Quotes from James Lee Burke


James Lee Burke is one of my favorite novelists; not only because he writes well, but also he works theology into his writing.  It’s the sort of biblical allusions that makes me stop and think  for a few moments.  Below are some quotes from his latest novel, “The House of the Rising Sun.”  The book is mainly set in 1918 featuring the seamier side of life in the San Antonio, Texas area.

He is taking a bath while eating milk, tortillas stuffed with peppers and onions with pork cooked by the nearby Mexicans.  “As he (Hackberry Holland) gazed at the shade and the rain advancing across the hardpan, cooling and cleansing the land, he felt years of rage and violence seep from his body into the bottom of the tub.  He closed his eyes and let the wind touch his face and anoint his brow as though he were reliving his baptism by immersion in the Guadalupe River.”

Later Hackberry describes life in the near lawless city. Night didn’t cover up the evil, but revealed it, like kicking over a rotting log.

“People are driven by their vices, not their virtues, Ishmael. (Ishmael is Hackberry’s son) Why climb up on a cross about it?” Ishmael’s situation is comparable to Ishmael, Abraham’s Son in Genesis.

“if I didn’t believe somebody was up there, I’d be forced to believe in myself.  For me, that’s a horrible thought.”

“I once got kicked in the head by a bull named Original Sin.  That’s a fact.”

“For what shall it profit a man if he gains the world and never figures out a solitary thing coming down the pike?”

“The last chapter, even the last page in the book describing one’s days, did not give unity or understanding to one’s life; at best, the narrative sorted out the chaff and allowed a man to step. Over a line with a lighter load and mount a fresh horse for a journey that hopefully had no end.”


Immunity is a Myth


In Eula Bliss’s book “On Immunity,” she concludes, Immunity is a myth – no mortal can ever be made invulnerable.

The artist Ruben painting of Achilles shows his mother holding her son by the heel and dipping him in the River Styx to protect him from harm.  However, he is eventually killed by a poison arrow that strikes his heel, his one vulnerable spot.

We have been told that we need to build higher and better guarded walls; purchase more guns; investigate immigrants beyond the three years they are already vetted.

Bliss writes that in the case of inoculations against flu, and childhood diseases, it’s not enough to says about a child or ourselves, “All that matters is that he is safe.”  We cannot totally inoculate ourselves against life in this world – economic crashes, car crashes, or random violence.

Even our Lord was not immune to the adversities and dangers of life.  God said as much in Genesis, when he said the offspring of the woman would bruise the serpents’ head, but the serpent would bruise his heel.

the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism.  The Father said, “You are my Beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  Yet, Jesus would suffer much and finally go to the cross where more than his heel is bruised.  He is the Beloved Son BECAUSE he will redeem us through his death.  We are saved because he allowed himself to be vulnerable.

In the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 43, God says twice, “Fear not.”  Not because Judah’s measures to safeguard themselves from Babylonian attack would protect them.  No, as they go into exile they will cross rivers and encounter fire.  The reason for not fearing did not lay in anything they would do, but because God had created and formed them.  He had redeemed them. He had called them by name and put his name on them.  They were precious in his sight.  He was going with them into exile.

We may take all sorts of measures to make ourselves immune, but immunity from life is a myth.  Only in the life of Christ are we finally given an immunity from what really threatens, our sins, and our death.  Christ is conqueror of both of our enemies and gives us life in their place.

Fear Not

Epiphany I, Baptism of Jesus, St. James, Glen Carbon

Isaiah 43:1, Fear not I have redeemed you have called you by name, you are mine.

V.5 Fear not, for I am with you.

“I am baptized.”  Martin Luther recommended that we use those words when we are beset by doubt and a troubled conscience.  The “I am baptized” story most familiar is from 1521.  Luther had been declared an outlaw following the Diet of Worms, and his friends kidnapped him spiriting him away to Wartburg Castle.  While in that exile he undertook to translate the New Testament into German.  However, at times he felt under such attack by the Devil that on one occasion he threw an inkwell at the evil angel, and shouted, “I am baptized.”

God has made promises to us in baptism.  In baptism we died and were buried with Christ. We were united with him in his death.  In his resurrection we are resurrected to live a new life, free from the dominion of sin and death.  The result being, in the words St. Paul often read at funerals, “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  God to this day continues to keep the promises he made to us in baptism.  “I am baptized” – it is an act that happened in the past, but it is a gift of God that continues to happen every day, as a new person arises to live before God in uprightness and purity forever.

On this day, the Baptism of our Lord, we will consider Jesus’ and our baptisms  through the lens of the Old Testament lesson from Isaiah 43.  Twice God tells his people, “Fear not.”   “Fear not, I have redeemed you I have called you by name, you are mine.”   “Fear not, I am with you.”

587 years before Jesus was born the people of Judah and Jerusalem had good reason to fear that God no longer knew their name and that he was no longer with them. The people were being forced into exile.  Jerusalem lay in ruins, the smoke and ashes from still smoldering fires scattered to the east on westerly winds even as the people scattered to the four winds, their lives shattered by Babylon’s might.  The scathing thunder of God’s judgment burned in their ears, “Who is as blind as my dedicated one…He sees many things but does not observe them; his ears are open, but he does not hear. This is a people plundered and looted…trapped in holes…hidden in prisons…Who gave up Jacob to the looter…? Was it not the Lord against whom we have sinned…So he poured on him the heat of his anger and the might of battle; it set him on fire all around, but he did not understand; it burned him up, but he did not take it to heart.”

Yet, within 10 verses of this withering rebuke Judah believes in God and the Lord says, “You are my witnesses and my servant whom I have chosen.”  How did such a turn-around happen?  There is no sign of repentance on the part of the people; no determination to be more faithful, to improve.  They do not seek nor deserve grace.  How did this happen?  The Lord happened.

“But now,” The Lord says to Judah trudging away from their burned homes.  “But now,” God remembered that he had created them, made them in his own image, after his likeness.   Twice he formed them, once out of clay in the garden of Eden and again into his people when they were slaves in Egypt forming clay bricks.

It’s the same when we were baptized.  There was no sign of repentance as we were carried to the font.  We made no resolution to do better. But the Lord happened.  The Lord was there at the font.  He remembered that he had created us.  He remembered that he had formed us in the womb, knitted us together, made us one of his wonderful works.  Though we were brought to the water a lost and condemned creature, God united us with Jesus who has defeated death.  In our baptism the word addressed to Judah became a word spoken to us, “But now…fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name; you are mine.”  Later God says, “I have called you by my name.”  This is how it happened. The pastor asked your sponsors or parents, “How are you named?” and someone said your name.  Then the pastor said, “I baptize you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”  In so doing we received a second name.  In baptism God placed his holy name on us and we became, holy and blameless before the lord, recreated in the image and likeness of God.  God had created us in our mother’s womb.  He formed us into one of his own at the font.  We came to the font a sinner and left a saint.  We came as a nobody and we left as one of God’s people.

So we were united with Christ.  Remember what happened in Jesus baptism?  “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heavens were opened, and 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.”  Yes, in our baptism we were united with Christ who was without spot or blemish and in his baptism Jesus was united with us taking on our every spot and blemish on the cross.  The Holy Spirit which descended on Jesus at his baptism took up residence in our lives.  The voice of the Father which declared Jesus to be His Beloved Son; also declares us to be his beloved son or daughter.

Remember what happened to Jesus immediately after his crossed the waters of the Jordan. Luke says, “And Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit…was led by the Spirit in the wilderness…being tempted by the devil.”  Make no mistake about it, when Jesus entered the wilderness it was for a long six weeks in which he underwent a flood of attacks by the devil.  But the Holy Spirit was with him to strengthen and uphold him.  When Judah was going into exile they had already been through fire, perhaps many were suffering from physical burns beyond the burning wrath of God.  They would have to cross rivers which would threaten to drown them.  There would be no mercy from their captors.  Nevertheless, though they may have doubted that God was with them, He was with them.  And they would never hear the gods of the Babylonians telling them, You are mine.  You are precious in my eyes…I love you.”  In Christ God is with us, no matter what!

Country western singer Aaron Baker tells a story about himself and his own son.  His son was born when Aaron Baker was 17 years old.  He thought, “Wow my boy and I can grow up together.”  But there came a day when his son was 16 and had really messed up that Baker had to be a father.  He sat his son down and had some hard and harsh words for him.  After his son went to bed the singer wondered how he could be so angry at his son and still love him so much.  As he considered this he strummed his guitar and a soon a song came to him.  Baker says God helped him with it, though God gets no credit or royalties as cowriter.

The chorus expresses the love of a father:

Let me tell you a secret about a father’s love;

A secret that my daddy said was just between us:

You see, daddies don’t just love their children every now and then…

It’s a love without end, amen. (1)

Our heavenly Father says to us, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.  Do not fear, for I am with you.  You are precious in my sight, and honored and I love you.”  It’s love without end.  Amen.

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Psalm 29: The Voice of God


Psalm 29 is appointed this year for the celebration of the baptism of Jesus.  The poet describes a violent storm traveling from Lebanon south through Israel and links it to God’s voice.

Seven times “the Lord’s voice over the waters” is used conveying the sound of rolling thunder.  The Hebrew word for voice is, Qol (kole) which mimics the sound of thunder.

At the beginning and end of the psalm the poet mentions “God’s glory.” “Kavod” is the Hebrew for glory.

Other words such as Qodesh meaning “holy,” and the “wilderness of Kadesh” continue the image of the strength of the storm.

The setting for the storm is a giant cedar forest, whose overarching branches assume the contours of a vaulted temple. Through this lofty shrine the booming voice of God comes pounding and roaring with terrifying majesty, accompanied by the whirling of wind and swishing of rain, while flashing bolts of lightning shatters the trunks of towering trees and they come crashing down to the forest floor.

This is a psalm to be prayed out loud, letting the rumbling words reach into our lives.

Think of the Voice telling Jesus at His baptism, “You are my Beloved Son with Whom I am well pleased.”  Think of the silence at the cross when the plaintive shout of Jesus is met by nothing.

The psalm, for all its shattering noise ends in a calm voice of prayer, “Oh save your people and bless your heritage!  Be their shepherd and carry them forever.”


Lord our king, your voice sounds over the waters as you reign above the flood.  Help us, who are born again by water and the Holy Spirit to praise your wonderful deeds in your holy temple – even Jesus Christ our Lord, in his name together with Father and the Holy Spirit we pray.


The Magi Pay Homage to the King


What a day January 5th must have been.  The Jewish scholars scrambling to find Biblical evidence for the birth of a King, heralded by a star and traveling suddenly appearing at Jerusalem’s gates.

Perhaps they remembered Numbers 24:17 which in the Greek reads, “A star will rise from Jacob.”  They would have been familiar with the hope expressed in Isaiah 60, “And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”  And 2 Samuel 5:2 in which the people remind David of the Lord’s words, “You shall be shepherd of my people Israel, and you shall be prince over Israel.”  Finally, Micah 5: 1 & 2 “And you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, little to be among Judah’s thousands-from you shall for me he will go out to be Ruler in Israel, and his goings-out are from old, from days of eternity and he will stand and shepherd in the strength of Yahweh

Much effort has been made to somehow explain the star as a natural phenomenon, and that’s interesting.  In the final analysis Matthew regarded it as a special star, a God sent star, with the express purpose of leading the Magi to Jesus.  Comets streak through the sky, but not for two years.  They spoke of “His star rising.” On January 6,  when they leave for Bethlehem the star reappears and leads them to the house where “the child was.”

Most translations have “worshipped him.”  However, the Greek has, they “fell down and reverenced him…”  But they do not understand completely to whom they are paying homage.

Like the Magi, God must lead us to himself and through his Holy Spirit continue to reveal to us growing wisdom and insight into our salvation in Christ.


The Magi Appear in Jerusalem


“Magi from the east appeared in Jerusalem.” Matthew 2:1

Was it on January 4th that the Magi appeared at the gates of Jerusalem?  The various translations speak of them coming or arriving.  A more interesting translation is that they  “appeared” or made a public appearance.  Later, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea.  (Matthew 3:1)  In Luke 12:51 Jesus asks, “Do you suppose I appeared to establish peace on earth?”

There is something of the mysterious connected to the word “appear.”  If we have invited someone to come to our house or are expecting Fed Ex to drop off a package, when they arrive, we say, “Ah, it’s here” or to a guest, “Come in, come in.”  But if someone shows up at our door unexpectedly, we wonder, “Who’s that?” “What do they want?”  “Where did they come from?” We are suspicious.

