Sexagesima Sermon, 2019
Matthew 13:1-12
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Thus says the Lord: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I send it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

But, we have to add that Jesus says: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them…Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and down not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path” (Matthew 13:18-19).

I don’t intend to pit the Word of God against itself. I only want to begin by observing that the birds come and devour the seed, that the evil one, satan, comes and snatches away what’s been sown in the heart of a man, and to ask whether or not that’s the purpose for which God intends His Word?

We can confidently answer, “Certainly not.”

Today, it’s our task to set these two truths, both of the Word of God, to set them next to each other, to confess them both, make sense of them both, to confess the reality that, on the one hand, God sends His Word to accomplish the task for which He purposes. He never fails to do so. And, on the other hand, the devil devours certain seeds of the Word, snatching it from the heart of certain men.

Jesus says, “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprung up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:3-9).

Jesus’ parables use familiar images to reveal what’s otherwise unknowable, the truth of the Kingdom of God.

We know how seeds work.

We know that birds eat seeds. We know that seeds planted where feet often fall don’t produce fruit. We know that weeds and thorns growing in the midst of seeds choke out life.

And—we know the joy of a bountiful harvest.

But the Kingdom of God must be revealed because, by earthly standards, it’s ludicrous, illogical, and even scandalous.

We would never understand it if were not revealed to us.

No sower sows his garden on the pavement or gravel of his driveway. No sower looks weeds and thorns in the eye only to plant his tomatoes there in their midst. No sower intends to feed the birds with what should feed his family.

Human sowers take great care to plant in the right places.

We don’t sow seed in the ludicrous, illogical, and scandalous ways this Sower sows the Word.

And that’s the most wonderful news.

I think we call this parable “The Parable of the Sower” only because that’s what Jesus calls it. He says, in explanation of the parable, “Hear then the parable of the sower” (Matthew 13:18).

It’s rare that Jesus names a parable. It’s rare that He explains them. One reason He names and explains this one is so that we get it right.

If Jesus didn’t name this one and explain it, we’d be tempted to call it the Parable of the Different Types of Soil. We’d be tempted to live our lives identifying each other by the type of soil we are, cataloging and categorizing each other, making spiritual inventory lists of soils, and teaching and reading “How To” manuals that look at the methods for how to get the congregation from Point A to Point B, spiritually speaking.

If Jesus didn’t name this one and explain it, I know we’d be tempted to understand this parable that way, the wrong way, because we’re already tempted to understand it that way.

We already try to explain it that way.

We emphasize not the quality of the Sower, we emphasize the soil. We observe in Christians who attend church sporadically, if at all, the fleshly thorns and worldly cares and riches that are all too obvious.

We know what should be done to bad soil to cultivate it into good soil, and so we offer, from on high, our own guidance, our hard-earned wisdom, our methods, many and various, to make a man’s life better—to move him from path and rocks and thorns to good soil.

But that misses the point entirely.

We’re all the types of soil all the time.

When is your heart hardened against God’s Word? We’ll all agree that Christians must pray. But will we all agree that Christians must fast? Jesus doesn’t teach us that if we pray, we’re to pray a certain way. He teaches us that when we pray, we’re to pray a certain way. Likewise, Jesus doesn’t teach us that if we fast, we’re to fast a certain way. He teaches that when we fast, we’re to fast a certain way.

Christian discipleship includes as a meet, right, and salutary discipline prayer, alms giving, and fasting (cf. Matthew 6).

But when we harden our hearts to even some of God’s Word, satan comes and snatches it away.

We may rejoice to receive the Absolution, but we must include in our confession even sins we’ve forgotten.

We must recognize that the Christian life is a constant struggle between God cultivating bad soil into good (God is the Sower—His Word is the seed) and good soil bearing fruit—some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty.

If we emphasize ourselves and focus on which type of soil we are or should be, we fail to confess exactly how God makes believers out of bad soil. We fail to put the emphasis on the right syllable of God’s Word.

It’s the parable of the Sower.

So, observe the specific—ludicrous, illogical, and even scandalous—qualities of God, the Sower.

He sows from an unimaginable bounty, without the fear of running out. Understanding the seed to be the Word of God, we should understand God, the Sower, to be causing His Word to be preached in such a way as to reap a harvest from everywhere, from all nations, tribes, languages, and people.

We should understand the Sower and the Word of God in this way: that God wholeheartedly desires you, your salvation, your everlasting rest and peace.

And to make that happen, He sends His Word as rain and snow, going out from His mouth, through His many and various mouthpieces. “It shall not return to [Him] empty, but it shall accomplish that which [He purposes], and shall succeed in the thing for which [He sends] it” (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11).

So, let’s deal, now, with the fact that God never fails in causing His Word to be preached to all nations, and Jesus tells us that satan devours some of the seed, snatching it away from the hearts of certain men.

This must be said.

Jesus speaks in parables “because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand” (Matthew 13:13).

If you harden your heart to God’s Word, satan will snatch the Word away before it can create in you a clean heart.

If you fail to confess your sins, the fleshly thorns and worldly cares of this life will choke out any chance you have to bear fruit for your neighbor’s good and to God’s glory.

If you fail to grow and mature in faith, to gladly hear the Word of God, preached and taught, you’ll wither when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the Word.

And then you’ll be angry at others because you don’t know the things you should know.

If we emphasize the soil over the Sower, we’ll fear judgment, we’ll scorn God’s Word, because we’re aware of our sins, our rocks, our thorns.

But he who has ears, let him hear of the Sower who causes His Word to be preached from an endless supply.

Hear of the Sower who’s sent you His Holy Spirit, who writes the preached Word into your hearts, that you would receive it with joy and serve God and neighbor with gladness that confesses thorns and rocks for what they are—sin—and receiving the Absolution unto everlasting life.

Hear of the Sower who uses all things, even wicked satan and evil, for the good of those who love God. Satan means it for evil, but God means it for good. The birds who snatch the seed away deposit it eventually elsewhere, if you follow me, though they don’t intend to do so.

The snare the devil sets for us has himself ensnared.

 Do you see how Jesus bears this attack for us? He carried His cross along the packed path and planted it in the hard and rocky soil of Golgotha. A crown of thorns was placed upon His head. Satan and his demons hellishly hounded and devoured Him. Yet, through His dying and rising again, our Lord and Christ, Jesus, destroys these enemies of ours. Jesus is Himself the Seed which, cast out by His Father, died, was put into the earth, to bring forth to new life and produce much.

Jesus is the Word of God, the Sower, which doesn’t return void but yields a harvest a hundredfold.

This is the Parable of the Sower—who went out to sow—that you would be see, and hear, and understand these Words unto life everlasting.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2019
Matthew 17:1-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The disciple Peter is what all of the disciples would look like if they were reduced to one person.

They all, together, get it wrong.

But Peter, as the one, gets it wrong the most.

The worst.

In Matthew chapter sixteen, the chapter immediately before today’s Gospel lesson, Peter makes this wonderful confession of who Jesus is, he says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).

Immediately after that, however, Jesus foretells his death and resurrection, and Peter rebukes Jesus: “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22).

Rebuking Jesus and denying to Him the cross, the salvation of the world, causes our Lord to call Peter by yet another name when He says, “Get [thee] behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23).

For Peter and all of the disciples, that must have been a low point.

But then, in Matthew chapter twenty-six, there’s, perhaps, a lower one.

Jesus predicts Peter and the other disciples’ denial of Him, saying, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31).

But Peter answered Him, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (Matthew 26:33). And he adds, “‘Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you!’ And all the disciples said the same” (Matthew 26:35).

The sheepish disciples, of course, scatter, when their shepherd is struck. And Peter denies Jesus three times, as Jesus predicted.

For them all, this must have been a low point.

Today, we have in our minds the account of the Transfiguration—both a mountaintop experience for Peter and another low point.

In the presence of the seemingly unveiled Son of God, “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (Matthew 16:4).

Now, to say it simply, Peter has no problem with Jesus being the Christ.

He has no problem with glory on the mountaintop.

Peter’s problem is with suffering. With death. And so Peter stands not only as the twelve disciples reduced to one but as all Christians, all of us, reduced to one.

We don’t have a problem with mountaintop experiences; American Christianity chases after them.

In a lot of places, experience seems to validate the faith of a person, and the more strange, dangerous, or inexplicable the experience, the greater the faith.

If a child, encouraged by his family, makes up a story (or even gives the true account of a dream) about going to heaven, what it’s like there, that it’s for real, you can be sure that boy will be on the news, publish a book, and sell his story for a major motion picture.

Exactly that happened, because those are the stories we like to hear.

But if another child sings a hymn—not a 7/11 song, where the same seven words are repeated eleven times, but an actual hymn of the church—if a child sings a hymn, recites a prayer from memory, or sings the Liturgy, that’s not a story that sells.

There’s nothing fantastical about that.

That—ironically—doesn’t grab our attention with the allure of theophany the way books and movies do.

The popularity of such things shows us that, like Peter, we don’t have a problem with mountaintop experiences, or glory, or Jesus being the Christ.

Rather, we—like Peter—have a problem with suffering. With death. With the gospel truth that a faithful life is lived under the weight of a cross that God designed, cut, and gave specifically to you to bear.

Peter confesses Jesus to be the Christ. (Good.)

The Christ Himself confesses “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).

That doesn’t look like what we want faithfulness to look like, so Peter, standing in for us all, rebukes Jesus.

But to rebuke Jesus for going to the cross, to attempt to hinder Jesus from His mission, is satanic.

Peter, again, standing in for us, can’t understand death, specifically Jesus’ death, as the sacrifice and victory that it is.

He has pretty words: “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away…Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Matthew 26:33, 35).

But Peter doesn’t have to die with Jesus—he still denies him (and three times!).

Today, Peter rejoices to see the Christ in glory.

Whatever his motivation, whatever his intent, he desires to prolong his mountaintop experience saying, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matthew 17:4).

The center of Peter’s world is what he can see.

The center of the disciples’ world is what they can see.

The center of our world is what we can see.

Peter sees Jesus in glory, and wants to partake of it.

So do James and John, the disciples who are with him.

So would we!

But the center of the gospel is not what we see but what we hear:

The voice from heaven. The voice from God our Heavenly Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

He says this while Peter is still speaking.

God the Father interrupts Peter—gently—but clearly so as to identify all that Peter, the disciples, and we need for life.

“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Of course we need to know who God is: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Spirit, sent by the Father and the Son, reveals the Word of God to us, the Son of God to us. And the Son reveals to us the Father, who is merciful.

And of course we need to listen to all of what Jesus says. Of course we do.

But perhaps, most especially, we should listen to what, in Matthew’s account of the gospel, Jesus says in the immediate context of His Father’s imperative.

Just before and just after today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus predicts His passion, death, and resurrection.

Before the Transfiguration, Jesus says that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).

The response to this was Peter’s rebuke.

After the Transfiguration, Jesus says “‘The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.’ And they were greatly distressed” (Matthew 17:22-23).

…Because they don’t listen to Jesus.

The key, the center of our comfort today, is in verse nine. “As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Tell no one the vision, until the Son of Man is raised from the dead’” (Matthew 17:9).

Peter’s life—the life of a disciple of Jesus, the Christ—your life as a Christian—none of it makes sense apart from the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Apart from that, we can’t understand suffering, let alone endure it with patience and faith.

Apart from that, we can’t understand death, let alone die well and teach our loved ones to do the same, with patience and faith.

Apart from the resurrection of the body, we can’t even understand glory, because ever trophy on this side of things will fade away. And on the other side of things, there is only immortality and the imperishable dress God bestows on you.

Only with the resurrection in mind can we—do we—endure suffering and death with patience and faith.

Only with the knowledge and certain hope that Jesus is coming soon, that there’s a place prepared for you, that where He is and as He is you will be also, only with that knowledge and certain hope can we endure suffering and death with patience and faith.

And not only that, we also come to desire for ourselves what God desires for us:

To hear Jesus.

Out of either the perceived need or just the want of the experience, every one of us desires the miraculous, the mountaintop, something like the Transfiguration.

But—after Jesus’ resurrection—this is how Peter spoke of such things: “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain.[But] we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention…knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:16-21).

That is, the words of Jesus are better than any mountaintop or miracle.

Hear them.

Though discipleship may, will, and does include suffering and death—the crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus shows us how the story ends.

Shows us how the Christian’s story—your story—will end: with the same words Jesus spoke to Peter and to the disciples: “Rise, and have no fear” (Matthew 16:7).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Funeral of Alvin A. Schroll
Proverbs 3:5-6; Lamentations 3:22-26, 31-33; John 11:21-27
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard [me say], ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help!’ You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’” (Lamentations 3:55-57).

It was a theme, so it seems from my perspective, of Alvin’s life—and so also of yours, Dorothy—to constantly have both a reason to cry out to God for help and a reason to rejoice.

Your life together, sixty-seven years, is an amazing story, and ever since I met you, ever since I first visited Alvin in the nursing home, or hospital, or your home, I was amazed both at what has happened to you and how you’ve handled it.

I don’t say these things to shock or to dwell in pain; I say these things because this was the type of man Alvin was.

Serving in the Army, he was stationed in Alaska—that was before Alaska was a state, which is to say, before Alaska had roads, right?

While there, a volcano erupted a few dozen miles away, dust and ash blocking out all light.

It was also in Alaska where your infant twins went to be with Jesus.

As dark as day is made by an erupting volcano, that was darker.

“Trust in the Lord will all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Not easy and not always downhill, but straight.

In the midst of tragedy, you cried out to God and endured: faithfully, patiently. “’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:24).

Alvin soldiered on.

And Dorothy, so did you.

After Alaska, was Japan—where the monsoon hit.

After Japan was Germany, but in between was the stop in Guam. You stopped in Guam because an engine on the plane kept giving out (above shark-infested waters, right?).

In Germany you lived, for a time, with Hitler’s secretary—not really, but it may as well have been. No heat, snow on your bed in the mornings, and cold, cold baths.

Those were the good days.

But “the Lord will not cast off forever…though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).

Dorothy, you and Alvin have had many reasons to cry out to God for help.

I’d like to take some time to reflect on some of the ways God has provided that help.

Probably the first time Alvin cried out to God for help was at his baptism, when his family brought him to Jesus, for Jesus to save him.

“’I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit; you heard

[me say]

, ‘Do not close your ear to my cry for help!’ You came near when I called on you; you said, ‘Do not fear!’” (Lamentations 3:55-57).

In the last few weeks, when I would talk with Alvin, he knew what was happening, and he wasn’t afraid.

He didn’t like what was happening to him. His mind was still there—he’d still let you know what he thought—but in Holy Baptism, Alvin cried out to God for help, and in Holy Baptism, God said to Alvin, “Do not fear.”

Alvin leaned not on his own understanding.

The Lord was his portion.

He waited quietly for the salvation of the Lord, and on Friday, February 1st, salvation found him—he went to be with Jesus.

Born May 6th, 1932, he married Dorothy May 17th, 1951 and served over twenty-two years in the U.S. Army.

He’s survived by his wife, Dorothy, his daughters Susan and Debra, son Gary, nine grandchildren, sixteen great-grandchildren, a sister, Marge, brothers Don and Bill, and several nieces and nephews.

Preceding him in death were his parents, twins Alvin and Allen, his son Allen, great-granddaughter Olivia, and his sister Doris.

Now, all that said, we all have reason to cry out to God for help.

 “I called on your name, O Lord, from the depths of the pit…” But let’s be honest—it doesn’t always feel like God has heard our plea, and it certainly doesn’t always feel like God has come near to us, to help us.

There are terrors we’d rather not name.

Terrors we’d rather not think about.

But I want you to know of the help that God has provided—the words that He has spoken—the love that He has shown.

In Jesus Christ our Lord, God our gracious and caring Heavenly Father has provided for each and every one of us, for each and every person of all times and places, essentially saying to us all: “Do not fear.”

Did you notice how the second stanza to “Jesus Loves Me” had us sing it? “Jesus loves me! / He who died / Heaven’s gates to open wide. / He has washed away my sin, / Lets His little child come in” (LSB 588:2).

Some versions of this hymn say “will” instead of “has” but, of course, what Jesus “has” done is washed away our sin.

That’s what His crucifixion and death “has” done.

That’s what His resurrection “has” done.

That’s what His victory over sin, death, and satan “has” done—He “has” washed away my sin. Your sin. All sin.

In one moment, on one day, our gracious God and Father took all sin and buried it in the flesh of Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.

In burying sin, God buried His Son.

But on the Third Day, only Jesus is raised.

Sin stays buried, Jesus is raised to life, so “Behold the Lamb of God who takest away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

It’s taken away.

It’s washed away.

Yours. Mine. Alvin’s. All.

Believe this—and it is as though God has spoken to you the same words He spoke to Alvin: “Do not fear.”

Believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world, and you will have everlasting life.

God has washed away and forgiven your sin. All sin.

Believe that.

When you cry out to God for help, he has made your path straight.

He may not make it easy. He may not make it downhill.

It may be uphill, both ways, in the snow—like it was in Alaska.

God may give you a straight path that intersects with a monsoon.

He may give you Hitler’s secretary as a landlord, and there might very well be sharks in the water.

But He has not abandoned you. You are not alone.

“The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is [the Lord’s] faithfulness. ’The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (Lamentations 3:22-24).

“For the Lord will not cast off forever…though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of man” (Lamentations 3:31-33).

I think most people are familiar with the story of Lazarus from St. John’s account of the gospel.

That’s where Jesus says the most comforting words: “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

We know what that means.

“Though [Alvin] die, yet shall he live.”

We believe and confess the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.

We know that we’ll see Alvin again.

Though we die, yet shall we live, with him and with Jesus.

We know what joy there’ll be in the feast prepared for him and for us—when Alvin will eat again as he once did.

That’s what Jesus’ words tell us.

Alvin’s words—and his life, and his actions—tell us what he believed.

He lived and loved and served and worked—crying out to God for help—and, in the midst of many terrors, being helped by God.

His last words in my hearing were of his family.

His last words were of those he loved and missed, that he hasn’t seen for so long, but would very soon see again.

His last words confessed His faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of God who is coming into the world.

If you would see Alvin again—Brother, Dad, Grandpa—if you would see him again—believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live” (John 11:25).

Cry out to God for help.

He has washed away your sins, saying, “Do not fear.”

In the midst of all our terrors, that is a cause and a reason to rejoice.

Dorothy—the Lord is with you.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Epiphany 4 Sermon, 2019
Jonah 1; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 8:23-27
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

There’s no such thing as a crisis in the Church.

“Crisis” can be defined as “a time of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger,” and, right away, you can tell I have some ‘splaining to do.

If you look at a chart of the use of the word “crisis” before 1860, you would see that it was used infrequently.

Around 1860, usage of the word “crisis” jumped. Why? The American Civil War.

And if you look again from between 1900 to 1950, usage of the word “crisis” increases again and sharply. Why? War, the Great Depression, and war, again.

And then, from 1950 to the early 2000’s, you might be surprised to learn, usage of the word “crisis” increased again, this time dramatically.

From 2008 to 20016 there seems to be a drop in usage of the word, but in 2016—it skyrockets.

Now, I’m not saying that we manufacture crises that don’t actually exist.

And we haven’t changed the definition.

But it does seem that the threshold for what constitutes “intense difficulty, trouble, or danger” has been somewhat lowered if not completely abolished.

In the 19th century, it took families fighting each other to the death for the word “crisis” to be employed.

And in the 20th century, we can’t be surprised that two world wars, the Great Depression, and the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons caused an uptick in usage of the word “crisis.”

But is it really a crisis when Johnny and Suzie aren’t talking to each other? I mean, they still text and send snaps, so is it really a crisis that they’re not speaking?

The real crisis today is when people actually try to talk to each other.

“Honey, we need to talk.”

“Oh, no…”

“Son, put down your phone, I need to say something.”

“It’s not mine. I mean, what’d you find? I mean, what’s wrong?”

It’s not a crisis if the plot to Avengers: Endgame is ruined for you, or if the conclusion to Game of Thrones is ruined for you, or that Fuller House will conclude after its fifth season.

Now, I know that I’m picking soft examples of this.

But the word “crisis” should be reserved for times of intense difficulty, trouble, or danger, and Christians should remember that there’s no such thing as a crisis in the Church.

And that’s not because the Time of the Church is a time of complete and perfect ease.

I’m not saying that’s the way it is—I’m saying that’s the way it will be—and, scowl fierce as he will, there’s nothing the devil can do about it.

The readings today provide us the opportunity to observe, remember, and confess the gospel, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

The Gospel in Jonah isn’t that the storm quieted down, because your storm, the storm of your life may not quiet down.

The storm of your life, in whatever form it takes, may rage against you all your days. It may swamp the boat, take you hostage, and claim your life, but that doesn’t stop the Gospel from saving you.

Not at all.

This is the Gospel in Jonah: that one man would be lifted up and cast into the deep, into death, that the many, who looked to him and lifted him up, would be preserved in the midst of the storm.

This is the Gospel, foreshadowed in Jonah: that Jesus the Christ was lifted up into the sinner’s place and cast into death that all those whose sin caused Him to be lifted up would look on Him and be saved, whatever the storm.

See—this Gospel doesn’t mean that there’s never a time of difficulty, trouble, or danger. But it does mean that there’s no time when whatever difficulty, trouble, or danger is too much for you—and the God who fights for you.

The Gospel in Romans chapter eight adds this nuance:

In the midst of the storm, we are all groaning, calling out to God for an end to suffering and evil—and with us, creation groans as well: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hopethat the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.And not only the creation, but we ourselves” (Romans 8:19-23).

That this is true, we can’t and don’t deny.

What this looks like, is a great question.

I’m not saying that corn and tomatoes cry out to God, but it is only with great toil, much sweat, and burdensome labor that plants yield up their fruit, and that’s not how it should be.

That’s not the “very good” of God’s creation.

In its own way, Creation lets us know that all is not well. It is waiting for the same thing we are.

St. Paul adds this as well: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us…[for we ourselves] groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:18, 23).

We await the redemption of our bodies.

There’s no such thing as a crisis in the Church, not because life is easy but because it will be forever.

There’s no such thing as a crisis in the Church, not because our bodies remain healthy and strong all our days, but because our bodies will be redeemed and raised to perfect, blessed, and everlasting life.

Which brings us, finally, to the Gospel in today’s Gospel lesson.

“And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him.And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves” (Matthew 8:23-24).

But Jesus was asleep, because He came to seek and save the lost, to die for the sins of the world, to be lifted up in the sinner’s place and cast into death that we who look upon Him would be saved.

A storm, fierce though it may be, won’t change that.

But “[the disciples] went and woke him, saying, ‘Save us, Lord; we are perishing.’And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’ Then he rose and rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was a great calm.And the men marveled, saying, ‘What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?’” (Matthew 8:25-27).

And now we know the answer.

What sort of man is He?

Jesus, truly man, truly God, is the sort to save us from the word “crisis.”

There’s no such thing as a crisis in the Church, because no difficulty, trouble, or danger separated Jesus from the cross.

So no difficulty, trouble, or danger can possibly separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

The next time a crisis creeps up on you, the next time you hear the word used, take heart, be of good cheer, do not be afraid.

You need the Gospel, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

Nothing can separate you from that.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, 2019
Matthew 8:1-13
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The Old Testament and Gospel lessons give us an interesting comparison.

Naaman, the leper, expected the man of God to put on a show, saying: “Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper” (2 Kings 5:11).

He was disappointed that only a messenger of the man of God arrived, telling him to wash in a dirty river. He said, “‘Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage” (2 Kings 5:12).

Naaman’s servants prevailed upon him to hear and believe the words of the messenger of the man of God who did actually say, “Wash and be clean” (cf. 2 Kings 5:10, 13).

So “So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14).

Then, Naaman said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).

This is interesting because we often share in Naaman’s frustrations.

He wanted the miraculous show and had to humble himself to wash in a dirty river.

We, sometimes, want the miraculous show, the so-called “spirit-filled” still, small voice.

We’re disappointed with what is common and average. We want that special feeling or at least the look of worldly success, a reason to boast.

But—for Naaman and for us all—God wants none of that for you.

He gives you the opposite, in fact, on purpose, to test your faith.

You want God Himself? He sends a servant.

You want visible miracles, hand waving, and the Almighty God working wonders? He gives you water, bread, wine, the sign of the cross, and the spoken words of Jesus Christ.

You want the rivers of Damascus.

He gives you the River Jordan, or Girard and Virden tap water.

God works not according to smoke and mirrors, not in our feelings, not even in our memories of golden days and years and the worldly look of success.

God works according to His Word proclaimed, in water and bread and wine included in and combined with His Word. That’s how God works…

…Until the leper in today’s Gospel lesson.

In Matthew chapter eight, “Behold, a leper came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I will; be clean.’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them’” (Matthew 8:2-4).

Right after saying that God doesn’t do the whole “special show” thing, Jesus seems to do exactly that, a special miraculous show for this leper.

Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He indicated the will of God to cleanse the leper by saying, “I will…” (Matthew 8:3). And He spoke cleansed flesh into existence by saying, “…Be clean” (Matthew 8:3).

He put on a show.

A small one, but—in comparison to Naaman—a show.

Here’s the difference, and we know this by inference:

Naaman wanted the show. He didn’t get one.

The leper before Jesus knew Him to be a merciful God. He doesn’t say “Lord, if you will…” (Matthew 8:2) because he doubts that Jesus wants to cleanse him or is able to.

No.

He says, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2), because faith asks God for everything—even the desires of our heart—and—simultaneously, as in the prayer that Jesus teaches—faith appends “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) to whatever we ask, trusting and knowing that God wants and does only what’s best for us, even if it doesn’t feel like it, even if it’s not what we most want for ourselves.

God is merciful. And Jesus, in verse four, says to the now ex-leper, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4).

Jesus says this so that the man knows that he is loved by God. There is no ulterior motive 

to the miracle. God loves him. Desires him to be clean. Tell no one so that you know that God did this out of love—and not a desire for fame or prestige.

And that may be an odd thought for us.

God can endure a lack of prestige and fame. In fact, God endures slander.

Jesus endures slander.

The Church endures slander.

Pastors endure slander.

Christians endure slander.

And we still have church on Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, and any other days the people of God gather in His name.

We have the words of eternal life.

If you don’t like that—if you disagree—if the gospel scandalizes you because I say you have sin to confess and you, like so many others, say, “Whatever…”, if you don’t like that—I’ll be here next week saying the same thing—and it should and will be that way in every church because that’s what the words of Christ declare.

And only now do we get to the most marvelous example of them all—the centurion.

“When [Jesus] had entered Capernaum, a centurion came forward to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly’” (Matthew 8:5-6).

And—contrary to Naaman—what does Jesus do?

He offers immediately to go and do as the man requests, saying, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7).

“But the centurion replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it’” (Matthew 8:8-9).

The centurion could’ve seen the show, the pomp. He could’ve been part of the prestige, the talk of the town, but he cares only for his servant, saying, “I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but a word, and my servant will be healed” (cf. Matthew 8:8).

And Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.

“He marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly…with no one in Israel have I found such faith. …Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…[where there will be] weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (Matthew 8:11-12).

“And to the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13).

It’s important, of course, that Jesus finds no equal in all Israel to this Gentile centurion’s faith.

That’s good news. Salvation is to all.

But it’s important, also, to note again that Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.

Only twice in the New Testament does Jesus marvel.

He marvels here, in Matthew chapter eight, at the faith of centurion (and in the parallel account recorded in Luke chapter seven).

Jesus marvels at faith.

And—He marvels at unbelief.

In Mark chapter six, when Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Nazareth, they take offense at Him, “And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).

He who has ears to hear, let him hear:

Jesus marvels at faith to show us what’s acceptable to Him.

If He had before Him all the kings and presidents of the world, the celebrities and mansions and gold of the world—if Jesus had all that before Him—and alongside was the newly-baptized, scarred but content face of a Down Syndrome baby who survived the attempted abortion—it is the baptized child of God that is acceptable to Him—and not the wanted wealth of the world.

Jesus marvels at faith—big or small—that trusts in Him for salvation, showing us what is acceptable to Him.

But Jesus also marvels at unbelief.

Not because it’s acceptable, but because it makes no sense to reject the gospel.

You have a loving God, who recognizes unregenerate man’s condition as eternally terminal, and sends His Son into our flesh to bear our sin and be our savior.

Jesus, the Son of God, has come to seek and save us all.

So “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Romans 1:16-17).

…In the Word of God that accomplishes exactly what God sends it out to do.

His will.

The forgiveness of sins.

The resurrection of the body.

And the life everlasting.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Epiphany 2 Sermon, 2019
John 2:1-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“If these walls could talk…” is an adaptable saying familiar enough that it doesn’t have to be expounded upon.

Whether it’s a place of any historic interest, be it a meeting room, a battlefield, or a flower garden, the saying “If these walls could talk…” implies that there’d be a great story, a great lesson, to be heard and learned.

 Well, if the six stone jars could talk, what would they have to say?

The stone jars in John chapter two are identified as being there “for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6).

These stone jars held the water that was used to purify those sinners looking for forgiveness.

What do you think they heard?

What would they have had to say?

Or, think of it in terms of the Church today—if the altar rail could talk, what would it have to say?

The altar rail is, of course, where you kneel to receive the forgiveness of sins in the Sacrament of the Altar, but it is also where penitents come to confess their sins to their pastor, seeking the specific joy of sins forgiven in private absolution.

What have the stone jars witnessed and overheard?

Who’s knelt before this altar? Who should and hasn’t?

Stone jars and a wooden altar rail don’t have your best interests at heart.

They can’t talk, but if they could, they’d speak only reminders of our many sins and failings, the many times we’ve needed the jars for purification and the rail for absolution.

What would people say of you if they knew you went to confession every week or even every month?

“There’s So-and-So, confessing sins. My goodness, you’d think she’d just get ahold of herself.”

And if these walls could talk, or the jars, or the rail, it would chime right in, “You don’t know the half of it…Let me tell you…”

The details may change from age to age, but the story’s the same.

We’re afraid to confess sin, because we’re afraid to speak out loud our most shameful thoughts, words, and deeds.

If I tell you that I go to confession once a month because I desperately need to do so, there’re people who’ll be legitimately shocked.

“There goes Pastor, confessing his sins, again. My goodness, you’d think he’d just get ahold of himself.”

Consider, though, what that sounds like when I say it this way:

“There goes Pastor, receiving and believing the gospel again. My goodness, you’d think once a week is enough for a person.”

We’re afraid.

Specifically, we’re afraid to go to private confession.

Generally, we’re afraid to deal honestly with our sins, live at peace with each other, and grow and mature in faith and holiness of living.

We’re afraid, because we’re wrong about what Confession is.

If the stone jars could talk, they’d have nothing positive to say.

If the altar rail could talk, it would have nothing positive to say.

And if you fail to consider that the jars are used for purification, that the rail is used as a place to pour out salvation, then you fail to consider what God has to say about things.

Our world is drab and lifeless, in desperate need of joy.

You can grow used to the drab. You can dull your heart to all that the rail would have to say to you. You can worship at another altar, one less prohibitive, one that encourages the blasphemous hedonism of our darkened age. You can find camaraderie amongst addicts. You can find comfort in the fact that Netflix and Hulu will auto-play the next episode. You can buy online and have it shipped to your door. You can make a name for yourself and nothing you propose to do will be impossible to you (cf. Genesis 11).

You can do all this, but you will not find joy.

The wedding at Cana was a dull affair—they ran out of wine.

Steakhouses always have steak. McDonald’s always has a BigMac. And Walmart has “Low Prices. Always.”

Weddings never run out of wine.

So they’re poor or wasteful, that’s the implication.

And Mary says to Jesus, “They have no wine” (John 2:3).

Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4).

You might think that by Jesus saying, “What does this have to do with me,” He has nothing to do with a wedding running out of wine, but that’s not true.

That Jesus’ hour has not yet come means the hour for the Son of Man to be glorified has not yet come. He means it’s not yet time for Him to ascend the Cross and win humanity from death.

And He’s right—this is just John chapter two, we’re not that far into it yet.

But the two have this in common.

Wine at a wedding provides joy.

Scripture is clear about the joy of wine: God causes the grass and plants to grow, “that [man] may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (cf. Psalm 104:14-15).

And the crucifixion of Jesus the Christ, His death for us and for our salvation, is the source and cause of our unending joy.

Mary, knowing for what purpose Jesus came into the world, asked Jesus to bring about a little joy.

Jesus, knowing for what purpose He came into the world, replied that the hour for that joy had not yet come.

Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5), because she knew the joy of God.

And not only does the water become wine, it becomes the best wine.

“This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

As often as you can—but especially when confronted with all that is drab and dark in our world—remember the joy of the Lord.

Or, rather, remember that our Lord, in all that He does, brings joy.

To each wedding. To each family. To each day.

It may be the joy of learning not to rely on things.

It may be the hard-earned joy of a good friend instead of the false-but-quick-satisfaction that the Internet bestows.

It may be the joy (and pain) of children, the indescribable joy of raising a family in the one, true faith.

It certainly is the joy of the forgiveness of sins, which we receive, again and again, always needed, always relevant.

Remember to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and…run with endurance the race that is set before [you], looking to Jesus, the [author] and perfecter of [your] faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is [now] seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (cf. Hebrews 12:1-2).

As Martin Luther wrote in his 1529 Admonition to [Private] Confession: “If you were a Christian, you should be glad to embrace the opportunity of going even a hundred miles or more to discharge the duty [to confess your sins and receive the absolution], and not permit yourself to be compelled, but come and urge us to hear your confession. For here the constraint must be reversed, so that [pastors] are subjected to the command, and you be vested with the liberty; we force no one, but permit ourselves to be urged, even as we are constrained to preach, and to administer the sacraments. When we admonish to confession, therefore, we do nothing else but admonish every one to become a Christian; if I succeed in bringing you to this, I have also brought you to confession. For those who long to be pious Christians, to be free from their sins, and to have [consciences filled with joy], have the right hunger and thirst already” (from the Henkel Book of Concord translation of Luther’s 1529 Brief Admonition to Confession).

Remember the joy of the Lord.

That all our Lord does and says brings joy.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2019
Matthew 3:13-17
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

In the first two chapters of his account of the gospel, St. Matthew records details that describe Jesus as the Christ (or Messiah), as the Almighty King, and as the promised Son of David.

Introducing his account of the gospel, St. Matthew begins: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1).

In the genealogy of Jesus, St. Matthew includes “Boaz the father of Obed the father of Jesse the father of David the king” (cf. Matthew 1:5-6).

In the account of the birth of Jesus the Christ, St. Matthew connects Jesus to David the king with these words from an angel of the Lord: “Joseph, son of David…” (Matthew 1:20).

In the visit of the magi, in the presence of Herod the king, the magi ask, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2).

And, of course, there is a working contrast here, in that, “when Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matthew 2:3).

This is how St. Matthew begins his account of the gospel. He describes accurately the events that have occurred, but he also tells us what to expect from Jesus.

Now, two-thousand years later, we’re used to calling Jesus king and God and Lord, but this was still new to St. Matthew and his audience.

So imagine not knowing what you know about Jesus and reading the first two chapters of the gospel according to St. Matthew.

The expectation is set for Jesus to be royal—of the house and lineage of David, born King of the Jews, promised from of old, hailed by signs in the stars.

So Jesus will be King.

Add, on top of that, the natural comparison of Jesus with Herod, the troubler of Jerusalem, and the question we arrive at is this: will Jesus be a good king?

The account of Jesus’ baptism in Matthew chapter three shows us that He will.

First, Jesus comes specifically to be baptized by John.

John, as St. Matthew records, “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ …Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (Matthew 3:1-2, 5).

Knowing who Jesus is, knowing that his baptism is for repentance and that Jesus doesn’t have any sins to confess, and knowing that there is one greater than he coming to baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, “John would have prevented [Jesus], saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:11).

Then, Jesus says something strange.

“Jesus answered [John], ‘Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then [John] consented” (Matthew 3:15).

We—today—expect Jesus to say only that it is necessary for Jesus to be baptized so He and He alone can fulfill all righteousness.

We—Lutherans—are very good at knowing and confessing that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed in Scripture alone.

And—or But—Jesus says, basically, “Stand aside, John, and baptize me, for in this way it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.”

To redeem those under the Law, Jesus must submit to the Law’s demands. He’s not a sinner, but He’s treated as one—so that we, sinners all, may be treated as He truly was and is.

Or, if it helps to think of it this way, Jesus’ baptism is different than the baptism we received in this way:

When you were baptized, you were prepared to receive eternal life. The Holy Spirit was poured out upon you in the washing of regeneration (cf. Titus 3).

You were, at your baptism, in not so many words, saved.

But Jesus, at His baptism, was prepared to receive the sin of the world. He doesn’t yet receive the Holy Spirit, that’s immediately after He went up from the water (cf. Matthew 3:16). In His Baptism, Jesus it set apart, marked as the Redeemer of the world, identified by John as the King who is at hand.

In any case, it’s a strange thing that Jesus says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

It reminds of Aslan in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when they’re assembling for the battle with the White Witch, and Aslan says, “We lions will be in the front.”

Another lion begins to excitedly whisper to anyone who will hear, “Did you hear what he said? He said, “We lions.”

Aslan is a very Christ-like figure.

It’s very strange for us to consider that Jesus would include anyone else in “fulfilling all righteousness” but He includes John the Baptizer and all Christians.

Any time you teach the faith, to your children, friends, or family, any time you share the gospel by telling someone of the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ on the Cross and given freely in His Word proclaimed, any time you forgive the sins of others, according to your office, you are, with Christ, fulfilling all righteousness.

Did you hear what He said? He said, “We lions…”

Jesus includes you in the plan for the salvation of the world. John the Baptizer’s responsibility was the Baptize the Eternal Son of God.

Mother Mary had the privilege and responsibility of bearing the Christ-child and raising Him.

We have the responsibility of living our faith—but not in fear of a Jesus like Herod, the troubler of Jerusalem.

Our King, our Jesus, is a good king.

“When Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:16-17).

The visual descent of the Holy Spirit onto Jesus, confirms Him, anoints Him, sets Him apart as the Christ.

But Jesus is more than the Christ, more than the King.

He’s a good son.

That our Heavenly Father is well pleased with Jesus has limitless implications.

The eternal Son of God, your Christ, your Lord, is good.

For what ailment is the gospel not a cure?

What grudge is not abrogated when both parties rejoice in the universal forgiveness of sins?

Whose conscience is not set free when the power of God unto salvation is announced and given plainly, freely, for the sake of Jesus?

What slander can truly harm you when our Lord endured blasphemous slander—and He was truly innocent of all accusations—and yet He remained silent?

What death can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord?

We are sure, as St. Paul is, “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

There is no ailment for which the gospel is not a cure.

All our problems, from the paltry and picayune to the peculiar and powerful, Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Almighty King, and the Son of David.

But we would all be lost if He were not good.

And He is good.

With Him—and with all those who believe in Him—our Heavenly Father is well pleased.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Epiphany, 2019
Matthew 2:1-12
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

What do the magi, professional wrestling, and Friedrich Nietzsche have in common?

The magi are a mysterious group. We don’t know who they were, exactly.

And we don’t know from where, exactly, they came.

Scripture says, very clearly, that they’re “from the east” (Matthew 2:1). But can we be more specific?

Some call the magi kings, but not Scripture.

Scripture doesn’t even give us the specific number of magi. We know there were more than one, and we know they brought three gifts.

Tradition teaches that there were three wisemen and kings (of orient), named Kaspar, Melchior, and Balthazar.

But we don’t know.

And that’s just asking who and how many.

Others, trying to answer the why or how of the magi, suggest that Zoroaster, is the magi’s origin.

Zoroaster, an ancient so-called wiseman, from whom comes Zoroastrianism, believed a single god created two spirits: light and dark, good and bad.

And like all forms of moralistic-deism, Zoroastrianism teaches that you just have to do the right thing all the time, and you might be okay in the end.

We don’t know exactly when Zoroaster lived or exactly where. Some say six thousand years before Christ, some say six hundred. And the exact location of his life isn’t agreed upon either, but it’s middle-eastern.

That Zoroaster was an ancient, eastern wiseman, and that the magi, the wisemen, came from the east, suggests—to some—that the magi were sent by Zoroaster.

There’s not a single bit in the Bible that suggests this, and there’s not a thing gained if it’s true.

But to answer my question—the magi, professional wrestling, and Friedrich Nietzsche have this in common: Nietzsche wrote a book called Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Richard Strauss composed music inspired by that book, the most famous part of that music is called “Sunrise,” but the whole work is called Thus Spoke Zarathustra. And “The Nature Boy,” Ric Flair, used, as his walk-out music, “Sunrise” from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Here’s the connection: Zarathustra, in the Avestan language, is how you say Zoroaster, and some people think Zoroaster sent the magi to worship the Christ-child.

He didn’t. And I have a better guess that’s biblically plausible and theologically helpful and comforting.

The magi are there because of the prophet Daniel.

The term magi seems applicable to a group of people over time. It’s not a race or a family but a brotherhood. Magi can refer to wisemen, philosophers, astrologers, and the like. They’re learned easterners.

But in the Old Testament, the word magi is used only in Daniel.

And, as it is written, Daniel himself is given authority over all the wisemen of Babylon (cf. Daniel 2:48; 5:10-12).

That the term magi, used in the book of Daniel to refer to a certain group of people, coupled with the fact that the magi come “from the east” (Matthew 2:1), suggests that the magi were from Babylon, where Daniel was, and—perhaps, even—that the magi sought the one who had been “born king of the Jews” (Matthew 2:2) because, as a group, they’d received and been brought up in the teachings of Daniel.

Okay. So what? Who cares?

What do we gain from it being Daniel instead of Zoroaster? The magi got there—what difference does it make who sent them?

That it is the Epiphany of our Lord, we must say this:

An epiphany is manifestation of previously unknown information. The magi worship the Christ-child. What was before unknown is now known—who, exactly, the Christ is. Jesus, son of Mary, the Son of God.

But the Epiphany of our Lord can reveal new information to us, as well.

And even if it’s not new information, it’s information that’s worth hearing again and again, every January 6th, if needed.

God desires all to hear His Word, believe, and be saved.

The mighty works of God in the Old Testament—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace, Daniel and King Nebuchadnezzar—God performed mighty works that knowledge of Him would be revealed to all and not just some.

Do you ever wonder if God’s Word is truly meant for you? Do you ever think yourself one undesired by God?

Are you ever in terror over your sins? Your thoughts, words, or deeds? Do you feel saved?

Do you pray every night, reciting the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed, as the Small Catechism teaches?

Are you Christian in name only? Lutheran in name only? Faithful in name only? Happy in name only?

We all have our days.

And on those days you need to know that God desires all to hear Him, believe in Jesus Christ, and be saved.

Epiphany celebrates the revelation of who Jesus is—the savior of the world, learned easterners and all included.

This Jesus is the light of the world, the light no darkness can overcome.

He is the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness has not, will not, and cannot overcome (cf. John 1:5).

We are people who walked in darkness, but we’ve seen a great light. We dwell in a land of deep darkness, but on us a light has shone. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given (cf. Isaiah 9:2, 6).

His name is Jesus, and He was born on Christmas Day to save us all come Good Friday.

It’s always been this way with God.

He desires the world to be saved. He desires the world to come and worship Christ the Lord.

He gave Daniel the words, and Daniel spoke and wrote, and taught. And those who heard him—Babylonians, foreigners, and all—those who believed in God, those Daniel taught, were wisemen and magi, of a kind, who saw the signs and sought the Child, worshipping Him, and bringing Him gifts.

God desires to save the world. And He saves the world. It’s always been this way with God.

And it’s always been this way with the world: the world seeks the destruction of the faith.

Left to the devices of the world, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—and how many others—would’ve been burned in the furnace?

All Jerusalem is troubled when Herod is troubled, because all Jerusalem knew how hot Herod’s anger could burn.

The world seeks victory through conquest, through strength—but never finds it.

Unbelief is a hopeless darkness that manifests as either arrogance or despair.

We all have our days.

And on those days you need to know that God desires you to hear Him, believe in Jesus Christ, and be saved.

Into our darkness shines the Light of the World, Jesus the Christ, and you, the Christian, the Church, the Body of Christ, you receive victory on account of what appears to be weakness.

God is born a child. In Bethlehem the poor. Of Nazareth, no good.

And that child grows and lives and dies, violently, in the city of peace.

We’d never pick these things to save us.

But the things we’d pick would never save us.

They must be revealed. Made manifest.

We must receive an epiphany, and today and every January 6th, we have, we do.

Here is the one born King of the Jews—and King of the World—the Savior of us all—Jesus the Christ. We’ve come to worship him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Christmas 1, 2018
Luke 2:33-40; Isaiah 11:1-5; Galatians 4:1-7
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.”

Who does “his” refer to? Who is he? Who’s this about?

In Isaiah chapter eleven verse three, “his” is the “he” referred to as the shoot that “shall come forth…from the stump of Jesse,” the “branch from [Jesse’s] roots [that] shall bear fruit.”

He’s the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord shall rest, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.

“And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3; cf. 11:1-3).

We know what every word in that verse means, but we may have a difficult time putting them together.

We delight in many things: music, love, getting mail. But no one delights in gunshot wounds or car trouble on the interstate, at night, when you’re traveling alone.

We fear, we are afraid, perhaps of many things: mice who say hello when you least expect it, the combination of the words “blowout” and “diaper,” and maybe even the dark.

And the last one’s easy: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4).

We know who the Lord is.

But do you delight in the fear of the Lord?

And I don’t mean, “Do you respect God?”

I don’t mean, “Is God awesome?”

I mean—fear means—as Jesus makes clear in Matthew chapter ten: “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).

So, do you fear the Lord?

And do you delight in that fear of the Lord?

You should. And here’s why:

“He [the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the branch from Jesse’s roots that shall bear fruit] shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:3-4).

Maybe we’re too used to these reversals.

We’re not caught off guard when we hear this.

That the dead will be raised isn’t a surprise.

That “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

That “He” shall not judge by what his eyes see or decide disputes by what his ears hear should—actually—terrify us.

Honestly, who wants a judge that’ll decide things based on anything but evidence seen and heard?

Judgment based on evidence seen and heard by witnesses is what God originally established for His people.

From Deuteronomy chapter nineteen: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two [or] three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15).

So it should terrify us that this “his” and “he” “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear,” because, if that’s the case, how can we defend ourselves?

It’s never universally been the case that you’re innocent until proven guilty, because if people don’t like you or the decisions given to you to make, they read the guilty verdict themselves.

How many of you have been talked about behind your back? Judged from afar? Or treated as guilty, wrong, or plain-old bad just because they heard about you?

That’s why it’s so important that this shoot from the stump of Jesse judges not by what he sees and hears, but “with righteousness [shall he] judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth” (Isaiah 11:4).

With righteousness he shall judge.

With equity he shall decide.

That’s better than evidence, because there might be evidence to convict you. There’s physical evidence,  forensic evidence, digital evidence, statistical evidence, testimonial evidence—and all of it can be faked, interfered with, or fooled.

As good as evidence is—righteousness and equity as tools for rendering judgment are better.

This is why the shoot from the stump of Jesse delights “in the fear of the Lord” (Isaiah 11:3).

This is why we should delight in the fear of the Lord.

We should fear the Lord, as Jesus says, because He could destroy both our body and soul in hell.

But we should rejoice in the fear of the Lord, because we know He won’t.

We hold fast to the shoot from Jesse, the righteous branch, Jesus the Christ—that’s who the passage from Isaiah is about.

 “He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked” (Isaiah 11:4).

We fear the Lord, because He could destroy both our body and soul in hell.

But we delight in the fear of the Lord, because He won’t.

He’s reckoned us righteous by faith.

He’s given us His Word, and we’ve believed it.

He’s sent us His Holy Spirit. We’ve been called by the Gospel, enlightened, sanctified, and kept in the true faith.

We need judges who judge by what his eyes see and ears hear…we need a matter to be established on the evidence of two or three witnesses…because of sin.

But the shoot from Jesse, father of David, the branch from Jesse’s roots, the righteous branch, Jesus Christ, judges with righteousness and equity.

Your righteous judge has reckoned you righteous by faith in the Lord.

He’s heard each testimony.

He’s seen all the evidence.

And the blood of God shed for you on the cross avails for you every day.

Because He was found guilty—you are found innocent.

Truly, our delight is in the fear of the Lord.

Not because he could destroy both our body and soul in hell, but because we know He won’t.

This is what Simeon means when he says, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed…so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

Merry Christmas!

“Joy to the world! The Lord is come!”

The shoot from Jesse, the righteous branch, Jesus Christ is born.

O come, let us adore him.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Lessons and Carols, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The presents are wrapped. The cards, sent.

The turkey, in my case, is brining. It’ll go on the smoker at 7am tomorrow morning.

The stockings are hung by the chimney with care.

We’ve sung: “O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” And adore, of course, means worship.

We’ve heard that “[Mary] will bear a son, and you [Joseph] shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).

We’ve sung “Joy to the World,” and we’ve heard that yes, Mary did—in fact—know.

There are so many reasons for joy…

…for Christians.

There are zero reasons for joy, true and lasting joy, for non-Christians.

And in every lesson we’ve heard—in every carol we’ve sung—that’s true.

Consider what we just sang: “He [the Lord] rules the world with truth and grace / And makes the nations prove / The glories of His righteousness / And wonders of His love…”

If Jesus, born this day in the city of David, our Savior, Christ the Lord, if He rules the world with truth and grace and makes Christians prove the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His love, that’s an easy and joyous thing.

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

We know that we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, sanctified and kept us in the true faith.

It’s easy and joyous for Christians to prove this, because it’s a question to which we know the answer.

When you take a test or watch Jeopardy! and you know the answer, or at least think you do, with what joy do you fill in the blank or yell at Alex Trebek, right?

That’s fun. That’s joyous. That’s easy.

When you’re tested on information you know, you answer quickly, without fear, enjoying it all.

But when you’re tested on information you don’t know, how much of a terror is it to sit through that exam? All you can do, sometimes, is write your name at the top, turn in a blank test, and hope the test is graded on a curve by a merciful teacher.

If Jesus, born this day in the city of David, our Savior, Christ the Lord, if He rules the world with truth and grace and makes non-Christians prove the glories of His righteousness and the wonders of His love, that will be utter terror, because two things will happen.

Either they will not know the right answer, and their blank test will condemn them.

Or they’ll know the right answer, but, having written down and lived something different than what they were taught, the wrong answer they lived by will condemn them, and then, what they knew but didn’t write down, what they knew but didn’t live, will be for them their everlasting shame.

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come! / Let earth receive her king; / Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room / And heav’n and nature sing…”

Christians sing this with joy, because their heart has been prepared to receive Jesus Christ the Lord.

But for the non-Christian, there are zero reasons for true and lasting joy because when the Lord comes He’ll separate sheep from goat, Christian from non-Christian.

That test is not graded on a curve…

…But we do have a merciful teacher.

“Hark! The herald angels sing, / ‘Glory to the newborn King; / Peace on earth and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled!’ / Joyful, all ye nations, rise, / Join the triumph of the skies; / With the-angelic host proclaim, ‘Christ is born in Bethlehem!’”

“Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! / Hail, the Sun of Righteousness! / Light and life to all He brings, / Ris’n with healing in His wings. / Mild He lays His glory by, Born that man no more may die, / Born to raise the sons of earth, / Born to give them second birth. / Hark! The herald angels sing, / ‘Glory to the new-born King!’”

“In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).

Unto you all is born this day in the city of David a Savior, Jesus Christ the Lord.

Jesus wasn’t born only for Christians. He didn’t die only for Christians. He didn’t love only Christians. He didn’t teach only Christians.

He was born, and lived, and taught, and loved, and died for all. For you.

With the Father, He sent the Holy Spirit into the world to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment.

Concerning sin, that all are cursed with the inheritance of the Fall.

Concerning righteousness, that the blood of God shed on the cross purchased all.

“God and sinners [are, indeed] reconciled.”

And concerning judgment, that, by the Newborn King, the ruler of this world is judged, found lacking, and cast into the fire.

This test is not graded on a curve, but our teacher, our God, is merciful.

He desires not that you would burn but that you would believe, and that by believing, that you would have life in His name.

This Christmas, there are so many reasons for joy.

In your families and in mine, I pray for one more to be added.

Glorious now, behold Him arise: King and God and sacrifice; Alleluia! Alleluia! Worship Him, God Most High.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!