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

Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men (Matthew 2:16).

What’s God doing to allow such disaster?

What good can come from such evil?

Or right from such wrong?

As it is easy to thank and praise God when your child is spared, it’s easy to curse God and accuse Him of wrong when your child isn’t.

God is merciful, we’re told.

God is love, we hear.

But even true words become worthless platitudes when mothers and fathers bury their children.

What’s God doing to allow such disaster?

What good can come from such evil?

And make no mistake, it is evil that we’re talking about it. Death is not original to God’s plan. Death is not a part of life. Death is the result of sin and evil.

Herod was evil.

The wisemen had come to worship the one born king of the Jews and Herod—current king of the Jews—didn’t see himself as a lame duck.

He was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him, because he was evil and wouldn’t suffer the little-but-eternal One to come before him.

When he realized he was tricked, he killed them all, because he didn’t want them.

He didn’t want to lose what the one born king of the Jews would force him to lose—his power. His control.

His autonomy.

Herod was evil.

Even if only three-percent of what he did was murder children, Herod was evil.

Now, from here, we could talk about the Herods of today and modern sacrifices to “molech.”

The obvious evil among us is the pervasive lie that women are autonomous.

Ladies, you’re not.

But don’t worry, ladies. Men aren’t autonomous, either.

No one is.

Autonomous combines the words for self (auto) and law (nomos) and can be rendered as self-law or self-rule, expressed in the phrase, “He was a law unto himself.”

But you are not and never a law unto yourself.

There’s never a time when the rules don’t apply.

Never a time when the just decrees of the Living God do not demand your absolute obedience.

“You shall not murder” (Exodus 20:13).

It is that simple.

The linguistic, theological, and moral gymnastics needed to assert otherwise is obvious foolishness deserving of public ridicule.

If you hold to such things, you’re foolish.

But if you hold to such things because your conscience condemns you—because your sin is ever before you. If you wet your pillow with tears because know your transgressions and have done what is evil in the sight of God—you need Christ and His forgiveness not Herod and his foolishness.

We could talk about the Herods of today and modern sacrifices to “molech,” but we won’t.

Instead, let’s actually answer the question of what God is doing to allow such disaster—both at the time of Jesus, in the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, and today and any time such obviously evil-looking things occur.

What’s God doing?

I think the book of Job provides an answer.

If you’ve heard me talk about the book of Job before, you know it’s my favorite book of the Bible, but I don’t think Job provides an answer because it’s my favorite book. I think it’s my favorite book because it provides an answer.

The book of Job was written to answer the question: What is God doing?

In chapters one and two, we—but not Job or anyone else—we read of the conversation between God and satan. The Lord says to satan, “Behold, [Job] is in your hand; only spare his life” (Job 2:6). And satan goes from there doing all he can to wreck Job’s faith.

Satan causes Job’s oxen and donkeys to be taken and the servants who tended them to be killed. Job’s sheep are burned up, and the servants who tended them. His camels were taken, and the servants with them were killed. His ten children, sons and daughters, died as the house they were in collapsed on them.

After this, Job said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).

Then satan took Job’s health.

Loathsome sores from foot to head such that Job scraped himself with a broken piece of pottery.

To make matters worse, satan left Job’s wife right by his side. Her sole contribution to the conversation in the book is this one line: “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die” (Job 2:9).

Between chapters three and forty-two, Job talks with three of the worst friends a guy could have, one young zealot, and—from the whirlwind—God Himself.

The climax of Job’s discourse, you might think, is the great confession of the living Redeemer from chapter nineteen, where Job says: “Oh that my words were written! Oh that they were inscribed in a book! Oh that with an iron pen and lead they were engraved in the rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives” (Job 19:23-25).

These are important words, but for Job and all who bear such disaster in their lives, and for us all, there’s more hanging in the balance two chapters before.

In chapter seventeen, Job’s heart and spirit break. The seed that grows into his repentance, is this, chapter seventeen verse eleven: Job says: “My days are past; my plans are broken off, the desires of my heart” (Job 17:11).

God allowed satan to destroy Job’s earthly wealth and health. In but a few moments, Job’s life was destroyed.

But Job was a righteous man, that is, faithful.

He knew who God was. All-powerful, All-knowing, All-loving. What’s a moment’s terror or even your family’s death when yours is the Living God?

Job knows God could restore it all, so—“The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The problem for Job is that he has plans. Wants. Desires. Perhaps he likes the honor due his name in town.

Whatever it is, the problem for Job is that God immediately takes away—but He doesn’t immediately give back.

What’s God doing?

He’s letting Job know that he’s not in control.

Not autonomous. Not a law unto himself.

His days—are past.

His plans—are broken off.

The desires of his heart—are unspoken because if they’re not conformed to the Word and will of God, they’re idolatrous and need to be cast off.

What’s God doing?

He’s saving Job’s life.

What good can come from such evil?

He’s saving your life.

Job repents—that’s the climax of the book. He says to God, “I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).

Apart from that, there was no salvation for Job.

God saved his life by all but taking it.

Now, in Matthew, and with Herod, a generation of male toddlers and infants were killed so that Herod could remain in power—for a time.

But his days are past. His plans, broken off. His desires, along with his heart, have melted into the ground.

Apart from repentance, there’s no salvation for Herod.

No purpose of God’s can be thwarted.

But where’s the comfort for those who bear the awful burden of burying their sons?

Don’t ignore the evidence.

Martyrs in deed but not in will, the Holy Innocents died for a cause they couldn’t understand—but certainly benefit from.

Their deaths, and the deaths of millions of others by present-day Herods, are evidence of the evil in the world that our God overcomes.

Greater is He.

Don’t ignore the evidence.

God didn’t cause Jesus’ flight to Egypt to prevent His death.

God caused Jesus’ flight to Egypt that He would die at the right time and for all.

Out of Egypt He called His Son, that the life of His Son, the Righteous Branch, would not be spared but given for the life of the world.

God didn’t save His only-begotten Son from death.

Can Job say he deserves to keep his?

Job made sacrifices for his sons, in case they had sinned (cf. Job 1:5).

God sacrifices His own Son, who did not sin, in the place of sinners who most certainly did.

Don’t ignore the evidence.

What’s God doing to allow such disaster?

What good can come from such evil?

Or right from such wrong?

He’s saving your life.

The Lord giveth His Son. The Lord taketh away your sins. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

There is joy in heaven when one sinner repents.

We deserved nothing—and much worse than that.

And what has God done for us? What’s He doing?

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Christmas 2 Sermon, 2020
Matthew 2:13-23
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

The first album I owned, Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms, came out four months before I was born. There were several hits: “So Far Away From Me” “Money for Nothing,” “Walk of Life.” Everybody knows those songs, but they were the first songs that I knew.

The last song on the album, however, “Brothers in Arms,” isn’t as well known. It didn’t enjoy the same commercial success. But if you’ve never listened to it, it’s marvelous. It’s completely different in musicality, theme, and maturity. It’s a war song—not pro war or anti war, just the reality of war. It’s amazing.

But it’s lack of popularity and familiarity means, obviously, that hardly anyone knows it.

Give it a listen. It’s worth it.

In today’s Gospel lesson, the words of a familiar song were read, Simeon’s Song.

We sing it every week in the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace according to Thy word, for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people, a light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of Thy people Israel.”

We know those words. We know that song.

But we don’t know—nowhere near as well—Simeon’s other  song.

Simeon is a “righteous and devout” man, “waiting for the consolation of Israel,” and “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).

”It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).

Then, Mary and Joseph bring Jesus to the temple “to do for Him according to the custom of the Law” (Luke 2:28), and Simeon takes Jesus into his arms and sings: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…”

“Now, Lord,” he says, “I can die in peace, because I’ve seen God in the flesh—God’s plan for my salvation—my salvation in the flesh—I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Holding Jesus, that’s his song.

But then, by the Holy Spirit, Simeon blesses them—Mary and Joseph—and sings to Mary, the mother of Jesus, the mother of God, a second song:

“Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35).

That’s not a familiar song.

It seems completely different in theme and maturity.

What was it again? Jesus is appointed (1) For the fall and rising of many in Israel. (2) For a sign that is opposed. (3) That a sword would pierce Mary’s soul, also. And… (4) That thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

We love to hear and sing the Simeon’s song we know.

“Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace…”

We’ve had communion. Church is over. Let’s go home.

That’s kind of a joke. Communion. Nunc Dimittis. Go home. But there’s truth there, too.

We “experience” the Body and Blood of Jesus. We receive the benefits of the life-giving sacrifice God made for us.

Church can’t get better than that.

So yes—we sing Simeon’s song—and go home.

But we don’t love to hear and sing the blessing Simeon speaks to Mary and to us.

That CD single wouldn’t sell.

It’s ominous: Jesus is appointed for the fall of many. And for the rising of many, too, of course, but it’s an ominous start. Because of Jesus—many will fall. Because of Jesus—many will rise.

Every knee will bow when all flesh is raised.

Mother Mary, hearing Simeon’s second song, hears that her infant son has been appointed for something that sounds terrible.

Some blessing!

The ominousness continues in that Jesus is appointed for a sign that is opposed.

That is, other people oppose Jesus. And Jesus opposes other people.

And then Simeon adds, directly to Mary, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).

The Roman Catholic Church uses this verse as a proof text for calling Mary coredemptrix.

Using this verse, they honor Mary—too much—in saying that she participates and collaborates with Jesus in redeeming the world.

That’s their—wrong—explanation of the sword that pierces Mary’s soul.

The better—and faithful—explanation of that sword comes in the fourth part of Simeon’s second song.

Jesus was appointed in order that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

For those who fall, and for those who rise—their hearts will be revealed.

Because Jesus is a sign that is opposed.

For a time, the whole world opposed Jesus.

He doesn’t meet the world’s expectations.

Jesus is the stumbling block—a sign that creates opposition—and in response to all He says and does—the people are divided.

That’s the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul—Jesus’ preaching.

The Word of God pierces all Israel, represented here by Mary alone.

Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). He says this to a crowd, with His mother and disciples nearby.

We know how it feels for our children to push our buttons.

We know how it feels when they don’t choose us.

The thoughts of our hearts are revealed.

“From this moment on, [in Luke,] the preaching of Jesus…will go through Israel, producing total misunderstanding and ignorance by everyone concerning his person and his destiny” (Just, 124).

Until the resurrection.

Only in the death—and resurrection—of Jesus do we understand Simeon’s entire song.

Only after Jesus’ death and resurrection—on the road to Emmaus—does Jesus open up the Scriptures to His disciples.

The glory of the people is the salvation God prepared before the foundation of the world—the Son of God, given and shed—sacrificed—dead and buried—and raised.

Those who hear His Word and do it—His brothers—though they fall and die—yet shall they rise on the Last Day.

No longer in opposition to God but in perfect love of God, to life everlasting.

Simeon’s second song is one to remember.

When the Word of Truth pierces your own soul—when your sin is ever before you—rejoice in this song and blessing of Simeon.

The child, the babe in his arms, is the Savior of the world.

He’s appointed that we would die and rise with Him.

That we would be opposed—by the world—with Him.

Pierced—by His Word.

That we would believe and be saved.

This doesn’t sound like a song and blessing we’d choose for ourselves.

But God has given this cross to all His children to bear.

So bear it faithfully, and pray these familiar words, this familiar song:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12).

Like Simeon’s song—those are familiar words to us.

And like Simeon’s song—we should remember also the unfamiliar words that come later: 

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:13-17).

These words are a song and a blessing—if we have  ears to hear and eyes to see God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, like Simeon.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Christmas 1 Sermon, 2019
Luke 2:(22-32) 33-40
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Feet are important.

If you’ve read The Good Earth, you’ve come across two different schools of thought regarding the feet of women: either they should not be bound, so they can work, get pregnant, give birth in the rice field, and go back to work. Or, you should break the bones of a little girl’s feet, bind them up, and make it so that her feet are forever tiny, so she can’t walk, can’t work, and must be tended to for her entire life.

Culturally, in China, a wife with bound feet was greatly prized, because it meant the husband was successful enough to afford such a thing. Every working mother wanted her daughter to grow up with bound feet to save her from the shame of being poor.

Feet are that important.

Modern foot binding, if I may be so bold to say, is not that dissimilar. Ladies, how many of you have or have ever had a pair of needlessly uncomfortable shoes only because they look good.

If feet are important, shoes are, too.

Scripture speaks to this as well—not to foot binding—but to the importance of feet and even shoes.

In Exodus, Moses approached the Lord who had appeared to Him in the burning bush and was told, “Do not come near; take your sandals off your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

I used to think that Moses had to take his shoes off because you’re not supposed to track mud across God’s nice, new floors. That’s how I thought of it.

But there’s more to it than that.

How could sandals be offensive to God? Why should you remove them? The only way sandals are offensive to God is if they distract, if they get in the way of what He’s there to do, and God is there to redeem the world.

So what do sandals have to do with the redemption of the world?

And the answer is, “Potentially a lot.”

John the Baptizer says, regarding the Christ, “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).

The obvious thought that comes to mind is that John humbles himself such that he refuses, even, to be allowed the privilege to serve the Savior of the World.

Is that how you read it? Is John being humble?

He considers himself so low and Christ so great that he won’t ascend to the role of dirty sandal cleaner. He’s in the presence of greatness, so he can’t do anything.

But that makes no sense. You can’t excuse yourself from love and service to your neighbor by claiming you’re too terrible to help. You can’t grow in the faith if you don’t practice your faith.

Or, if you have $5 but you owe $6 or $600, you still pay the $5 that you have.

It’s pride, that beloved vice of ours, that refuses to pay back what is owed only because you can’t pay it all right now.

John is being humble.

He can’t and shouldn’t touch Jesus’ sandals.

But it’s not out of false-piety. It’s not a humble-brag where he’s showing you how holy he is by making a big deal out of a sandal.

 John says what he does because he knows that God is there to redeem the world. That’s the concern. He doesn’t want to get in the way of what God is there to do.

The sandals of our Lord are that important.

Biblically, feet and sandals have to do with redemption, and John knows better than most that that’s Jesus’ job—not ours. Let me explain…

In Ruth, we read of Naomi and Elimelech and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion. All go into the land of Moab, and the sons marry Moabites. Ruth is the wife of one of Naomi’s sons.

Elimelech, Naomi’s husband, dies, and, after ten years, the two sons die; so Naomi is left without a husband or children.

With nothing to offer them, she then implores her son’s wives to leave her, to go back to their mother’s houses, and one does—but not Ruth.

This is a big deal, because, culturally, the expectation would be for someone in the family to marry Ruth in order to continue the family’s line and inheritance.

Those men are called redeemers; they take responsibility for the family and provide for whatever needs there are.

They redeem them from the public shame of having to eke out, work and beg for their living.

With slim prospects and the possibility of suffering before her, Ruth says, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Ruth is wonderful.

Fast forward a bit, and it comes to this:

Naomi and Ruth have two redeemers. Number one is unnamed. Number two is Boaz.

Boaz goes to this unnamed redeemer and says, basically, that Naomi has this bit of land, and he should redeem her, and take possession of it. Boaz convinces this guy to do this thing and benefit from it.

And the unnamed redeemer thinks it a great idea and says, “You bet.”

But clever Boaz adds, “By the way, when you take possession of the land, you’ll also take Ruth as your wife, to continue the line and inheritance of her husband.”

That part, the unnamed redeemer doesn’t like. That would mean he would forfeit his own plans and inheritance in order to continue someone else’s.

It’s like cultural suicide.

So he refuses and tells Boaz to buy it for himself.

And so we come to this: Ruth chapter four, starting at verse seven: “This was the custom in former times in Israel concerning redeeming and exchanging: to confirm a transaction, the one drew off his sandal and gave it to the other, and this was the manner of attesting in Israel. So when the redeemer said to Boaz, ‘Buy it for yourself,’ he drew off his sandal.Then Boaz said to the elders and all the people, ‘You are witnesses this day that I have bought from the hand of Naomi all that belonged to Elimelech and all that belonged to Chilion and to Mahlon.Also Ruth the Moabite, the widow of Mahlon, I have bought to be my wife, to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance, that the name of the dead may not be cut off from among his brothers and from the gate of his native place. You are witnesses this day’” (Ruth 4:7-10).

Sandals are that important.

Exchanging a sandal, untying someone’s sandal, even, could have to do with redeeming something, and John won’t stand between Jesus and the world’s redemption.

Remember, “when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask [John], ‘Who are you?’ he confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, ‘I am not the Christ.’ And they asked him, ‘What then? Are you Elijah?’ He said, ‘I am not.’ ‘Are you the Prophet?’ And he answered, ‘No.’ So they said to him, ‘Who are you…?’ He said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Make straight the way of the Lord,” as the prophet Isaiah said’ (John 1:19-23).

John’s role was to identify the Christ.

He does that very well, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

But the bit about not untying Jesus’ sandals is important. What he means is, God alone saves.

God alone redeems the world.

God alone dies for sin and removes it.

He won’t touch Jesus’ sandal because you could then make an argument that John had something to do with redeeming things, and he wants there to be zero confusion.

In the Church, divine monergism is the term used to describe God’s work in the salvation of man.

“Monergism” combines the words for “alone” and “work” to teach us that God alone works our salvation.

“Synergism” combines the words for “together” and “work” to teach that man cooperates with God in salvation.

You don’t save yourself. You don’t help save yourself.

You don’t. And you can’t.

God accomplishes salvation and gives it.

Our Heavenly Father sent His Son to earn salvation, and, with the Son, He sends the Holy Spirit to convict the world concerning sin, righteousness, and judgment—to bring the world to repentance and faith.

That’s what God has done.

See, God doesn’t lay salvation before you and ask that you go and get it.

It’s not that God is “willing to save if…”

Rather, God desires the salvation of the world and has accomplished it in Christ.

God has redeemed the world.

No one touched His sandals.

Sandals were forbidden on the holy ground of God.

John’s message, then, his words regarding being unfit to untie Jesus’ sandals, points not to John’s piety but to Christ Himself. To Jesus’ work in redeeming the world. To the cross and an empty grave. To the sacrifice. To the gift. To the love of God and our redemption.

There is one among us, who we know, Jesus the Christ. We’re not worthy to untie His sandals.

Because He redeems us. He saves us.

Feet and sandals are that important.

And how beautiful that they’ve brought such good news.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 4 Sermon, 2019
John 1:19-28
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

True or False—A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works. What do you think?

The immediate, good, Lutheran-sounding answer is, of course, False! Right?

In a way, it’s good to answer “False,” because when we hear the word “works,” we think of our works.

And the church is quite good at teaching that even our good works are like polluted garments (cf. Isaiah 64:6).

We certainly don’t need to emphasize those, we know.

But in response to the question—to Jesus—asked by John the Baptist through his disciples, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” (Matthew 11:3), Jesus emphasizes works.

He says, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:the blind receive their sight…the lame walk, lepers are cleansed…the deaf hear…the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. Blessed is he who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:4-6).

Jesus emphasizes the works of the Christ. His works.

In John’s account of the Gospel, when Jesus is explaining how He and the Father are One, He says: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me—or else—believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11).

If you won’t admit that Jesus is God, you have to admit, the finger of God is at work. “Believe on account of the works themselves” (John 14:11), He says.

Believe on account of the work of the Christ—of God.

Notice the difference:

A Christian must—above all else—emphasize his own works. Obviously false.

Or, A Christian must—above all else—emphasize the works of Christ. Well, obviously.

Perspective helps.

It’s very telling that when we think of “works” we think of our own and not those of God for us.

Church is like that.

There are churches that talk about worship, what they do on Sunday morning, how well they did or how well it went. Whether they got something out of it or not.

And there are churches that receive from God, by His chosen means, forgiveness, life, and salvation.

When you think of church, don’t think of what you do.

When you think of Sunday morning, remember and rejoice in the works of God, who comes to save you.

The word “worship” derives from Old English. It meant “worthy,” and you would worship what was worth worshipping.

Lutherans called their services Gottestdienst, or God’s-Service-To-Us. In our hymnal, it’s called the Divine Service because here and now God serves the sinner. He comes to us, by His chosen means, delivering to us the forgiveness of sins, everlasting life, and salvation.

It is meet, right, and salutary to emphasize God’s work, God’s service to us.

We know better than to emphasize our polluted works.

The saying “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” may serve well, practically speaking.

But, theologically, it’s a lie from the pit of hell.

My favorite paragraph in the Small Catechism is in the explanation of the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed:

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith…”

By my works, I can’t believe in God—I can’t come to Jesus.

But by the work of God…

The Holy Spirit calls me by the Gospel, enlightens me, sanctifies me, and keeps me in the faith.

By the work of God, I am saved.

So if Jesus defines “works”, there’s no problem focusing on Him and what He does.

But if we define “works”, what possible good could come from such filthy things?

So—True or False: A Christian must—above all else—emphasize works.

The answer is True.

Above all else, we emphasize, believe, and hold fast to what our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has done.

When in trouble, it’s not how strong we are that gets us through anything.

When near death, it’s not our beating hearts to which we pray.

We emphasize, believe in, and hold fast to Jesus.

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

That’s who Jesus is. That’s what He does.

We know who we’re dealing with.

We know who’s dealing with us.

John knew. Those works identify Jesus. They also identify what the Kingdom and reign of God look like.

Eyes are made to see, ears to hear, and mouths to confess—Jesus as Lord and Christ.

Blessed is the one who’s not offended by Him.

When Jesus says that, when He says, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Mt. 11:11), He says it for the sake of John, for all the disciples, and for us.

Jesus quotes Isaiah. Chapter thirty-five: “The eyes of the blind shall be opened…the ears of the deaf unstopped; then…the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy” (Isaiah 35:5-6).

And He quotes chapter sixty one: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).

Jesus preaches great news.

John would’ve known these verses—He’s the one preparing the way of the Lord.

But John would also know the bit that Jesus leaves out.

According to the rest of the verse in chapter sixty-one, Jesus should also “proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound” (Isaiah 61:1).

That’s important, because John’s in prison.

He hears from behind bars about the deeds of the Christ and sends his disciples to inquire.

If you’re in prison, and you know that the Christ proclaims liberty to the captives and the opening of the prison to those who are bound, those are the verses you want to hear Jesus quote.

But. Instead. Jesus says, “Blessed is he who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:11).

John the Baptist is no fool.

He knows what happened to the Old Testament prophets. He doesn’t expect to get out. He’s not offended by Jesus when Jesus doesn’t specifically mention setting him free.

But John’s disciples still need to learn.

And so do we.

Contrary to the antichrist, the Pope and his papacy, we believe that God does lead us into temptation but that most especially He delivers us from the evil one.

Jesus opened the eyes of the blind—but that’s not the way it always is. To know that God has and can but doesn’t—that is leading us into temptation.

Not that we would despair but that we would trust Him.

The ears of the deaf He unstopped. The deaf remain. The lame leapt like deer when Jesus sent them forth. We have heating pads, Icy Hot, and hot toddies—not always in that order.

The dead He raised up, calling them forth from sleep, while ours, young and old, stay in the ground or on our hearts.

To sit in prison while the one sent to proclaim liberty to the captives does everything but…

To endure the cross, fashioned from the unpretty bits of your life while the God who can do all things seems to do anything but…

These are our daily temptations.

But again—perspective helps.

In Isaiah chapter thirty-five—which Jesus quotes, speaking to John’s disciples—before the lame leap, before the deaf hear, before the blind see, immediately before the words that Jesus quotes, Jesus and John knew that the Lord, through Isaiah, said this:

“Say to those who have an anxious heart, ‘Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you’” (Isaiah 35:4).

That’s the work of Christ. He will come and save you.

That’s the work of Jesus—God’s work for you.

“Blessed is the one who is not offended by me,” (Mt. 11:11) Jesus says. Blessed is the one who’s not offended at being saved. Being helped. Being empty and filled by God—a beggar, served—a sinner, sanctified. Blessed are you.

Jesus preaches the good news to us poor, miserable, sinners, the Gospel, for those with an anxious heart.

Be strong. Fear not. Christ our Lord came with vengeance and the recompense of God.

When Jesus died, sin and satan and the fear of eternal death were destroyed.

The vengeance of God was exacted for your good.

When Jesus died, the debt humanity owed was swallowed up in the sacrifice of Jesus.

God justifies the ungodly, and his faith is counted to him as righteousness (cf. Romans 4:5).

The recompense of God. The work of the Christ.

The work of Jesus. God’s service to you.

Above all else, we must emphasize, believe in, and hold fast to the word and work of God, in Christ.

That’s most certainly true.

For in His work and by His Word, He comes to save us.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Advent 3 Sermon, 2019
Matthew 11:2-11
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

Jesus said: ”There’ll be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations…because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming…For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they’ll see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory…When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28).

The day of the Lord’s return will burn the wicked and consume the proud with fire with hellfire.

Not only will they suffer terribly, they’ll know a great and mighty terror, because they lived as if they mattered most.

They loved their families.

They loved Thanksgiving and Christmas.

They shopped local, loved America, teared up at parades, and stood for the national anthem.

They loved the Jesus who laughs.

But not the Jesus who warns.

They knew Him not as the Righteous One who preached repentance, who came to suffer for your sin and die. They knew Him not as the one who said, “Take up your cross and follow Me.” They didn’t believe Him when He said, “No one comes to the Father but by Me.”

The wicked and the proud will see the signs (too late) in sun, moon, stars, earth, and sea.

They’ll see them as a gathering of armies on the border, as imminent and painful death, and as the end of all good things.

The End of All Things will be for the wicked and the proud a total loss, complete destruction, everlasting doom.

The justice of God requires repentance from us all, because we’re the wicked.

We’re the ones who forget our place—who forget the God who made all things—who forget that pride is a sin and vice.

What was written in former days has been written for our instruction, yet we live not for harmony and hope but for ourselves.

We think it admirable to love only our families and those who love us, but that’s no different from the wicked or proud.

Loving Christmas and eggnog and feasting, loving presents and decorations and Rudolph doesn’t make you a Christian.

At Judgment, when our works are revealed, everything done apart from faith in Jesus will be consumed as chaff.

That Day is coming, and for some, it will be terrible.

The warning must be given.

And, for those who have joy now in Christ, that day will be pure joy.

The blessing must be given, too.

In the Gospel lesson today, Jesus directs our attention to what’s going on in the world now.

The signs in the sun, moon, and stars, the signs on earth, these are signs that have always been and will always be.

The end has been and is at hand!

This world will not endure; it cannot.

Entropy is the trend of things towards chaos.

Or, you can say it like this, things are always getting worse.

Both are simple but accurate definitions.

That may sound negative or pessimistic, fatalistic or gloomy, but what I mean is, try as it might, try as we might, Creation, mankind, can’t undo the effects of sin.

The wage of sin is death. We can’t stop that.

But Jesus doesn’t say what He does to turn us all into a bunch of namby-pamby worriers.

No, He says, “Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

For you, for all who grieve and mourn—for those who wait with eager expectation the coming of the Lord, your redemption is drawing near. And on That Day, we—and all believers in Christ—will rejoice.

This is most certainly true.

The signs we see teach us to expect the Day of the Lord. To be ready.

Signs in sun and moon and stars—every sunrise and sunset, every full moon and new moon, every twinkle twinkle of every little star should be a sign to you that Jesus is coming soon.

Be ready, and rejoice that the End is coming—the end of pain, the end of grief, the end of waiting.

God, in His Word, the Bible, promises tribulation now.

And, His Word, the Bible, promises the end of all tribulation in Christ.

The enemies of God and the Church, your enemies now, will be no more. God knows their end as well; His will delivers us from evil.

The time of your redemption is drawing near.

When sin loses its appeal and temptation its power.

Where there’s no one to accuse you, no one who can hurt you.

The good work begun in you will, on that Day, be complete. 

Your justification and your sanctification will match.

Who you are—because of what God has said and done—will be also be who you are—in all that you say and do.

In the resurrection, who and how you should be is who and how you will be.

That is, you will be made whole.

And Creation itself will rejoice to see you revealed as a child of God, the People of Zion.

You’ll rejoice. You’ll be glad. The kingdom of God will come to you, and it will never be taken away.

This is most certainly true.

But it is not most certainly easy.

Every day, we have to believe God’s promises and suffer the tribulation of this world.

The Lord is with you now by means of His Word and the Sacraments. And He, Himself, is coming back to raise you up and heal you.

This isn’t the end our sin deserves, but it is the end God promises, the end He’s won for us all.

Jesus says: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Luke 21:29-33).

When Jesus teaches regarding the fig tree, it was a different season than what we have here and now.

The fig tree, then, was in bloom. Summer was near,  like the kingdom of God.

Our trees aren’t in bloom, but there are still other signs to hear and see and taste.

We receive the body and blood of Christ. We eat and drink and taste and see that the Lord is good.

He comes to you in this, your hour of need, in grace and mercy, as the Lamb slain for your salvation.

We confess that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father—but—He doesn’t abandon you—He abides with you.

The kingdom of God is near—it’s here.

The Kingdom of God comes, now, with the Word of God and the Body and Blood of Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.

Now is the fall, almost winter, of our discontent made glorious summer by the Son of God.

Winter—though it technically hasn’t even started yet—is already at its end.

Our Lord comes to save us.

Straighten up. Lift up your head. And rejoice!

Your redemption is drawing near.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The Second Sunday in Advent, 2019
Luke 21:25-36
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

A God who is everywhere is no better than a God who is nowhere, if He isn’t somewhere for you and for your benefit.

God comes to us by means. Always by means.

The Means of Grace.

The Word of God. The Sacraments.

It’s not that God couldn’t come to us in different ways. It’s not that God hasn’t come to His people of old in many and various ways. It’s that God has chosen and promised and proclaimed to all the world that He most certainly comes to us in these ways—these means.

Today, God comes to us in the Gospel, the Word of God proclaimed and preached—and the Sacrament, the Body and Blood of Jesus the Christ, given and shed for you, that you would have the forgiveness His body, given, and His blood, shed, earned for you.

Here and by these means, we know that God is for us.

Here and by these means, we have the hope of everlasting life, because God fights for us.

But where Jesus doesn’t come, there’s no hope. Where He’s not for you, there’s no certainty of salvation.

Jesus comes to us—by means—that we would be certain of our hope, certain of our salvation.

So be comforted, and know that your God comes to you in these ways and for your benefit.

Look—and see—how He comes to Jerusalem.

Jesus comes with knowledge.

Jesus knew where the donkey was and where the colt was. He knew that someone would ask them why they needed them. St. Mark records how the disciples told those who asked that the Lord had need of them, and they immediately let them take the animals.

Jesus knew what was written about Him by the prophet Zechariah, and He knew He had to fulfill it and how.

Zechariah wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, A colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zechariah 9:9).

The eternal Son of God possesses perfect knowledge.

In Proverbs chapter eight, Solomon calls Him wisdom. In John chapter one, St. John calls Him the Word.

He knows everything there is to know.

And for us to know Him is for us to know God.

All that would terrify us if we didn’t know that God is for us. But sometimes we doubt that, too.

How do we know? Is God actually for us?

We expect God to be angry. We’re guilty of all sin, committing all kinds—and the only kind, unbelief.

God knows all.

That God knows could cause everyone of us to despair of all things.

St. Paul writes in Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

If we reap what we sow, the coming of the One who knows everything we’ve ever thought, said, or done is a time, not to celebrate, but to avoid.

Jesus really does know when you’re sleeping. And when you’re awake. He knows what you’ve done, what you’ve left undone. What you’ve wanted to do and what you’ve talked about doing.

He knows. And He’s coming soon.

This could cause everyone of us to despair of all things, but look how Jesus comes to us!

He comes with knowledge, yes. But He comes, also, in humility, meekness.

He who will judge the hearts and minds of the entire human race, who knows every sin you’ve ever committed, He comes in humility.

He comes to stand in your place, to die for you.

His ride on the donkey into Jerusalem wasn’t a spontaneous decision. It was deliberate.

The ride on the donkey was a ride unto death.

He comes to Jerusalem to die there. He goes to the place where sacrifices are made, and His blood is shed for the sin of the world. 

He knew He would be rejected.

He knew He would suffer.

He knew He would bear in His own body the sin of the world.

That’s why He came—in humility.

To obey the will of his Father. To fulfill the demands of the Law. To suffer the penalty for the world’s disobedience.

When Jesus came in humility, He embraced what humility required of Him—obedient suffering.

Pride suffers nothing, insisting on its own way.

Pride challenges God’s authority, asserting the word of the world against the Word of God.

Pride scoffs at the benefit of humble obedience, following only the three most important people: me, myself, and I.

Pride sets itself up as a judge of God and neighbor, but “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18).

But God comes, rescuing us from that destruction.

The Son of God, sharing the majesty and glory and power of His Father, chose to become our brother, to redeem His brothers.

He chose to humble Himself, to become a servant, to be born under the law, to bear the sin and shame of the world to the point of death, even death on a cross.

But there, lifted up and mocked by the world, God obtained the greatest glory.

In the willing obedience and perfect sacrifice of Jesus, God is glorified, and His great love for us and the world is made known.

Why did the crowd worship him? Why did they offer him such a beautiful liturgy of praise, singing “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest” (Matthew 21:9).

Because He loved them.

He loved them, and they knew it.

He didn’t come to judge them or punish them.

He came to rescue them from the peril of their sin.

God comes with knowledge, knowing how to save us.

He comes in humility, serving us and saving us.

God comes to help, save, comfort, and defend us all.

God comes to forgive us our sins, to cleanse us of all unrighteousness.

God comes to us and for us, by means, that we may hear and believe, eat and drink, and have forgiveness.

We come to God burdened by guilt.

He comes to us, covering that guilt and taking away our burdens.

We come, confessing our sins of pride and self-promotion.

He comes to us, knowing perfectly all our sin.

But in knowing us, in knowing our sin, He neither turns away from us in disgust nor against us in anger.

He comes to us in love. Your king comes to you.

Not just to the other Christians who have everything together, who are living good Christian lives.

He comes to you who’ve repeatedly fallen short in your Christian duty and squandered the opportunities God has given you.

He comes to you to forgive you, to restore you to His side, to strengthen you, and keep you in His peace.

We meet Him and—by faith in Him—we worthily receive Him.

God comes to you not that you would be afraid but that you would believe that He is your God, that you would sing “Hosanna” to the Lord!

A blessed Advent to you all!

Jesus is coming—to save us.

Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

The First Sunday in Advent Sermon, 2019 (Ad Te Levavi)
Matthew 21:1-9
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt

How many of you have heard someone quote St. Paul: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13)?

Everybody knows this verse.

Everybody’s seen it, heard it, and read it.

It’s everywhere.

But to my eyes and ears, it’s applied in only one way. When someone quotes St. Paul—I can do all things through him who strengthens me—what they mean is, “I can overcome whatever challenge is in front of me. I can do it. If I trust God enough.”

Maybe that’s a bit too broad a summary, but that’s how it’s used. And that’s not what St. Paul means.

For St. Paul, “all things” consists of a very specific list of things: He writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

That’s not how that verse is commonly used. Commonly, its use is cliché.

A person will invoke Philippians 4:13 to overcome—that most generic of things—adversity.

If you watch any football over the next few days, count how many times “overcoming adversity” is mentioned.

It goes like this—this is what you might hear or see:Jesus healed the leper who believed in Him. We can’t forget that. Jesus says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well” (Luke 17:19). We can’t forget Jesus.

St. Paul writes, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). And I believe in Him. I believe in Jesus.

Therefore, I can overcome whatever “leprosy,” whatever adversity I face. I believe in Jesus and can do all things through Him.

That is—commonly—how Philippians 4:13 is applied.

That may not be every person’s logical progression, but the destination’s the same—whatever “adversity” you face is to be gotten rid of.

American Christianity has reduced St. Paul’s all things into just one thing: the appearance of success.

No one ever talks about “overcoming adversity” such that they mean “remaining faithful and losing.”

“Overcoming adversity,” doing “all things,” as St. Paul writes, is always used to mean “eventually winning,” or, at the very least, “eventually getting my way.”

Face the facts.

Not everyone overcomes adversity.

You don’t always win.

You don’t always get a second chance.

What St. Paul means—what “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” means, is this:

In your life—at your table this Thanksgiving—if there’s an abundance—a 2:1 pie to person ratio, for example—you can live and remain faithful to Christ.

Even with an abundance of pie—or money, stuff, whatever—even then, you can enter the kingdom of God. In Christ, you know how to abound.

It’s difficult.

Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25).

With great difficulty will a rich man enter heaven; however, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

If your table is full, if every seat is filled, if there’s hardly room to park at your house, don’t let your wealth—your food, your family, your stuff—don’t let that get in the way of your praise and thanks to God.

Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, but we’re not fooled. Many will say that today is about “family.” The next month is about shopping. The next eleven months are about paying off the credit cards. But today—that’s about family.

We’re not fooled.

“This is the day the Lord has made—let us rejoice—and give thanks—and be glad in it” (cf. Psalm 118:24).

All ten lepers were cleansed.

Like the ten virgins, they all looked the part—but only one ex-leper was wise. Only one ex-leper praised God, worshipped Jesus, and gave thanks.

And only that one was saved.

Jesus doesn’t literally say, “Your faith has made you well.” Literally, He says, “Rise and go your way; your faith has saved you” (Luke 17:19).

That’s one half of “all [the] things” we can do through God who gives us strength.

That’s plenty and abundance.

But all things includes any and every circumstance.

All things includes being brought low, hunger, and need.

So, in your life—at your table this Thanksgiving—if you lack anything—if a particular chair is empty, perhaps for the first time—if there should be one more car in the driveway that you know won’t be—if this is your first Thanksgiving without—you can live and remain faithful to Christ—thanking Him for all that you do have.

In Christ, you know how to be brought low.

Yea, though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, though you lack, though your pastures are far from green, nevertheless, you can enter the kingdom of God.

You can endure all things in patient faith, with love to God and neighbor, waiting for all things to be made new.

Rich or poor.

In plenty or hunger.

With abundance or need.

You can do all things through Christ who gives you strength. The kingdom of God is yours.

That’s what the miracles of Jesus give and teach to us.

The cleansing of the ten lepers—the salvation of the one ex-leper—proves that the outward appearance of things is fleeting.

The appearance of success, it passes away.

Though the ten were cleansed, they all still eventually died.

That the one was saved—rich or poor, in plenty or hunger, with an abundance or a great need—the one can do and endure it all faithfully, because he recognized in Jesus the God of his salvation.

Faith in the Lord Jesus—fear, love, and trust in God above all things—the forgiveness of sins—enables you to bear all things, believe all things, hope all things, and endure all things.

That’s what St. Paul means in Philippians four.

St. John writes: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 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 3:14-17).

We know this.

But in any and every circumstance we need to live it, too.

It won’t always be easy. It won’t always be fun.

But in whatever situation be content (cf. Philippians 4:11).

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think [on] these things” (Philippians 4:8).

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

Because “[You] can do all things through him who [gives you strength]” (Philippians 4:13).

You can be brought low. You can abound.

You can face plenty and hunger, abundance and need.

Because you recognize in Jesus, the God of your salvation.

Praise God. Worship Jesus. Give thanks.

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

In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Thanksgiving Day Sermon, 2019
Luke 17:11-19; Philippians 4:6-20
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt