Thursday, May 25, 2017

Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord - Acts 1:1-11

                                                                                                Acts 1:1-11

            If your team wins the World Series, or the Super Bowl, or the NBA championship or the Stanley Cup, you don’t turn off the TV as soon as the game is over.  Instead, you bask in the moment and keep watching for the trophy presentation.  In baseball and basketball the trophy is usually presented in the locker room, where the players are often drinking and dousing one another with champagne.  In the NFL they bring out a stage and as confetti and streamers fall all around, the Lombardi Trophy is presented to the owner.  In the NHL the winning team is presented with the Stanley Cup and players take turns skating around the rink holding the Cup above their head.
            In these circumstances, the victory has been won.  But that would be hollow if the team never received the trophy.  The exaltation – the public confirmation and pronouncement of the championship occurs in the awarding of the trophy.
            That is what we are celebrating today on this fortieth day after Easter.  On Good Friday Jesus Christ suffered and died on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins.  He died and it looked like all was lost.  But then on Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead.  In his resurrection Jesus defeated death and began the resurrection of the Last Day. By his death and resurrection our Lord won the victory over sin, death and the devil.  And now today, in the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord, we celebrate Jesus Christ’s exaltation as the risen Lord who has carried out the Father’s will for us.
            In our second reading today we hear Luke’s account in the Book of Acts about the ascension of Jesus.  Now the ascension of Jesus probably should not have come as a complete surprise.  In the last several weeks’ Gospel lessons we have heard Jesus tell the disciples about how he is going to depart, but also he is going to send them the Spirit. In fact, Jesus went so far as to say that it was better for them if he went away.  Jesus had said, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
            Yet at the same time, can you really fault the apostles?  After all, Luke tells that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”  On occasion after occasion the risen Lord appeared to the disciples and taught them about the kingdom of God – the reign of God.  We hear about a whole list of these in 1 Corinthians 15.  Imagine how exciting that was – to have the risen Lord present as he taught about the reign of God that had arrived in him!
            We learn in our text that the disciples asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" Now sometimes their question has been used to show that even after the resurrection, the disciples were still sort of clueless.  That really isn’t fair.         
            If you were a Jew living in the first century A.D., and you had before you the Christ – the royal Messiah descended from David – who had risen from the dead, you were going to think that the time of God’s restoration of Israel had arrived.  The Messiah was present in obvious power and glory and the resurrection of the dead had started in him.  A reading of the Old Testament prophets would indeed lead you to believe that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel was at hand.
            However, in our text Jesus tells them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Our Lord says that it’s not for them to know the timing.  Instead, they need to look forward to the power they will receive when the Holy Spirit comes upon them – a power that will enable the disciples to be Jesus’ witnesses all over the world.
            Then Luke tells us: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”  Jesus ascended before them.  He withdrew his visible presence from the Church. He returned to the Father. But Jesus ascension isn’t only about “going home.” This becomes clear when Peter preaches on Pentecost.
            On that day the disciples did receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them.  At that event Peter proclaimed to the crowed, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
            On Pentecost, Peter declared that the dramatic outpouring of the Spirit was proof that Jesus is the exalted One.  He had not just died.  He had not just been raised from the dead.  But as the One who had carried out the Father’s saving will, he had also been exalted.  In fact, this exaltation was a fulfillment of Scripture.  Peter went on to explain, “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, "'The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.' Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
            Now you may ask: “Why did Jesus need to be exalted?”  Yet the answer is really quite simple: Because he humbled himself for you.  The Son of God entered this world in the incarnation as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. St Paul said about this, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
            Jesus humbled himself to death on a cross.  He was numbered with the transgressors for you.  In doing so he won you forgiveness.  And then on the third day God’s Spirit raised him from the dead.  He began the resurrection that will be yours. But even resurrection was not enough for the Lord who had humbled himself.  And so in the ascension God exalted the Son and seated him at his right hand. The One who had not exercised all of his authority in order to serve us, now possesses all authority in heaven and earth. God the Father has declared him to the One who has won the victory – the One who now gets the final word. As Paul went on to say, “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
            Now our problem with the ascension of our Lord is that this is not what we want. It is a classic example of those times when God’s way of doing things is not the way we would do them and therefore we are just not happy.  We, of course, want Jesus here in a way that we can see him.  Never mind that Jesus said it was better for him to depart and send the Spirit.  Never mind that he kept his word on Pentecost by sending the Spirit who is the continuing presence of Jesus with his Church – the Spirit who calls people to faith through the Gospel around the world.
            And our reaction to the ascension also reveals our self-centered character as sinners.  Jesus ascends and is exalted by the Father.  It is an event that is about Jesus.  And since it doesn’t seem to be about us, we are prone to ignore it. Good for Jesus – but really, what’s in it for me?
            In our text we learn that when Jesus could no longer be seen, two angels said to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” On the Feast of the Ascension, God reminds us about where his plan leads.  Jesus is now the exalted Lord – victorious; seated at God’s right hand; exercising all authority.  And he will return visibly in a way that so that every person will be compelled to acknowledge this. He will vindicate his people – all who have believed and trusted in him in the midst of a world that says there is no truth.
            And when we think more about the ascension of Jesus Christ, we find that there is indeed something going on here that is about you.  In the incarnation, the Son of God took on our humanity without ceasing to be God.  He became true God and true man.  In his resurrection, he emerged with a transformed body that can never die again.  None of these things ceased to be true when Jesus ascended. Jesus Christ has taken redeemed and transformed humanity in the presence of God the Father.  He is your forerunner. He has shown you what your future is, and it is not that of a soul floating around in heaven.  Instead it is a resurrected bodily existence in the presence of the triune God. This has already begun in Jesus, and it will be yours too when he returns on the Last Day.  Because, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”         



Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord

Today is The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. Forty days after His resurrection, Jesus Christ ascended into heaven and was exalted as our incarnate Lord He took His place at the right hand of God. The Divine Service celebrating this will take place tonight at 7:00 p.m.

Scripture reading:
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11).

Collect of the Day:
Almighty God, as Your only-begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, ascended into the heavens, so may we also ascend in heart and mind and continually dwell there with Him, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Commemoration of Esther

Today we remember and give thanks for Esther.  Esther is the heroine of the biblical book that bears her name. Her Jewish name was Hadassah, which means "myrtle." Her beauty, charm, and courage served her well as queen to King Ahasuerus. In that role she was able to save her people from the mass extermination that Haman, the king's chief advisor, had planned (2:19-4:17). Esther's efforts to uncover the plot resulted in the hanging of Haman on the very same gallows that he had built for Mordecai, her uncle and guardian. Then the king named Mordecai minister of state in Haman's place. This story is an example of how God intervenes on behalf of his people to deliver them from evil, as here through Esther he preserved the Old Testament people through whom the Messiah would come.

Collect of the Day:
O God, You graced Your servant Queen Esther not only with beauty and elegance but also with faith and wisdom.  Grant that we, too, might use the qualities that You have generously bestowed on us for the glory of Your mighty name and for the good of Your people, that through Your work in us, we may be advocates of the oppressed and defenders of the weak; through Your Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

Funeral homily for Julia Hennig - Col 3:12-17

                                                                                    Julia Hennig
                                                                                    Col 3:12-17

            For years I tried to get Julia Hennig to play the piano here at Good Shepherd.  For years she refused because she said that her skills had declined.  I don’t remember how I finally managed to convince her to do so, but I will never forget the outcome.  The piano simply came to life as her hands went flying over the keys.  I have no doubt that others who were here that day remember it as well.
            Julia played music that day in church.  Church and music were the two foci that defined her life. As you read her remarkable biography, you see that time and time again they were intertwined with one another.  She earned Bachelors and Masters of Music degrees in piano at the University of Michigan, and then attended Valparaio University where she received her certification as a Lutheran deaconess.  She served as a deaconess while playing organ and directing the choir.  She taught piano at Concordia Teachers College, River Forest and in doing so trained many students who went on to serve in church work in the Lutheran church.
            It therefore seemed appropriate to select as part of our text for her funeral homily these words in Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
            The word of Christ did dwell richly in Julia.  She was baptized into Christ through water and the Word.  She was catechized in the teaching of the Small Catechism.  And she continued in a lifelong engagement with God’s Word.  As a pastor, you could not ask for a more enjoyable person to have in Bible class.  She was smart and knowledgeable, and she was genuinely interested in learning new things about Scripture.
            And what Julia did in word and deed, was done in the name of the Lord Jesus.  Julia did a lot of impressive things during her career.  But in the stories that she told I remember her being particularly animated when she talked about the work she had done with Sunday school ministry in the Cabrini Green Housing Project in Chicago.  She cherished the memories of her work there and the experiences that she had as she shared the love of Jesus Christ with those children in word and deed.
            Julia was smart, cultured and accomplished.  She was a fascinating person who had spent a lifetime of service in Christ’s Church.  And that is why it was so difficult to watch the last five years or so.  As physically, and especially mentally, she began to fail it was like watching her disappear.  And now that process has reached its end in death.
            Julia’s illness and death reveals that in spite of all the nice things we can say about her – and there are very many – she was a sinner.  The apostle Paul says very clearly in Romans that, “The wages of sin is death.”  Julia was faithful, but she did not fear, love and trust in God above all things.  She was caring, but she did not always love her neighbor as herself.
            Julia would not have claimed otherwise.  This is the very thing she confessed again and again at the beginning of the Divine Service during the course of her life.  Yet while she confessed her sin, she also had faith that in Christi and so she knew that she was forgiven.
            The apostle begins our text by saying: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”  In the language of “put on” we hear an allusion to baptism that Paul had mentioned in chapter two.  There he described the Colossians as “having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.”
            Through baptism Julia shared in the death of Jesus Christ. She received the forgiveness from the action that Paul goes on to say that God was using to forgive all our trespasses, “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” 
            Jesus died to win this forgiveness.  But during this season of Easter we rejoice in the fact that God’s powerful working was not done on Good Friday. Instead, on Easter he raised Jesus from the dead.  And because Julia was baptized into the death of Jesus, Paul can even describe her now as already being raised up with Christ.  We know that she is already with Jesus now, because Paul tells us that death is to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.
            Because of her baptism Julia is a forgiven saint who is now with the Lord.  Yet the presence her body in this casket is an unavoidable reminder that our Lord’s saving work with her has not yet reached is completion.  Paul says in our epistle lesson today from 1 Corinthians 15, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”
            After this service we will go the cemetery and commit Julia’s body to its resting place; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.  We will do so in the confidence that our Lord Jesus has risen from the dead. And because he has, we know that he will raise up Julia too.  Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection – the first part that guarantees all of the rest of us will follow.
            And so we pray, “Come Lord Jesus!” because the apostle Paul has told us that we await from heaven “a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.”  He will do that for Julia.  He will do that for you.
            While we wait, we do what Paul instructs in our text when he says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” We sing praises to God and have thankfulness in our hearts because Julia died as a baptized child of God.  She is with the Lord.  She no longer suffers from all that sin has done, and she has peace.   Confident in this fact, we look with eager expectation to the return of our Lord Jesus on the Last Day when he will raise Julia from the dead and give her life in his new creation.