Husband. Father. Lutheran pastor. Sinfonian.

Jesus looks and acts like somebody special.

If you set aside the fact that you’ve heard your entire life exactly who Jesus is and read but a few chapters of the Gospel according to St. John, you’ll quickly realize that Jesus is somebody special.

And sometimes—that’s actually a problem.

Jesus speaks and acts like He’s God.

He calls God His Father. He heals the sick.

That’s impressive stuff.

But then today He asks a question.

He’s turned water into wine, miraculously.

He’s healed a boy without being there, miraculously.

God is His Father.

He’s equal to God with respect to His divinity.

But He doesn’t know where to buy bread.

That’s a problem.

He acts like God— Talks like God—

Some of the time.

But not on command.

For us, that’s a problem.

John tells us—but the disciples don’t know—that Jesus knew what He would do.

He asked His question to test them.

And they failed.

“Philip answered, ‘Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little’” (John 6:7).

“One of [Jesus’] 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 6:8-9).

Jesus knew what He would do, but He asked His question to test them.

Jesus is God, but it doesn’t always look like it.

God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—is always working, but we don’t always perceive His work.

But—He Himself knows what He’ll do.

The disciples are caught between God and unbelief.

Between trust and doubt.

Between despair and patient, long-suffering faith.

They’ll either be man-pleasers or servants of Christ.

“Philip answered, ‘Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little’” (John 6:7).

He was concerned with the numbers, the cost.

God is with us, present in the flesh—sure, sure—but money is the insurmountable obstacle here.

“Andrew…said to [Jesus], ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’” (John 6:8-9).

Andrew was concerned with different numbers, the incredible crowd and the measly offerings.

God is with us, present in the flesh—sure, sure—but an impressive amount of impressionable people need to be impressed by how good we look, Jesus—don’t you get it?

All the while—He Himself knew what He would do.

“Have the people sit down,” (John 6:10) Jesus said.

“[And He] took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, ‘Gather up the fragments, that nothing may be lost.’ So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten” (John 6:11-13).

He knew what He would do, and He did it.

He tested them, held their feet to the fire, so to speak, a little longer than Philip and Andrew liked.

He knows what He’ll do, and He does it.

He tests us, holds our feet to the fire, a little longer than we would like.

He does this—always—that we would lean not on our own understanding, trust not in princes, believe not because we see but because we hear the Word of God and believe.

We’re caught, all the time, in the same tension the disciples found themselves in.

God constantly fails to live up to our expectations.

He doesn’t dance on command. He doesn’t seek to please us but to save us.

Our expectations are wrong.

Not only can we not, we would never choose to feed thousands of people with five barley loaves and two fish.

Five barley loaves and two fish is the equivalent of what’s left on the shelves at Walmart right now.

Nobody wants that stuff.

For that matter, we’d never choose for the Eternal Son of God to be born of a virgin and placed into a feeding trough. That doesn’t impress us.

We’d never choose for Him to suffer—that’s for bad people.

And He’d never have to be raised, because we’d never choose for Him to die.

If God lived up to our expectations, all the people we hate would have high-grade fevers right now, and we’d be able to spare a square but we wouldn’t.

Our expectations are wrong—because we are all poor, miserable sinners.

“When the people saw the sign that [Jesus] had done, they said, ‘This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!’ [But] perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself” (John 6:14-15).

We don’t expect humility, because God has given us a constant excess.

We don’t expect humility, but behold!

Our king comes to us, the Eternal Son of God, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law” (Galatians 4:4-5).

“Behold our king comes to us humble, and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden” (cf. Matthew 21:5).

“Behold the man” (John 19:5) who was crucified.

Behold our God—who died.

All the world, in its combined wisdom and power, could never multiply five barley loaves and two fish, by a word, without sweat, into a miraculous meal.

But the Church does that weekly, or better.

We don’t expect humility, because our expectations are wrong.

But as He did, He does. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread.”

It’s not impressive looking bread.

If Walmart sold communion bread, it’d still be on the shelves.

But by His Word, without our sweat, it is what Jesus says it is: His Body, His Blood, given and shed for us for the forgiveness of our sins.

We could never expect that—but God gives it.

All the world, in its combined wisdom and power, would never settle for something that looks so unimpressive.

But the Church does that weekly, or better.

Today, unimpressive pastors in unimpressive churches preaching unimpressive sermons, broadcast on unimpressive websites achieve—in the right proclamation of the Gospel—what the world cannot understand and will never accomplish itself.

By simple means—the spoken word, God’s Word.

By bread and wine—and the command and Word of God.

We have exactly what He says—the forgiveness of sins.

I won’t tell you to Keep Calm and Carry On, but you should.

I will tell you to worship God, and you should.

God is using this time to check our expectations, to test us.

But He Himself knows what He will do.

God is at work.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Laetare (Lent 4) Sermon, 2020
John 6:1-15
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus Christ is the Light of the world.

But not everything Jesus says is meant to comfort.

Today, none of the words Jesus says are words you want to hear on on a plain Sunday morning let alone a Sunday morning where the nation is seemingly ravaged by fear.

Jesus says, for example:

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls” (Luke 11:17).

Jesus doesn’t speak these words with the immediate intent of bringing comfort.

People accused Jesus of casting out demons in the name of satan—that’s what’s going on—and Jesus responds with dead and cold logic: the devil doesn’t seek his own destruction. A divided kingdom falls.

“…If Satan…is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?” (Luke 11:18).

Jesus means to say that it won’t. 

He goes on: “And if I cast out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your sons cast them out? Therefore, they will be your judges” (Luke 11:19).

More cold logic.

It’s not that these people have a problem with demons being cast out.

In the previous chapter, Jesus “appointed seventy-two others and sent them on” to heal the sick (Luke 10:1). When they return, they say, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Luke 10:17).

The people critiquing Jesus in chapter eleven are happy about demons being cast out in chapter ten. Friends of the family can do no wrong.

But the crowd is unhappy when Jesus does it, because Jesus unapologetically calls people to repentance.

It’s as if Jesus says, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

They’re not words we post on our walls—at home or on Facebook, but Jesus does say those exact words in Luke chapter thirteen, in context, not far from today’s lesson.

Today, Jesus says this next: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

That sounds good—until you remember the other places in Scripture where God’s fingers do work.

If the finger of God and His Kingdom is upon you, in the Bible, that’s not immediately good.

It was the finger of God that afflicted Egypt with the plagues in Exodus chapter eight.

It was the finger of God that wrote the testimony of God, the Ten Commandments, on stone tablets (cf. Ex. 31, Deut. 8).

It was the very fingers of God that set the moon and stars and all the heavens in place. That’s Psalm 8, where David then prays, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:4).

To those who know the Word of God, the finger of God is not immediately comforting. If Jesus says the finger and Kingdom of God is upon you, there is, at least, in the back of your head, a little voice that must ask, “What if I’m the one that’s wrong? What if now’s the time God has set to deal with me?”

God might use that virus to bring you before Him.

There’s no comfort for the man on death-row if the judge and executioner visits.

You don’t comfort a sinner with the finger of God.

Then Jesus says: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe…”

That’s the most comforting thing Jesus has said yet.

Who is the strong man?

It’s not Jesus.

That’s the most comforting thing Jesus has said yet until you realize He’s talking about satan.

The devil is the strong man who guards unbelievers like a miser his money.

The strong man is not at all comforting.

Jesus goes on: “…but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil” (Lk. 11:21-22).

Even this is not immediately helpful.

That Jesus is stronger than the devil is only comforting if Jesus actually binds the devil.

We see the work of the devil all over the place.

Viruses, sicknesses, diseases, and death are the purpose and playground of the devil.

But why don’t you fear God as much as you do being without toilet paper?

