Advent 3 Sermon, 2018
Matthew 11:2-10
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Are you offended, generally speaking, by a picture of a sea otter or a bunny rabbit or a marshmallow? No.

Are you offended, generally speaking, by a crucifix—a cross depicting the bodily sacrifice and death of Jesus?

But how about this: are you offended by a crucifix, immersed in urine, photographed, and awarded the top prize in the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Arts “Awards in the Visual Arts” competition?

Such a competition exists. Such a photo exists. And (I think it was in the 1980’s) that photo won that competition.

We’re not offended by innocuous things.

We are offended by hostile things.

Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 10:6).

He wouldn’t say this if He Himself and the Gospel, the Word and Will of God, weren’t offensive or hostile.

We don’t think of Jesus as offensive, but He is.

We don’t think of the Gospel as hostile, but it is.

In His Words to John’s disciples, Jesus directs them and us all to His own Word and Work.

That’s what you need to keep in mind today: Jesus points you to His Word and His Work, and He adds this beatitude: “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

If we ask which works Jesus wants us to see, we might open to Isaiah.

Isaiah writes very clearly that in the day of the Christ, “the deaf shall hear…[and] the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor…shall exult in the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 29:18-19).

He writes, regarding the coming recompense and salvation of God, “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a dear, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

That will happen, Isaiah writes, because “[the Lord’s anointed] will bring good news to the poor…bind up the broken hearted…proclaim liberty to the captives…the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God” (cf. Isaiah 61:1-2).

These descriptions of the the day and work of the Christ are clearly fulfilled in Jesus.

The work He does identifies Him as the Christ.

But how is that offensive?

You might say that it’s not, but if you’re ever the one in need of a miracle—and Jesus doesn’t come through—you might think God not only wants you to suffer but to suffer alone, abandoned, without help.

That’s not the case, though.

We know that these works of the Christ, these miracles, these healings and restorations, weren’t the only works Jesus came to accomplish. We know that.

And if we ask which words Jesus wants us to hear, we might consider what Jesus has just finished saying.

Today’s Gospel lesson includes the first verses of Matthew chapter eleven. Here’s some of the last verses of chapter ten: “Everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven. Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have no come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother…Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 10:32-39).

These words of Jesus identify Him as a strict and harsh teacher. And when it’s another man and his son considered, I’m sure it’s easy to agree with what Jesus says. But when these verses describe you, if you’re forced to choose between Jesus and your child or parent, if you’re forced to be faithful or familial, then these verses are offensive, because Jesus is hostile to sin.

“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6), Jesus says.

And even in our bruised-strawberry, offended-by-everything culture, no one’s offended by Jesus’ words, “Judge not” (cf. Matthew 7:1), because no one likes being judged.

Likewise, no one’s offended when Jesus overturns the tables at the temple, because all those hypocritical churchy people need it, too.

But how many of you bristle at Jesus’ words: “whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33)?

These words offend us when we have family or friends who deny who Jesus is—who don’t go to church—who think that all the churches are the same.

How many of you flat out ignore Jesus when He says, “I have not come to bring peace [to the earth], but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father…” (Matthew 10:34-35)?

These words offend us because, sometimes, we’d rather offend Jesus than our wife, husband, son, daughter, or friend. Or, if you don’t have a spouse, a child, or a friend, these words offend us because, sometimes, we’d rather offend Jesus than be inconvenienced.

Jesus says “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6), because Jesus is hostile to sin.

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation to all who believe in Jesus. That includes abusers, adulterers, democrats, republicans, your ex, and even you.

We’re happy when the Gospel saves us, but we’re also happy that certain people don’t sit next to us at church.

My friends, that should not be.

And while the Gospel is for all, it also requires all to forsake all that is not the gospel.

If you do not acknowledge Jesus, He will not acknowledge you. At times, that offends us.

And—just as offensive—the gospel—the power of God for salvation to all who believe in Jesus—requires the bloody and dead human body of a crucified God.

Baby Jesus and the Laughing Christ sell a lot more cards than the bloody, naked, tortured, pierced, and dead crucified God.

Andres Serrano, the artist who photographed a crucifix in a jar of his own urine and won an art prize for it, says he meant no blasphemy by it, that he’s Roman Catholic, that he’s a follower of Christ.

He says his photo symbolizes the way Christ died. He says, “If [it] upsets you, it’s because it gives some sense of what the crucifixion actually was like.”

I detest modern art. I despise the idea of immersing a crucifix in urine.

And—an accurate portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus should and does offend our sensibilities. In every depiction of the crucifix, Jesus wears some sort of cloth or covering, but He would’ve been crucified naked. He would have been stripped bare so as to publicly humiliate Him.

I’m not saying we should have a naked Jesus on the cross, I’m saying we should realize the depth of sin’s depravity—our depravity—and the length to which God went to save us.

An empty cross is not a symbol of the resurrection but of man’s squeamishness with and offense at the Gospel.

Lutherans like to believe that Luther would like to attend their church, but he wouldn’t because of how lax we are with doctrine, the Word and Work of Christ.

Christians like to believe that Christ would like to attend their church, but He wouldn’t because of how lax we are with doctrine, the Word and Work of Christ.

With what disdain do we treat the catechism and the hymns of our own church!

When Lutherans invite people to church, talk about what we believe, or the hymns we sing, it’s like a guy setting his best friend up on a blind date, who says, “She’s too slow, I hate the way she sounds, and I don’t want to date her, but you should.”

Why should anyone come if we don’t rejoice in what we have and who we are? And why don’t we rejoice?

With what disdain do we treat the Bible, our dust-collecting paperweight!

We have the words of eternal life, but we’d rather scroll through Facebook on our phone while binge-watching the newest season of some show we don’t actually like on Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime.

We can list the great houses of Westeros, the Cubs’ or Cardinals’ starting lineup, and the lyrics to dozens of nonsense songs, but do we know the books of the Bible in order, the Ten Commandments, or even the names of the Apostles?

And with what disdain do we treat the attempts to teach the faith. It’s too simple. It’s too complex. I already know everything. I didn’t learn anything. It was boring. There was too much going on. I don’t like the teacher. I don’t like the time. There wasn’t any coffee. Pastor always eats the donuts I like. I don’t like sitting at church, talking about Jesus, I’d rather be by myself at home.

And yet Jesus says, “Whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33).

If you don’t sing the hymns, if you don’t say “Amen,” if you don’t go to Sunday School, if your children don’t go to church—how do you—and how do they—acknowledge Jesus before men? That’s a real question.

Because going to Sunday school isn’t required, but confessing Jesus before men is.

Blessed is he who’s not offended by me.

All I’ve said is what Jesus says.

But let me also say to you what else Jesus has done and said for you: It’s not too late.

The preaching of John the Baptist—the preaching of Jesus the Christ—is one of repentance. A good Bible-trivia question is to ask what Jesus said in His first sermon. In Matthew chapter four, when Jesus begins His ministry, “Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand’” (Matthew 4:17).

It’s not too late. But for us all, it almost is.

That’s what I’ve heard. And I mean to say, that’s what John the Baptist, Jesus, and every Christian since has taught. Repent! The kingdom of heaven is at hand.

That’s what I’ve heard—I wasn’t there to hear and see Jesus say it, but here’s the marvelous thing:

Every single one of us has heard the gospel from someone who heard it from someone who heard from someone who heard it from Jesus Himself.

Whether it’s Jesus’ response to the question from John’s disciples or the Institution of the Lord’s Supper, or the Crucifixion, or the Resurrection, or the Ascension, the matter is established on the account of two or three witnesses—which is a Scriptural requirement when someone’s life is on the line.

We’ve all heard what they saw.

It’s not too late, but it almost is.

Jesus—who gave sight to the blind, new legs to the lame, clean flesh to the lepers, perfect pitch to the deaf, life to the dead, and good news to the poor—this Jesus, the Christ, the Lamb of God took upon His flesh the penalty for our sin and sacrificed Himself for us—that all who hear and see Him—all who hear from those who saw Him—and all who are not offended by Him would be saved.

Jesus is hostile to sinners—to save them from sin.

“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6).

In this, the poor have had the good news preached to them. That is, us poor, miserable, sinners have heard the Gospel, the power of God unto salvation for all who believe in Jesus. Blessed are you who believe it.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Second Sunday in Advent, 2018
Luke 21:25-36
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus said: ”There’ll be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations…because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming…For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they’ll see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory…When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Lk. 21:25-28).

The day of the Lord’s return will set the wicked and the proud ablaze in hell’s tortuous fire. They’ll not only suffer terribly but they will also know great terror, because they lived this life as if they were the only ones who mattered.

They loved their families, and they loved Thanksgiving and Christmas.

They shopped local, loved America, teared up at parades, and stood for the national anthem.

But the wicked and the proud didn’t love Jesus.

They knew Him not as the Righteous One who came to suffer and die, the one who said, “Take up your cross and follow Me,” the one who said “No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

The wicked and the proud will see the signs (too late) in sun, moon, stars, earth, and sea. They’ll see them as a gathering of armies on the border, as imminent and painful death, and as the end of all good things.

The End of All Things will be for the wicked and the proud impending and total doom.

Justice requires repentance from us all. We’re the wicked. We’re the ones who forget our place—who forget the God who made all things—who forget that pride is a sin and vice.

What was written in former days has been written for our instruction, yet we live not for harmony and hope but for ourselves.

We think it admirable to love only our families and those who love us, but that’s no different from the wicked or proud.

Loving Christmas and eggnog and feasting, loving presents and decorations and Rudolph doesn’t make you a Christian.

At Judgment, when our works are revealed, everything done apart from faith in Jesus  will be destroyed as stubble in the fire.

That Day is coming, and for some, it will be terrible, but for those of you who have joy now in Christ, that day will be pure joy.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus directs our attention to what’s going on in the world now.

The signs in the sun, moon, and stars, the signs on earth are signs that have always been and will always be.

The end has been and is at hand!

This world cannot endure.

This past week, I overheard a student taking a vocabulary quiz. One of the words was entropy.

The definition I remember is this: “Entropy is the trend of things towards chaos.” Or, “It’s always getting worse.”

Which is a simple but accurate definition.

That may sound negative or pessimistic, fatalistic or gloomy, but what I mean is, try as it might, try as we might, the Creation, mankind, can’t undo the effects of sin.

The wages of sin is death. We can’t stop that.

But Jesus doesn’t say what He does to turn us all into a bunch of worriers. No, He says, “Straighten up…raise your heads…Your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

For you, for all who grieve and mourn—for those who wait with expectation the coming of the Lord, your redemption is drawing near. And on That Day, we—and all believers in Christ—will rejoice.

The signs we see teach us to expect the Day of the Lord. To be ready.

So, look to the sun, moon, and stars—look in the earth, the sea, and even in your own life.

Look to the cross, to war, to death, and see what God—even in the midst of terror and loss—promises.

His Word promises tribulations now.

And, His Word promises the end of all tribulation in Christ.

The enemies of God and the Church, your enemies now, will be no more then.

Sin will lose its appeal.

Temptation will have no power.

There’ll be no one to accuse you, no one to hurt you.

The good work begun in you will be complete. 

Your justification and your sanctification will match perfectly. Who and how you should be is who and how you will be.

And Creation itself will rejoice to see you revealed as a son of God. You’ll rejoice. You’ll be glad, for the kingdom of God will come to you and never be taken away.

This is most certainly true.

But it is not most certainly easy.

Every day, we have to believe God’s promises and suffer the tribulations of the world.

The Lord is with you now by means of His Word and the Sacraments. And He, Himself, is coming back to get you.

This isn’t the end sin deserves, but it is the end that God promises, the end that He’s won for us.

Jesus says: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:29-33).

When Jesus teaches regarding the fig tree, it was a different season than what we have here and now.

The fig tree, then, would’ve been in bloom, so summer was near, and the kingdom of God is near.

Our trees aren’t in bloom, but there are still other things, other signs, if you will, to hear and see and taste.

We’re here to receive Jesus’ body and blood, to taste and see that the Lord is good.

He comes to you in this, the hour of your need, in grace and mercy, as the Lamb slain for your salvation.

Jesus is faithful.

We confess that He has ascended to the right hand of the Father, but we also confess that He hasn’t abandoned you.

The kingdom of God is near.

The Kingdom of God comes, now, with the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

The summer of everlasting joy is coming.

Winter—though it technically hasn’t even started yet—is already at its end.

The Lord has come to save us.

Straighten up. Lift up your head. Rejoice!

Your redemption is drawing near.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 1 Sermon, 2018
Matthew 21:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The car makes the man, some say.

And as president of Uruguay from 2010—2015, José Mujica became known as the world’s poorest head-of-state because he listed, as his only possession of worth, his car—a 1987 Volkswagen Bug.

The car has become famous as a symbol of the man’s austerity. He’s allegedly been offered a million dollars for it—but he “didn’t give it any importance.”

What’s interesting about Mr. Mujica is the difference in accounts of his humility. Some say he gave over 90% of his monthly $12,000 salary to charities. Some say he gave 20% of his salary to his political party. Also, some of his assets are listed in other people’s names—his farm and home at least was in his wife’s name.

I don’t know—but perhaps the image presented is different from the reality.

Or, you may have seen, from the previous popes of the Roman Catholic Church, the various pope-mobiles in which they’d ride—a wall of glass between them and the ordinary, for safety purposes.

But Pope Francis embraces the huddled masses, at his age, not having much to lose, he said.

But doing away with the pope-mobile won favor with people critical of the Roman church—and the various comparisons shown between this pope and previous popes have tried to tell us that this one is different.

But given the worldwide abuse scandals that seem now to be seasonal, and the anathemas, the curses, against those who believe in salvation by grace alone, what has been true is still true—the antichrist is still the antichrist.

If the car makes the man, then so does the steed.

But in the case of Jesus riding a donkey into Jerusalem, the appearance and the reality is the same.

We just don’t like it.

Whereas we admire the austerity of driving a car that was made during the Cold War and the seeming humanitarianism of foregoing glass walls between you and the people you serve, we’d rather our King, Lord, and God ride into town in something better than the equine equivalent of a Ford Festiva.

But the animal on which your King rides tells you about the king. Had Jesus entered Jerusalem on a warhorse, He would have been saying that His kingdom is of this world, but it’s not.

A warhorse suggests conquering strength.

A chariot, speed.

A donkey—and not just a donkey but “a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (Matthew 21:5; cf. Zech. 9:9)—this working man’s beast suggests the poverty of spirit that Jesus calls blessed—the humility of the meek who will inherit the earth.

It’s not as successful looking. It’s not as showy. It’s not what we would pick for our King and God to ride.

But it does accurately portray the humility of Christ, what He came to accomplish, and who He is for us.

“Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

A warhorse doesn’t carry a man like that. Nor a chariot. But—though we don’t like it and wouldn’t pick it—a donkey would. And one did.

That God reveals some details and not others can be frustrating—especially when we think the details to be inconsequential. But the details matter. What Jesus rode in on matters. And what the crowd says matters.

Now, that it matters what the crowd said isn’t so surprising. Everything that everyone says matters in the Bible.

But what the crowd says can be understood differently.

“The crowds that went before [Jesus] and that followed him were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:9).

What does “hosanna” mean?

When we sing it in the Sanctus, our hymnal includes this definition at the bottom of the page: “Hosanna is a Hebrew word of praise meaning ‘save us now.’”

So, “hosanna” is a request for help, for salvation.

But from what did the crowds desire to be saved?

As we all know that Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem, so we all know that Jesus came to save us from sin, death, and satan.

But then and now, people desired help and salvation from different things.

The gospel is the good news of God’s forgiveness of sin earned by Christ and given by the Word. It is the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (cf. Romans 1).

But some then and some now preach a different gospel.

There are people who won’t go to a church with just a few people in attendance, because it doesn’t look successful.

I watched a video of what was supposed to be a baptism in an LCMS congregation where the pastor advertised the congregation as the 74th fastest growing congregation in the United States.

There are church bodies who allow their members to say and believe anything about Jesus—that He was or wasn’t God, that He was or wasn’t married, that He was or wasn’t crucified, died, buried, descended into hell, and rose on the Third Day.

There are those who’ll allow you to say and believe anything about God, whatever you feel like, but you can’t say or at least publicly believe anything contrary to what that church teaches about gender, marriage, life, and love.

When you sing your hosannas, are you asking God to save you from sin? I trust, hope, and pray so.

But realize that there are churches for whom hosanna is a prayer against income inequality, a prayer against restrictions to child-murder, or a prayer to whatever you believe in that day to save you from whatever you want to be saved from that day.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9).

The crowds sing for salvation from sin, death, and satan—and nothing else.

We know this, because they call Jesus the Son of David, and in the New Testament, only faith recognizes Jesus as the Son of David, the righteous Branch raised up, who’ll reign as king and deal wisely.

In His days, we’ll be saved and dwell secure, because the Lord is our Righteousness (cf. Jeremiah 23:5-6).

God has revealed not what we want Him to reveal but He wants to reveal.

And that happens to be—always—what we need.

That it’s a donkey says so much.

That the crowds call Jesus the Son of David says so much.

But what the donkey says—and what the crowds say—don’t matter.

Some say that Jesus is John the Baptist reborn or Elijah or one of the prophets. But Jesus says, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15).

He’s not an austere man who chooses to ride a donkey to win PR points with the world.

He’s the Christ, the King, who enters Jerusalem in humility to shouts of “Save us!” And a few days later, He dies doing just that, saving us from sin.

“Confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, [and] you will be saved” (Romans 10:9).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

At the Funeral of Edward Smith, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Edward LeRoy Smith, born Wednesday, September 5th, 1934 died Friday morning, November 23, 2018, in Carlinville, IL.

He was eighty-four years old.

He was born to Kenneth and Ruth Smith.

He married Donna on August 22, 1953, in South Carolina.

Ed joined the Army at the age of 17, serving in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars. He then worked as an Army Advisor to the National Guard and served in the Army for 20 years.

He was a member of this congregation, Trinity Lutheran Church.

He was a member of the American Legion and VFW in Lincoln, IL.

He enjoyed reading, fishing, and collecting.

Ed was a great husband, father, and son.

And if you catch my meaning, not just a great one but a good one.

He was preceded in death by his parents and is survived by his wife, Donna, his daughters, Sandra and Sheryl, his son, Ed (their families) and 9 grandchildren, and 7 great grandchildren.

Donna—Sandra—Sheryl—Ed—to you all—grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I met Ed in the last months of 2016.

Thinking myself not a talkative person, I was on the look out for topics for conversation that might be interesting to him and General “Mad Dog” Mattis was appointed  Secretary of Defense.

I remember asking Ed what his opinion of General Mattis was, and his response was perfect.

He said in the military, you don’t have opinions of your generals, you have expectations.

I think that’s a good response.

More importantly, I think that’s a faithful response.

His words then told me what I’ve learned by meeting you all since—Ed was a good man.

As a follower of men, he heard and obeyed. He received and trusted. He struggled, but he endured.

Whether soldier or disciple, there’s not a better quality in a man.

As a leader of men, he endeavored to live up to the expectations put on him—by himself and by others.

As a husband and father, a grandfather and friend, when he felt like he let you down, you could tell.

Donna, in conversation with you over the last two years, and over the last few days, seeing your family care for you and for him as they have, I’ve remarked that you and Ed did real good.

And for the last two years, and over the last few days, you’ve responded, tongue-in-cheek, “Yes I have.”

He didn’t abandon you, but I’m sure, at times, it felt like he did.

Even today—he hasn’t abandoned you, but today or soon it may feel like he has.

Just as in all of the sixty-five years of your marriage, when he would go off and you would follow after, you will follow after him again.

But—just as in all of the sixty-five years of your marriage, when he goes off, you have to wait a bit before you follow him.

He hasn’t abandoned you. You will go to him.

More importantly, Donna, God hasn’t abandoned you. And you will go to Him.

As often as you can, Donna, avail yourself of the opportunity to come to church—or to have church come to you—where Jesus comes to us by His Word proclaimed, bringing heaven—and Ed—with Him.

Now, I’ve said that when Ed let you down, you could tell.

The worst frustrations I saw in him in the last two years were when he couldn’t get his point across, his words out.

He didn’t see that as my failure to understand, he saw that as his failure to say things simply enough for me to understand.

He was glad that church came to him in our visits, but he lamented what he saw as his failure to live up to expectations.

In the time that I had with him, I knew him to be a good man. You knew him better than I did.

But as good a man as there can be, we’re still here today.

You don’t need to be reminded of why we’re here, but perhaps Ed’s words about generals can help us all for tomorrow.

The truth is—the truth staring us in the eyes—some have it better and some have it worse—some live full lives, surrounded by family, love, and wealth—some scrape by or try to—some live a hundred years while others don’t live a hundred days—this truth causes us to have opinions about God while we should have expectations.

What opinions of God do you have?

Is He kind?

When you think you’ve been abandoned, that doesn’t feel like kindness.

Is He just, right, and fair?

When others have so much and you so little, or when others get by on so little but you, with so much, can’t make it—that doesn’t feel just or right or fair.

When have you blamed God? When have you accused God of wrong? When have you spoken, as if to the Eternal God Himself, saying, “I’d’ve done it differently”?

We have opinions about everything we believe is beneath us—politics, sports, when to put up the Christmas tree, and God, when we’re mad at Him.

We don’t have opinions about the things we consider above us—gravity, the dishwasher when it empties itself everyday before I get home (I don’t know how it does it), and God—when He’s just saved us from harm.

We don’t have opinions about the things above us.

For those, we have expectations.

If you forget that God transcends us—that He’s above us in that way—that He is good and that He (and not us) defines what good is, if you forget that, you won’t expect good from Him, and you’ll form the opinion that God isn’t good.

If you forget that God is loving, you won’t recognize His love in Christ, that He loved you first. You’ll form the opinion that God isn’t loving.

But even if you forget God, He remembers you.

First of all, that’s what you can expect from God.

He remembers you.

He hasn’t abandoned you.

Grief isn’t a punishment.

He does not desire to shame you but to give you honor and glory and joy and peace.

He remembers you, He desires to give you those things, because He’s paid the price for our failures, He’s made the sweet swap of our sin for His Son.

Lay aside all pride, all arrogance, all of your reasonableness, and believe in the God who created your body, redeemed your body in Christ, and desires to sanctify your body by the Word.

He remembers you.

You can also expect God to forgive.

It’s a fact, He’s already forgiven the entire world. That’s what the crucifixion and death of Jesus earned: Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

But He wants you to believe that personally.

When you do, whenever you do, what God accomplished for the world belongs to you specifically.

You can expect God to forgive you today, because He’s forgiven you in Christ yesterday, and promises to forgive all those who believe in Jesus forever.

You can expect forgiveness, and you can be certain that you have it.

You can also expect a great deal more.

Today, in a way, we say goodbye.

But it’s not truly goodbye.

We confess the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

So Christians call death sleep. Slumber. Rest.

To be taken from evil. Delivered from evil.

Death is to depart and be with Christ. To depart in peace. To depart and be gathered to your people.

To pass from death to life.

And, ultimately, to gain.

We may not always feel that way, but it is always true.

The tomb of Christ is empty, but the graves of our friends are full.

That truth may cause us to form all manner of opinions, but don’t forget—never forget—remind yourself of this every day—that you can expect from God many things.