True, the magi have arrived at the end of a long journey.  Based on their information came to Jerusalem.  But to the Jerusalemites, they “appeared.”  They appeared asking a strange question. “Where is the King of the Jews who has been born?”  They’ve been following a star, probably for two years, and they want pay to homage or reverence the new king.  The Greek word falls just short of worship.  God has invited them to the party, but they don’t quite know what it’s all about.

When word of their sudden appearance gets back to Herod he is “troubled.”  When Herod is troubled everyone in Jerusalem is troubled.  He sends for the religious experts; the chief priests and the scribes or Jewish scholars, wanting to know when the Christ was to be born.  Matthew does not include information about how the magi’s request about a recently born heir to the throne becomes a search for the Messiah.

The magi appeared soon set Jerusalem scrambling for answers.  The lives and wellbeing of the Jewish leaders depended on it.  Herod was not a benevolent ruler.  Moreover, their lives and wellbeing before God depended on finding the answer.  Unfortunately, we have no record of them going to Bethlehem to even pay homage to the King of the Jews, much less worshipping the Messiah.  Only the magi went and after them Herod’s soldiers.



The Trinity’s Drift of Gifts

Christmas II, 2016, Ephesians 1:3-14

A holiday TV advertisement some years ago began with Santa Claus in the living room of little Johnny’s home.   Johnny has landed firmly in the naughty column of the jolly old elf’s list.  As he draws out a sack of coal he notices a sliced honey baked ham sitting nearby.  On Christmas morning the camera sweeps along a head-high drift of gifts extending across the living room floor, flowing up the lower stair steps.  Johnny stands at the top of the stairs with open-mouthed amazement.  “Wow,” he gasps, “Wow.”

It’s still Christmas and today St. Paul shows us, not a head high, but a heaven high drift of gifts from God that should leave us in open mouthed amazement “Wow.” Listen to Paul again, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”  Yes, we have received a heaven high drift of perfect blessings, gifts from the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  In fact each member of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit has lavished upon us a wealth of gifts given out of their love and grace. Having received such an outpouring, what ought we do but bless God with thanksgiving redounding to His glorious praise.  So let’s dig in and see what we have received.

Our first gift from the Father is that you are chosen.  God was no last minute shopper.  You were chosen before the foundation of the world.  Before God said, “Let there be light.” Chosen, before God put lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night.  Chosen, before Adam and Eve were formed.  Think of a newlywed couple, upon leaving the wedding reception, going to the mall and buying a life time of gifts for their children before they are even conceived.  You were chosen in connection with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus from eternity unto eternity to live with God among the angels, archangels and all the heavenly host.

As one who is chosen, your baptism into Christ brought the atmosphere of heaven into your life here on earth. This morning you will receive a foretaste of heaven as Jesus becomes intertwined with the bread and wine in a holy communion. A bit of heaven on earth.

That brings us to our second gift, we are holy and blameless before Him.  But didn’t we begin our service with a confession of our sins?  Didn’t we admit to God that “We justly deserve your present and eternal punishment?”  We certainly did.  St. Paul agrees, “You were dead in trespasses and sins.”  But in short order he adds, God, because of his love, made us alive together with Jesus Christ.  The key is in the phrase, “before him.”  Before one another we may not seem so saintly.  However, because the Father has connected us to Christ, you and all other believers are holy and blameless; so that if Christ returned right now he would say to you without hesitation, “Come, blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

St. Paul hands you another gift, adoption.  God predestined you for adoption.  Sometimes, TV stations run efforts encouraging adoption of children into a forever family so the kids do not have to be moved from foster family to foster family.  And they try to show the best sides of the children and their likes, their gifts and abilities.  The Father adopted you into his forever family, not because of anything that you could bring to enrich the family, but according to the purpose of his will in Jesus Christ. By grace you are a member of His worldwide forever family, chosen from eternity.  You also live in that family now, and learn how to live a blameless life before God and one another even here on earth, bringing a bit more of heaven to earth.

Now let’s take a look at the gifts Jesus has added to the drift. You see, whatever God the Father is engaged in doing, Jesus is involved too.  We heard the twelve years old Jesus say to his mother, “Did you not know I must be about the things of my Father.”  Reaching into the gift drift we pull out, “Redemption,” the gift that keeps on giving.  He has ransomed us, delivered us.  We stood in God’s court lost and condemned creatures, guilty as charged, under God’s judgment.  But according to God’s plan, His beloved Son stepped forward and paid the price of our freedom with his own blood and freed us for life.

With redemption comes another gift.  The “forgiveness of trespasses.”  Forgiveness means to remove and send away.  The psalmist writes, “As far as the East is from the West.”   An image out of my youthful years of readings comics comes to mind.  It’s the scene of Superman grabbing some death dealing explosive just in the nick of time and hurling it into space.

Christ does the same with our trespasses.  In Greek trespasses mean to fall off the right path.  The psalmist declares, “All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness.”  However, there are times when we fall off the path. A member of a Friday morning Bible class I teach, was in Nepal last April to climb to the base camp on Mt Everest 18,000 feet up.  They were in Nepal when the earthquake struck.  But to get to the base camp they had to climb a path cut into the mountainsides. They shared the same path that villagers used to get supplies up the mountains, either on their own backs or by Yaks.  Crevasses are crossed on hanging bridges.  To stumble and fall off that path was certain death. Paul writes of being dead in trespasses and sins. You and I stumble and fall off the Lord’s upright paths and can’t find our way back up.  Christ shed his blood to save us from stumbling off the Lord’s path onto a path which only leads to our destruction.  Christ puts us back on the paths of His Father’s steadfast love and faithfulness.

Another gift enclosed with the gift of redemption is to see what God has been up to all this time. God has a purpose for the drift of gifts.  They lead to the wisdom and the insight into God’s plan to put back together the whole universe which was shattered when Adam and Eve ate the fatal fruit.  Everyone was set against everyone else.  The earth and all creation was thrown out of kilter.  Paul writes to the Romans, “For we know that the whole creation (including you and me) has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” As we eagerly wait for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies, “as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in things in heaven and things on earth.”

But how can we be sure?  Well as we pick through the last of the drift of gifts we see one with the tag, “To you, from the Holy Spirit.”  These gifts are guaranteed by the Holy Spirit.  You have been stamped with the seal of the Holy Spirit, as a down payment on the gift of being chosen by God, chosen to be holy and blameless, chosen for adoption into God’s eternal family, our trespasses removed and sent away, banished. The whole drift of gifts are on a lay away plan, stored in the heavenly places to be revealed in the fullness of God’s plan.

All of it to the praise of the glorious grace of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  As Tiny Tim said in the conclusion of Charles Dickens Christmas Carol, “God bless us, Everyone One!” And so He has.



New Years Day with Martin Luther


In 1520 Martin Luther wrote an exposition of the Apostles Creed.  It preceded his Small Catechism.  The following is from the first article.

I believe in God the Father, Maker of heaven and earth.

I put my trust in no man on earth, not even in myself, nor in any power, skill possession, saintliness, or whatever else may be mine.  I trust no creature, whether in heaven or on earth.  I regard and put my trust in the One, True, Invisible, and Incomprehensible God alone, the Maker of heaven and earth.

I do not take fright at the wickedness of the devil and his band, for my God is above them all.  I believe not less in God even though I am abandoned or persecuted by all men.  I believe none the less, though I am poor, foolish, untaught, and despised, and lacking all things.  I believe none the less, although I am a sinner.  For this my faith must hover above all that is and is not, above sin and virtue and above all things, so that it remains immaculate and pure in God, as the first commandment urges.

Neither do I entreat Him for a sign or token, for I would not tempt Him.  I trust continually in Him, however long He tarries, and I set Him no term nor time, no measure nor means, but in a true and trusting faith I leave all things to His divine will.

Since He is almighty, what could I want, that He would not give or do for me?  Since He is the Maker of heaven and earth, and lord of all things, who will rob me or do me harm?  Yea, why should not all things work together for my good, since I have found favor with Him, to whom they all are subject in obedience?

Because He is God, then, He is able to make all things work for my good.  Because He is Father, He desires to do so and gladly does it…

Prayer for the New Year.

Eternal God, we commit to your mercy and forgiveness the year now just past and commend to your blessing and love the times yet to come.  In the new year, abide among us with Your Holy Spirit that we may always trust in the saving name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.