the high towers.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, how high are our towers?

Roughly 5000 years ago, in the land of Shinar, which lay between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers about 90 miles south of modern-day Baghdad, the descendants of Noah decided to make a name for themselves by building a tower that would reach to the heavens (Gen. 11:4). But God saw through their arrogance and confused their language so that they would not be able to complete it. The very thing they had hoped to avoid, namely, being scattered over the face of the whole earth, was precisely what happened anyway.

Why did God destroy their tower? The answer lies in why they built it.

They wanted to make a name for themselves. Isn't that why we usually build towers? Think of the great towers of our time. To what do they attest? The Empire State building - a marvel of architectural engineering for its day - made a statement to the world about the greatness of the city that erected it. The Chrysler building, the Hancock building, the Sears tower - these were intended as monuments to the captains of industry whose names have been attached to them. Building towers is for us - as it was for those who lived five millennia ago - a way of beating our chests, of making a name for ourselves, of shaking our clenched fists to the sky as we cry out: "Look what we did!"

How high are our towers?

One day Jesus was leaving the temple with His disciples, when one of them turned to gaze upon the amazing structure, and said: "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" to which Jesus replied: "Do you see all these great buildings? Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down" (Mark 13:1b, 2). Why?

The temple had presumably been built to the glory of God, but was it still being used that way? Oh, I'm sure there must have been some people worshiping there with a right understanding of their relationship with God, but look at how Jesus was treated by the ruling authority. The High Priest and the Council wanted to kill Him - and eventually badgered Pilate into granting their wish!

Do you remember the day He drove the money-changers out, saying that they had turned God's house into a marketplace? When they asked Him for a miraculous sign to prove His authority, He replied: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days" (John 2:19). John points out that the temple Jesus was referring to was His own body (John 2:21).

You see, Jesus knew that they had come to worship the structure rather than the God for whose worship it was built. He was telling them that He was to be their object of worship, not the building.

But they weren't they only ones with misplaced worship.

In Luther's day the Church sent agents all over Europe with the authority to sell indulgences to raise funds for the building of St. Peter's Cathedral in Rome. They promised people that these indulgences could do the most miraculous things. They could release a soul out of purgatory or offer the bearer forgiveness of any sin for the rest of his natural life. Did it matter that no such thing as purgatory actually exists? Did they mention even in passing that Jesus' death on the cross had already paid for the sins of the whole world once and for all? No! But these snake-oil peddlers could sell you your own car and make you feel like you got the deal of a lifetime. And for what? A pile of bricks in Rome.

Oh, my friends, how high are our towers?

I daresay that there are temple worshipers in nearly every congregation across our synod, people who get too focused on the structure and forget about why it was built.

And I've known congregations to split over disagreements on how to use their facility. I even heard the story of a small country church where nobody could agree about which hymnal to use, but neither side wanted to let go of the church building, so they literally took a chain saw to it and one side carried their half to one side of the property and the other side carried theirs to the other. What I want to know is: How did they come to agree on which side of the building they got? I mean, what did they do, flip a coin?

And if it's not the buildings themselves we want to worship, it's the institutions that we associate with them.

We have a really beautiful temple down in St. Louis called the International Center. It's our synodical headquarters. And it is impressive. Some people call it the "purple palace." You'd be surprised, I think, by how many people we employ down there. There are synodical bureaucrats - seminary trained and fully ordained pastors - pushing papers and going to meetings, and taking home six-figure incomes for their trouble! Meanwhile, we've got churches without pastors and synodical ledgers covered in red ink. And you know the bureaucratic mentality, right? "We need more money." Well, join the club, guys! Maybe what we need is fewer bureaucrats! And maybe we shouldn't be paying our synod officials like they're corporate CEOs!

But it's a status thing for us - because we love our bureaucracy just like we love our buildings. The bigger they are, the more we like them. Why? Well, they make us feel good about ourselves, they make us feel important to the world around us, and they make us feel safe. When you're surrounded by mighty walls and strong towers you feel like nothing can get to you, nothing can hurt you.

But, beloved, towers can fall. When Jesus told His disciples who were admiring the temple walls that no stone would be left on another, I guarantee you they could not have imagined that ever taking place. But it happened! Not 40 years later the Roman army sacked Jerusalem and knocked the temple to the ground.

