Husband. Father. Lutheran pastor. Sinfonian.

Why—in the Service of the Sacrament—are the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Jesus?

What is it that makes them so?

While you think about that, I’ll say this:

Sacerdotalism is a belief emphasizing the role and powers of priests or pastors as essential mediators between God and man.

This manifests in different ways, usually in the form of an abuse of some kind.

If the pastor charges you for the privilege of the sacraments—that’s an obvious abuse—but historically, Christians have paid the price in fear that the priest, who stands in the stead of Christ, might condemn them.

That’s obviously wrong, and none of you will ever be duped into thinking that, right?

Good.

In some places, the pastor was treated like a little lord and given the German title Herr, which does mean Mister but is also the word for Lord as in Herr Gott, Lord God.

We’re not that far removed from this, if it’s even gone away. Talk to a nurse who worked at a Roman Catholic hospital. She’ll tell you how the priests were never wrong—how they went wherever and did whatever they wanted to—and you didn’t want to get in the way of God.

Your mileage may vary, but that’s what I’ve heard.

Another example, just to make the point, is to ask this question: If you sin, must you get forgiveness from the pastor?

And a good answer is: “No. Not must.”

Can—certainly. And perhaps we can hypothesize a “should.” But never must, right?

So—what’s the difference? Or—is there a difference?

If there is a difference, is that difference found in the ordination of the man? The laying on of hands?

Something else?

And, of course, if there isn’t a difference, why do we have pastors?

In the history of the Church, the sacerdotalists have insisting not only that there is a difference between the forgiveness from your pastor and the forgiveness from anyone else—but that unless you confess your sins to the pastor and receive absolution from him—you can’t be sure of your own salvation.

You know that’s not true, so you might think that you’ve been able to dodge the sacerdotal tendency to think more of your pastor than you should, but let me ask you again:

Why—in the Service of the Sacrament—are the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Jesus?

What is it that makes them so?

It’s not because the pastor consecrates them.

It’s not because the pastor says the words.

From the Formula of Concord—what Lutheran pastors believe, teach, and confess: “About the consecration, we believe, teach, and confess that no work of man or recitation of the minister produces this presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Holy Supper. Instead, this presence is to be credited only and alone to the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ.

“At the same time we also believe, teach, and confess unanimously that in the use of the Holy Supper the words of Christ’s institution should in no way be left out. Instead, they should be publicly recited, as it is written in 1 Corinthians 10:16, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless’ and so forth. This blessing occurs through the reciting of Christ’s words” (Epitome, VII.8-9).

So—why, in the Service of the Sacrament, are the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Jesus?

What is it that makes them so?

And the answer—for the sacerdotalist—is the priest or pastor and the recitation of the Words of Institution.

But for us Bible-believing Christians, “it is credited only and alone to the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Now—that’s all well and good, but let me tell you why we’re talking about this.

One good reason is so that pastors don’t think themselves irreplaceable or even necessary to the goings on of the church.

I should not overestimate my own importance.

And—one other good reason to talk about this is—some of you got it wrong.

You attributed to me the power to turn bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus.

I’m flattered.

Thank you very much.

But that power belongs only and alone to the almighty power of our Lord Jesus Christ—as we Lutherans have always believed, taught, and confessed.

The real question at the heart of the matter is why do we have pastors?

And that is—so you would have confidence.

So you would have certainty concerning your own salvation.

You can’t forgive yourself.

Your confidence in your own salvation should never—can never rest in your self.

So—God has placed a man here, your pastor, to pronounce forgiveness in order to fulfill God’s will.

There may be a day—or several—when your own sins weight you down.

In that moment—you need to be sure of God’s will for you and your life.

You need to be sure that you possess faith that leads to salvation.

Faith that God counts as righteousness in His sight.

And—“So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted” (cf. AC V).

For your certainty, for your comfort, God has given you a pastor so that you may know the certain will of God—to save sinners, even if you are the foremost.

So, tonight, rejoice—not in the non-existent “indelible character” of your pastor—but in the power of God and the mercy of God—to save.

“For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

“Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:23-32).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Maundy Thursday, 2021
John 13:1-15, 34-35
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

It is certainly the case that had Jesus not prayed for Peter, the temptations by which Peter denied Jesus would have overcome him completely.

Of Jesus, the chosen servant of the Lord, this is what it means when the prophet Isaiah writes that “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Or—as Jesus says in the gospel according to St. John, “While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled” (John 17:12).

And with that, you might think to ask about Judas.

Why did Jesus not pray for Judas as He did Peter?

It’s not comforting, but it’s true—Judas belonged to Satan.

It’s not that Jesus lost him—it’s that Judas rejected God.

Or—to say it another way—Judas feared the people. He did not fear God.

So where does that put you?

And what I mean is—would you want Jesus to pray for you as He did Peter?

Would you want Him to say, “Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”

I think we would all want that—until, at least, we remember what happened to St. Peter, who was crucified upside down.

His faith didn’t fail—we all want that.

But he was crucified upside down because of his faith—and we’d rather not.

It’s true that we ought to be prepared to suffer for the sake of the gospel, but that doesn’t mean we look for suffering.

As you bear not the cross you choose but the cross God gives you, just so, you do not choose martyrdom.

The cross chooses the Christian, I guess, if you want to say it like that.

My point is, we actually should pray as Jesus does.

For others—that they may bear their crosses such that their faith does not fail.

And—we need to realize that that means we sometimes pray against our own body, mind, and strength.

Imagine if you prayed for your parents or your in-laws the way Jesus prayed for Peter.

“Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”

That’s not a troublesome prayer when your parents are healthy and far away.

That’s not a troublesome prayer when your in-laws are choosing things you like.

But what if you prayed for their faith not to fail—and they must confess the faith against your idols?

Let’s not naively think that we are always right and others are always wrong.

We should pray for them—as Jesus did—that their faith would not fail.

And—when we do, we’re praying—perhaps—against our own idols, against our own desires, and against our own body.

And—if that’s the case—that’s good.

Praying for something is always also praying against something else.

Praying for God to destroy evil is also praying against yourself—when you sin in thought, word, or deed.

From the Small Catechism: The good and gracious will of God is done “When God breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.”

So when you pray for your parents—that their faith may not fail, remember, when they ask you to go to Sunday School with them, that you asked God for this.

