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Sermon for the First Sunday in Lent: February 18, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree

The Gospel of Mark uses very striking language. “The Spirit immediately drove [Jesus] out into the wilderness.” In the Greek original the phrase is more like, “He threw Him out.” Now, when Jesus was baptized just before this, and God the Father’s voice came out of heaven and said, “This is my Son, whom I love,” that was nice, wasn’t it? You would think that the Holy Spirit would be just as nice. I mean, God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all together and all in agreement. There is no division or conflict among the Holy Trinity, right? Remember that the Holy Spirit came down on Jesus in bodily form like a dove. So can you imagine what it would look like if this crazy bird was flapping around and pecking at our Savior’s head until He left the Holy Land for a walk in the wilderness; no meals included? That kind of kills the holy mood of that solemn occasion there with John in the Jordan River. Of course, despite the fact that it happened “immediately,” as Mark says, it is not necessarily true that the Holy Spirit had to stay in that particular dove form in order to drive Him into the desert, but it does make you think. And you should also keep in mind that Mark was inspired by the Holy Spirit Himself to write this account down for you in the Holy Bible.

Why would Jesus have to be “thrown out” into the wilderness? Wouldn’t He, as the perfect Son of God, willingly go in obedience to the heavenly Father? Why is the Holy Spirit so swift, so sudden, and so gruff with our Lord and Savior? And look at where Jesus has to go: a harsh desert with hardly any shade except some thin shrubs. He’ll be lacking food for 40 days, He’s out there with the wild animals (Mark has in mind the kind of animals that hunt you down and kill you), and of course, there’s the temptation by Satan, which isn’t described in any detail here like it is in Matthew and Luke. Good thing the angels were there to serve Him, but still, Jesus doesn’t deserve this. That’s at least how it looks to us reading about it. And yet, maybe the fact that Jesus does receive harsh treatment right after He was baptized—perhaps that helps explain what He really took on when that Jordan water came in contact with that Holy Body.

It’s like God the Father abandoned His own Son here too, early on in His mission, and not just at the cross, where we hear the familiar words quoted that Jesus quotes from the Psalms: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken Me?” Once His Baptism happened, the rubber met the road, that is, our Lord’s difficult task really started in earnest. You see, when you were baptized, your sins were taken away. When Jesus was baptized, your sins stuck on to Him, and He who knew no sin, became sin for us. And so, the only so-called “sinner” who never committed a sin Himself, He must face the temptations and struggles that you face, but that you could never handle on your own. And the time was right. The hour of salvation had arrived, as Jesus Himself said, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus’ mission to save the world from sin had to happen immediately, which is why the Holy Spirit had to throw Him out into the wilderness, dripping wet, as it were, from His baptism water.

What’s the wilderness like where God has led you lately? Probably not a whole lot of fun at times, I might guess. What wild animals are hunting you down for a snack? You may feel you don’t deserve this, or perhaps it’s more like, I don’t have time for this! Has Satan recently spoken to you through something enticing and desirable, and yet even with the veneer of possibly looking good and getting away with it? Perhaps you have deceived yourself sometimes into thinking you were beyond all this simple stuff, as if only new Christians have trouble struggling with it. Sure, you might have never doubted the Lord. You were brought up right. Others should follow your example more, so you might think.

But if you were honest with yourself, you would easily find within you that stubborn sinful nature. Often you hear it called by the name of Old Adam. That Old Adam was drowned first at your baptism, then again and again as each day you remember that holy washing when you confess your sins and receive forgiveness. Yet each day, this sinful nature of yours sets up his terrorist training camp within the borders of your very soul, so that you are constantly vulnerable for the devil’s assaults in this world that we live in now. Difficult situations, stress at work or school, illness or death of loved ones, and temptations constantly happen in your life. And you might even know that these things are used to drive you to the Lord and His Word so that He may strengthen you through them. But they feel so overwhelming at the time, so paralyzing, that you’d do anything, even give in to it all, just so your life would get just a little easier.

Do not fear. Though you may fall into these traps, your Lord Jesus Christ prevailed. He resisted Satan’s temptations. He braved the wild animals, and was obedient to God His Father even through 40 days’ worth of hunger. All this He did after He soaked up your sins into His flesh. He bore your burden through the forbidding desert so that He could lead you safely to the promised land of heaven. For it isn’t your good intentions, or keeping your promises to do better or your attempts to please God that will ever count. What counts is what Christ has done for you, starting from the very moment after He was baptized and the Holy Spirit threw Him out to start rescuing you. There was not a moment to lose, and you should remember that the next time you think you can put off your prayers for His strength and guidance in your life. After all, He did take the time to teach you to pray those very words: and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil (which also includes Satan, the Evil One).

At times you will feel overwhelmed, but you need not fall for what your feelings tell you. Remember what you have heard from God’s Holy Word, the Word that can never lie, and that will never change: Jesus faced it all ahead of you, and was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. His blood that cried out for nourishment at the end of 40 days of fasting was the same holy Blood that stained His thorny crown and dripped down the cross. One drop of that precious blood is able to pay for the sins of the whole world, and yet He poured it out for your forgiveness. He still pours out that Blood into the cup of Holy Communion, the chalice that is shared by all who believe in full agreement and are joined together in the One Body of Christ. And since Jesus has joined you to Himself, as branches are joined to the vine, God the Father does not see your sins any longer, but rather He sees the perfection of His own Son, counted in your favor. He hears your prayers as if Jesus Himself were speaking them, for that is really what is happening when you pray.

There may have been a moment where there appeared to be conflict between God the Son and God the Holy Spirit, since Jesus was thrown out into the wilderness right after His baptism to begin His ministry. For sure today, and until our Lord returns, conflict will come and go among the Church Militant here on earth, just as there is conflict raging within each Christian between the sinful nature and the new creation that has now been planted inside you. Yet it all happens while this message is preached, “Repent and believe in the gospel.” This is the message that brings to you the Body of Christ, it is making you together to be the Body of Christ, so that even to this very day, the voice of the Father that spoke at Jordan River applies to you, saying “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” And the same Holy Spirit who first drove Jesus into the wilderness, will strengthen and comfort you in whatever wilderness you may face.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Gen. 22:1–18 Take now your son, our only son Isaac … your descendents as the stars of heaven
Ps. 25:1–10 To You, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
James 1:12–18 every perfect gift is from above
Mark 1:9–15 baptized by John in the Jordan Repent and believe in the gospel

Sermon for the Transfiguration of Our Lord: February 11, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Bright Clouds

Bright Clouds

The face of Moses was exceedingly bright—so bright that the Israelites and even Aaron his own brother were afraid of him. As bright as the face of Moses must have been, it obviously paled in comparison with the brightness of Jesus in His transfiguration. The face of Moses sent out radiant beams after He, an earthly, fallible human being just like Peter and just like you, went up the holy mountain to speak face-to-face with God. Our Lord, on the other hand, is God Himself who came clothed in human flesh. In Him there is no fault, no sin to hide the Brightness of the heavenly Father’s face. He just let His awesome glory, which was in Him all the time, shine forth on this other holy mountain for a brief time. It is a transfiguration, or a change in form, only from your point of view, from the earthly perspective. From God’s perspective, Christ would normally look like this, glowing with heavenly glory. Jesus shines brighter, Jesus shines purer than all the angels in the sky, so the song goes.

But there is yet another difference between these two transfigurations, a difference between the brightness of Jesus and the face of Moses. Both times you hear that these events caused a lot of fear. The disciples Peter, James and John who saw Jesus were just as afraid as the Israelites who trembled when they saw Moses, maybe even more so. But the people who ran from Moses had good reason to be afraid. His brightness was the shining of God’s holy law. Moses had already gone up Mt. Sinai to receive two stone tablets with God’s own commandments and laws inscribed with His own divine finger. Now his prophet came back down the mountain and His people had to make sure they listened to him this second time. The glowing of Moses’ face was too much for any human being to look at and it would blind you if you gazed intently on it. It’s the very same thing with the law of God.

God’s commandments to be holy and righteous, free from sin, shunning every kind of evil are too much for you, like they are for every other person. There is no way that you could completely and perfectly commit yourself to the law and be totally free from God’s righteous accusation. You have already come into the presence of God here today and admitted it yourself: I am a poor miserable sinner. O Lord, I deserve not glory and praise from you, but rather punishment. I have nothing to claim on my own. When the liturgy calls for a time of silence before we all speak the confession of sins, that time is intended for you to measure yourself against God’s requirements and realize how much you need His forgiveness and cleansing for your life.

But you know, you could study the law of God too much. If you follow your natural inclinations, you would find yourself constantly making comparisons to it. You would easily find yourself wondering what more is there to do, or have I done enough? Another way you could overdo the law is to compare yourself with others and pride yourself over how great you are living out your Christian life. You may read the Bible and pray often, but the temptation is there to make that the reason why God will listen to you—that you’ve got some closer connection. Then the Bible becomes for you a book of mere moral guidelines which you could study the same way as this year’s tax code. The law dazzles you and the devil deceives you into thinking one of two possible extremes. Either there is no hope and the promises of God were not meant for you because you haven’t completely turned your life around, or that you actually have done what it takes to please God, thinking I’ve done my part, now someone else can pick up the rest. It’s all the same lie.

It is the lie of seeking out eternal life, or just simply the favor of God, looking for answers in the law. Have you fallen for this lie? You’re in good company. The Jews in the time of St. Paul looked for righteousness and God’s blessing by carefully following all the laws passed down to them from the Old Testament. Instead of looking to Jesus and believing in Him to fulfill the law in their place, they looked to themselves and what they have done to deserve God’s attention. It’s what God’s Word describes in one of our readings as these stubborn people listening to the Bible, the books that God used Moses to write, with a veil over their hearts, meaning that they heard every word, but it just didn’t register right, and every wife can tell you how frustrating that is.

Now, completely the opposite, you have the transfiguration of Jesus. The law is not proclaimed here. There’s a lot of heavenly talking going on: Jesus talking to Moses and Elijah, the two giants of the Old Testament talking to Jesus, and God the Father speaking from the cloud. But in all this heavenly conversation, there’s not a syllable on what the human race has to do to save itself. It just isn’t there. Instead of law, there is Gospel. It’s all about what Jesus has done and what He would be just about to do, that is, go to Jerusalem, suffer as an innocent victim, and be sacrificed to death on the cross—all so that mankind—so that you, may have life forevermore.

There is no need to be terrified as Peter and the other two disciples were. Your Lord does not here reveal His glory on the mountain to show you how far you have fallen short. Nor does He show you a glory that you could attain by yourself. He shines with the unearthly whiteness of divine majesty to remind you that God Himself went to great lengths, even to the suffering and pain of the cross, to save you. He causes you to remember who He really is, despite what you see and what the world sees. Here you have the glory of God, found in the face of Jesus Christ.

But normally, from the earthly perspective, that face of Jesus is not shining gleaming white. Normally, your life in Christ isn’t a glorious, mind-numbing rush or a mountain-top experience. That may happen from time-to-time, but it’s nothing that you can build your faith on. The revival preacher can breeze into town and stir up a whole lot of power, glory and Holy Spirit, but in the long run, there’s no solid Word of God to keep the flock well-fed. No, the glory of Jesus is hidden—it’s still all there in all its glory, but it’s under a veil. The dazzling brightness of Jesus is in the water of Holy Baptism that washes you, the word of your pastor that forgives you, and the bread and wine that feeds you in body and soul. Jesus is in, with, and under all those plain, ordinary things, but He’s hidden, so that you may know and believe with God-given faith, what is really there in that water, word, bread and wine, is all there in the Transfiguration of Jesus.

And so, the Father’s words, “Listen to Him,” are not a stern, harsh command of the law.

This isn’t another Moses coming down with bigger stone tablets with more laws to follow, but rather, the Father’s voice is a loving, surprisingly sweet invitation. He says, you no longer have to look to the law, you don’t have my condemnation and punishment hanging over you any more. The veil no longer is on your heart. You can put down your tentmaking tools, Peter, because this gift is yours for the keeping, even in that valley of sorrow where you live for the rest of the week. No one else needs to be with you, but Jesus only.

“Listen to My beloved Son,” the Father says, “and you will have life. Because I am pleased with Him, I am also pleased with you for you are in Him.” By the doorway of Baptism you enter into the holy place as God’s child, adopted by His grace. The blinding condemnation of the law does not hurt your eyes. Here in His presence, at His altar and communion rail, the once-transfigured, glorious Jesus gives His life-giving body and blood into your mouth so that He might be united with you and you with Him. And as your relationship with God is restored, so is your relationship with those who sinned against you and you against them. Listening to Jesus is not something more you have to do to help yourself—it’s how God gives you the forgiveness, life and healing that you need.

At the Last Day, when Jesus raises your body from the grave, or should He come before you die, you too will be transfigured, appearing in all the glory that Christ displayed on the holy mountain. You will join with your departed loved ones whose bodies have given up the struggle with death, but their souls, waiting for the resurrection, now live victorious in heavenly splendor. Together again, you will sing in praise of your radiant Lord in a glory that even Adam and Eve couldn’t have imagined. And yet you have that right here, right now, in its fullness, though for a little while longer it is still hidden. May this Holy Communion with your Lord and Savior be for you a transfiguration as the Father says, “With you, I am well-pleased.”

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Green Altar Parament

Green Altar Parament

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 4, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Tiger Eye, and Some Other Rock

Tiger Eye, and Some Other Rock

Saint Paul wrote to the Christians in the Greek city of Corinth that he has “become all things to all people.” If you neither read nor heard any of the Apostle’s explanations or examples that surround this little phrase, you would probably be a bit suspicious. Does this mean that Paul is a deceptive chameleon, a politician refusing to show his true colors wherever he goes? Does he propose that Christians should keep changing who they are in the presence of non-Christians, all with the noble purpose, “that by all means I might save some?”

Liturgical Lutherans often suffer the attack from those of a lower-church persuasion that we are ordered by Scripture not to hang on to out-dated, irrelevant statements of the Gospel but adopt newer, ever-fresh presentations to speak to an ever-changing audience that needs to hear it for their eternal salvation. And in preaching, sin and justification and confession-absolution may have worked as helpful terms for your grandfathers, but now you need to focus only on relationships, transformation, community and mission, so they say. And it strikes a chord, because it’s right there in Scripture, so there’s at least some of it that is right… isn’t there?

The example of Jesus may help you figure this out, but you must not pick and choose the things Jesus does and says that sound good to you and leave out the rest. That’s what happens for those people who claim Jesus was only about love and peace and tolerance of others, but they leave out His words on sin and judgment and most importantly, His sacrifice to take your rightful judgment and remove your sin. It also wouldn’t do merely to imitate Jesus or Paul as a moral example (even though you are encouraged to do so) but without also paying attention to what they say for your benefit.

That being said, think about when Jesus met with the woman at the well on the outskirts of a town in Samaria. It’s in John chapter 4. He was in the wrong area, speaking with a woman, which could have been easily considered scandalous, and the woman was definitely not a Jew, and to understand how uncomfortable that could have been, think about how you would relate to an Arabic-looking woman walking around in this local area. She’s covered in flowing robes and only her eyes are showing through a solid black veil. You wouldn’t know what to say to her, for fear that anything would only cause undue trouble. Yet Jesus accommodated Himself to speak with this woman. He asked for a drink, which submitted Himself to her unique service, yet still pointed out the hard truth that she was sinning by living with a man who was not her wedded husband. He didn’t say what she did was OK, His words were correctly judging, yet they didn’t sound “judgmental.”

Holding steadfastly to the pure and undeniable truth, along with reaching out in love and service to your neighbor is a fitting summary of Paul’s desire to become “all things to all people.” However, it can’t satisfy you as a fully adequate answer. How am I going to do this? This is all fine for Jesus to do because He’s perfect. I’m not; so I can’t possibly imagine that I could follow even a shadow of His example. What is there for me that I can fall back on in case I screw it all up?

As only one of many possible examples, what about when that friend or family member finally reveals to you that he or she is gay? You don’t know what to think at first, but only because multiple thoughts immediately start shouting at you from within. As a faithful Christian committed to the undeniable truth of the Bible, you’re aware that this is clearly wrong and full of the shame of sin. You’re probably partly embarrassed that I’m even talking about it now. Yet the moment just one syllable of the statements of Scripture on this person’s life choice passes your lips, you are condemned as judgmental, unloving, no different from Fred Phelps and the Westborough Baptist picket line. But on the other hand, in loving and accepting that friend or relative no matter what, you see the temptation either to jump in with both feet to defend the so-called “gay rights,” or at least half-heartedly you cave in when you get an unfair question like, “You can’t blame me for how God made me, right?” You see, your genuine concern for their soul’s condition in this persistent sin and your loving desire to serve and support the loved one, these seem like equal and opposite forces pulling your heart apart. And no one, not even your trusty, well-read Bible seems to be giving you the comfort and help you need in this or any other tough situation that you can think of.

Saint Paul said a little after this reading, “Follow me, as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1, NIV) And with Lent coming soon, you know the path down which Jesus is headed. His destination is the cross, where He performed the ultimate loving service to the entire world, yet also He met the cold-hard truth of the world’s sin head-on. This would also include all the signs of sin’s fallout, including murder, homosexuality, divorce, suicide, loss of work, and so on. And all along His way to the cross, as you follow Him from raising Peter’s mother-in-law up from her sick bed, driving away her deadly fever, to His gentle rebuke of a strange, outcast woman, you witness Jesus taking on your sin, your mess-ups, your missed opportunities to be both firm and loving. Once you see your ugly spiritual reflection in the mirror of God’s Law, your Savior has no further word of condemnation for you, rather He bids you turn to Him and let Him take your burden away.

Keep your attention fixed on the Blessed Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember that He suffered and died to forgive you and make you holy in all that you face in your daily life and calling. He didn’t just set an impossible example and demand you to follow it. That Cross of His is the true eagles’ wings bearing you up and renewing your strength. The Body and Blood of Christ that were sacrificed on that Holy Cross are the hand of the Lord that gently lifts and resurrects you from the death-bed of your sins and failings. It is simply not true that you have too great of a sin that your Lord is not willing to or capable of wiping it clean away. It is never impossible for God to reconcile you to Himself in perfect peace, nor is it impossible for Him to restore a pure, untainted relationship between you and that person in your life who through some sort of sin or another is separated from you, and for whom you approach this throne of God’s grace in prayer every day. That’s because Jesus has come to this sad world to make all things new and to bring the true joy of heaven under this very roof.

So it is this cross, this promise of forgiveness and resurrection that frees us from all things. And it is this same cross, forgiveness and resurrection that places in you the desire to serve your neighbor in whatever way you can. He has given you unique talents and even a little creativity to submit your own self-interest in deference to what others around you need. Perhaps you could talk a little sports like Paul does, when he mentions in our reading the Corinthian equivalent of the Super Bowl. We’re not after a flashy champion’s ring that’ll require sunglasses to see, but we do look forward to our Savior shining brighter than the sun, and we’ll be reflecting Him on that great last Day. As you can see, being “all things to all people” is far from being deceptive, rather the opposite is true: it’s proving that the true, never-changing Christian faith and living a life that is loving and confident in the forgiveness of your sins are the most real things that there are.

Be renewed in your strength, trust in Christ who forgave you and who promised you the Holy Spirit. Run and be diligent in good works and service to your neighbor, but do not remain weary with guilt over the commandments you may have broken. Walk with God your loving, heavenly Father, and not faint.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Green Altar Parament

Green Altar Parament

Is. 40:21–31 mount up with wings like eagles
Ps. 147:1–11 the stars…He calls them all by name.
1 Cor. 9:16–27 all things to all men that I might by all means save some
Mark 1:29–39 Simon’s wife’s mother lay sick

Pastor’s Postil Feb 2018

Transfiguration of Our Lord— Collect of the Day



O God, in the glorious Transfiguration of Your only-begotten Son
You confirmed the mysteries of the faith
by the testimony of Moses and the prophets,
and in the voice that came from the bright cloud
You wonderfully foreshowed our adoption by grace.
Therefore mercifully make us co-heirs with the King of His glory
and bring us to the fullness of our inheritance in heaven;
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

That’s what we will hear as the all-encompassing theme of the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, which for our current church year will be February 11, with Ash Wednesday occurring on Valentine’s Day, and Easter on April Fools! But before we get to Easter, we count back six weeks, forty days plus the Sundays in Lent, and begin our season of repentance with Ash Wednesday. The contrast between the brightness and the glory of Transfiguration with the ashes and darkness three days later seem to offer a mirror-image of Holy Week’s drama. Transfiguration helps us prepare for the austerity of Lent because in that magnificent event, our Lord revealed to us a glimpse of what all this suffering is truly worth. What are we going to reap once we have sown all our tears of earthly trials and struggles with sin? The Collect above fleshes it out as we see it in our Lord’s Transfiguration.

only-begotten Son– More than just one-and-only (as in John 3:16, NIV) but one with the Father who sent Jesus the Son for us and for our salvation (Nicene Creed).

confirmed the mysteries of the faith– What was once hidden in dark prophecies whose fulfillment had to wait centuries before they would be fulfilled, was gloriously revealed in a magnificent way when the chief human authors of Scripture (the Law-Moses; and the Prophets-Elijah) appeared and conversed with Jesus about His “exodus”—His death on the cross, His resurrection on the third day, and His ascension into heaven in order to send us His Holy Spirit, all to establish His Church for whom He will return one day.

the voice that came from the bright cloud– God’s presence with His people in the Old Testament was signified by a cloud, sometimes the cloud had a bright light within it, the light of God’s greatness, or glory, that testified to His almighty power to defeat sin and save His people, as demonstrated in one example by His rescue of Israel from Pharaoh by means of the waters of the Red Sea.

foreshowed our adoption by grace– When the Father said from heaven, “This is My Son, whom I love…” that meant that when we confess our sins and believe in Jesus, we may be assured that God the Father has also adopted us as His own, for we have been cleansed from sin and renewed in the image of God (Jesus, see Colossians 1:15) in which we were made.

mercifully make us co-heirs– Not only are we forgiven and renewed, but we also now join with our Lord Jesus as possessors of rights to His kingdom of everlasting glory. We didn’t deserve this special status, but Jesus earned this right to become children of God (John 1:12) and gave it as a gift to us.

bring us to the fullness of our inheritance– Thanks to Jesus, when we die, we go to heaven, free from sin, sorrow, crying, disease, or pain. And yet there’s even more! The “fullness of our inheritance” will include the resurrection of our bodies and the life everlasting in His new creation, of which heaven itself can even be described as only the beginning, but never the end.

The request of this ancient prayer has been fulfilled for us already when Jesus completed His mission and won our salvation through His cross. Yet we continue steadfast in our faith, by God’s grace alone, confident that while we endure sins, hardship, persecution, and sometimes grief, we are nevertheless comforted that the glory of Christ that dazzled the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration will one day be seen in us for eternity. May this highlight of our Church Year prepare you for a fruitful reflection on all our Lord has done for you!

Yours, in Christ’s service,

Pastor Stirdivant

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: January 28, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Cholla Garden

Cholla Garden

I don’t know if the paranormal explorers that are popular today are really prepared for what they are getting themselves into. For one thing, all of their assumptions seem to be the same: ghosts only come out at night, when the lights are out, they have to be the disembodied souls of people who used to live in a certain haunted place, even dressing and acting like the person they once belonged to, it always seems to help the hunters’ efforts in getting in touch with these spirits if they knew what life history they had and especially if they were to uncover what tragic event led to their demise. Their fancy instruments pick up electromagnetic fluxes, infrared temperature signatures, and you always get a kick out of it when they ask them questions. Most disturbing, however, is when they want to make further contact with ghosts, they sometimes turn to demonic practices like séances, consulting with mediums and psychics, or using voodoo or ouija.

Jesus does not treat the realm of evil spirits, or what the Evangelist St. Mark calls “unclean spirits,” as mere child’s play. This is serious business, and it can get pretty ugly and downright frightening or repulsive. We are not above this fray, because ever since the sin of Adam and Eve, you and I were born in sin, and kept in bondage as hostages to the Old Evil Foe. Saint Peter, to whom Jesus one time even said, “Get thee behind me, Satan!” warns us about the devil prowling around like a roaring lion seeking to devour you at any minute. (1 Peter 5:8) We need to treat his onslaught seriously, not just in our private, so-called religious life, but in every aspect of it. One of my seminary professors wrote: “To be sure, the world is interested in the eradication of evil, but evil is treated like some chemical imbalance that can be corrected by the right proportions of legislation, education, and money.” (David Scaer, What Do You Think of Jesus?, 33) That limp, lackadaisical approach is precisely why the world is listed in the catechism as one of the two enemies who are allied with the devil.

The other ally is our flesh, or our sinful nature. It’s that part of us that is constantly after serving the self. It is that part of you against which you fight a daily battle so that by forgiveness and the regular cleansing of God’s Word you would be purified from all unrighteousness. So the old line, “The devil made me do it,” is only half right. Because Satan knows his friends pretty well. He is aware of how he can, on the one hand, lure your flesh into the sin that tempts you the most, and on the other hand, use and twist God’s holy law to make you feel guilty and condemned, deceiving you to believe that you are out of the heavenly Father’s loving reach. You may know right now for a fact that is impossible, but later when trial and testing come, the good can easily be turned to bad and the bad made out to be good, and you-know-who is behind all of it.

And here is Jesus meeting His enemy in broad daylight; He’s not hunting for some erratic bump in the night. The confrontation took place in the middle of the day, in the midst of the teaching and preaching of the Word that was going on at Capernaum’s synagogue. How unsettling would that be if an episode like that happened here during the Divine Service! The massive foundation stones of the Capernaum synagogue are

actually still there for people today to walk over the very place where this happened. This unclean spirit is no faint apparition, but this time it has taken control of a certain man, and it can do nothing but scream in pain at the holy Words Jesus was teaching on that holy Sabbath. The Words of Jesus possess authority, and though most of the people were still stuck in incredulous wonder, the demon himself acknowledges the Lord very clearly, convinced that he’s done for: I know who you are, the Holy One of God. Here’s the seed of the woman, poised with heel raised up, ready for Good Friday when by His crucifixion and death He’ll crush the serpent’s head, and that means the utter destruction of all these evil minions, as well. There is no hope for their escape from God’s holy wrath, and all these spirits can do is plead for a little delay until the inevitable happens. James says in his epistle: “The demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19) As well they should.

What is bad for Satan and the unclean spirits is good for you. Notice from the Gospel reading that the Lord’s calm words are all that is needed to drive the demon away, and thrash and kick though it might, the poor man is thrown down, but not hurt. No mumbo jumbo, no flashy incantations nor any mysterious summons of supernatural powers. It wouldn’t get good TV ratings these days, since there’s no pizzazz. Take care to realize as you read the Gospels that whatever Jesus does to drive out spirits, He does the very same thing to cure fevers, open the eyes of the blind, make the lame jump for joy in the forgiveness of sins, and raise the dead. He rebukes the hold of the forces of evil and sin, setting the human victim free—all with a simple, ordinary, unimpressive Word.

That plain, ol’ Word, however, is the very kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims as good news. It is the very same Word that you hear today. You may not be thrown to the ground with demons possessing your body, but you have been afflicted all the same. Martin Luther realized that every person who was about to be baptized, whether newborn, young or old, was about to leave the grasp of Satan and be numbered among the Christian saints. He even “lamented” a little, if you could call it that, warning that newly baptized believer and his parents that now they’ve got a nasty enemy in the devil, who will not stop his evil attack upon those who now belong to Christ. What a powerful, mind-blowing Word that is, that we have connected to plain, ordinary water!

And Satan’s attacks don’t let up as you grow in the Christian faith, either. That healed man from the Gospel account, being a redeemed sinner, is going to need that wonderful Good News every day, just like you need it. No matter how often you’ve heard it, forgiveness keeps coming back to you to strengthen you in the one, true faith. The Body and Blood of Christ strengthen you in believing the promises that became yours when you were baptized. Though Satan will try his best to scare you, repulse you, or deceive you with good feelings and phony delights, you still have the calm, yet powerful Word of Jesus Christ preserved for you in Scripture and useful for your training in righteousness.

So whether it’s evil spirits masquerading as spooky phenomena, and I’ll grant you, that may very well happen, or an agonizing trial that you’re suffering, whether in health or otherwise, or, more likely, those everyday temptations that your sinful nature loves to justify that you just had to do it, even though you knew it was wrong, that evil needs to be brought out into the light of day. Shine the light of God’s Word on it, confess to the Lord all that is your burden of sin, and trust in the Gospel promise that Jesus has taken that burden away. That Word of assurance, paid for by the blood of Jesus, is the armor you need to withstand the attacks of the devil, the world, and yes, even your own sinful nature that’s going to stick with you until you die.

Now, if the publicly declared absolution announced here in Church doesn’t seem to cut through all that you’re up against, and you want to believe the words that you pray in the Lord’s Prayer, forgive us our trespasses, then maybe you ought to confess your sins one-on-one with your pastor. He is called and ordained to speak the very same simple, yet powerful words of Christ specifically to you in absolution. I mention that, not to lay a requirement on you, but to offer you a wonderful gift that our Lord meant for you to have as often as you seek it out.

Whether you read it in the Bible, hear it in church, receive it personally from your pastor, or eat and drink it in Christ’s Body and Blood, the calm, simple and mighty Word of the Kingdom of God that makes devils shriek and flee, that heals the sick and raises the dead, that Word is yours. It is not some magical power that you get to wield at your pleasure, but rather it is the power of God to convict you of your sins, and remove them, giving you the power of the Holy Spirit to live a life that your heavenly Father assures you is pleasing to Him, because it is the life that you live by faith in the Son of God, (Galatians 2:20) crucified with Christ and risen to new life with Him who has destroyed evil—including all those nasty unclean spirits—forever.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Deut. 18:15–20 a Prophet like you from among their brethren
Ps. 111 The works of the LORD are great
1 Cor. 8:1–13 beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block
Mark 1:21–28 He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.

Sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany: January 21, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

I Timothy 1:2  Codex Sinaiticus

I Timothy 1:2 Codex Sinaiticus

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

Wait, what was that? Those words beginning with Grace, mercy and peace, have introduced literally hundreds of sermons that you may have heard. Those words come from the Bible, from the opening words of the epistles in the New Testament, which are in their own way sermons themselves, and examples for our sermons today. The pastor could certainly just start talking, just like a prayer can be said without having to say the actual words, in Jesus’ Name, or even the word Amen. But when you do hear those words, you should regularly remind yourself why they are there. Grace, Mercy, and Peace are yours at this very moment, for these are gifts sent to you straight from God the Father who has revealed Himself in His Word, our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit isn’t explicitly mentioned, but He is still there wherever the Word is preached purely. There is a definite order, too: Grace, Mercy and Peace. Your peace with God doesn’t automatically happen of itself, but it comes from the reconciliation that was established by the first two gifts: Grace and Mercy. Of these two does Jesus speak when He preaches the blessed invitation, “Repent and believe in the Gospel.”

When you think of mercy, consider it for starters using a negative, as in, God’s not giving us what we deserve. When Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, He said, “Repent.” Though it is a hard-sounding Word from the Lord, “repent” is a declaration of God’s mercy. We don’t see that connection at first because part of the proclamation “repent” means pointing out that you are sinful – that you have sinned – that you are a sinner. None of this proclamation sits very well with the old Adam that we have in us. The Gospel points out that John was forced into prison and eventually beheaded, and we know this is because he did not let up on an uncomfortable preaching of repentance. Powerful rulers wanted to silence his accusing voice. You are by nature a child of wrath – you have transgressed the will of God – this is who you are, as well as what you have done. As a result, you deserve nothing less than the venting of God’s holy wrath upon you now as well as condemnation and destruction for eternity. Every split-second that God does not do this immediately, right this very moment, is an example of His mercy.

Think of when Jonah preached to the Gentile people of the city of Nineveh, after his little episode with the big fish. How long was it going to be until the day God would destroy the people? Forty days. Even though Jonah was mistakenly looking forward to the big spectacle of a huge, catastrophic overthrow, his sermon unwittingly included God’s mercy because there was a time of forty days that God allowed for the people to repent and believe. Even those Ninevite Gentiles understood mercy because their leader said, Who knows? Maybe Jonah’s God will relent from this disaster that he is threatening against us. And so their humble acts were evidence of faith and repentance, which the Lord granted them by His Holy Spirit. When Lent arrives, we’ll hear again about the connection between forty days and repentance.

Now the invitation to “repent” may lead to at least three different responses. First, one can say “no.” This is one who rejects God’s Law and refuses to believe or accept forgiveness. Second, a person might reply, “I’m sorry that I’ve broken Your Law, O Lord, so give me a manageable list of do’s and don’ts and I will work at it. I’ll make some goals and personal resolutions that will challenge me to be better and make the grade by myself. You can even give me some grace to provide a little boost.” But even though this person lives under God’s Law, believes in the grace of God and wants to do better, yet that Christian is not crushed enough to the point of true repentance. If you are not crushed by the Law’s impossible demand, then you are still relying upon yourself, even if it’s just a little bit, and you must repent. Third, consider the individual who confesses his Sin, admits that he or she is a sinner, lays out all sins before the Lord and says, “I can’t do it on my own…God, be merciful to me.” This means, Lord, I beg you for mercy. Do not give me what I deserve. In Your mercy, grant me Your continual pardon. For this repentant sinner, in a merciful answer from God, the negative (that is, not giving you what you deserve) turns into a positive, which is a full and free forgiveness and acceptance, plus a promise of renewal and everlasting life guaranteed in Christ.

Indeed, repentance itself is a gift from God out of His abundant grace and we pray that by His mercy we may always be recipients of a repentant heart, cleansed and renewed with the Lord’s free Spirit. We pray also for those people who continue to refuse repentance and forgiveness, recalling the words of the Apostle Paul, “God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25).

So in God’s mercy He does not give us what we deserve; in His grace God is giving us what Jesus Christ deserved through what He did for us. The Gospel of Mark says, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.'”

But what is this Gospel of God that we should believe in it? The Gospel is everything that God has done, going way back to creation and coming to perfect fulfillment in what Jesus came to do in and for our sin-filled world. Specifically from the creed we confess … Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven – was Incarnate by the Holy Spirit – was born of the virgin Mary. This is Jesus the Christ, true God and true man. This sinless, perfect Lamb of God, Who came to bear the sins of the world, did the Gospel when He fulfilled the Law perfectly, when He defeated Satan in the wilderness by His Word and atoned (that is, made full and final payment for) all transgressions of all transgressors. The Good News is that Jesus the Christ paid a sufficient ransom and then rose again from the dead and ascended into heaven. In this one act of real history, the eternal Lord has entered time and taken away your sins from you and removed them as far as the east is from the west. He remembers them no more. The world has been and, mystery of mysteries though it seems these days, the world still is redeemed. This is the Good News. This is the Gospel that, by the Holy Spirit alone, you believe.

In His grace, God has given you what Jesus deserved … forgiveness of all your sins, salvation in His Name, and eternal life now and forever. Grace and mercy are a prelude to and are sufficient for the peace of the Lord. This, dear baptized saints, is the Good News of peace with God. Therefore we can and may “repent and believe in the Gospel.”

Even though all of these events happened long ago, this Grace, Mercy and Peace continue today, because God’s Word continues in all its Gospel purity to this day. Even now, the Kingdom of God is at hand. Jesus continues to keep His promise that He will never leave you nor forsake you. He is mercifully and graciously present with His people as they gather together in His Name, even if it be but two or three. When called and ordained servants of the Word announce that you are forgiven of all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit, it is really God’s forgiveness.

Where the King is mercifully and graciously present with His people, there the Kingdom of God is – not because of something God shows us and we see, but on account of God’s Word of promise that is spoken and what we hear and believe in our hearts. For “the Kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, ‘Lo, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the Kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). It is not just any old word, or a bunch of talk, or simply getting together as a group … for even the pagans can do that. Paul reminds us, “For the Kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

The righteousness that covers you completely and perfectly is Christ’s righteousness that is yours in Him through Word and the Sacraments. The peace that you have is peace with God on account of Jesus’ sin-atoning suffering and death. Joy is a blessed response to this Word of promise. “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). What is the preaching of Christ? We just read it: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the Gospel.'”

That Word was proclaimed a long time ago. That Word applies to you, not only when you first heard it, but also this very day and for as many days as God grants you in this life and on this earth. For, “repent, and believe in the Gospel” is a continuous thing. You don’t just believe once and then you’re done. You continue believing for the rest of your life. The ascending, enthroned and reigning Christ says to His Church, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee the crown of Life” (Revelation 2:10).

You the faithful have gathered today in the Presence of the Lord to repent, that is, to be sorry for your sins, to confess them, to seek the Savior Christ who has promised to meet you here, for you to trust in Him and to hear the words, “You are forgiven of all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.” And so we conclude where we began concerning the Gospel of Peace with God, namely, Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

I Tim 1:2 – Grace Mercy Peace

Lectionary Readings:
  Jonah 3:1–5, 10 – Arise, go to Nineveh
  Ps. 62 – I shall not be greatly moved
  1 Cor. 7:29–35 – the time is short
  Mark 1:14–20 – Repent, and believe in the Gospel.

Sermon for the Second Sunday after the Epiphany: January 14, 2018

Rev’d Eric V. Kaelberer, Grace Lutheran Church, Rialto, California
✝ sdg ✝

Beloved Saints of the Good Shepherd,

As the hymn for Transfiguration says it so well, ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here! I am truly grateful to be with you this morning as your dear Pastor is in the blessed city of Fort Wayne, serving you and the larger church as he serves and learns. And, just like Peter, James, and John atop the Mt. of Transfiguration, in today’s Word we will hear the voice of God and at His Table we will receive nothing less than He Himself in His true Body and Blood for our forgiveness and renewal. Yes, ‘Tis good, Lord, to be here!

Stained glass...

Stained glass…

Today is the 2nd Sunday after the Epiphany. Now Epiphany is that celebration of how we know that our God is for all nations, all people, even you and me, that the Light of Christ shines through… through the darkness of death and sin and the grave… through to life and light and peace!
... projected onto the pew.

… projected onto the pew.

Not long ago one of my members asked me why God would bother with her. She felt her unworthiness very deeply. Joyfully I reassured her that seeing the love of God in the Infant of Bethlehem meant that our unworthiness is answered by this God who has loved us from before the foundations were laid for the Universe! I reassured her that it is His love and His heart that matter, His gift of Christ in our flesh, Christ on the Cross, Christ, Risen and Ascended, Christ reigning and surely returning… all for poor miserable sinners like her, like me, and yes, dear members of Good Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, He loves poor miserable sinners like you. His call is what matters. It is the effective call of Grace!

This Sunday we have the calling of the first disciples, we also have the calling of Samuel as Judge over Israel. And, by extension, we have the calling of each one of us here this morning – that is what our Baptism means – It is the application of what the Holy Spirit brings for surely we are called, we are gathered together as His family. We are enlightened by His Law and His Gospel. Yes, and as His own, we are sanctified, made continually holy as we are continually living in repentance and His forgiveness as we are fed at His table with His true body and blood!

Are you worthy? Was Philip? You know that his name is Greek, not Hebrew! His name means “one who loves horses!” He was from Bethsaida, a town that is at about 1 o’clock, on the North-East shore of the Sea of Galilee. This was not the center of Jewish life at all. Indeed, five of the 12 are from this remote Northern Galilee town – Andrew, John, Simon, James, and Philip! Nathanael or Bartholomew is from Cana, also in Galilee of the Gentiles. If you want to see someone who did not fit the mold of someone who had the correct pedigree, it would have to be Mr. Horse-Lover! Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother has a Greek name as well. Andrew means “manly.” Simon Peter is yet another of these who while very devout, well, they lacked the right “bona fides” of the “in crowd.” But these men, these Jews in this remote place heard the Word in Synagogue and in the home, and also from the witness of the last of the OT prophets, our dear John the Baptizer!

So here we have this crew of seeming “misfits” who have followed the man who wore camel’s hair and ate locusts and wild honey – the one whose voice was crying in the wilderness – Prepare the way of the Lord! Now we can add another wrinkle to this scene. John, the Beloved Disciple, he sees Jesus as The One who has come in his flesh to save him, and yes, all! Jesus is here, right here. He doesn’t hover above the earth like a ghost or apparition. John answers the Docetic heresy well. Human and Divine in the one person of Jesus.

That is what makes John’s words in this Gospel so telling. Philip identifies Jesus as being one of them, from their region, this forgotten spot called Galilee of the Gentiles. And Jesus does not correct Philip. Jesus could have said, “Oh, No! Not Nazareth but Bethlehem… remember shepherds, angels, My mom pondering these things… haven’t you read Luke 2!” But instead, hear again how Philip introduces Jesus as Messiah to Nathanael: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” (V. 45)

This is Jesus of Nazareth! He is a local boy who happens to be the One written of, spoken of, borne by Prophets and Poets of old, of Moses and all. He is God and He is a local boy. Behold, we know this Jesus as the son of Joseph! God for all is God in our flesh. God as payment for the sins of the world is God in our flesh! Epiphany is all about the revelation of God to man, of the Eternal and Perfect One who is Redeemer, to poor miserable sinners like these Galilean fishermen and their friends! He is the Son of God… oh, and the son of Joseph! In other words… He is the full redeemer of the world! We read over this introduction to Nathanael too quickly. Jesus is presented as God truly with us, with them, in their flesh, yes, even in their dialect and dress! The Almighty Redeemer of the World is knowable to us.

Thus, with this introduction the question of Nathanael makes sense: Nazareth? Can anything truly excellent and praiseworthy (the word is agathos in the Greek) come from Nazareth? It is a great question, not unlike my parishioner’s question of her worthiness. He was asking if God come from “our neighborhood” was for real! While there may have been some skepticism – we don’t want to paint Bartholomew/Nathanael as a white porcelain saint – Nathanael had learned from John the Baptist, as John the disciple recorded earlier, Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (V. 29, 36). Nathanael wants to be sure. He is an honorable man. To know that the Savior of the World is that accessible, that much in our flesh as well as that much “God of God, light of light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made…”

Well, can anything truly excellent and praiseworthy come from Nazareth, Philip? Philip’s answer is the same as that given by Jesus Himself when He first called Andrew and Simon Peter the day before when they asked, “where are you staying?” The answer is simple: Come! And See!

Nathanael does come and does see. Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. But it is Jesus who sees him first and who speaks first. Jesus comes to Nathanael and declares, Behold, an Israelite in whom there is no deceit! Nathanael’s question of anything good coming from Nazareth is so wonderful, for it is honest. Nathanael isn’t trying to join in the latest Ponzi scheme – he wants the Good Shepherd, he wants the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! Jesus acknowledges the very heart of truth that He Himself gave to Nathanael!

Jesus gave Nathanael the heart to believe, and He does the same for you too, beloved. To Nathanael he declares that He knows who Nathanael is, that He knew him before he even Philip called him while sitting beneath the fig tree. Jesus is omniscient, He is all knowing! And soon, when the earthly ministry is completed at Golgotha, the place of the skull, Nathanael will see this omniscience married to our Jesus’ perfect love in service to humanity as He dies in Nathanael’s place, and in your place and mine!

Nathanael will say something that is honest, that is without guile or deceit, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (V. 49) It is true, and like young love, without full understanding. Jesus declares to this guile-less guy, our brother, Nathanael: Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these. And He said to him, Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.

Why has Jesus come? If it is to fortune tell, to put on a good show, then we ought to leave this place and stop wasting our time. Ah, but He has come for something so true, so noble, so honorable, and so unattainable by us or by any other way. He is come for the greater thing, the greatest thing of all, Christ as our access to the Father in heaven.

Jesus is perhaps thinking of Genesis 28, Jacob’s dream at Bethel, the story of Jacob’s Ladder. In that dream Jacob was told that his descendants would be like the dust of the earth and from the four corners of the earth, and in Jacob’s seed, our Savior Jesus, all the descendants of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 28:14). Yes, it is a perfect echo of Genesis 12:1-3!

windows at back...

windows at back…

Yes, this perfect God who is also in our flesh, this God who knows all things and who effectively calls, gathers, enlightens, sanctifies and keeps His Bride, His Church… this God is the Savior of all nations, of all peoples – His light shines to every tribe and nation and people… even folks from Nazareth, from Cana, from Bethsaida… yes, even from Yucaipa and Mentone, from Highland and Beaumont!

... projected on the wall

… projected on the wall

Can anything true and holy and righteous come from Nazareth? Beloved, on this Table, in this His House, He bids you to come and see, to come and eat, without cost and without price, the finest of rich food! Come and see, beloved. Even so, Amen and Soli Deo Gloria!

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for the Epiphany of Our Lord (transferred): January 7, 2018

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

Nativity Scene

Nativity Scene

You may have heard me say that the quintessential preacher for the season of Advent is none other than John the Baptist. His message of repentance and of warning for the coming of God’s righteous judgment fits very well with the preparation theme of the first season of the Church’s liturgical year. Now that the twelve days of Christmas are completed and Epiphany has begun, the emphasis of course turns to Jesus. His miracles, His preaching that announced the arrival of the Kingdom in His flesh, and His unwavering determination to head for the cross, these take center stage at this point in the calendar. The season of Epiphany, however, also has an adopted preacher, if you will. If the themes that are unique to Advent correspond to the message of John, then in whose proclamation do the emphases of Epiphany find a home?

It would seem to be automatic that when you think of Epiphany, that the story of the Magi would come up first in your mind, you know, the Wise Men from the East who came to visit the little Child Jesus. Everyone’s Christmas manger scenes (including the one that you see just as you come in the front door) always includes the Wise Men worshiping Jesus along with the shepherds. In a sense, if you were to think about it more theologically, that is absolutely accurate because the Magi did in fact worship our Lord with the same God-given faith that was found also in the hearts of the shepherds. It is, however, highly unlikely that these foreign travelers made it to Bethlehem to bow down at the manger at the same exact time as the shepherds, especially since the Gospel-writer Matthew makes it plain that Mary and Joseph were living in a house by the time the Wise Men arrived. Since this momentous visit sets off the Epiphany season, the Church at this time of year most decidedly shifts its focus out into the world, that is, proclaiming the coming of Israel’s Messiah for the salvation of the Gentiles.

Who better to extend that invitation to the Gentiles than the Apostle Paul? He definitely has the credentials. Four major trips to see Jews and Gentiles alike all over the known Roman world. Numerous churches founded and pastors trained so that the people who heard the Word in a certain place would be continually fed by that same Word. Paul endured attempted execution, torture, shipwreck, and an unknown affliction that he called a “Thorn in the Flesh” all so that the message of Christ could spread to the nations. This is the major emphasis of the Epiphany season, and that is why it seemed good for the church’s schedule of readings or lectionary to choose the words of St. Paul, writing to the Christians in the provincial capital city of Ephesus, as a fitting Epistle for this festival day.

Now, I must make clear that Paul wasn’t a better preacher of the Gospel than John the Baptist. For it simply is not true that the Apostle who went out bravely to bring God’s Word to all nations was following the Lord’s mandate any more faithfully than the Voice crying out from the wilderness, baptizing only Jews and urging repentance. For just as much as Advent, with its introspection and self-preparation and internal purification, is necessary for your life as a Christian, so also is Epiphany necessary. For it is Epiphany that turns your attention out into the world, so that through your holy calling and life’s vocation you play your particular role in bringing the Good News to all nations. If either one of these two things, internal purity and external outreach, were emphasized to be more important over the other, the result would certainly be disastrous to the Christian’s personal faith and to the existence of the Church. If you think about it, how could you spread the Word of Salvation if your own heart is closed due to lack of repentance? So, having built on the foundation of Advent’s message of repentance, thanks to John the Baptist, now we may follow the lead of St. Paul in His Epiphany sermon that reveals the inclusion of the Gentiles.

Just what is this inclusion of the Gentiles, though? Paul says that God had not made this mystery known to prophets and sons of men in previous ages. Actually, the people before the coming of Christ knew that the Gentiles will obtain a future blessing. What was new was something called the stewardship of that grace—meaning that now, through the Apostles and prophets, namely, through the pastors of the Church, God is handing out His grace earned for us by Jesus Christ.

You see, the Gentiles are now included not because the bar is suddenly lowered and the requirements for going to heaven have been relaxed. There are people who truly believe that’s all that happened. Rather, it was the Lord’s idea—in fact, His eternal purpose finally revealed—to bring in all nations once all of Salvation had become accomplished thanks to the death and resurrection of Jesus. If this was all about certain things you had to do, or about certain rules you had to follow to be a godly person, then the Gentiles wouldn’t have had to bother. Heaven would have stayed far off for everyone, never to be attained. You could fool yourself for a while that you could hold it all together and try real hard to remain a good Christian, following all the right principles, making all the right promises. But then the Epiphany message would be completely lost to you. You would find yourself instead following the devil’s lies of works-righteousness rather than giving up on your own spirituality and relying totally on the forgiveness that Jesus earned for your sake.

But thanks be to God, that the Holy Spirit does not allow you to remain in darkness, ignorant of the life-saving Gospel. For on you who lived in darkness, the Epiphany light has shined. Christ the Morning-Star has brightened your sin-sluggish flesh. You along with all Gentiles, now possess this threefold mystery: first, you are fellow-heirs of the kingdom. There’s no longer any difference between you and the faithful nation of Israel. Second, God has incorporated you together with all believers as one body—and not just any body, but Christ’s own Body. Thirdly, you, together with the whole Church, partake of the promise in Christ, a promise that you may access right now with great boldness and confidence.

Finally, the most comforting part of the Epiphany message from St. Paul has to do with the faith that holds on to these revealed mysteries and makes them your own. You get this faith not as a reward. This faith is not a skill that you need to hone first before you can reap any of its benefits. The good news of Epiphany is that the faith that Jesus had—His complete trust in the Father, His undying faithfulness as you will see in the next few weeks as we follow the Epiphany lectionary—this faith that Jesus had is now yours. God counts it as your faith—so that you can be totally assured of your salvation, it’s all up to Him.

Rejoice, O Gentiles who are now members of the new Israel, rejoice in and spread abroad St. Paul’s Epiphany Gospel, which is the stewardship, the handing out, of God’s gifts meant for everyone. And at the same time keep to John the Baptist’s Advent repentance, until one day, O glorious grace, He’ll transport us to that happy place, beyond all tears and sinning! Amen, amen! Come Lord Jesus, Crown of Gladness we are yearning for the day of Your returning!

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Sermon for the Circumcision of Our Lord (transferred): December 31, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

White Parament

White Parament

For those of you who recently witnessed a baptism ceremony taking place here, you may have noticed that there is a curious little question that the ritual has the pastor ask in the preparation for the act of baptism itself. You may have gotten the impression before, “Why in the world do they do that? It doesn’t make sense.” I have at times felt a little awkward when I came to this question. I’ve looked it up and it is in fact an ancient custom in the Early Church, going back to the time when pagan Romans changed their names when they were baptized. Walther wrote about it, and he said he approves of it being included in the baptismal ceremony. What am I talking about? It goes like this:

How are you named?

Two things: in the case of an infant baptism, the parents and sponsors answer with the child’s name. For an older child or adult, they often give me a funny look and then say their name. Either way, doesn’t it seem strange that a pastor would be struck with a sudden case of amnesia at this critical point in the church service? Shouldn’t he have asked a question like that a little sooner? At least I could take the time to write it down and stick a note in my book. In my son’s case, the pastor was his own grandpa—I don’t think he would forget his name!

Why do they ask for a person’s name before he or she is to be baptized? Well, it was because of this very event in the life of our Lord and Savior Jesus that we commemorate officially tomorrow, namely, on the eighth day of Christmas. Just as there is only this one little question on page 268 in the hymnal, so the Evangelist Saint Luke only speaks of this momentous occasion in little verse 21 of his well-known chapter 2.

The circumcision requirement went back all the way to Abraham, who as we read in Genesis chapter 17 was commanded to initiate this sign of God’s covenant promise both to inhabit the Holy Land and to be multiplied into a throng of descendants that outnumbers the stars in the sky. After a Hebrew boy lived a full seven-day week under the curse of sin that was introduced to this present created world, his family would circumcise him on the eighth day to usher him into the new creation that the Lord has in store for all faithful believers. To be numbered with the countless multitude of Abraham’s children, one needed to hold on with firm belief in the promise of Christ and the new life of forgiveness and eternal salvation that He came to bring. Some sophisticated scholars to this day express their doubts that a belief in heaven could have existed as far back as Abraham’s time, but the fact that he practiced circumcision makes no mistake that he did.

Now, at eight days old, did the baby boy tell his family and comrades that he believed in the coming of Jesus or that he vowed to make of himself a true and committed Israelite? Of course he didn’t. Circumcision placed the helpless child into a covenant of grace with the Lord who created him and promised all of Israel. While it also placed upon the male a solemn reminder of sin, and the impossible Law, and the need for a Savior, the ceremony really looked forward to the time when the true circumcision would take place, which is, as St Paul says, a circumcision of heart and a putting off of the useless, encumbering flesh of the sinful nature. The fleshly, bloody symbol, which the girls were exempt from suffering, indicated the real thing, the salvation in Christ through which there would be no longer any male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile. All people, even though they have distinct positions and different means of serving one another, nevertheless they would participate equally in forgiveness.

You are probably already aware that Christmas loses its true meaning if there is no mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, death and resurrection. If He is just an example for you on how to live a godly and generous life, so that you become another Scrooge scared straight, then your Christ of Christmas is distorted and caricatured. There needs to be some blood to make it a true Christmas. And with sin and death all around us in this fallen world, there’s a lot of blood. But the only blood that matters is the blood of God’s only Son, the blood coursing through the arteries and veins of this eight-day old child in Bethlehem. He’s taken away for a moment from his mother, who cannot yet make her appearance in public because it’s too soon after the birth. And if the, “little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes” part of the song was actually true, well, circumcision is going to put an end to that real quick.

As you just heard, for every other Hebrew boy who was born in the Old Testament era, circumcision was an expression of hope, of a covenant promise of life that was in store in the new creation. But it was the opposite for Jesus. For this little Boy, for God in human flesh, circumcision meant that He was destined for death. This was His first shedding of blood for the salvation of Israel—and by faith in Him, you are now part of the spiritual Israel, that is, the real one. For centuries, the ritual was a rite of passage that designated the infant as separate from the unbelieving Gentiles and part of God’s holy nation. It was all part of becoming one of the family. For Jesus, His circumcision was the first step in separating Himself from the Father, who would then forsake Him at the cross and unleash wrath and judgment upon Christ as though He were the only Sinner in the whole world, and then finally in the Resurrection, the Father would welcome Him back—and you who are baptized in His Name—into the holy kingdom of heaven.

The circumcision ceremony was also the opportunity to bestow the child’s name upon him—that’s the Biblical precedent for the strange little question that we have in the baptismal ceremony. When John the Baptist was circumcised, that was a momentous occasion because instead of following the family tradition and naming their long-awaited firstborn son after Zechariah, the silenced Zechariah himself wrote on a tablet, “His name is John” and then burst forth with singing upon the fulfillment of the angel’s word. Now, roughly six months later, it’s Jesus’ turn to receive His angel-announced Name, and the scene is a little less dramatic. But the point remains nonetheless, the sweet-sounding Name of Jesus that comforts all of your fears, is a Name that cannot be separated from the Blood that He shed. The Name Jesus means, the Lord Saves, but no saving will be done without Blood. You and I were given blood to nourish our bodies and keep them alive. Jesus has blood so that He can give it up and shed that blood on the cross for you and all sinners. Sometimes, children are given names because certain expectations are placed upon the child and the role he or she is to fulfill. Jesus was given His Name so that the Israelite eighth-day hope for a new creation would finally become a reality.

Cultural anthropologists have studied rites of passage for decades, whether it’s had to do with a child being born into a tribe in Indonesia, a girl’s quinceañera in Mexico, a wedding in the United States, or a funeral in Korea. Most of these experts like to spot three distinct elements common to each ritual: a time of separation for the individual, a transition, usually occurring in the ceremony itself, and an incorporation of the individual into the community complete with their new identity and relationship.

Holy Baptism

Holy Baptism

St. Peter was inspired by the Holy Spirit to link Holy Baptism for the Christian, to what the Flood was for Noah and his family and the animals with them. First, the water and the ark separated them from the jeering unbelievers who were swept away in God’s righteous judgment. Then the time of transition was the ark floating above the mountains as Noah clung to the promise without knowing what exactly lay ahead for him and his crew. Lastly, the waters receded, the ark came to rest and the land-dwelling inhabitants of God’s creation made their new start in the world that was cleansed and renewed.

The Flood was a real event, and not some myth explaining something that is better addressed by science. Just the same, your baptism was not a mere symbol, nor a cultural rite of passage involving nothing more than human relationships. In fact, as a rite of passage, Baptism is probably the best, most real separation, transition, and incorporation that ever existed in this world! Everything else that calls itself a rite of passage either has a relationship to Baptism or it is a pale comparison to it.

Here’s what I mean: because of sin, you were separated from God, and His commandments that you have broken condemned you and all of humanity to eternal death. Without your cooperation, but solely by God’s grace in the Holy Spirit, Baptism separated you from this fallen world, washed you in water combined with God’s Word and His Triune Name, and welcomed you back to the family of the church. Your constant, daily pattern of repentance, dying and rising with Christ, and being reconciled with fellow believers with the peace of the Lord is an active remembrance of Baptism. Circumcision is not our rite of passage, it was Jesus’ transition from the poor baby lying in a manger, to the suffering Savior dying on a cross. His Name was given to separate Himself from all of us, because no other Name is given under heaven by which we must be saved, but that same Name is placed upon us in blessing and bestows upon us a new identity, as the Benediction does at the end of the church service. He has not forgotten your name; it’s recorded forever in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

So as one year is now coming to a close, and another year is beginning, we again have an opportunity to participate in the rite of passage that our Lord began for us already with His circumcision and naming on the eighth day of His walk among us in the flesh. He has truly separated you, as far as the east is from the west, from your sins, from hurts and your anxieties for the future. He has cut off the spiritual flesh of idolatry that had identified you with the fallen world, and has given you instead a circumcised heart. Your Savior has also incorporated you into His kingdom, made you an heir with Him of eternal life. By His blood you are given a new name—and all of that started from the time of your baptism. Whatever lies ahead for you in the new year, He has already been there, and He has promised you a new eighth-day creation.

The Lord Jesus who shed His blood for you, may He bless you, make His face to shine upon you, and give you peace.

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Christ-Candle is lit.

Christ-Candle is lit.

Sermon for Christmas Day: December 25, 2017

Rev’d Mark B. Stirdivant, Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Yucaipa, California
✝ sdg ✝

White Parament

White Parament

Where does the Christmas story begin? The angels’ announcement to the shepherds? Gabriel’s visit to Mary? Or the prophecies of the Messiah going all the way back to the curse upon the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Well, the Holy Spirit directed the Evangelist John to begin the Christmas Story at the very beginning—even before the world was made. “In the beginning…” sounds like Genesis is being written all over again. Christians had to struggle and fight over these very words of Scripture, and their sensitive minds’ reason being stretched beyond what it can bear. But the truth had to be confessed, and indeed it was: Jesus the Son of God was the Word who was with God, through Whom everything was made in heaven and earth, and the Word who was God from eternity.

His coming in human flesh to this world, John tells us, was a coming to His own, a coming to share His glory as the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. All of creation belonged to Jesus, even before there was a Bethlehem or a Mary or a Joseph. As Christ Himself told His enemies, “Before Abraham was, I AM!” (John 8:58) which means He eternally existed as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Son, who is worthy to be worshiped as God. Yet as the only-begotten Son, He came to give the right, or the authorization, for mankind created in His image to be born as children of God. Paul wrote in Galatians that we are even called “sons of God” whether we are Jew or Gentile, even male or female, due to our life united by faith in Christ, the Son of God.

While we are not told exactly how things would have been had not Adam and Eve fell into sin, God’s Word does tell us this much, that God had it in mind from all eternity, before creation, to make you His children. It is suggested by several church fathers, and I don’t think they’re too far off on this, that the Lord had it in mind to come among us to be with us as our Emmanuel, no matter what, sin or no sin. But what really matters in this train of thought, is that as great a rebellion as sin is, as great of a destruction there was of God’s perfect creation and His relationship to it, all that mess was not going to get in the way of our Lord’s original, perfect plan to make you His children. Even at the cost of His own life, and the Son of God can only die if He fully takes on our human flesh, our Creator determined to ransom us from our terrorist captor, the prince of darkness. So the eternal Word of the Father, now appears in flesh, and all the world rejoices at the one and only Christmas gift that was promised before time began.

To be sure, the birth of the Baby Jesus is not the first time the Son of God broke into creation. After He spoke into the darkness and void, bringing forth light, then heaven and earth, then everything filling them, then finally man in His own image, He promised His coming as the Seed of the Woman to crush the serpent’s head. The Word before He was flesh appeared several times, and sometimes the Bible names Him the “angel of the Lord.” He made a covenant with Abraham, even performing a portion of the ceremony walking between the sacrificed animals in the form of a cloud of smoke and flaming torch. (Gen. 15) He pushed back the Red Sea so that Moses and about a
million of his closest relatives walked on the dry sea floor between two walls of water. The Pre-incarnate Christ fought the battle of Jericho for Joshua, talked to Samson’s parents, called out young Samuel’s name, consecrated the Temple building, torched Elijah’s dripping wet altar, walked around in a furnace with Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, wrote with His own handwriting on the wall, and revealed visions to Daniel and Ezekiel, just to name a few instances.

But as stunning and dramatic as these appearances were in the Old Testament, they all point their finger, John the Baptist style, to the greatest coming—the Christ Child. This is the turning point in the world’s history. This is the incarnation that was foretold from the beginning. This may not be the beginning of the Christmas story, but it certainly is the highest point. And whether the church celebrates it today, or on Epiphany like it used to centuries ago, the event it commemorates is the same: the Word was born of Mary and laid in a manger in Bethlehem.

Take note in this apparently simple detail from John’s Christmas Gospel, and you’ll have to make a special effort because it can sound so familiar that we mistakenly tune it out. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory. There is more in there than I can tell you today or in all of our lifetimes put together. To become flesh does not only mean that Jesus the Son of God put on skin, but it also means that the sinless Victim of His own free will zipped Himself up in a strait-jacket with a big, red target painted on it. That target of the Almighty God’s eternal wrath was not merely flesh, but sinful flesh, namely mankind’s rebellion. Harry Houdini may have made some impossible escapes from death; Jesus launched Himself right at the start into the most impossible death that anyone could ever imagine. When the Word was made flesh, He was right then and there made the Scapegoat to end all scapegoats. He would be the sponge, if you will, to soak up all your sinfulness and suffer ultimate death for it as though He were the only Sinner who ever was. He needed to be true God in order to make the sinless sacrifice, He needed to be true Man in human flesh in order to make that sacrifice for your sake.

No matter what your sin and shortcoming, the Word was made flesh to pay for it. Whatever sorrow or hurt that you feel to this day, your Jesus bears it with the cross on His shoulder. Though the fear of death and the power of the devil leave you powerless on your own, the true Light of Christ has overcome the darkness and will never be quenched. You have added sin upon sin, even when you know you knew better. But the Son of God broke into our world so that He could multiply grace upon grace as His eternal Christmas gift to you. After declaring you fully forgiven and righteous in the sight of the Father, you as a reborn child are united in the flesh with Christ the Word so that He lives in you by the Holy Spirit. This is no mere psychological game that I’m using to change your behavior. As the Lord dwelt long ago in the Temple, so now He cleanses you and dwells within you, and fights for you so that your sinful flesh doesn’t use grace as an excuse to sin, but your new nature rises up with Christ and you are free to give His grace to your neighbor. Your baptism promises that every day, and the Lord’s Supper of Jesus’ Body and Blood really does it.

One of the times when Elijah met Jesus way before the time He was born in Bethlehem, this prophet was told to get high up on a mountain top and prepare for the Lord to pass by. A mighty wind, a massive earthquake, and a devastating fire passed by first, but the Lord was not in any of those fantastic forces of nature. Then there came a still, small voice that spoke strength, courage and assurance to the distressed servant of the Lord. Well, as Christmas is now here, what have we seen in the virtual whirlwind of the last few weeks? First there was the cooking, cleaning, baking and buying, but the Lord was not in those things. Then there was the big man with the red cap and the reindeer, and as nice as he is, the Lord was not in that either. There was at last wholesome feelings and gestures of love and hope and goodwill, but the Lord was not in those, at least not quite yet. Where the Lord is found at Christmas, and where He gives the proper perspective to all that we know, and love and endure in the holiday, He is found in the still, small voice from the Gospel of John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We (you and I) have seen His glory, for by His grace upon grace we have the forgiveness of our sins. Therefore rejoice this Christmas, O children born of God!

In the Name of the Father and of the ✝ Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit

Advent Wreath, 5 candles lit