Is there anyone here who will ever forget the day the twin towers came down? Do we need more evidence than that? Oh, believe me; towers can fall!

And you know what? Sometimes they have to. Because we're not to trust in the walls; we're not to place our faith in towers.

Zephaniah speaks of a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness. In other words, he's talking about the Day of Judgment. One day that trumpet will sound and all the dead will be raised and we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, the great throne of God, and believe me, there will be no walls to protect you, no towers to support you, no temple in which to hide. Unless, of course, your trust is in the Temple of which Jesus spoke - His own body, given for you for the forgiveness of your sins.

There will only be one covering for you that day, and that is the robe of Christ's own righteousness which is yours freely and only though faith in Him.

In the meantime, with His sustaining arms around you, you can withstand the crumbling of towers and walls and buildings and institutions. You can watch governments rise and fall; you can watch Wall Street collapse, rebuild, and collapse again - all in the span of a week it seems! You can witness good things, trusted things - Godly entities of the past or Godly hopes for the future - fall to pieces before your very eyes, and you can be safe, because your faith, your hope, your trust, is not in them. Like the psalmist you can say:

Hear my cry, O God; listen to my prayer. From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint; lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings.
(Psalm 61:1-4)

God grant us such faith and trust now and always. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
12:03 pm est

OPENED EYES
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 26
Sermon
11-9-2008

St. Luke 24:31-32

31 Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight. 32 And they said to one another, "Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?"

Among his fellow sailors, John Newton was known as "The Great Blasphemer." He even called himself an "infidel." The captain of a slave ship, he was responsible for transporting fellow human beings from their homes in Africa across the sea in chains to lives of servitude - if they survived the crossing, that is.

Christians knew that Newton was the kind of man who mocked God. Yet, whenever he had a close call and narrowly escaped death - and this happened more than once - he would try to live a better life for awhile - not because he loved God; he was just trying to keep from going to hell!

One close scrape was different, however. Moments after leaving the deck of his ship during a violent storm, the man who replaced him was washed overboard and died. Newton said it was then that he began to realize how helpless he truly was.

He began to read the Bible. In time, he became a different man. He turned to Christ. He got married. He even became a pastor and an active opponent of the slave trade. He also happened to write these words:

Amazing grace - how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see!

God opened John Newton's eyes and set his heart on fire for Jesus Christ.

John Newton may have been a blasphemer and a slaver, but he was by nature no more sinful - and no more blind! - than any other human being. Look around, for heaven's sake; we live in a world full of people who are spiritually blind.

Many who are lost in spiritual darkness are obvious even to the casual observer. Some of them even have best-selling books and have become quite vocal in their criticism of dedicated Christians. Just watch "Entertainment Tonight" and you'll see what a mess some of these folks have made of their lives. They think they're so enlightened, but they're just stumbling in the dark.

Truth be told, you don't have to look any farther than next door, or down the street, or in your own family to find people in the dark, people who need the Light of Jesus, people blind to God's Truth. They're often very near, and may even be people we know and love dearly.

There was a time when each of us were spiritually blind. Those who were baptized as infants and raised in Christian families probably don't remember that time. Some of us do, though. And we may appreciate the light even more because of it.

Toward the end of his life, Newton wrote, "When I was young, I was sure of many things; now there are only two things of which I am sure: one is that I am a miserable sinner; and the other, that Christ is an all-sufficient Savior."

God opened Newton's eyes, just as He opened our eyes. But, you know what? Sometimes Christians close their eyes again.

The disciples on the way to Emmaus couldn't "see" Jesus, even though He was right in front of them. Their faces were "downcast" when Jesus asked what they were discussing (Luke 24:17).

Now these were not unbelievers; they knew who Jesus was. They even knew about the report from the women who had been to the tomb and found it empty. "They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive," they told Him (v. 23).

You gotta kinda wonder why they were still downcast, even after hearing such great news. And what did Jesus say? "'How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter His glory?' And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself" (Luke 24:25-27).

Through the power of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit opens our eyes so that we can see Jesus. He reminds us, "You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9).

God opened the eyes of the Emmaus disciples so that they could see Jesus and realize who had been talking to them, who had been teaching them, and who was ready to eat with them.

But how did they react? Did they simply continue their meal and retire for the night? No, they looked at each other and said, "Woah! Weren't our hearts burning within us while He talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us? How excited we got when we heard God's Word!"

And then they ran - seven miles they ran! - back to Jerusalem to tell their friends that they'd seen Jesus! It was already night; they didn't even wait 'til the next day! That's how fire-up they were. God used His Word to do it.

God's Word warms our hearts, setting them on fire to tell others about Jesus. We have been baptized. Our eyes have been opened to the Gospel, so that through our lips and lives, the light of the Father may shine for all to see. You are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light."

In His last appearance to the disciples on earth, Jesus told them, "You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8).

He says the same to you, you know. What a privilege to be part of His mission!

Think of your own Jerusalem, your own Judea and Samaria, and the ends of the earth. God has placed you where you are so that you can be a witness to Jesus Christ and what He has done in your life.

Jerusalem is right here at home. It's right outside the door. There are people just like you who need to hear the Good News about Jesus. Friends, relatives, co-workers, and acquaintances - these are your Jerusalem, and they may be the easiest for you to reach.

Judea and Samaria are close in some ways, but distant in others. The people of your "Judea" live farther away, but they still are culturally close. Because they live farther away, it may take some effort to reach them. But at the same time, their cultural similarity makes it easy to share the Good News. One way LCMS churches share the Gospel with "Judea" is by working with their districts to plant new congregations.

"Samaria" represents people who don't live far away in distance, but don't share our culture. Nearly every community in America has people of a different culture, even if they live within walking distance. Sharing the Gospel in "Samaria" takes some effort. It might mean working with new immigrants, helping them to get settled in the community, building a relationship with them, and telling them about Jesus. Or, it might mean helping to equip leaders of various ethnic groups to reach their own people with the Gospel.

Being Christ's witnesses "to the ends of the earth" means much the same now as it did in Jesus' day. From the very beginning, the Christian Church sent missionaries to the far reaches of the world.

LCMS congregations still do this today. They do it in partnership with LCMS World Mission, our Synod's global Gospel outreach arm. Many congregations provide volunteer and career missionaries. They support missionaries through prayer, encouragement, and sacrificial giving.

The Lutheran Women's Missionary League was founded for the purpose of "serving the Lord with gladness" by supporting Gospel outreach from local churches to the farthest corners of the earth. Untold numbers of people have been given the gift of Christian Faith through the work that has been supported by mite-boxes from the women of the LWML. If you don't have one, they will be made available today.

In addition to mite-boxes, many people have benefitted from the numerous acts of charity, the quilts, the gifts of food and clothing, all lovingly supplied by the women of the LWML. We thank God today for their work! God is truly working through them! Thank you, ladies.

Let us encourage each other today, every one of us, to tell the Good News of Jesus as we have opportunity. By His grace and mercy, God has called us out of the darkness through the power of the Gospel. For the sake Christ's holy life, innocent suffering and death, and sealed by His resurrection, we are God's forgiven people. He has chosen us. He has made us His priests, declared us a holy nation, and made us His own so that we can declare the praises of Him called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.

How do we declare His praises? Whenever we tell others about Him and what He has done for them, too. Why do we do this? Because He has opened our eyes and set our hearts on fire for the gospel. To God be the glory! In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
11:50 am est

THE BLESSED LIFE
Rev. Steven S. Billings
All Saints'
Sermon
11-2-2008

St. Matthew 5:1-12

1 And when He saw the multitudes, He went up on the mountain; and after He sat down, His disciples came to Him. 2 And opening His mouth He began to teach them, saying, 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 5 "Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. 6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. 7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. 10 "Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. 12 "Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

What is the secret of a happy life? What makes life truly worth living? This question has plagued mankind as long as we've been around. Poets, philosophers, and preachers of every generation have offered their own answers. "The secret of a truly happy life," one said, "is to be found in contemplation and meditation." "The only life that will satisfy," said another, "is a life that is rich in fame and success." Today it seems that most people say: "The only life worth living is one filled with the best this world has to offer - material goods and physical pleasure." Jesus gives a startlingly different answer in His Sermon on the Mount.

The term "blessed" is one of those New Testament words whose definition has deteriorated over the years. "Happy" is the way some have translated this term, but that's a bit superficial. "Happiness" can depend on things that happen to you. "Blessedness" goes much deeper in that it transcends our experience. In fact, it can even defy our experience, so that we can be blessed even when we're not happy, even when in the eyes of the world we are poor in spirit, meek, and persecuted.

Now, I know that's not exactly what most people would call a "blessed" life. One scholar said: "At first sight, these Beatitudes seem to offer a consolation prize for the defeated." And doesn't it seem like these Beatitudes bring comfort and cheer to the down-and-out? But what's wrong with that? Jesus says elsewhere: "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," "He that comes to Me I will in no wise cast out," and Scripture says of Christ: "A bruised reed He shall not break, and the smoking wick He shall not snuff out."

Christ's standards for the Blessed Life are so different from anything mankind could invent that they stand in sharp contrast against the ideals of man-made religions. Oriental religions, for instance, have a list of Five "Happinesses." Keep the Beatitudes in mind as you hear these. The Five Happinesses are: 1) long life, 2) riches, 3) soundness of body and peace of mind, 4) love of virtue, and 4) a worthy death. Now, that's not a bad list, but how different is that from poverty of spirit, mourning, meekness, mercy, purity, and persecution!

If you ask our culture to set up standards for the Blessed Life, it would say that you have to have things like this: a sharp, calculating mind, self-confidence in your ability to get ahead, connections with all the right people, control over your feelings so that you don't go overboard in your relationships, an aggressive spirit that'll always fight for your rights. And in addition to that ya gotta have money - lots of it! Otherwise, you'll never be able to enjoy the best the world has to offer. That stuff about poverty of spirit, meekness, mercy, seeking after righteousness? Leave that to the sissies and dreamers.

Now, don't be surprised by this. After all, the Beatitudes aren't for our culture; their meaning is utterly foreign to it.

Here's why: For today's culture life ends at the grave, so its evaluation of the "blessedness" is going to be confined to earthly life. God, eternity, divine judgment - these are medieval superstitions to contemporary society. Secular people have no reason to permit these "outmoded" ideas to influence their lives in any way. Why should they be poor in spirit? That's not going to make them more successful. Why should they be meek? It's not going to help them get ahead. Why should they embrace persecution? How's that going to add to their enjoyment of life?

They're convinced that when this life is over, that's it - end of the line; nothing left for them but a hole in the ground. So why shouldn't they want to squeeze every drop of pleasure they can out of life? They have as little use for Jesus' concept of the Blessed Life as a tree has for a tool box. Luther says: "This sermon does the world no good and accomplishes nothing for it," because, as I said, the Beatitudes aren't for them; they're for believers; believers are the only ones who can understand them.

Through the working of the Holy Spirit believers have been brought to faith in Christ and have become "new creatures," with new motives for living, new goals, and a new sense of values. They don't make things up as they go; Christ tells them what motives are godly, what goals are worthwhile, and what the fruits of faith are. One Lutheran theologian wrote: "Not only does Christ want to show men how far even their best efforts are from an adequate fulfillment of the Will of God, but He also wanted to give a lesson in true sanctification to those who by His grace entered into the Kingdom and are desirous of living in accordance with the highest understanding of the Will of God." So, ultimately, the Blessed Life, my friends, is one that is lived in harmony with the God's will. Your happiness depends, not on riches, honor, success, or health, but on the degree to which you live according to the will of God. I want to say that again: Your happiness depends, not on riches, honor, success, or health, but on the degree to which you live according to the will of God.

Now, there's no way we could, in the confines of one sermon, study the Blessed Life in detail, but let's look at some of its chief characteristics.

The first is a rightness of heart - an inward purity that influences both thought and action. Christ stresses this characteristic throughout the Sermon on the Mount. He encourages His followers to keep themselves free not only of murder, but also of hate, not only of adultery, but also of lust, not only of theft, but even of envy. Every Beatitude is directly concerned with a condition of the heart.

To be poor in spirit, to mourn, to be meek, to seek after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to make peace - all of these demand a heart that is right, a heart reconditioned by the love of God. Luther says: "In our heart, we should be able to leave house and home, wife and children. Even though we continue to live among them, eating with them and serving them out of love, as God has commanded, still we should be able, if necessary, to give them up at any time for God's sake. If you are able to do so, you have forsaken everything in the sense that your heart is not taken captive, but remains pure of greed and dependence and trust and confidence in anything (other than God)."

But don't misunderstand this. The Blessed Life is not simply one of inward goodness and purity that loses itself in meditation and contemplation. The Blessed Life it is a life of action. This inward rightness will permeate our whole being and stir us to act. The Blessed Life is recognized by the fruit it produces. "Every good tree," Jesus says, "brings forth good fruit," and He praises those who act on His teaching, not those who just listen. It is not the lover of peace that is blessed, but the maker of peace. The merciful heart will not only sympathize with cold and starving refugees, it'll clothe and feed them. It's not enough to want to do good. Good desires need to leave the heart and live in the real world.

Another characteristic of the Blessed Life is love. There can be no Blessed Life without it. Only love can produce any growth in the Blessed Life; only love can produce good deeds and make them worthwhile. And love for God stands at the top of the list.

A person who truly lives the Blessed Life takes no credit for it; he stands before God in humble gratitude, fully aware of the fact that he has no reason for boasting; he is what he is and does what he does only by the goodness and mercy of God. Everything he has comes from God; he knows that. So he uses his possessions like a guest in someone else's home. He's easily touched by the troubles and tragedies of others and he finds comfort in sharing the love of God with them. He takes a stand for the weak and defenseless. With eagerness and intensity he longs for, works for, strives for, all that is good and right, in his own life and in the world around him.

But he is compassionate, forgiving gladly, showing patience, lifting the fallen, assisting the needy. His desire to love and serve God, leads him to consider what God says, to replace his own ideas with the Word of God. Because he is a child of the Prince of Peace, he loves peace, speaks peace, brings peace, which some accept, but more resent, because his way of living, his words, everything about him rebukes their godlessness and selfishness and calls them to repentance. But he bears it all for the sake of his Savior, and counts it a privilege, not only to believe in Christ, but also to suffer for His sake. And when his own life is lacking, he falls on his knees in repentance and faith, asking forgiveness and knowing he has it for Jesus' sake.

Such is the person who lives the Blessed Life. He's a member of the family of God and is keenly aware of this relationship. He may be poor, and yet, in Christ, all things are his. And when he is inadequate for the tasks and demands of daily existence, he remembers that His Savior is more than adequate, and leans all the more on Jesus, the Strength of his life. Truly, such a life has no fear of death. As for all whose names we remember today, who have departed this life in faith during the past year, those who live the Blessed Life have their eyes fixed on the new Jerusalem, marching steadily onward toward their final destiny - their home in heaven with their Lord and Savior.

Beloved, let there is a spring in your step today, a twinkle in your eye, and a song in your heart, for sooner than you think you too will enter the full joy of what is already yours by faith. To God be the glory. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
11:46 am est

THE OPEN BIBLE
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Reformation Sunday
Sermon
10-26-2008

Revelation 14:6-7

6 Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 And he said with a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water."

Many years ago, our Church Fathers selected this passage as one of the readings for the Festival of the Reformation and they did so for the simple reason that it reminded them so strikingly of that time in history when, by the courageous testimony and tireless work of the great Reformer, the eternal Gospel was restored to us. We don't know, of course, whether the Holy Spirit had Martin Luther in mind when He gave this revelation to John. Obviously, Luther is not mentioned here.

But we have to admit, I think, that no one fits the description of this text more than Dr. Luther, for Luther's Reformation brought us many things, not the least of which was freedom from the tyranny of Rome. But the greatest blessing God gave to the world through Luther was the rediscovery of the Gospel and the presentation of that Gospel in the form of a Bible that was open to average, everyday people like you and me.

Years ago the music world was in a quandary because the last known maker of the skins for bongo drums had died. You see, there was a special technique he used and all his life he had guarded that secret religiously. The trouble was, he had no apprentice, so when he died, his technique died with him. Musicians all over the world were in great distress over this. Oh, there were imitations, but they were nowhere as good as the real thing. Well, eventually his notes were found and his technique is once again being used. Bongo players the world over may breathe a collective sigh of relief.

In Luther's day, a much more important book had been lost - the Bible itself. And the Church of Rome was giving its people all kinds of substitutes and poor imitations. So much junk had been added to the Bible, so many legends and traditions passed off as Gospel truth, so many rules and regulations tacked on to the body of Christian doctrine, that God's Word had become completely unrecognizable and, therefore, irrelevant to the average Christian. You did as you were told by the church; you believed as you were told to believe; you accepted everything with a blind obedience; and you went through the motions of your religious life without ever really knowing what it was all about.

Why? Because you didn't have a Bible. Oh, there may have been one at the church, or chained to a table in the university library, but it was in a language you didn't understand, and you didn't care very much because you were led to believe that it didn't really matter.

You've probably heard the story about the man who hired a couple of neighborhood boys to paint the porch in back of his house. He said: "I'll pay you twenty bucks to paint the porch." And they said: "Okay, twenty bucks sounds pretty good." So he said: "Alright, here's the paint, and here are some brushes. Now, get to work."

Well, they came back a couple of minutes later and asked: "Are you sure you want us to paint that porch in back of your house?" And he said: "That's right." They said: "But this paint is green." He said: "Right. I want a green porch, so I gave you green paint." They looked at each other a little quizzically, but then shrugged their shoulders and went out back to paint the porch.

About three hours later they came back and said: "Well, we're done." And the man said: "Okay," and proceeded to give them each twenty dollars. As they took the money and started to leave, one of them turned around and said: "Still don't know why you wanted us to paint that porch." And the other one said: "Yeah, and besides that ain't a porch it's a Ferrari!"

In much the same way, the Church had covered up the beauty, the wisdom, the comfort and the majesty of the Word of God. But Luther came and washed the ugly paint away, revealing once again the beauty and power of the Bible. He opened up the Bible and gave it back to the people of God. The Church of Christ went back to the faith and teaching of Christ and His apostles. God gave His Gospel back to the world through Martin Luther.

When Luther finally gained his own conviction and found peace for his troubled soul in the sweet comfort of the pure Gospel, he proceeded to make that rediscovered Bible available to others by giving it to them in their own language. Seventeen years after he nailed those ninety-five theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg, his colossal task of translation was done. In the end, he had spent thirteen years transforming the Word of God from a Greek and Hebrew mystery into a German book that his people could read and understand.

From the very beginning Luther's translation was eagerly accepted by a Gospel-hungry nation. Soon Bibles were given to people in other countries as well, particularly in England, where the Reformation had taken a vigorous hold. We know today that William Tyndale, who paid with his life for putting the Bible into English, depended largely on Luther's German translation, and we know that the King James Bible, which is still widely used, contains at least eighty percent of Tyndale's Old Testament and ninety percent of his New Testament. So the work of Luther still speaks today.

This we remember today as we humbly thank our God for the blessings of the Reformation. We thank God that He used His servant Luther to bring us the gift of the open Bible, that the angel of the eternal Gospel might preach the glad tidings of salvation in Jesus Christ "to those who live on the earth - to every nation, tribe, language and people."

You know, people haven't really changed that much since the days of Moses or the time of Christ or the age of Luther. Maybe we dress a little differently, speak a different language, live in different houses, and have different kinds of jobs. But the same human heart beats within us. Deep down we have the same fundamental needs and desires; we face the same basic problems and cares. We want food and shelter for our bodies, and a loving, forgiving God for our souls. Without these we perish. Wherever we go, we carry a nature desperately inclined toward evil and yet yearning for a way of escape, a conscience troubled by the knowledge that sin has separated us from God, a heart that hungers for a love that will lift us out of our selfishness to the joy of fellowship with a merciful and gracious God.

Where do we find such a God? Where do we find such relief for our troubled souls? Where else? - the open Bible! The eternal Gospel meets our every need.

With a divine sense of values it sweeps aside all pretense of position, culture, race, and color and goes straight to the universal desires of the inner man. With a godly courage it dares to present us to ourselves as we really are. With a heavenly love it binds our spiritual wounds and applies the healing only God can give.

If you are unrepentant you hear the stern voice of an angry God, the unrelenting Judge who demands perfection from anyone and everyone who thinks they can justify themselves.

But if you desire forgiveness it offers you peace and eternal grace in Jesus. Are you terrified because of your sin? Listen, then, as it speaks of the all-sufficient sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for you. Are you overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness and inadequacy before God, knowing that your good works could never appease Him? Listen, as the Bible says: "Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith, without the deeds of the Law," yes, "By grace you are saved, through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, lest any man should boast." Are you being crushed by the weight of worldly cares and day-to-day problems that seem to stack up around you like mountains you could never climb? Listen to the hope and comfort it speaks to you when it says: "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us."

Beloved, is it possible that in this hectic, post-modern world of ours, you and I have risen above these basic human needs? Have we built so many factories and filled them with so many clanging contraptions that God can no longer make Himself heard in all the noise?

Heaven help us if this is true! For then, before we know it, the appalling power that we have seen fit to unleash will crush, annihilate, destroy, and devour us.

Is there any hope? Of course - the open Bible. In the Bible the voice of God rises above the frightening clamor of our maddening world. It brings us to that quiet place where the Spirit of God dwells with His children and reveals to them the unfathomable riches of His redeeming love.

Let me ask you: Do you need that sort of thing today? - the quiet comfort of God's saving grace? Listen to me: If your burden of sin, your pain, your problems, your cares are anything at all like mine, you know that you do!

So why not do something about it? Open your Bible more. Read and study it daily. Let's not take for granted that we can read it anytime we want, but let's actually open it's covers and allow God to nourish our souls with the pure milk and meat of His Word. And let's encourage others to join us as we make real use of this fantastic gift. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
11:39 am est

TWO KINGDOMS
Rev. Steven S. Billings
Pentecost 23
Sermon
10-19-2008

St. Matthew 22:15-22

15 Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words. 16 They sent their disciples to him along with the Herodians. "Teacher," they said, "we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. 17 Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" 18 But Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, "You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me? 19 Show me the coin used for paying the tax." They brought him a denarius, 20 and he asked them, "Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?" 21 "Caesar's," they replied. Then he said to them, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's." 22 When they heard this, they were amazed. So they left him and went away.


We see in this Gospel lesson something Luther called the doctrine of the two kingdoms, that is, the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of the world. It's important to distinguish between the two, allowing each kingdom its own purpose and function, so that neither one infringes upon the other. The kingdom of heaven, which is the greater of the two, often finds itself opposed by its adversaries, but the same is true with the kingdom of the world; the devil is always striving to destroy them both.

But God established both and has built a wall around them to protect them. What this wall is, Jesus tells when He says: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Now, He says this to everyone, so even if they don't want to they're going to have to do it, anyway, whether they like it or not.

The devil, of course, just loves to get in our way when it comes to giving to Caesar and giving to God. He creates division within the church and society for the very purpose of keeping us from giving, but don't worry about that, especially where the church is concerned. The more the devil rages against the kingdom of God, the stronger His church becomes. The more vigorously the devil plants himself against us, the more firmly God insists that His will be done.

When Jesus says: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," He validates the civil government and establishes its authority, so that it is to be obeyed. Even if we disagreed with it, we are still obligated to obey it.

We Christians gladly accept Jesus' words: "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's," understanding that since God has established the government, He must have done so for our good.

Admittedly, there's a lot about civil government that annoys us. We feel it intrudes too much into our personal affairs. It takes too much of our money. It sends our children off to war. It makes all kinds of rules and regulations without ever asking us what we think. Oh yes, I could go on!

But there are many things the government does for us. For the most part we live quite peaceable lives. There are police who patrol our streets and, by and large, scoundrels do not get away with murder. And besides, who is it that builds the roads and maintains them? Who provides prisons for violent and repeat offenders? Who maintains the military to defend us from foreign aggressors? Yup - the government.

Of course, this means that some of what belongs to us will be taken away and given to the government. And this is Scriptural! First Samuel 8 clearly states what the king's right is. Samuel says to the people: "This will be the behavior of the king who will reign over you: He will take your sons and appoint them for his own chariots and to be his horsemen, and some will run before his chariots. He will appoint captains over his thousands and captains over his fifties, will set some to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and some to make his weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers, cooks, and bakers. And he will take the best of your fields, your vineyards, and your olive groves, and give them to his servants. He will take a tenth of your grain and your vintage, and give it to his officers and servants. And he will take your male servants, your female servants, your finest young men, and your donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take a tenth of your sheep. And you will be his servants" (vs. 11-17).

And to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, the prophet Daniel says: "You, O king, are a king of kings. For the God of heaven has given you a kingdom, power, strength, and glory; and wherever the children of men dwell, or the beasts of the field and the birds of the heaven, He has given them into your hand, and has made you ruler over them all" (2:37-38).

Make no mistake: True Christians give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and understand that because God has commanded it, it shall be so.

And so it is that when Jesus says: "Give to God what is God's," He confirms the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is a realm made up of all who trust in Jesus Christ as their Savior. Just as an American citizen swears allegiance to the government, so all Christians solemnly pledge their loyalty in Holy Baptism to Christ, their Lord and God.

Think about how, in our baptism, we renounce the devil, all his works and all his ways, and say that we believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pledging with all our hearts to believe in the one true God and in none other, and to bring forth good works, to be patient, meek, and loving toward our neighbor. This is what Jesus means when He says: "Give to God what is God's." What is God's? Nothing other than faith in Him and love for our neighbor. It's the heart, the very core of who we are as human beings; this is what we owe to God in faith.

So many people, though, deny God what is rightfully His. Look around. This world is full of so many divisive spirits and splinter-groups it's impossible to count them. Satan is constantly creating newer and stranger ideas to divide people. The Holy Scriptures are torn to shreds by those who subvert God's kingdom and pervert His people.

Like those within the civil state who are rebellious and think that everything belongs to them, rebellious people exist within the spiritual realm as well. They think that God's Word is theirs to adapt, bend, and twist to suit themselves, to adulterate Christian doctrine and design good works as they see fit. In other words, they want to be their own masters of faith and lords over the Word of God, even though in baptism they swore allegiance to remain faithful to Christian truth.

As true Christians, therefore, we pray for both kingdoms on earth - God's and Caesar's. It's for the sake of Christians that God spares the world, for when God grants us peace, peace spreads over the whole world, even to those who reject His rightful authority, so that everyone on earths benefit from what Christians enjoy.

Beloved, as we move toward one of the most significant elections in our nation's history, it's more important than ever that we become aware of the distinction between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of this world. On the one hand, conduct your spiritual life in such a way that you, with the help of the Holy Spirit, do indeed give to God what is God's - your faith, your heart, your very being. And on the other hand, conduct your civil life in such a way that you fulfill your duty using the wisdom and understanding that God has given you to His glory and for the greater public good.

Please vote. Vote as a citizen of both kingdoms. Let your values as a citizen of God's kingdom be your guide. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
11:23 am est

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

TO BUDGET, TO BUDGET

Anyone who knows me can tell you: I'm not a "numbers" guy. Sure, I can balance my checkbook and have a pretty good idea of what's coming in and going out. And I understand the importance of living within your means. But I don't live and die by the numbers. This sometimes puts me at odds with people I care very much about.

Last night we had our annual church budget meeting. I knew going in that some would be very upset with the budget. In fact, I've never seen a budget meeting from which all in attendance left contented. And I tried really hard to keep my own feelings in check. After all, I don't really have a dog in the hunt. It's not my budget. I didn't devise it, nor am I in control of any of the spending. So, for the most part, I kept my mouth shut.

But what disturbed me during the course of the discussion - and I suppose it's what disturbs me about numbers-oriented people in general - is the degree of misplaced trust. So many seem to have their trust is in the wrong place. They seem focused on one thing and one thing only: the bottom line. One gets the impression that if the columns were balanced all would be well for them. Never mind ministry. Never mind stepping out in faith. Their faith is in the math and not in God.

Now, I'm not advocating irresponsibility. I would be greatly disappointed if our congregation overspent itself. But all we have at this point in time is a budget shortfall. The ramifications of that are twofold: God has to provide in ways we cannot foresee, or we can't spend all that has been budgeted for.

But in either case it concerns me that some look at this situation as though the sky were falling, as though everything depends on a balanced budget. This is false. This puts the burden entirely on our shoulders, which ignores the reality of the situation. The burden is not on us; it never has been. But we insist on yanking the load out of the hands of Christ, as if we can do a better job of carrying it than He does.

To me - and this may be a failing on my part - this whole thing is a distraction. It seems to me the devil is using this to pull our attention away from the matters to which God has appointed us. Yes, we need to plan. Yes, we need to plan as responsibly as we can. But then we need to lay our plans at the feet of our Savior, ask His help in carrying them out, and then accept His decision as to whether He will enable us or not.

Others will most certainly disagree with me on this. Let them. But when they wag the accusing finger at me, I will return this challenge: Where is your trust? In my experience, the ones who most need to chew on that question are ones who chafe the hardest against it.
7:26 am est

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

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