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Sermon for the Feast of All Saints (Observed), November 3, 2019 (1 John 3:1-3)

“Hymn of Adoration to the Lamb” (1497-1498) from “The Revelation of St. John” by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528). Houghton Library, Harvard. Wikimedia Commons.

This sermon was originally preached at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints.  It is a special celebration for us; we remember the life and faith of those who have gone before us and are now with Christ.  That is who the saints are; they are those who have departed this life in the faith. They are witnesses to us of the Christian life.

But what is the Christian life if we are to look at those saints who have gone on before us? What does it look like when it is modeled for us by those who have died in the faith that we know are all too human?  Those who we know were sinners in their lives, who fell far short of the glory of God? And what about the life modeled by those saints who are still living? They are sinners, all too human, too. We are all sinners.  We all know just how bad we can be, and those we remember as saints could be just as bad.

In the Old Testament Church (yes, it exists), we see many saints whose actions didn’t seem congruent with the sanctified life.  Adam and Eve, our first parents, disobeyed God and visited all the pain and suffering of sin upon creation. We’re still feeling it.  Noah, who followed God’s directions and saved his family from the great flood that God used to wipe the human slate clean, got drunk and made a fool of himself.  His descendant, Abraham, lied about his marriage and nearly put his wife in compromising situations with the Pharaoh of Egypt and with Abimelech, the king of the Philistines at Gerar.  His son Isaac did the same thing. His son, Jacob— who gives his name to the nation of Israel— steals his birthright from his brother Esau. Further down the line, David, Israel’s greatest king, has a man killed so that he can seduce that man’s wife.  And the list of Old Testament saints goes on, but sinners all of them.

And just look at the lives of the Apostles.  Saint Peter was a man with a bad temper who cut off a slave’s ear and constantly second-guessed Jesus.  Saints James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were hot-tempered, nicknamed the “Sons of Thunder” by Jesus himself because they wanted him to rain down fire on the heretics living in Samaria.  Saint Matthew had been a tax collector. Saint Paul, of course, oversaw the murder of Stephen and was a persecutor of the church. Though their lives were changed by their time with Jesus, their records weren’t spotless.  These saints who Jesus called to be his disciples were sinners, too.

And the saints of the later church were sinners, too.  Saint Augustine of Hippo, the great church father and writer, told us all about his past sins in his Confessions, in excruciating detail.  Saint Cyril of Alexandria, while a defender of orthodox theology regarding the nature of Christ, was also infamous for his tendencies to use violence and invective to get his way.  Jolly old Saint Nicholas may have punched a guy during the proceedings of the Council of Nicaea (though we’re not sure). Saint Olaf of Norway was a violent warrior-king, as was Saint Louis of France.  And our very own Martin Luther was often harsh in his words and wrote some rather unkind treatises toward the end of his life.

While an apocryphal story, as it goes, St. Nicholas of Myra was apparently fed up with Arius’ nonsense at the Council of Nicea and gave him a slap to the face. Image: Public Domain via http://www.aleteia.pl.

I know myself, too— and thanks to the Old Adam who lives in my bones, I know how “unsaintly” I can be and am.  I know I’ve personally broken every one of the Ten Commandments in one way or another, and I’m sure you have, too.  The worst part is, on account of our sinful nature, you and I cannot stop doing this. And yet you and I and all the folks I’ve named are Christians.  Saints. And all are imperfect and in many respects, far from Christlike. So on this Feast of All Saints, what is this Christian life supposed to look like when we sinful Christians carry it out so imperfectly?  How do we see Christ in the life of those who so often fall short of the glory of God? What makes a saint a saint?

Last week, after church, we were trying to determine which plaques in the entryway correspond to the windows here in the sanctuary.  Some of the associations are pretty obvious, but some less so. The Law and Gospel window is pretty easy to name, but what about the eternal life window?  And which one is the Christian Life window? Well, we think we figured out which one that is (and even if we’re wrong, I think I can make a compelling argument for it!).  If you look around behind yourself to the back right of the sanctuary, you’ll see a window with a big bird in a nest feeding its young.  

The Pelican Window at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois. Photo by Rev. David Kern.
(We have since determined that this is the Passion Window, but I still think it is a good image of the Christian life and I’m sticking to it!)

That big bird that you see is a pelican.  In medieval times, it was believed that, when food was short, mother pelicans fed their young with blood from their breasts.  It is a powerful image of a mother’s sacrificial love for her offspring. The mother pelican feeds her young with her body to keep them alive; her flesh is their food, and her blood is their drink.  Of course, we know that in reality, pelicans don’t do this, but this is what the pelican motif alludes to when we see it in the church, and you’re probably noticing an apt analogy to another One who feeds and sustains his children with his blood.  Christ feeds and washes us with his blood in order to make us his children— like pelican chicks, we rely on him for our life and our sustenance, and he feeds us in turn with himself.  It’s a beautiful image of reliance upon Christ for all we have, especially the forgiveness of sins.  

It’s this image that our epistle reading is pointing to this morning.  The Apostle John— that same John who was one of the hot-headed “Sons of Thunder”– is writing to the church in Ephesus to encourage the people there to stick to their faith in the face of those who were trying to lead them astray into various heresies and sowing discord among the congregation.  The lives of the people in the church at Ephesus were far from perfect. They needed a reminder of what the Christian life looks like, and John tells them.  

John reminds those to whom he is writing that they are children of God— that God loves them so dearly that he calls them his children now, even though they are imperfect sinners.  They are children of God, now, even though they have not seen him yet and are not like him.  But they have a promise, a promise that when he comes in glory, all who believe in him will be made to be like him, perfect, blameless, and purified.  And even now, they themselves are made pure just as their Lord is pure because they put their hope in him. The promise for them, though not realized fully, is already fulfilled when they trust Christ as their parent; when they are washed in his blood in baptism and fed on his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.  This is their assurance–when they cleave themselves to him, like the chicks of the self-sacrificing pelican, they are made pure just as he is pure and have the assurance that they will see him as he is. This is the Christian life, living fully reliant on Christ for all they need, relying on him for strength even when they fail to live up to their title as his children.  As John writes, “each one who has this hope,” that they are children of God and will be like him when he comes, “purifies himself, just as he is pure.”  

“Pelican in her Piety” from Arthur Charles Fox-Davies, “A Complete Guide to Heraldry,” 1909. Pelicans became a popular symbol in heraldry. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

We’re in the same position as the addressees of John’s letter.  We’re sinners living in a sinful world who live imperfectly in our Christian calling, but Christ makes us his children and invites us to trust in him until he comes.  He will make good on his promise. We have not received it in full yet, but in his body and blood we receive a foretaste of the full sustenance that will be ours when we are with the saints in glory.  And when we trust in him for this fulfillment of the promise, we start leaving off those sins that beset us daily, and though we will not be perfect, we start looking more like the saints that Christ call us. This is what justification and sanctification look like.

And we can take comfort in knowing that he has revealed to us that those who are departed from this life in Christ are experiencing the fulfillment of this promise and are living wholly reliant upon him in Heaven.  In John’s Apocalypse, John is shown “a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands” (Rev. 7:9, NKJV). And the elder who is with him tells him who this multitude is:

“These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple. And he who sits upon the throne will dwell among them.  They shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of waters.  And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:14-17, NKJV).

Those who are with Christ living in his presence in Heaven are experiencing the joy and sustenance of the Christian life.  They live now in his care, relying on him for all their life and needs, and he is in their midst. But they still do not know fully what they will be.  They are not yet as they are supposed to be; they are souls without their bodies, and though they are in the joy of Christ’s presence, the best is yet to come.  They are not like him yet, but they will be— the promise still applies. Heaven will only last so long. When the Resurrection comes, this countless host arrayed in white will be resurrected, made whole and pure in body and soul.  Then they, and we, will be like Christ and see him as he is, perfected and wholly reliant on him in the new creation. There will be no more death, no more pain, no more crying or sorrow, and “no more curse…[because we] shall see his face, and his name shall be on [our] foreheads” (Rev. 22:3-5, NKJV).  Only then when all things are made new will we be truly pure as he is, living as his perfect children forever.

So when you find yourselves looking less than saintly, remember that Jesus Christ lived, died, and rose again to make you his children and lead you in the way you should go, and that no matter what your sins are, when you hold fast to this promise of his Gospel, he will deliver you from the power of sin that rules in your life.  When you and I trust him and look to him for our source of life, like the pelican’s chicks in the window back there, we can have hope that he will purify us to live with him in blessedness forever. We are sinners in this life, but in this promise, we are saints, and so we can join with the rest of the saints on this, the Feast of All Saints, those who have gone on before us and those yet to come, rejoicing and shouting “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10 NKJV).

Amen!

Sermon for St. Michael and All Angels, September 29, 2019 – “Don’t You Know There’s a War On?” (Matthew 18:1-11)

“Bilder zur Apokalypse” (1933) by Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), published in Die Apokalypse oder die Offenbarung des hl. Johannes, übersetzt und erklät von Dr. Jakob Schäfer, päpstlicher Hausprälat, … mit Bildern von Prof. Gebhard Fugel, München, 1933, Verlag: Volksliturgisches Apostolat Klosterneuenburg.

This sermon was originally preached at Emmaus Lutheran Church, Dorsey, Illinois.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Come on, don’t you know that there’s a war on?”

This was a common phrase that you might have heard during World War I or World War II if you lived in the United States or the UK. It was often said tongue-in-cheek; it was sometimes used to reprimand people who were complaining about rationing or various extra wartime duties required of the civilian populace.  It reminded people that, for the time being, they had to set aside their own personal desires and wants, and instead see to the care and needs of the nation and the military first and foremost. And perhaps in one of those most rare occasions, it may have been said to remind someone that yes there was indeed a war going on, and how could they have forgotten?

It seems sometimes that here, in the United States, we forget that there’s a war going on. We’ve had soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan since I was about 10 years old, which means that we have been involved in constant warfare for nearly two decades.  Being at war has become commonplace. The fact that we are at war has, for most of us, faded into the background. So, being stateside in the US, we sometimes forget that there indeed is a war going on. Afghanistan and Iraq are far away, on the other side of the globe, and very few of us, outside of members of the military, actually go to those places.  We wouldn’t be able to tell you what Kandahar or Mosul look like, and very few of us would be able to say anything knowledgeable about desert warfare or the stresses and fears and concerns faced by men and women fighting in uniform over there. That’s because for us, there isn’t a war on. But the war really doesn’t impinge on our lives, unless we have family members and friends who are serving overseas in the military, fighting actively in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our lives go on unimpeded. We don’t have to think about IED attacks, snipers, or suicide bombers or any other kind of enemy combatants. For us, life goes on as usual and we feel we are pretty safe. Or so we think.

“Retable of archangel St. Michael” by Jaume Mateu (1382–1452). Museu de Belles Arts de València. Image by Joanbanjo, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Today, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, or Michaelmas, our lectionary readings remind us that there is indeed a war on, but another war— one in which we are on the front lines.  Perhaps it’s even more accurate to say, we’re in the no-man’s land between the two fronts. On one side, we have the Devil and all his demons, seeking to destroy the children of God and bring them to despair and unbelief.  And on the other, we have the hosts of heaven under the command of the archangel Michael, fighting valiantly to protect Christians from the attacks of demons and devils. It’s a very real war, with very real casualties and with very real stakes.  Luther says in his 1532 sermon for Michaelmas, 

“Now you have often heard that the devil is around people everywhere, in palaces, in houses, in the field, on the streets, in the water, in the forest, in fire; devils are everywhere.  All they ever do is seek man’s destruction….and it is certainly true, were God not continually to put restraints on the evil foe, he would not leave one little kernel of grain in the field or on the ground, no fish in the water, no piece of meat in the pot, no drop of water, beer, or wine in the cellar uncontaminated, nor would he leave a sound member of our bodies….we are in grave danger every day and night as targets of the devil.  He always has a crossbow stretched tight and a gun loaded, taking aim to strike us with pestilence, syphilis, war, fire, and violent weather.”

Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. Eugene F. A. Klug (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002): 7:375, 380

Nothing makes the Devil happier than to lead people to destruction and to bring them to harm, especially to drive them to sin and unbelief.  He does this through the work of his demons and through the sinful and fallen world, with the aim of tempting people away from their faith in their Savior.  And how does he do this? Well, as Luther says, with all manner of attacks, attacking us in mind, body, and spirit, harming our bodies, but especially attacking our souls through temptation, 

In the Gospel this morning, Jesus says that temptations to sin— skandala, in Greek, where our word “scandal” comes from— must come in this fallen, sinful world, and woe to it for that reason!  It’s an unfortunate part of reality. When Adam and Eve were first tempted by Satan to doubt God’s word and good will for humanity, creation cracked, and sin pervaded it.  Thus temptation to sin is built into the fabric of our world, a discordant thread woven into creation. It is a conduit for Satan and his minions to attack people, especially God’s saints, his little ones.  And Jesus takes it further— “nevertheless, woe to the one by whom such temptation to sin comes!”

“Archangel Michael” (ca. 1914-1915) by Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov (1848-1926). Public domain (PD US Expired).

Have you ever been tempted?  Sure you have— let’s have a show of hands [raise hand].  We’ve all been there, and we’ve all given into it. I won’t ask anyone to enumerate or describe how you’ve been tempted— if you need to talk about it, Pastor Kern will be more than happy to give you private confession and absolution— but common to all people are temptations to be greedy, to steal, to gratify the base desires and lusts of the flesh, to harm others, to exploit them for our gain, to make gods of ourselves and out of our desires and possessions.  Look at the Ten Commandments— that’s a list of all the different ways we can be tempted, and we all have at some time or another given into temptation to break one (or all!) of those commandments. When we fall into sin, it’s as if we’ve been struck by a bullet or a crossbow bolt, and because we are sinners, we’re the walking wounded. Sometimes, left unchecked, that sin can do more harm to us than we know, and we end up joining the dead, both in body and in faith.  More casualties of the war.

Have you ever been tempted to sin by someone else?  Have you ever tempted someone else to sin?  Have your actions ever misrepresented your faith in Christ and perhaps brought someone else’s faith, the faith of one of Jesus’ “little ones,” to harm?  All of us could be that person, and perhaps at times we have been. Therefore, woe to us if so! Jesus says in our Gospel that it would be better for that person if a big millstone, one big enough that it needed a donkey to turn it, were tied around his neck and he were drowned in the sea.  So cut out sin, he says, and do not despise Jesus’ little ones, for God the Father knows what happens to them.

When we hear the phrase, “little ones,” we often think that Jesus is talking about literal children.  After all, he had just held up a child as an example of what a person must be like to be greatest in the kingdom of heaven.  But Jesus is being figurative, in a way, when he speaks of “little ones.” You see, before God, we all are little ones, not just the kids.  We are all small and helpless and in need of protection and care, just like children are.  We are all prone to stumble. We are all vulnerable. There are no exceptions, no matter how “holy” we may seem or wish to be.  I am a little one, Pastor Kern is a little one, and y’all are little ones, too. And because we’re all little ones, we need protection, guidance, and safety from the assaults of the Devil and his demons, as well as from the sin that can lead us little ones astray and causes us to harm each other.  Not only do we need protection, we need deliverance.

“Archangel Michael” from the Nuremberg Chronicle, 15th Century

And God has provided protection for us.  In our Gospel, Jesus says his little ones have angels in heaven who “always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.”  We know that God has set his angels to protect his people. Angels, it should be said, are not our deceased relatives or chubby winged babies— the former idea is derived from the heretical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, the latter comes from the Italian adoption of Roman depictions of Cupid during the Renaissance— God made them to serve him as his messengers and they are warriors sent to do God’s bidding on behalf of his people.  Our reading from Daniel tells us so— God set the archangel Michael to contend for Israel against the demons impelling hostile nations to attack Israel, and he commands the angelic hosts in the war in heaven against the Devil’s forces in John’s Revelation. There’s a war on in heaven, and Michael and the heavenly hosts are contending against Satan.  John writes in Revelation that Satan and his evil angels are thrown down by the heavenly forces, and a voice proclaims, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God” (Revelation 12:10-11). When we hear this, we wonder, “Wow, did Michael and the angels defeat Satan?”  The answer to that question is both yes and no. Michael and the angelic hosts did defeat Satan and his armies, but only because of the saving work of Jesus Christ in his death on the cross and his resurrection. For the voice continues: “And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.” Jesus is really the one who defeated Satan. The angels are reaping the victory.

“Archangel Michael Fights the Dragon and Rebel Angels” (1733) by Paul Troger, Abbey church, Altenburg, Lower Austria. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International License.

You see, Jesus already won the battle and the war— Michael and the angels are fighting a mop-up operation and taking no prisoners.  The Accuser is on the retreat. Jesus’ saving sacrifice has destroyed the power of sin and death, has broken the Devil’s back and ability to harm all those who trust in Christ.  He lived, died, and rose again for you so that your sins would be forgiven and no longer counted against you, that you might live with him in blessedness forever as God’s children.  And while we live in these latter days, where Satan still prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, we can trust that, because we are washed in the blood of the Lamb and have his word, we are safe in him and the angels at his command protect us, too.  We will still face temptation— it’s inevitable until the Last Day when Christ returns in glory and the dead are raised. But we will always be able to trust that Christ has defeated sin, death, and the Devil, for us, and that the war is won. When we stumble, he will pick us up and heal our wounds.  He will help us, his little ones, to avoid the Devil’s arrows and bullets. There’s a war on between the forces of heaven and hell, but the enemy has already lost. We can sing joyfully with the hymn writer Jacob Fabricius in a hymn that is, not coincidentally, numbered 666 in our hymnal:

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

Amen!

The Sermon Archive is up-to-date!

Hi all!

This is how I’ve looked for the last three days.
From Twitter

I have finally gotten through the backlog of sermons I hadn’t uploaded here and now everything is up on the blog! Feel free to peruse them here. Do note that most of these also have links to video of the live, preached sermon, which sometimes differs a bit from the manuscript–I will sometimes add extra illustrations on the fly or choose to reword something in my manuscript, and to be perfectly honest, I don’t really intend to go back through the videos and rewrite my manuscripts to match the final product. As an old pastor of mine, Gerry Kuhn, used to say, “There’s the sermon I wrote, the sermon I gave, and the sermon you heard.” Sometimes having the disparity between the written sermon and the one given can be a useful homiletical tool when looking back at a text.

If you like anything you read, please comment! I’d love to know what stuck out to you, what you thought was an effective homiletical move, and what you think could have been different. (Nota bene: This is an invitation for constructive criticism, not trolling; not that I would expect anyone to do that here, but hey, this is the internet, and people are sinful.) Thirty sermons don’t make a person an expert on preaching by any means, and so I am still growing and hoping to learn more. The reason why this site exists as it does is to create a portfolio of public work that not only records what I have done in my preaching over my vicarage, but also to be a record of my work for my seminary professors and for future congregations that I may serve. It also exists so that the people who originally heard these sermons can hear them again and contemplate them if something in them stood out during the delivery.

Thank you for reading/listening/watching, and enjoy!

Soli Deo gloria!

Nils

+ St. Peter ad vincula, August 1, 2019 +

Sermon for the 7th Sunday after Pentecost, July 28, 2019, Proper 12 (Luke 11:1-13), “Fully Reliant on the Father”

“The Lord’s Prayer/Le Pater Noster” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Final Sermon preached as Vicar at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Martin Rinkart, 1586.
Public Domain

The Thirty Years War was a terrible time for Europe.  From 1618 to 1648, Europe was wracked by violence, famine, and plague— Protestant and Catholic mercenary armies scoured the landscape, especially in Germany.  By the end of the war, one third of the German population had been wiped out in what would be the largest known war for three hundred years until the outbreak of World War One.  It would also be known as a war that was as hard on civilians as it was on soldiers.  In the midst of it all was a German Lutheran pastor, Martin Rinckart (1586-1649), the archdeacon of the walled town of Eilenburg, Saxony.

            Rinckart’s war was, by most accounts, a terrible one.  Troops were forcibly billeted in his home (they didn’t have the 3rd Amendment then), and the contents of his pantry and barn were frequently requisitioned by foraging soldiers, leaving him and his family with few resources.  In 1637, nineteen years into the conflict, plague brought by refugees fleeing the Swedish army swept through Eilenburg, killing 8,000 people, including Rinckart’s first wife.  Among those killed by the plague where all but three members of the town council, many children, and the pastors serving in the neighboring parish.  As a result, Rinckart had to do the work of three men, visiting the sick and dying, and overseeing over 4,000 burials.  1637 was an unimaginably awful year.

“Soldiers Plundering a Farm” (1620), by Sebastiaen Vrancx (1573–1647). Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin. Public Domain.

Hot on the heels of the plague came famine, and so Rinckart shared what little he and his family had with those starving in his community.  When the Swedish army showed up in Eilenburg in 1639, they levied a 30,000 Thaler tribute on the town, a sum that beleaguered Eilenburg could not pay.  (It is roughly equivalent to $460,500 in today’s money.)  Rinckart went into the Swedish camp to parlay with their general for mercy on Eilenburg, but the general would not budge.  He wanted his 30,000 Thalers, and so Rinckart turned to those who came into the camp with him and said, “Come, my children, we can find no hearing, no mercy with men, let us take refuge with God.”[1]  With this, he fell to his knees, and began to pray.

Prayer comes to the forefront in our Gospel reading this morning.  Jesus, sitting with his disciples, is approached by one of them who asks him to teach them how to pray properly.  After all, John’s disciples had a certain mode of prayer  So did the people in the Dead Sea communities.  Fixed prayers were a standard part of the spiritual life of your average first century Jew.  “Does Jesus have one that he promotes, too?  Does he know a better way?” they may have wondered.  So Jesus begins:  “When you pray, say:

“‘Father,[a]
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.[b]
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.[c]
And lead us not into temptation[d]’” (Luke 11:2-4 NIV).

And after he has said this, Jesus illustrates the importance of such a prayer.  He poses them a hypothetical situation: suppose one of them has a friend who shows up outside the house at midnight and raps on the window.  “Hey, buddy, can you lend me three loaves of bread?  I have a friend passing through on a journey who stopped at my place, and I’ve got nothing to give him.”  And the one in the house replies, “Don’t bother me!  The door is locked, we’re all in bed, and I’m not getting up!”  Some parents here this morning might sympathize with that sentiment— doubtless you’ve all heard the midnight water call.  And yet, the disciple in bed will get up, if not on account of his friendship, then on account of the brazenness of his friend in coming to bother him at that hour—if only to make him go away.  (This reminds me of many a night in college, though instead of bread, it was pizza money our nocturnal visitors were after.)  Jesus encourages the disciples to approach God the Father with the same boldness in this prayer, continuing: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 NIV).

“The Importunate Neighbor” (1895), by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910). National Gallery of Victoria. Public Domain.

            When Jesus teaches the disciples to pray in Luke 11, his prayer does several things for them.  First, it orients the disciples to acknowledge God as their Father.  Not some distant thunderer, not some cosmic horror, but as a God who has a relationship with his creation that is so close that he views them as his children and they view him as their father.  Second, it orients the disciples to ask God to “be” God (“let thy name be made holy,” “let thy kingdom come”)— it orients them to rely upon God to do his will in the world and fulfill his promises.  And third, it forces them to reckon just how totally reliant they are upon God and how helpless they are without him.  Daily bread— everything that one needs to live both now and in eternity—, forgiveness, and protection from the assaults of sin, death, and the Devil, all come from him and him alone.  When the disciples pray as Jesus has taught them, they talk to him in such a way that indicates their full reliance on God and his promises for their lives and their utter helplessness without him.  Altogether it is, as Dr. Peter Nafzger, our professor at the Seminary, says in his recent notes on this text, a prayer focused on asking God to do what he promises to do–it is “an expanded version of the recurring prayer throughout the Gospels, ‘Lord, have mercy.’”[2]

And we need his mercy, because without it, we’d be lost!  In a weird and twisted way, our sinful selves desire to be free from God’s provision and mercy, seeking after evils and illicit pleasures that separate us from him and go against his will for us.  Left to our own devices, we seek self-aggrandizement and see ourselves as our own sustainers, believing that everything we are and have and do depends on us.  But in our sin-warped vision, we seek the things that destroy us, focusing on temporal pleasures that are fleeting, and misallocating the gifts we receive.  We fail to acknowledge our creator and his gifts for us.  In our unthinking arrogance or ignorance, we go our own way.

Invariably, left to our own devices, we go so far down the rabbit hole of self-gratification and self-reliance that we get in trouble.  We might find ourselves caught in a particular sin that, though at one time it felt “okay” to engage in and not wrong— even healthy— now suddenly becomes all-consuming.  Or we might find ourselves caught in activities that are unethical, and though we know what we’ve done is wrong, we’re in so deep that we cannot get out of the web of lies and deceit we’ve created to maintain ourselves in the manner to which we’ve become accustomed.  Or maybe we’ve placed so much dependence on ourselves that we find ourselves juggling too many responsibilities at once, thinking that everything depends on us and telling ourselves that we can handle it all, hurting ourselves and others due to our foolish pride.  Or if things do seem to go well, we perhaps think that we deserve all the credit, even when we do not because we’ve needed other people for our success.  And when we hit rock-bottom, failing to conduct ourselves properly or to carry out our vocations in a way that helps our neighbors, we can find ourselves in a hopeless position, one full of despair, fear, and self-loathing because we could not carry ourselves and the rest of the world on our shoulders like some sort of Atlas.  When that happens, we seek some kind of relief, some kind of mercy.  But how do we know to ask for it and where to find it?

“Pater Noster” ca. 1890s, by Fridolin Leiber (1853-1912), from Wolfgang Brückner, Elfenreigen – Hochzeitstraum. Die Öldruckfabrikation 1880–1940. (Köln: M. DuMont Schauberg, 1974). Public Domain.

This is why Jesus teaches the disciples his prayer because he gives us the words to speak and know that God the Father is the one on whom all depend for their life, well-being, and all they have.  When one is being crushed by sin and adversity, the words of Jesus’ prayer remind him that God is the Lord and also the loving Father of all; that he will keep his promises and be God to the one praying; and that he is the source of all that is needed for this body and life, of all love, and of all forgiveness.  As Luther writes in the Large Catechism:

82] Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need, and faithfully provides also for our temporal support. 83] And although He abundantly grants and preserves these things even to the wicked and knaves, yet He wishes that we pray for them, in order that we may recognize that we receive them from His hand, and may feel His paternal goodness toward us therein. For when He withdraws His hand, nothing can prosper nor be maintained in the end, as, indeed, we daily see and experience.[3]

“Christ teaching the disciples the Lord’s Prayer” (1550), by Hans Brosamer (1495-1554) from the 1550 Frankfurt Edition of the Small Catechism of Martin Luther. The British Museum. Public Domain.

“Behold, thus God wishes to indicate to us how He cares for us in all our need.” Luther is talking more about the petition “give us this day our daily bread” here, but it goes for the whole prayer.  Jesus, in teaching his disciples (and us, by extension) to pray in this manner shows them and us that all the good we have comes from God, not just those things that satisfy our daily needs (and for which we ought to give thanks to God), but also the gift of forgiveness of sins, protection from the powers of hell, and everlasting life.  It is all his mercy, and he gave us his ultimate gift of mercy to sustain us in every need when he sent Jesus to win salvation and life for us through his death on the cross and resurrection.  The Lord’s Prayer reminds us of this gift and our reliance upon God for it— we could not gain that act of mercy and love for ourselves.  But God teaches us to remember it.  He teaches us to pray, to boldly ask him to remember us in his mercy, and indeed to know that we have already received it from him.  Indeed, as Jesus says to his disciples in our Gospel lesson, “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13 NIV).

That mercy has been given for you, my brothers and sisters in Christ.  It is yours, and you can go before your Father in Heaven, asking him to be God for you with all the boldness and unmitigated temerity of a guy knocking on your door at midnight asking for bread for a guest and more.  When you are weighed down by guilt, shame, fear, and stress, and you don’t know how to pray for the mercy you need but don’t know where to find, let the words of Christ’s prayer point you back to him who takes those sins and buries them in the tomb, clothing you in his mercy, and giving you eternal life and everything you have.  His mercy is for you, and he will sustain you by it, fully reliant on the Father.

And now…the rest of the story.  Remember Martin Rinckart?  When he got down on his knees with his parishioners to pray to God for a solution to their suffering and the harsh tribute that the Swedes planned to inflict on their town, the Swedish commander was so moved by their display of faith— it may be fair to say that God softened his heart toward them— that he cut the tribute from 30,000 Thalers to 2,000.  You and I might not see that kind of answer to prayer in every circumstance; indeed, it seems miraculous.  But we know that, though [we] are evil, [and] know how to give good gifts to [our] children, how much more will [our] Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  God the Father is your good Father and mine, and he will always be merciful to us and give us what we need, we who are fully reliant on him, when we ask him as dear children do their father.  This is his promise to us through Jesus Christ our Lord, and we can thank him just as Rinckart thanked him when the Thirty Year’s War ended with our prayers and songs, perhaps with words like these of Rinckart’s:

Now thank we all our God
With hearts and hands and voices
Who wondrous things has done
In whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mother’s arms
Has blest us on our way
With countless gifts of love
And still is ours today.

“Nun danket alle Gott,” published in Johann Crüger, Praxis Pietatis Melica (Berlin, 1653).
Public domain.

And now may the peace which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.  Amen.


