The Old Testament today provides an interesting comparison to today’s Gospel lesson.

Naaman, the leper, expected the man of God to put on a good show, saying: “Behold, I thought he would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over the place and cure the leper” (cf. 2 Kings 5:11).

He was disappointed that only a messenger of the man of God arrived, telling him to wash in a probably dirty river. He said, “‘Are not the rivers of Damascus better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be clean?’ So he turned and went away in a rage” (cf. 2 Kings 5:12).

Then, Naaman’s servants questioned him about the actual words spoken, the message of the messenger, and if he really said:  “Wash and be clean” (cf. 2 Kings 5:10, 13).

“So [Naaman] went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean” (2 Kings 5:14).

Then Naaman said, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).

We often share in Naaman’s frustrations, wanting a miraculous show of force, not content with the simplicity and straightforwardness of God’s revelation.

Naaman had to humble himself to wash in a dirty river.

That’s not what he wanted.

He wanted what we sometimes want—the still, small voice.

The inward, movement-of-the-heart.

The feeling that something is happening.

It’s often the case we’re disappointed with what’s considered common or average.

We want something special.

The appearance of worldly success, perhaps.

A reason to boast of ourselves.

But for Naaman and for us all—God wants none of that.

He gives the opposite, in fact, on purpose, to test your faith.

You want God Himself? He sends a servant.

You want visible miracles, hand waving, and the Almighty God working wonders? He gives you water, bread, wine, the sign of the cross, and the spoken words of Jesus Christ.

You want the rivers of Damascus.

He gives you the Jordan or the Blackwater or the Missouri.

God works not according to smoke and mirrors, not in our feelings, not even in our memories of golden days and years and the worldly look of success.

God works in His Word proclaimed—in water, in bread and wine, included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word.

By means of common things and His Word.

That’s how God works.

Until, so it seems, we compare Naaman to the leper in today’s Gospel lesson.

In Matthew chapter eight, “Behold, a leper came to [Jesus] and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, if you [are willing], you can make me clean.’ And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, ‘I [am willing]; be [cleansed].’ And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, ‘See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them’” (Matthew 8:2-4).

Right after we heard that God doesn’t do the whole “special show” thing, Jesus seems to do exactly that, a special, miraculous show for this leper.

Jesus “stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He indicated the will of God to cleanse the leper by saying, “I [am willing]…” (Matthew 8:3). And He spoke cleansed flesh into existence by saying, “…Be [cleansed]” (Matthew 8:3).

He put on a show.

A small one, yes, but compared to Naaman, a show.

Here’s the difference:

Naaman wanted the show—so—he didn’t get one.

The leper before Jesus, though, confesses the simple truth that if the Lord is willing to do something, then that thing will be done.

But—it’s better that the Lord’s will be done than my will or the will of the leper.

Perhaps this leper knows the Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus teaches us to pray: “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10).

That’s how he prays. The leper before Jesus says, “Lord, if you [are willing], you can make me clean” (Matthew 8:2).

His faith looks to God for everything—even the desires of his heart—and—simultaneously, he appends “Thy will be done” (Matthew 6:10) to his prayer, trusting and knowing that God is at work both to will and to do for His good pleasure (cf. Philippians 2:13).

God is merciful.

That’s why, in verse four, Jesus says to the now ex-leper, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them” (Matthew 8:4).

It might seem strange that silence is commanded after such a miracle, but it’s done so this man knows that God has no ulterior motive.

“Tell no one” means God healed him out of love—not some desire for prestige.

God can and does endure a lack of prestige and fame.

God endures slander—and the Church with Him.

Whatever words others might have—we have the words of eternal life.

We have the Christ, the Son of the Living God, who’s willing to touch the leper, to take into Himself our infirmities and sin—our uncleanness.

That we would be healed and restored and raised up.

Then—we have the pious example of the centurion.

“When [Jesus] had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him, ‘Lord, my servant is lying paralyzed at home, suffering terribly’” (Matthew 8:5-6).

And again, unlike with Naaman, what does Jesus do?

He immediately offers to go and do as the man requests, saying, “I will come and heal him” (Matthew 8:7).

But the centurion didn’t need the show.

“[He] replied, ‘Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I say to one, “Go,” and he goes, and to another, “Come,” and he comes, and to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it’” (Matthew 8:8-9).

The centurion could’ve been part of the prestige, part of the talk of the town—and when that’s good, we want it very much—but this centurion cares only for his servant, saying, “I’m not worthy to have you come under my roof. Speak but a word, and my servant will be healed” (cf. Matthew 8:8).

And Jesus marvels at his faith.

“He marveled and said to those who followed him, ‘Truly…with no one in Israel have I found such faith. Many will come from east and west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…[where there will be] weeping and gnashing of teeth’” (cf. Matthew 8:11-12).

“To the centurion Jesus said, ‘Go; let it be done for you as you have believed.’ And the servant was healed at that very moment” (Matthew 8:13).

It’s important, of course, that Jesus finds no equal in all Israel to this Gentile centurion’s faith.

That’s good news. Salvation is for all.

But it’s important, also, to note again that Jesus marvels at the centurion’s faith.

Jesus marvels only twice in the New Testament.

He marvels here, in Matthew chapter eight, at the faith of centurion (He marvels, also, of course, in Luke chapter seven, when this same event is recorded there—but that counts as one).

Because Jesus marvels at faith.

But—He also marvels at unbelief.

In Mark chapter six, when Jesus is teaching at the synagogue in Nazareth, they take offense at Him, “And he marveled because of their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).

He who has ears to hear, let him hear: 

Jesus marvels at faith—big or small—that trusts Him for salvation.

And—Jesus marvels at unbelief.

The people hear the flute and do not dance—the dirge and do not mourn (cf. Matthew 11:17).

Jesus marvels because His blood is shed for all, forgives all, reconciles all, avails for all—and some hate Him for it.

If the Lord marvels today, let Him marvel over the faith that He has authored and perfected.

Let Him marvel over the many who hear the Gospel and believe it.

Let Him marvel on account of all who believe and pray as He has taught us—

That His will be done among us.

Our sins forgiven.

Our bodies raised on the Last Day.

And our life, with Him, lasting—forever.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Third Sunday After the Epiphany, 2022
Matthew 8:1-13
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

For what he himself did—and for what others did—the bridegroom is shamed.

A wedding that runs out of wine is a wedding that runs out of joy, and the wine ran out.

It wasn’t the bridegroom who filled the cups, but the bridegroom would be blamed when all cups were empty.

He failed to provide adequately for the feast.

So, because of what others did—and because of what he himself did—the bridegroom is shamed.

In a way, this describes all humanity.

The sin of Adam and Eve—the sin of others—shames all. The world is fallen—and us with it—both because of what we’ve inherited from Adam and because of what we’ve committed since.

So, for what he did himself—and for what others did—the bridegroom is shamed.

And I say—this describes all humanity.

And then—for what he did not do—and for what God alone has done—the bridegroom is praised.

“When the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine…[he] called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now’” (cf. John 2:9-10).

We know it was Jesus who said, “Fill the jars with water” (John 2:7).

And we know it was Jesus who said, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the feast” (John 2:8a).

We know “they took it” (John 2:8b).

And we know that “when the master of the feast tasted the water now become wine…[he] called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘…But you have kept the good wine until now’” (cf. John 2:9-10).

The bridegroom did nothing.

There was a need, but he couldn’t fill it.

So, for what he did not do—and for what God alone has done—the bridegroom is praised.

This describes all believers in Christ, all who rejoice that their names are written in heaven (cf. Luke 10:20).

Your blood didn’t purchase the church (cf. Acts 20:28).

Your life didn’t ransom the many (cf. Matthew 20:28).

Yet all of what God alone has done, He’s done so that you would benefit.

“This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

And that reveals the character of God.

None of the miracles are, strictly speaking, necessary.

Walking on water wasn’t necessary, that’s just what He did.

Feeding the 4,000, the 5,000, wasn’t necessary, that’s just what He did.

Or rather—that’s how He chose to manifest His glory.

The signs—the miracles—prove the character of God.

They inaugurate the reign of Christ, showing us what Creation restored looks like—Creation without sin.

The signs manifest His glory.

Early in today’s Gospel lesson, when “the mother of Jesus said to him, ‘They have no wine,’” He said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come” (cf. John 2:3-4).

And in John’s account of the Gospel, the hour of the Son of Man and His glory refer specifically to the crucifixion of Jesus.

In chapter twelve, some Greeks seek Jesus, “and Jesus, [answering His disciples, said] ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified’” (cf. John 12:23).

Immediately after that, Jesus says, “‘And what shall I say? “Father, save me from this hour”? [No.] But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.’ Then a voice came from heaven: ‘I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.’ The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, ‘An angel has spoken to him.’ Jesus answered, ‘This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (cf. John 12:27-33).

That’s the glory of God, the hour of the Son of Man—the death of Jesus Christ for you.

In today’s Gospel lesson, that hour had not yet come.

Running out of wine has nothing to do with Jesus and His crucifixion and sacrifice.

And yet, at the same time, it has everything to do with His hour and crucifixion and sacrifice.

None of these things—be it wine at the wedding or forgiveness from the cross—none of these things are things we can do ourselves.

But it’s the character of God to forgive, renew, and strengthen.

To give joy—where joy is lost.

To restore hope—when all hope has been abandoned.

Of course He gives them wine.

“Wine is good. Drink some” (cf. Psalm 104:15; 1 Timothy 5:23).

That’s not scandalous, that’s paraphrasing the Bible.

And of course it’s good wine that Jesus gives.

God doesn’t give bad gifts.

It’s the character of God to give, overabundantly, good gifts.

“[Man] serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine” (John 2:10a).

But God has chosen to credit unto you righteousness by faith in the Lord Jesus without any merit or worthiness on your part.

God Himself creates and sustains faith.

He is the author and perfecter of our faith (cf. Hebrews 12:2).

And yet—He would have you receive the reward.

It’s the character of God to give, overabundantly, good gifts.

And the unbelieving world hates us for believing that.

For boasting in the Lord (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:31).

For being able to be brought low and being able to abound (cf. Philippians 4:12).

The world would rather you despair because you lack worldliness than rejoice because your name is written in heaven.

The world—and worldliness—will shame you for being different—for being in the world but not of the world.

The world—and worldliness—will shame you for what you’ve done and what others like you have done.

This has always been true, but the last two years have been full of examples.

Masks have been one point of contention.

Vaccines another.

And whether you think masks do any good or not, whether you’ve had no jab or five, you know this to be true: church and state have weaponized masks, weaponized vaccines, to shame those who think and do publicly what all our leaders do privately.

They shame you when and because you reject their worldview.

Because when you reject their worldview, that forces them to imagine that they might be seen as wrong.

They don’t imagine being wrong—they imagine being seen as wrong, and they must prevent that.

I’ve said that masks and vaccines are one point of contention—and they are—but consider this, too:

The world—and worldliness—will shame you for what you’ve done and what others like you have done in terms of sin and righteousness.

It’s fashionable today to commoditize children, to laud unnatural sex, to invent, if it were possible, new sins.

And when you don’t participate, when you don’t engage, when you don’t support the ungodly choices of others and write them a check, you’re called unloving.

Inhospitable. Mean-spirited. And divisive.

While all you’re really doing is keeping a close watch on yourself and on the teaching of God.

Closed Communion reverence before God is this way.

Defining men as men and women as women is this way—as is defining marriage as one man and one woman (not one man and one woman and whoever else is needed so that we get what we want).

The world—and worldliness—hates faithfulness, and the world—and worldliness—will shame you into submission if you let them.

Don’t let them.

Rejoice—rather—in what God has done for you.

Rejoice—rather—in what God has given to you.

St. Paul writes to Timothy and, by extension, all pastors: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [the doctrine]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).

It’s to your advantage that your pastor keeps a close watch on the teaching. By doing so, God saves both him and you.

It’s to no advantage to whore after the world.

Rather—rejoice in what God has done for you.

Rejoice in all the ways He’s manifested His glory.

In the signs and miracles that prove His character, that God gives good and bountiful gifts.

Rejoice in the glory of God, the crucifixion of Jesus, the hour when all sin is forgiven, the world is reconciled, and life and immortality are brought to light (cf. 2 Timothy 1:10).

Rejoice that you believe in the Lord Jesus.

God has written your name in heaven.

He has given and restored all joy.

And—He would have you receive it.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Second Sunday after Epiphany, 2022
John 2:1-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

When Jesus comes to be baptized by John, John would have prevented Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14).

But when Jesus answers John, and in the events that follow, we learn that it was proper for Jesus to be baptized because it’s proper for us to be baptized, and Jesus comes to be treated as, take the place of, and save sinners.

John the Baptist proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2), and Matthew tells us that people were baptized by John as they confessed their sins.

John called all people to repent, saying that God’s kingdom—God’s reign—was about to arrive, and everyone needed to be ready. 

In the verses before today’s Gospel lesson, John says, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

And so, John means to say that the coming reign of God would bring the judgment of the Last Day.

But is that what we see, in today’s Gospel lesson, when Jesus arrives at the Jordan to be baptized by John?

John’s baptism is for repentance, and people come to him confessing their sins.

If we expect the reign of God—and judgment—we might be surprised that Jesus desires to be treated like a sinner—that He desires to be baptized.

Again, “John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’” (Matthew 3:14).

But Jesus explains it this way, saying, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15).

Baptism is meant for sinners—that’s why and who John was Baptizing.

And—Jesus needs to be Baptized, but not because He’s a sinner.

“Let it be so now…” Jesus says, meaning not that He needs it, but that we do. 

Jesus came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it.

To take the place of sinners, to satisfy the justice of God, to beat down satan under our feet.

Jesus explains, “…for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (Matthew 3:15), meaning that this is part of how God’s salvation is brought and given.

The righteousness of God is God’s salvation poured out and given.

In the Psalms and in Isaiah, God’s righteousness is often set in parallel to God’s salvation.

”The Lord has made known his salvation…” it says in the Psalms. “…He has revealed his righteousness in the sight of the nations” (Psalm 98:2).

This is a quality of Hebrew poetry—to say the same thing in different ways, adding depth and nuance to whatever the topic is. In this case, it’s the righteousness and salvation of God.

”I bring near my righteousness…” Isaiah writes. “…It is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory” (Isaiah 46:13).

”My righteousness draws near, my salvation has gone out, and my arms will judge the peoples; the coastlands hope for me, and for my arm they wait…The earth will wear out like a garment, and they who dwell in it will die in like manner; but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed” (cf. Isaiah 51:5-6).

”My mouth shall tell of your righteousness, and of your salvation all day long; For I do not know the sum of them” (Psalm 71:15).

”He put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head…” (Isaiah 59:17).

The righteousness of God is God’s salvation poured out and given.

So when Jesus comes to John to be baptized, it is to fulfill all righteousness—to proclaim and provide God’s salvation to the world.

They each have a role to play:

John was there, as an instrument, to baptize.

Jesus was there to be baptized, to demonstrate what a good and faithful son looks like.

Jesus enters into the waters of repentance willingly.

He insists upon it.

Where we are reluctant—He is not.

No one wants to confess what he’s done wrong.

You’d rather list the errors of other people.

You’d rather talk in terms of how you’ve been sinned against, listing other people’s sins.

You fulfill not righteousness but sin.

And yet, in mercy, God sends His Son into the world—to fulfill righteousness—to redeem the world—to save sinners.

Jesus takes the place of sinners—to be Baptized—to fulfill all righteousness—to save us.

And then, in what follows, we learn exactly what this means for us.

St. Matthew writes: “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’” (Matthew 3:16-17).

The Spirit of God descends upon Jesus.

God the Father says “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

Jesus is the good and faithful son.

These words are like those in Isaiah chapter forty-two, where thus says the Lord: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the [Gentiles]” (Isaiah 42:1).

At His baptism, Jesus enters into the waters of repentance to bring forth the justice of God, to be your Servant, to take the place of sinners.

Jesus—the sinless One—takes your place.

From you, He takes away your sins.

For you, He fulfills all righteousness.

Jesus is the suffering Servant, wounded for your transgressions and crushed for your iniquities.

He is the One who gives His life as a ransom for many.

But the justice of God—and the righteous salvation of God—doesn’t stop there.

On the third day, God the Father, by the Holy Spirit, raised Jesus from the dead.

God’s righteousness means putting all things right.

That can’t and doesn’t stop at the crucifixion of Jesus, when His life is given as a ransom for all.

When John says that the coming reign of God would bring the judgment of the Last Day—this is how that’s true.

The righteousness and salvation of God includes the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.

For all believers in Christ, that’s what the Last Day looks like.

And this is how we get there.

Just as the path to Jesus’ cross and resurrection began at His baptism, just so, at your baptism, you receive a share in the good and faithful Son, Jesus Christ—a share in His death and a share in His resurrection.

St. Paul says it this way: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:3-5).

Through baptism you share in the saving death of Jesus.

Baptism, then, is an immovable feature of the Christian’s life.

When you stumble and struggle against sin—when you fail or fall—hold fast to Jesus Christ the Lord and rejoice in your share with Him.

In repentance, confess your sins to God.

In faith, return to the waters of Holy Baptism.

Return to and remember the day God chose you for salvation.

In the Small Catechism, Luther writes that baptizing with water “indicates that the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”

Today—this is fulfilled in our hearing.

Today—we see Jesus in the water of the Jordan.

And we rejoice to know exactly why He’s there and what that means for us.

This is God’s beloved Son.

He takes our place—that we, and all believers in Christ, would have our place with God forever.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Baptism of Our Lord, 2022
Matthew 3:13-17
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus says in Matthew chapter ten: “He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward” (Matthew 10:40-41).

But lest we think too highly of ourselves and define as benign the earthly glory God has prepared for us, we hear and see the prophet’s reward in Matthew chapter fourteen, when John the Baptist is beheaded for speaking the truth of God’s Word regarding marriage.

If you receive the prophets and apostles as they speak to you in the Word of God, don’t be surprised if you face a similar fate—if not a beheading then persecution for righteousness’ sake.

John said nothing but what the Lord had said regarding marriage.

It used to be that you could do that.

It used to be that you could say a lot of things.

It used to be that you could say—on Facebook or wherever—that dogs aren’t ministers of the Gospel.

After all, dogs aren’t ministers of the Gospel—and neither are they four-footed pastors.

But now, if you dare to say such a scandalous thing, you become known as unloving or divisive.

Now, if you insist upon saying what used to be true, you’ll be called foolish for spending so much energy on something so frivolous when there are conversations of so much more importance to be had.

But—“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Luke 16:10-11).

Or—to say it another way—how can you expect to agree on what is complicated if you can’t even say out loud what is obvious?

It used to be that you could do that—say what’s obvious.

It used to be that you could say that God does not desire believers to marry unbelievers.

After all, God does not desire believers to marry unbelievers.

In fact, He calls it an abomination.

From Malachi chapter two: “An abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, For Judah has profaned The Lord’s holy institution which He loves: He has married the daughter of a foreign god” (Malachi 2:11).

Now, we have to content ourselves with knowing that two consenting adults are going to be happy.

That’s what matters—happiness.

And to say otherwise, to conclude otherwise, to suggest, even, that another person ought to fear God, move out, and do things right—that’s what’s forbidden.

Now, you’re supposed to stay in your lane.

But thus says the Lord through Malachi: “May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob The man who does this, being awake and aware, yet who brings an offering to the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 2:12).

It used to be that we took the warnings of God seriously.

It used to be that you could say what God has obviously said.

It used to be that you could call evil—evil.

And it used to be that you could call good—good.

But—“You have wearied the Lord with your words…[saying:] ’Everyone who does evil Is good in the sight of the Lord, And He delights in them’” (Malachi 2:17).

President Biden is not a good Catholic.

He’s not even a good Christian.

What with his obvious hatred for unborn children and what marriage is, it used to be that you could say obvious things like that, but now you have to add that, really, this could be said about any politician, it just happens to be his turn.

It used to be that you could say that God hates divorce.

After all, God hates divorce.

But if God hates divorce, we should, too.

Or, at the very least, we shouldn’t seek it out, like it, or be okay with it.

The readings tonight were from the New King James Version, because the ESV leaves out the harsh truth of God’s will.

Hear it for yourselves:

Here’s the ESV: “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:16, ESV).

And here’s the NKJV: “For the Lord God of Israel says That He hates divorce, For it covers one’s garment with violence,” Says the Lord of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, That you do not deal treacherously” (Malachi 2:16, NKJV).

Changes like that are made because we’ve embraced the sin—and so we either need to change ourselves or the words on the page, and it’s easier to change the words.

The world is different if God hates divorce—because if He does—then we should, too.

Any time this is said, it’s almost impossible not to mention all the times when and where divorce is allowable.

We have to bring those up to assuage our guilty conscience.

God may allow divorce—He still hates it.

It used to be that you could say that.

It used to be that you could say all these things.

And you still can.

You still should.

But “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial [the prophet’s reward] when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when His glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but glorify God as a Christian. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God” (cf. 1 Peter 4:12-17).

And know this:

The Lord does not rebuke you in anger. He does not discipline you in wrath (cf. Psalm 6:1).

The harsh truth of God’s will is not proclaimed that you would be condemned.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

But saved from what?

From sin and God’s anger over sin.

From hell and God’s just judgment on the world.

His anger was poured out on Christ, sparing you.

His wrath, extinguished in the blood of Jesus, cleansing you.

He chastens with forbearing, in patience, desiring that all should reach repentance.

The Lord hears your plea. He accepts your prayer. All your enemies shall be brought to shame and greatly troubled. They shall be turned back and put to shame in a moment (cf. Psalm 6:9-10).

It used to be that we could say this.

It used to be that this would give us hope.

Well, we still can say it, and we do.

And we still hope, and we are not put to shame.

We shall receive our reward.

Keep the faith.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 3 Midweek Sermon, 2021
Psalm 6; Malachi 2:10-3:5; Matthew 14:1-12
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

This time of year, if I ask you to tell me about Jesus, you might sing any one of a number of Christmas carols, and tell me a lot about Jesus.

But St. Stephen doesn’t come up.

I would say it’s quite normal to coast from Christmas Day into the new year without observing what there is to observe.

We’ve been taught to separate—rather than to connect—the manger and the cross, for example.

So, today, let us remember St. Stephen.

Today, let us celebrate the Christmas story knowing that a later chapter includes the Cross—and all those Christians who pick up theirs to follow Jesus.

Stephen’s sermon begins this way: “Brothers and fathers, hear me…” (Acts 7:1), which is a fine way to start.

The way we heard it today, he continues, saying, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).

And we’re not used to being talked to like that, even when it’s true.

You’ll note, though, that there were several verses that we did not read—verses three through fifty.

Verses three through fifty include the entire Old Testament story of salvation, from Abraham, when the promise was given, through Isaac and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Moses, Egypt, the Red Sea and the wilderness, the golden calf, all the way to David and Solomon (cf. Acts 7:3-50).

Then—Stephen says, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One [Jesus Christ], whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” (Acts 7:51-53).

What was true throughout the Old Testament was true for Stephen—and it’s true for us—many exchange the truth of God for a lie and worship the creation rather than the Creator (cf. Romans 1:25).

Prophets and pastors alike break our idols, call us to repentance, and point us to Christ.

The hopeful expectation of Advent—and the joy of Christmas—lead, today, to a sobering reminder of Jesus’ words: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31-32).

For this He was born.

Jesus says, “I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you kill and crucify, and some you flog in synagogues and persecute from town to town. And on you will come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Barachiah, whom you murdered…O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How I would have gathered you together as a hen gathers her brood, but you would not! See, your house is left to you desolate” (cf. Matthew 23:34-35, 37-38).

Today, let us remember St. Stephen.

Today, let us celebrate the Christmas story that continues on to cross and empty tomb.

But make no mistake—we may use today to remember St. Stephen, but today is still about the work of Christ.

When Stephen preaches, he preaches the work of Christ, the Old Testament story of salvation.

The accusations against Stephen come from false witnesses claiming he said “that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy [the temple] and will change the customs that Moses delivered” (Acts 6:14-15).

The high priest asks, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1).

And Stephen answers: Abraham and the patriarchs lived by faith in the promise of God, without the temple.

It’s Solomon who finally builds the temple, “yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands, as the prophet says” (Acts 7:48).

When Stephen preaches, he preaches the work of Christ, which is the grace of God.

It’s as if he says, “The temple’s not as important as you think it is” which is just as much a scandal now as it was then—we like our temple, our home team.

But Stephen also confesses Jesus to be the prophet foretold by Moses.

Stephen doesn’t reject Moses.

He points out that all the prophets were rejected by Israel—at least at times.

Abraham was a stranger in Canaan.

The patriarchs were enslaved in Egypt.

Moses was rejected by the people.

“[Moses] supposed his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25).

“This Moses, whom they rejected” (Acts 7:35) “said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your brothers. To him you shall listen” (Acts 7:37; cf. Deuteronomy 18:15).

This Moses was one whom “our fathers refused to obey” (Acts 7:39).

And there’s the connection.

That’s the way the promised prophet, Jesus Christ, would be like Moses.

He would be rejected.

It’s as if Stephen says to the high priest, “Yes—these things are so. Jesus will destroy the temple, change our customs, break our idols, and teach us to fear the Lord and call upon His name.

“And even more offensive, the Lord’s Christ came to you, and you knew Him not. You betrayed Him. And you murdered Him.”

That’s Stephen’s answer.

And “when [the Jews] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).

For this—they think—Stephen must die.

So he’s cast out of the city—to be stoned.

“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56).

We confess in the Creed that, after the ascension, Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.

But Stephen sees Him standing.

The Lord stands as one who works, as one who helps, saves, comforts, and defends Stephen and all who fear the Lord and call upon His name.

Let this be your comfort when the Hallmark part of Christmas loses its appeal.

Let this be your comfort when you’re tired of naming reindeer, tired of decking halls, tired of the silent or not-so-silent judgment of others.

When the silent night of Christmas has turned into the chaotic hellscape of “Just go to bed,” the Lord stands to help.

To help His martyrs and to help you.

Whenever you’re persecuted for the sake of Christ, if now or not yet, you’re not alone.

The highest priest has promised to be with you always, even to the end of the age.

At his death, Stephen sees Jesus the Christ as priest, standing, interceding, from the throne of the heavenly temple.

His dying words proclaim, again, the work of Christ—the forgiveness of sins.

As Christ died for our sins saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 22:34)—just so, Stephen carries his cross saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

And he fell asleep.

Even with his dying words, Stephen confessed the work of Jesus—who was born to be the true and promised prophet—who would be rejected by His nation—betrayed and murdered—and yet depart with words of forgiveness.

For this He was born.

For you he died.

And so, Stephen—who points us to Christ—belongs with Christmas.

And at Christmas—with Stephen—we behold the Lord in glory and sing with the angels: “Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” (cf. Luke 2:14).

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

St. Stephen (December 26), 2021
Mt. 23:34-39; 2 Chron. 24:17-22; Acts 6:8–7:2a, 51-60
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

What do we know about Jesus’ birth, specifically, and what do we know, generally, about any birth in the first century?

I don’t mean “Did Mary have a nose ring?”

I mean “What does the Bible tell us about birth, generally?” and “Why is the birth of Christ described the way it is?”

Why is it important that “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1)?

And why should we follow Joseph “from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4a)?

Why give the detail that Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David” (Luke 2:4b)?

And why does Mary wrap Jesus in swaddling cloths and lay Him in a manger?

“There was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7), St. Luke writes, but that word doesn’t mean that Motel Bethlehem was flashing a neon “No Vacancy” sign.

The word translated as “inn” in Luke chapter two is used again in Luke chapter twenty-two, when Jesus eats the Passover with His disciples in the guest room (cf. Luke 22:11).

There was no room for them in the guest room of the family house where Joseph and all his kin gathered.

Perhaps this is the type of room the wealthy woman implored her husband to build for Elisha in 2 Kings chapter four. There, she says to her husband, about Elisha, “Behold, now I know that this is a holy man of God who is continually passing our way. Let us make a small room on the roof with walls and put there for him a bed, a table, a chair, and a lamp, so that whenever he comes to us, he can go in there” (2 Kings 4:9-10).

Maybe it’s important that Jesus is treated worse than the prophets.

Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).

Regardless, simple houses usually had one room and were one story tall. An upper room, or guest room, might be built over part of the building by extending the outer walls upward and adding inner walls.

The point is, “a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1).

“And all went to be registered, each to his own town” (Luke 2:3).

Caesar didn’t want anyone to cheat, so he made everyone register in person.

Nowadays, the census comes to you.

Then, you went to the census, to be registered, each to his own town.

Joseph isn’t the only one home for this.

If everyone in your family arrived to the old, familial home, the guest room—the upper room—would be fit to burst.

You would find somewhere else for the baby.

That’s the practical point.

The Bible is full of practical wisdom.

There’s a very practical reason why Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths.

That’s what was done for every single baby.

People came to believe that a tightly swaddled child would grow stronger and healthier than one left free.

That was the practical reason to swaddle a child.

And—Ezekiel gives more details when he writes: “The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations…’” (Ezekiel 16:1).

What follows is a rebuke of Jerusalem, so this is the opposite of what’s good and right.

In rebuke of Jerusalem, thus says the Lord: “As for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths” (Ezekiel 16:4).

Being a rebuke, the opposite is what normally happened.

Every child’s cord was cut.

Every child was washed with water, to cleanse them.

Every child was rubbed with salt—and they would’ve been rubbed with oil, too.

Every child was wrapped in swaddling cloths.

These details are practically important, because the Bible is historically true, depicting things that actually happened, full of wisdom.

But these details are also theologically important, because God is using history to tell the story of, and win, our salvation.

We see this in Micah, when it’s said of Bethlehem: “From you shall come forth one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient of days…And he shall shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And [the people] shall dwell secure…He shall be their peace” (cf. Micah 5:2-5).

That’s why Jesus is born in Bethlehem—that’s where the king comes from.

And, of course, God has in mind His promise to David. Thus says the Lord: “I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-14).

Though Joseph is not Jesus’ natural father, he is His guardian. That’s why Luke makes the legally relevant point that Joseph is of the house and lineage of David—that’s where the king comes from.

These details are theologically important, because God is using history to tell the story of, and win, our salvation.

We see this in the sign that’s given.

“An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:9-12).

The sign isn’t the swaddling cloths.

Every child was wrapped in swaddling cloths—that doesn’t narrow it down.

The sign is that the Savior who is Christ the Lord is placed in a manger.

Not a crib, not a crèche but a first century Pack ’n Play made out of limestone, probably.

That the animals ate out of, certainly.

That part—the manger part—is so strange the angels sing out—suddenly—to confirm by angelic chorus what the angel of the Lord proclaimed.

“Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest…’” (Luke 2:13-14).

These details are theologically important, because God is using history to tell the story of, and win, our salvation.

These details are given so that we would know God fulfills His Word. Micah prophesied that the king would be born in Bethlehem—and the King is here.

These details are given so that we would rejoice in the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior who 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 (cf. Titus 3:4-6).

These details are given so that we would sing with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest…”

And with that, we should notice this difference:

Luke chapter two verse fourteen, as we heard it today, has it this way: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (Luke 2:14).

But do you recall how we sing those words each week?

How we sang them tonight?

Glory be to God on high: / and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.

It might seem right that there’s peace only among those with whom God is pleased.

But that denies the whole reason for the season in the first place.

Not to disagree with myself and what I said last night.

Understand me rightly.

The reason for the season is for our Savior, Christ the Lord to be born—for us to celebrate the fulfillment of God’s Word and Promise—for our King, and God, and Sacrifice to dwell among us—and save us from our sins.

That’s why He’s born: to be crucified. To die. To rise.

And to raise us and all believers in Christ.

When we preach the Gospel, we preach the fact that there is: Peace on earth and mercy mild, / God and sinners reconciled.

Glory be to God on high: and on earth peace, God’s good will toward men.

Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that is for all people.

On this day, God’s good and gracious will is done.

Christ our Savior is born.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Christmas Day Sermon, 2021
Luke 2:1-20; Micah 5:2-5; Titus 3:4-7
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Children—Can someone tell me what the 24th letter of the English alphabet is?

Does anyone know?

It’s X.

What a strange question, right?

Here’s another:

Have you ever seen the symbol æ before?

Æ is a symbol or letter used in the International Phonetic Alphabet designating the sound between ă and ĕ.

Between ă and ĕ is æ, and the letter used to write that sound is called an æ. It looks like an a and an e smashed together.

And now you know.

So that’s two strange questions.

Here’s a third:

Do you know anything about the Lockheed A-12 airplane?

The Lockheed A-12 was a high altitude reconnaissance plane produced in the early 1960’s and flown in the late 1960’s.

The “A” stands for Archangel, which I think is a cool name for a plane, and was the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird—which happens to be my favorite plane.

So that’s three strange questions.

But does anyone know what these have in common? The twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet, the phonetic symbol æ, and the Lockheed A-12?

Combined—Did you know?—that’s the name of Elon Musk’s one year old son. X Æ A-12.

That might seem a strange name to us, but it’s not a name without meaning.

The X is intended to stand for the unknown, a variable of infinite possibilities.

Æ, according to the Grimes, the mother, is shorthand for Artificial Intelligence and is, elsewhere, understood to mean love.

Now, I’ve never heard that.

I don’t know if that’s true, but let’s just agree that there was intent behind the choice, okay?

And A-12 was chosen because it was an awesome plane.

So that’s his name—X Æ A-12—and that’s why.

Now, I took the time to tell you all that, because in each of the lessons this evening, God is given a name or is at least called something other than God.

Names in the Bible always mean something important.

Simon has to do with one who hears the Word of God, and Peter means rock.

So when Simon hears the Word of God, believes it, and confesses Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God, Jesus calls Simon Peter, because of his rock-solid confession of the Truth.

On Christ the solid rock we stand, right?

All other earth is sinking sand.

Names in the Bible always mean something important.

So, this evening, thus says the Lord through St. John: “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

You can talk about God’s knowledge.

You can talk about God’s power.

You can talk about God’s immutability, His changelessness.

But if God is not a God of love—if God is not Love—there is, then, for us all only terror.

God’s knowledge apart from His love is a terror to the conscience, because He knows.

He knows what you said when the door was closed and what you thought when you faked that smile.

He knows what you did, what you do, what you’ve done.

And if God knows but does not love you, His knowledge is not good news.

But “God is love,” and His love is poured out for us, that we would not be consumed.

In love, His knowledge is put to use to help us.

To bring back the stray, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak.

In love, His knowledge and power and immutability are spent for us, for our good.

But remember—love is not a feeling, an emotion, an idea.

Love is action.

That “God is love” means that God must act, must do, must be here with us.

And this evening, thus says the Lord through Isaiah:

“The Lord himself [gives] you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

Which means “God With Us” (cf. Matthew 1:23).

The one follows the other: God is Love. God with us.

It can’t be otherwise.

God can’t love us and leave us alone.

He can’t love us and fail to act.

Love is action.

Thus says the Lord: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25).It doesn’t say: “Husbands, love your wives, and nod ‘Yes’ occasionally.”

Thus says the Lord: “For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son…” (cf. John 3:16).It doesn’t say He might or He will or He wants to but that He did.

Thus says the Lord: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

“Jesus loves me! He who died / Heaven’s gates to open wide. / He has washed away my sin…” (LSB 588:2).

Not might. Not will. Not wants to.

That God is love means that He must come to us and act—and He does.

And how does God act when He comes to us and loves us to the end?

God becomes Man to save Man.

Immanuel, which means God With Us.

And Jesus, which means God Saves.

This evening, thus says the Lord through St. Matthew: “[Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (cf. Matthew 1:21).

It shocked some of the children last Christmas Eve when I said that Jesus is not the reason for the season—but rather, you are.

I meant it then.

And I mean it now.

But understand me rightly.

Jesus wasn’t born for His own sake.

He wasn’t handed over into death because He lacked.

God is love.

And that Love is shown in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

God, in His love, came to live with us, and for our sake, because we lacked, He loved us to the end—to cross and death and empty tomb.

That’s the reason for the season.

That’s why it’s worth it to know what the names mean.

So that we—as Simon—would hear the Word, believe and confess it, and rejoice—as Peter—in the rock-solid and certain salvation of our King and God and Sacrifice.

Alleluia!

Worship Him—God Most High!

Merry Christmas!

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Christmas Eve Divine Service, 2021
Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-14; 1 John 4:7-16
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“And they asked [John], ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ [And] he said, ‘I am not’” (John 1:21).

But Jesus says in Matthew chapter eleven: “If you are willing to accept it, [John the Baptist] is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matthew 11:14-15).

This seems like a contradiction, but it’s not.

There are many things you can’t claim for yourself—by yourself.

If a man says, “I am the most humble man on earth,” you know he’s not.

You don’t loudly claim humility for yourself.

And—if a birthing person who happens to teach Women’s Studies at an inner-city community college claims that 2+2 is 5, you know she’s lying.

There are objective facts that don’t care about your feelings, that cannot be changed by sheer force of will.

Likewise, no human being claims salvation for himself.

Lots of people say, “I am saved because I…”

But that’s not true.

There is salvation only because God…

There is not salvation because I…

Dead things cannot choose to become alive.

And Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (John 15:16).

Salvation requires God’s action and work—not man’s.

So when John denies of himself what Jesus Himself ascribes to John—both are correct.

John can’t choose to be Elijah any more than Mary chose to be the mother of God.

But he is who Jesus says he is—Elijah who is to come.

He is who the Lord through Isaiah says he is, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” (John 1:23).

You don’t choose the cross God gives you—but neither do you back down from bearing it.

Today, we should learn what to say about ourselves—and what to say about God.

The priests and Levites ask John six questions.

He had six opportunities to make the conversation all about himself.

“Who are you?” they ask him, and he could’ve told them that he was the son of Elizabeth, who was advanced in years and barren.

If you were granted a seemingly miraculous birth, you’d be sure to share it. Today—you can make a lot of money telling and selling a story like that.

Lots of people do.

“Who are you?” they ask him, and he could’ve told them that he was the son of Elizabeth, a relative of Mary, the mother of God.

If God were your cousin, you’d be sure to share it. Your profile picture would have Him in it, and you’d be sure to include Him in your bio.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know—and who you’re related to, right?

“Who are you?” they ask him, and he could’ve told them that he should’ve been named after his father Zechariah, a priest before God who was made mute by the angel Gabriel for not believing the angel’s word.

If you had a story like that, about an angel of the Lord who personally interacted with your dad, you’d tell it. Every few years a book is published about something like that.

“Who are you?” we’re asked, and we love to tell our story.

Really, though, we’re like drug addicts.

The minute you take a drug, drink alcohol, or smoke a cigarette—when you get a like on social media or a follow or a share—all of those experiences produce dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure.

And that gives you a high.

And since it’s difficult to predict what, exactly, will be liked—the high increases exponentially as content goes viral.

But the fall is worse.

Like a drug addict, again, fewer likes or none leads to paranoia. You blame the algorithm and your friends.

You blame everything you can think of to keep you from putting your phone down and going outside.

This may not be you—but it’s all around you.

That’s how science measures it, but I think it has a closer parallel in Eden when Satan convinces Adam and Eve that they’re the main characters of the Bible.

He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

The serpent says to Eve, “You will not surely die. You will be like God” (cf. Genesis 3:1-5), and then, everything will be about you.

That’s what we like.

So today, learn from John what to say about yourself.

God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, and John remembered the words.

He is who and what God made him to be: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23).

John isn’t the main character.

And neither are you.

The Bible is the story of your salvation, but it’s the story of your salvation in and through Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

John’s role is to prepare the way of the Lord.

This he does, turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers through the preaching of repentance.

Our role is to receive the Christ, to hear His word and believe it. To fear, love, and trust the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

This is how to speak of yourself. Answer the question: “Who are you to God?”

If you’re a sinner, you’re a forgiven sinner. If you grieve, you grieve yet with hope. If you’re weak, He is your strength. If you’re sick, He is your health.

Better than a cousin, you are God’s own child.

Share that!

He has marked you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified and claims you as His own.

“Who are you?” we’re asked from time to time.

And the Psalms give this answer:

“I am yours [O Lord]; save me” (Psalm 119:94).

And He has.

This is where to begin, when you speak of yourself.

But today, we should also learn what to say about God.

It’s given to John to prepare the way of the Lord.

So he does, and in doing so, Jesus says that John is Elijah who was promised, “turning the hearts of fathers to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers” (cf. Malachi 4:5).

John is not the Christ.

So he makes sure he can’t be confused for the Christ.

He says, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27).

“Now this was the manner of attesting in Israel, the custom in former times concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other” (cf. Ruth 4:7).

John the Baptist is not the Christ.

He’s not the Redeemer.

So he won’t even touch the sandal of the Christ, lest anyone be confused about who is and is not the Redeemer.

Yes, John is being humble.

Yes, the feet and sandals are dirty, and John’s saying that he’s dirtier and more defiled than the dirt on Jesus’ feet.

He gets right what Uzzah got wrong (2 Samuel 6:6-7).

It is meet and right so to do.

But more than that, in mentioning the sandal, John recalls when Boaz redeemed Ruth.

“When the [other man] said to Boaz, ‘Redeem [the land, Naomi, and Ruth] yourself,’ he drew off his sandal. Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘You are witnesses this day that I have [redeemed them]” (cf. Ruth 4:8-10).

The sandal was the manner of attesting in Israel, the custom in former times concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other.

John the Baptist prepares the way of the Lord, Jesus Christ, and identifies Him as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

He is the Redeemer.

John is not.

So John says of himself that he isn’t worthy to untie the sandal—that he must decrease and the Christ must increase (John 3:30).

He who has ears to hear, let him hear—and be content with what the Lord says and does.

There are many things you can’t claim for yourself—by yourself.

In the shed blood of Jesus Christ, the Lord claims you.

In the water and the word, the Lord claims you.

Rejoice!

The Lord comes to His people and redeems them.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 4 Sermon, 2021
John 1:19-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

“Now when John [the Baptist] heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?’ And Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me’” (Matthew 11:2-6).

But why would anyone be offended at the deeds of the Christ?

Well—John might be offended because there seems to be a difference in the actual deeds of the Christ and what John has said the Christ would do.

John the Baptist says in Matthew chapter three: “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Matthew 3:11-12).

John’s not wrong.

Jesus says, “Among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11).

John the Baptist is exactly right.

The Christ will clear His threshing floor, gather His wheat, and burn the chaff.

John’s test is one of patience, so it seems, because the Christ isn’t doing that yet.

So will John be offended at the deeds of the Christ?

Will he look for another or worship the one?

You might not think so at first, but the deeds of the Christ can be offensive.

Some of the blind and deaf would be offended because some of the blind and deaf aren’t comfortable admitting that there’s something wrong with them, something lacking, something that needs to be healed.

If you became hard of hearing later in life, you might rejoice to have your hearing restored.

But if you grew up deaf and identify more with sign language than spoken language, it’s a defeatist attitude that admits there’s something that needs to be healed—or something that’s wrong—or something that’s lacking—with your ears.

With the lepers and the lame, you might not think it possible to be offended at being healed, but so many in our time identify with their disease.

You know similar stories to the ones I could tell you—some people who can work full-time don’t work full-time, because they don’t want to lose their disability.

Remove the disease and you remove the government subsidized excuse to underachieve.

Some people would rather be lepers.

And some people want the handicapped parking tag, not because they need the closer spot but because they’re lazy and demand the convenience of it.

Some people would rather be lame—or lame enough.

The dead, you might think, would want to get back up, but not if they’re with Jesus.

I’m not talking about the resurrection unto eternal life, for which we all wait and hope.

I’m talking about getting back up and realizing you’re still in Missouri.

I’m from Missouri. I love living in Missouri.

But after I die, I’m hoping for better.

To depart and be with Christ is far better than to be here in the flesh (cf. Philippians 1:23-24).

Those who die in Christ are better off.

Which leaves us with the poor having good news preached to them.

Sometimes the poor just don’t believe it.

It doesn’t take much abuse before you begin hearing good news with jaded, skeptic cynicism.

And then, sometimes, the poor don’t want to be considered poor.

Just as there are those without shame who want to be considered lepers, there are those who are so ashamed they will not be considered poor.

They won’t accept help, because they won’t accept that they need it.

Sometimes that’s admirable, but sometimes that’s not.

Theologically—that kind of pride condemns.

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

But why would anyone be offended at the deeds of the Christ?

Because the deeds of the Christ identify Jesus as the one in whom there is salvation.

“There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (cf. Acts 4:12).

He is King, and God, and Sacrifice.

Jesus is offensive because He forgives sin.

His deeds are offensive because they show what forgiveness, ultimately, looks like.

The Gospel is offensive because it truly treats everyone the same—forgiving the transgression and covering the sin.

We’re offended, because we don’t like admitting to sin.

By the deeds of the Christ, the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.

The deeds of the Christ reveal the new creation, what forgiveness ultimately looks like.

What the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting will look like.

Eyes that see. Legs that walk. Ears that hear.

With all flesh made new.

Death defeated.

And only good news preached.

We’re not promised those things this side of the resurrection. In fact, this side of the resurrection, we expect our bodies to fail and death to win out.

This side of the resurrection, we expect bad news.

So Jesus causes the good news to be preached to us poor, miserable sinners.

And—blessed is the one who is not offended by Him.

The deeds of the Christ teach us what it means to be in Christ—that we will receive the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation.

That we will be renewed in body, mind, and soul.

He showed them what will be—and we hear the good news—so that we would believe and be saved.

Do you want relief for your ailing body?

Relief from the wage of sin?

Do you want there to be peace on earth and mercy mild?

What you want, then, is for God and sinners to be reconciled—the forgiveness of your sins.

Don’t be offended when you hear that you have sins.

Don’t be offended by your need for forgiveness, your need for a Savior.

Don’t be offended by the Savior.

“Behold your God!” (Isaiah 40:9).

Behold, the Lord God comes with might.

Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense before him.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!

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

And what He means is—

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2).

Blessed are you—and all believers in Christ.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 3, 2021
Matthew 11:2-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus says, “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars…” (Luke 21:25).

But does God give us signs?

It really depends on how the word is used.

In Matthew chapter twelve Jesus says: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Matthew 12:39).

For Matthew, the sign of the prophet Jonah is the three days Jonah spent in the belly of the fish before he was vomited out. Just so, Jesus spends three days in the belly of the earth before He is raised from the dead.

In Luke chapter eleven Jesus says: “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).

For Luke, the sign of the prophet Jonah is the preaching of the Word of God to the people. “For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be [a sign] to this generation” (Luke 11:30).

In Mark chapter eight, Jesus says: “Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).

And then, St. John, for what it’s worth, records that Jesus does many signs, the first being at Cana in Galilee.

The word is used differently, arguing for one thing here, explaining another thing there, but what’s true throughout is that we don’t pick the signs.

Today’s Gospel lesson isn’t a “how-to” on identifying the signs of the end—but rather a call to repentance.

Jesus is coming soon, and many aren’t ready.

These are the signs God gives of the End:

Jesus says, “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world” (Luke 21:25-26).

These are the signs of the End.

But they’re not rare—they’re routine.

When are there not signs in sun and moon and stars?

When are the nations not in distress?

When are people not fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world?

We’re not waiting for signs that don’t occur.

We’re told that these signs are constantly occurring.

That’s what Jesus says.

“He told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near’” (Luke 21:29-30).

The signs of the end are as common as the changing of the seasons.

Don’t look for the signs.

They’re obvious and assumed.

We observe them.

We measure them.

We’re pretty good at predicting some of them.

Don’t look for the signs—believe Jesus who says, “When you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:31-33).

Don’t look for the signs.

Hear the Word of the Lord.

Jesus says, “Watch yourself lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36).

So watch yourself.

Stay awake.

Repent—for the Lord is at hand.

That’s what Advent is for—repentance and faith.

Advent is more than pointing out that it’s not yet Christmas.

Advent is about hearing and heeding the warning that the King of kings is on His way.

“The day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch…”

But thus says the Lord:

“…For you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts” (Malachi 4:1-3).

So watch yourself.

Stay awake.

Repent—for the Lord is at hand.

“Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?”

The answer is yes.

More than once, the answer is yes.

So what?

How do you watch? How do you stay awake?

How do you hear and heed the warning of the Lord?

Well—“What was written in former days was written for our [learning], that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (cf. Romans 15:4).

Here is your hope.

St. John records that “Jesus said to [Thomas], ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (John 20:29).

Forget the signs—we need no signs.

As St. Mark would have us, we rejoice not in signs to see but in the Word of God that redeems us.

It’s true, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these [things] are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only Son of God, and that by believing in Him you have life in His name” (cf. John 20:30-31).

The number of signs, all those great and wonderful things, they’re not necessary, because they’re not written for your learning.

But these things are written that you may hear and believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only Son of God.

These things are written that you would have life in His name. That’s St. John and St. Mark.

St. Luke would have you hear and heed the warning.

The sign given is the Word of God preached and proclaimed. Jonah was the reluctant prophet, but Nineveh was still spared.

Jesus goes to cross and death with eager willingness, in your place. How much more, then, will the Lord save from this generation all those who believe Him!

St. Matthew calls your attention to the price paid and the redemption earned.

As the fish vomited Jonah onto dry ground, just so, the earth could not contain our Lord and Christ.

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

The signs we see—the change of seasons, the nations in distress, the sun and moon and stars—they’ve always been there, directing Man to watch and stay awake.

That he would hear the Word of the Lord and believe it unto eternal life.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 2 Sermon, 2021
Luke 21:25-36
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt