Sermon for the First Sunday after Epiphany, January 12, 2020 (Matthew 3:13-17) – The Baptism of Jesus

“Triptych of Jan Des Trompes” (1505) by Gerard David (ca. 1450-1523). Groeningmuseum. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon Audio from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

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

“Jesus’ Baptism” (2008) by Richard Buswell, Lynchburg Stained Glass. Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia. Personal photograph.

Today in the church year, we commemorate the baptism of Jesus.  We’re blessed here at Good Shepherd because we have a visual representation of this event that we can contemplate here in the sanctuary when we think about what we heard in the Gospel lesson this morning.  If you’d all take a look to your right, you’ll see the window depicting Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John—-Jesus standing in the water (presumably after coming up out of the water after being immersed), and John trickling water over Jesus.  And then the Holy Spirit, descending in the likeness of a dove, coming down to point out Jesus to the crowds gathered there.  There’s also the fun addition of a fish jumping among the cattails, no doubt disturbed by the act of baptism.  But all of the details Matthew highlights in his Gospel are here for us to view and think about and see in full color.

I’ve always thought that it’s interesting how God the Father uses the Holy Spirit to point out Jesus to us in this reading from Matthew’s Gospel.  The fourth century church father and bishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom—-or, ”John the Golden-Mouthed,” so-called on account of his beautiful and insightful sermons as well as his sharp-but-necessary words for the ruling elite of the day—-writes in his homily on Matthew 3:13-17 that God did this to point the crowds assembled at the Jordan to the One to whom they should be paying attention.  Chrysostom says that God points out Jesus in this way because, for the crowds, John the Baptist was the center of attention.  John the Baptist is the son of a priest; he was born to a woman who was famously unable to bear children, and he looks like an Old Testament prophet—-he’s wearing camel’s hair garments, he has  wild hair and beard, and he eats locusts and wild honey.  He looks like Elijah.  Surely he’s the one that is promised; surely he looks like a messiah might look.  But instead, when Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened and the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove, and the Father’s voice booms out: “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”  Elsewhere in Scripture, when God says this, he follows it up with a command: “Listen to him!”  But here, perhaps, we ought to watch him, and see just what it is he is doing.

“St. John Chrysostom preaching before the Empress Eudoxia,” Jean-Paul Laurens (1838-1921)

And what is he doing here?  He is being baptized.  We see it in our window well enough.  Jesus goes to John at the Jordan and requests to be baptized by him.  But unlike the others present at the Jordan, John knows who Jesus is.  Jesus is pretty nondescript; to anyone there, he’s just some random Galilean carpenter, but in reality, Jesus is the one whose sandals John is not fit to carry.  He’s the one who should be baptizing John.  He’s the Son of Man coming with his winnowing fork in his hand to separate the wheat from the chaff; he’s the one laying his axe to the root of the fruitless vines, who will be doling out God’s judgment on the wicked, and he desires to be baptized?  Jesus doesn’t need to repent of anything—-he doesn’t need to be warned to change his ways because the kingdom of heaven is at hand because he’s bringing the kingdom.  He doesn’t need to be baptized by John at all because he’s God incarnate, the perfectly sinless man.  So why does he travel all the way to the Jordan from Galilee to see John to be baptized?

“The Baptism of Jesus” (1546) by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1515-1586). Cleveland Museum of Art. Public Domain.

The short answer is this: Jesus came to the Jordan River to be baptized because, in doing so, he was taking our place.  He, the sinless man, was being baptized in the stead of a sinful people.  John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance.  It was a baptism where those who came to him did so to show that they realized the weight of their sins under God’s judgment and were repenting of them so that they would be ready for when the Messiah came.  The whole world of sinners literally came out to John to be baptized—-soldiers, tax collectors, the legalistic Pharisees, and even the Sadducees—they all came to the banks of the Jordan to be baptized and to confess their sins, to lay themselves at the mercy of God who was coming soon.  Had we been there and heard John’s preaching, we would likely have come to be baptized, too.  John’s preaching convicts us of our sins.  But John’s baptism did not impart the promise of eternal life to those who came to him; it was not “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”  Instead, it directed those who came to John to trust in the One who would save them, and it urged them to confess their sins to God and trust that he would forgive them when he came.  And now, the One himself had come to be baptized as well.  He would be cleansed in the waters, too, just as those he was coming for were.  It was only right to do so, in order to “fulfill all righteousness.”

And what does that mean, “to fulfill all righteousness”?  The theologian N.T. Wright writes the following in his book, Matthew for Everyone“But if he, Jesus, is to [fulfill God’s plan], this is how he must do it: by humbly identifying himself with God’s people, by taking their place, sharing their penitence, living their life and ultimately dying their death.”[1]

Jesus’ baptism is his first step toward doing this in his public ministry.  Once he has been baptized, Jesus will go do battle with Satan in the wilderness and then begin his ministry to the people, preaching the Gospel of the coming kingdom of heaven.  And when he is baptized, what he does in the Jordan prefigures what he does for his people all throughout his ministry, culminating in his sacrifice and death on the cross.  He sees his people—not just the people of his day, but us as well—condemned under the law, shown to be the sinners that they are, facing God’s judgment, and he goes down into the water in their place.  He not only models for them what they should do, but he also identifies himself with them fully.  He becomes their representative—he embodies, in himself, all of Israel, and indeed, all people condemned under the law for their sin.  Aubrey Taylor writes the following in The Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels:

Therefore, when Jesus is baptized under John, it is perhaps best understood in light of his role as a “representative of Israel.” Passing through the waters of the Jordan, in harmony with his ancestors and the hopeful pilgrims of his own day, he participates in the same symbolic act that characterized John’s ministry. Jesus identifies himself with corporate Israel, its calling, its failings, and its hope—and participates in a movement that sought to usher in the kingdom of God.[2] 

“The Baptism of Christ” (1803) by William Blake (1757-1827), Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Public Domain.

Jesus’ baptism prefigures his being made “sin that knew no sin, that we might become his righeousness” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

In his baptism, Jesus identifies himself with sinners condemned under the law, confessing their transgressions, and he identifies with them so strongly that he will again, at a later time, take the place of all sinners and feel the full force of the law in his death.  When the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove, it is God’s way of pointing everyone who sees Jesus to see him not just as a fellow person being baptized, but as the One who saw humanity in its sins and joined it, sharing in the whole human experience and ultimately, redeeming it.  When God says, “This is my Son, the beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” he wants those present at his baptism, as well as all of us, now, to see Jesus for who he is, the One who will save us from our sins, who will fight sin, death, and the Devil which all attack, entice, harm, and kill.  When Jesus was baptized, he indicated to the whole world and all people that he would bear the sins of the world upon himself and drown them under the waters of death, returning to life again, victorious.

“The Baptism of Jesus” (1485/1486) by Jean Colombe (1430-1493), from Très Riches Heures du Jean Duc de Berry, folio 109v. Condé Museum. Public Domain.

And this is why our baptism differs from the one Jesus receives.  When Jesus died and rose again, what Chrysostom calls the “Jewish baptism,” the baptism John practiced, ceased to be a washing of repentance and became a washing of the forgiveness of sins given to us by Christ.  In Christ, this baptism ceased to be symbolic: it became a sacrament, where God’s word bonded to water brings the Holy Spirit, forgiveness of sins, and eternal life, that life which Jesus won for us in his death and resurrection.  When we are baptized, as Chrysostom puts it, “also this, [the opening of the heavens] is done, God calling you to your country on high, and persuading you to have nothing to do with earth.  And even if you see not, yet never doubt it.”  When you and I were baptized into Christ, not only did we renounce sin and the devil, we were forgiven in Christ, once and for all, and the heavens opened for us, also.  We were made children of God, citizens of the kingdom of Heaven because Christ identified himself with us, took our place, and died and rose to save us from our sins.

If you look back at our baptism window, you’ll notice a detail that doesn’t match Matthew’s text:  John is pouring water on Jesus’ head with his hand when Matthew says, Jesus is submerged and then reemerges from the water—John had apparently dunked him.  Perhaps John also poured water over Jesus’ head, too, but the text does not specify.  But I think this artistic liberty is important for us, that Jesus is receiving a baptism like ours in this image, that like every adult and baby baptized in this sanctuary, he, too, is having water poured over him.  This image of Jesus reminds us that our Lord, when he came among us those many years ago, loved us so much that he took our place and went through literal hell for us that we might be saved from our sins and the judgment of God, and live to be his own redeemed children.  Jesus Christ was baptized out of his love for us and was proclaimed the Son of God at his baptism; we, baptized in his love, have been made God’s own children, sons and daughters of the King. 

Sometimes, we forget just how great of a gift this baptism in Christ is.  Just the other day, one of my friends from seminary (he’s a pastor now) had the privilege to conduct his grandfather’s funeral.  In the car ride home from the grave site, he was speaking to his father, who had never been baptized.  He and his father spoke about life, death, and the work of Christ.  My friend asked his father if he desired to be baptized, and his father said yes, he did, and that afternoon, my friend baptized his father in the kitchen sink, speaking the promises of God in Christ to him, and bringing him into Christ’s fold.  My friend’s sorrow at the death of his grandfather that day turned into joy, because now, his father’s now has the assurance that his sins are forgiven.  His father is now a recipient of the promise of the kingdom of Heaven which is now here, brought to us when Christ died and rose again for us.

Martin Luther once said, “when you wash your face, remember your baptism.”  Your baptism is an everlasting promise of God’s love for you.  But also remember, as John Chrysostom said, that, when we see Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, we see God pointing “out to us our Deliverer from all evils,” through whom the Spirit is given to convey “the adoption to all the world’s offspring in common” as children of God.  In baptism in Christ, we have been made God’s children, and we bear the indelible mark of him who made us so.  Amen!

[1] Wright, N.T.. Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (The New Testament for Everyone) (pp. 21-22). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Aubrey L. Taylor, “Wilderness Events: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus,” in Lexham Geographic Commentary on the Gospels, ed. Barry J. Beitzel and Kristopher A. Lyle, Lexham Geographic Commentary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), 57–58.

Sermon for the First Sunday of Christmas, Series A, December 29, 2019 (Matthew 2:13-23) – “Everything Sad is Going to Come Untrue”

“Massacre of the Innocents” (1565-1567), by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (ca. 1526-1569). Windsor Castle. Public Domain.

Originally preached at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Herndon, Virginia.

Sermon audio from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church

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

Imagine with me, if you will, the little town of Bethlehem, royal David’s city.  Once it had been graced by a silent night and heavenly peace, but not this night.  This night, an cry of anguish rent the air.  Then another and another, and soon a whole chorus of wailing, screams, and loud weeping could be heard rising up from the little town, intermingled with the shouts of soldiers, the squalling of babies, and the horrified cries of fathers and mothers having their children torn from their arms.  The sounds of dogs barking furiously, of hobnails and horseshoes clattering on cobbled streets, of doorposts splintering, of soldiers bursting into homes, of breaking pottery and cursing.  The crying of children.  And after a time, the screams and wails of parents gave way to sobbing and long, inconsolable groans.  That night in the little town of Bethlehem, what had begun as a still night ended in one of terror and blood, a night where deep and dreamless sleep was replaced by a shell-shocked wakefulness and the horror of a living nightmare.  At the end of it all, some twenty infants, all boys below the age of two, lay dead in Bethlehem, murdered on the orders of a king driven mad with fear and jealousy.  Soon all such children in the surrounding hamlets and villages would meet a similar fate.  An entire generation wiped out in an evening, the cries of their mothers inconsolable.  The cries of Rachel, the mother of all Israel, weeping for her children, unable to be comforted because her sons are dead.

Massacre of the Innocents” (1611), by Guido Reni (1575-1642). Pinoteca Nazionale Bologna. Public Domain.

And how did it come to this, that these infants, these innocent babies, were massacred by the ruler of their land?  What had they done?  They were collateral in a campaign of fear.  Some time before the massacre, Herod the Great, king of Judaea and client of Rome, had been visited by a group of scholars and wise men from the East who had, by their astrological calculations, come to discover that a king had been born in Judaea, and that his birth had been marked by a star that pointed to where he was.  “Where might we find him?” they had asked Herod, and the king was shocked.  He had clung to his throne for nearly forty years, holding his kingdom together by means of violence and threats.  His whole reign was marked by blood, not only by that of the people he governed, but even by that of three sons and a wife, all of whom he believed had conspired against him.  And now Herod, in his waning days, his body riddled with gangrenous sores and in constant pain; Herod, who had taken four years to fight his way into his capital and who had endured threat after threat to his kingship, who had sacrificed even his family in order to hold onto power, found himself facing yet another challenger to his dominance, another perceived claimant to the title “King of the Jews.”

“The Journey of the Magi” (1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902), Minneapolis Museum of Art. Public Domain.

So, Herod sent these wise men off to find this princeling and to report his location to him so that he could end the threat to his rule.  But the wise men never returned, and Herod, angered by their apparent duplicity, sought to work out his wrath and his fear.  The old prophecy spoken once by Micah came into his mind:

“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah
Too little to be among the clans of Judah,
From you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. 
His goings forth are from long ago,
From the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2, NASB)

And with this verse held firmly in his fevered brain, Herod sent his soldiers into Bethlehem  to hunt down this challenger to his rule, and there they went about their bloody business.  A king who did not even spare his own sons from the sword slew the sons of his subjects.  He slew these sons in hopes that he would slay a certain Son who was proclaimed by the Scriptures to be the true king of the Jews, and the mothers of the nation—even the nation itself—wept.

“Murder of the Bethlehem Children,” Codex Egberti, Folio 15v (10th Century), Stadtbibliothek, Tier. The Yorck Project (2002). Public Domain.
“Toppling of the Pagan Idols (The Flight into Egypt): Isaiah 19:1, Pseudo-Matthew 22-23” (1423) by the Bedford Master. Public Domain.

But in his violence, Herod failed to kill the one who threatened his throne.  He did not know that the royal child, of a far more august lineage he, had been in a different town.  Though he had been born in Bethlehem on a chilly December night two years prior, he had been in Nazareth, to the north, when the wise men came searching; and, because an angel sent by God had warned his earthly father of Herod’s intentions in a dream, he was on his way to Egypt where he would be outside the reach of Herod’s jealous hands.  And so the violence visited on Bethlehem was truly senseless in every way.

The Church has historically commemorated the massacre of the Holy Innocents on December 28 during the Christmas season, and when we hear it recounted, we see what the power of sin in this world looks like.  Herod, a man motivated by greed and paranoia and hate, murders children because he fears losing all that he has to one of them.  A powerful man, a king, takes the weakest of all in cold blood.  It’s an act that doesn’t make sense.  It’s a horrendous, vicious, horrible thing that doubtless destroyed the lives of the families he attacked just as much it destroyed their children.  And we ask ourselves “Why would God allow such a thing to happen, especially when it was his Son that Herod was hunting?”  Because that’s who Herod wanted to kill—he was hunting for the Christ child, the Son of God born to the virgin Mary, the one called “Immanuel”—God with us—the true king of the Jews and, indeed, of all creation.  These innocents died on his account; Herod martyred them because he believed that Jesus was among them.  Why did these children have to die? Surely the mothers of Bethlehem cried this out in their rage and their sorrow and their tears.  “Why did our children have to die?  What did we do to deserve this?”

“The Tower of Siloam (Le tour de Siloë)” (1886-1896), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum. Public Domain.

Scripture shows us that the reason for evil and suffering cannot always be discerned, but we do know the root of it.  When Pontius Pilate mixed the blood of a group of Galileans with their sacrifices, or when the tower of Siloam fell down and killed eighteen people, it was not because of anything they had done to deserve such a fate.  No, on the contrary, our Lord says in Luke 13 when discussing these things, it was on account of sin’s power in the world.  The devil, going about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour, someone to destroy.  The power of sin, ushered in by Adam and Eve when they were deceived by the old serpent and ate of the fruit God had commanded them not to eat, has corrupted the very fabric of the Creation, from the highest mountain to the tiniest quark, and now horrors are commonplace—horrific accidents, deliberate acts of violence, children mindlessly slain—and we cannot say why.  And though we are tempted to ask why God let them happen, we rarely, if ever, get an answer.

In light of this, it may be tempting to despair, to join the voice of Rachel crying out in Ramah, refusing to be comforted because her children are dead.  But come with me to another time in Judaea, where new rulers had come to power, and where the Son who escaped Herod’s violence ultimately faced the violence of a world gripped by sin head on.

Not long after Herod massacred the children of Bethlehem, he died festering in agony, the victim of a hideous illness that rotted his body from the inside out.  But before his death, he split his kingdom into fourths, giving each part to one of his surviving sons.  To his son, Archelaus, he gave control of Judaea.  He was a man of similar temperament to his father, so when the Holy Family returned from their sojourn in Egypt, they returned to Nazareth which was outside of Archelaus’ rule and where the young Jesus could grow in wisdom and stature and grow to manhood.

“Crocifissione” (ca. 1610), by Giovanni Battista Caracciolo (Battistello Caracciolo) (1578-1635). Museo di Capidomonte, Naples. Public Domain.

Some thirty years later, however, after other kings rose and fell in Judaea and Rome had taken control, on a dark Passover night, the King of the Jews was arrested as he prayed in a garden in Jerusalem and was led away to be tried by the secular and religious authorities for claiming to be who he was.  Despite his innocence, he was found guilty by a kangaroo court and a fickle crowd who had days before lauded him as king.  He was stripped of his garments, beaten and scourged.  The courtyards echoed with his cries of pain, the sharp crack of the whip against his back, the jeers and laughs of the soldiers as they beat and taunted him.  And he was led, staggering with the weight of a crossbeam—the very instrument by which he was going to die— on his shoulders, through the crowded streets of the city, some onlookers wailing in sorrow, others jeering and pointing, the rhythmic clatter of the soldier’s hobnailed boots sounding a death march like a snaredrum.  At the end of the journey, he was brought to the top of a hill outside the city where he was crucified, nailed to the cross.  He was left there, exposed, naked, bloodied, subject to the jibes of detractors while his mother and friends sat at his feet, weeping and wailing, refusing to be consoled, their weeping giving way to groans.  And as the sky turned black when the King breathed his last, a soldier nearby seemed to have joined them in their grief.  Looking up at the body hanging there, he took off his helmet.   “Truly,” he whispered in awe, “this was an innocent man.”  Another innocent Son murdered senselessly by jealous rulers who feared he would upend their power, driven by sin and greed.

But there was something different about the death of this innocent Son.  His death, as senseless and horrible as it was, was not in vain.  Despite the gore, the violence, the horror of it all, his death destroyed the power of sin, violence, and senseless pain in creation.  All the terror and sorrow of all generations prior and since was brought to an end.  Death had no power then on that hill outside Jerusalem, or anywhere else for that matter.  For in his death, the Son of God and King of the Jews destroyed death.  Three days later he rose from the tomb, and he sealed away its finality forever.  All the horror, all the pain and sorrow, was robbed of its strength, and the promise was given that all that is terrible, everything that is sad, will one day come untrue.  It all already came untrue, there, on that hill, on that rough, wooden cross.

 “Everything that is sad will one day come untrue.”  That phrase comes from Tolkien, specifically from his book, The Return of the King, and it’s originally part of a question Samwise Gamgee asks the wizard Gandalf when he wakes up following the destruction of the evil Ring of Power.  “I thought you were dead!”, he exclaims, “But then I thought I was dead myself.  Is everything sad going to come untrue?  What’s happened to the world?”[1]  That’s a question we ask in these latter days when we hear of Christ’s death for us, too.  Will all the sin, the hurt, the sorrow, the fear, and the sickness that pervades our fallen world be brought to nothing?  Will those things in our lives that we regret, or the pain that continues to dog us, be taken away?  Will everything that has gone wrong in this world be made right?  Will all those sad facts that define us—our pains, our fears, our misdeeds, or addictions—be made untrue?

            That day on Golgotha, Christ’s sacrifice redeemed all the terror and death of all the ages—that day, to quote Gandalf’s reply to Sam, “a great Shadow ha[d] departed” the world.[2]  Christ’s sacrifice redeemed deaths of the innocents slain in Herod’s jealous madness.  The deaths of those killed by Pilate and crushed by the tower.  The grief of parents who have lost their children, of those who have lost loved ones in terrible accidents or to horrible diseases.    The anguish of those who have lost a father or mother or sibling to the horrors of war.  The pain of those who have been abused, of those who have been victims of random violence.  The pain of those who have lost a child to abortion, and the deaths of the aborted.  The deaths and pain of all who have been victims of the caprices of this sinful world—the deaths and pain and sorrow of all time were redeemed there, on that cross.  When we ask ourselves, “Why would God let these things happen?” we cannot give an answer as to “why,” but we can look to the One who redeems it all, who gasped out, “It is finished” from the cross, and who will bring it all to right when he comes again.  Senseless evil cannot last.  Sin’s power over creation has been ended.  Christ, the true King of the Jews and the King of Creation, has brought it to pass.  He has ensured for us that all that is sad is going to come untrue.  It is coming untrue.  His death and resurrection have made it so.

So at this Christmastime, if you are suffering from the agony and grief of a world still ruled by the violence and injustice of sin, or are feeling more personally the pain and sorrow of a Rachel or Mary, trust in your Lord who heals your wounds and eases your pain.  The young child who fled with his parents into Egypt and who grew to manhood and died on the cross and rose again so that we might be children of God will bring all to rights when he comes again on that glorious day when all weeping shall cease, when he shall wipe every tear from our eyes—indeed, it is finished!  He has done it for you.  Amen!

[1] Tolkien, Jonathan Ronald Ruel, The Return of the King (New York: Ballantine Books, 1993): 246.

[2] Ibid.

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019 (Romans 1:1-7)

“Advent Wreath,” by Bubamara. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

This sermon was originally delivered at Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church in Ashburn, Virginia.

To all those in Ashburn who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Christmas is almost here, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to believe.  December is almost over, and that means that Advent is almost over and Christmas shall be ascendant.  Poor Advent always seems to be overshadowed during the church year; always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  American culture seems especially to be in love with Christmas over Advent, and so Advent, outside of the churches, does not get a lot of love or attention.  We’ve all been going to Advent services, yes, but the rest of the world passes Advent by.

But Advent has historically been a time for contemplation and study, remembering Christ’s first coming, and looking again to his assured return.  It can and has been a time for personal discipline, like Lent— indeed, Advent used to be seven weeks long and was observed with fasting.  In some countries, it was called “St. Martin’s Lent” because the seven-week observance began after St. Martin’s Day on November 11.  But it’s also a time to confront the darkness that pervades the world.  In John 1, the Evangelist tells us that in Christ “was life, and the life was the Light of men.  The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” or, as other manuscript traditions attest, “the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5 NASB/RSV).  In these gray and latter days, there’s an awful lot of darkness about.

Tish Harrison Warren, author of the recent award-winning book, Liturgy of the Ordinary and a priest in the Anglican Church of North America, writes the following in a recent op-ed in the New York Times:

But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness.  To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. Advent holds space for our grief, and it reminds us that all of us, in one way or another, are not only wounded by the evil in the world but are also wielders of it, contributing our own moments of unkindness or impatience or selfishness.[1]

And what an evil world it is.  Just this week we received news that the former president of the Lutheran Church in Venezuela (one of our sister-churches) was murdered, leaving behind a wife and three children.  In the last few weeks, two pastors were murdered by an angry mob in Ethiopia, and several Christians in Kenya were killed by al-Shabab because they would not confess Islam.  If you read the Wall Street Journal yesterday, you likely saw the op-ed discussing attacks on Christians in Nigeria by radical Fulani herdsmen. And then there was the military-base attack in Florida, and the knife attacks in London.  And then there’s the constant war everywhere, the persecutions of Christians and Uyghurs in China.  And closer to home, the political infighting, of neighbor turned against neighbor on account of the political cause du jour; and there are the politicians who use the system to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their constituents.  Then, too, there’s the devaluing of human life and the elevation of convenience and the desire to live life for oneself and not for others.  And we have hunger and homelessness; illness and depression, greed, avarice, hatred—the whole gamut of ills and sins.  There’s a lot of darkness, and it’s easy to see only the darkness in the world and in ourselves.  And so at Advent, in the face of all of this darkness and evil, we need to be reminded of the Christian story, of why we are who we are.

Perhaps this is what Paul was trying to do when he wrote his letter to the church in Rome.  We know that Paul wrote his letter to the fledgling Roman church sometime around AD 55-58, roughly 25 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension.  The Roman world was one full of darkness, too (and let’s be honest, the world has always been full of darkness, regardless of the reigning culture).  The members of the early church in Rome lived in a city home to hundreds of competing cults and where the ruler literally believed himself to be a man-turned-god descended from a line of men-turned-gods.  Rome was a landscape antithetical to the Christian life and witness: a place where infanticide was legal; where masters subjected their slaves to the worst kinds of abuse, even death; where adultery and prostitution were frequent, and where men fought each other, sometimes to the death, in bloodsports for money and the acclamation of the crowd.  It was a city where it was common to hire fake witnesses to testify at your court hearings, and to use the legal system to steal from your political and social enemies.  It doesn’t sound a lot different from the world we know, if not in aspect, then certainly in intent.

“St. Paul Writing His Epistles” (ca. 1618-1620), by Valentin de Boulogne (1591-1632). Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Public Domain.

And in addition to all of this, the Roman church was staring at potential persecution by the imperial government.  The empire hadn’t officially begun persecuting the church, but the writing was on the wall.  Several years before Paul wrote his letter, the Jews were expelled from the city on account of unrest in their synagogues, possibly on account of their unwillingness to accept Christians in their ranks.  This meant that after the Jews were expelled, only Gentile believers were left.  But they, too, may have expected the governing authorities to turn on them, too.  And furthermore, without the Jewish believers among them, some of whom may have witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion and outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this young and now largely Gentile congregation may suddenly have found itself without an anchor, without eyewitnesses to Christ’s death and to Pentecost there to remind them what this Christian life is all about, to remind them of who they were and are, to remind them why they wait. And so Paul wrote his letter, and told them this Gospel.  A Gospel through which light bursts through the gloom of the world:

[The] gospel of God which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ…. (Romans 1:1–6, RSV)

The Gospel is the same one Paul himself received: that Jesus Christ was foretold by the prophets and scriptures and born of David’s line; that he, a king according to his lineage, was also the Son of God; that he was shown to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead; and that he, through that resurrection, has given Paul (and, more especially, the church) grace to proclaim Christ to the nations and to reconcile them to God by faith.  Jesus is real.  He is both king and God, and death could not hold him.  He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and the wonders of his love.

This is the Good News for the church in Rome, and it’s Good News for you and me.  It’s Good News because this Gospel reminds us that, in spite of the darkness of sin that marks this world in this present age, Christ came among us, born into a human lineage, lived, died, and rose so that we all might be given grace to be God’s people in Christ and live as saints in him.  Christ really took on flesh and dwelled among us.  He really died for our sins.  And he rose again to show that sin, death, and the grave had been robbed of their power.  By his death and resurrection, he defanged the Devil and destroyed his power over you and over me.  Sure, sin and death try their hardest to harm us, and they may— in fact, they often do.  But Christ, who came and pitched his tent among us at his first coming, has made their effects moot.  It will not last forever.  As Brother Giovanni Giocondo allegedly wrote to to Countess Allagia Aldobrandeschi at Christmas in 1513 (Giocondo’s authorship is disputed, but the sentiment still stands): “The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!”

Christ is that light.  Christ is that joy, and as Paul told the Romans, he came so that they might know this joy and live new and transformed lives because of it, belonging to him rather than belonging to the world of sin and death.  The seed of David and Son of God, who died on the cross and rose from the grave, has been crowned Lord of All—just like in the chancel window here, and he holds out his arms through the gloom to take hold of us and make us his own through the gift of faith he gives us.  He places his name on us in baptism and feeds us his body and blood to strengthen us in body and soul.  He cleanses our hearts when we confess our sins, and he keeps and sustains us through his life-giving Holy Spirit.  And renewed by the Holy Spirit, we go out as God’s agents—as little Christs (for that’s what Christians are!)—serving our neighbors in this world, doing the good works that the Holy Spirit has set before us to do.  This is what it means to be a saint, one called to belong to Christ, a “slave” or bondservant just like Paul.  When you and I were baptized into death and raised to life in Christ, we were changed, lifted out of the muck and gloom of a sinful world to live in his glorious light, made holy, and made whole.

Resurrection Window in the Chancel of Our Savior’s Way Lutheran Church, Ashburn, Virginia. (

This is the Christian story that we hear every Advent; this is the Gospel Paul reminded the Romans of when they found themselves alone without a human connection to Christ in a city and land hostile to them; this is the Gospel you and I need to hear when the darkness of these gray and latter days closes in, when the darkness that still lurks in our hearts raises its ugly head or when the wolf is at the door.  Because in this Gospel, we know that Christ has rescued us from the evils of this world, and we know that he will come again to end the reign of sin for good.  He will make all things new.  And so we tell the story and look to his coming, remembering and waiting.  Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.  And we say with the church throughout the ages the Great O Antiphon for this, the 22nd of December, O Rex Gentium:

O Rex Gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unum:
veni, et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.

“O King of the nations, and desired by them,
the cornerstone who makes two one,
come and save mankind,
whom you formed from clay.”


[1] Tish Harrison Warren, “Opinion | Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness,” The New York Times, 30 November 2019, sec. Opinion,

“Stilton and Milton (or Literature in the 17th. and 20th. Centuries)” – G.K. Chesterton, from “The Coloured Lands.”

“John Milton, made of Stilton” (2016), by Christian Kjelstrup, The Guardian.

It’s getting close to the time of year when we eat too much rich food and, like Luther, are subjected to gout-dreams in our wintry captivity. Thus our thoughts turn, with Chesterton, to Milton.

Pardon, dear Lady, if this Christmas time,
The Convalescent Bard in halting rhyme
Thanks you for that great thought that still entwines
The Wicked Grocer with more wicked lines;
These straggling Crayon lines–who cares for these,
Who knows the difference between Chalk and Cheese?

Not wholly sound the saw, accounted sure,
That weak things perish and strong things endure:
Milton, six volumes on my groaning shelves,
May groan till Judgment Day and please themselves
As, harsh with leaden type and leathery pride,
Puritan Bards must groan at Christmas tide:

My table groans with Stilton–for a while:
Paradise Found not Lost, in Milton’s style
Green as his Eden; as his Michael Strong:
But O, my friend, it will not groan there long.

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

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).