[1] http://www.bach-cantatas.com/Lib/Rinckart.htm

[2] https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-luke-111-13-pentecost-7-series-c

[3] LC V.82-83


Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 9), July 7, 2019 (Luke 10:1-12) – “Sent Out as Lambs among Wolves”

“He Sent them out Two by Two/Il les envoya deux à deux” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

It is worth noting that von Lettow’s legacy is not without controversy and the man not without his own sins–thousands of natives died in East Africa as a result of famine caused by his campaigns. Von Lettow may also have been involved in a previous action against the Herreros in German East Africa that is considered the first structured genocide in modern history, but it is unclear as to the extent of his involvement, and some biographers claim that he was against it or was not actually involved. Nonetheless, I am more interested in his prowess as a guerrilla commander here, and Gaudi’s recent study of him provides a well-rounded look at his military legacy leading up to and during the Great War.

As all of you know, I have an interest in history, and one area that I’ve recently been devoting a fair amount of attention to is the history of the First World War.  As part of satisfying that interest, earlier this year, I happened to read a biography of General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck, who commanded troops in an extensive guerrilla warfare campaign against both British and Belgian forces in German East Africa, what is now modern Namibia and Tanzania.[1]  Even though his army of native Askari troops and German colonial Schutztruppe were equipped with outdated single-shot, black-powder Jägerbuchse rifles, had little artillery at their disposal, and were technologically and numerically outmatched, they were nonetheless able to inflict severe losses upon the British and Belgians.  They were the only German forces in the entire war who were able to successfully bring the war into British territory, and only surrendered at the end due to shrinking numbers of men and supplies in the face of increasing numbers of British and Belgian troops being brought in from outside of Africa.   Because of his gallantry in battle and his ability to win the admiration of his enemies, von Lettow was given the nickname, “The Lion of Africa,” and he has gone down in history as one of the greatest guerilla fighters of all time.  (He is also remembered for colorfully telling-off Hitler in the 1930s when the latter asked for his endorsement.)

Lightly-armed Askari troops in German East Africa.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 105-DOA7209 / Walther Dobbertin / CC-BY-SA.

In our Gospel reading this morning, we see a different kind of lion, the Lion of Judah, preparing “soldiers” for a different kind of guerrilla warfare.  Jesus is preparing 72 (or in some manuscripts, 70— it’s a difficult textual question as to which one Luke originally wrote because existing manuscripts are split between the two numbers; that said, theologians have determined that 72 is most likely)– 72 new disciples to go out into the world to preach the good news of the kingdom of God to the towns Jesus was going to come through.  Like von Lettow’s Askaris, they’ll go lightly armed, with little equipment, but their foes are not flesh and blood like the British or Belgians.  These 72 disciples are going behind the lines deep into enemy territory, territory ruled by Satan, the Prince of the Power of the Air.  Jesus is sending them out like sheep among wolves— the enemy is dangerous and deadly, and going as they are, they appear vulnerable.  We might assume that the territory is not just hostile because they’ll be doing battle with the forces of evil, preaching the good news of the kingdom, but also because they will literally be going into hostile territory for Jews.  As we heard last week, Jesus and his disciples have been going through Samaria, and the Samaritans, long considered by the Jews to be a people and religious group tainted by foreigners brought into the region by the Assyrians when they conquered Israel, aren’t terribly friendly toward the Jews.  Jesus and his disciples have already been turned away from one town in Samaria; it’s likely that the 72 won’t receive a warm reception here as well.  But nonetheless, they’re going out, vulnerable, to preach a message of repentance and the coming of the kingdom to an unbelieving and hostile world.  And they are going into this hostile world, full of sin and its entanglements, full of violence and hate, full of unbelief and persecution, to do the will of their master, to preach the peace of the coming kingdom to potentially enemy ears.  He sends them off like lambs in the midst of an enormous wolfpack.

Agnus Day appears with the permission of www.agnusday.org

Like the 72, Jesus sends us out to be his ambassadors to the world as well, to shine the light of Christ before others.  Our task may not be quite the same— for us, the kingdom of God is now here, and we, as Christians, are citizens of it— but the world today isn’t any less hostile to the message of the kingdom of God than it was when Jesus sent out the 72.  This seems odd to us as members of the Church in a country where Christianity seems pretty mainstream and (as of 2017), 70% of the population identified as Christian.  But there are still plenty of people who are hostile to the Gospel or who have not heard it and are enthralled by other religions, and the number of people who claim no religious affiliation is growing by the day.  Here in Northern Virginia, “nones,” those people who seem to have no religious affiliation or belief has increased to roughly 60% of the local population.  That’s a lot of people who have either left the church, never were part of the church, or are burned out on religion who are trapped in their sins and need to hear the Gospel, many of whom likely have their own conceptions about the church that don’t make them well-disposed to hearing the good news of the Kingdom of God.

And adherents of other religions and the rising prevalence of irreligion aside, the world certainly doesn’t want to hear a message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The world is partial to sin.  The world likes violence and greed and sensuality and hatred.  The world loves pride and vanity and envy, gluttony and mindless consumption. The world loves apathy and dehumanization and death and objectification, among myriad other things.  And the devil and the world thrust these things upon us, their own foul panoply, in order to entice and captivate with the aim of leading astray and, ultimately, destroying souls.  The devil and the world play to man’s sinful nature with these things, and they seek to undermine the message of the Gospel by bringing down those who would be God’s ambassadors to the world and who would live as his children.  All of us have been tempted by these things, all of us have given into them one time or another.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, and sometimes the wolves have attacked us.  Sometimes the wolves have taken a few members of our flock.  Sometimes some of us have been turned into wolves.  Sometimes, we have had wolves in sheep’s clothing among us.  When we see the weapons arrayed against us, we realize that it’s not easy being someone sent by Christ.  It can be downright frightening, and when we seem to be losing our battles to the wolves, it can lead us into fear and despair.

“Wolf und Fuchs” (1666), by Franz Rösel von Rosenhof (1626–1700). Bavarian State Painting Collections. Public Domain.

And of course, the mission for us is different.  The 72 were sent out by Jesus to specifically preach the kingdom’s coming.  We haven’t been commissioned that way.  Not all of us are gifted preachers.  Not all of us have been given the vocation to preach and teach like a pastor or a missionary does.  And we are living in the world post-resurrection; Jesus has died and risen to forgive our sins.  The kingdom of God has come near and is with us.  But how do we go about in this hostile world with confidence, knowing what lurks out there, waiting for us?  If Jesus has called us to serve him, what is he calling us to do?  How can we face the dangers of this still dangerous world if we’re not being sent out in the manner of the 72 to explicitly do battle with evil?

“Wolf reißt ein Lamm” (1666), by Christopher Paudiß (circa 1618 –1666/1667). Bavarian State Painting Collections. Public Domain.

When Jesus sends out the 72, he apparently sent them “unarmed,” but in reality, they are carrying a super-weapon on their mission into enemy territory.  Think of it as something like a spiritual briefcase nuke.  Jesus gives them authority to speak his peace to the people they come to.  The peace of God comes with them, and that peace is the blessing of eternal life through faith in the promised work of Christ, in the coming of the kingdom of God.  Their job is to speak that peace, to tell other people about the reason for their peace, and should they be open to it, pass it on to them.  It is the peace that comes when the kingdom of God draws near.  The faith they have in the promise keeps them safe; it gives them the power to cast out demons, to heal, and to tread upon all the evil schemes of the enemy; to strike such a blow against Satan through the good news of God that Jesus sees him falling from heaven, his power weakened and grip on mankind loosened.  Faith in the redemptive work of God forgave their sins, and put their names in God’s book of life.  Jesus reminds them that they should not rejoice in the power he gives them over evil forces, but rather to rejoice in knowing that their “names are written in heaven,” that their hope and joy should be in their salvation.  The 72 can boldly go about their mission, as sheep among wolves, but safe from the enemy’s assaults.  Jesus assures them: “And nothing will harm you.”  They are forgiven, and reconciled with God to do his work.

The Eastern Church preserves some of the names attributed to the 72 disciples. From psephizo.com.

The peace of God, the promise of redemption from sin and the gift of eternal life, made it possible for the 72 to go forth and perform their mission for Jesus, preparing the way for him on his journey through Samaria.  That peace of God is also ours.  Though we are not called by Jesus to perform the exact mission of the 72, we are nonetheless his missionaries.  As Peter writes in his first epistle, all Christians “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Pe 2:9 NIV).  We, therefore, trusting in the work of Christ for our salvation from sin, can, through our daily vocations, witness Christ by the way in which we live, and by so doing, we can be the light of the risen Christ in the world for others. 

Martin Luther once said the following through how a Christian can be a source of light and peace in the world in a 1522 sermon:

“The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor….The same is true for shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor. When a Christian does not serve the other, God is not present; that is not Christian living.”[2]

Christ has sent us, recipients of the promise of eternal life, royal priests in a holy nation, to serve one-another and to be agents of the Gospel through our interactions with others in an unbelieving world.  You can be confident as a Christian, “always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Pe 3:15 ESV), because Jesus has empowered you to serve others because he first served you.  You don’t have to be afraid to reach out to others who are not in the church, you don’t have to fear engaging those who are in the thrall of the world because Jesus has written your name in the heavens.  He is with you, and though you may seem to be a sheep among wolves, no power of the enemy can harm you when you trust in him and let him use you as his instrument.  Go forth and serve joyfully— Jesus has saved you and sent you to share his peace!  Amen.


[1] Gaudi, Robert. 2017. African Kaiser: General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck and the Great War in Africa. (London: Hurst & Company.)

[2] Martin Luther, “Sermon in the Castle Church at Weimar” (25 October 1522, Saturday after the Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity), in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesamtausgabe, 60 vols. (Weimar: Herman Böhlaus Nachfolger, 1883–1980) 10/3:382 (translation F.J.G).  Cited in F.J.G., “What Luther Didn’t Say about Vocation,” Word & World 25:4 (2005): 361.