He has not abandoned you. He remembers you.

He desires not your shame but your glory.

And to see it through, He forgives you, and promises to raise the dead to life everlasting just as Jesus was raised.

A good man taught me not to have opinions about generals—about God.

He taught me to have expectations.

Better than a great man, he was a good one.

But better than a good one, he was a faithful one.

Edward LeRoy Smith, born Wednesday, September 5th, 1934 died Friday morning, November 23, 2018.

Eighty-four years, two months, eighteen days alive on earth. Alive in Christ forever.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Eve of Thanksgiving, Sermon 2018
Deuteronomy 8:1-10; Luke 17:11-19; LSB 846
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Appropriate for this evening, the sermon hymn gives us a good structure to follow in terms of our hopes and thanks.

We sang, in stanza one, “Your hand, O Lord, in days of old / Was strong to heal and save; / It triumphed over ills and death, O’er darkness and the grave. / To You they came, the blind, the mute, / The palsied and the lame, / The lepers in their misery, / The sick with fevered frame” (Your Hand, O Lord, in Days of Old, LSB 846:1).

We love to rejoice in the mighty works of God, and stanza one does just that.

For us, it’s an easy thing to sing a hymn that tells of the mighty works of God. We pick up the hymnal, turn to almost any page, and sing.

But there are those—friends, relatives, guests at your Thanksgiving dinner table—for whom even this hymn is scandalous.

There are people who claim no need of God—call them atheists or agnostics or heathen, whatever—who would use hymns such as this one against us, against the Church, against Jesus.

We sang, “Your hand, O Lord, in days of old / Was strong to heal and save; / It triumphed over ills and death, O’er darkness and the grave.”

Or, to paraphrase, God did stuff then. But not now.

To hear some tell it, if God did stuff now, like He did then, they’d believe.

They want proof. We can’t blame them—proof is a desirable thing. But we do pity them.

Because, logically, this is how the argument goes: if God did stuff now, I’d believe in Him. But He doesn’t do stuff now, so I don’t believe in Him.

That’s not a denial of God. That’s hatred of God.

You don’t deny God’s existence by saying He doesn’t do anything.

But when you claim that God doesn’t do anything, you confess that God exists—just that you don’t think He’s active, loving, all-powerful, or some combination thereof.

For many who have a connection to the church but no faith, the simple answers as to why they don’t go, why they don’t read their Bible, why they don’t sing hymns, the simple answers only mask a hatred of God, a fear, a loneliness that oppose Christian hope and faith.

Stanza two gets at that: “Your touch, then, Lord, brought life and health, / Gave speech and strength and sight; / And youth renewed and frenzy calmed / Revealed You, Lord of Light. / And now, O Lord, be near to bless, Almighty as before, / In crowded street, by beds of pain, As by Gennes’ret’s shore” (Your Hand, O Lord, in Days of Old, LSB 846:2).

Again it’s then that God acted. Then Jesus’ touch brought life and health.

But where is the evidence for now?

Is He here to bless? Is He almighty?

Have you seen crowded streets and beds of pain where God was needed-but-not-there?

If you’ve attended church your whole life, you’re not used to asking questions like this. You’ve been taught, or you’re just used to hearing and saying, that God is great, and good, and that we are to bless Him for all our food, Amen. Or something like that.

But this Thanksgiving pay attention to how people talk. There’s a big difference in how Christians talk and how non-Christians talk—or, perhaps I should say, there’s a big difference in the way unbelief speaks and how faith in Christ speaks.

Unbelief rejoices in materials—cause that’s all they got.

With Christmas already in our minds, what makes your Christmas every year? The money you spend? The stuff you accumulate? The picture of your Christmas tree with nine-thousand presents all around it? Is this what you rejoice to hear and say?

With Thanksgiving before us tonight, what makes your Thanksgiving? Family, friends, food, fellowship, football? How many “F’s” until we get to faith?

Unbelief rejoices in materials, stuff, things—that which is fungible. Cause that’s all they got.

Faith in Christ speaks a different language entirely.

St. Paul writes, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:8-9).

You see, faith hopes in the unchangeable reality of God’s goodness and love. You can’t exchange what God has done or gives or promises. It’s there for you to rely on. He’s there for you to hope and trust in.

Unbelief looks at the things God did in the past and wants similar things now—because unbelief rejoices in stuff.

And—to an extent—they have a point.

It’s not love if God only did stuff then and not now. For the groom to show up for his own wedding but not stick around is not love. Or, to say it in a way that’s excusable only because I’ll be gone for the next few days, for the husband to show up for the meal but check out when it’s time to clean up and do dishes, is not love.

If God only did stuff then—but not now. That’s not love.

Stanza two asks God to be near us now to bless those who are afraid and in pain.

But when you walk down a poor street or visit someone on their deathbed, it just doesn’t look like it

Stanza three: “O be our great deliv’rer still, / The Lord of life and death; / Restore and quicken, soothe and bless, / With Your life-giving breath. / To hands that work and eyes that see / Give wisdom’s healing pow’r / That whole and sick and weak and strong / May praise You evermore” (Your Hand, O Lord, in Days of Old, LSB 846:3).

This one aims high but suffers the same fate—so says unbelief.

It prays for God to restore our sick, quicken our dead, and bless us all.

But I am unaware of any literal miracles. Lots of like-a-miracles, but none of the real thing.

When a broken husband prays for his wife, or an innocent child prays for her broken father, or when you pray that secret prayer for yourself or for your spouse or for your friends or family, what are the odds that God will hear your prayer and act?

Unbelief answers that this way: if God did stuff way back when, then God must still do the same stuff now. That He apparently doesn’t (for the unbeliever) means God is all a lie.

But thus far we have not understood everything rightly.

In stanza two, the key is found in these words: “…revealed You Lord of Light.”

The miracles, the mighty works, the stuff God gave and did revealed Jesus as the Lord of Light.

The miracles don’t reveal Jesus as the Giver-of-Stuff but as the Saver-of-Sinners.

If God is a Giver-of-Stuff or a Doer-of-Miracles and He doesn’t give stuff or do miracles, you have nothing to believe in, because the stuff and the miracles are all you had and wanted.

But if God is the Saver-of-Sinners, and He doesn’t give you the stuff you want or dance to the tune you call or give you the miracles you want, He can still save the sinner.

There has been a day…and for some, it may be today…and, of course, there will be a day when your body and soul beg God for a miracle.

Maybe you’ll get it—and God is good.

But God is still good even if you don’t, because He is the Saver-of-Sinners.

Tomorrow, give thanks for what God has done.

He created you. Redeemed you in Christ. And sent His Holy Spirit into the world to bear witness of Christ that you would believe and live and rejoice forever.

He did not come that you would have abundant things. He came that you would have abundant life.

Let us pray: “O be our great deliv’rer still, / The Lord of life and death; / Restore and quicken, soothe and bless, / With Your life-giving breath. / To hands that work and eyes that see / Give wisdom’s healing pow’r / That whole and sick and weak and strong / May praise You evermore.”

In this life—and in the life to come.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year, 2018
Matthew 25:31-46
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

I’m sure you’re familiar with the caricature of the slightly crazed religious fanatic holding up a sign warning that the end is near.

The caricature is supposed to be a joke.

We call ourselves and the world to repent of sin before facing God’s judgment. The world sees and hears and considers Christians extreme and unstable.

But God’s judgment—His justice—should strike a chord with anyone who sees injustice in the world.

God promises the good, the sheep, the Kingdom.

And, God promises the evil, the goats, eternal fire.

Everyone wants this in some way.

But no one wants to be on the wrong side of that justice.

What if a just and right judgment came down against us? Let’s not think about that. Change the subject. Be positive. Evades the issue, tell bad jokes and dismiss it from consideration. That’s what we do or try to do.

But in a world created by a just God, there’s nothing more certain, more inevitable than Judgment Day.

“From thence he will come to judge the quick and the dead.” That’s what the church confesses. Christ will return. He won’t return to establish a thousand year kingdom on this earth, as the millennialists always boast, He’ll return to judge. Jesus says in John chapter five:

“Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

Judgment Day is coming.

It’ll come when no one expects it, but when it comes everyone will know it’s arrived.

Jesus describes that day in this way:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:31-32).

Judgment—which is coming—means separation.

The sheep are blessed, and the goats are cursed.

The sheep are children of God, and the goats are followers of the devil. Ultimately, it is an either/or.

The sheep have done right. The goats have done wrong. The sheep are righteous. The goats are evil. The sheep inherit the kingdom God prepared for them before the world began. The goats are sent into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.

Sheep are not goats. Goats are not sheep.

Jesus knows the difference, and He’s the One who’ll separate them on the Last Day.

Now, I’m going to say something that is, at the same time, obvious and unheard of.

There’s a difference between right and wrong.

There’s a difference between truth and error.

The spirit of democracy has taken over religion.

The people choose.

They choose what is true. They choose what’s right. They don’t rely on divinely revealed truth.

They manufacture their own gods. They make their own rules, because one thing we all know for sure is that nobody has the right to judge anybody. 

But God does. He made us. So He has the right to judge and He’s given this right to his Son.

The Son has the right to judge because He’s the One who’s redeemed the world. He obeyed God’s law as the representative of the whole human race. He suffered and died for the sin of the world. He obeyed actively by doing what we were required to do, and he obeyed passively by suffering what we deserved to suffer.

He took the blame for our sins and gave us the credit for his obedience.

He is the Savior of sinners, and it’s the Savior who has the right to judge.

And as it is with any judgment, you need to know the basis on which that judgment is made.

Very clearly, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36).

The Bible teaches that we’re justified through faith alone—not by our works.

God reckons us righteous for the sake of the obedience and suffering of Jesus.

We receive this divine verdict of forgiveness through faith in Jesus.

Now, only God can see our faith (our heart, as some say), but on Judgment Day, God will reveal the faith of the faithful by displaying how their faith was expressed.

We who receive mercy from God show the mercy we have received to one another. When we do, we’re showing mercy to Jesus.

Jesus is clear. What we do for the least of His brothers, we do for Him. The least of Jesus’ brothers are your fellow Christians. They’re not worshipped like celebrities by the world. They’re passed by and forgotten.

You show them kindness and they can’t pay you back.

Showing mercy to Christians in need is showing mercy to Christ himself.

Regarding salvation, all we can do is say, “Thank you.”

But, as Jesus shows us, there are limitless ways to say “Thank you” to Christ by loving your neighbor.

He who redeemed you, who rescued you from death, who purchased a place for you where there is no sorrow or pain or death, gives you the opportunity to serve Him by serving those who are in need.

After the Fall into sin, this is the human condition. There are the hungry and thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned.

But Jesus wasn’t setting down a welfare policy for the church or the state.

He’s showing us how and who we are to love.

In simple terms: Do you love Jesus? Then, love the least of humanity.

The gospel lesson today is from Matthew chapter twenty-five. In chapter twenty-six, Jesus is arrested. And in chapter twenty-seven, He’s crucified.

It makes sense, then, that He, today, warned of the coming judgment—His judgment was coming, too.

Now we Christians know that that was our salvation. On the Cross, Jesus offered up His life to the demands of justice, and He suffered the punishment for our sins.

The Lamb of God took away the sin of the world.

But we know that only because God has told us that this is what the suffering of Jesus means.

No one naturally looks at suffering and sees peace.

Suffering is not peace.

In the Crucifixion of Jesus, you see a man despised by the world, a man whose goodness was punished by savagery and hate.

The hatred of the world waits those who claim Jesus as Lord and Christ and head.

Today, if you stand on God’s word you’re labeled a bigot, an idiot, one behind the times, or worse—judgmental. If you stand on God’s Word, sometimes, that practically means you can’t do business, or you can’t get a job, or you won’t be promoted.

But see in the midst of the hatred of the world God’s great love for you.

While we hated Him—He sent Jesus.

So instead of hating those who hate us, Christ calls on us to stand with and show mercy to those who suffer on account of Christ.

There is no higher responsibility—there is no greater privilege—in this life than to serve Christ.

But this is a simple thing.

We serve Christ by serving those the world hates.

How we treat the lowliest is how we treat Christ.

He who is exalted in heaven at the right hand of the Father, who will return in glory accompanied by a multitude of angels, whose judgment will reveal the eternal peace or terror of every human being who has ever lived, Jesus teaches us that He is to be found in the little ones who have no voice, no power, no advocate, no status in this world.

Those who prefer the praise of men and worship at the altar of manmade righteousness have a different standard of what constitutes a good and praiseworthy deed.

They do what they do to be praised by the world.

They advertise their good deeds to those whose opinions are heard by the crowds.

They know the right hashtags and the right time of day to “tweet”.

Religion is for them a spectator sport, as they follow the trends, repeat the slogans, and live in conformity to what’s in style. To them, Jesus will say that they did nothing for the least of His brothers.

They have no part of Christ, for they had no love for His brothers and sisters.

The kingdom of glory into which Christ’s church will enter on the Last Day was prepared for them from eternity. God saved His children before they’d done anything good or bad.

So much for “salvation by works”!

Salvation is by grace alone.

The eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels—not the goats. While sheep are chosen for glory from eternity, there is no election to damnation. They’re lost, not because God decreed they should be, but because they chose damnation over salvation.

Eternal life in heaven will never end.

Eternal punishment in hell will never end.

Judgment Day is coming.

We prepare for it by taking refuge in the wounds of Jesus, our Savior, who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned on the cross where He bore the sin of the world.

Our refuge being found in Him, we serve those who bear His name and He accepts our service even as He accepts us.

This is not a caricature of what is true.

This is most certainly true.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Third to Last Sunday of the Church Year, 2018
Matthew 24:15-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Today’s gospel lesson doesn’t appear helpful at all unless you’re fascinated by eschatology, the study of the end times.

We’re fascinated by the end times.

But we’re also afraid of them. There’s always two books requested for Bible class: Revelation and not-Revelation.

Hearing today’s Gospel lesson, it is common to have no clue what Jesus is talking about.

We simply don’t study this the way we should.

The “abomination of desolation” could be many things, it is supposed, but really, it’s the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 ad.

Most everything in today’s Gospel lesson is concerned with what believers should do when the temple is destroyed—not very helpful for us today.

The last two verses are proverbial:

“As the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man” (Matthew 24:27).

And, “Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather” (Matthew 24:28).

The first tells us that the second coming of the Son of Man will be neither secret nor invisible but manifest to all.

With one proverbial verse, Jesus destroys the dispensationalist, Left Behind viewpoint.

Just as everyone around you know when lightning strikes, even if it does not strike them in the head, so will be the coming of the Son of Man even if you’re not front and center.

The second seems to pull double duty.

The imagery of a corpse and a vulture isn’t pleasant, so of course it describes the false Christs (the vultures) who feed off of the the corpse (the fear and anxiety) of those dwelling in the end times.

However, it’s also descriptive of, if not also fitting for, Christians. Where the body is, there, those who receive the body gather. Perhaps this is one reason why early Christians were accused of cannibalistic practices.

But that’s the entire gospel lesson: instructions on what to do when the temple is destroyed, when the abomination of desolation is seen.

And two proverbs, dealing with the end times.

The challenge for us today is to inwardly digest what seems unhelpful and irrelevant.

We can’t apply to our daily lives the instructions on how to flee Jerusalem when the temple is destroyed.

And it can’t be about when Jesus returns because we don’t want to flee from that nor can anyone.

The helpful distinction to make is to recognize the difference between “those days” (Matthew 24:19, 22; cf. chapter 19) and “that day” (Matthew 24:36).

“Those days” refer to the days of the destruction of the temple, the abomination of desolation, and GTFOJ (Getting the Family Out of Jerusalem).

“That day” refers to the single day when Jesus returns to judge the quick and the dead. “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (Matthew 24:36).

So while today’s gospel lesson doesn’t appear that helpful or even that relevant, if the reader understands, as the evangelist would have us, then we can see how God protected and provided for the escape of the faithful during those days of great tribulation.

Jesus says, “If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short” (Matthew 24:22).

And, “For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).

First of all, God cut those days short. He knew the amount of evil, the great tribulation, that would occur.

He set a limit to it for the sake of the elect, for our sake. Jesus says, “If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved…” 

God preserves you in the faith, and if you want to see God at work, in Scripture, doing that, look no further.

“…But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.”

That God knows all things, He knows the end of your terrors. For you, for the elect, He has set a limit to them so that you would be saved.

That no one can snatch you out of His hand means that God limits, destroys, breaks, and hinders all the plans and purposes of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh—all so that you would be saved.

And second, Jesus says that “false christs and false prophets will arise and perform great signs and wonders, so as to lead astray—if possible—even the elect.”

This is not 5-Point Calvinism. This is not the P in TULIP. This is not the Perseverance of the Saints.

This is not the bad form of predestination called “double predestination” where some are predestined to heaven and some are predestined to hell and the great tribulation is so bad that even those predestined to heaven are having a bad go at it.

This is not that.

The elect ultimately won’t be led astray, because, by definition, they’re the elect.

That you would be comforted by this, probe not into the secret knowledge of God but into God’s revealed Word.

You don’t have to wonder if you’re among the elect.

You can rejoice that you most certainly are, because “the Word of God leads us to Christ, who is the ‘Book of Life,’ in whom are inscribed and chosen all who shall be eternally saved, as it is written, ‘He chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world’ (Ephesians 1:4)”

“This Christ calls all sinners to himself and promises them refreshment. He is utterly serious in his desire that all people should come to and seek help for themselves. He offers himself to them in the Word. He desires them to hear the Word and not to plug their ears or despise the Word. To this end he promises the power and activity of the Holy Spirit, divine assistance in remaining faithful and attaining eternal salvation…

“The true meaning of election must be learned from the holy gospel of Christ [which] clearly states [that] ‘God imprisoned all in unbelief that he may be merciful to all,’ and that he wants no one to be lost but rather that everyone repent and believe on the Lord Christ…

“A Christian should only think about the article of God’s eternal election to the extent that it’s revealed in God’s Word…In Christ we are to seek the Father’s eternal election [as Christ is the Book of Life, opened to all who hear the Word and believe]. [The Father] has decreed in his eternal, divine counsel that he will save no one apart from those who acknowledge his Son Christ and truly believe in him…

We have a glorious comfort in this salutary teaching, that we know how we have been chosen for eternal life in Christ out of sheer grace, without any merit of our own, and that no one can tear us out of his hand. For he has assured us that he has graciously chosen us not only with mere words. He has corroborated this with an oath and sealed it with the holy sacraments. In the midst of our greatest trials we can remind ourselves of them, comfort ourselves with them, and thereby quench the fiery darts of the devil” (Epitome, XI:6-7, 9, 12).

It’s not possible for the elect to be led astray.

But I don’t mean that no one can fall away from the faith or lose faith.

I mean, we believe in a good God. Who cuts short the days of evil so that you would be saved.

We believe in a God of love who sacrifices His most precious treasure, for our sake, to save us, so that when the lightning flashes in the east, we in the west see it and rejoice. Let the hearer understand.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

All Saint’s Day, 2018
Matthew 5:1-12
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“And [Jesus] opened his mouth and taught them…” (Matthew 5:2). The words that follow are some of the most recognized words of Scripture: the Beatitudes. But if you were explaining them to someone—if you shared the Gospel with a friend or neighbor with the Beatitudes as your inspiration—what would you say?

Are the Beatitudes a set of Christian how-to’s? Would you say to your friend, “If you want to go to heaven, this is what you need to do”?

Is the Bible, B-I-B-L-E, just “Basic-Instructions-Before-Leaving-Earth”? Are they something else?

The First Beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3).

If this Beatitude is a Christian how-to, then you need to be more poor in spirit.

So, what does “poor in spirit” mean? Are you “poor in spirit” enough? And how do you get enough “poor in spirit” that yours is the kingdom of heaven?

If the Beatitudes are Christian how-to’s, inevitably, you’ll ask questions that use the word “enough.”

Instead—hear the First Beatitude this way:  Blessed are the spiritually bankrupt. Blessed are those who hope not in themselves. Who have nothing to offer in themselves. Blessed are those who need only the mercy of Jesus Christ.

Blessed are they. Theirs is the kingdom of Heaven.

That’s not a “how-to.” That’s a “what are.” As in, what are you to God? Who are you to God? What have you done already? What can you do? And what has God done already? What can God do?

Blessed are those who have nothing but open hearts, minds, ears, and hands to receive all that God gives.

The Second Beatitude: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). This suggests “sorrow,” so perhaps we can say, blessed are the sorrowful.

Of course we mourn and feel sorrow for our loved ones lost. But this blessing has in mind those who are like the Man of Sorrows, the Suffering Servant. Jesus—who wept for Lazarus, who felt such gut-wrenching compassion for the unclean-but faithful-Gentiles. Who cried out for Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city who kills the prophets and stones those sent to her.

This blessing has in mind those for whom this world is not enough.

For in the Resurrection, when the saved all around them appear, they will find full comfort.

The Third Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Can you “meek” your way into blessedness? Of course not.

Thematically, the Beatitudes distinguish between those concerned with temporal things and the blessed, those who are concerned with things eternal.

So blessed are those who have nothing or next to it.

Blessed are those who don’t have to have things immediately.  Blessed are those for whom it is enough when Jesus says, “Here—I—am. Receive your inheritance—given and shed for you for the forgiveness of all of your sins.”

The Fourth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). Do you thirst for righteousness? Do you seek it out?

For some, seeking the feeling of righteousness is thirsting for righteousness. But that’s not true righteousness. 

To hunger and thirst for righteousness is simply to want what you do not have. “Hallowed be Thy name,” (Matthew 6:9) we pray, not “my name.” Blessed are those sinners who hunger and thirst for what they can’t achieve themselves.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the forgiveness before God, true righteousness.

They shall be satisfied.

The Fifth Beatitude, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy” (Matthew 5:7) is the brother of the Fourth Beatitude.

What does hunger and thirsting for righteousness have to do with the merciful?

They’re the same.

Those who hunger for righteousness confess their emptiness and need to be filled up. When Jesus says, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice” (Matthew 9:13), He’s saying, “I don’t want you to be arrogant or proud or boastful. I want you to be empty, so I can fill you up.”

So blessed are the merciful, the empty, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. They receive mercy and are satisfied.

The Sixth Beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8) is the twin of the Third Beatitude. The pure in heart are the meek. The pure in heart have confessed their sins. To these, God gives an inheritance. The pure in heart, the meek, Taste and See that God is good.

The Seventh Beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9), could also be said this way: “Blessed are the “harmony-doers,” those who seek and bring about harmony. This goes hand in hand with the Second Beatitude. Blessed are the sorrowful, those who weep and mourn looking to the heavenly inheritance.

Blessed are the sorrowful who seek harmony now.

This side of Heaven, it’ll never be found. But these look forward to peace eternal. Blessed are the peacemakers who yearn for eternity.

The Children of God shall be comforted.

The Eighth Beatitude: “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).

This is the bookend to the First Beatitude.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, those persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 

The poor in spirit, looking to God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all things—will find persecution in the world.

Seeking righteousness from God, from the only source of true righteousness and faith, the poor in spirit are persecuted, because they don’t seek righteousness from the world. 

Blessed are they. They belong to the Kingdom where there’s no persecution. Where God gives all that is needed.

