Stepping Outside the Fortress

We no longer live in a day where the pastor is perhaps the most educated guy in the town. We no longer live in a day where the pastor is perhaps the most educated guy in the parish. We live in an age unparalleled when it comes to information, inundated with philosophies and theologies and worldviews and narratives. Rome was a hotbed of intellectual, cultural, and religious diversity in the time of the apostles, but even the Romans couldn’t imagine all we have at our fingertips today, even in rural America, through Google, YouTube, and iTunes. So what do we do?

Well, first, we grow roots. We dig into the Scriptures, especially those books which drive home the central doctrine of the Scriptures. Genesis, Isaiah, Mark, John, Romans, Galatians, and 1 Peter are great places to start. We dig into the Catechisms. We learn the questions God would have Christians ask and the answers He has given in His Words. We learn and sing good hymns, which put sound Christian doctrine to memorable melodies. We learn to appreciate the goodly and godly traditions and practices we’ve inherited; we ask the why behind them we treasure those things that have whys that have endeared them and shaped generations of the faithful. In short, we get our feet beneath us. We settle down in God’s might fortress. We become a gospel people.

But we dare not stop there, especially pastors, teachers, and lay leaders. Our study dare not end with our graduation from seminary, college, or catechism class. We need to be in the Word, but we also need to be intellectually exploring the world into which we are called to take it. We need to remember that our brothers and sisters, our people, don’t have the privilege of a life within the fortress as many of us do. Their year isn’t defined by the church year as for many called workers. Their daily bread doesn’t come through study, preaching, and teaching of Christ and Him crucified. God has sent them out, through their vocations. They are bombarded with voices, with ideas, with questions, with challenges to their faith. We need to be able to help them. We need to have answers, and pat answers and platitudes won’t do. In fact, they will do more harm than good. That will do a disservice to the Scriptures and to Christ, their heart. That will give the impression there isn’t an answer where there really might be, or that there isn’t depth where, in truth, nothing could be deeper. Moreover, if our laypeople are going to be able to engage friends and coworkers and acquaintances with the love of Christ in the various stations in which God has placed them, they need to be equipped to speak meaningful words in a thoughtful way, in love, with clarity.

There is another reason we should be willing to step outside the fortress, though. Only the gospel builds faith, but there are big questions, piercing insights, and windows into the human condition aplenty there, outside the fortress. We can understand better who we are as fallen humans and appreciate more who we are as redeemed children of God. We can learn to speak the language of the lost and understand what they’re asking, where they’re looking, and where there are openings for considerate and considered discussion. Moreover, we can have some great conversations, whether or not Jesus comes up every time, whether or not they end in a conversion, and conversation itself is a wonderful gift from God that can be good for our soul. We can be sharpened. We can be honed. We can grow in and show love without strings attached and unafraid. We can…let the bird fly, set free to listen, to talk, to care, to think in a world given back to us as gift, to appreciate what is best, to confront what is worst, to give thanks for our deliverance.

Take a listen to Episode 4 if you get a chance. Besides a lot of, well, conversation, a lot of talk about technology and some good-natured ribbing, we try to dig into the value of stepping outside the fortress and we discuss who especially should do so when, and who should maybe hunker down for a while. When you listen, don’t be shy about telling us what you think, too. We love having new voices in our conversation, from within the church and without, from all sorts of backgrounds, vocations, disciplines, with all kinds of perspective. That always makes things more fun and more fruitful. If you enjoy it, consider sharing the podcast with a friend, rating it, reviewing it, or at least tuning in again. We are digging our new venture. We hope you will, too!

The Easter Sermon of John Chrysostom (circa 400 AD)

Are there any who are devout lovers of God?
Let them enjoy this beautiful bright festival!

Are there any who are grateful servants?
Let them rejoice and enter into the joy of their Lord!

Are there any weary with fasting?
Let them now receive their wages!

If any have toiled from the first hour, let them receive their due reward; If any have come after the third hour, let him with gratitude join in the Feast! And he that arrived after the sixth hour, let him not doubt; for he too shall sustain no loss. And if any delayed until the ninth hour, let him not hesitate; but let him come too. And he who arrived only at the eleventh hour, let him not be afraid by reason of his delay. For the Lord is gracious and receives the last even as the first. He gives rest to him that comes at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that toiled from the first.

To this one He gives, and upon another He bestows. He accepts the works as He greets the endeavor. The deed He honors and the intention He commends. Let us all enter into the joy of the Lord!

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice today for the Table is richly laden!

Feast royally on it, the calf is a fatted one. Let no one go away hungry. Partake, all, of the cup of faith. Enjoy all the riches of His goodness!

Let no one grieve at his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.

Let no one mourn that he has fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave.

Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free. He has destroyed it by enduring it. He destroyed Hell when He descended into it. He put it into an uproar even as it tasted of His flesh.

Isaiah foretold this when he said, You, O Hell, have been troubled by encountering Him below.

Hell was in an uproar because it was done away with.
It was in an uproar because it is mocked.
It was in an uproar, for it is destroyed.
It is in an uproar, for it is annihilated.
It is in an uproar, for it is now made captive.

Hell took a body, and discovered God.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.

O death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and you, o death, are annihilated!
Christ is Risen, and the evil ones are cast down!
Christ is Risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is Risen, and life is liberated!

Christ is Risen, and the tomb is emptied of its dead; for Christ having risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Christ is Risen! …Our Accuser is a Defanged, Venomless Serpent!

(Mark 16:1-8; 1 Corinthians 5:6-8)

Luther preached on this festival of the resurrection:

“We are not preaching anything new, but always, without ceasing, about the man who is called Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who died for our sins and rose for our justification. Yet even if we were again and again to preach about and dwell upon these events, we could never really exhaust their meaning. We would remain like infants and young children, just learning to speak, scarcely able to form half words, yes, scarcely quarter words.”

The devil is a wily serpent. His venom is deadly, and death is exactly what He wants to bring us. And a serpent slithers through small holes, as you know full well from experience. He doesn’t need much room to finagle a thought into your head, start prying apart a marriage, turn your eyes green with envy, or persuade you that what is not God does indeed appear divine.

This old evil foe, this accursed serpent, had knocked down many a prophet and saint before, and he assumed he would be able to do the same with our Lord Christ. He’d grown overconfident. And at first, it certainly appeared that he’d been right, that he’d won. He sunk his fangs into our Lord and his venom did its work. Christ was true God and true man, and so He wasn’t immune. He was wounded, and wounded deeply. Satan spewed all the venom of hell, tore Christ’s flesh and tormented His soul.

Yet what did He accomplish in the end? We wouldn’t be singing glad hymns today if he’d won. No, all He did was use up his venom in futility. Christ took it all and today He is risen. He lives. He lives and He’s extracted all the venom from Satan’s fangs. He’s smashed them, made him all bark and no bite. Yes, He’s even crushed his head. And He has done all this for us. His wounds, which once brought Him such bitter pain, now are our relief and refuge. His blood, which once poured forth in anguish, now marks the doorposts of our hearts through faith and abounds for our forgiveness in His Holy Supper.

How can we go through Holy Week and not become sure beyond a shadow of a doubt that our God is mercy, that His countenance bears, not a scowl, but a tender and fatherly smile through the gospel and in Christ, crucified and now risen for sinners? We heard the Roman centurion, moved by the events of Good Friday, confess that He is the Son of God. We heard the thief on the cross beg Him for a place in Him kingdom and receive that beautiful answer, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” What a Redeemer we have, who gives paradise to sinners, who forgives even the lifelong sinner in his last hour, unable to live even one day for Him in return, that is, not in this life! And that same Jesus has died and risen for more than the centurion and thief. He has died and risen for you. He is your Redeemer as well, and all the life and hope we hear about in this season is meant for you too.

Imagine being Peter for a moment. He’d denied His Lord, and for all we know, that was the last he’d seen of him. The rooster crowed, he looked into his Master’s sorrowful eyes, and fled, weeping bitterly. Imagine the guilt that weighed him down. And all he could do was wallow in it. Jesus was dead and buried. He couldn’t apologize. He couldn’t look into his Master’s eyes to scour them for a trace of forgiveness. No, all he could do was kick himself, weep, and huddle together with the other apostles, ashamed, confused, depressed.

But what do we hear as the women arrive at the tomb today? The women are told, “But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.” Did you notice it? “And Peter,” the young man adds. “Tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee.” Imagine Peter when the women reported the news. Surely he latched upon those words. Perhaps the women, aware of his grief, emphasized them or repeated them for him. Perhaps they even embraced him, knowing the hope those two words might bring: “And Peter.” Where before it seemed only despair could result, now there was a glimmer of light in the darkness. Peter didn’t know yet what to expect for sure, but he knew he was going to meet his Lord again. “There you will see him, just as he told you,” the women were told.

How appropriate that Mary Magdalene, out of whom the Lord had cast seven demons, who’d stood at the cross with the mother of our Lord and watched Him speak words of mercy and grace even as He languished toward death, should be the one to hear this news and to share it with Peter, sinner to sinner, restored sinner to a repentant sinner desperately yearning for restoration. And that is what the church is about. That is its foundation and calling. Forgiveness, proclaimed sinner to sinner, for Christ’s sake.

On Friday, death swallowed Jesus whole, like the giant fish once swallowed Jonah. But today He’s burst its belly. Death lies in pieces. And that’s why St. Paul can taunt death in 1 Corinthians 15. That’s why we can rejoice in the face of death at funerals and even long for death when our suffering or sickness is great, while never taking it into our hands. Victory is ours. One drop of Christ’s holy blood is greater than all of the devil’s lies. One drop of His holy blood is more powerful than all the world’s sorrows. One drop of His holy blood guarantees more than all the works of men for all of human history. So great is our Lord who died, and now who has risen!

St. Paul writes, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” My friends, there are two ways to live in this world: in the light of the resurrection or in the darkness of death, which is no life at all. Christ has come, Christ is risen for you to live. So live, because His resurrection is your justification. Live, because your sins have been buried in His tomb.

Christ is risen. He is risen indeed! And He is risen for you. Alleluia and amen!

Look at What We’ve Done; We’ve Killed God!

Does it bother you? The crucifix—does it bother you? I don’t mean this crucifix. I mean the crucifix the holy evangelists set before us today. Does it bother you? Does it seem too gruesome, too depressing? Does it bother you?

Look at what we’ve done. We’ve killed God. Who will be God now? Will you be God? Will I? That may work for a while, but what will we do when God dies, as we all will? We’ve killed God. Where do we turn now? Shall we cease praying? Shall we surrender all morality since we’ve crucified absolute Truth? Shall we despair of life and do what God did: die? We killed God. What shall we do?

Look at him. This is not he; this is a representation of that day. Look at him. Close your eyes and look through the lenses of whatever faith you have left. Look at him. Who would believe in him—weak, naked, bloody, covered in spit, sunken and dead? Look at him. There is your God, you Christian. How foolish can you be?

Nietzsche said it long ago and today it is true: “God is dead.” And Nietzsche is dead too. And we will be dead soon as well. What a world? Dirt and worms, pine boxes and makeup on a cold, lifeless face.

Does it bother you? Why should it? This is what you wanted, isn’t it? You got your way. Every thoughtless word, every carnal deed, every wayward thought—this is what you wanted. You killed God. Does it bother you? I don’t see why it would.

Will you smile as you leave church today, supposing you make the time to go, to mark the death of God? Will you leave the nave in silence but engage in trite chatter in the narthex? Will you say, “Nice sermon, Pastor,” and hurry back to Netflix or some other distraction, as if nothing happened. God died today. Do you care? Will you care? Why should you care? He’s dead, what can you do about it?

You can believe. You can believe that God cannot die, that God lives, that although he dies he lives forever, and in him you will live as well. You killed God. It is true. But it is also true that you cannot kill him. He gave up his life. He held himself to the cross—your nails cannot hold God. You killed God, and God let you kill him, that he might never have to kill you, kill you with everlasting death in the fires of hell. You killed him, and it could happen no other way.

“Go!” “Suffer!” “Die!”—these are the words we must yell today. Do not be so naïve as to think they are not, because if he does not go, suffer, and die, he cannot rise, and if he does not rise, you will never rise as well. This is what he was born to do. This is why God became man. God must forsake God. God must punish God. God must hate God, for the Son has become our sin. The Father must hate him with the burning hatred only justice and holiness knows. The Father must look on him in hatred now so that, through him, he can then look on you in love. Look at him, and be ashamed. Be ashamed of him, because he is you, and the worst part of you, the part you do your best to hide. He is your sin.

All Christians, but especially Lutherans of all people, stand and watch today—don’t turn your head! We preach Christ crucified, because if he is not crucified, you are not baptized into his death and there is no value in receiving his body and blood. But he was crucified, and you are baptized, and you will receive the very instruments of your salvation for the forgiveness of your sins on Easter: his crucified yet living and life-giving body and blood.

The disciples ran and hid. Do not do that today. Watch. See how ugly your sin is. See how beautiful your Savior’s love is. See both those things as your God hangs on your cross. Look at what we’ve done. Look at what God has done. “It is finished.” Amen!

Mark 16:1-8 “In a Garden”

It started in a garden with a woman faced with death, her man cowering behind, waiting to see what would happen. It ends in a garden with women faced with death, their men cowering behind, in this case in a locked room, to see what would happen.

It started in a garden as peace with God was shattered. It ends in a garden as peace with God is declared.

It started in a garden when fingers were pointed, excuses were made, and blame was assigned. It ends in a garden with blame having become pointless, with forgiving concern for the Apostle who had denied our Lord.

It started in a garden with “did God really say?” It ends in the garden with “just as He said.”

It started in a garden with ears filled with that which ears ought not entertain, hands clasped about that which hands ought not touch, minds dragged into the gutter and away from God. It ends with ears filled with good news of the risen Master, hands eager to grasp Him, minds taken hostage by the miraculous and divine.

It started in a garden with an attempt to hide the shame God’s eyes had already seen but their hearts and mouths were unwilling to confess. It started with God’s sad, “Where are you?” as they cowered, the world forever changed, our relationship with God broken to the point that only His only-begotten Son’s pierced hands could put it back together. It ends with the glory God’s eyes had already seen set on full display for the eyes of His frightened disciples, with, “Do not be alarmed. He is not here. He is risen. And you will see Him.”

It started with exile from paradise, with toil in thorns and pain in childbirth, with brother killing brother. It ends with sweet invitation back into paradise, with rest through His thorns and salvation through His birth first from the Virgin and now from the tomb, with Brother killed by brother to make His brothers ever alive as He is.

It started with death, the wages of sin, the fruit of unbelief. It ends with life, the wages of His perfect submission to God’s will and Word, the fruit of His trust in His Father even when forsaken, even when hung on the tree.

It started with a tree, with the fruit of a tree consumed by our first parents, so that its venom became part of them and poisoned us with mortality. It ends with a tree, with the fruit of a tree eaten and drunk by us in His Supper, medicine of immortality.

It started with a lie. It ends with a promise. The lie was that God’s Word is not full. The promise is that God’s Word never comes back empty. “He is risen. Just as He said,” the angels glory, the angel reports to the women.

It started in a garden. It ends in a garden. Leave the old garden behind, with its sin and shame and blame and guilt and terror and doubt and despair and poison. No, walk out of this garden new women, new men today. No longer cower. No longer hide. No, God has seen you, and God sees you, and God will see you, and the God who sees you is the God who loves you, who pursues you, who is desperate to fix what we have broken. God today calls for you even as He called for St. Peter, for the old things are forgotten, the sins are washed away.

Today is the first day of His new creation. Today is a new day in your new life in Him. Today is the first day of your resurrection and one day closer to your resurrection, for the Firstfruits, our Lord Jesus, has burst His three-day prison, and our faith is not in vain, and it is not so short-armed as to reach only for this life, but always fixes our short-sighted eyes on the greater and everlasting life to come.

Jesus is risen. He is risen indeed. He is not in His tomb. He is not there. He is here, in His Word, in His Sacraments, in your hearts through faith, inviting you into a new and better paradise, one undefiled and eternal, one stored up in heaven for you.

There are two gardens. You’ve rightly belonged with our first parents in the one, but you now belong with Christ in the other. So get your gardens right today and rejoice. One is where it started. One is where it ends, and what a blessed end it is. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen, and He is risen, just as He was crucified: for you. Alleluia and alleluia.