And again, imagine if you prayed for your spouse the way Jesus prayed for Peter.

“Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail.”

That’s not a troublesome prayer when your spouse lets you choose what to watch on tv, what’s for dinner, or which and how many chores you’ll do.

But praying for the faith of your spouse is also praying against your own body—against your own wants.

What one needs, the other may not, and that’s a two-way street.

When you pray for the faith of your spouse, you might be praying, against yourself, that he would have the patience required to win an argument.

You might be praying that she would have the strength to tell you what you need to hear—not what you want.

Praying for something is always also praying against something else.

When you pray for your friends—that God would guard them in all their endeavors, keep them steadfast in the midst of danger, and comfort them when assaulted by the devil and the world—you are also, at least potentially, praying against yourself—when you sin in thought, word, or deed against those for whom you pray.

This is good to keep in mind.

Because you are to pray for good things.

You are to pray for your friends—your family—your husband, wife, and children.

But don’t be naive.

If you pray for your pastor to be unfaithful—who has entered into you and to whom do you belong?

And why should anyone listen to you?

And if you pray for your pastor to be faithful—realize what that means.

He may preach against your false gods.

And he will.

That might hurt. It might not be nice. But it’s good.

He may chant and sing against what’s popular.

And if he sings Lutheran hymns—he will.

That might hurt. You might not like it. But it’s good.

He may tap dance on the ashes of your idols.

Like Moses, he may grind them up, scatter them on the water, gather everyone around for a drink, and wait for them to be expelled.

It’s not a troublesome prayer when your pastor does exactly what everyone else has always done forever.

But that’s not what you’re praying for when you pray for your pastor’s faith not to fail.

For that matter, when your pastor prays for you, that your faith may not fail, he knows that comes with the cross and burden of questions.

Ask them. Test the spirits. Test the fruit.

And rejoice together in the God who has called all to repentance and had mercy on all—in the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Remember:

Jesus prayed for Peter: “Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32).

It is certainly the case that had Jesus not prayed for Peter, the temptations by which Peter denied Jesus would have overcome him completely.

But Jesus added this: “And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:32).

Fear God—not the people.

Confess your sin, and God, who is faithful and just, will forgive you your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 John 1:8-9).

Let us pray:

“Behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Wednesday of Holy Week, 2021
Luke 22-23
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church—Ernestville, Missouri

There is the word catastrophe—which no one needs to have defined for them.

And there is the word eucatastrophe, and perhaps we need some help with that.

JRR Tolkien coined the term in 1944, meaning it as a sort of reversal of catastrophe, to describe the sudden, blessed turn in a story which pierces you with joy and brings you to tears.

He was referring to what he thought of as the highest function of fantasy storytelling when, from out of terror, there comes forth strength and life.

But we have to be taught to see this.

When a terrible, awful thing happens, what do you do?

We’re tempted, certainly, to look away from the terrible thing and to concentrate on the peace that we believe will come later.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression—that is the right thing to do.

The suffering or death of a Christian is not the end.

God is merciful.

You’ll either make it—or see Christ face to face.

It’s the waiting that’s the hardest part.

But it is meet, right, and salutary to look forward to the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Of course.

And, mature faith can also recognize eucatastrophe.

What good comes out of the death of a Christian?

Well, we just said, the death of a Christian is not the end. God has promised eternal life to all who believe in Jesus, so we rejoice in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

Of course.

But I mean—what good can come out of the death of a friend—right now?

This is a difficult lesson, but—once learned—you become, in a way, immovable. Steadfast. Long-suffering.

Hopeful. And not put to shame.

In Luke chapter thirteen, Jesus uses two catastrophes to teach this point.

First, “There were some present at that very time who told [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners that all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish’” (Luke 13:1-3).

What good can come out of the death of a Christian?

Certainly you know someone who closed his eyes, and ears, and heart to God only to be woken up violently by the sudden death or disaster of a close friend.

We don’t pray for people to die.

We don’t ask for bad things to happen to people.

But if, in the midst of catastrophe, the fear of God finds you—you can rejoice in God’s patience with you.

The second example in Luke chapter thirteen makes the same point: “Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:4-5).

That section of Luke 13 is no one’s confirmation verse, I’m sure. No one has a bumper sticker with “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Those are catastrophic words—we don’t choose them.

But these are catastrophic times.

The End Times. The Last Days.

And Jesus is coming soon. So perhaps we should.

We might be tempted to look past these days and all the terrible, awful things experience teaches.

We may want to look to the peace that is to come.

That’s right thing to do, but that’s not all there is to do.

We may not want to look at the crucifixion, for example. Or hear the full account of the crucifixion read during church.

Maybe it takes too long.

Or maybe it seems like all bad news.

It may seem silly to use this as a litmus test the way I do, but no one’s confirmation verse comes from the account of the crucifixion, and no one has a bumper sticker that quotes today’s Gospel lesson.

We don’t choose these words or dwell in catastrophe.

My whole point is—perhaps we should dwell for a moment in what we can call eucatastrophe.

“When [Jesus] was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer” (Matthew 27:12).

What good can come out of false accusations and lies?

Here, even Jesus’ silence fulfills the word of God.

Thus says the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).

God is not a liar. The Word of God is fulfilled.

And if He’s not a liar here, he’s not a liar anywhere. Believe Him when He says He loves you, even when the terrible and awful days are among us.

And “when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning [over Barabbas], he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24-26).

What good can come out of such evil?

Consider the reversals at hand.

See this as the eucatastrophe that it is.

It is impossible for us to hear that Pilate uses water to declare himself free of the blood of Christ and not also consider how God uses water to declare us free because of the blood of Christ.

Pilate’s baptism is a political one, but God saves sinners.

And then—what do the Jews say?

“His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).

Their words are a mocking betrayal of the God who became flesh and purchased us with His own blood.

But what is, for them, sarcasm is, for us, the good and godly refrain of the one true faith:

“His blood be on us and on our children.”

“Abel’s blood for vengeance / Pleaded to the skies; / But the blood of Jesus / For our pardon cries” (LSB 433:4).

“And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matthew 27:51-53).

The curtain tore in two, God rending His own garment at the death of His Son.

What good can come out of such sacrifice?

The wrath of God is appeased.

The debt is paid.

You have standing with God, now and forever, because of the sacrifice made on your behalf.

The scales are tipped forever in your favor, because God did not withhold His Son, His only Son, from you.

And the dead are raised because death no longer has dominion.

“When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’” (Matthew 27:54).

For all time let the example and confession of the centurion remain with us.

The curtain tore in two, and the earth shook.

The rocks were split, and the tombs opened.

Terror and catastrophe were all around, but he abandoned not his post—or the Lord Jesus.

Rather, he saw and confessed the eucatastrophe of it all:

“Truly this was the Son of God!”

May each one of us do the same every day this week and whenever our turn comes.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Palm Sunday, 2021
Matthew 27:11-54
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church—Ernestville, Missouri

Today Jesus says something that sounds absurd.

He says, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).

It’s impossible for us to speak this way, because it’s never true. In American English, the closest we can come is to say, “Before you were, I was (or wasn’t).”

It makes no sense to say, “Before/after (something), I am.”

“I was” or “I will” makes sense—but not “I am.”

What Jesus says is baffling, because He’s defining Himself as not being bound by space and time.

We’ve heard these words all our Christian lives, so we hardly attempt to understand the depth of what “I am” means.

For it to be true that Jesus is “I am” even during past events, it must be true that He’s outside time.

This is what we mean when we say that God is eternal.

God is not “past tense,” because He always is.

I’m not 100% at doing this, but maybe you’ve picked up on this. Most of the time, when quoting Scripture, I’ll say, “Jesus says…” not “Jesus said…” He said it—but He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. What He said still matters—it still applies. So—even today—Thus  says the Lord…

He’s immutable, unchangeable, always the same.

He is.

And that’s remarkable, because at this point in the Gospel of John, Jesus is thirty-ish years old.

And—He’s been around literally forever.

“Before Abraham was,” Jesus says, “I am.”

There’s three things that we have to say about that.

First, “I am” is a title for God. The Jews present show how seriously they take God’s name when they pick up stones to throw at Jesus. He just identified Himself as being God, and the Jews act as though He has blasphemed.

God’s name being “I am” comes from the book of Exodus, when God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, saying: “I have…seen the affliction of my people…and I have come…to deliver them…and to bring them up…[to a land flowing with milk and honey]” (Exodus 3:7-8).

God’s plan is to save His people.

But Moses says to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (Exodus 3:13).

Moses wants the people to believe the message of salvation, the Gospel, so he has to speak with authority to match, authority greater than his own.

Who cares if only Moses said it…or Pastor Holt for that matter. But if “Thus says the Lord…”

Then—the Word has power to save, and we need to hear and do.

Moses knew that if God put His name to it, then the salvation, help, and comfort of the people was certain.

So, then, thus said the Lord, “I am who I am…Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:14).

When Jesus says, “I am,” it’s as if his name tag says, “Hello, my name is God.” So when Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” He’s identifying Himself as God in the Flesh. Here to help, save, comfort, and redeem us.

Second, and at this point, this is just a reminder, calling Himself “I am” is defining Jesus as eternal.

Always present tense.

If you’re always present tense, if you’re eternal, you never change. God’s immutability means also that He’s unable to be changed. The author of the book of Hebrews says it this way: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8).

He is.

Along those lines, the third thing is this:

If Jesus has ever cared for you—if He’s ever desired your salvation—if He’s ever asked His Father to forgive you—if He’s ever said that no one will be able to snatch you from His hand—if Jesus ever loved you—then He still thinks those things and has and will forever.

Jesus doesn’t change.

Consider what that means:

God’s promise, God’s Word, is always true.

Have you been baptized?

That’s where God’s Word was applied to you, saving you according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, poured out on you richly through Jesus Christ our savior (cf. Titus 3).

Logically, Holy Baptism doesn’t look like much, but when God put His name on you and marked you as one redeemed by Christ, He claimed you there and then as His own.

He stands behind His Word and promise for all time.

As much as we change in our lives, as often as we unfortunately lie and deceive with our words, God remains true to what He says.

If God puts His name on it—it’s certain.

Consider, also, the Sacrament of the Altar, the eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

Reason tastes bread and wine, there’s no bloody, iron aftertaste. Nor is there the taste of fingernails or flesh.

But Jesus says, “Take, eat; this is my body…Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

He said it once, and He still means it. Not simply so He can be right—but so that even we can be justified.

As often as we say one thing and mean another—God speaks—and He is true to His word forever.

What He says once applies always.

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…[and] God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8).

Inconceivably, for us to have life eternal requires a dead Messiah who, three days later, lives again.

But that was God’s plan all along.

Since Jesus was thirty-ish—and since God never changes—that was the plan all along.

In Revelation, Jesus is called the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world (cf. Revelation 13:8).

And in Exodus chapter three, thus says the Lord: “I have…seen the affliction of my people…and I have come…to deliver them” (Exodus 3:7-8).

God has used time to His advantage.

He is faithful and merciful. He is our comfort and our deliverance.

Because He is.

That’s not circular reasoning.

That’s a statement regarding God’s eternal love.

“Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus says.

That’s utterly inconceivable to our ears and impossible for anyone to say of himself.

But there’s no more comforting a thought than that Jesus knows every trial and tribulation that we’ll face, that he’s already there, in love, destroying evil—that we’re never alone. Never forgotten.

That God, even knowing our every sin, is yet merciful and forgiving. Never vindictive. But always vindicating.

That when we sin, when we hurt, when we’re afraid, or just mad, when we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, forgives us sins and cleanses us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 John 1).

All because He is.

Merciful. Forgiving. Loving. Present.

Eternally. To win us away from death and hell.

To bring us with Him into eternal life.

He sees our affliction and hears our cries.

He knows our sufferings, and He’s with us every step of the way.

And not only that—He comes to deliver us and bring us up to a land flowing with milk and honey.

When Jesus says, “I am,” we know that He is for us always and we are His forever.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Judica (Lent 5), 2021
John 8:42-58
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“A large crowd was following [Jesus], because they saw the signs that He was doing on the sick” (John 6:2). It’s important, today, to begin with that verse, because a large crowd was following Him—because—of the signs He was doing on the sick.

It wasn’t that they hoped He’d perform signs and miracles.

It wasn’t that they had heard rumors about Jesus having done signs or miracles at some point.

Rather—a large crowd was following Him, because they saw the signs that He was doing on the sick.

It’s important to start there and to have that repeated in our hearing, because the disciples believe only what they can see.

“Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ He said this to test him, for He Himself knew what He would do. Philip answered Him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.’ [And] one of His disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to Him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’” (John 6:5-9).

One thinks of cash.

The other thinks to count.

But both think of numbers, and thinking in terms of numbers is where the faith goes to die.

The crowd follows the signs, and in this case, that’s exactly what they should be doing. Signs give information, and the signs that Jesus is doing proclaim liberty to the captives, the Truth of the Word of God, that which sets you free from sin, death, and devil.

It’s true that numbers never lie, and if there were five-hundred people in attendance today or this past Wednesday, do you know what that would mean?

That would mean that five-hundred people were in attendance.

And if there were only five people in attendance, today or this past Wednesday, do you know what that would mean?

That would mean that five people were in attendance.

You must—for the sake of your own salvation and the well-being of this congregation—stop right now thinking that successful churches are the ones that are full.

Successful churches are faithful churches.

And that has nothing to do with numbers.

It is a failure of the disciples to see the signs that Jesus is doing on the sick and to yet be blinded to the reality of who He is on account of how many people are present.

One thinks of cash, of course he does.

And a lot of people eat a lot of bread.

In their case, if only there were fewer people, then we could feed them all. We certainly don’t want to leave it to God to provide daily bread like He promises.

In our case, if only there were more people, then we’d have more money. It’s certainly not the case that we hoard wealth claiming poverty so the scale never requires us to pay full price.

We certainly don’t want to leave it to God to provide daily bread like He promises.

On Tuesday, I opened my Bible and I read the Gospel lesson appointed for today, and then, confining myself to those two pages, I looked at what the disciples would have known, what they would have seen and heard.

There was the sick man, afflicted for thirty-eight years. Jesus said to him, “‘Rise, take up your bed and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8-9).

After that, Jesus calls God His Father, saying, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” (John 5:17).

And after that, Jesus says, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify of me, yet you are not willing to come to me that you may have life” (cf. John 5:39-40).

So get this—Jesus heals a man who was afflicted for thirty-eight years.

He calls God His Father and states that both are working now.

He says that the Old Testament testifies of Him and implies that if we follow Him we have eternal life.

Then—today—Jesus feeds the five thousand, but faith dies when the numbers are most important thing.

After today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus walks on water, and when He walks out to them He speaks pure comfort to those who believe only what they count and see.

In a rough sea, walking on water, Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20).

It’s just Him—and that’s enough.

If there are five-hundred people present, don’t rejoice only that there are five-hundred present.

And if there are five people present, do not be dismayed only in that there are five present.

Rather—rejoice that Jesus is there, if He is.

And if He’s not—flee.

Martin Luther likened the pure teaching of the Gospel to rain that was here one minute and gone the next.

He said, “Let us remember our former misery, and the darkness in which we dwelt. Germany, I am sure, has never before heard so much of God’s word as it is hearing today; certainly we read nothing of it in history. If we let it just slip by without thanks and honor, I fear we shall suffer a still more dreadful darkness and plague. O my beloved Germans, buy while the market is at your door; gather in the harvest while there is sunshine and fair weather; make use of God’s grace and word while it is there! For you should know that God’s word and grace is like a passing shower of rain which does not return where it has once been. It has been with the Jews, but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have nothing. Paul brought it to the Greeks; but again when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the Turk. Rome and the Latins also had it; but when it’s gone it’s gone, and now they have the pope. And you Germans need not think that you will have it forever, for ingratitude and contempt will not make it stay. Therefore, seize it and hold it fast, whoever can; for lazy hands are bound to have a lean year” (LW 45:352).

“Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).

“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” (John 6:9).

As though God, who created out of nothing all things that are by speaking simple words, who is at work here and now, as though God can’t buy without silver.

As though God can’t feed without already having an abundance.

Let me tell you, God bought the world away from Beelzebul, the prince of demons, and He did it not with gold or silver but with the holy, precious blood and the innocent suffering and death of Jesus Christ His Son.

What’s two hundred denarii, or two hundred thousand, to that?

And let me tell you, God needs no impressive amount of bread and fish to feed the world.

Stale, tasteless, three-quarter inch pieces of bread and dollar-per-gallon wine are His body and blood because He says they are—and they forgive sin and strengthen and preserve you in body and soul to life everlasting.

God needs no impressive materials to convey salvation. Thanks be to God!

Today—He used water and the spoken word to claim my daughter as His own, and I rejoice to have it so.

The Lord has given—who knows if He will take away?

She abides in Him—and He in her.

And though the devil and a thousand worlds be against them both, the victory remains with life.

Jesus says, “It is I; do not be afraid” (John 6:20).

Faith holds to Jesus alone—not numbers.

And Jesus is enough.

Amen.

Laetare (Lent 4), 2021
The Baptism of Vivian Elise Holt
John 6:1-15
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

With all that’s going on in today’s Gospel lesson, I’d like to look at just one part: the strong man.

If asked, theologically speaking, who the “strong man” in the Gospel lesson is, what would you say?

Most say Jesus.

We would all say that strength can be a noble attribute, and noble attributes belong to God, but we ought not forget that our adversary, the devil, “prowls around like a [strong] lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

The devil is the strong man in today’s Gospel lesson.

To say that the devil is weak—or toothless—or even defeated sometimes ignores the real angst going on in someone’s life.

It takes great faith granted from and sustained by our dear Father in heaven to confess that death has no sting.

Death has no sting—that’s the truth.

But does that mean you never remember the past, Grandma, Grandson, Best Friend, or Neighbor?

Does that mean you never remember them and weep for what could have been?

Does that truth mean that you can look through that shoebox in your closet full of your past and never shed a single tear for what you’ve lost?

Does that truth mean that anniversaries of births or deaths, simple pictures, and songs remind you only of joy?

Hardly.

The strong man is the devil.

He’s defeated, but he’s strong.

He has no bite but barks.

He is defeated and yet fights.

And we feel it.

Emotions get the best of us: anger, hatred, depression, fear all get the best of us. Sin gets the best of us.

“When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe” (Luke 11:21).

Born into sin, dead in our trespasses and sins (cf. Ephesians 2:1), we belong to beelzebul, the prince of demons. He is fully armed, he guards his palace, and his goods are safe. The strong man fights to keep you.

But there is a stronger man.

“When one stronger than [the strong man, the devil] attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil” (Luke 11:22).

Depart, O unclean spirit.

And make room for the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is the Stronger Man, and He fights to win you away from sin, death, and satan.

And this is a fight on different fronts.

In a battle of wits, the devil uses perfect logic to show that you can’t be dead and alive at the same time.

Dead in your trespasses and sins, all the evidence suggests that nothing’s changed. The devil would have you believe, therefore, that salvation doesn’t include you.

That’s the devil’s logical conclusion: “Not you.”

“But we preach Christ crucified” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23) knowing full well that it’s foolishness to worldly logic. The divine logic of the Cross shames the worldly logic of the devil.

The Stronger Man, Christ, who died—does live.

So faith confesses before God and man and devil: “Even me.”

In a battle of strength, the devil will show you every weakness you have: How can a loving God let you suffer? Perhaps you suffer, perhaps you know people who are worse off. But so what?

Does that mean God is more just and right and good or less?

The devil’s practical conclusion is: “Your loving God lets you go through that. That’s not love.”

There’s a scene in The Passion of the Christ that makes this point, I think.

Jesus is being scourged, and the devil is walking through the crowd embracing his own demonic child—as if to say, “Here’s how I treat mine. Too bad that’s how yours treats you?”

“But we preach Christ crucified” knowing full well it’s a stumbling block to pragmatism.

Infinite in power and knowledge, having created all things that are, Jesus the Eternal Son of God endured the shame of the Cross: stripes, nails, splinters and all, so that by His stripes—we are healed.

The Son of God died, but our Father raised Him from the dead.

We are not promised to be spared.

We are promised eternal life.

So faith confesses before God and man and devil: “This is love. That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (cf. Romans 5:8).

In a battle for souls, the strong man, the devil speaks strong words in accusation, “You deserve death and hell. Your sins separate you from God. Salvation belongs to them, not you—otherwise you’d be better than you are. And nothing about you is good enough.”

Those are strong words.

But the Stronger Man speaks stronger words for your acquittal, saying, “For this one especially, for you, I died.”

So trust the words, “given and shed for you.”

All of Christ’s work was for your salvation: He “gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Galatians 1:4).

So faith confesses before God and man and devil:  “I admit that I deserve death and hell—what of it? For I know one who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God. And where He is I shall be also.”

The battle still rages.

The devil fights against faith in every memory of pain, every argument recalled, every anniversary, and even in the shoebox in your closet.

But the Stronger Man, Jesus Christ, fights for you here and now that you would have victory in all those places.

You see, the painful memories you have of your dearly departed Christians aren’t the last memories you’ll have of them. Those arguments—not the last words.

The resurrection of Jesus Christ breaks and hinders all the devil’s plans and purposes.

So we preach Christ crucified—and resurrected.

And as we’ll sing it a few minutes from now:

“In Thine arms [O God] I rest me; / Foes who would molest me / Cannot reach me here. / Though the earth be shaking, / Ev’ry heart be quaking, / Jesus calms my fear. / Lightnings flash And thunders crash; / Yet though sin and hell assail me, / Jesus will not fail me” (LSB 743:2).

With all that’s going on in today’s Gospel lesson, we looked at just one part, the strong man, but when it comes down to it, we never study the strong man, the devil. We always study the Stronger Man, Jesus Christ, who defeats the devil.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Oculi (Lent 3), 2021
Luke 11:14-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church—Ernestville, Missouri

The hymns in the Confession and Absolution section of our hymnal are, thematically, more difficult for us to sing, because to be a good Confession and Absolution hymn, you have to deal with a topic people don’t like.

We just sang these words:

“When in the hour of deepest need / We know not where to look for aid; / When days and nights of anxious thought / No help or counsel yet have brought” (LSB 615:1).

While true—that’s not the hymn with which we sing ourselves to sleep.

But—it is true.

Let’s start there: We know not where to look for aid.

So often, to care for others, we look only to ourselves.

And we should not.

I don’t mean the times when it’s my turn to change the diaper, unload the dishwasher, or fold the laundry—when it’s my turn, I just have to do those things.

(If I say that enough I’ll be ready in a few weeks, right?)

I mean when another person is stricken by God, smitten, and afflicted.

They’re hurting—and the burden for us is double, because we see their hurt—and—we convince ourselves that we can fix it. That we can help.

I could do this or that—or I could have.

I should do this or that—or I should have.

Or—if I had it to do over again, I would have—what?

You can’t fix everything.

Some things you must endure.

But with the hymn in mind, it does help if we know where to look for aid.

The Canaanite woman knew exactly where to look.

She put no trust in her own efforts.

She relied not at all on her own person or standing.

She knew Jesus as Lord, the Son of David. She knew the promises of God to establish His throne forever.

And as Jesus withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon, behold, this Canaanite woman came out and was crying, “‘Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.’ But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’ He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’ But she came and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And he answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs’” (Matthew 15:21-26).

Consider this woman, this mother.

Her daughter is severely oppressed by a demon—which could mean the demon casts the girl into fire or water, constantly seeking her death.

If she acted as we often act, she wouldn’t dare leave her child—even to find help.

We’re practical—we think of what we can do.

Try this. Try that. What feels better? What works?

And when we fail, we consider only that we could’ve done more or less or different or better.

We don’t consider that we—actually—know not where to look for aid.

This woman left her demon possessed child—at best—in the care of others and—at worst—alone.

She acts on faith that’s willing to allow her daughter to suffer.

She acts on faith that simultaneously willingly endures the scorn of the Lord.

Jesus ignores her!

He denies that she has standing before God, saying, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” which seems to imply, “And not those incestuous Canaanites.”

And he answered her again, “It is not right to take the children’s read and throw it to the dogs.”

She endured the suffering of seeing her daughter distraught. 

She bore the scorn of the Lord, seeking help.

And yet faith cries out all the more, “Yes Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

And that was her hope.

Not preferential treatment—but crumbs.

She’s a dog with a bone, and she won’t let go.

She’s a Christian, with a promise from God, and she believes.

“Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:28).

The gospel is not to be found apart from hardship, because the gospel is the forgiveness of sins—life after death.

Healing when all we know is hurt.

Joy when all we have is sadness.

Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

In the midst of sorrow and sickness and even death, that’s where the gospel will be found, because that’s where Jesus goes.

Into our flesh He’s born—to bear our sin and be our savior.

Upon Him was put the chastisement that brought us peace, and in our place He dies—destroying death and delivering us.

All He knew was pain—to pry us out of the grip of death.

He was despised and rejected; a man of sorrows and sadness, acquainted with grief—all so that we would know joy.

“O from our sins, Lord, turn Your face; / Absolve us through You boundless grace. / Be with us in our anguish still; / Free us at last from ev’ry ill” (LSB 615:5).

We find ourselves in anguish, still.

We all have this hardship, and all, therefore, suffer.

But Christians endure the will of God faithfully.

If the Equality Act, for example, which is obvious double speak, if it passes in the Senate, all Christians will be made to suffer, but use the mind that God has given you and see the world for what it is.

It’s no longer acceptable to say that “boys will be boys,” but our current government would require you think that it’s acceptable for “boys to be girls.”

“All men are created equal” means everyone is equal before God.

But “All men are created equal” does not mean that everyone is the same height—or that there aren’t obvious and good differences between male and female.

Be prepared to endure the will of God faithfully, to speak the truth in love to those who hate you.

It will happen. You will suffer.

But Christians prosper in the plans that God has made for them.

Walk the narrow way.

Honor your father and mother that it be well with you and you live long upon the earth (cf. Exodus 20:12, Ephesians 6:3).

Pray and live as Jesus teaches—for God to forgive your trespasses as you forgive those who trespass against you (cf. Matthew 6:12).

Build your house on the rock.

Walk in the narrow way of the Lord.

Be prepared, because all suffer.

But Christians hear and receive and hold on to the promises of God unto life everlasting.

“So we with all our hearts each day / To [God] our glad thanksgiving pay, / Then walk obedient to [His] Word, / And now and ever praise [Him], Lord” (LSB 615:6).

The Canaanite woman is a great example for us.

She knew where to look for aid.

She was a dog with a bone she wouldn’t let go.

She was a Christian with a promise from God that she certainly believed.

Great was her faith! And great is yours.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Reminiscere (Lent 2), 2021
Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Saint Matthew Lutheran Church—Ernestville, Missouri

There’s more to the temptation of Christ than what we, at first, see.

If the choice really is either the devil or an empty stomach, that’s an obvious choice.

If the choice really is either the devil or an eventual death, that’s an obvious choice.

And if the choice really is either the devil as our god or the lack of worldly riches, even that’s an obvious choice.

If that’s how satan tempts us, with obvious Either/Ors, we should be glad to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from the faith.

But there’s more to temptation than simply having “God or…”

The devil wants you to have, “God and…”

Think of the temptation in the Garden of Eden. In Genesis, God says, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16).

God gives a positive command—eat of every tree—and a prohibition—but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat.

How does the devil respond? He takes God’s Yes and God’s No and invites you to believe it’s “God and…”

“Did God actually say…?”

He casts doubt on the word of God.

He contradicts the Word of God, “You will not surely die…”

And then, here’s the “God and…” part, he says:

“For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

You can have your forbidden fruit and be like God.

That’s what the devil wants you to think.

He doesn’t correct Eve when she adds to God’s command, saying “neither shall you touch it.”

The devil rejoices in such additions.

He wants you to think that God can be your God and you can depart from His Word. God and.

If it’s put to us as a clear Either/Or, it’s an obvious choice. But when it’s “God and…” temptation is at its worst.

And that’s how Jesus is tempted.

It’s necessary to note that Jesus can’t possibly sin. The temptation of Jesus isn’t a battle between Good and Evil as though they were equal but opposite and we don’t know who’ll win. Rather, the temptation of Jesus shows us the mind of God—what He’ll endure to earn our salvation and even what He’ll allow us to endure to receive it.

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread’” (Matthew 4:1-3).

There’s more going on here than the temptation of a hungry man.

That’s the easy Either/Or part.

If the choice really is either the devil or an empty stomach, we should be glad to go hungry.

But not only does the devil tempt a hungry Jesus with earthly food, he’s also tempting a loving God with being an apparently loving God.

It’s as if the devil says, “If you are the Son of God, command these and all stones to become loaves of bread and feed and care for all people everywhere.”

“If you’re a loving God, you don’t want people to starve, so care for and feed your people.”

The devil tempts Jesus with being God, essentially saying, “If you are the Son of God, prove it—feed all people everywhere. Be God—and—prove it.”

But: ”Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

God has a plan. He is God. He does prove it.

But He doesn’t dance to the devil’s tune.

There’s more to God’s plan for you than a full stomach.

And thanks be to God for that, because even if you always had a full stomach, bread without sweat, as it were, even then, the rest of you would one day give out.

Knowing this, God feeds you bread from heaven, the living bread. He strengthens you, body and soul, to life everlasting. Depart in peace!

Out of His mouth He gives you His Word, and on that you can live forever.

“Then the devil took [Jesus] to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple and said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “He will command his angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone’” (Matthew 4:5-6).

There’s more going on here than the temptation of a mortal man

That’s the Either/Or part.

If the choice really is either the devil or an eventual death, we should be glad to one day die in the faith.

The devil here tempts God with being God a second time, because if Jesus jumped from the Washington Monument, and the angels swooped in and caught Him up, ”lest he strike his foot against a stone,” the people would see it and believe, even in Washington.

That’s what the devil wants you to think—that all it would take is a miraculous sign and the world would believe—but they would not.

The world has Moses and the prophets, but it doesn’t hear them. The world has Jesus, but neither did it believe when He rose from the dead.

Here, again, Jesus is tempted with being God.

It’s as if the devil says, “If you want people to believe—if you are a loving God—be their God and give them a sign! Save them! Be God—and—do it this way.”

But the world has been given a sign, the sign of the prophet Jonah. And since “they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31) or be saved by swooping angels.

“Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’” (Matthew 4:7).

There’s more to God’s plan for you than glorious, marvelous, spectacular sights, signs, and wonders.

Even when those things happen—or are claimed to have happened—they don’t endure.

Seemingly miraculous things are popular only until the ink on the book or movie deal is dry, but Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

The truly miraculous—the Word of God that endures forever—is at work by the Holy Spirit to bring us out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light.

God applies His name to us. He marks us as ones redeemed by Christ the crucified. He cares for us as a Father cares for His own dear children.

And we rejoice.

The Word of God—not signs and wonders—is a certainty. It creates and sustains faith in the Lord Jesus.

So we don’t put the Lord our God to the test.

Then, ”Again the devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

There’s more going on here than an attempt to get Jesus to worship a different god.

That’s the easy Either/Or.

If the choice really is either the devil as our god or the lack of worldly riches, we should rejoice to be poor.

But here, it’s as if the devil says, “If you’re the Son of God, be the Son of God. That won’t change. Be the Son of God and worship me. And I’ll give you all the world, its riches, its power. If you’re a loving God, rule the earth benevolently. Wouldn’t you do better than me?”

He says this as though God doesn’t already reign. He says this as though God’s will is not already done on earth as it is in heaven.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.

It’s not the devil’s to give.

For the third time, the devil tempts Jesus with being God, but Jesus said to him: “Be gone, satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:10).

There’s more to God’s plan for you than earthly, temporal glory, riches, wealth, power, and food.

Why store up your treasure where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal?

Why trust in things that do not endure?

The devil rejoices when you love God—so long as it’s “God and…” that you love.

But thus says the Lord our God: “You shall worship the Lord your God… [Period.] And Him only shall you serve” (Matthew 4:10).

Jesus is Lord and God, and this is His plan:

In the midst of a culture of insatiable hunger and thirst, the One Who refused to live by dead and dusty bread gives you His own flesh to eat: Living Bread that never dies but strengthens and preserves your body and soul unto life everlasting.

Jesus was tempted with food that could’ve fed you. He resisted, that you would be fed by the Word, that you would hear, believe in Him, and live forever.

Food is important. Obviously.

We should feed those who are hungry, not counting as Korban what could go to our neighbor. Obviously.

But ours is the God who looks to our needs eternal. He would rather we suffer for a little while and be carried by the angels to Abraham than, feasting every day, depart to the unquenchable fires of hell.

To accomplish this, the One Who refused earthly, satanic power lay down His life for us, crushing the serpent’s head under His own pierced feet.

He gave up earthly glory to raise you to life eternal.

Jesus was tempted with life that you would’ve enjoyed. He resisted, so that all who believe in Him would rejoice forever.

In a culture of pluralism, unionism, and syncretism the One Who refused to bow the knee to false gods, false doctrine, and false unity preaches to you the Gospel, the Words of the Eternal Way, Truth, and Life.

God doesn’t Walk Out.

And Jesus was tempted with power that would’ve made our earthly lives a breeze. He resisted that, promising that as the world hated Him it would also hate us.

You’ll pick up your cross daily and follow Jesus with much toil and tribulation here on earth, but all this He did so that you would one day set down your cross, pick up your crown, and serve and reign with Christ the King forever.

Ours is the God who looks to our needs temporal and eternal. He gives us this day our daily bread and delivers us from death and devil.

”These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ the only Son of God. And that by believing you have life in His Name” (John 20:31).

“Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to Him” (Matthew 4:11).

Behold—the devil has left you. He was cast out when you received the Holy Spirit.

Now, we go to the Lord’s Table where angels and archangels and all the company of heaven laud and magnify God evermore, saying, “Holy, holy, holy…”

Here, today, now, we receive for our body and soul’s good, for our temporal and eternal good, God’s plan for our salvation.

Come Lord Jesus.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Invocavit (Lent 1) Sermon, 2021
Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Growing up, it always struck me as odd that we would receive ashes on our foreheads on the same day we hear Jesus say, “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matthew 6:16).

Now, you haven’t done anything wrong if you’ve received ashes, and you haven’t done anything better if you haven’t.

Ashes, lacking a penitent heart, are like no ashes.

And no ashes, having a penitent heart, are like ashes.

It matters that you repent and believe this Word of God: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” (cf. Genesis 3:19).

And that’s the point—the come to terms with death.

Our death.

The death, eventually, of our children and all we know and have.

It doesn’t last.

It will not.

And this is not an easy thought or thing to say.

We might teach our children to pray, “If I die before I wake,” but there are other versions of that prayer, “nicer” versions, that don’t.

And how many adults remember to think and live and act and speak as though the next nap or nightly rest may be your last?

Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).

This is why we impose ashes.

We don’t hand them out or distribute them.

It is an imposition, a forceful assertion about all you are and hold dear.

That you are dust. That you will die. And that to dust you shall return.

I know—it’s not a cheerful thought.

But there isn’t a long list of Lenten “carols” for us to sing. Can you imagine caroling with Lenten hymns for the shut-ins? We may as well dress in black and where a scythe.

We don’t send Lenten cards.

We don’t wish each other a merry or happy Lent.

The infant joy that was born into the world has grown and matured.

There is still joy.

But He has set His face toward Jerusalem—that He would take up His cross and suffer all to save all.

There is still joy.

But Lent takes on a dual theme, emphasizing repentance—and then joy.

We impose ashes to be reminded that this body and life is not all there is.

So that we’re ready—when our last hour comes—to meet the Lord face to face.

David says in the Psalm: “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

No one can stand before God without bringing this confession of sins with him.

So David also says—If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:3-4).

Anyone who wants to stand before God must be sure that this confession of sins comes from his heart and firmly believe that, unless the Lord is merciful to him, all is lost.

No matter how pious he is.

No matter his attendance or tithe or tenure.

Apart from the mercy of God—all is lost.

And there’s no difference—for all have sinned.

Repent.

This isn’t an easy thought or thing to say.

This is a terrible cross to bear.

But Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

And from the Psalm: “Cast your cares on the Lord, and He will sustain you. He will never let the righteous fall” (cf. Psalm 55:22).

He doesn’t set His face toward Jerusalem or bear His cross for the same reason we do.

He sets His face, determined to beat down satan under His feet.

He bears His cross, because it’s necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up—that all who look to Him would be saved.

Toward Jerusalem, we set our face, marked with cross and ash, to remember why He went.

“[He] was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25).

We bear our cross to follow Him.

Not that we can save ourselves—but, in faith, we follow Jesus and trust trust that He has saved us.

The whole life of a Christian is repentance.

But there is joy, too.

“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the [author] and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 11:1-2).

The joy that was set before Him—His goal and end—was your salvation.

That’s what faithfulness to God the Father meant to Jesus—your salvation.

That’s what drinking the cup of cross and death meant to Jesus—your salvation.

Your God chose you and won.

He won you from sin and satan, from death and hell.

He is your priceless treasure.

And where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

If not “happy” or “merry” how about “blesséd.”

Blesséd Lent.

And may God bless and keep you in the true faith—in repentance and joy—unto life everlasting.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Ash Wednesday, 2021
Matthew 6:16-21
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus predicts His death and resurrection three times.

In Luke chapter nine, Saint Peter confesses that Jesus is “the Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).

Then—“[Jesus] strictly warned and commanded them to tell this to no one, saying, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day’” (Luke 9:21-22).

This is followed, immediately, by Jesus saying to them all, “Take up your cross daily and follow me” (cf. Luke 9:23).

But they don’t hear Him—they don’t understand.

Later in chapter nine, Jesus “rebuked [an] unclean spirit, healed [a] child, and gave him back to his father” (Luke 9:42).

“And they were all amazed at the majesty of God. But while everyone marveled at all the things which Jesus did, He said to His disciples, ‘Let these words sink down into your ears, for the Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying” (Luke 9:43-45).

Again, they fail to hear Jesus—to understand Him.

We’re told, in fact, that “it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it” (Luke 9:45).

They’re afraid to ask Him about what He’s said, and then, of all things—they argue about who among them is greatest.

And today, in Luke chapter eighteen, Jesus predicts His death and resurrection again, saying, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. And the third day He will rise again” (Luke 18:31-33).

“But they understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34).

This is where we come in.

The thought and concept of death is, for many, either foolish or offensive.

To die well…to die a good death…or to sleep expecting to wake up, as the New Testament frames it, these should be how we speak—but they’re not.

Rather—it’s foolish, some say, to waste time talking about death because—what good can come of it?

And—it’s offensive, some say, to assert that death will occur at all, especially when someone you love is dealing with a bad diagnosis.

On the one hand, why waste your time?

And on the other, why make it worse?

Perhaps you think it better to be ignorant of a thing with unrealistic expectations than knowledgeable and have to deal with reality.

It won’t get us—if we don’t talk about it.

It’s not real—if we don’t say it out loud.

I recently read the account of a woman who is no longer Christian. When her husband died she was told by members of her religion that he must have lacked faith or he wouldn’t have died.

He must have committed some terrible sin or he wouldn’t have suffered as he did.

There are people who claim Christianity who believe that, and it is not true.

I recently watched an interview with an atheist who thought he was really smart. He said that if God is all-powerful but does nothing about evil in the world, then He is either not loving or not all-powerful and would therefore be unworthy of worship.

That sounds so smart, but he fell victim to one of the classic blunders—never go in against God when death is on the line—or think that death and suffering is without point or purpose.

Death is, to many, either foolish or offensive.

“Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block, [a scandalous offense,] and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is] the power of God and the wisdom of God” (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24).

In and to a world obsessed with death and dying but oblivious to what kills and makes alive, we preach Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

We, Christians, know better than any other that through the suffering and death of One there is salvation for all.

We, Christians, know better than any other that through the daily taking up of our cross, following Jesus, we “partake of Christ’s sufferings” (1 Peter 4:13).

That’s how St. Peter writes it.

And—“If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Peter 4:14).

This is a hard saying, and we’re not alone in our befuddlement.

When Jesus predicts His death and resurrection, “[the disciples] understood none of these things; this saying was hidden from them, and they did not know the things which were spoken” (Luke 18:34).

This is where we come in.

Death concerns us, because we know it’s coming.

Death frightens us, because we know we can’t beat it.

Death humbles all men, because it can find any man at any time.

It’s foolish and offensive to talk about it.

But we preach Christ crucified.

Jesus said, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge Him and kill Him. [But] on the third day He will rise again” (Luke 18:31-33).

For the disciples and for us, as proof of the power and love of God, He restored the sight of the blind man.

“Hearing the multitude passing by, he asked what it meant. So they told him that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by. And he cried out, saying, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Then those who went before warned him that he should be quiet; but he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’” (Luke 18:36-39).

And here we see the good that can come of suffering, the good that can come of blindness even. That man had faith greater than all twelve of the disciples.

He persisted in his prayer and was unfazed by the masses.

Jesus commanded him to be brought to Him and said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has saved you” (Luke 18:42).

Jesus foretold His death and resurrection three times, which was a fine thing to do but hidden from them all.

But then He speaks blind eyes open.

“And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God” (Luke 18:43), because He just proved He can do all the things He promises.

And so, for the disciples and for us, as proof of the power and love of God, He died in the place of sinners, forgiving the sin, and was raised on the third day.

All of what God promises is true.

You can die a good death and die well.

That is, you can live to the Lord, fearing neither what is or is to come.

Well and faithfully, you can suffer for doing good and bear the cross God gives you.

You can thank God that He counts you worthy to partake of Christ’s sufferings. Blessed are you.

“If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16).

To my shame, I heard recently the story of some Lutherans in Africa—a place, to be sure, we would all at first look down on.

These Lutherans happen to be a four hour drive away from militant Muslims who seek to kill Christians and steal their children.

What we see on the nightly news—or really, what we don’t see—is, for them, real life and an every day affair.

Nevertheless, knowing that there are those close by who desire their death and the death of all Christians, they not only go to church every Sunday—they bring their kids to Sunday School for two hours before the service begins.

Too much breakfast or fifteen minutes less sleep than normal might be enough of a temptation for us to skip Sunday School and even church all together.

To our shame we should hear that there are Lutherans who live under such a daily burden and yet glorify God with exceeding joy, giving Him praise.

Jesus foretells His death and resurrection—He restores sight to the blind—so that you can suffer all, even death, in faith that trusts that God has suffered all, even death, that you would be saved, body and soul, from sin and satan, death and hell, and be raised to life eternal.

And all the people when they saw it—when they heard it—gave praise to God.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Quinquagesima, 2021
Luke 18:31-43
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt