15 December 2013

Why on earth

would anyone want to be a Lutheran?

Because we get to sing the most wonderful hymns ("Comfort, Comfort" "Hark! A Thrilling Voice Is Sounding" "On Jordan's Bank" and "Hark the Glad Sound!"), celebrate a joyous liturgy, and hear preaching like this.


St. Paul Lutheran Church
The Third Sunday of Advent
December 14/15, 2013+
St. Matthew 11:2-10
The Rev. BT Ball

When things don’t go well it is then that the questions come.  The question asked by John disciples then makes sense - is Jesus the coming one or should they be looking for someone else?  When there is hardship, suffering, death – is He the one, should you look for another?  Should you be looking for someone else?  Who else could there possibly be?  Not John, things were not going well - for all his preaching resulted with him in prison and then with his head on a platter.  So he won’t do.  There are plenty of prophets out there today – but the shine comes off of them pretty quickly.  Around for a while, powerful sermons, but eventually scandal or some other foolishness brings them down.  Forget other prophets then, should you turn to yourself and your own devices?  Pull yourself up, be all you can be?   Subscribe to Self magazine, read self-help books?   Be self-sufficient?  Self is the problem to begin with, remember the hardship, the trouble, much of that is self-imposed.  No one makes you drink too much.  No one forces you to click to the websites that degrade you and your marriage.  No one compels you to speak in harsh words. No one is making you horde all your money.  And certainly no one is keeping you from hearing the Word of God.  Sin is the problem, and that is deep in the self.  It is the fallen nature of all children of Adam.  It is the sin-sick self that is the source of trouble: yours and others.  It is why they hurt you, it is why you hurt them.  It is really the source of all the trouble, the rebellious, idolatrous self.  It is the sinful self that is source of sickness and disease, of hardship and suffering and should then be recipient of the just reward - death.

And so what questioning disciples need is not self-help, but the help that only Jesus can provide.  What is needed is the works of Christ and to hear of them.  The blind see, the lame walk, the lepers and cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.  And there are more works to come.  John prepared the way, he pointed to the comfort that is given by them – the works, the self-sacrifice of Jesus.  The sinless Lamb of God gives himself into the hands of sinful men, who mock and beat and spit and scourge and crucify him. These are the works of Christ.  A spotless perfect death, the glorious resurrection from the dead, a triumphant return to his Father’s right hand, the sending of the Holy Spirit; all this for you and for your salvation from sin and death and from the self.  All this to create a new and right spirit within you by the forgiveness of your sins.  

It is the work of Christ that is needed that gives answer to the question of seeking.   All of Christ’s work is directed toward the forgiveness of  your sins.  This is what John led the way in preaching.  It was promised of him at his birth by his father Zechariah, “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  St. Luke 1:76-79  

The way of peace is the way of Jesus.  His way is His suffering and death for you; giving His life for you.  There is no one else to go looking for.  There is no need to look within your heart to make things right.  No need to try and boost up self-esteem, or to try and gain self-sufficiency.  All that is needed  comes from Christ, who has made you His own, redeemed you by His blood, and by His spirit, sanctifies and keeps you in the one true faith.  You are not a reed swaying in the wind.  When the hardship, the trouble, the heartache, the sadness, the grief of this life come and even the guilt comes as you consider your sins, what you have are the works of Christ, and his Words, and His promises, His Body, His Blood, His death, His life.  Himself.  He is the Coming one, who has come to bring comfort to His people.  There is no one else to go looking for.  Amen

13 December 2013


This is a homily from yesteryear. But I remember preaching it like yesterday. Mr. Kostencki (principal of our Lutheran High and departed to be with his Lord a year or two after this was preached) was in the congregation that morning...and that would be his first Christmas without his beloved Jean. He told me as he left with tears in his eyes: "you got me." I knew exactly what he meant, for I think it was to such sad and breaking hearts that the Church in wisdom aimed the readings AND the collect for this feast. This is a hard season to get through for so many. So here's a repeat:

Homily for Gaudete (Matthew 11)

“Lighten the darkness of our hearts by Your gracious visitation.”  So we prayed in Gaudete’s collect.  For there is a darkness that settles upon the heart which only Christ’s visitation can chase away.

John’s disciples knew something of that darkness.  They had heard their Master point to Jesus and proclaim Him as the very Messiah, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.  And when they complained to their Master that Jesus was drawing the bigger crowds and drawing ever more people to Himself, they had heard John proclaim:  “He must increase and I must decrease.”  When their Master stood up to Herod and confronted him publicly with his oh-so-public adultery with his brother’s wife, Herod had thrown John into prison and left him there.  And Jesus?  When He got wind of what had taken place, just left the area.  The disciples of John had darkened hearts indeed.  They didn’t understand what was happening or why it was happening.  If Jesus were the true Messiah, how could He leave His beloved forerunner rotting in jail?  They loved John and they didn’t understand.  Not at all.

John, though, hears of what our Lord is doing and an idea comes to him.  He sends to Jesus through these men that are clinging to him to a burr to a dog.  He sends them to ask:  “Are you the Coming One or do we look for another?”

No, John is not in doubt.  How could he be?  He who was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and who confessed Christ while still in utero? He who knew from his godly parents all about the angel Gabriel and his visit to Mary and what that meant. He who in the muddy waters of Jordan saw the Spirit descend bodily upon Christ like a dove and heard with his own ears the Father’s voice announce:  “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  No, John’s heart, if it was darkened at all, was darkened by the sadness upon his own disciples’ faces.  And I suspect he knew what was coming - I don’t think he ever expected to get out jail alive.  These men before him, so loyal to him, so loving of him.  What would become of them?  How could he make sure that they’d know what they needed to do?

And so he sends them.  Marches them off to Jesus so that Jesus, by His gracious visitation, might lighten the darkness of their hearts.  And we too.  When our hearts weighed down and we can’t understand what’s happening, when we think we can’t take anymore, when another sickness, another death just seems too heavy a load to bear anymore - we need the wisdom of St. John to send us to Jesus to find out if He is the coming one or not.

And what do the disciples of John, what do we, discover when we come to Jesus.  Here’s the summary:  “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.”  This is the message Jesus sends back to John, making John’s own disciples the witnesses of what they had indeed heard and seen with their own eyes.

Do you think for a moment that the darkness was as heavy on them as they went back?  That their hearts were as low as when they came?  Not a chance.  They’d been with Jesus.  Visited with Him and He with them.  And that makes all the difference.  They’d seen Isaiah’s prophesies come to life in living color before their very eyes.  They’d seen that He is the Destruction of Death and that to poor sinners who fear before the judgment of God, He is the very Forgiveness of Sins.  This is the good news to the poor that is preached to them.  “Fear not!  God has not abandoned you to this darkness.  He has sent ME as a light to chase it from your heart forever.  In ME you have been loved with a love immeasurable, deep, divine.  Not the darkness of any sin of yours; not the darkness of your death will prove mightier than the Light I bring, the Light I AM.  Blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

So they go back to tell John the Good News.  And John thus secured their future.  When the worst happened, they would know where to go.  Matthew records three chapters later that after John’s execution “his disciples came and took the body and buried it, and they went and told Jesus.” (14:12)  They had discovered where the Light was whose visitation could drive every darkness from their heart.

And almost as though He were looking already at John’s death, our Lord speaks to the crowds as the disciples of John go away with lightened hearts.  “What did you go out into the wilderness to see?  A reed shaken by the wind?  What did you go out to see?  A man dressed in soft clothes?  Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses (a slam at Herod).  What then did you go out to see?  A prophet?  Yes, I tell you, and MORE than a prophet.  This is he of whom it is written:  “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.”

Prepare your way.  For Jesus would walk the same way that John was getting ready to walk.  Unjust arrest ending in violent death.  Jesus would walk the same way.  John would walk it ahead of Him.  Forerunner in life, forerunner in death.  But unlike John, Jesus would blast a hole right through death by enduring it.  Blessed man that John was, death had a claim on him.  He was a sinner in need of mercy and forgiveness.  But death had no claim on Jesus of Nazareth.  None.  For in Him there was no sin.  In Him was only holy obedience and eternal life.  Death thought it had swallowed Him down for good, only to find that His death slew death itself!  And this is the greatest light that He gives to our darkened hearts.  He went where John and all of us deserve to go in order to bring us out of there and bring us home with Him:  Victor over death and the grave, and rescuer of His people.

So, gaudete!  Rejoice, you who have been baptized into Him!  His death is your death to sin.  His life is your triumph over the grave.  His body and blood which He feeds into you IS your eternal righteousness.  His gracious visitation still is the sunshine that alone can vanquish all the darkness of our hearts.  Today John sends us to Jesus so that we might always know where to go when the darkness presses hard.  Amen.

12 December 2013

Pr. Curtis and I were talking...

...at the recent ONM retreat about the accuracy with which two tools seem to nail us. The Maier Briggs personality types (INFJ here) and our most recent experience: taking the test associated with Strengths Based Leadership. This thing was a little spooky. I thought the questions silly, the process a waste of time, and told my boss so in not quite so many words. Then I read the results....

I was the only one in our group who had strengths exclusively in a single category, that area being strategic thinking (intellection, input, strategic, learning and context). The descriptors that came my way:

You describe reading as a pleasure, not a chore...you gain insights and acquire information..you can talk about complicated topics by breaking down the important points...you may prefer to let someone else engage people in small talk...you routinely dog-ear pages, underline key ideas, scribble notes in the margin for easily locating them again (you should see the condition of my books!)...you offer unique perspectives on events, proposals, people..you tend to identify a goal and numerous ways of reaching it...you reconfigure factual information in ways that reveal trends (I'd say: discloses another way of looking at something that gives insight into the topic)...you always want to know more...you automatically commit certain words to memory...your curiosity is not easily satisfied...by nature you include some uncommon, technical words in your vocabulary...you tend to hold people's attention...you resist spending the majority of your time on topics that are not in line with your native abilities...you may be a solo performer...you love to gather all kinds of information...fascination with history and the past...you examine historical events and study the lives of people involved in them.

Well, um, yeah. As Pr. Curtis said: the test rather nails it. The challenge with the assessment is to understand the strengths of your over all team of co-workers and then how to not waste time "fixing" the weaknesses but leveraging the strengths and allowing other co-workers strengths to address areas where you are more challenged. Sandy and I actually had this worked out basically sometime ago. We joke about it, but it's true:  Bowers - anything to do with numbers; Weedon - anything to do with words. Works like a charm!

Anyway, the whole exercise really did prove interesting and helpful.

01 December 2013

The Hymns of Advent

Bring such great joy. Today we not only got to sing "Prepare the Royal Highway" but "O Lord, How Shall I Greet You" and the lovely Danish piece "O Bride of Christ, Rejoice." Two stanzas stand out to my mind:

Sin's debt, that fearful burden,
Cannot His love erase;
Your guilt The Lord will pardon
And cover by His grace.
He comes, for you procuring
The peace of sins forgiv'n,
His children thus securing
Eternal life in heav'n. (Stanza 5, O Lord, How Shall I Meet)

and this:

A humble beast He rides,
Yet as a King presides;
Though not arrayed in splendor,
He makes the grave surrender.
Hosanna, praise and glory!
Our King, we bow before Thee!

Blessed Advent-tide, people loved by God!