The Beatitudes aren’t a set of Christian “how-to’s.”

They’re a description of what the Christian is, now.

And what the Christian has to look forward to.

You are poor in spirit. You have nothing of intrinsic spiritual value, there is no dormant divine spark waiting to be fanned into flame. God, Himself, has brought you into His Kingdom by His Word and Work.

By the suffering and death of Jesus and the promise that all who believe in Him shall be saved.

Yours is the kingdom.

Blessed are you.

And blessed are you because of Jesus.

He prepared a place for you, your inheritance.

Jesus comforts, you, His people by marking you as one redeemed and redeeming you from death and hell by the power of the name of God. 

He satisfies your hunger and thirst for righteousness with His holy Body and precious Blood. 

The mercy of God—for you—is shown at the Cross when Jesus, persecuted for righteousness’ sake, makes peace between God and Man once and for all.

Yours is the kingdom.

You will be comforted. 

You shall inherit the earth and be satisfied.

You shall receive mercy and see God.

Blessed are you.

Though the whole world persecutes you—though others revile you and utter all kinds of blasphemy against you—blessed are you.

Yours is the Kingdom.

“Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).

Blessed are you.

The Beatitudes don’t describe the things you need to do. 

They describe you in Christ and Christ in you. 

Salvation isn’t a work done by you in faith to God. It’s not a work you could do by following the Beatitudes.

Salvation is a work Christ does for you.

The Beatitudes are some of the most recognized words in all of Scripture.  But they’re not a Christian “how-to.” 

They’re a Blessing to you and for you.

They’re a Blessing that describes Christ living in you and for you.

Blessed are you.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Reformation Day (observed), 2018
Matthew 11:12-19
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Are you familiar with the phrase “There’s an elephant in the room?” It’s a metaphor, an idiom, a phrase that suggests something as gigantic as an elephant can still be willingly ignored in social situations because it’s convenient to do so.

It’s Reformation Day. Let’s talk about the elephant in the room of the church.

There’s widespread disagreement regarding church practice—the how’s, what’s, and who’s of it all.

There’s questions about the administration of things.

There is, of course, from the old-Germans, the complaint that none of this is now as it was years ago, and, because of that, everything’s bad (just look around).

And then, there’s the supposed abuses, the seeming pre-occupation beer or wine, the long sermons, the re-ordering of things, and the strange insistence to teach the Gospel to all.

How terrible!

That is, how terrible it would’ve been to sit in the Church at the time of Jesus or Martin Luther when all that stuff was going on!

What did you think I was talking about?

That’s the elephant in the room.

“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity…there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 9).

“John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners…” (Matthew 11:18-19).

The people who hated John hated him because he rebuked them. That he “neither ate nor drank” was their convenient reason to give as to why they hated him.

The people who hated Jesus hated Him because He rebuked them. That He “ate and drank” was their convenient reason to give as to why they hated him.

In our day, we have jokes about drinking with two Baptists, not one, or if you lived near an Amish community, you’ll note the strange order to their errands: one goes to the bank while the other buys beer, and then, they swap. Both know what the other’s doing, but if we feign the proper amount of shame, then it’s all okay.

We wrongly tell ourselves such lies!

Drunkenness is a scandal, but St. Paul writes to Timothy—after saying, “keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22)—to “no longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).

The Psalmist writes that God provides “plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man” (Psalm 104:14-15).

Noah, likewise, planted a vineyard after the Flood, because—seeing what he saw, hearing what he heard, and caring for all kinds of animals—a glad heart might require a drink.

That doesn’t excuse the drunkenness that follows. Abusus non tollit usum. The abuse does not, in itself, justify the denial of use.

They hated John the Baptist for refraining from drink—they hated Jesus for eating and drinking—and, at the time of the Reformation, they hated Luther both for making so much of Wittenberg beer and discouraging drunkenness.

But the reasons given for your hatred are only a matter of convenience. The issue—for the Pharisee’s, for the Papists—is of the heart.

People hated Jesus because of the forgiveness of sins.

To the paralytic, Jesus says, “‘Man, your sins are forgiven you.’ And the scribes and the Pharisees [said to themselves], ‘Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (Luke 5:20-21).

That’s the convenient excuse, but the Pharisees really mean: “We’re the ones who have to do that. Not you.”

Jesus, rather, teaches every Christian to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (cf. Matthew 6:12).

Luther, likewise, taught the forgiveness of sins this way, but his time required a different tactic—this genesio-German changed—Luther needed to break with the Roman understanding of salvation as faith+works, so “faith alone” was confessed.

When you require more than faith in Jesus Christ for salvation, when you wrongly assert that man cannot forgive sin, Jesus is wrong to teach the Lord’s Prayer, and His sacrifice lacked something.

He would’ve had to say, “It’s not finished,” but that’s not what He said.

Today, we hear that sins can be forgiven, as though forgiveness spins on a roulette wheel, and we’re not sure enough to bet on either red or black.

It’s not “can be” but “is.” All sin is forgiven in Christ.

“Upon Him was put the chastisement that brought us peace, and by His stripes are we healed” (cf. Isaiah 53:5).

“In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:19).

Some people hate all of this, and here’s some reasons.

Universalists hate this, because we teach that if you reject the forgiveness of sins earned by Christ and given by His Word, you’ll be condemned.

Universalists don’t believe in hell.

But people who believe in heaven and hell hate this, too, because, to some, “all sin is forgiven” sounds like “all are saved,” but that’s a false conclusion.

All sin is forgiven in Christ.

Believe that unto eternal life.

And Jesus says, “whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18).

Saying “all sin is forgiven” is like Jesus saying, “It is finished” (John 19:30) where the “it” is “the forgiveness of your sins” and what was needed is the sacrifice of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Saying “all sin is forgiven” is like St. Paul writing, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and [all] are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-25).

All have sinned and are in great need of the Savior, Jesus Christ, the Lord.

And all are justified by the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, and this is to be received by faith alone.

When your pastor announces the forgiveness of your sins—privately or corporately—when your spouse or your friend forgives you—when a Christian child forgives you—it’s as though God Himself is speaking.

The people who hate that hate it because they want forgiveness internally. They don’t want, merely, to hear it out loud, they want to feel it inside.

To non-Lutherans, it’s a completely alien thing to begin every service by confessing sins and receiving Absolution.

I looked at three random bulletins from an ELCA church, a United Methodist church, and a Roman Catholic church.

The ELCA and the United Methodist church had no mention, anywhere, of sins confessed. Another church had what they called a “Ritual of Friendship” where we would expect Confession and Absolution to go.

The Roman church had a “Penitential Act” at the beginning of the service, and it used some familiar language: “I confess…that I have greatly sinned…”

But then it goes on—asking Mary, the angels, the saints, and those present to “pray for me to the Lord our God.”

The priest responds with “May God have mercy on us…”

And there’s an enormous difference, intentional or not, between “May God forgive you” and “In the stead and by the command of my Lord, Jesus Christ, I forgive you of all your sins.”

We’re used to hearing Law and Gospel, which is good. But some of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel lesson, He says to those who’ve shut their ears to it.

Jesus says, “To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn’” (Matthew 11:16-17).

To hear the dirge is to hear the proclamation of God’s law. To mourn at the singing of the dirge, is to know your place. All have sinned and fall short.

Not to mourn is to hear the Word of God, the Law of the Lord, and not to care.

“So, what? That’s what you say. Whatever. That’s not what my pastor told me.I know better.”

To hear the flute is to hear the Gospel. To dance is to rejoice in it and serve God with a willing heart.

To hear and not to dance, is to have the best date to prom, the most beautiful or the most dashing, and, instead of enjoying life, to sit, sad and solemn by yourself, in a spot saved just for you, while there’s a lot of fun going on around you.

“So, what? That’s what you say. Whatever. That’s not what my pastor told me.I know better.”

Well, maybe you do, and maybe you don’t, but none of us know better than Jesus.

Unstop your ears, melt your heart, and hear the Word of God as though for the very first time.

When the dirge is sung—repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.

When the flute is played—rejoice, for our God is gracious.

All of Jesus’ teaching—all of the Reformation—all Christian doctrine can be summarized in this—you have a gracious God.

You have a God who suffers slander and torture and death, and in return, He speaks well of you before the Father.

You have a God who chooses the lowest seat and raises you to the place of honor.

You have a God who is raised up for you, crucified. So that we who are brought low may be exalted.

You have a gracious God.

“Yet,” Jesus says, “wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).

That is, if the world were to go to trial, to see who’s at fault for all our failures, Christ alone would stand apart from the body as the sole innocent. 

Believe, then, in His deeds, His work. In Christ alone.

He justifies you to the end that by God’s grace your body and soul stand together with all believers in Christ, together, innocent.

You have a gracious God.

In the history of the Church, at times, that’s the elephant in the room, something so obvious—but inconvenient to our desires.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Trinity 21 Sermon, 2018
John 4:46-54
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Bottom of the Ninth. Two outs. Tie game. There’s a man on Second. Here’s the wind up—the runner goes—and the pitch—and it’s a base hit up the middle. A valiant effort by the shortstop keeps the ball in play near the infield, but the only play is at home, and the runner is safe at home.

What does this mean?

On her way home from a run, a twenty-six year old female is being followed. She quickens her pace, left hand, pepper spray, right hand, keys held as brass knuckles. Then, she sees him watching her. A mix of panic and fear sends her sprinting, very short of breath, up the stairs to her apartment door, porch light out, of course. And he’s still coming. But her keys were ready, and, once inside, the bolt locks, the chain slides closed, the cats meow, and she breathes a sigh of relief. The runner is safe at home.

What does this mean?

“Safe” doesn’t always mean “safe,” and we know that. We make distinctions like this all the time, but we’re afraid, in the Church, to distinguish between, for example, temporal safety and eternal safety.

We don’t like to offend the sensibilities of the heathen, and so we won’t share with them the words of eternal life. It shouldn’t be this way.

In the Church, we have to be prepared to make distinctions, otherwise, someone will ask us, “What does this mean?” or “What do you mean?” or “What do you believe?” and we’ll be too afraid to answer.

What does the word “until” mean?

In Mark chapter ten, Jesus says, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there [ως] until you depart from there” (Mark 10:6). So, clearly, you stay there “until” you leave. Then you don’t stay there anymore. That’s what “until” means.

However—Jesus says in the last chapter of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you always, [ως, until] the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

Here, the word “until” can’t mean the same as it did before, or else Jesus won’t be with us after the end of the age. We know that’s not right. He’s with us now, until the end. And He’s with us after the end, too.

“Until” means both “until” and “until.”

So when the evangelist, St. Matthew, writes of Joseph, that “[he] knew [Mary] not until she had given birth to a son…” (Matthew 1:25), what does this mean?

It could mean that he knew her, biblically, some time after she’d given birth, but it could also mean that he continued not to know her, biblically, even after Jesus’ birth.

And here’s another example of what I mean, why the Church needs to make distinctions.

The Bible is God’s word, right?

What is says is true, right?

There are no errors or contradictions, right?

So if we were to discover errors, contradictions, falsehoods, or that it is not what it says it is, then, we’d have to give it all up, right?

From James chapter one, “[God] tempts no one” (James 1:13). That’s simple and clear. But it means that if ever it’s written in the Bible that God did tempt anyone, we would lose the comfort of the Word of God.

But when God tests Abraham, this is how Moses writes it: “It came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham” (Genesis 22:1). That’s the word.

But God tempts no one.

But the word used in Genesis is the word “tempt.”

So, what does this mean?

Just as with the word “until”, the word “tempt” has more depth to it than maybe we’d like.

He gives us a cross to bear, but He does not desire sin.

God leads us into temptation, but He does not tempt.

This is the beauty and endless frustration of language.

“Until,” “Tempt,” even “Believe” all have a depth to them that we understand easily—in English—when considering the runner who’s “Safe” at first and the woman, “Safe” behind a locked door.

We’re not making this up as we go along, and we’re not changing it as we go to make it say what we want it to say.

In the Church, we have to distinguish what is from what seems. That’s what this is about.

The testimony of Scripture is clear, and neither one little word nor one big word shall not fell us.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we need to make a distinction regarding the word “believed.” We need to ask what the man believed and what the man (and all of his household) believed.

Because the man believes twice—when Jesus says, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50), he believed the word Jesus spoke to him. And then, after he meets his servants on the way home (cf. John 4:53), he and all his household believed.

The word for “believed” in those two verses is identical. The man believed.

But what he believed, and what that meant, are different in each verse.

When Jesus tells the man, “Go; your son will live” (John 4:50), “the man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and went on his way” (John 4:50).

But the man believed only that his son would live.

I say “only,” but, of course, for this man to believe that his son would live was, moments ago, a hope—but a complete improbability. “[The boy] was at the point of death” (John 4:47). The man believes the word Jesus spoke to him, and he leaves with a victory…

But this is only a small victory. A fleeting one.

The man believes the word spoken to him, that his son will live. But it could be that he believes this, assuming Jesus, like a knowledgeable, tv doctor, knows that this isn’t the type of illness that leads to death, contrary to how it may look.

Or maybe Jesus stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night. Regardless, the man believes only that his boy will die later not sooner, and that’s a victory.

But, “as he was going down, his servants met him and told him that his son was recovering. So he asked them the hour when he began to get better, and they said to him, ‘Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.’ [And] the father knew that was the hour when Jesus had said to him, ‘Your son will live.’ [Then,] he himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:51-53).

This is different.

If St. John were only to have written, “And he himself believed,” we could think that the father simply believes the report. He believed Jesus, and he believed his servants.

But the addition of his household—“He himself believed, and all his household” (John 4:53)—this is a wonderfully telling addition.

The servants that meet him on the road are part of his household. They bring the good news of the boy’s recovery, but they already believe, in the first sense.

The father, though, remembers the hour when Jesus promised life to his son. The father, hearing that the hour his boy got better was the same hour that Jesus spoke, realizes that something greater than coincidence is at work.

He himself believes not just that his boy will live today and die tomorrow—now the father has faith. He believes that Jesus has power over life and death. He believes that Jesus speaks into existence life and all things. He believes, basically, that Jesus is Lord.

And then he does what every Christian father must, he teaches his household the faith.

Of course he does.

The servants who come from home, who meet the father on the road, for their part, they have nothing to believe if the man does not teach them.

For the household to believe only that the son is healed would be meaningless. They bring the message of his health to the father. No, here, the household believes in Jesus Christ as Lord, and they believe because the father believes and teaches.

They believe the boy will live. But they believe, now, because of Jesus, that though he will die yet shall he live. Moreover, that everyone who lives and believes in Jesus Christ the Lord will never die.

The man went to Jesus hoping his boy would live, and he left believing that he’d see him again.

But the gospel lesson concludes with the man hoping past life and death, trusting beyond what his eyes can see, leaning not on his own understanding, but trusting in Jesus, who speaks life into existence, to now speak everlasting life—for him, for his son, for his entire household—this man trusts Jesus to speak so that he and all his household would be safe.

And what does that mean?

Unbelief requires signs—that you see them and believe because of them. Jesus rebukes not just the man but all unbelief when He says, “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe” (John 4:48).

But this man sees no signs. He sees no wonders.

Neither do we.

He hears the gospel. He believes the word spoken to him. He meets his servants, his friends, his household, and he believes the word that they bring to him.

He believes not what he’s seen—but what he’s heard.

And he’s safe, that is, saved.

As are we.

Hear the gospel. Believe the word spoken to you. Hold to it, trust it, more and more. And share that word that you and your household believe.

And we know what that means.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!