The Third Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 35:1-10

When the Messiah Comes

When the Messiah comes “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom.”1 Today we have a view of wilderness as an important natural resource, something to be preserved in national parks and wildlife refuges, where birds and fish and mammals and the natural ecosystems they inhabit are made off-limits to the encroachments of industrialized societies. But in the Bible wilderness has a much different connotation. Wilderness was a sterile, sandy country, not fit for human habitation and home to all manner of things that could seriously harm or even kill you. In the lead-up to our hearing of Isaiah’s prophecy in this morning’s Old Testament reading, the third part of our look into Isaiah’s Messianic prophecies in this season of Advent, he writes of the total devastation of the earth, of the sword that is filled with blood, and the destruction of mankind. Now what we hear in chapter 35 is of God’s miraculous transformation of this desolate and dry earth, this wilderness, into a fertile and green land, lush with life and overflowing with springs of water.

When the Messiah comes these desolate and dry places “shall blossom abundantly and rejoice with joy and singing.”2 When God comes to save, creation will change, everything will be restored. Grass will grow, the ground will be carpeted with flowers.  Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but we are just entering into winter and the browns and greys of this season will be with us for at least another four months. But this image from Isaiah reminds me of those first warm days of spring when the birds are singing and things are green and growing again. Isaiah gives us this picture of God’s saving mercy as the restoration and relief which comes to the dry desert.

Then he talks about the people when the Messiah comes. People with weak hands, and feeble knees, and anxious hearts. Sound familiar?  That hits pretty close to home for me.  The people who inhabit this dry and barren wilderness are dismayed and discouraged, disheartened, depressed, and despaired. Others are blind and deaf. Some can’t speak, and can’t walk.  When God comes to save, the weak, the discouraged, and the disheartened are suddenly strong and courageous once again. And people see and hear and shout for joy and even dance once again. It reminds me of those medical stories in which a young child hears for the first time. He has been deaf all his life. Then doctors do surgery. Perhaps they put an implant in the ear. Suddenly, the child hears his mom’s voice. And you see his face just light up in joy. Or imagine a woman who has been colour blind all her life. She puts on special glasses, and suddenly she can see a rainbow of colours. Tears flow down her cheeks.  I don’t know if something like that exists. But when God comes to save, everything changes in a person’s life. “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.”3

For when the Messiah comes “waters [will] break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert.”4 Jesus says, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”5 These are words for the thirsty, for those who long to have parched souls refreshed and renewed.  We are talking about a spiritual thirst. Those who thirst for righteousness long to know: what terms am I on with God? The thirst of the soul comes from the burden of sin and conscience. The hollowed-out space of uncertainty that people carry with them today is just that kind of thirst.  Luther knew all about this burden of the soul, the anguish of standing before a righteous and holy God with no leg to stand on; the feeling of being so spiritually parched. He says the thirsty soul “is aware of a menacing God; it fears God and sees His Law, wrath, judgment, death, and other penalties. Such anxiety marks the proper thirst…How much more will our soul grow thirsty from spiritual temptation, when sin and God’s wrath stare us in the face!”6

So we long to hear the words of forgiveness from our Saviour, only Words that He can bring us. Because only Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”7 The Messiah comes to bring the living water of life. “Be strong; fear not! He will come and save you.” He brought that water to you in the baptismal font.  In that moment you were brought into the promises of God, the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. In that moment the redemption bought with the precious blood of our Lord and Saviour, by His innocent suffering and death, was appropriated to you by faith “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” This is how an event that happened 2,000 years ago is given to you today. This is how you were brought up out of the parched and dry place of sin and death and made a new creation, born again of water and word for eternal life. This is the moment of transformation, and everyday we should rejoice, for we have obtained gladness and joy.

And when the Messiah comes the redeemed will walk on a highway, “called the Way of Holiness”8 Not a little path, not a secondary road full of potholes and crumbling asphalt, but a great smooth highway – a royal road shall be there. Everything that can harm the people of God is removed on this road. Only holy people will walk on it. Fools who walk in ways contrary to God’s way are not there either. A holy road for holy people. He puts us there. When the Messiah comes the path will be made known. Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”9 The way He shows us is walked in faith. This is the way that leads us from this life to life eternal. And on this highway He gives holy things for holy people. He gives us His very Body and Blood. Today we come up to the altar, we kneel, we get a little bit of bread. We get a sip of wine. And in this eating and drinking we have life, forgiveness, and salvation. In this supper we walk together in communion with each other on this Way of Holiness, in unity of faith. Here we are forgiven. Here we have life eternal. The Messiah comes to save us, and we rejoice.

The prophetic words of Isaiah that we hear today are book-ended with rejoicing and joy and singing. This is appropriate for today, the third Sunday of Advent, which is also known as Gaudete Sunday, which comes from the Latin word for rejoice. The candle in our Advent wreath is pink, or more traditionally rose coloured, and represents our rejoicing in the Lord and all He has done for us. The rejoicing we have today is because of what our heavenly Father has done for us in the sending of His only begotten Son, the birth of the Christ-child which we will celebrate in just 10 more days. The message of Advent is none other than this: that Jesus of Nazareth, born of the Virgin Mary, who was executed on a bloody cross outside of Jerusalem during the reign of the Cesar Tiberius, is the Christ, the Redeemer of the world, who comes to bring streams of living water to the deserted wasteland of sin and despair. Everything we associate with Advent, the banners, the wreaths, the lights and candles and singing, all get their meaning from this message of Advent. 

The church which is nourished with the springs of the Gospel has only this message to proclaim, and it is a message for all people for all time. The world changes, the culture changes, people are born and people die. The spiritual lives of people change with the latest fads, the desert seems to be getting bigger with every passing year. Sometimes the desert seems to grow in our own lives as well. In today’s Epistle reading St. James brings us a message that can be very difficult to hear: “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”10 Advent is a time of relentless hope. For in the coming of the Messiah we behold the purpose of the Lord, “how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”11 Like St. John the Baptist, whatever your own kind of prison or suffering may be, call upon Jesus and receive the strength of His Word from those He sends to you.  Today the prophet Isaiah points us to the evergreen promises of our Lord, who is coming again. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and walk upon His royal highway, the Way of Holiness.

1 Is 35:1.

2 Is 35:2.

3 Is 35:4.

4 Is 35:6.

5 Jn 7:37.

6 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 23: Sermons on the Gospel of St. John: Chapters 6-8, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 23 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 267.

7 Jn 4:13–14.

8 Is 35:8.

9 Jn 14:6.

10 Jas 5:7–8.

11 Jas 5:11.

Second Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2019

Old Testament Isaiah 11:1-10

A King Who is For Us

Northern Michigan was once covered with countless acres of old growth pine forests, but after the end of the 19thcentury pretty much all that had been reduced to fields of stumps through intensive clear cut logging. If we could go back in time to around 100 years ago and drive across the northern lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan we would not see lush stands of forest from scenic overlooks, but instead we would see mile after mile of stumps and open space. The stumps would be blackened by the many fires that swept through after the loggers had completed their work, and the roots of the stumps exposed from soil erosion.  Today, even after all this time, in many places the forest has not returned. The pine trees cannot grow again because the soil conditions radically changed with the clear cutting, so now you can see plains full of rotting stumps interspersed with scraggly looking brush where once stood some of North America’s most impressive and glorious trees – massive white pines up to 200 feet tall and five feet in diameter. There are no sprouts of new life from those stumps and there never will be.

This comes to my mind as we hear the Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday in Advent this morning, continuing our look at the prophecies of the prophet Isaiah. The reading today begins, “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”1 You see, Isaiah is also talking about a field of stumps in this passage.  Earlier he writes, “19The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.2” But he doesn’t mean a literal forest and literal stumps. He speaks of a people who have turned their hearts away from God and abandoned his Law and his promises.  What Isaiah calls the “stump of Jesse” is actually the family of David, the line of Jesse his father, which is regarded as lost and shriveled up. About 700 years before Christ, Isaiah points the people toward the terrible judgement that will come when invading armies lay waste to the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem and carry the people off into exile. The line of kings from David down through Solomon and so on lasted about 400 years, but then it was cut off. Then other powers took over. Persia, Greece, and Rome all took turns conquering the land that God’s people had inherited and squandered. The line of Jesse was like a tree that had been cut down and now all that’s left is an ugly blackened stump.

Can anything grow again from this stump? Well, God is in the business of bringing to life what seems cold and dead, creating new growth and life. Isaiah gives us this promise: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”3 From a stump nearly decayed a little Twig will emerge. The Twig will grown up and make holy and nothing will prevent it. For this shoot is Christ the Lord, who comes in the hour of greatest need and utmost trouble. This has always been God’s standard operating procedure, and he leaves us his Holy Scriptures so that we would know the acceptable time and the day of salvation.  That time is right now. As St. Paul reminds us, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. 12 The night is far gone; the day is at hand.”4

Christ the Branch comes to bear fruit, bringing back to life what seemed to be lost forever. What is it that is lost? The image and righteousness of God. Our first parents had this in the Garden, but then they sinned and lost it, and set in motion the corruption of our present world. They passed on a spiritual death, the infection of original sin, to everyone ever since. But God is in the business of bringing to life what is dead. So again and again the Holy Scriptures bring us this pattern of life out of death, the new growth out of dead wood. In the sending of His only begotten Son the plan is fulfilled and finished on the cross, which is the reason why He came to dwell among us, born of the Virgin Mary who became the new tabernacle of God, the place where God is. Jesus of Nazareth will be nailed to a tree, a tree of death, and in that moment it seems everything is over. It seems all there is for us sinners are endless fields of stumps. But it was just the opposite. It was only the beginning, for life came up out of that death. Jesus proclaimed victory over sin and hell in His resurrection and now the way to life is open. Forgiveness is at hand. New life is ours to which we are raised in our Baptism. We now have the gift of eternal life, in Christ Jesus, for the cross of death is really and truly the cross of life.

So Christ comes with the promise of a new kingdom, a spiritual kingdom, and He is our King. But this King does not rule like the earthly rulers. His rule is Divine, and His kingdom is of heaven. “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,”5 says Isaiah. This is the Holy Spirit who was given to Christ without measure in His baptism in the river Jordan, when “the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”6 God’s Spirit rests upon Him and marks Him as the Saviour, the promised Branch. And because His rule is Divine the justice He meets out is not of this world. Isaiah tells us, “And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.”7 This is great news for us dear brothers and sisters!  We the people of Christ’s kingdom are the poor, the insignificant, the harassed, the lowly, the fearful – in other words, sinners. And we are the ones He has come to judge; or to put it another way, He will make the just cause prevail for us because He comes to judge with righteousness.  This righteousness is our justification. He gives grace to those who fear Him, He forgives the sins of those who repent in faith and believe and trust in His promises. In this way the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit.”8 This King, our Messiah, is indeed for us, He’s on our side with His righteousness and faithfulness. 

We know this because He has told us through the Gospel message that has been revealed to us through the Apostles.  The spoken Words of His mouth are “the rod of his mouth” and “the breath of his lips.”9 This same spoken Word has the power both to save and destroy. It saves those who believe it and make no claims for their own standing and righteousness before God, but it destroys the ungodly who remain stubbornly bound in their wisdom. Only by this Word which goes forth from the mouth of our Lord can sinners come to repentance and turn toward God and faith.  We learned this in Luther’s Catechism – “the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church”10

Now the kingdom of the Righteous King prophesied by Isaiah is one of peace and safety for those who are under the protection of the Messianic Ruler. Again, the “branch from [the] roots shall bear fruit” in the form of peace and security for God’s people.  Remember last week we spoke of God’s holy mountain, the heavenly city of Zion from where the Word of God goes out? Here again the prophet directs our attention to the mountain of the Lord: “9They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”11 The wolf with the lamb, the leopard with the young goat, the lion and the calf. All these images point us to the assurance that in the Kingdom of our Lord danger and evil and even death itself will be removed.  Here there is supreme peace and harmony, people don’t offend one another nor try to destroy their brothers and sisters. Instead they have peace, they make peace.  A peaceable Kingdom, now and forever more, for Christ is our peace “who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”12

Today Isaiah shows us a picture of the Messiah as the King who comes for us, who is for us. And because He is for us, who can stand against us? In this season of Advent these prophecies point us to the fulfillment of God’s promises when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, to save us from our sins and lead us to eternal life. So now we look to the day when He will come again in glory, when “the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples”13 and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The King who is coming is for us. 

1 Is 11:1.

2 Is 10:19.

3 Is 11:1.

4 Ro 13:11–12.

5 Is 11:2.

6 Lk 3:22.

7 Is 11:3–4.

8 Is 11:1.

9 Is 11:4.

10 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 355.

11 Is 11:9.

12 Eph 2:14.

13  Is 11:10.

The First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2019

Old Testament Isiah 2:1-5

Coming In to Go Out

Our text for this First Sunday of Advent is from our Old Testament reading in Isaiah, the first five verses of chapter two, again as follows:

The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
    and many peoples shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
    and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,[a]
    and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
    and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
    and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
    neither shall they learn war anymore.

O house of Jacob,
    come, let us walk
    in the light of the Lord.

Isaiah speaks of a great multitude going up to “the mountain of the house of the Lord.”2 He says “all the nations shall flow to it.”3 Well perhaps the streams of people we are more likely to see in our age – especially at this time of year – are the crowds lined up outside big box retailers on Black Friday to make their offerings at the altar of materialism. But Isaiah does not point us to the sale of the century. He points us to Christ. Always. So we launch into Advent with the first of these readings from the prophet and today and for the next three weeks our focus will be on the prophecies of Isaiah and how they speak to us about the coming of the Messiah, Christ our Lord. For He comes, and the day of His coming shall be a day of great celebration. God’s people knew this back in the days of Isaiah when they looked for relief from the ravages of war and darkness. And now in these “latter days” the Lord has visited His people, He has forgiven their sins, “he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”4 The whole world bursts forth in joy. The whole world streams to Zion, where the Lord is, and they cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!”5

According to Isaiah the Lord’s house will be established as the central place to where all people will come. Why? What is there that brings people literally flowing into his house?  What is the attraction? Well it’s better than any Black Friday sale. It’s the Gospel.  It’s the message of light that comes to a world in the darkness of sin. It’s the promise that our Heavenly Father has heard the cries of his people and has relented in his judgments, and now he sends his only begotten Son to take away our iniquities. The prophet Isaiah speaks of this time, when the Gospel light comes into the world, when the kingdom of Christ is established. For this really did have a beginning, a time and a place, and it exists even now in His Holy Church.  The nations flow to it, for this is not a kingdom established by war or force of arms.  No one is compelled against their will. But people come like a stream of water to this Gospel wherever and whenever it is proclaimed in the Word and Sacrament of our Lord Jesus Christ.

When we hear of the coming in of Jesus to Jerusalem on a colt from St. Matthew’s Gospel  we know that this is just the start of a series of events that will take Him to the cross on Good Friday. The events of that day and the miracle of the Resurrection the following Sunday are now what goes back out, for now the new age of salvation has come to the world on the cross. Jesus comes in in order that His Word may go out.  So when Isaiah says, “For out of Zion shall go forth the law, [the Torah or the teaching] and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”6 we know when and where this actually happened.  After His Resurrection, Jesus taught the disciples that the entirety of the Holy Scriptures are about Him: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”7 Jerusalem, the City of David, is where is all starts. Then the Apostles went forth from Jerusalem after Pentecost and through the power of the Word made flesh they witnessed to the world.  That Word preached and the Sacraments which were administered drew people to the new church. And these are the means that will continue to draw all people. By this Word and this Word alone the Church is recognized, and where the Church is there Christ has promised to be with us. The light shines in the darkness.  Here in this time of Advent, by once again remembering His coming in and the going out of His Word through His church, we look ahead to end of the age when Christ will come again to judge both the living and dead. 

That’s why you are here today. You have been drawn to the Light, to the “the word of the Lord from Jerusalem”8that Christ brings. This is something that happens for your sake, and it’s something that He wants for all people, for all nations for all time. Jesus comes into Jerusalem in order that His Gospel may go out again. That Word is the means by which He draws us to Himself, and Isaiah gives us this image of His holy mountain, the place where He resides. Where He is, we want to be also. The church father St. Augustine says, “Approach the mountain, climb up the mountain, and you that climb it, do not go down it. There you will be safe, there you will be protected; Christ is your mountain of refuge. And where is Christ? At the right hand of the Father, since he has ascended into heaven.9 Christ died for us all. He has not forgotten us. He knows precisely how bad it can be. He alone knows all our broken promises and resolutions, all our failed attempt to do better. He alone knows how much is lacking even when we try to do our best. But He comes to you this day in His Word, and in His very Body and Blood, He commits Himself to us as our Saviour. No accusation and condemnation of the evil one will stand against you, “because the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains.”10 Jesus is our rock, our mountain which cannot be moved, our King above all other Kings. 

So the church begins another year, and this wonderful season of Advent makes us look once again at all things. Jesus knows what He will do and only He can do it. There are many competing voices for your attention, many other “high places” that look appealing and seem to promise all kinds of benefits in this life. But only our Lord Jesus Christ offers you what you need: the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. You can’t find this anywhere else. And forgive you He does, and He will again and again, everyday forgiven anew in the promise of your Baptism, every day a life lived in repentance and belief. Forgiven, restored, raised again to the new life of light, walking on the path of righteousness.  Forgiven though we can hardly believe it and though we don’t deserve it. It is really true that God visits his people, and so now it is that Christ comes to us. Blessed is He who comes.

Isaiah ends this brief look at the city of Zion, the place where God is, with a call for transformation, which is also part of our Advent journey of preparation for the coming of our King. The prophet writes, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.”11 This is a call to reorient ourselves, to make sure that the path we are on is the one that goes out from Zion, the path that we have in His very Word. The call for transformation, for repentance, is based on knowing what God has done, knowing what he is doing right now, and what he will do in the future. The Light of the World comes, He brings us out of darkness, He teaches us His Word that “we may walk in His paths.” In John’s Gospel Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. 36 While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.”12 Here in this first week of December the days are getting shorter and shorter, the darkness of the evening comes upon us earlier and earlier this time of year. But the light of Advent shines brightest in darkness. So let us move into this season as those who do not walk in the darkness, but “let us walk in the light of the Lord.”13

1 Is 2:1–5.

2 Is 2:2.

3 Is 2:2.

4 Lk 1:53.

5 Mt 21:9.

6 Is 2:3.

7 Lk 24:46–48.

8 Is 2:3.

9 Steven A. McKinion, ed., Isaiah 1-39, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 24.

10 Is 2:2.

11 Is 2:5.

12 Jn 12:35–36.

13 Is 2:5.

The Last Sunday of the Church Year, November 24, 2019

Gospel Luke 23:27-43

Vision Refocused

When we cannot see well, we go to the eye doctor and get our eyes checked. As we look through all the various machines, the optometrist or ophthalmologist tries different lenses to correct our vision until we can see clearly again.

When the Church needs to refocus her vision, she goes to Good Friday. There we can see clearly again. We see the enormity of our sin. We see the enormity of our Savior’s love. We see the Old Testament fulfilled. We see the promise of the Last Day. Good Friday is the lens through which the Church looks to see everything in right focus. We are neither nearsighted (only concerned about here and now) nor farsighted (only concerned about the end)—we see past, present, and future all through the lens of Jesus’ love and forgiveness.

So in case you came into the service this morning wondering if perhaps we have our Gospel readings mixed up this is the explanation for why we are hearing of St. Luke’s Gospel account of the crucifixion on this Sunday. We are at the end of the church year now looking right into Advent, and as we start again toward the great church celebrations of the Nativity we need to make sure we are viewing all of these events through the right lens. Good Friday is the right lens. The events of Good Friday bring to fruition the events of Christmas Eve. The baby who lies in a manger is destined to hang on the cross for the sins of the world. He comes into the world in the most humble of circumstance, born where livestock are kept in a small town in the Judean countryside. Surely not the stuff of royalty. And when He is crucified the religious authorities and the soldiers mock and sneer at Him, and all the people gathered there ask the same question: if you are who you say you are, then why don’t you do something about this? How could this happen? Where is your kingdom now, Jesus of Nazareth?

The kingdom is right there. The kingdom which Christ is born to bring is now fully revealed on that cross. There are two thieves hanging there on crosses along with Jesus. Like them, Jesus is treated as a criminal. But this is the fulfillment of prophecy: the prophet Isaiah writes, “he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”1 One criminal brings forth the same words as the scoffers and mockers who are assemble below watching the unfolding of events. St. Luke says he “railed at him,” the word here is literally blaspheme, which means to revile and slander God, “saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’”2 He follows the lead of the soldiers and religious authorities in wickedness and unrepentance. 

But if Jesus has done nothing wrong why, is He there? Why is He subject to this mockery and suffering? Because He is our great High Priest, who hangs on the cross not only as the one who brings the sacrifice before God for the remission of sins but is in His very flesh the needed sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Why is He there? Because our sins could not be atoned for and taken away in any other way. So He offers His Body and Blood for our sake, and in praying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”3 He not only prays for the mocker and scoffers who stand there that day but He prays for all poor miserable sinners. St. Peter tells us, “23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.”4 He prays, He offers, for you.

The other condemned man on the other side of Jesus follows a different course. He says of our Lord, “This man has done nothing wrong.”5 Indeed this is true, for “22He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth.”6 But the thief knows that his own sentence of condemnation is just, he knows that he has sinned and that he must in fact die for his sins.  So the thief knows and confesses the glory of the Saviour, and heaps burning coals on the pride of those who stand there mocking. He does not hang upon the cross with any remaining notion of boasting before God or a claim to justification on the basis of good works.  You see now that the cross is the lens to see the kingdom clearly. This is what the thief believes and confesses, by faith: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”7 Jesus comes into His kingdom on the cross. This confession opens paradise. Christ converted that thief on the cross into a saint.  He doesn’t leave him to remain and to perish in his sins.  By this very deed Christ shows us what the Redeemer sought and acquired by His sufferings, and what He accomplished by the priestly prayer and sacrifice which He brings forth on the cross. He took sin upon Himself, not because He delights in sin, neither because He would have us remain under sin and continue in iniquity. No, He suffers for sinners so that they need not go on in sin, and so that they may become converted and bear fruit.  This is the way of repentance.  This thief hangs upon that cross accused of his sins, but still he trusted in the Lord Jesus.  Still he believed that God, through Him and for His sake, would forgive his sins and give him life eternal.

True, all that meets the eyes are nails and wood, and blood. All we see are gaping wounds and anguish. This is a stumbling block. What kind of kingdom is this?  What kind of King is this? To this St. Paul says, “we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”8 We proclaim Him King because we see Him crucified. Christ laid down His life, as He said He would, and so we pray along with the thief, “Jesus, remember me.” Through the eyes of faith we see the power and glory of the kingdom, and we see Jesus raised up on the cross as the same One who is now lifted up to sit at the right hand of God. And even as He is there now He is still with us, remembering us in His kingdom, our brother and our one mediator before our Heavenly Father.

“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”9 Once again the last becomes first. Once again Jesus shows that He came to offer Himself for sinners, not for the righteous. “You will be with me in paradise” are words which are heard only in faith and repentance, like the thief. Those who would try to enter the kingdom of God on the basis of a holy life and good works are stuck in a terrible deception. The death Christ dies is not for His own sake, but for ours. Upon the cross Jesus gives all who believe access to the entrance to the kingdom, Paradise, which Adam had previously closed. What is this Paradise? This is the place where we can once again have the full enjoyment of the tree of life. The Revelation given to St. John Jesus says, “To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’”10 There is no more old evil serpent to tempt and torment, and there is freedom from all suffering, affliction, and death.

That’s what the tree of the cross does for us, it opens again the way to Paradise. Jesus in His flesh brings back that which was lost.  We know that in Adam “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned.”11 But when Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary the angels in heaven proclaimed the glory of God in the highest and peace on earth because now the way back had been shown. In His earthly ministry Jesus restored Paradise, saying “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.”12 For where Jesus is, there is Paradise, because where Jesus is there is restoration and redemption and rest. 

In His Words to the thief on the cross He makes that promise. For the thief the promise was realized on that very day. For us we wait in hopeful expectation that all these things will be just as our Lord has said, and that He awaits us. When that day is we don’t know. It might be a long time from now, it might be very soon. But whenever and however it is, is will be a day of joy, for then your soul will taken into the bosom of our heavenly Father by Christ while your body awaits Christ’s coming and the resurrection of the dead. But even today when you hear the Gospel preached and your sins absolved in the stead and by the command of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” When you receive the Body and the Blood of our Lord He says to you “You will be with me in Paradise.” Do you see how the cross shows us the kingdom? As we step into Advent to herald the coming of our King we looks to the cross and Good Friday to make sure our vision is properly focused, focused on the kingdom of heaven proclaimed in the cross. We see most clearly in the innocent, bitter suffering and death of our Lord Jesus Christ the grace and mercy of our Heavenly Father given to us.

1 Is 53:12.

2 Lk 23:39.

3 Lk 23:34.

4 1 Pe 2:23.

5 Lk 23:41.

6 1 Pe 2:22.

7 Lk 23:42.

8 1 Co 1:23–24.

9 Lk 23:43.

10 Re 2:7.

11 Ro 5:12.

12 Mt 11:5.

The 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, November 17, 2019

Gospel Reading Luke 21:5-28

Jesus has promised us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”1 Do you see?  He said, he meant it.  He has not left us on our own. He has brought us into His Kingdom in the waters of Baptism and keeps and guards us through the preaching of His Gospel and the forgiveness of sins found in Holy Communion. Jesus tells us to “straighten up and raise your heads” even though we deserve the opposite, for we should by all accounts be looking for a place to hide and withdraw. But He not only commands us to straighten and raise our heads, He makes it happen through His love for us which He poured out on the cross in His blood.  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.”2 God is getting ready to bring that final release and deliverance, our rescue from sin, death, and devil, the fulfillment of all our hopes and all His promises, to its glorious end on that last day. Remember and keep this in your heart always: “your redemption is drawing near,” for your salvation is nearer to you now then is was yesterday.

1 Mt 28:20.

2 Eph 1:7–8.

The 22nd Sunday After Pentecost, November 10, 2019

Gospel Luke 20:27-40

The Sadducees do not understand, they cannot see the kingdom of God. They believe that what is perishable cannot put on imperishability, that what is mortal cannot put on immortality. Jesus in His very person shows us otherwise. Those who are in Him will indeed rise again from the dead, raised to imperishability and immortality in a new body, to be with Him forever in a new heaven and new earth. Do you know what the leading cause of death is? Being born. And we who are born in the flesh will all face that day, but for the Christian born of water and Spirit we do not face death without the sure and certain hope of the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. This is a promise not just for the patriarchs – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No, this is a promise also for you. God’s promises do not have an expiration date. All the promises of God have their “Yes” and their “Amen” in Christ. So this is a promise for you, you who believe and are baptized.

So this age is most assuredly not the age yet to come. There is something much better. Therefore we are waiting in hopeful expectation for Christ to return in glory. But He has not left us on our own, for even in this waiting we have the means of grace to establish and strengthen our faith.  “38 Now he is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to him.”1 In Holy Baptism you were made alive and continue to live in repentance and faith.  Today we receive His very Body and Blood, and in this eating and drinking we have the promise of the new life yet to come – we “live to Him,” He who was raised from the dead.

1 Lk 20:38.

All Saints Day (observed), November 3, 2019

Epistle Reading, 1 John 3:1-3

Where the Rubber Meets the Road

I think you can tell most of what you need to know about a church and about what they believe, teach, and confess in that church by attending a funeral service. Watch what happens in the service. Hear what the pastor says, look at what he does. A funeral tells you so much because it deals with the most fundamental questions of life and death, of salvation and eternal destiny, of who God is and what his relationship is to us. In other words, a funeral service is where the rubber really meets the road.

So there is much to learn about a pastor and his teaching or a particular church body by attending a funeral. What hope is given to those who are gathered, and what is the basis for this hope? Are doubts dealt with head-on, or are they actually made worse, is uncertainty actually increased? What does it all mean – life and death? Is the joy we have in Christ Jesus expressed in the midst of the sorrow felt by the loved ones who are there? Are they directed to the good works and life of the person who is deceased – that the departed was a very fine person who did his or her best – or are they directed only to the work of Christ, and to Baptism? You will find a variety of answers to these questions, and unfortunately even in the Christian Church you will find a host of competing teachings and confessions. 

This is all very relevant for us to consider on this observance of All Saints Day.  All Saints Day was actually two days ago, right after that day we call Halloween, All Hallows Eve, the Eve of All Saints. Now, the Reformation didn’t get rid of the saints – we just stopped bothering them.  For Lutherans rightly reject the invocation of the saints – calling on them, pleading with them, hectoring them for things in this life, because of course Christ is our one mediator before the Father.  All Saints Day is also like a portal into the end of the church year which is just three weeks away, and as we move into advent the readings will focus our attention on these “rubber meets the road” topics: death, Christ’s return to judgement, Heaven and hell, a new Heaven and new earth. In these things we will hear time and again how Christ will bring His redemptive work to its final culmination. So on All Saints Day we remember the blessed dead who have gone before us, especially commemorating those who departed this last year. They are now in the presence of the beatific vision that St. John describes, they are part of the heavenly chorus who are “standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands.”1

But on this day we should also be reminded that every Sunday is like “all saints day” for us as we gather in the Divine Service, for we remember these same saints in our Liturgy every week. Here in this little parish heaven punches through to earth in the Divine Service. Today and every Sunday we gather in the banquet feast that is also ongoing in the heavenly places, which we acknowledge and praise in the Service of the Sacrament praying “with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven” before we launch into the ancient hymn of the Sanctus. The praise is sung by people and angels, the praise is for the Lamb who was slain on Golgotha, who is present in heaven and on earth. The saints pray with us, we are all part of the one Universal Church, militant on earth and triumphant in heaven.

So when we hear the words of St. John this morning from the Epistle reading, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are”2 I can’t help but think of this heavenly and earthly Church as the family of God. For to say we are made God’s friends is not enough. No, John says that we are called children of God. Why? Because of the love the Father has given to us, namely that Christ loved us in this way, that He rendered perfect obedience to the Father, who gave to us His Son to redeem us from sin, death, and devil. God loves us even while we were mired in sin, with no way out to save ourselves. Such is the personal and loving nature of our Heavenly Father. Such is his love that we are called his children.

The World Did Not Know Him

Of course, the world doesn’t see it this way. “The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him.”3 The world cannot understand how one who is born into and become used to to sin has nevertheless been received as a son or daughter of God, called a child of God. So the world looks at Christians and says, “Ah hah! Hypocrites! How is it possible to be called a child of God while sins are still present?”  This is the judgment of the world, this is the logic of the flesh. No, the world does not know you, but you know the world. The world cannot understand how God really works because they do not know of him who sent Christ into the world in order to save us, yes while we were still sinners.  We can be called “children of God” because that’s what really happens in Baptism – we are raised from death to life, from darkness to light, and made part of the family of God as his adopted sons and daughters.

And so we are God’s children now along with the saints who are already in the presence of the throne of Heaven. This is all because of God’s love for you. And even though on many days you might not especially feel like a child of God, nevertheless this is true and right, even though you are still in the flesh and still feel the flesh. But this should not disturb you, for St. John says, “what we will be has not yet appeared.”4 In our earthly pilgrimage from the bondage of sin, through the healing waters of Holy Baptism, to the promised land where we will be with Christ forever, we live with this constant tension between the now and the not yet. For now we see the things of God that are hidden to the world revealed to us through eyes of faith. And the world, the flesh, and the devil are constantly seeking to cover those things back up, to steal away the faith which you have been given, and the hope that springs from that faith. You see, this hope in the things that God has promised us – the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, is more than wishful thinking. The hope the Apostles speak of is not “Gee, I sure hope so” but “Yes, I am sure of it!”  Luther says, “Therefore we are children of God not by seeing God but through faith.”5

Surely this hope of faith is one of those rubber-meets-the-road moments that I mentioned earlier. Because, to be sure, we are all handed over to death eventually. But at that moment the covering will be lifted and “we shall see him as his.” St. Paul teaches us, “12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”6 And not only will we see Christ, but the St. John says “we shall be like him.” Faith in his Word and in Christ grasps hold of this promise of what we will be like. God is life, and therefore we shall live forever with him. God is righteous, therefore will shall be filled with righteousness. God is immortal and blessed, and so we will enjoy everlasting bliss in that vision. The ones who have gone before us already have what we yet hope for, the bliss of Heaven. “4They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”7

But St. John does not let his hearers detach this vision of Heaven from Christian experience and, yes, responsibility.  The sure hope that we have in this life along our earthly pilgrimage actually has implications for the here and now.  In other words, in our waiting and hoping, our lives should reflect the name that we have received, the name in which we hope. The last of the three verses in our Epistle says, “And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.”8 St. John immediately urges the Christian to bear fruit either through love and through hope. We love because He first loved us, and whoever has this hope of seeing Christ and being with Him and like Him daily seeks to mortify the flesh, to put it to death – to beat down the ways of the world, the flesh, and the devil that would seek to rob us of that very hope.  The Apostle James writes, “8Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.”9 So here is another of the “rubber-meets-the-road” moment on this All Saints Day.  The Augsburg Confession makes clear that we should not call upon the saints in Heaven nor seek help from them.  However, “the saints are to be remembered so that we may strengthen our faith when we see how they experienced grace and how they were helped by faith. Moreover, it is taught that each person, according to his or her calling, should take the saints’ good works as an example.”10 We should walk in a manner worthy of our calling, as those who have been sanctified – that is, made clean – by the work of the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament.

So our All Saints celebration now comes into proper focus. We who might grow weary of the battle in this life look to the promise of the next life we have received in Christ. And we remember that great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us and have already taken their place in the Heavenly Divine Service.  In faith we have this hope, not just for ourselves, but for our loved ones who are now safe in care of Jesus. So “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”11

1 Re 7:9.

2 1 Jn 3:1.

3 1 Jn 3:1.

4 1 Jn 3:2.

5 Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 30: The Catholic Epistles, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 30 (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 267.

6 1 Co 13:12.

7 Re 22:4–5.

8 1 Jn 3:3.

9 Jas 4:8.

10 Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000), 58.

11 Mt 5:12.

Reformation Day (Observed), October 27, 2019

No Horn-Tooting Today

The alternate Gospel reading for Reformation Day which we heard this morning from St. Matthew certainly does not lend itself to a horn-tooting, self congratulatory celebration. And that’s good, because we have this day on the calendar not to pat ourselves on the back.  In fact, if nothing else as we look back on the works of Martin Luther and the other reformers we should be reminded that the church exists in a world that neither desires nor tolerates the Gospel.

So St. Matthew records for us that Jesus says, “12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.”1 That might seem puzzling to us at first glance. What does it mean to do violence to the kingdom of heaven? How is that even possible?  What exactly is being attacked and how?  Well, wherever and whenever forces are arrayed against the pure preaching of the Gospel and right administration of the Sacraments then the kingdom of God is under attack.  John the Baptist heralded the coming of the Messiah and yet the people did not believe him. The works of Christ did not win authority, the cross would become a scandal for many. Christ is preached to many but acknowledged by few. His own people persecuted Him while strangers received Him. Those who are adopted into His family seek to be part of His heritage, while His own family rejected Him.  Old Testament Israel repudiated the Christ, they missed Him, but the Gentiles embraced Him. And so it is that the kingdom of heaven suffers violence.

This is also what Luther fought against, for abuses and false teaching were rampant in the medieval catholic church.  The church taught that the pathway to salvation was within the ability of each individual believer, through good works, through the merit of properly performing the works of penance, and even through the acquisition of an indulgence, a piece of paper which offered a pathway to heaven simply because the pope said so.  In doing so violence was done to the kingdom of God because consciences were burdened and turned away from the grace and mercy Christ offers through His Word and Sacrament.

Today things are no different.  The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, there many challenges to the faith. The world stands opposed to the church.  In fact the world desperately wants to change the Church and her message. The attack is focused on the Word of God and specifically on the central message of what he has revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures – “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them”2. You see, if God needed to reconcile the world to himself than there must be something that was wrong. Something that needed to be fixed. That’s where trespasses come in. For in our sinful nature we stand opposed to God, a miserable, alienated state of affairs.  We know this is the legacy of our first parents in the garden who transgressed God’s Holy Law and placed all of humankind, indeed all of creation under the burden of brokenness and wrath and despair. Our daily transgressions are the actual embodiment of that corruption, lived out in the flesh.  Bu today for many people this message is radioactive. To speak of original sin and its consequence directly contradicts the high priests and priestesses of our culture who tell us that everything is fine, that people are by nature good and moral beings who have nothing but the best intentions. Well, God’s Word says otherwise.  The Apostle Paul say in our Epistle from Romans, “19Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.”3


But the pressure to change is enormous. Sometimes that pressure comes from inside the church as well, when people are too easily swayed by competing voices or perhaps are just tired of fighting. So the Church needs to be ever vigilant, to always return to the foundation upon which she stands which is God’s Word.  Jesus says, “15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” 4 No one can claim that Jesus is unapproachable, but instead He draws all people to Himself, in order that they might hear and believe. Our Lord says, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.”5

But to those who either won’t hear or won’t listen Jesus directs these words: “It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, 17 “ ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’”6  Again we see that John’s preaching did not turn the people toward repentance of the their sins and sorrow for their transgressions. They even said he “has a demon”!  That generation responded with unbelief. They missed it, they missed John pointing them to the Messiah. They missed Jesus Himself who went before them and performed miracles and acts of power, bringing the kingdom of God in the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And then the ultimate act of violence was inflicted upon Christ Jesus when He was hung on that cross at Calvary, when the sins of all humanity were put on Him in order that we might be justified.  But Christ was risen from the dead in victory over the all the forces of sin, death, and devil, and now He sits at the right hand of God as our mediator. “Wisdom,” Jesus says, “is justified.” Christ Himself is the Wisdom and power of God, true God and true man in one person.  The rejection of His word is on those who turn away, not on Christ, for He is justified, He is without blemish or guilt. And the good news of the Gospel brought forth out of the Reformation is that we have that same righteousness given to us through Christ. We are therefore justified by grace through faith.

So yes violence is suffered in the kingdom of God, the Church is under attack and must remain vigilant. But the Church is not overcome by this violence, the kingdom will never be overthrown. Martin Luther bears witness to the providential care of God for his holy church, for even as others around him were subject to persecution and death God protected the life of the Reformer so that the Gospel could once again go forth as the foundation of the Church. God gave Luther the grace to stand firm and to stubbornly fight for the right teaching of the Holy Scriptures above the teaching of popes and councils. In his famous speech before the Diet of Worms he said this: “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.” 

On that day in 1521 the kingdom of God was not overthrown. Luther was spared and the rest is history. But the work of the Reformation continues in the right preaching of the Holy Scriptures, and in the rebuking of those who would bind the conscience of God’s people to anything other than Christ. The temptation is always there to allow Christ to be watered down, to forsake right doctrines for something new and different. But that is allowing violence to be done to the Word of God. So we must always be vigilant, for the Gospel always will fight against this error. John the Baptist knew this. The martyrs of the early church knew this. The heroes of the Reformation knew this. And you and I know this as well. 

With His good gifts and Spirit our Lord in on our side. In your Baptism He has counted you among His redeemed, and continues to shine the light of the Gospel into your heart through Word and Sacrament.  This is our Reformation Day celebration.  “Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,”7 our victory has been won, the Kingdom which cannot fall remains ours forever. Amen.

1 Mt 11:12.

2 2 Co 5:19.

3 Ro 3:19.

4 Mt 11:15.

5 Jn 4:23.

6 Mt 11:16–17.

7 Ps 46:2.

Thanksgiving Day (observed), October 13, 2019

Gospel, Luke 17:11-21

Today as we gather in the Lord’s house he is still all about this giving and forgiving thought the Means of Grace, through His Word and His Sacraments.  We were cleansed in the purifying waters of Holy Baptism.  And today He continues to heal us, to bind up our wounds that we incur in this life, all in the Divine Service.  On Thanksgiving we gather to thank and praise our God for all that he has done for us, and yet our God still blesses and gives and forgives, for that it his nature — mercy, favour, and grace.

And as we gather in the Divine Service we learn how to rightly give thanks, to return thanks, for this his service to us.  The Lord’s Supper is also called the Eucharist, which means “give thanks.”  When St. Luke tells us the leper “fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks” (Lk 17:16) the Greek word is euchariston.  So before we receive the true Body and Blood of Christ we do give thanks and pray before feasting at this table.  “Let us give thanks to the Lord out God.”  “It is right to give him thanks and praise.”  We offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and we say the Lord’s Prayer.  Just as Jesus gave thanks over the bread and wine in the Upper Room, so we give thanks for this bread and wine, Body and Blood, for us.  When we prepare to approach the Lord’s Table, the prayer of the lepers becomes our own: “Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world; have mercy on us” (LSB, p 163).  Have mercy.  Give us what we don’t deserve.  The lepers prayed, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us” (Lk 8:13), and they were cleansed.  We pray, “Lamb of God, have mercy on us,” and we are cleansed, cleansed by the blood of Jesus and by his body, given to us in this Eucharistic feast.

St. Michael and All Angels, September 29, 2019

Epistle Revelation 12:7-12; Gospel Luke 10:17-20

So the battle in heaven is over and done with.  Christ has conquered all that could stand between us and the righteousness of God; the mighty angel Michael and his army of angels have carried out their marching orders “to a T.”  But remember what I said earlier?  The Christian life is often compared to a battle in the New Testament.  So even in our having received the justification of the saints, even in our having been sanctified, cleansed and made holy in the Blood of the Lamb, still we are battling against the things that would take us down in this life.  For it it true that Satan has been kicked out of heaven.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is that he now inhabits the earth, “going to and fro …and from walking up and down on it” (Job 1:7).  And he is taking aim at the church.  He is taking aim at your faith.  He is taking aim at the means of grace, at the Word of Christ and His Sacraments.  Did God really say?  How could water do such an amazing thing as bring a lost sinner into the Kingdom of Heaven?  What do you mean “take and eat, take and drink, this is true Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins?”  How can that be possible?  So this battle rages on.  And wherever and whenever you are confronted with someone or something that wants to separate you from these gifts, what Christ has given for you for the forgiveness of sins and everlasting life, you can be sure that the devil is at work.  Luther says the devil works not to captures our senses, that is, what we can see, but our minds.  He seeks to deceive us with false and wicked opinions.  Wherever doubt and division are present in the Church then you can be sure that the devil is at work.  The things we see, the conflicts that take place between people, even the disputes about the articles of the faith that are clearly revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures — these belie the underlying nature of what is actually happening.  Remember, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood” but again the powers of darkness that drag us back to sin and death.