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!

Advent 4 Sermon, 2018
John 1:19-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

I have regularly attended—and I mean, over a period of at least several months, I have attended weekly—services in churches of the Lutheran confession in Sikeston and Fayette, Missouri;  London, England; two in Fort Wayne, Indiana; one in Mobile, Alabama; Golconda, Illinois and now, Girard, Illinois.

I have visited, for a service or two, many and various Lutheran churches in California, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, and Texas.

I’ve seen what’s called contemporary worship. I’ve heard a sermon—in a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod church—delivered by a woman. I’ve seen a corps of acolytes who enjoy talking about how to hold their hands during certain parts of the service. I’ve heard terrible two minute sermons and outstanding forty-five minute sermons—and vice-versa.

I don’t know if my experience is similar to your experience, but I have observed in a short time an obvious disparity in what we call “synod,” which means something like “walking together” or “together on the way.”

There’s a lot of walking. And many ways. But perhaps not that much of it “together.”

And here’s one argument as to why that is.

From those who desire uniformity of doctrine and practice, I’ve heard arguments like this: “It was done this way here, here, and here in history, and there’s no reason for it to be different here. So we’re going to be the same.”

And, from those who argue that doctrine divides and love unites, I’ve heard: “It’s true that Scripture speaks that way. It’s true the  Lutheran Confessions speak that way. It’s true that it was that way there and then. But—that’s only descriptive of then—not proscriptive for now.”

The difference between “descriptive” and “proscriptive” is easy if you compare it like this:

If you describe a way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you’re neither saying “Do it like this” nor “Don’t do it like this.” You’re simply describing a way.

But if you proscribe a way to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you are, by definition, excluding some options. To proscribe is to forbid some things and require others.

So, for example, in Article XXIV of the Augsburg Confession, On the Mass, it’s written: “No noticeable changes have been made in the public celebration of the Mass, except that in certain places German hymns are sung alongside the Latin responses for the instruction and exercise of the people. For after all, all ceremonies should serve the purpose of teaching the people what they need to know about Christ” (AC XXIV, 2-3).

Some will read that and say, “Good. Let’s do away with all the frivolity and get back to how it was and should be.” And some will say, “Not so fast, this describes how it was then, but it doesn’t proscribe how it should be now. This doesn’t require of us anything.”

Hopefully, you see the problem.

And hopefully, you see how ludicrous it is to argue that Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions are only descriptive.

If it’s descriptive of what is meet, right, and salutary, then it is proscriptive.

But the Epistle lesson tonight gives us a more specific example of what I mean. From Philippians chapter four: ”Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).

Before you get the idea that Sts. Paul and Timothy not only want you to be reasonable people but that your reasonableness be known to everyone, realize that this Epistle wasn’t written to you but to the Christian church in Philippi.

Chapter one, verse one: “Paul and Timothy, servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers, and deacons: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:1-2).

(And you can be sure that they all said “Amen!” when this was read to them.)

But did you hear it—this wasn’t written to you, so not only do you have to bother reading it, you don’t have to be reasonable people, and you certainly don’t have to let your reasonableness be known to everyone.

Right now’s not a good time for anybody to leave, tune out, or fall asleep, because—so far—what I’ve said is not true, but I’ve said it that way so you can hear how false it sounds to argue this way.

You know, just as well as I do, that what is true is true for all. 2 + 2 = 4. And that’s true everywhere, everywhen.  And anyone can do that. Nothing has to change for that to be true. That’s Truth according to math.

Here’s Truth according to nature: marriage is the union of one man and one woman, for the procreation of children, for life. That’s true everywhere, everywhen. And anyone can get married. Nothing has to change for that to be true.

But “homosexual marriage” is not marriage, because you have to change all the parameters. Two no longer equals two, but we’re still told that —2 + 2 = 4. It lacks the necessities of marriage: it’s not male and female, it doesn’t exist for the procreation of children and, as has been seen since legalized, it’s hardly ever for life.

That’s the truth according to nature, and, of course, there’s the truth according to the Word of God. Jesus defines marriage as a man being joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh (cf. Matthew 19:1-12).

When Paul writes to the church in Philippi, he does address them directly. They are peculiar in their reasonableness, and he exhorts them specifically to be reasonable to everyone.

But you know as well as I do that the Epistles were read and passed around. What’s true is true, whether St. Paul writes to you from prison himself or you hear it from a child years later.

If you read a newspaper and share the news with your friend, what’s true in the paper is still true.

So when we read St. Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi—or the Lutheran Confessions, or the newspaper—what was true for them is true for us.

You’re to be reasonable—not unreasonable. You’re to listen to reason. And not be swept along by emotion or inertia or apathy.

We can go through the entire Epistle lesson and take each verse as an exhortation to Christian living:

You are to “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say it, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).

You are to “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5).

You are not to “be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6).

And that’s remarkable.

Be not anxious.

Pray.

Supplicate.

And the difference there is that prayer is to God alone and supplications can be made to God and man. So we pray to God for our salvation. And we, supplicants, ask for help from each other and from God. But we do not ask our friends for salvation. We do ask our friends for bread. We do ask our God for salvation. And we do ask our God for daily bread. He gives us friends, sometimes, to provide our daily bread.

It’s as if St. Paul says, “Don’t be anxious because God has seen to it that you will have everything you need for this body and life. But by all means pray, that your Father in heaven sees and hears your faith. And by all means ask your friends for help, that they may see what good, Christian, and pious humility looks like so that when they’re in need, they can turn to you for help and to Christ.”

And always with thanksgiving, whether your have what you want or only what you need.

That verse is remarkable. And it’s true for us just as much as it was true for the Christians at Philippi.

And finally, “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

This is not a “will..eventually” but a “will…certainly”.

We’re not waiting for the peace of God.

We have it.

Grace to you all, and peace, from God our Father, and the Lord, Jesus Christ.

To which we reply—amen! Indeed.

But let’s ask the tough question.

Let’s ask the doubter’s question.

How do you know that St. Paul, who writes to the church in Philippi, how do you know he means these words for me?

If these verses are only descriptive, who cares? They may as well be marked as fiction.

And if they’re proscriptive, how do you know? He doesn’t make that clear.

Oh, but he does.

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (Philippians 4:4-5).

The Lord is at hand.

The Lord is near.

This is both a warning and a promise.

Why should we let our reasonableness be known to others? Why should we supplicate our friends for bread?

The Lord is near.

You can’t do it yourself, whether it’s salvation or bread, you can’t.

And when you ask for help, when you admit you don’t know, when you seek to learn, when you don’t insist on your own ways, when you sit at the feet of some or admit to standing on the shoulders of others, you serve as a good and godly example.

The Lord is at hand is a warning for us not to think too highly of ourselves. Don’t overestimate your own importance. That’s kind of a downer way to say it, so how about: The Lord saves.

The Lord alone saves.

And if that’s true, and the Lord is at hand, that’s a warning to straighten up. To be ready. To believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

But “The Lord is at hand” is also a blessing.

It answer the question “why” to all of the other verses.

Why rejoice in the Lord always? The Lord, Jesus the Christ, is at hand. And for all who believe in Him, He will lift them up, take their cross, and welcome them to life eternal.

How can we not be anxious? The Lord is at hand. “The strife is o’er, the battle done; the victory of life is won; the song of triumph has begun. Alleluia!”

And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

How?

This Lord and God of ours is at hand. He is near to us now to unite us in His Word, feed us with His Sacrament, and send us on our way, in peace and joy, with sins forgiven.

The Lord is at hand.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

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!