Saturday, January 7, 2017

Two sermons from our Seminarian. . .

Sermon for the Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle, observed.  Preached by the Rev. Sem. Coleman Geraci.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Although yesterday was the feast of St. Thomas, today we commemorate it today and our Gospel reading that highlights Thomas. I’d love to say that we have a stunning profile of how extraordinary a disciple St. Thomas is. But, that just isn’t the case. That really isn’t the case for any of the disciples. The Lord didn't choose a bunch of straight laced, well to do,  Concordia Seminary St. Louis educated men to be his disciples. (He would have chosen Ft. Wayne guys obviously). He chose twelve seemingly ordinary, normal men – tax collectors, fisherman –sinners, like you and me. And in fact, in today’s Gospel, St. Thomas reminds us of how ordinary all the disciples were –how normal they were.

In the Gospel reading, we get a glimpse of how normal Thomas was. Instead of painting Thomas as a great hero of faith we get a picture of a skeptical man. Maybe there is some divine humor that today we commemorate Thomas, an Apostle, who is best known for being an unbelieving or doubting disciple. No one ever uses St. Thomas in a complimentary way. No one ever says,  “Oh, that man is a Thomas because he is a Twin.” No, you get called a Thomas because you are a doubter, unbelieving. You don’t get called a Thomas for making a bold statement of faith, a bold confession –arguably the greatest confession in Scripture –no, you get called a Thomas because you won’t believe until you see.

You see, St. Thomas is very much a reminder of how normal the disciples were. But more than that, how abnormal believing is -how extraordinary, how difficult believing is for us our own. Not just how abnormal, difficult, and extraordinary, but how downright impossible believing on our own is. And we as good Lutherans should know this well. We confess it in our Small Catechism. “I cannot by my own strength or reason believe in my Lord Jesus Christ or come to him.” For Thomas, on his own strength or reason, he would not believe.

St. Thomas wouldn't believe the disciples’ message. It almost seems as if Thomas could understand that the other disciples may have seen someone resembling Jesus. Maybe someone that had an appearance of Jesus, that looked and spoke like Jesus, but certainly not the Jesus Thomas knew.

Certainly not the Jesus Thomas had seen taken away to Chief priests and then onto Pilate. Certainly not the Jesus that had been mocked, scorned, beaten, led away to Golgotha. Certainly not the Jesus who had his hands and feet nailed to cross, that after that cross was lifted up, died hanging there.  Certainly not the Jesus who had his side pierced to make sure He was dead.

No, Thomas wouldn't believe the disciples had seen that crucified Jesus unless he placed his hands in those wounds. Without that evidence, Thomas would never believe the crucified Jesus he knew was raised from the dead. But that Jesus, the Crucified Jesus, the Resurrected Jesus, that Lord Jesus mercifully comes to Thomas.

The Lord would not leave Thomas in his unbelief. Eight days after the Resurrection, while the disciples were all gathered together in a locked room, the Lord appears in their midst and says, “Peace be with you.” As if the Lord’s extraordinary entrance into the locked room wasn’t enough, and as if His extraordinary words spoken weren’t enough, Jesus gives more. He turns to Thomas and gives Himself to him. The Lord mercifully gives Thomas His hands and side. “Place your hands here… do not disbelieve but believe.”  And Thomas replies the only way he can, making the most profound confession in Scripture, crying out “My Lord and My God!”

And Jesus, gently rebuking Thomas, questions, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen yet have believed.” But don't mistake our Lord’s words here. Those who have not seen are not without evidence. Those who have not seen are not without a witness. No, those who have not seen are those to whom Jesus has given the Apostles, and Prophets, and Evangelists. He has given the shepherds, the pastors, and teachers. He gave these gifts to His people, to His Church that, though not having seen His glorified and resurrected body, they would still believe. He gives those gifts for you. But Jesus always gives extraordinarily more.

We do confess in the Small Catechism that we cannot by our own strength or reason believe in our Lord Jesus Christ or come to him. This is most certainly true. But Jesus, who is merciful, will not leave us in our unbelief. And we know this from the completion of the explanation in the Small Catechism.  “But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.” Jesus gives His Holy Spirit to us. He gives His Holy Spirit to His church. He gives His Holy Spirit to you. And this Holy Spirit calls you us through Christ’s Word, through Christ’s promises, through Christ’s Gospel.

He calls us through the waters of baptism, the place where Christ’s Word of promise seals you as His own; where your sins are washed away; where His Spirit is poured out upon you; where He brings you into His holy church.

He calls you through the words of Apostles and Prophets, and Evangelists, read here for you today. He calls you through the words of the under shepherds, the pastors, as they stand in Christ’s stead, forgiving you your sins.

But Jesus always gives extraordinarily more. As Jesus breaks into our lives and speaks His word of peace to us, He turns to each of us and gives His body and blood. Today in this meal, He gives Himself anew, afresh into your mouth. He gives to you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, for the assurance of life and salvation. He gives Himself to you that you might be strengthened and kept steadfast in the true faith to life everlasting.

He gives Himself to you this day that you would not be disbelieving, but believing. He gives Himself to you today, as He has continually given Himself to all the saints who have come before us, and all those who will come after us. He gives himself to you as He gave himself to St. Thomas. And we receive Him and His gifts that we might confess with St. Thomas, “My Lord and My God!”  Amen.

Sermon for the Holy Innocents.  Preached by the Rev. Sem. Coleman Geraci.

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

I had no way of introducing the Feast Day we commemorate or the text for today lightly, so I am going to be up front and blunt about it: The events recounted in the Gospel lesson today are horrific. Today’s Gospel reading, appointed for just four days after the celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord is a harrowing reminder that evil, sin, and death still exist in the world. Four days after we have sung the chorus of “Glory to God in the highest and peace to his people on earth,” we now weep with Rachel who will not be comforted. We are taken from the joy and glad tidings of this celebration thrust back into the reality of this broken creation – this place where sin, evil, and death still persist.

Today’s reading is the completion of the story of the visitation of the Magi –the part of the story we don’t want to recall. The Magi come to Herod to find the Christ child –the one born king of the Jews – and Herod, after consulting with his scribes, after reading the Prophets, points them in the right direction, but wants them to bring the child to him. The Magi complete their journey offering gifts to the Christ child, but being warned by God do not return to Herod.

Today’s reading is the rest of the story and the rest of this story is tragic. The Magi had brought the good news of the Christ child to Herod. But instead of believing the Magi, instead of going to worship this newborn king –Herod treats this news as a threat to his kingdom, to his power. His fear gives way to anger after the Magi do not return to him. His anger boils over into wrath with wicked intent to destroy the Christ child. In his wrath, he slaughters these children in Bethlehem, these defenseless babes.

We hear in horror the evil that Herod has committed. This act of horror seems to diminish the joy from the birth of the Savior; it makes us realize that, though the Savior has come, though the Word has become flesh and dwells among us, sin and evil still persist in this world.  As the sin in Herod’s heart, as the evil in his mind incite him to destroy the Christ child, so sin and evil seek to destroy our joy in what this Christ child brings to us.

Now, the good news is: Jesus Christ and His sacrifice on the Cross have conquered sin, death, and the devil once and for all. However, they still persist in our world. They still persist to thwart us from the joy we have in Jesus. They persist to tear us away from the consolation we have in Christ.

We face these realities day in and day out. Perhaps you may have faced them personally and intimately over these last several days. This may have been the first Christmas you have celebrated without a loved one or the bringing together of families has re-opened old wounds.  Perhaps, you have encountered struggles in your own life –with your own sin, with your own doubts. Or perhaps you have seen it in the lives of those around you -the sin and evil that has ravaged your neighbors. And if you have not faced them personally, certainly you have seen sin, death, and evil rear its head against the church of Christ in Iraq and Syria and North Africa. We have seen sin and death try to destroy the name of Jesus. In these times of confusion and turmoil, we wonder where can we turn to be comforted.

The Gospel writer Matthew would point us to Jeremiah.

If we return to the Old Testament text of Jeremiah for today, we begin to see the larger picture that Matthew is painting. Matthew points us to the prophecy of Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for Israel, her children, who have been displaced from Jerusalem. But, as Paul Harvey used to say, “Now, for the rest of the story.”

Jeremiah writes: The Lord says, “Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work,” declares the Lord, “and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.”

The Lord seems heartless and cold by telling us not to weep or cry – but He tells us this so that we do not miss what He is giving –the greater thing that He is doing. We know from the history of Israel that this prophecy was fulfilled when the Israelites returned to Jerusalem. But Matthew is using Jeremiah to point to a greater fulfillment. Matthew points us to a greater hope and future that Lord speaks of in Jeremiah –not just a temporal hope and return to Jerusalem. Matthew is pointing to the greater fulfillment in Jesus Christ–Matthew points us to the rest of his story.

The rest of Matthew’s story is that Jesus will be the one rewarded for His work; that Jesus is the one who completes his work on the Cross, who goes into the land of the enemy, into death for us, and HE returns. And from His work, He gives us His Name and the Name of the Father that we might be the children who come back to their own country - to return to the Greater Promised Land. And we get a glimpse of this in the reading from the Revelation.

Jesus gives us the name of the Father that we might stand with Him, on His Holy Mountain. He gives us the name of Father that we might be the redeemed, blameless. He transforms our cries of lament, our weeping into a new song. This is the glory that awaits us when Jesus returns –when sin, death, and the devil are ultimately destroyed.

Until that point though, we live here and now in what Luther calls, “the vale of tears.” We live in the tension of the hope and promises of Christ and the brokenness and sin of the world. We live by faith in His Word against the lies and deceit of the world. We pray for His Kingdom to come and His will to be done among us to hinder every evil plan and purpose of the devil, the world, and our sinful nature.

We fight against the evil and sin that persists. We put forth our best efforts to love and serve our neighbor, especially the most defenseless, tiniest neighbors among us. And though we may still suffer the effects of evil and sin in this world, nevertheless, we continue to hold on to the hope that God has given us in Christ Jesus.

We hold onto His Word of comfort, we hold onto His Name; the Name He has given you, the Name into which you were baptized, the Name by which you are saved. We hold onto Him and His promise that meets you here today at the altar. His body and blood, that conquered sin, death, and the devil –that body and blood given for you. We take hold of these promises here and now, against the sin and evil that persists. We trust in faith that despite the circumstances, He is still our good, loving and merciful Savior who is our helper, the upholder of our lives, who has delivered us from every trouble (Psalm 54).

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

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