The unlikely potential of being sick causes you to prepare for the next month as though it could be your last.

But it’s always been the case that it could be your last.

Why is there urgency now?

To make matters worse, Jesus says this next:

“Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters” (Luke 11:23).

You can’t use those words to comfort any ailing soul. Here, Jesus is speaking only Law, and while there are many who have valid reasons to avoid mass gatherings of people, there are others who will use any conscience issue as a free pass from obligation.

As a warning, I say, you will fear God if you don’t.

Jesus adds to it. It’s worse before it’s better. He says: “When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, and finding none it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there. And the last state of that person is worse than the first” (Luke 11:24-26).

So, casting out demons is good, but the demon came back the very next day.

Thought he was a goner but he wouldn’t stay away.

That’s neither helpful nor comforting.

“As [Jesus] said these things, a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to him, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’” (Luke 11:27).

But even this Jesus corrects: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).

But that doesn’t help.

Would you want that said to you?

Dying of coronavirus, your pastor visits you, in a hazmat suit, and says, “If you’ve kept the Word, you’re blessed.”

Does anyone want to hear that?

Could anyone be comforted by that?

But Jesus doesn’t say these things to comfort us.

He warns us, scares us, rebukes us, calls us to repentance—so that our pride is defeated.

Sin divides us from God.

There are no victimless sins. There are no sins without repercussions and fallout.

But Christ unites Himself to all who repent.

He will not and cannot unite Himself to impenitence.

God doesn’t ignore sin, He forgives it.

The finger of God works powerful signs, showing our fragility and God’s marvelousness. The plagues and the Red Sea preserved Israel and destroyed hardhearted Pharaoh and all his host.

The same is true today.

Plagues will run their course.

If it’s not COVID-19 it’s H1N1.

God preserves the faithful in the faith—that doesn’t mean Christians never die. That means God never loses any who are His.

God’s Word shows us our sin and calls us to repentance. God’s Word shows us our savior and creates in us a clean heart.

Hardheartedness is destroyed by sins confessed and forgiven.

Lost, Jesus finds us.

Broken, He heals.

Sick, He feeds us His own Flesh and Blood, making us well.

Faithful, He forgives all our sins.

Silent, Jesus casts out our demons so that we speak the orthodox truth: Jesus is Lord. He was handed over unto death, and God raised Him from death for our justification (cf. Rom. 10:9; 4:25).

What Jesus says today calls us to repentance and teaches us to fear, love, and trust the Living God above all things.

But Jesus’ words today don’t end there.

Jesus is the stronger man who bound death and satan with the Cross.

You are safe with God.

You are saved by God.

The Finger of God is at work in Christ Who separates you from death and hell, draws a line in the sand, and pulls you into salvation and keeps you in the one, true faith.

Hear His Word and do it—confess your sins, receive the absolution, and rejoice that—in Christ—all sin is forgiven.

Blessed are you who hear the Word of God and keep it.

Blessed are you who have heard the Word of God and are kept by It.

“O little flock, fear not the foe Who madly seeks your overthrow; Dread not his rage and pow’r. And though your courage sometimes faints, His seeming triumph o’er God’s saints Lasts but a little hour.

As true as God’s own Word is true, Not earth nor hell’s satanic crew Against us shall prevail. Their might? A joke, a mere façade! God is with us and we with God— Our vict’ry cannot fail” (LSB 666:1,3).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Oculi (Lent 3) Sermon, 2020
Luke 11:14-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Today is one of my favorite days in the Church Year, because if you remember the What Would Jesus Do? fad of the ’90’s, today’s Gospel lesson, in many ways, provides an example of what Jesus can, should, and did do—that we absolutely cannot.

Do you remember the WWJD? bracelets? They were supposed to encourage Christians to consider what Jesus would do in their situation and act accordingly.

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus insults a woman by calling her a dog after ignoring her and letting her be rebuked by His disciples.

The only good answer to WWJD? is the answer also to “What did Jesus do?”

Begotten of His Father from eternity, Jesus’ incarnation and birth were prophesied from the Garden, He’d be born of a Virgin, live a perfect life, heal the sick, raise the dead, speak with perfect authority, suffer innocently in the place of and for sinful mankind, be crucified, die, rise on the third day, breathe the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, ascend to His Father in heaven, and, there, be seated at His right hand until He comes again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead.

Asking WWJD means well but we’re better off remembering what Jesus actually did.

Today, I can’t imagine doing what Jesus did—intentionally ignoring a woman who cried out, “Have mercy on me…my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Matthew 15:22).

“But [Jesus] did not answer her a word” (Matthew 15:23).

I can’t imagine doing what Jesus did, allowing His students, the disciples, to rebuke this woman. They say, “Send her away, for she’s crying out after us” (Matthew 15:23).

That’s not how we teach compassion in confirmation class.

And then, Jesus responds, not to the woman but to His disciples: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24).

Given the choice, I’d rather be ignored than singled out like that.

“But [this woman] came and knelt before [Jesus], saying, ‘Lord, help me’” (Matthew 15:25).

How would you like it if you prayed that simple prayer to God and He responded as Jesus did: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26)?

Too often, we jump to the conclusion—that Jesus is testing this Canaanite woman’s faith—He only seemingly ignores her—He only seemingly allows the disciples to rebuke her—and Jesus calls her a dog but He meant it as a compliment.

Ladies—can any good come from you being compared to a dog?

With today’s Gospel lesson, we generally jump to the conclusion too soon. We should first ask if there’s any merit, any truth, to what Jesus does and says.

He ignores her.

Is there any reason why He should?

Jews hated Canaanites, because they weren’t Jews. I haven’t learned all the local rivalries yet, but we all know how this goes. There are rivalries between families, factions, even, in every congregation. Arguments over money. Arguments over children. What to do with the money. What to do with the children.

We think in terms of sides, whose side you’re on.

If you’re on one side, you hate the other.

So imagine that you’re one of the disciples.

Jesus ignores this woman and calls her a dog.

He’s given you every indication that she’s on that side and He hates her—just as one on this side should.

Well of course you’d hate her.

She’s not on your side.

So if Jesus is testing her, if all of this is a matter of faith, what’s the point? Why ignore a Canaanite woman who cries out for mercy?

And the answer is: She shouldn’t be there.

This woman shouldn’t exist.

In Deuteronomy 20, God describes how Israel is to make war. When you go to a city, offer peace. Only if they make war against you shall you besiege the city.

But then, thus says the Lord: “But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes…you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites…the Amorites, the Canaanites…the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 20:16-18, cf. ch. 20).

The Canaanites were to be destroyed, because the Canaanites would teach the Jews to do according to their abominable practices.

Had Israel remained faithful, there’d be no Canaanites. This woman wouldn’t be there.

By ignoring the Canaanite woman, Jesus reminds her that she doesn’t deserve the air she’s breathing.

But it doesn’t stop with her. Perhaps you’re here because the Jews ignored God’s command.

Are any of your long lost ancestors included in the peoples that were to be utterly destroyed?

Can you say that you deserve the air you’re breathing?

Jesus isn’t only testing the Canaanite woman.

He’s teaching her. He’s teaching us, that “God hides his eternal goodness and mercy under eternal wrath, his righteousness under [sin]. [And] the highest degree of faith [is] to believe [God] merciful when he [seemingly] saves so few and damns so many, and to believe him righteous when by his own will he makes us necessarily damnable…” (Luther, Bondage of the Will, AE 33:62-63).

“It seems that God delights in our misery and is worthy of hatred rather than love” (par. Ibid.).

The Canaanites were to be destroyed, because the Canaanites would teach the Jews to do according to their abominable practices.

The great irony, of course, is that if the Jews had the faith of this Canaanite, they would all be saved.

But God’s mercy is hidden under His wrath.

His righteousness under sin.

God used the sin and rebellion of the Jews to bring His Word to this Canaanite woman—and us all.

She prays, simply, “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25).

She trusts that God is merciful (cf. Lk. 6:36).

She knows He desires mercy not sacrifice (cf. Hos. 6:6).

She has heard that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but desires the wicked to turn from his evil way and live (cf. Ez. 33:11).

This woman knows that God is patient, desiring that all should reach repentance (cf. 2 Pt. 3:9).

This Canaanite is a Christian.

When everything around her suggests otherwise, she knows the truth—God is merciful.

And that’s great faith.

When your day comes and you play the part of the Canaanite woman, don’t ask WWJD?

Instead, remember and confess what God has done in Christ—what God is doing by His Word.

Hidden under the wrath poured out at the Cross is the goodness and mercy of God who saves sinners.

Hidden under the sin of the world that dies on the Cross is the righteousness of God, the Lord, our righteousness.

When your day comes, when your prayers aren’t immediately answered—when your health fails—when everything goes wrong—when you suffer and your suffering seems only to increase—when there’s too much weight on your shoulders, too much darkness in your life, too much, remember what God has done and is doing:

He has every right to ignore you completely.

But He doesn’t.

Jesus says, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

God has every right to command His servants to send you away.

But He doesn’t.

He sends His servants to you to speak grace, mercy, and peace into your life for the sake of Christ.

God has every right to call you a dog.

But faith beats Him to the punch.

O almighty God, merciful Father, I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…

We plead guilty before God of all sin.

And if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (cf. 1 Jn. 1:8-9).

It sounds like a raw deal: to remain steadfast in the faith when God tests us and leads us into temptation.

But fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of the faith (cf. Heb. 12:2).

Perfect and without sin, He loved us to the end.

He was handed over by His Father unto torture and shame, crucifixion and death.

Treated like the worst sinner, deserving none of it, He endured His Father’s wrath for the sake of the world.

That’s what Jesus would do, because that’s what He did.

And all He did He did to save us, the dogs begging for crumbs from the Master’s Table.

Infinitely more than crumbs, He gives us His body to eat and His blood to drink.

To strengthen and preserve you in body and soul.

That you’d receive what you can’t deserve but what God gives freely, the forgiveness of sins.

And share it with others.

It’s not WWJD? “What Would Jesus Do?”

We know the answer to that one.

Rather, it’s TGFATJHD “Thank God for all that Jesus has done!”

That won’t sell many bracelets, but it is the Gospel—the power of God for salvation to all who believe.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Reminiscere (Lent 2) Sermon, 2020
Matthew 15:21-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Is Jesus the second person of the Holy Trinity? Is He of the same substance with the Father, by whom all things were made? Is Jesus God? Yes, of course.

Could Jesus have sinned? Be careful. You just said that Jesus is God, of the same substance with the Father.

Can God sin? Could Jesus have sinned? No.

The forgiveness of sins earned by Jesus’ perfect sacrifice was never in doubt. Jesus being God means that He could not sin. He’s perfect.

So when Jesus is tempted by the devil, we don’t have to hold our breath and hope He makes it.

Another way to ask all this is: what’s the opposite of God? The answer is: nothing.

The devil is not the opposite of God—that would mean the devil is as powerful just opposite, as knowledgeable just opposite, applying his all-powerful, all-knowing evil against the goodness of God.

The devil is not that powerful, he doesn’t have that much knowledge.

The all-powerful, all-knowing, and good God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He fights for you.

Our God promises to deliver us from evil.

Context will help us understand:

“And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” (Matthew 3:16-4:1).

That’s the immediate context of today’s Gospel lesson: Jesus is baptized, God the Father identifies Jesus as His Son, and immediately Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit to be tempted by the devil.

The same Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus like a dove, now drives Him into the wilderness to be tempted.

God is strange to us, sometimes. This is Exhibit A.

Right after telling the world that Jesus is His Son, that He loves Him and is well pleased with Him, our Heavenly Father has the Holy Spirit drive Jesus into the wilderness for forty days of fasting and temptation by the devil.

This strangeness only makes sense if you contrast what God is doing (saving the world) with what the devil is doing (accusing the world, filling it with unbelief that it would be condemned with him).

Our Heavenly Father has said, “[Jesus] is my beloved Son,” but “the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” (Matthew 4:3).

And the devil has a point. In His ministry, Jesus performs miracles, feeds the hungry, heals the sick, and raises the dead. In the Old Testament, God fed His people miraculously all the time, bread from heaven, water from the Rock, oil and flour that never run out.

Hunger, to the Creator of all things, is a simple problem. Jesus could very easily speak a single sentence, “Let there be bread,” and the world would have its fill.

The devil knows Jesus is hungry. He knows God wants the world to have food. He knows God promises to provide our daily bread.

But it does not profit the world to fill its stomach today and, tomorrow, lose eternal life.

After the Fall into sin, Man must sweat to eat. By the sweat of your brow you will eat bread. And life became toilsome hardship. Jesus—elsewhere in His ministry—multiplies bread without sweat, undoing the curse of the Fall.

It’s nothing for God to miraculously feed the world.

But Jesus doesn’t have to endure temptation to feed the world. He doesn’t have to bear the sin of the world to cross and death and grave if His goal is to feed the world. But if He has come to save the world, He must.

That’s the first temptation. God wants to feed the world—and does. He gives us the Body and Blood of Jesus.

Jesus came to feed sinners by giving them His flesh to eat and His blood to drink. We don’t hold our breath and hope Jesus passes the test—we rejoice that Jesus chose our everlasting salvation over the eradication of world hunger.

And don’t hear me wrong, the temptation is real: “in every respect [Jesus] has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). But temptation is not sin. You don’t have to sin when tempted. In fact, when you know you’re being tempted, that’s the perfect time to remember that Christians can defeat temptation, and this is how:

Jesus responds with the only tool that always defeats the devil, the written and spoken word of God:

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

Truly this is the Son of God who must suffer and die. By His stripes—the world is fed—and we are healed.

“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).

The devil proves that his knowledge of Scripture is better than ours. No man wants to die, so satan tries to find a verse that will keep Jesus from death. More than that, the devil’s found a way to convert the world by signs. God wants to save the world. And the world wants signs.

Imagine if Jesus jumped from the temple and angels swooped in to save Him. All those friends of ours demanding signs would get one, and they’d believe.

At least a while.

People who ask for signs don’t really want them. They ask either for what they know won’t happen, so they can continue unabated in their sin or they ask for what they know will happen to falsely confirm their heart’s desire as divine.

We talked about this in Sunday School today. [If you’re reading this online, click here for the handout that was used during Sunday School.]

Everyone wants a sign, but no sign will be given except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

Not as an accusation against any but as a warning for all: what you win them with is what you win them to.

Win a person to your congregation with a dog or a discount, and you’ll lose that person when the dog dies or the discount runs its course.

Win a person to the Gospel, and nothing better can come along.

Jesus’ death and resurrection is the only sign we need.

And get this, the devil quotes Psalm 91, verses 11 and 12: “He will command his angels concerning you” and “On their hands they will bear you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.” But he forgets to quote verses 9, 10, and 13, which say this: “Because you have made the Lord your dwelling place—the Most High, who is my refuge—no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent…You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot” (Psalm 91:9-10, 13).

That ancient serpent, the devil, is defeated by his own misquoted Bible verse. The Lord is the dwelling place of the Son—the Most High, His refuge. The evil one scowls fiercely and plagues Him with temptation, but Jesus, the Christ tramples him underfoot.

And there’s more.

The temple, the location for this temptation, was built on Mount Moriah, according to 2 Chronicles chapter three, and Mount Moriah was where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, according to Genesis chapter twenty-two.

From there, we read that Abraham called the name of that place “The Lord will provide,” for a ram was provided there in place of Isaac

Well, that’s still true: on the mount of the Lord the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world is provided. Moriah is to Abraham what Golgotha is to God, the place where the Lord provides the unblemished ram for the sacrifice.

The second temptation seeks to remove the Cross from Jesus’ shoulders, but Jesus doesn’t put the Lord His God to the test.

Jesus truly is the Son and Lamb of God who dies in Isaac’s place and ours.

We don’t hold our breath to see if Jesus makes it.

We rejoice—seeing our salvation, Jesus Christ the Lamb of God, destroy death and hell.

And: “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 will fall down and worship me’” (Matthew 4:8-9).

All men want power. And God teaches us to pray that His kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Our God made the sea and the dry land, the world and all that’s in it.

I’m sure the devil could make a good show of it, but what he offers to give to Jesus belongs already to God.

The third temptation seeks to divide God, so Jesus responds with the boldness blasphemy deserves.

“Be gone, satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve’” (Mt. 4:10).

And the devil obeyed.

Jesus serves His Father by enduring from the devil temptations that seek to keep the Christ from the Cross.

Jesus wants bread, and God wants us to eat.

Jesus wants life, and God wants us to believe.

Jesus wants His Father’s kingdom established on earth, and God wants to rule on earth as in heaven.

The devil doesn’t mind any of those, so long as Jesus goes against His Father’s will.

But the Word and will of God can’t be broken.

Our Heavenly Father has said of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3:17).

We’re not holding our breath here.

Jesus obeys, submits, and serves God and us all by putting Himself last. He didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give His life, to lose it, and to buy you back to God our Father.

All this He does in obedience to our Father’s will—to break and hinder the devil—to beat down satan under our feet—to fulfill the Word:

The devil bruises the heel, but Christ crushes the ancient serpent’s head (cf. Gen. 3).

We can never endure temptation as faithfully as Jesus did. But our High Priest has mercy.

Tempted in every respect as we are, yet without sin (cf. Hebrews 4), Jesus has compassion.

When you’re tempted, know that Jesus fights for you and provides the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (cf. 1 Corinthians 10).

You can. You will.

Even more, God has the last word and silences our accuser forever.

In the crucifixion of Jesus, all sin was crucified.

In the tomb of Jesus, all sin stays buried.

So in the resurrection of Jesus, you and all believers in Christ are raised, too.

The resurrection of Christ muzzles satan forever.

For though you’re tempted, and though you sin, and though you die, Jesus says, yet shall you live.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Invocabit Sermon, 2020
Matthew 4:1-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well” (Luke 18:42). That’s how it was read a few moments ago, but that’s not quite right.

The man is well. Jesus restores his sight. But the actual word that Jesus uses is saved. It could read, “Recover your sight; your faith has saved you.”

The King James has it that way, for what it’s worth.

And here’s why it matters: if faith makes you well, we’ll doubt our faith every flu season.

We’ll think the man was made well because Jesus restored his sight.

That’s wrong because faith doesn’t guarantee good eyesight, otherwise there’d be no blind, deaf, weak, hurting, or sinful Christians.

 Jesus doesn’t say “made well.” He says saved.

Faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t guarantee good health. It doesn’t guarantee eight hours of sleep each night or nine months of ease whenever you need it.

Lots of other false gods promise those things—but not faith in Jesus.

But faith in Jesus does guarantee salvation.

And nothing else does that.

But here’s where it’s most difficult:

In our day-to-day lives, for which do we feel the greater need?

Eyesight? A clean bill of health? Wealth? Ease?

Or salvation?

The Gospel lesson today hits us hard, because it contrasts the seeing (and unbelieving) disciples with the blind (but believing and therefore saved) beggar.

And we should prefer to be the blind beggar.

Though you don’t want to be blind, you really don’t want to be one of the Twelve, because at this point, they don’t understand.

“Taking the twelve [disciples], [Jesus] said to them, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise’” (Luke 18:31-33).

Jesus could not be more clear. 

Seventeen times prior to these verses in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus refers to the Son of Man.

The disciples know it’s Him.

And yet, St. Luke writes that ”they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (Luke 18:34).

In three separate ways, Luke tells us that, seeing, the disciples do not see. Hearing, they do not understand. And having Jesus there, they yet have nothing at all because they lack faith.

And so we read of the blind beggar.

“As [Jesus] drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ And he cried out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has saved you’” (Luke 18:35-42).

This beggar is the example of faith.

This blind beggar is a perfect illustration of the Christian because he’s blind (which means he believes what he hears) and because he’s a beggar.

We are all beggars. This is true.

Each of us, before God, is an empty cup needing to be filled. Each of us, before God, has nothing to offer God that He needs. We are, arms outstretched and palms up, in need of what He has to give.

And this blind beggar gets it. Literally blind, he hears and believes and trusts.

Having Jesus there, he has everything.

Notice, Jesus is near and the beggar cries out, “Son of David, have mercy!” He knows who David was.

He knows who Jesus is.

So yeah, this beggar gets it. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy.”

But what happens? This blind beggar and example of the Christian faith cries out to what end?

He’s rebuked by the crowd.

And it at least seems like Jesus is ignoring him.

Jesus, who knows all things, doesn’t answer him immediately—and that’s on purpose.

We should all learn to be like the blind beggar.

He ignores the rebuke of Man out of faithfulness to God.

And he’s got thick skin. He remains faithful and cries out all the more even when it seems that God Himself is silent or uncaring.

Practical wisdom tells us the squeaky wheel gets the grease and the impudent friend what he needs.

But God wants to give you all that you need. So how much more will our Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him (cf. Luke 11:5-13).

Prayers stay the same for years, sometimes.

That God doesn’t give you what you want doesn’t mean He hasn’t given you everything you need.

Maybe you want for yourself what God doesn’t want for you? If that’s the case, it’s not God who should change.

That’s a difficult lesson to learn.

But we’re not alone in having to learn it.

Nor are we supposed to keep our desires to ourselves.

The blind beggar can’t see Jesus, but he trusts that Jesus hears. He trusts that Jesus answers. So when rebuked by Man and seemingly ignored by God—when it would seem that he has all the reasons in the world to stop praying—he cries out all the more, because he knows that God is merciful.

Literally blind, he hears and believes and trusts.

“And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him…” He commands him to be brought to Him, because by your own reason or strength you cannot believe in Jesus Christ your Lord or come to him.

“…And when he came near, [Jesus] asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me recover my sight.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Recover your sight; your faith has saved you.’”

The faith that saves the blind beggar was there before Jesus restored his sight. It was there before he cried out the first time. It was there when he was rebuked, and it was there when it must’ve felt like God was ignoring him and refusing to answer his prayer for mercy.

The faith that saves the blind beggar is there apart from the miracle of sight restored.

And—regardless of his sight—the man is saved.

Jesus heals the blind man for many reasons.

Because the man asked.

Because Jesus is there to give sight to the blind.

But our reason—the reason Jesus did that then but not now—the reason we don’t get our miracles the way they got theirs—is because Jesus wants us to seek and ask for more than eyes that see.

He wants us to believe and be saved.

So that in the resurrection we have all that we ask for and more.

That’s what’s at stake.

Jesus, in healing the blind man, is showing us what the resurrection looks like.

And in telling the blind man that his faith has saved him—Jesus is showing us what is most important.

Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.

And then—in the resurrection—everything else will be added unto you.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Quinquagesima Sermon, 2020
Luke 18:31-43
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

What is it that unbelievers can’t be told that believers must be told?

We usually don’t think of it that way. Usually, we think that believers have all the information—therefore—we go and tell the world.

To Jesus’ disciples—and we can understand that to include all Christians—“It has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables…” (Luke 8:10).

Jesus teaches by means of parables to divide sheep from goats—those who hear the Word of God gladly, living pious lives from those who scorn God’s Word and serve their own flesh.

The unbelievers who have hardened their hearts against God’s Word will not listen, so the Lord turns away from them and hides knowledge from them.

We can look at the Parable of the Sower that way, and that’s a tough one to mess up since Jesus explains it:

“The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who’ve heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they’re those who hear, but as they go on their way they’re choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:11-14).

We could spend our time examining soil-types, talking about how God cultivates bad soil into good by the work of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the Word of God—and that would be helpful.

That’s one necessary part of the parable.

And—it’s necessary today for us to understand that unbelievers don’t and can’t bear fruit with patience.

Jesus and St. Luke want you to know that you’re saved by grace—through faith—not by your works—but by the work of the Holy Spirit—through the proclamation of the Word of God.

And—Jesus and St. Luke want you to know that faith doesn’t stop at hearing the Word of God.

It’s only the good and faithful soil that hears the Word, holds it fast in an honest and good heart, and bears fruit with patience (cf. Luke 8:15).

The Parable of the Sower shows us that there are, ultimately, two responses to hearing the Word of God:

Believing it unto eternal life and obeying it while yet in this earthly life. Actually seeking opportunities to learn and grow in piety and faith and putting off the world.

And…Rejecting the Word of God. Disobeying it. Lazily not caring, thinking yourself secure, and going to hell.

That rejection takes many forms, as the different types of soil show us.

But believing the Word of God always produces fruit. The amount of fruit doesn’t matter—there’s no shame in being a simple Christian or faithfully pursuing a life the world despises.

But bearing fruit with patience is not optional.

Two paragraphs after today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

That’s the proper response to hearing God’s Word. To hear what He says and to do it.

St. Luke makes this point again and again.

Mary, when she finds out she’ll bear the Christ-child, says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

She believed the Word of God and acted accordingly.

When Mary visits Elizabeth, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (Luke 1:45).

She believed the Word of God and acted accordingly.

In chapter six, Jesus says, “Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he’s like: he’s like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built” (Luke 6:47-48).

To hear and to do is wisdom, Jesus says.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches the lawyer—just as the Samaritan showed mercy to the man who fell among robbers—just so—you should “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not only should you believe what’s true—you should go and do as well.

And in chapter eleven, “a woman in the crowd raised her voice and said to [Jesus], ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!’ But [Jesus] said, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it’” (Luke 11:27-28).

Again, and again, and again—Jesus teaches or Luke shows what discipleship looks like: Hear the word of God. Believe it unto everlasting life. At that point, grafted into the vine, you’re saved.

And then—we hold fast to the Word of God in an honest and good heart, bearing fruit in patient obedience to God and service to neighbor. At that point, grafted into the vine, the branches bear fruit.

Jesus and St. Luke want you to know what discipleship is: you can’t be a Christian by only hearing the Word of God. While hearing the Word of God is how we’re saved—Jesus doesn’t say “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God.” He says, rather, “Blessed…are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28).

A Christian does both and understands that faith alone saves and that faith is never alone. We hear “the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15).

You need to be aware of this, because there’s a trend in the preaching of the Lutheran Church as though congregations contain no believers, no Christians.

What’s said is true—but not enough gets said.

It’s like this: If either of my sons pick up a brown recluse spider, and upon picking it up if they ask me whether or not it’s poisonous, and I say—No.

What have I just done? I’ve just told them the truth. Brown recluse spiders are not poisonous.

They’re venomous. They’re not poisonous.

In that hypothetical, what I said was true, but it was unhelpful because there was more that needed to be said.

So when you hear that you’re saved apart from works. That’s exactly true.

But if that’s all that’s all you ever hear. If you never hear: “And this is where Scripture teaches us to do good works. Here’s the list, the Ten Commandments, where God reveals His will for a Christian’s daily life. And here’s where Jesus teaches us what discipleship looks like, how we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

If all you ever hear is how you’re saved—if you never hear what the Christian life looks like or how to increase in good works—then something necessary is lacking.

Jesus and St. Luke have a very specific work in mind in the context of the Parable of the Sower. But you would never know it unless you’re comfortable hearing that Christians “bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15), that is, they obey God’s Word.

I’ve told you what Jesus said two paragraphs after today’s gospel lesson: “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

But here’s what He says one paragraph after today’s gospel lesson: “No one after lighting a lamp covers it with a jar or puts it under a bed, but puts it on a stand, so that those who enter may see the light” (Luke 8:16).

That’s what discipleship looks like.

In the proclamation of the Word of God, by the work of the Holy Spirit, we hear and believe unto life everlasting. That’s God’s Work.

And, “hearing the word, [we] hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). That’s your responsibility as a Christian.

The Light shines in the darkness.

If you have and know the Light, you don’t cover it with a jar or put it under a bed.

Because, if you believe the Word…

If it’s true…

It’s of infinite importance that you get that Word to others who are in need.

According to C.S. Lewis, “Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important.”

You don’t take the most important Word, Jesus, the Light of the World, our salvation, and put it under a jar or a bed where it’s of no use to people walking in darkness.

If it is the most important thing then you live and act differently every day because of it.

You put the Light of the World on a stand, so that those who enter may see the Light and see the world according to the Light.

Jesus has this specific fruit in mind for you to bear:

So that others may see what has been given to you, share the Gospel.

So that those who walk in darkness can see a great light, be a Christian in front of other people.

Since you can hold fast to the Word of God and bear fruit with patience. Do it.

You know more non-Lutheran, non-church-goers than I do.

I’m not telling you to knock on doors and browbeat people into coming to church. That doesn’t work.

I mean, according to your vocation, who already knows you, who already loves you, to whom are you responsible, who do you regularly bump into?

Having heard the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bear fruit with patience.

Share the Gospel. Invite someone to church. Bring your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter, your best friend, bring them to Church or Sunday School.

Is what you believe infinitely important or not important? It can’t be moderately important.

The amount of fruit you bear doesn’t matter. And bearing fruit, bearing witness, doesn’t always equate to more butts in the pews.

That’s not why we bear fruit.

That’s why we’re to bear fruit with patience.

You’re a light for those entering the household of God.

Your perseverance in the faith shows the way for those who have not heard, those who do not believe.

So hear the Word of God and believe unto everlasting life. Rejoice!

And bear fruit with patience.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Sexagesima Sermon, 2020
Luke 8:4-15
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Some worked all day. Some, only an hour. But those who receive their wages receive the same wage—and if we were in the back of that line, we’d’ve hated this.

“When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the laborers and pay them [the wage], beginning with the last, up to the first.’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat’” (Matthew 20:8-12).

The worker who worked the whole day—with the worker who worked mere moments—both receive the same wage—one denarius.

The parent who agonizes over every puzzle piece in a thousand-piece double-sided puzzle—with the child who places only the last piece in the puzzle—both receive the same wage—one puzzle completed.

The wife who puts all the dishes away but one—with the husband who reminds her about that one dish and puts it away himself—both receive the same wage—the dishes are put away.

Both receive the same wage—but only one bore the burden of the day and the scorching heat.

We know that it’s unfair and unhelpful when a person who can work refuses to and still receives pay.

It’s unfair when you work long hours and put in effort, and one who neither works nor tries still receives pay equal to your own. That it’s equal pay for less work makes it unequal pay.

No business can run that way—not for long.

But Jesus tells this parable to describe, not this world or business as we know it but the reign of God, His Kingdom.

The contrast in today’s Gospel lesson is not between lifetime-Christians and deathbed-Christians, those who’ve borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat and those whose work was only momentary.

If that’s what this is about, that would imply that lifetime-Christians, when they go to heaven, get what they earn and deserve.

And only deathbed-Christians receive the wage of Heaven as a gift from God by love and grace.

And that’s not how it is at all.

We’re saved by grace through faith in Christ our Lord, not by works. And this is, itself, a gift from God, not a paycheck given out of contractual requirement (cf. Eph. 2:8ff) after years of basically faithful service.

In the Church, you don’t get what you deserve, because grace is undeserved.

For a moment, though, consider if each Christian received exactly what they earned.

How terrifying!

The master of the vineyard replies to the grumbling day-laborers, “Take what belongs to you and go” (Matthew 20:14). And could there be a more frightening statement from the Creator of All Things to that which He created?

What belongs to you? And where can you go that’s not what God Himself has made?

We’re stewards, not creators.

It has been given to us, it is not ours.

We are workers of the vineyard. Heirs—not owners.

The contract between you and God isn’t written in your hand and blood but God’s hand and blood.

If today’s Gospel lesson were a contrast between lifetime-Christians and deathbed-Christians, you’d hate God, because He does what we don’t do. He treats the worst like the best: ”[He] shows no partiality” (Romans 2:11).

Don’t think of yourself as one of the all-day-laborers.

You’re not one of them.

To them, remember, the master of the vineyard says “Take what belongs to you and go.”

That’s justice. That’s not grace.

Justice is getting what you’ve earned, what you deserve. But grace, mercy, and the peace of God that is yours in Christ is all gift.

It’s undeserved.

All Christians are deathbed-Christians, whose work is momentary, whose whole life is but an hour in God’s day, who receive the wage of everlasting life out of the master of the vineyard’s overabundant generosity.

When your body is raised from death, and you stand for judgment before Christ, what puts Heaven into your possession isn’t the hours of your Christian service but the hour and service of Jesus the Christ.

Justice requires your death.

Grace puts the nails through Jesus’ hands and feet. The crown on His head. The spear through His side.

You don’t deserve it. That’s grace.

You couldn’t earn it. That’s a gift.

You couldn’t win it. Our salvation was accomplished in the hour of Christ’s death, confirmed in the hour of His resurrection, and distributed to you in this hour by the Word proclaimed, poured, and given.

In the small hour of our lives, we can accomplish so little and yet make endless lists of things to do.

But by God’s grace, during our small hour, God accomplishes so much.

We don’t deserve it. But God desires it.

Thus says the Lord through St. Peter, “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). God, in His grace, always desires repentance and faith so that you would believe and live.

God desires—and accomplishes—and gives it.

The one-hour workers receive the wage of life everlasting, by the grace of God.

The same is true for you.

Salvation is God’s work, accomplished and given out of grace.

But the workers who received their wages never stopped working. In a manner of speaking, they ran with endurance the race that was set before them (cf. Heb. 12:1). 

St. Paul warns us: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things…to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

So, we run the race—we live our lives—trusting God and receiving from Him all that we need for this body and life.

We don’t work so that He’ll take care of us.

He’s our Heavenly Father, loving and gracious. He takes care of us not because of our merit but only out His Fatherly goodness.

We work and move and live and breathe in thanks to Him and in service to those God has given us and all who are in need.

Our Lord chooses to give, even to us, the least of workers, what is promised to the first.

Today is Septuagesima. It means “Seventy Days.” We’re about seventy days away from Easter.

Next week is Sexagesima, “Sixty Days.” And after that is Quinquagesima, “Fifty Days.”

During the “Gesima Sundays,” we rejoice in the solas of the Reformation.

Today, Sola gratia. By grace alone are we saved.

Some work their whole lives.

Some work only an hour.

But all believers are Christians made alive by God.

“Praise the Lord! He is good. God’s love never fails” (Psalm 136:1).

God’s grace never fails.

In the Church, there aren’t different wages—there is only “the wage.” God gives to the least as He gives to the greatest. To the last, as He does the first.

Let us pray:

“By grace I’m saved, grace free and boundless; My soul, believe and doubt it not. Why stagger at this word of promise? Has Scripture ever falsehood taught? No! Then this word must true remain: By grace you too will life obtain.

By grace! On this I’ll rest when dying; In Jesus’ promise I rejoice; For though I know my heart’s condition, I also know my Savior’s voice. My heart is glad, all grief has flown Since I am saved by grace alone” (LSB 566:1,6).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Septuagesima, 2020
Matthew 20:1-16
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

And faithful hearts are raised on high By this great vision’s mystery, For which in joyful strains we raise The voice of prayer, the hymn of praise (LSB 413:4).

First of all, it’s a mystery to me how sight rhyme ever became an acceptable form of rhyme. Mystery, like symmetry, rhymes neither with high nor eye.

It happens all the time in hymns and poetry—I know that. But I can’t explain it. It’s a mystery.

But if we sing words, we should defend them, give an account of them.

So—the great vision that was the Transfiguration of Jesus, what’s the mystery?

It’s not WHEN—we know Jesus was transfigured six days after Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Six days after Jesus said that He would suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day rise.

Six days after Peter forbid Him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord,” and receiving this rebuke from Jesus: “Get thee behind me satan.”

We know WHEN the Transfiguration happened.

And we know WHERE—it says, “on the mountain.” From, I believe, the third century on, the Church has claimed Mount Tabor as the site of the Transfiguration.

We know WHO’s there—Peter, James, and John see what takes place: Moses and Elijah are with Jesus, and God the Father speaks.

And we know WHAT happens—Jesus is transfigured, μετεμορφώθη, like our word metamorphosis. Peter has a brilliant idea, humanly speaking—and is rebuked by God for it.

We know all these details.

It doesn’t seem like much of a mystery.

Maybe there is no mystery in this great vision of the Transfiguration. Maybe the hymn’s wrong.

Or—perhaps our definition of mystery is wrong.

Someone tell me—what’s a mystery?

A mystery is not something you don’t know.

A mystery is something you know—something you’re completely certain about—that you can’t explain.

If you read mystery novels, you’re not trying to figure out WHAT happened. You know exactly WHAT happened.

In a good mystery novel, you’re trying, the whole book through, to figure out HOW what happened happened.

There are great examples of mysteries in the Church.

We know WHAT the Lord’s Supper is—the true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ Himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.

HOW is it WHAT it is? Beyond “Jesus says so,” we don’t care to explain. We don’t philosophize as the Romans do, describing the “accident” of bread and the “essence” of body.

Likewise, with Holy Baptism, we know that it’s not just plain water but the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.

We know that all should be baptized, that baptism saves. We confess, in Gospel terms, that baptism is necessary for salvation. We believe, teach, and confess these things, because the Word of God says these things.

But neither the Lord’s Supper nor Holy Baptism have the look of divine activity. Beyond “Jesus says so,” there is no empirical measurement to verify what occurs.

That’s not a problem, because these things are mysteries. We know exactly WHAT. We don’t care to speculate on the HOW.

This side of the resurrection, you can’t explain the mysteries of God—but you must believe, teach, and confess what God says.

So it is with the mystery of that great vision, the Transfiguration.

Let’s look at what we know again.

Matthew records that “after six days Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves” (Matthew 17:1). We know this.

But Luke records that “about eight days after these sayings [Jesus] took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28).

Now, for those of you who’re bad at math, you can conclude simply that six is about eight, and you’d be correct.

Sloppy, but correct.

But how about this—instead of asking which one’s right (implying that some of the inerrant Word of God is errant), ask HOW both of them are correct?

Here, that’s a good question to ask.

Matthew and Luke both are making the point that what Jesus came to do only makes sense with the resurrection of the body as an established fact.

Matthew writes so that we understand things in terms what Jesus came to do, to save His people from their sins (cf. Matthew 1:21). It was six days, and six calls to mind man, created on the sixth day, desiring to be like God knowing both good and evil—and, sinning, man dies.

Matthew writes that it was six days (because it was) so that we believe, teach, and confess our great need of salvation—and—Jesus Christ our Savior.

Luke writes to give an orderly account, that we may have certainty concerning the things taught to us (cf. Luke 1:1-4). It was about eight days (because it was about eight days) so that we look to what’s eternal. Eight symbolizes eternity, and from eternity God ordained that His Son would die for you, to win you away from sin and satan.

In Luke, Jesus explains that the Scriptures, all things written by Moses and the Prophets (like Elijah), all those things are about Him.

From eternity, Jesus is our Savior.

It being both six days and about eight days teaches us specifically about the will of God for us.

So yeah—we know WHEN it happened. And HOW it could be both six and about eight days and WHY that’s good to know. And we know WHERE all this happened.

But we should also seek to confess the mystery of WHO is there at the Transfiguration.

“Jesus was transfigured before [Peter, James, and John his brother], and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light” (Matthew 17:2).

If Jesus is only a man, and not God, then we see in the Transfiguration an example of what it would look like if salvation were by works.

Jesus is perfect. Sinless. Not just doing good but being good. You can’t do or be better.

If Jesus is only a man, and not God, then we hear in the Transfiguration a condemnation from God to all of us: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased…” (Matthew 17:5).

If Jesus is only a man, what the Father says to Him is, to us, meaningless at best and damning at worst.

But Jesus is at the same time both God and man.

“He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born from the substance of His mother in this age…[And] although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ” (Athanasian Creed, 29, 32).

We believe, teach, and confess that Jesus is both God and man. In the Transfiguration, then, we see what it looks like when the Word and work of God saves.

Jesus is perfect. Sinless. Not just doing good but being good. And all this He is and all this He does to save you from your sins, to bring you into everlasting life.

We hear, in the Transfiguration, not a condemnation but exactly HOW the perfect God saves imperfect sinners. He reveals to us Jesus the Christ: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5).

So hear the Word of the Lord:

Peter has just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the living God. “And from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21).

Six days later, that fallen man would realize his need to be redeemed, Jesus is transfigured before them.

Luke adds this detail: Moses and Elijah are talking to Jesus about His exodus—not just His departure but also His return.

And afterward He says: “Tell no one the vision until the Son of Man is raised from the dead” (Matthew 17:9).

Another seeming mystery.

Why would God desire no one else to know?

Why would God want to keep information like that from other people?

It may sound strange—But God knows that if you hear of the Transfiguration—apart from the death and burial and resurrection of Jesus—you would be lost.

Suffering and glory, to our eyes and ears, never go together. Victors thanks God. Losers don’t.

But in the cross, victory and loss, suffering and glory are united.

In the death and resurrection of Jesus, we see the God who fights for us and wins. It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contented. But the victory remained with life. The reign of death is ended.

Jesus showed His disciples that He would be killed.

Peter forbid him.

Jesus showed His disciples what glory looks like.

Peter wants to keep it there, in a tent.

God knows that if you had your way, you’d fill the world with signs and wonders.

God hears your prayers, and if He acted according to all of them, everyone would have everything they’ve ever wanted—and no one would have need of God.

The mystery of the Transfiguration is this: Jesus shows us that suffering and cross, trial and tribulation, even apparent defeat and loss are not separated from the glory of God—but similar to it.

Before the Resurrection, Peter says, “Far be it from you Lord.”

After the Resurrection, Jesus could say, “See, I told you.”

After the Resurrection, Peter (finally) agrees. He writes, “We were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,’ we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:16-19).

Peter experienced the majesty of God on the mountaintop of mountaintop experiences.

But the prophetic word is more fully confirmed. More trustworthy. 

Before the Resurrection, ours was a glory-now-or-never world.

After the Resurrection, we can take up our cross gladly.

We know where He went, so we are glad to follow.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Transfiguration of our Lord, 2020
Matthew 17:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The Feast of St. Titus, according to our hymnal, is to be observed on January 26th.

We remember Titus for a number of reasons, but the lessons given focus on his work as a pastor and bishop.

Missouri Synod Lutheranism is allergic to the word “bishop,” but that’s what ἐπίσκοπος, one of the words St. Paul used when he wrote to Titus, that’s how that word is and should be translated—bishop. 

A bishop, an ἐπίσκοπος, is a pastor to other pastors, present-day District Presidents, Circuit Visitors, or Vicarage Supervisors—though they reject the term.

But allergic or not, the Scriptures speak that way, and so should we.

The other word that Paul uses is πρεσβύτερος, translated—elder. But both refer to pastors.

Paul is pastor to Titus.

Titus is pastor to the pastors in Crete.

These are things that you need to know as a member of the Church, as a Christian.

To Titus, St. Paul writes: “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders [πρεσβύτερος] in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer [ἐπίσκοπος], as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined” (Titus 1:5-8).

The Feast of St. Titus provides the seldom-afforded opportunity for your pastor to preach and teach the Word of God specifically against himself.

Pastors are to be above reproach, easily defined as being without something to criticize.

I was told the vote to call was unanimous.

But give it time—a month, a year, a handful of voters’ meetings—no pastor is without reproach.

Because no pastor does everything right.

Because every pastor is a sinner.

And no one is surprised by that.

But above reproach doesn’t mean “never does anything wrong.” Above reproach is a qualification of the Office of the Holy Ministry, because when your sinful pastor sins against you, and you do what Jesus says—go to him privately, talk to him privately, and say nothing to anyone else—when you do that, a pastor above reproach will remember the proverb and love you for rebuking him (cf. Proverbs 9:8). The pastor who does that is above reproach.

“Husband of one wife,” the next qualification, means just that.

The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, in practice, ignores that. In applications for seminary and in paperwork in preparation to receive a call, candidates are asked to list and describe all of their marriages.

For husbands whose wives have died, that’s a difficult but helpful question to ask. Professors and congregations want to know how to care for their student or pastor, and that information helps.

But for men whose previous wives are still living, another difficult but helpful question needs to be asked: What are you going to do other than be a pastor?

The qualification assumes the man’s a husband, but it requires that he be the husband of one wife.

In The Lutheran Study Bible, you have to read between the lines, but that’s how the footnote explains it: “Experience in a Christian marriage would prove the ability to maintain successful personal relationships during good times as well as trying times” (TLSB. Footnote of Titus 1:6. Page 2089).

That, of course, implies that experience in Christian marriages would prove the opposite. So, he must be  “the husband of one wife.”

The next qualification is interesting for two reasons—how it’s translated and how it’s footnoted.

The pastor’s children are to be believers and not open to charges of debauchery or insubordination.

That’s what we heard today.

But it’s also translated and explained as though those descriptions apply to the pastor and not necessarily to the pastor’s children.

You can add one comma and make “not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination” the next item in the list of qualifications for a pastor.

Some translations have it and explain it that way.

Some pastors do the same, but Jesus defines the Law in the broadest terms.

So decadence and persistent disobedience is to be excluded from all, a pastor and his children.

But another footnote in The Lutheran Study Bible adds this: “Congregations should anticipate that a pastor’s children will fall into sin, just like anyone else’s children. They may also expect the pastor to apply Law and Gospel to his children, to restore them in God’s love and mercy” (Ibid.).

We shouldn’t need a footnote that says water is wet.

But maybe we do.

That list of qualifications and responsibilities from Paul to Titus ends with Paul saying this: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

A pastor must be those things—so that he will hold firm to the Word of God as he’s been taught.

A pastor must be those things—so that he may teach others and rebuke those who contradict the Word.

God sets limits and boundaries, qualifications and responsibilities for the shepherds—to protect the sheep.

In 2010, when Matthew Harrison was elected president of our synod, he walked to the podium and said something like, “You’ve kept your perfect record intact of electing a sinner to serve you.”

Those words made an impression on me.

We must confess the Word of God to be true: the πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος are to be above reproach—not sinless but faithful.

When we sing the hymn “Chief of sinners though I be…” (LSB 611) I mean it.

But, obviously, we don’t pick one person to sing that hymn when it comes up.

There’s no bulletin announcement that says, “Karen had a really bad week, so she’s singing that one.”

“Chief of sinners though I be…” we all sing it.

And it’s true.

The words πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος mean some kind of pastor, that’s true—but they’re also used to describe what we call elders.

The word πρεσβύτερος might sound familiar. The Presbyterian church named itself after its polity—its organizational structure. Elders are the main organizational structure.

Likewise, with ἐπίσκοπος, you might think of the Episcopal church. They, too, named themselves after their polity, being organized around bishops.

The point is, every opportunity to examine the eye of your brother is best begun by examining your own eye.

As steward of the many things God has given you, are you above reproach? Are you arrogant or quick-tempered? A drunkard or violent?

Are you greedy?

Or are you hospitable, loving all good things, self-controlled—not ruled by emotion or base desires.

Are you upright, holy, and disciplined?

It doesn’t matter what list you use—as helpful as lists are, they make us feel awful because we either don’t complete them or we do.

When we don’t complete them we feel bad, and when we do complete them—we could’ve done better.

For the πρεσβύτερος and ἐπίσκοπος, for the pastor and elders, for every Christian, let us “hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught.”

And this is the Word—thus says the Lord through Paul in Titus chapter three: “[Submit to rulers and authorities. Obey. Be ready for every good work. Speak evil of no one. Avoid quarreling. Be gentle. Show perfect courtesy toward all people…]”

And just when you thought he was writing another list to make you feel terrible…

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (cf. Titus 3:1-7).

And this is our hope:

“Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me” (LSB 611:1).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Feast of St. Titus—Sermon, 2020
Acts 20:28-35; Titus 1:1-9; Luke 10:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (John 2:3-4).

They had run out of wine.

They would soon run out of joy.

I’m not talking about the abuse of wine called drunkenness but the right use of wine called joy.

In Psalm 104, it is the Lord who causes the grass to grow, and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden his heart (cf. Psalm 104:14-15).

The proper use of God’s creation yields joy.

God gives the growth by means.

Water nourishes thirst and keeps us and the plants alive. That is the right use.

The abuse of water, too much of it, kills—us and the plants.

The right use of words, spoken and sung, written and retold, brings us joy while the abuse kills us on the inside. Sticks and stones do break our bones, and some words hurt us.

Wine, again, gladdens hearts, calms nerves, and settles stomachs. That’s some of what St. Paul has in mind when he encourages Timothy both to “keep [himself] pure” (1 Timothy 5:22) and to “use a little wine for the sake of [his] stomach and [his] frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23).

The proper use of God’s creation yields joy.

The abuse of God’s creation kills.

Eating forbidden fruit brought death into the world for Adam and Eve just as indulging in today’s forbidden fruit brings death into our homes and families.

There’s always a boisterous advocate for what’s forbidden, a peddler of a life apart from suffering. 

“You will not surely die…” says satan. “…You will be like God” (Genesis 3:4,5).

Adam and Eve must have loved hearing that.

And we’re no different.

Consider that Adam and Eve knew only “good.”

They knew God’s Law and were happy in it. But they were enticed away by the devil’s lie.

They were convinced that it was better to know good and evil than it was to know only good.

Knowing only good puts real limits into place.

Knowing good and evil removes those limits.

Knowing only good rejoices in the Lord’s Prayer, for example, when Jesus teaches us to pray “Thy will be done.”

But knowing both good and evil causes us to pray that petition hoping that God falls in line with what we want and expect.

Because each of us would rather pray: “My will be done.” That’s exactly what we want.

And so, today, Mary, the Mother of our Lord, the Mother of God, is, for all of us again, a good example.

She says to the servants: “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).

His will be done. God’s will be done.

She doesn’t ask for wine.

They’ve run out of wine. But she doesn’t ask for wine.

She simply tells God what’s going on.

He knows. Of course He knows. But she lets Him know that she knows what’s going on.

“Do whatever he tells you.”

Even if He says “No,” do whatever He tells you. If He leaves the wedding dry and joyless, so be it.

Thanks be to God, in fact.

But do whatever He tells you.

That’s amazing faith, rarely seen in the mirror.

And it’s more amazing when we consider the rhetoric Jesus uses.

“What does this have to do with me?” He says. He was testing her, and she passed.

But we might have responded with, “Well…nothing.”

His hour has not yet come, after all.

What difference does it make if this wedding has no wine?

It’s a social faux pas, that’s true.

If the reception has no wine, the people will call you cheap.

But that’s not why Jesus has come. That’s not His hour.

St. John writes: “These [things] are written…that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

It may not be immediately apparent to us, but the almost dry wedding in Cana does have to do with Jesus, and this is one of the things that was written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ and have life in His name.

Turning water into wine means so much more than a joyous feast and God’s blessing of marriage, one man and one woman, for the procreation of children, till death us do part.

Though that is what’s going on, there’s more.

“There were six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification [and] Jesus said to the servants, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ And they filled them…to the brim. [Jesus] said…’Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast.’ So they took it” (John 2:6-8).

These stone jars would have been used prior to the wedding feast.

“For…all the Jews [eat only when] they wash their hands, holding to the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3).

With water they wash so that with wine they may drink. Water gets you to the feast, but, at the feast, there’s wine. Water cleanses and prepares, wine strengthens and preserves.

Water and wine, for this Jewish wedding and for the Christian Church, are inseparable.

It’s not okay to have children baptized and then abandon them to the world.

“There is no easier way for parents to merit hell than through their own children, in their own home, when they neglect to teach them [the love of God in Jesus Christ]. To trust in God, believe in him, fear him, and hope in him. To worship God and hear his Word. To learn to despise the kings of this world, to bear misfortune meekly, and not to fear death or to love this life” (Day By Day We Magnify You, 65).

It’s not okay to baptize children and abandon them.

Likewise, it’s not okay to serve wine from the Christian altar without instruction in the Christian faith.

We are to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching (cf. Matthew 28:19).

Water gets you to the feast, and wine keeps you there.

God gives the growth by means.

The Means of Grace. And the means of parents.

What else are the hungry, thirsty, and naked, the prisoners, the sick, and the strangers here but your own children (cf. Matthew 25:35-36)? For their sake, your home is a blessed hospital, that you would tend them, feed them, and bring them up in lives of faith and devotion (cf. ibid.).

“What does this have to do with me?” Jesus says.

This one wedding, this one sign, one miracle, this one day is the history of the world reduced to one.

Mary provides another example of patient, long-suffering, Christian faith.

The water shows us how and why we enter into the feast. The wine shows us how and why we stay.

The miracle, the sign, teaches us that God gives the growth by means of His Son.

It is, after all, water and blood that’s flowing from His pierced side, alleluia.

Water, for the font, that you may enter.

Blood, under the wine, in the cup, that you would be strengthened and preserved unto life everlasting.

That is the right use.

What does this have to do with Jesus? Everything.

He was testing you. And you passed.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

The Second Sunday After Epiphany, 2020
John 2:1-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt