Sermon preached by Pastor Jim Pence

on March 22, 2009

at the Installation of Rev. Randy Lohr

as Pastor, Christ the King Lutheran Church

Richmond, Virginia

A Reading from Ezekiel    (Ezekiel 1:28 - 3:4)

Like the appearance of the rainbow that is in the cloud on the day of rain, so was the appearance of the brightness round about. Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. And when I saw it, I fell upon my face, and I heard the voice of one speaking. And he said to me, "Son of man, stand upon your feet, and I will speak with you." And when he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me upon my feet; and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, "Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to a nation of rebels, who have rebelled against me; they and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The people also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them; and you shall say to them, `Thus says the Lord GOD.' And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that there has been a prophet among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit upon scorpions; be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear; for they are a rebellious house. "But you, son of man, hear what I say to you; be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth, and eat what I give you." And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and, lo, a written scroll was in it; and he spread it before me; and it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe. And he said to me, "Son of man, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel." So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. And he said to me, "Son of man, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it." Then I ate it; and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. And he said to me, "Son of man, go, get you to the house of Israel, and speak my words to them.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A young boy once attended an ordination service with his parents. When it came time for the laying on of hands -- when the veteran pastors surrounded the rookie, and everyone placed their hands on his head -- the curious boy asked his father, “What are they doing now?” His dad replied, “They’re taking out his brains.”

Well, Randy, I know that your ordination didn’t take out your brains. You're a pretty bright guy. But it did take your brains -- along your mouth, your hands, and your heart -- and put them into the service of the Word of God.

I also know, my friend, that your ordination didn't change you ontologically. It didn't change you from a ordinary man into a holy man. Nancy might have been hoping for that, but that didn't happen.

What your ordination 19 years ago did was make you a servant -- a slave -- a steward -- a personal attendant -- of the Word of God.

One of the things that your installation this afternoon does is that it reaffirms your general role as a servant of the Word of God and makes it specific. It specifies that you will now be a servant of the Word in this particular place, among these particular people, rather than the place in the Shenandoah Valley and those particular people -- from whence you came.

Pastors are like snowflakes. No two of them are alike. They are unbelievably different from one another. That means that Pastor Lohr is going to be different than Pastor Bohanan. He's going to be different than his pastoral colleagues who are gathered here today, in the same way that each one of them is different from the other. Randy and I have known each other for fifteen years. We're different from one another. For the past couple of years Randy and I served as co-pastors in a three congregation partnership in Waynesboro and people could easily spot our differences. Sure they could. He was always described as the tall, good-looking one.

Well, in spite of the differences, every pastor has one thing in common. And that is we are all called to be servants of the Word of God. That's our common calling. And when you come right down to it, its probably the only thing that pastors have in common. The only thing.

Pastors notoriously get off track -- they get themselves into all sorts of mischief -- when they shy away from this common calling. When they walk to their own drumbeat, and define the office of public ministry on their own terms. When pastors do that they do a disservice to themselves and to their congregations, and they enter into very dangerous territory.

But when pastors are faithful to their common calling, when they navigate within those safe waters, they not only are able to be faithful to the vows they took at their ordination. They're able to be faithful to the people whom God has entrusted to their care.

And so, I remind Pastor Lohr, and all of the pastors here today. You have been called to serve the Word of God. That, and that alone, is what you are primarily to be about.

I learned that lesson in my days in campus ministry. And I learned it, of all places, in a synagogue.

In the late 1980’s I was the Lutheran Campus Pastor at the University of Virginia. I served with campus pastors from a variety of denominations: Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Unitarian, and Methodist.

I also served with the campus rabbi from the Hillel Foundation, the Jewish student association. The campus rabbi’s name was Dan Alexander, and after a number of years as the campus rabbi, Dan was called to serve as the rabbi of the synagogue in Charlottesville.

All of us campus pastors attended Dan’s installation at the synagogue, and I'll never forget the rather startling comment that the president of the synagogue made when he stood up and announced the expectations that he had of their new rabbi.

The president of the synagogue stepped up to the reading desk and rather dramatically declared, “I have many expectations of our new rabbi, but my first and most important expectation is that I don’t expect to see him three days a week; because three days a week I expect him to be locked in his study, studying the Torah – the Word of God.”

Now, I always thought that "three days a week" was an exaggeration to make a point but, the point was well taken. Rabbi Alexander was expected to be a servant of the Word of God.

The president of the synagogue went on to explain that the most important reason they called Dan to be their rabbi was so that he could study the Word of God – and learn the Word of God -- so that he could bring the Word of God to the people of that congregation.

He explained that while Rabbi Alexander would certainly do things for the people of the congregation, technically speaking, he would not serve the people of the congregation. He would serve the Word of God.

I sometimes hear pastors – when they introduce themselves – say, “Hi, I’m Charlie, and I serve the people of St. John’s Lutheran Church.” I always want to say, “No you don’t. You serve the Word of God.”

Now, that may seem like nit-picking, but it’s terribly important. Its important because it speaks to heart of a pastor's call and to the heart of the relationship between pastor and people. A pastor doesn’t come to a congregation to serve people, to wait on people hand and foot. A pastor comes to serve the Word of God. To wait on the Word hand and foot.

And it’s terribly important that a congregation get this straight as they begin a relationship with a new pastor.

And so, lets get this straight. People of Christ the King Lutheran Church. Hear this loud and clear. Pastor Lohr doesn’t come here to serve you, he comes here to serve the Word of God in your midst.

Now, that doesn’t mean that he won’t get out of bed in the middle of the night and head right over to the hospital when he gets a frantic phone call. Of course, he will. But he won’t do that because he serves you. He'll do that because he serves the Word of God, and he's about to bring that Word to you in the midst of your crisis.

That’s what pastors do, they serve the Word of God and they bring that Word to the members of their congregation in the midst of their joys and sorrows. They bring the Word of God to the birth of your babies. To the breakup of your marriages. To the day you get your big promotion and the day you get laid off. They bring the Word of God to the joyous confirmation of your youth. And to the sad, sad day when you lay your loved ones in the grave.

Pastors bring you the one and only Word that makes sense when nothing else makes any sense. The Word that increases your joy and relieves your sorrow. The Word that forgives you all your sins and promises you eternal life. That is the Word that pastors have been called to serve.  With their very lives if demanded.

That is why the members of a Christian congregation ought to have as much respect for the Word of God as do the members of a Jewish synagogue. And that's why you need to have similar expectations for your spiritual leaders.

When Jonathan Edwards was just 19 he made the following resolution that I suppose every pastor ought to make: "Resolved," he wrote in his diary, "Resolved, To study the Scriptures so steadily, constantly and frequently, that I may find, and plainly perceive myself, to grow in the knowledge of the same."

Now, I don’t know exactly how your new pastor will carve out his study of the Word. There are lots of options available to him. Pericope studies within the Conference. A weekly study with his new colleague. Books and resources abound.

And, of course, people of Christ the King. Don't be stupid here. If the sign on Randy's door says, "Go away, I'm studying the Word of God," but he's down at the shore with his surfboard, you need to call the Bishop's office immediately.

But this congregation needs to know from the start that Pastor Lohr is called here to serve the Word of God. And so, expect that from him. Demand that from him. And then be very supportive of him when he carves out time for that study. For you see, if he doesn’t study the Word of God – and learn the Word of God -- he won’t be able to bring that Word to you when you need it the most.

The prophet Ezekiel lived more than five hundred years before the time of Jesus. He lived in Babylon, in modern day Iraq, with the Jews who were taken into exile following the fall of the city of Jerusalem in the year 597 B.C.

He was 30 years old when he was called to be a servant of the Word of God. And his call was very specific. He was called to be a preacher. Ezekiel was to preach to “a nation of rebels,” a people described as being stubborn and impudent. His people had lost hope and had become hardened of heart. They had no respect for one another, and they had no respect for the Word of God. His parishioners refused to let God be God. And they were highly skilled at playing God themselves. Sounds just like the folks in my congregation.

Ezekiel was supposed to be like a watchman posted on the city wall. It was his duty to give his people a warning. To warn them of the consequences that were headed their way if they remained, as the Bible says, “a people with a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.”

When Ezekiel was called he was given a scroll. Not to read but to eat. The words on the scroll were words of “lamentation, mourning, and woe.” They were pretty harsh words of law.

But the Bible says that when Ezekiel ate those words he found them “as sweet as honey.” That’s a strange comment, isn't it? It's strange. But it's the Bible’s way of saying that preaching the bad news of the law is really a delicious thing because it paves the way to the good news of the gospel. And so Ezekiel ate the scroll – he ate the Word of God – and he began his call as a servant of the Word of God. A call that was primarily carried out in the task of preaching.

Now this is where both Pastors and congregations need to take notice. When Ezekiel was called as a servant of the Word of God he was given the task of preaching. He wasn't given a parish office to administrate, a youth group to supervise, shut-ins to visit, counseling to schedule, a building program to oversee, a stewardship drive to kick into high gear, or a million and a half meetings to attend. He was given the task of preaching.

Look. As important as all of those other tasks are -- and pastors need to attend to them with diligence and care -- they are not a pastor's primary task. A pastor's primary task is to preach the Word of God.

When pastors are ordained God hands them a scroll to eat. God doesn't give them a Day-Timer or a cool little iPod Touch so they can keep track of all the really important things of parish ministry. No. God gives them a scroll.

And the scroll that pastors eat – the words that go into their mouths – are the very same words that come out of their mouths when they step into the pulpit to preach. When they carry out their prime task to preach the Word of God. When they carry out the task, as Lutherans understand it, of "rightly dividing law and gospel."

And so it is with your new pastor. Pastor Lohr is a called and ordained servant of the Word of God. When Randy was ordained, God handed him a scroll and he ate it. And with that he took on the task of preaching.

Now, generally speaking, Randy is a preacher to the entire world. He's called to proclaim the gospel to anybody who will listen. But specifically Randy is one of the preachers to this tiny section of the world. To this particular group of people known as Christ the King Lutheran Church.

To use the words of our text, Randy is called to preach to this particular nation of rebels. To this particular group people with hard foreheads and stubborn hearts. To this particular gathering of human beings who -- simply because you are human -- refuse to let God be God. And who, I might guess, are probably pretty good at playing God yourselves.

And so, Pastor Lohr, like Pastor Bohannon before him, comes to you like Ezekiel. To rightly divide law and gospel. To preach the Word that kills and also to preach the Word that brings life.

His first task, therefore, is to stand in this pulpit as if it were a city wall -- and act like a watchman.  To scream and shout -- and warn you of the consequences of your sins.

You know what the Bible says about the consequences of your sins, don't you?

The Bible says that your sins will eventually kill you. "The wages of sin is death," says St. Paul. And that's exactly why the bad news that you are a sinner, is actually good news in the end.

You see, once your sins eventually kill you -- once you're dead -- Jesus finally has you exactly where He wants you.  Totally motionless.  Totally silent.  With nothing to do and absolutely nothing to say.

In the end you're pretty much Lazarus rotting in a tomb, with Jesus standing outside holding all the cards.

The wonderful thing about your future state of deadness is that your defiant human nature won't be able to protest his grace.  Feeling, on the one hand, that you're getting far too much grace for the wretched life you've lived.  Or feeling, on the other hand, that you're not getting enough of it, for being the really rather remarkable person you are -- which needs to be duly noted by the Almighty, thank you very much.

No. In the end -- when you're dead -- you will be exactly what you were in the beginning. Ashes. Dust.  Totally motionless.  Totally silent.  Totally nothing.  In the end you will be exactly what you were in the beginning.  A purely passive recipient of the generative Word of God. You will be dirt and clay, once again.  That is until the breath of God is blown into you by the Living Christ and you again become a living being -- this time to live in the love of the Holy Trinity forever.  That's how your sins will be resolved in the end.

In the meantime, while you are still alive, your sins have all kinds of consequences. And what your sins do while you're still alive is -- they really mess up your life.  They bind you. Diminish you.  Shame you.  And make you look pretty foolish.  They prevent the neighbor from being served, and justice from being carried out.  They cover the light of Christ with the darkness of the Devil.

That's why pastors warn you of the consequences of your sins.  That's why they preach the law.  They want you to repent.  To turn around.  To smell the coffee.  And to get on with the glorious life of Christ into which you were baptized.  You see, we are such hard-headed people that that kind of turn around can only come with the hard preaching of the law.

Well, preaching the law may be the first way that pastors bring you the Word they have studied and learned.  But of course, it isn't the final way, and your new preacher knows that. But let me remind him just in case.

Pastor Lohr, once you have stood on this wall and warned these people like a screaming and shouting Ezekiel, make sure that the law is not your last word.

In his book on the Formula of Concord, Timothy Wengert recalls the day he was ordained. He writes, “It is certainly not unusual that parents are proud of a child who is ordained to the public office of ministry.  Mine certainly were.  It is perhaps less frequent that parents give the ordained free advice.  Yet, the advice my mother gave me that day in 1977 was perhaps the best preaching course I ever had.  She hugged me and then, looking me square in the eye (as only a mother can), she said, “Now, Tim, when you preach, comfort the people.””

Well, Randy, when you preach be sure to comfort these people.  Lay them dead in their sins to be sure.  But make sure that your last word to them – your final word in every sermon -- is God’s word of grace in Jesus Christ.

The good news that, as far as Jesus is concerned, their sins are as far from them as the East is from the West. 

The gospel message that in Christ alone and nowhere else, salvation is theirs -- here and now, and always will be.

The blessed assurance that in the Living Christ they will be reunited with all of their loved ones who have gone before. 

The startling news that in a little piece of bread and a little taste of wine their Lord himself comes to them and fulfills all His promises.

And then, my friend, when you do all of that –

When you baptize their babies, confirm their youth, bury their dead, visit them in times of trouble, and celebrate with them in times of joy. 

When you announce the forgiveness of their sins, preside at this table, and step into this pulpit to preach. 

When you have diligently studied the Word, learned the Word, and brought the Word to them in all of these ways, well -- then you can sleep at night knowing that you have been faithful to your call as a servant of the Word of God.

And then these particular people, whom God has now entrusted to your care, will know for certain that peace which the world simply cannot give.

In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



Sermon preached by Pastor Jim Pence

on December 30, 2006

at the Memorial Service for Eddie Albrite

at St. James Lutheran Church

Fishersville, Virginia

We’ve gathered here today to remember Eddie Albrite, to be comforted by the Word of God, and to have our sorrow joined by the presence of Christ as he comes to us in his holy supper.

Grief is never an easy burden to bear – and never more so when it comes to us in what we can only regard as an untimely fashion.

There are always two kinds of pain associated with a person’s decision to end their life.

First, there is the pain that caused the person’s decision. The overwhelming pain of the one for whom the burden of life was unbearable.

And second, there is the pain that has been caused by the person’s decision. The pain of all of us who gather here this day to bring our shock, our sadness, our anger, our regret, our confusion, and our deep, deep sorrow to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ.

The God of the Bible is familiar with both kinds of pain.

Listen to these words from the 69th Psalm.

"Save me, O God,"

"for the waters have come up to my neck.

I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold;

I have come into deep waters and the flood sweeps over me.

I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.

My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God."

These are the words of a person who feels as if they are drowning, drowning in despair.

And because these are the words of holy scripture, the very Word of God, they show us that the God of the Bible is familiar with those who feel such pain. They assure us that there is no human experience that God has not experienced, not even the experience of hopelessness.

The scriptures tell us that everything we feel is known by the God who knows us, even from our mother’s womb.

The scriptures also tell us that everywhere we go we are met by the God who is already there. Which means, there is nowhere we can go to flee from God.

Listen to the words of Psalm 139:

“Where can I go from your Spirit?                                              

Where can I go from your presence?                                                                 

If I go up to the heavens, you are there;                                                            

If I make my bed in the depths, you are there;                                                                      

If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea,                                 

even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me                                                   

and the light become night around me,”                                                           

even the darkness will not be dark to you;                                                        

the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”

I don’t know what caused Eddie to do what he did on Thursday. I do know, however, that many people who take their own life suffer from the illness of depression. Depression is an illness that manifests itself differently than do the other illnesses that take our loved ones from us, but it is an illness nonetheless.

It can make a person feel as if they’re drowning. It can make them act out in ways that are irrational, seeking drastic solutions to problems that to them seem insurmountable. Such folks walk a different path through life.

Most of us live our lives as if we’re walking straight toward a cliff, the cliff of death, over which we will gently fall when our life comes naturally to an end.

But some people live their lives walking along the very edge of that cliff – inches away from the edge -- knowing that one small stumble, one tiny trip, can throw them over the edge at any moment.

We don’t know what caused Eddie to stumble. It is a mystery known only to him and to God.

What we do know, however, is that it does us no good to ask ourselves, “What if?”

“What if I had only said something?” “What if I had only done this, or refrained from doing that?” “What if I were this kind of person instead of that?”

Well, none of those haunting questions solve anything. What happened on Thursday was totally out of our hands.

People who carry out such acts aren’t trying to get away from us, or rushing to death, they’re running away from pain, and they’re doing so in a logic known only to themselves.

Their act will always be a mystery to us.

But it isn’t a mystery to God. To God it is simply one more sign of human fallibility, one more sign of a human brokenness that is embraced by the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ.

The gospel, after all, is very clear. It doesn’t announce to the world, “You can be made right with God, but you first have to clean things up, and figure things out.” No.

The gospel announces, “You are made right with God in Jesus Christ right smack dab in the middle of every mess you’ve ever made, and right smack dab in the middle of all of your confusion, no matter how great it is.”

Romans 8 makes this very clear. “Neither death, nor life, nor angles, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights, nor depths, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Romans 5 makes this equally clear when it says, “In the midst of our weakness Christ died for us.” Did you hear that? “In the midst of our weakness.”

The gospel isn’t a message that we need to become strong before God will love us in Jesus Christ. No.

The gospel is the announcement that God loves us in Jesus right smack dab in the middle of our weakness, right smack dab in the midst of our pain, directly in the middle of problems that we, ourselves, will never figure out. But then it matters not if we figure them out, because God in Christ already has.

That is why, even in the midst of this tragedy, there is good news this day for Eddie Albrite and for everybody here.

Because God loves us in the midst of our pain – no matter how deep that pain may be – and because God finds us no matter how far we attempt to flee from Him, the Church, with confidence, can proclaim that Eddie, this day, is embraced by a love that will never let him go, a peace that the world simply could not give him.

On the 20th of June in 1996 a 22-year old young man took his life. His older sister spoke at his funeral. Here is some of what she said:

“June 20th, 1996 will always leave an overly large scar in my heart, never to heal. The only peace that I can find is that all of the pain and suffering that my brother has personally endured – for all of his life, I suppose – has now been put to rest. I choose to believe that he is now truly free and in a better place than he found here among us. However tragic and upsetting it is for us this day – the family, the friends, the classmates – we must all remember that my brother is no longer trapped in a place that he no longer chose to be.”

Well, the gospel of Jesus Christ can echo her wishes in spades.

Because God loves us in the midst of our pain – no matter how deep that pain may be – Eddie Albrite, this day, is embraced by a love that will never let him go, he is understood by an understanding that he never enjoyed here, and he now has a peace that this world could never give him.

He’s at peace. Not because he’s now figured it out, but because the Lord of peace eternally abides in him.

And now that very same Lord comes to you in his holy supper.

It matters not what you have figured out through all of this. It matters not what you have figured out about anything in life. It matters not what messes you’ve made, or the depth of your pain this day.

God has sent his Son to embrace this bread and wine, so that in, with, and under these elements he may embrace you.

Jesus Christ is the bread of life. He’s not like human ways of feeding us, ways that don’t sustain. He is the living bread – the eternal bread – which brings to you this day his living and eternal gifts: life, forgiveness, and salvation.

They come to you on a day filled with so many emotions, to remind you that no matter what you feel, and no matter where you go, your Lord Jesus Christ is already there to meet you.

Like the lavish father in the parable of the prodigal son, in this meal our Lord Jesus Christ rushes out to meet you with a warm embrace.

It is a hug that envelopes you in his love, washes you in his grace, and gives you now the strength you’ll need for the living of your days.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Sermon preached by Pastor Jim Pence

on Good Friday 2011

at Zion Lutheran Church

Waynesboro, Virginia

Last evening we stripped the sanctuary to imitate the stripping of Jesus before his crucifixion. With the sanctuary stripped you have nothing else to look at in this room but the Cross of Christ.

Which is exactly what you should do. You should meditate on the Cross of Christ this evening. You should give the cross your full attention.

Luther once said in a sermon that we should meditate on the Cross of Christ “until we become terror-stricken at the sight.”

We need to do that, he said, so that “the Cross can do its work in us.”

Luther understood that before the Cross of Christ can be seen as the display of God’s great love, it needs to become a horror show. It needs to reveal to you the kind of evil that human beings are capable of, and the extent of human evil that Jesus endured.

Only when the cross becomes just about the very last thing you ever want to look at, can you realize that the cross is the only thing you will ever need.

And so, tonight I invite you to follow Luther's advice and meditate on the Cross of Christ, to look at the cross throughout this sermon, and throughout this evening.

Meditate on the cross until you become “terror-stricken at the sight.” Meditate on the cross so it can do its work in you.

The account of the Cross of Christ begins when Jesus is betrayed by one of his chosen disciples.

He is turned over to the authorities.

He is deserted – eventually -- by all of his disciples.

He is tied up and brought back to the city.

He appears before the High Priest.

He undergoes a trial filled with illegalities.

He endures the false witness of fellow Jews.

When he reveals his identity as the Son of God he is found guilty of blasphemy.

He is sentenced to death.

He is ridiculed by the palace guards, spit on, beaten, and slapped in the face.

He is brought before the Roman governor.

He is charged with claiming to be King, and forbidding the nation to pay taxes to Caesar.

His life is traded for that of a common criminal.

He is led out to be crucified.

He is flogged, which is to say he endures a sever physical beating with the Roman equivalent of a cat of nine tales. The number of blows in Jewish law was set in Deuteronomy at forty, but because that usually killed the criminal right then and there, the number was reduced to 39, so as to bring the criminal to what they called, "one from death." During the flogging, Jesus’ skin is stripped from his back, exposing a bloody mass of muscle and bone. The observation of an expert who studies such things is that, “His back must have resembled hamburger.”

He loses so much blood that he is perhaps on the verge of unconsciousness.

He is stripped naked, and mockingly regaled as a king: with a scarlet robe, and a crown, perhaps, an entire cap, of thorns.

He is then beaten on the head so as to drive the thorns into his scalp and forehead, causing yet more sever bleeding.

If the Servant Songs in Isaiah are any indication, it may have been that his beard was pulled out, and that he was so severely beaten that his form no longer resembled anything human.

He is led through the crowded streets of Jerusalem with the hundred pound crossbar of his cross tied to his shoulders.

He is surrounded by a guard of Roman soldiers, one of which carries a sign announcing his crime in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek: that of claiming to be “The King of the Jews.”

He is ridiculed by those who watch the procession pass by.

He carries his cross until he falls under its weight, and the task is taken on by a bystander.

He arrives at the place of the skull, the place of his execution, that place outside the city wall where common criminals were disposed of. Where their bodies were sometimes left on the cross to rot, to provide yet more disgrace and humiliation, and to serve as a deterrent to those who passed by.

The wooden crosspiece was laid down, affixed to the vertical piece, and Our Lord was laid upon it.

Nails, about seven inches long, and almost 1/2 inch in diameter, were driven through his wrists in the vicinity of the median nerve, causing shocks of pain to radiate through his arms.

He was set upon a little wooden seat.

His legs were bent, rotated into a very uncomfortable position, and his feet were nailed to the wood as well.

A sign announcing his crime was hung above his head.

And then, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so the Son of Man was lifted up. Lifted up after betrayal, scorn, lies, ridicule, and injustice. Lifted up after beatings and flogging. Lifted up after significant loss of blood. Lifted up in dehydration and loss of strength. Lifted up on the verge of unconsciousness. On the verge of death.

When the cross was finally erect, there was tremendous strain put on Our Lord’s wrists, and arms, and shoulders, a situation that most likely resulted in the dislocation of the condemned man's shoulders, and sometimes even his elbows.

His arms, being held up and outward, placed his rib cage in a position which made it extremely difficult to exhale, and impossible to take a full breath.

As time passed, his muscles, from the loss of blood, lack of oxygen, and the fixed position of the body, underwent severe cramps and spasms.

Is it any wonder he cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?"

His lungs collapse.

His tissues fill up with acid.

His lungs fill up with fluid.

He begins to suffocate.

His heart begins to fail.

But not before he declares with holy grace, “Father, forgive them.”

And with that word of forgiveness on his lips, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, hangs from the cross and dies.

Martin Luther said that when we meditate on the Cross of Christ we will see three things more clearly than we ever saw them before.

First, he said, we will see that “we are the ones who put Christ on the cross.”

“When you see the nails piercing through his hands,” Luther said, “firmly believe that it is your work.” ”And when you behold his crown of thorns, know that the thorns are your wicked thoughts, and all your sins.”

Luther properly understood that it wasn’t the sin of the Jews that killed Jesus. It wasn’t the sin of the Romans. Rather, what killed Jesus was the universal sin that lies within every human heart. That's why Luther can say it was our sin that killed him.

That doesn't mean that somehow we traveled back in time 2,000 years and nailed Jesus to the cross with our own hands. It simply means that the human beings who did that to Jesus are no different than human beings today.

It also means that if Jesus came to the world today -- in spite of all of our pious claims to the contrary -- we would treat him exactly the same way that the Jews and the Romans did. We would kill him. Think about it.

2,000 years ago people were outraged by Jesus' practice of loving the unlovable, of eating with tax collectors and sinners. They were outraged when he carried out merciful acts to people who were thought to be undeserving of mercy. Well, we're just as outraged by those things today.

2,000 years ago, people did the expedient thing with this rabble rouser. They washed their hands of the man. They conveniently got rid of him even when that meant lying in court and bending the law to do so. What on earth makes us think that we would behave any differently today?

The fact of the matter is that the evil that infected human hearts 2,000 years ago, and led to the killing of Christ, is an evil that never goes away. It remains in human hearts forever. It remains in our hearts tonight.

And that is why, when we meditate on the cross of Christ, we can come to see that it is our sin that put Jesus there. The sin that sat in the hearts of those who actually carried out that deed is the very same sin that sits in our hearts tonight. We are no different than the Jews and the Romans who killed our Lord. And if we had it to to all over again, we would do exactly what they did.

The second thing we see more clearly when we meditate on the cross of Christ, is the peculiar way that the Son of God deals with the righteous wrath of the Father.

“God was unwilling,” Luther said, “that his only and dearly beloved Son should set sinners free unless he paid the costly ransom for them himself.”

What do you do when somebody does you wrong? You do them back in return, don't you? You do what humans have been doing for thousands and thousands of years. You repay evil for evil. You engage in the deliciously satisfying practice of personal vengeance.

"I have been wronged," you declare. And in your righteous wrath you carry out vengeance on those who have done evil to you. And you delight in doing so.

Well, what do you see Jesus doing on the cross?

Here was a man who was betrayed and abandoned by his closest friends. He underwent a sham of a trial. He was mocked, ridiculed, spat upon, beaten within an inch of his life, nailed to a cross, and mocked yet again. And what did he do? Did he repay evil with evil? Did he engage in the deliciously satisfying practice of personal vengeance? Did he spit on them because they spat on him?

Here's what he does. He looks down from the very instrument of his execution, probably straining to see anyone for all the blood that must be running down his face, and he makes an unbelievable statement to those who have done him wrong. He says, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

Not only does Jesus not repay evil for evil, he takes their evil -- he takes all human evil -- unto himself, into himself, and then he takes that evil with him all the way to the grave.

And because the sin that put him on the cross is actually your sin, that means that it is your sins that he takes with him to the grave. All of them.

Your sin of personal vengeance. Your sin of lust, gluttony, greed, laziness, wrath, envy, and pride. Your sins of worshiping false idols, and of taking the Lord's name in vain. Your sin of failing to observe the sabbath, and failing to honor your parents. Your sins of killing, and committing adultery, of theft, and bearing false witness. Your sins of coveting just about everything that your neighbor owns, and not being satisfied with everything that God has already given you.

The sin of every evil that you ever committed, and the sin of every good that you failed to do.

Jesus Christ takes all of your sins -- each and every one of them. He takes them into his body, he takes them down from the cross, and he takes them into the grave to be buried from the righteous wrath of God forever. Buried in the darkness of the earth so that none of your sins can be seen when you stand before the judgement throne of God.

On the cross of Calvary Jesus Christ deals with your sins by taking them into himself and by letting you off scott free.

Which brings us to the final thing we see very clearly when we meditate on the Cross of Christ. We see very clearly the amazing grace of God.

Luther said, “when you have seen in the Cross the judgment of God on your sins, do not behold Christ’s sufferings any longer, for they have already done their work; but press through all the difficulties and behold, behold his friendly heart, how full of love it is toward you; a love which constrained him to bear the heavy load of your sin.”

This evening may have started out as a horror show, as you meditated on the cross and became terror-stricken at the sight. But when you finally realize that Jesus Christ did all of this to account for human sin -- that he did all of this for you -- the evening ends as a powerful display of God’s amazing love. Luther says that on the cross you see the friendly heart of Christ. You see how full of love it is for you, and how true that is.

Jesus Christ did all of this for you. He suffered the rejection and endured the pain to prove to you that his love has absolutely no limits. He repaid human evil with divine mercy and, to show you how you will be dealt with in the end.

In the end your sin will be forgiven, your evil undone, your guilt will be absolved, and your shame will be forgotten.

And that is why, at the end of this liturgy, we say the only words that a sinful human being is left to say:

“We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. By your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”




ON JULY 18, 2010






Listen again, from today's second lesson, to what the apostle Paul says about the Lord Jesus Christ and about what the Lord Jesus Christ has accomplished in our lives.

"Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.....And you, who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before God."

This morning we meet in a very historic church. This is the oldest Lutheran church in the Shenandoah Valley and the oldest congregation in the Lutheran Church Missouri synod. Due to our historic setting I thought we ought to give some attention to the history of Lutherans in Virginia so let's go back 300 years.

In 1710 Alexander Spottswood was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Virginia and came to reside in what many people at the time considered the far too opulent governor's mansion in Williamsburg.

When Governor Spottswood discovered iron ore on the banks of the Rapidan River he also discovered that he needed miners, and he needed them fast.

Some of the best miners in the world in those days were Germans, who happened to be Lutherans, and so in 1714 he brought 12 mining families from Germany to Virginia. 42 people in all. He brought them into Virginia as servants who were indentured to him for 7 years, and settled them in what we know as Orange County.  He named the place "The Germanna Settlement."

The settlement was named partly because the settlers were Germans and partly because the Queen of England at the time was named Anne.

There is by the way an organization in Orange County called The Memorial Foundation of the Germanna Colonies in Virginia and they keep the history of these settlers alive. The Foundation operates a Visitor Center on the site of the original settlement, on Route 3 between Culpeper and Fredericksburg. They own a nearby 18th century mansion, Salubria, which was once the home of Governor Spotswood's widow. They maintain a research library, a memorial garden, and archaeological sites. The Visitor Center is a good reason to take a day trip over the mountain to Orange County.

The Germanna Lutherans came to Virginia in two waves, first in 1714 and then in 1717

In the first Settlement in 1714 the Germanna Lutherans organized at the settlement the first Lutheran congregation in Virginia, a congregation of the German Reformed Church, but it's a congregation that no longer exists today.

A later congregation started by the Germanna Lutherans does still exist and my colleague Pastor Karen Taylor is pretty familiar with it because she served that congregation as its pastor.

In 1740 The Germanna Lutherans built a church in Madison, Virginia, now known as Hebron Lutheran Church. Hebron's claim to fame is that its the oldest continuously operating Lutheran Church in the United States.

Hebron is in a beautiful setting and they worship in one of a handful of wooden churches that pre-dates the Revolutionary War. You ought to go over and take a look at it. It will give you another reason to make a day trip over the mountain.

Now the particular building that we're in and the congregation that it housed, Trinity Lutheran Church, does not owe its history to the Germanna Lutherans across the mountain. Rather, this congregation owes its existence to Lutheran immigrants in Pennsylvania.

Lutherans in Pennsylvania begin their history with Augustus Lutheran Church, Trappe, Pennsylvania, organized in 1730 and particularly with one of their pastors, The Rev Dr Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, who is rightly called, "The Father of Lutheranism in America."

Muhlenberg did it all. He established congregations all across Pennsylvania and from New York state to Georgia. He founded The Ministerium of Pennsylvania. He helped prepare a uniform Lutheran liturgy. He put together the earliest constitutions of Lutheran congregations. He organized the printing of the Lutheran Confessions and Luther's Catechism.

And it was out of one of Muhlenberg's Pennsylvania congregations that Lutheran Christians came down the Shenandoah Valley and organized this congregation, Trinity, in 1772.

Somewhere around 1780 the Keinadt family and the Barger family moved to the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. They bought farms and raised families. They raised very large families.

In 1788 the 6th Keinadt son, Casper, met and fell in love with the youngest Barger daughter, Margaret, and the two eloped to Staunton and got married.

An account of that event reads as follows --

"Casper found a girl, Margaret, a Lutheran, but she was too young to marry, her father said, being about 16 1/2 years old, but Casper was an ardent wooer and would not be denied, and so with the assistance of a prominent citizen, Colonel Tuck, he organized a wedding party and went to Margaret's home in the middle of the night. She came out and went with him to Staunton and they were married. When her father awoke about 4 o'clock and went about to arouse his family he missed Margaret. After learning where she went he got on his horse and rode with haste to Staunton to stop them. But he arrived after the ceremony was over and found the wedding party in a hotel eating breakfast. He went in, raised a racket, turned over the table, but could do nothing further except pay for the broken dishes. A reconciliation between the two men was soon made."

Casper and Margaret had 12 children, who then had children, and they had children, and on and on, and the Keinadt family, who's name later became Coiner -- in all its various spellings -- became the backbone of Lutherans in the Valley. Every Lutheran congregation in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia owes their existence to folks who gathered right here on this spot.

Following this afternoon's picnic you ought to look around the cemetery and locate Casper and Margaret's graves.

Well, that's enough history for a while.

I want to read you a rather unusual letter I received the other day from a Reverend Alvin B. Smith of the Temperance Society of Richmond, Virginia.

The Temperance Society

Richmond, Virginia

July 2010

Dear Reverend Pence,

Perhaps you've heard of me and my state-wide campaign in the cause of temperance. Each year, for the past fourteen years, I have made a tour of the Commonwealth of Virginia and delivered a series of lectures on the evils of drinking.

On these tours I have been accompanied by my young friend and assistant, Herman Forsythe. Herman was a pathetic case -- a young man of good family and excellent background, whose life was ruined because of excessive indulgence in whiskey, gin, and rum. How much better it would have been had he turned his life to the Lord.

Herman would appear with me at my lectures and sit on a chair on the platform drooling at the mouth and staring at the audience through bleary bloodshot eyes, while I would point him out as an example of what drink can do.

Last spring, unfortunately, poor Herman died. A mutual friend has given me your name and I wonder if you would care to accompany me on my winter tour and take poor Herman's place.

Yours in Faith,

Rev. Alvin B. Smith

All right, I didn't get such a letter. I made it all up. But I wanted you to have in your mind the image of a poor, pathetic soul sitting in a chair on public display for all to see. In a minute I'll tell you why. But first, a little more history.

In the early 1800's America was in the throws of what is called The Second Great Awakening.  The Second Great Awakening was one of three great religious revivals that spread across the country. It began in Cane Ridge, Kentucky and what is referred to as the "burned over" district of upstate New York.

At the center of the Second Great Awakening was a former lawyer turned preacher by the name of Charles Grandison Finney.

Finney is known as "The Father of the Modern Revival" because he invented the revival format. He used that format quite effectively.

If Finney were alive today he would either be traipsing across the country doing tent revivals or he would have his own Sunday morning television show. He was a powerful presence. He stood six foot three inches tall, had piercing eyes, a wonderful singing voice, great leadership skills, and was quite the charismatic preacher. He didn't read his sermons, he preached extemporaneously, running up and down the aisle. And he preached very dramatically.

Although he came from the Calvinist tradition he rejected many of the basics of Calvinism. For example, he rejected the idea of the bondage of the human will.

Finney preached that human beings not only HAD a will that they COULD exercise they NEEDED to exercise their will if they were to achieve salvation. He was one of the first preachers to declare that people needed to "make a decision for the Lord" if they were to be saved.

And so Finney designed the Revival to do just that. His revivals were filled with emotional hymns, dramatic preaching, personal testimonials, and sometimes with faith-healings. Everything was designed to get people emotionally charged up so that they would make a decision for the Lord.

Finney was so committed to people making a decision for the Lord that he came up with a very effective tool for achieving just that. He came up with something that he called "the anxious bench."

The anxious bench was a bench (or chair) used in a revival and reserved for those people who were troubled by conscience, drowning in sin, or eager for deliverance.

Finney would actually place someone on the bench -- in this sanctuary he would probably use this chair next to the pulpit -- and point to the person while he preached, just like Reverend Smith of the Temperance Society would point to poor, pathetic Herman in the letter I just read. Finney would point out the evils of the person's sins, preach about their need for redemption, get them feeling all guilty, and finally get them to give their life to the Lord.

Finny figured that if he could get that poor soul to give his life to the Lord it would open the floodgates and others would come to salvation too.

Well, in the summer of 1823 a Lutheran pastor filled with Finney's ideas showed up on this very site and used some of Finney's techniques. That Pastor's name was Michael Meyerhoffer.

A historical document of the day refers to that episode like this. "During the year of 1823 Rev. Michael Meyerhoffer attempted to intrude himself into the congregation at Trinity and introduce new measurism."

The term "new measurism" is a reference to something called "the New Measurers." The New Measurers were a Lutheran version of the theology and techniques of Charles Grandison Finney.

They were embraced by those Lutherans who rejected Lutheranism like Finney rejected Calvinism and by those who wanted to try to spice up what they considered, even back then, to be a boring, old, Lutheranism by introducing new techniques which would modernize the faith and make it attractive to new people. Pastor Meyerhoffer seems to have been an ardent practitioner of the New Measurers.

A biographical sketch of the Coiner family contains the following account of what happened right here on this site with Pastor Meyerhoffer in the summer of 1823:

"The so-called Lutheran seminary in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was graduating men who were not sound Lutherans. They believed in altar and pulpit fellowship, revivals, and stood with the sectarian church generally. One of these graduates named Michael Meyerhoffer came to this church the Sunday after Rev. Henkel, the pastor, had preached, and without asking anyone's permission, announced services there and preached three successive Sundays. The last of these Sundays he asked the people to remain after the service and proposed to them that as their pastor lived a long ways off and could serve them only once a month that they would do well to let him be their pastor and preach to them every Sunday. The assembled audience agreed to this proposal, except Casper Coyner. He arose and said, "Friends, this cannot be. I have tested this man and find him to be a false teacher. And as I am the only surviving trustee of this church, I forbid him the use of the church hereafter. Besides, we have a pastor." Meyerhoffer was much incensed and built a pulpit under a white oak tree across from the church and preached there all summer. When fall came he collected money and built another church six miles south where he preached until he died."

And the name of the church that Meyerhoffer started six miles south of here is -- Zion. I like to say that Meyerhoffer started Zion with a group of heretics and that every pastor since has tried to straighten things up.

The problem with such versions of Christianity, whether they're the revivals of Finney or Lutheran versions of Finney, is that they throw out the Christian good news of grace and put in its place the bad news of the law, putting forth the idea that you have to do something in order to get yourself right with God.

Now, the failure to believe the good news of the gospel wasn't simply a problem back in 1823.

Sheer unbelief has been a problem for humans from the beginning of time and it's still a problem today, even for those of us right here in this building.

You see, every single one of you walked in here this morning with one form of religion or another.

You either walked in here with "Up Religion" or you walked in here with "Down Religion."

"Up Religion" says that in order to get yourself right with God you have to do something. Something that carries you up the ladder, rung by rung, and makes you acceptable to God. It can be that you gave your life to the Lord at a revival, that you practice the new measurers, that you give 10% to the church, that you worship perfectly, believe perfectly, and behave perfectly. It can be anything.

Most people are absolutely in love with Up Religion and practice it religiously. And a lot of Christians preachers are happy to tell you exactly what it is that you need to do to get right with God .

But the problem with Up Religion is that you either spend your time worrying about what you have to do to get yourself up the ladder, or you spend your time proud of the fact that you have done everything that God desires and are perfectly right with God, thank you very much. That makes you either a really troubled person or an absolute fake.

"Down Religion" on the other hand, declares that you can't possibly make yourself right with God based on what you do and, you know what? You don't have to because God in Jesus Christ has come down to you in his life, death, and resurrection and He has made you right with God by His grace and not by your works.

Up Religion brings people either worry or false pride.

Down Religion brings people joy and freedom.

To talk about one's history, as we have done today, is first to remember what our forebears handed down to us. And on this day, on this site, we are reminded that Lutheran Christians like the Germanna settlers, Pastor Muhlenberg, the Bargers and the Coiners all passed along to us their strong and powerful witness to the gospel of grace, the good news that brings joy and freedom.

And then, to talk about one’s history is finally to ask ourselves, “What now are we to do in this place and what are we to pass along to future generations?” The answer, of course, is that we are to boldly declare to this generation and to future generations what the Apostle Paul once boldly declared to his generation. The gospel truth that, "We, who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, have now been reconciled in Christ, so that Christ may present us holy and blameless and irreproachable before God."

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.









FEBRUARY 13, 2011

Listen again to the words of Moses, from the first lesson:

"I have set before you today life and death. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God then you shall live. But if your hearts turn away, and you are led astray to bow down to other gods and serve them then I declare to you this day that you will perish."

Quite often these days, when I preach at a baptism, I find myself saying something like this: "Today the Vaults of Heaven will be opened and the precious gifts of God will be showered upon this child."

I really love that imagery.

I like knowing that because Miriam Grace is being baptized today God has dispatched an angel with the following instructions: "Go to the Fort Knox of Heaven, enter it's biggest vault, retrieve my gifts, and then, like the Magi delivering gifts to the Christ child, go and deliver them to Miriam Grace."

I use that image in baptismal sermons for a couple of reasons.

First of all, it's the gospel truth. Baptism saves. It liberates us from sin and death. And the gifts of life and salvation are indeed poured out upon a child when they are baptized.

The second reason I say that at baptisms is that it might just be the only chance I get to preach the gospel to a child and it's parents.

It's sad to say but, a whole lot of people still have the idea that baptism is, "Getting the kid done," and then, "Getting out of the church as quickly as possible."

Some people figure that baptism is the only time they need to show up in Church, when in reality, baptism is meant to be a family's first step -- a baby step -- in their life long involvement with the Church.

And so I figure if I only have one shot at folks it better be a good one, and I go straight to the heart of what baptism is -- God dispatching an angel to shower a child with precious gifts.

Well, Jonathan and Alison Hall keep having babies like they're going out of style, which means they've heard my "Vault of Heaven" sermon on more than one occasion.

Plus, we have a good deal of proof, by the way they are raising their children, that Jonathan and Alison completely understand that baptism is the first step, and not the only step, in their children's walk with Christ.

Those factors, therefore, allow me to preach about something other than "the Vaults of Heaven" today. They allow me to say a little bit more about what baptism is. And I'm delighted to be able do that.

Baptism is, after all a gemstone with lots of facets. And while I usually feel compelled to talk about the biggest facet of that stone in fear that I'll never see the baptismal family again, I rarely get to talk about baptism's other facets.

Well, today I do.

But before I do I want to mention something about young couples and baptismal promises.

Today we single out Jonathan and Alison because of Miriam's baptism, but you all know that Jonathan and Alison are not alone in our midst.

Both of our congregations have been blessed with young families who give every indication that they "get it" in terms of baptism and a family's life in the church.

I've come to notice something quite interesting at both St. James and Zion. Each congregation has an unofficial "Kid's Corner" in the sanctuary. It's in the back. It's on the left.

At St. James it's where Calvin & Sara Grove Jordan sit wrestling with their sons, Luke and Grayson.

At Zion it's where Patrick and Kari Hite sit keeping an eye on their daughters, Alex and Ainsley. And where Alison sits watching her foursome of Johanna, Samuel, Peter, and Miriam, while Jonathan sits at the organ taking it easy. Well, he does have to keep the choir under control.

I'm really encouraged by families like these and I love having you folks in our midst.

You give us hope that our congregations might indeed have a future that will outlive us. You show us that the Church can actually be a significant part of a family's life. And, while a lot of families don't get it and run out of this place as quickly as they can, you all prove to us that some families do get it and that you might just be here for the long haul.

And so today, because of families like the Jordans, the Hites, and the Halls I have the opportunity to delve a little deeper into the meaning of baptism.

The way I want to proceed is by focusing in on a question that is asked in the baptismal liturgy.

It's a question that sounds very odd to modern ears. In the age of the internet, and Twitter, and texting it sounds like a question that comes straight out of the Middle Ages. It sounds like it comes from another world.

Let me set the scene.

The service of baptism begins with a statement of what baptism is.

It then lays out the obligations that the parents are about to take on.

And then, just before the parents confess the faith of the church the pastor asks this very direct question: "Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?"

That's a really odd question to the modern ear, isn't it? It's almost intrusive.

It sounds like it comes out of the Spanish Inquisition. You feel like at this point in the service we need to put the parents on The Rack and demand to know, "Do you renounce all the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises?"

Well, the reason the question sounds like it comes from another world is that it does. It comes from the world of the Church where people pledge their allegiance to Jesus Christ. And it is addressed to people who live in the world where people pledge their allegiance to the devil. Of course it sounds strange.

But as strange as it may be, it is a question that has to be asked.

Because while it is true that baptism is an opening of the Vaults of Heaven. It's also true that baptism is a Renunciation. A renunciation of the devil and the actions of the devil in the world.

In some Christian communities throughout history, and even to this day, the Baptismal Renunciation is played out quite dramatically. At this point in the service in some of the churches of the Orthodox Communion the parents of the child face to the west. The west being the place of darkness because it's where the sun sets. They extend their arm, as if to say, "This far, but no farther," and adamantly declare: "I renounce the forces of evil, the devil, and all his empty promises." In some churches the parents even spit at the devil.

Only then do they turn, facing the east, and go to the font for the baptism of their child.

It's a pretty vivid liturgical action, isn't it? And it makes the point of the renunciation very clear: You do not come into the church and worship the Lord of life until you renounce the devil and the actions of the devil in the world.

Now, all of that is very true. There is no way you can come into the church and pledge your allegiance to Jesus Christ until you renounce your allegiance to his enemy, the devil.

But, as all of us know very well, renouncing the devil is far, far easier said than done.

This is why no one can renounce the devil just once in their life, and be done with it all, standing around a baptismal font with a squirming little infant in your arms. Our battle with the devil is a lifelong battle.

When our nine-year old granddaughter, Ella was about four we took her to the beach. One morning she and I got up and walked hand-in-hand to the water's edge. It was pretty windy out and the waves, which were just about as big as she was, were crashing on the shore making that thunderous sound.

We stood there for a moment, taking it all in -- this tiny girl and this great big ocean. And then she did the strangest thing I ever saw. She raised her hand to the ocean, held out her arm and shouted to the waves, "Stop!"

The waves, of course, didn't stop because waves never do. They relentlessly pounded on the shore, coming at us again and again with all their power.

Now, I would love to tell you that yelling "Stop" at the devil in a baptismal renunciation makes him stop for all time but we know that's not how it works.

The devil is exactly like the waves, isn't he? He never stops. He never gives up. He relentlessly pounds at our shore, coming at us -- again and again -- with all his power, tempting us to believe his lies and come over to his side.

I don't know how the devil is tempting you these days. Perhaps he's urging you to give up your diet or enticing you to cheat on your spouse. Maybe he's coaxing you to buy that little trinket that you know you can't afford, or persuading you to play on the internet when you ought to be doing your job. Maybe the devil is pulling you down into depression and despair or luring you into unbelief.

Our battle with the devil is a lifelong battle and it can sap our strength.

Which is exactly why we come to this place, Christ's church, again and again.

In the church we hear the assuring gospel proclamation that, while the devil may battle us each and every day of our life, at the end of time Christ will dump that evil prince into a bottomless pit and throw away the key.

And here in the church is where we are reminded that God has given us the weapons of the Spirit to fight all those temptations of the devil and then some.

God has given us those gifts in the same way he is giving them today to Miriam Grace.

He gave them to us when He bathed us in water and washed away our sin.

He gave them to us when a pastor laid hands on us and gave us the Holy Spirit.

He gave them to us when we were given the Word of God in the Holy Scriptures.

And God gives us his greatest gift, yet again this morning, when he gives us His Son in Holy Communion.

Christian people know full well that when we use those gifts we can be victorious in our lifelong battle with the devil.

I can't think of anybody in the life of the church who wrote as much about his battle with the devil than did Martin Luther.

The accounts of Luther's struggle with the devil are legendary and they're not without their moments of despair. Here's a man who battled with the devil so intimately that legend tells us he threw his ink pot at him to chase him away.

But Luther understood the gifts of the Spirit that God gave him in baptism, and Luther used those gifts. At times they gave him immense comfort.

One time in particular, brimming with the confidence that can only come when one is filled with the Holy Spirit,  and understanding that Christ is in control of all of this, Luther wrote words that ought to be a model for all of us in our lifelong battle with the devil.

He wrote, "When the devil now knocks on the door of my heart and asks, "Who lives here?" Jesus himself stands between us and declares, "Martin Luther used to live here, but I do now.""

Luther knew that he was not alone in his battle with the devil and that he was not without hope.

As Luther proclaims in the hymn we are about to sing ("A Mighty Fortress Is Our God"), "Though hordes of devils fill the land, all threatening to devour us, we tremble not, unmoved we stand; they cannot overpower us."

Luther knew that the devil and all his minions cannot overpower us because a champion has come to fight for us and be victorious over these evil powers: Christ Jesus, the mighty Lord. 

May that risen and victorious Christ live powerfully in your heart this day and powerfully defend you in your lifelong battle with the devil and all his empty promises.


Zion Lutheran Church

297 Zion Church Road

Waynesboro, Virginia 22980